Feb 7, 2015

the dangers of using art (and privilege) for solidarity

Tina Fontaine
If you are not from Canada, you may not know that we have a crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.   Even some people in Canada don't seem to understand that indigenous women here are being killed and taken at a dramatically higher rate than other women.  There have been nearly1,200 women killed or disappeared in the last 30 years. Both Amnesty International and the UN consider this a crisis.  Of course for many years these women's lives didn't 'count' and their deaths were not investigated, not only because they were aboriginal, but often because they had been living on the streets, perhaps self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and doing survival sex work. Their killers clearly thought they could get away with killing these women, and to a large extent, they have. (For an academic take on how these women are seen as homo sacer check out this article by Gerry Pratt).

It was thanks to the hard work of the Native Women's Association of Canada and their research of cold cases that this issue is more present in the Canadian media (which before was widely using a figure of 600 when they mentioned the issue at all).  I'm fascinated by the politics of death counts and so impressed at how they have made their sisters 'count'. 

There was another hideous murder late last year that finally got more media attention.  Tina Fontaine (picture above) was only 15 last August when she was sexually tortured, murdered, and dumped in the river in Winnipeg. Shamefully our prime minister Harper, when pressed on this case, said publicly that the killing of aboriginal women was not a "social phenomenon" in Canada and that no inquiry is needed.

Recently Evan Munday, a non-aboriginal artist, wanted to press Harper on this issue and raise awareness.  He committed to drawing the face of one these murdered or missing woman a day and sending it to Harper and posting it on social media. Doing all of them would take three years.  He got a surprising amount of attention for this - not only on twitter, which retweeted the images widely, but also on the CBC and in the Toronto Star and in their freebie version that is all over the subway here, the Metro news. He got much more attention than most if not all actions organized by native women in the past few years. 

(Clockwise from upper left): Elaine Frieda Alook, Danita Faith Bigeagle, Maggie Lea Burke, Amanda Bartlett, Abigail Patrice Andrews, Roberta Marie Ferguson, Angel Carlick, Sharon Abraham. drawings by Evan Munday.
 But he stopped after the eight drawings above, and that's really what I want to tell you about.  He issued an apology which I'm sure was difficult to write. I am so thankful for the strength of the families in speaking to him and for his ability to listen.  I have great respect for his decision and this process, and think it is one we can all, artists and not, learn from as we work to build more respectful solidarity for social change across all sorts of differences.  As he writes:

"... After extensive conversation with a group formed of families of some of the missing and murdered women, I believe I cannot continue the project in a way that respects these women’s autonomy or a way that helps rather than harms the families of these thousands of women. I apologize for hurting the families of these women and for making them relive painful memories.

As a man of no indigenous background, I realized the project tread a very thin line, and I tried to be very cautious to avoid things like self-aggrandizement, appropriation of image, and overshadowing the real work of advocacy groups. I started the project on impulse (never a good idea), realizing I was a dilettante in indigenous culture and issues, and so, I tried to be as open and non-defensive about the project as I could. I spoke to representatives of NWAC (the Native Women’s Association of Canada) and WWOS (Walking With Our Sisters) early on to see if they were supportive of the project and how I could help direct attention to their organizations. I tried to divert many of the journalists who reached out to me to these groups. The last thing I wanted to be was a Macklemore, showing up with concern to an issue late, having no personal connection to (and not much knowledge of) the issue, and receiving much undue credit for a symbolic gesture.

However, over the weekend, some of the families of the missing and murdered indigenous women got in touch with me about a number of concerns they had about the initiative. Some relatives had been in touch earlier and were supportive of the project. But other family members saw the project as extremely problematic. They outlined a number of concerns, primary among them being the issue of permission. (The women’s families had not consented to have their loved ones’ images used in this manner.) They were also concerned that the attention the project was receiving was drawing attention away from the indigenous-led efforts, and the very illustrations themselves – which were thought to be too cartoony – were seen as inappropriate. Additionally, as I realized earlier, there is great dissent within the indigenous community as to whether a public government inquiry or an independent inquiry would be more beneficial. As these concerns came from family members, I took them very seriously. I told the group I’d work on a plan that would (I hoped) address those concerns. I presented the plan on Sunday.

The five-point plan is too long (and probably irrelevant) to include here, but it involved voluntary participation from the women’s family members through an open call (that is, people would have to request their missing relative to be drawn – I wouldn’t seek out family members and harangue them) and an offer to donate the illustrations to an indigenous advocacy group, rather than tweeting from my personal account. A few other alterations, such as refusing to speak to media about the project, were also included.

This plan did not adequately address the family members’ concerns. They felt the illustrations themselves were very problematic, because cartoon drawings denoted, to them, fun and jokes. “There is nothing funny or cute or joking about my mother being killed by the police. My journey for justice for the past thirteen years has never been fun,” said one family member. If this comic-booky look was my style of illustration, perhaps I wasn’t the most suitable artist for this memorial project.
More than anything, I don’t want to antagonize the families of the victims.  Whatever the initiative has accomplished – and I admit, it may have accomplished nothing at all – if the family members feel it hinders rather than helps advocacy efforts on this issue, there’s no reason for me to continue. I need to respect the autonomy of these women (or in this case, their autonomy as represented by their next of kin) and stop the project.

Again, I apologize for the harm I’ve done to the families of missing and murdered indigenous women and to any indigenous-led advocacy groups that I’ve harmed through this media distraction. Thank you for your interest in the project and your concern about the thousands of missing or murdered indigenous women in Canada. Thank you for calling me out and bringing your concerns to my attention. I apologize, also, if this statement reads as defensive. I’m trying my best to not be. Instead, I’m hoping you can see this lengthy statement as a process of me learning what I did wrong, so I don’t make the same mistakes in the future.

If you were supportive of the illustration project, please consider donating to the indigenous-led organization, It Starts With Us (http://www.itstartswithus-mmiw.com/donate), as I’ve done, and will do so again. If everyone who retweeted one of my illustrations donated even a few dollars, it would make a huge difference to their advocacy initiatives. Please also consider getting involved in one of the Women’s Memorial Marches on February 14.  And if you’re more into Twitter, Gregory Scofield (@gregoryscofield) and Lauren Crazybull (@LCrazybull) are both doing very important projects regarding #MMIW that you may want to follow.

Please don’t be upset this initiative is ending. There are many other ways you and I and we all can help bring attention to this extremely crucial issue and be allies. And if any indigenous-led advocacy groups could ever use some cartoon illustration for a project or two, I invite them to get in touch. I will happily volunteer my skills.

Thanks for understanding."

His ending the project got much less twittter traffic, but there was a short article about it in the Star in which he is quoted as saying, “It’s been an uncomfortable process, but it’s been an important learning process.” Amen to that.

I share this story and Evan's letter because I hope it can serve as an important lesson and reminder to us all of the importance, when doing solidarity work, of coordinating well with those most directly affected by a situation.  In Canada we are all affected by this tragedy, but some live it much more directly.  I want to work for change with those most affected, rather than try to enact change for them.  To me this is the difference between solidarity and charity. But it's not always easy or obvious how to do this, so my hope is that sharing this story can offer some lessons.

The first tweeter Evan mentioned in his letter, @gregoryscofield, has been tweeting one name a day of the missing women, with photos. Why has his work received so much less attention than Evan's got? Is it because he is native and Evan is white? Because Gregory is using photos not doing drawings? Is it because Evan somehow worked the media more?

The photo on the right is from January 27th: Name A Day:Keana Benson, 14. Find our little sister. Prince Albert, Sask.

I appreciate that the photos that Gregory posts are of the women who have not been found, and always say the city where they disappeared and the line "find our missing sister" or, in this case, little sister.  In comparison to Evan's drawings it seems much closer, more urgent, more real to me - whereas Evan's seem more like commemoration.  Gregory's project personally spurs me more to take action than the drawings do.  But I heard of these only through Evan. 

If you're in Canada please consider going to one of the annual February 14th marches and ceremonies to honor the missing women.  There are actions in most cities, and they are even extending in to the US now.  The details are here. If you're in Toronto please join me.
(I do, by the way, think that comics can be used well to tell painful stories of loss and violence.  This short strip does a good job of telling the story of Marlene Bird, an aboriginal woman who recently survived an attack where she lost her legs. I especially appreciate that the artist, Dan Archer, incorporated audio of her own voice.)

Jan 9, 2015

Nope, I'm not Charlie either

The I am x solidarity meme is back. This time people are not claiming to be a person, or a place, but a newspaper, albeit a newspaper with a persons name.  I have repeatedly blogged here about the dangers of this meme, so let me instead this time echo the voice of Scott Long by reposting much of his fabulous post below. Many thanks to my colleague Catherine Eschle for tweeting this to me (she's at @DrCEschle, I'm @spaceforpeace).

Here's Scott's fabulous post:

Why I am not Charlie

There is no “but” about what happened at Charlie Hebdo yesterday. Some people published some cartoons, and some other people killed them for it.  Words and pictures can be beautiful or vile, pleasing or enraging, inspiring or offensive; but they exist on a different plane from physical violence, whether you want to call that plane spirit or imagination or culture, and to meet them with violence is an offense against the spirit and imagination and culture that distinguish humans. Nothing mitigates this monstrosity. There will be time to analyze why the killers did it, time to parse their backgrounds, their ideologies, their beliefs, time for sociologists and psychologists to add to understanding. There will be explanations, and the explanations will be important, but explanations aren’t the same as excuses. Words don’t kill, they must not be met by killing, and they will not make the killers’ culpability go away.

To abhor what was done to the victims, though, is not the same as to become them. This is true on the simplest level: I cannot occupy someone else’s selfhood, share someone else’s death. This is also true on a moral level: I cannot appropriate the dangers they faced or the suffering they underwent, I cannot colonize their experience, and it is arrogant to make out that I can. It wouldn’t be necessary to say this, except the flood of hashtags and avatars and social-media posturing proclaiming #JeSuisCharlie overwhelms distinctions and elides the point. “We must all try to be Charlie, not just today but every day,” the New Yorker pontificates. What the hell does that mean? In real life, solidarity takes many forms, almost all of them hard. This kind of low-cost, risk-free, E-Z solidarity is only possible in a social-media age, where you can strike a pose and somebody sees it on their timeline for 15 seconds and then they move on and it’s forgotten except for the feeling of accomplishment it gave you. Solidarity is hard because it isn’t about imaginary identifications, it’s about struggling across the canyon of not being someone else: it’s about recognizing, for instance, that somebody died because they were different from you, in what they did or believed or were or wore, not because they were the same. If people who are feeling concrete loss or abstract shock or indignation take comfort in proclaiming a oneness that seems to fill the void, then it serves an emotional end. But these Cartesian credos on Facebook and Twitter — I am Charlie, therefore I am — shouldn’t be mistaken for political acts.

Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo:  Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)
Among the dead at Charlie Hebdo: Deputy chief editor Bernard Maris and cartoonists Georges Wolinski, Jean Cabut (aka Cabu), Stephane Charbonnier, who was also editor-in-chief, and Bernard Verlhac (aka Tignous)

Erasing differences that actually exist seems to be the purpose here: and it’s perhaps appropriate to the Charlie cartoons, which drew their force from a considered contempt for people with the temerity to be different. For the last 36 hours, everybody’s been quoting Voltaire. The same line is all over my several timelines:
From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7
From the twitter feed of @thereaIbanksy, January 7

“Those 21 words circling the globe speak louder than gunfire and represent every pen being wielded by an outstretched arm,” an Australian news site says. (Never mind that Voltaire never wrote them; one of his biographers did.) But most people who mouth them don’t mean them. Instead, they’re subtly altering the Voltairean clarion cry: the message today is, I have to agree with what you say, in order to defend it. Why else the insistence that condemning the killings isn’t enough? No: we all have to endorse the cartoons, and not just that, but republish them ourselves. Thus Index on Censorship, a journal that used to oppose censorship but now is in the business of telling people what they can and cannot say, called for all newspapers to reprint the drawings: “We believe that only through solidarity – in showing that we truly defend all those who exercise their right to speak freely – can we defeat those who would use violence to silence free speech.” But is repeating you the same as defending you? And is it really “solidarity” when, instead of engaging across our differences, I just mindlessly parrot what you say?

But no, if you don’t copy the cartoons, you’re colluding with the killers, you’re a coward. Thus the right-wing Daily Caller posted a list of craven media minions of jihad who oppose free speech by not doing as they’re ordered. Punish these censors, till they say what we tell them to!
Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.34.32 AMIf you don’t agree with what Charlie Hebdo said, the terrorists win.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 12.22.15 AMYou’re not just kowtowing to terrorists with your silence. According to Tarek Fatah, a Canadian columnist with an evident fascist streak, silence is terrorism.

Screen shot 2015-01-08 at 11.46.59 PMOf course, any Muslim in the West would know that being called “our enemy” is a direct threat; you’ve drawn the go-to-GItmo card. But consider: This idiot thinks he is defending free speech. How? By telling people exactly what they have to say, and menacing the holdouts with treason. The Ministry of Truth has a new office in Toronto.

There’s a perfectly good reason not to republish the cartoons that has nothing to do with cowardice or caution. I refuse to post them because I think they’re racist and offensive. I can support your right to publish something, and still condemn what you publish. I can defend what you say, and still say it’s wrong — isn’t that the point of the quote (that wasn’t) from Voltaire? I can hold that governments shouldn’t imprison Holocaust deniers, but that doesn’t oblige me to deny the Holocaust myself.

The post continues and has more great points, please keep reading here.

Dec 22, 2014

I am not a place

I have written repeatedly about why it's important to remember that I am not Eric Garner, though I am most certainly WITH those who are targeted like he is, and those struggling to end police violence, against black people in particular. 

The other twist on this problematic solidarity slogan I've seen more and more lately is for people to say We are x place, instead of We are x person. So We are Mike Brown becomes We are Ferguson, or #WeAreAllAyotzinapa, #AyotzinapaSomosTodos.  Generally this is said by people not actually in or from that place.

I am absolutely concerned about what is happening in those places and stand with the people struggling there, but I again have qualms about these slogans being appropriative.  That said, if you haven't taken action to protest the massacre in Ayotzinapa, here is a great letter you can sign, under that slogan. 

This sort of slogan makes a lot more sense to me when it is people in a place using the slogan to protest environmental destruction of that place.  This is the case of the We are Seneca Lake site, that details the larg ongoing civil disobedience campaign by people in the area to stop fracking that would destroy the finger lakes of New York.  The short video below describes this struggle. I love that they dress in blue to show their solidarity to and connection with the lake.  And happily, since this video was shot this campaign was won! Fracking has just been banned in New York! 

Dec 11, 2014

actually I CAN breathe

I have been deeply moved and inspired by the protests against police violence against black and brown folks, but yet again I am concerned that a solidarity slogan is being used in appropriative ways.  I've written here repeatedly about the dangers of trying to BE the one you're with, and appropriating their identity.  I've also argued that it's slightly better to say WE are x person (Trayvon, Juan, etc) than to say I am Malala.  But even the WE can be screwy.  It's very different for a group of mostly white folks to march and say WE are Mike Brown than for a group of black youth to march saying that, like they have been in Ferguson.  Black youth will likely be targeted in the way that Mike was, and it is powerful for them to dramatize that. 

There are some good critiques circulating of the dangers of turning the slogan black lives matter into all lives matter.  Likewise a mixed or mostly white group saying we are Mike Brown is not only appropriative but waters down and weakens the message. 

I have also seen a fair number of white protestors with I can't breathe signs - or tweeting We can't breathe.  Given the horrific context this line comes from, this is even more disturbingly appropriative.  I CAN breathe, I am NOT Eric Garner, and I don't want to deny that - I want to use my privileges to change the structures and culture that give those privileges only to some.  I struggle for a world where black lives matter. 

(Apologies for the long blog silence.  This has been my first semester as full-time faculty. I'm thrilled to be teaching geography at a people's university and grateful for the support of my colleagues and my fabulous students at York U this semester.)

Aug 16, 2014

do men not count?

Naomi Klein wants you to remember Samih.

She took this photo for the freedom4palestine.org campaign, which collected these photos into the video, below.

Unlike the I am Trayvon meme, or even the We are José campaign, here folks aren't saying they are someone else, even collectively, but instead remembering the dead.  Standing with them you could say.  I am moved by this tactic, but notice that people are much more likely to write the names of children on their signs. Ads are taken out with just the names of the children killed.

At the protest against the assault on Gaza that I went to last weekend in Toronto there were signs specifically saying stop killing women and children.  Wait. What? Not stop killing everyone.  Just the ones that are very clearly innocent in your minds.  Hmmm.  Dangerous.

What about the men?  Is killing them somehow more ok? Well, the New York Times published an article on the tallies of the dead in gaza - "civilian or not?" - with a hideous graphic of the deaths by age and gender, which implies basically that all men between ages of 20 and 29 are ok to kill because they may well be militants.

But really, that seems to have been a common attitude across history. Helen Kinsella has an amazing book about the history of the figure of the civilian, which I found disturbing. What struck me was how deeply gendered and infantilized the figure is, and how disempowering it can be - how difficult it is to be seen as both a civilian and a citizen. 

Maya Mikdashi wrote a powerful piece over on Jadaliyya asking, Can Palestinian Men be Victims? Gendering Israel's War on Gaza.  She reminds us that Cynthia Enloe coined the term “womenandchildren” in order to think about the operationalization of gendered discourses to justify war. It is no less problematic to use it against war! It not only infantilizes women but, as Mikdashi puts it, it creates men as always already dangerous. Their status as civilian is always circumscept she wrote, shortly before that hideous NYT graphic came out proving her point.

She writes, "The emphasis on the killing of womenandchildren, to the exclusion of Palestinian boys and men, further normalizes and erases the structures and successes of Israeli settler colonialism. “True civilians” and “possible civilians” are chosen. Men are always already suspicious, the possibility for violence encased in human flesh. The individual and personal extinguishing of female lives and the lives of children is massified and spoken of in statistics. Palestinians are framed as having the ability to choose whether they are a threat to Israel, and thus deserving of death, or not, and thus deserving of continued colonization clothed in the rubric of “ceasefire” or, even more elusively, “peace."

It is a strong argument against a hierarchy of victims and mournable deaths (not only by gender, but prioritizing deaths by bombs over the slow death of restricted food and medicine while trapped in what has become an open-air prison they cannot leave).  As she puts it, "To insist on publicly mourning all of the Palestinian dead, men and women and children—at moments of military invasion and during the everyday space of occupation and colonization— is to insist on their right to have been alive in the first place."

I get it.  I deeply agree.  And yet. And yet.  The deaths of the children particularly tug at me. I can see why they get used, because they have such a strong impact on us, even if this is not the most strategic form of solidarity in the long term.  When I went to this list of the names of the dead, the name that jumped out at me was that of a little tocaya, a name sister.

Even after reading all this theory, I couldn't resist, and at the protest last weekend I carried the name of my tocaya, Sara Omar Sheikh al-Eid, age 4, killed in Rafah on July 14th, 2014.  I hold her and her family in the light, to use the Quaker expression.  But I use her as a reminder, a way in as it were, to hold all Palestinians in the light of my heart.

It is much harder for me to hold the Israelis in the light, but I try.  It's hard for me to wrap my mind around how only 4% of Israelis could think they were using excessive force in Gaza.   There might be a media haze, but there is the internet.  So their fear must be overwhelming any facts.  It's hard to understand.  I mourn that they are so out of touch with their shared humanity. 

I mourn and am outraged that my countries, the US and Canada, make this possible.  Quite literally, the US supplies the bombs - but they also pressure Egypt to keep the border closed so that people can't flee.  When else in history have people been bombed and not been able to flee from it like this? They are trapped.

The bombing must stop, but then the slow deaths of being trapped with limited food and water and medicine must end.  This occupation must end for us all to be free of this outrage against everyone's shared humanity.

Aug 2, 2014

South Africa stands with Palestine

I was moved by this amazing singing, above, and the beautiful solidarity statement, below, by South Africans who have served as accompaniers in Palestine through the World Council of Churches program.  

31 July 2014

We, as a group of 70 South African ecumenical accompaniers who have monitored and reported human rights abuses in Palestine cannot remain silent at a time like this. We remember how often Palestinians told us that if we as South Africans can have a just freedom, then it must be possible for them too.

South African ecumenical accompaniers have worked side to side with other internationals in occupied Palestine since 2004 in the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine Israel (EAPPI). EAPPI was established by the World Council of Churches in response to a call from the Heads of Churches in the Holy Land. EAPPI provides protective presence to the vulnerable Palestinian communities and supports Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace. We have witnessed multiple and layered injuries and losses by Palestinians whether Christian or Muslim. We value and recognise the safety and dignity of all those in Israel and Palestine. Yet we are not impartial when it comes to international law.

SA-EAPPI is appalled and devastated with the ongoing bombings, shelling and rocket firing in Israel and Palestine. However we absolutely reject any arguments that position the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis as two equal sides. The disproportionate killing of civilians including so many children horrifies us. That people are deprived of shelter, food, electricity, water and the hope of freedom is a source of shame to all who value the sacredness of life and the protection of international law. The current escalation in the conflict is not a war, let alone an act of self-defence, but a punitive, planned, strategic, militant expedition by a regional super-power to deepen Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. Moreover, Israel’s systematic, systemic, institutionalised oppression of the Palestinians that violates international law on a daily basis makes the conflict a-symmetric.

SA-EAPPI endorses the Memorandum to the South African Government issued by the National Coalition for Palestine (NC4P) on 28 July 2014 in Cape Town. In addition, we appeal to:
  • South African citizens to not buy any Israeli produce or services;
  • all faith communities to critically review their interpretations of sacred texts in a quest to uphold those values and principles that foster the flourishing of life for all;
  • South African churches to take a clear and unequivocal stand for justice and a viable peace;
  • the South African government to break its resounding silence and to demonstrate to the world what sustained, visible solidarity can mean for the freedom of an oppressed people;
  • the United Nations’ Security Council to agree on resolutions to end both the conflict and the occupation, and to appoint an honest and an impartial broker for peace talks between Palestine and Israel; and
  • the international society to ensure the consistent implementation of international law.

Jul 25, 2014

Who gets whiter where?

I’ve been busy settling in to a new job (Assistant professor of geography at York University and a new home (in the fantastic West St. Claire neighbourhood of Toronto) and haven’t had much time to blog, so please forgive me for responding way late to a media tizzy back in late May and early June about increasing numbers of Latinos identifying as white on the US census. 

In case you missed this, the basics are that the New York Times published a piece by Nate Cohn under the headline More Hispanics Declaring Themselves White. Julio Ricardo Varela, over at Latino Rebels, argues that the article was made sweeping generalizations based on someone else’s blog post, that was based on a third person’s conference presentation of unpublished research.  Wow, academics, just imagine where your next power point could travel! Crazy. Perhaps in response to Varela, Nate Cohn seems to have later actually interviewed the author of the original study and published a second clarifying article: Pinpointing Another Reason That More Hispanics Are Identifying as White.  Here he clarifies that perhaps more are identifying as white in part because of a major change in the way the census asked the question, but argues that would only explain about half of the change.

What is strange to me about both Cohn’s two pieces, and Varela’s two responses, are that neither mention that the long and sordid history of blanqueamiento in Latin America.  Cohn writes as if Latino immigrants suddenly gain a desire for whiteness once they arrive in the US, and Varela seems indignant and deeply disagree that people are trying to become white. 
But what of the terrifying prevalence of whitening creams throughout Latin America? (I found them in every major drugstore and grocery store in Bogota, for example) What of hair straightening and dying? And blue and green contact lenses? Or ‘ethnosurgery’ for ‘whiter’ noses? And what of the long history of policies across Latin America to promote  ‘white’ immigration, supposedly as a way to become more ‘modern’? It’s a creepy history, and one that I detail for Colombia in particular in my article “Mona, mona, mona!” Whiteness, tropicality, and the international in Colombia. In it I try to think about how this history shapes the ways international solidarity is done and read today in Colombia. It’s still a draft and I’d love any comments and suggestions. 
It all sent me looking for the mona lisa photo above, which is a play on the word mona, Colombian slang for white girl.  Well, I discovered there is also a version circulating that says this is what happens after a week in the US.  Hmmm.
 (Note, this scuffle also led to the hashtag #whatlatinoslooklike, which seemed to be about denying claims to whiteness, but then, strangely, the colorlines article that collates some of those starts with a pic that features a girl who appears to be albino.)

Jun 12, 2014

stories and stereotypes

I am back in Colombia on a fairly short trip, and having fantastic research conversations.  I'm so grateful to get to think with smart committed activists who are up for having difficult conversations about different ways to do solidarity.  In particular I've been talking about gender and how it shapes international accompaniment day to day, and different ways that accompaniers respond to various forms of sexism, sexual harassment, and the possibility of sexual violence.

Since I'm busy chewing on that, rather than write my own blog post I want to share one related to those issues.  I've long been a fan of the blog the Llama Diaries and was lucky enough to finally get to sit down with the author Anna on this trip. She recently wrote a great post about the difficulties of sharing stories about violence in Colombia without reinforcing stereotypes.  With her permission, I'm reposting it below in its entirety.

Storytelling, Ethics and Violence

In the peacebuilding Olympics, I am a medal contender for the storytelling event. There is nothing I enjoy more than a dramatic (complete with arm flailing and sound effects) recital of something that I have experienced. My favourite is my motorcycle accident.  Each time the pus explosion is a little larger and the audience is a little more awed by my survival.

Currently, my job is telling stories, but what I tell and how I tell it is more than a job. It is an ethical responsibility, especially because my the majority of my audience is not made up of Colombians, but people whose only experience of Colombia is based on my stories and general stereotypes. I write from a position of power. What I say is taken as truth about the realities of this place. I am developing a Spanish section, but not everything I write is accessible to those I am writing about. The stories I tell about my experiences are filtered at home through Canadian experiences, knowledge and culture. Representations are easily misinterpreted.

Taking pictures of people taking pictures in Mampujan
Taking pictures of people taking pictures in Mampujan

We like to rescue people. We love individual heroes. My facebook newsfeed is constantly filled with petitions and stories of violence and victims worldwide, especially related to sex trafficking and rescue industries. We share these stories because, as human beings, we care and want to make a difference in the lives of others and the stories that we tell have the power to move people into action. But what action? And based on what information? Who is actually telling the story? And how does that story play into globalized realities of colonization, economic structures and power inequalities?

Money and other resources are funnelled into situations and towards people because of the stories we tell. Last month, Newsweek’s cover story was an expose about Somaly Mam, a famous Cambodian woman in the sex trafficking rescue industry. It turns out, how she was portraying herself and the supposed victims of trafficking, was blatantly untrue. Yet, in part because of her stories and the prominent support she received from influential people in the US, billions of dollars have been poured into an industry which does little to actually examine the structural causes of migration, labour, and economic policies; it’s main goal is to make us feel good about ourselves and our power to save. In reality, many of the woman “rescued” in Cambodia  end up in foreign funded sweatshops, creating our clothes.   (An excellent book on the topic is Laura Agustin’s Sex at the Margins.)

As Chandra Talpade Mohany reminds us in Feminism without Borders, “Writing is itself an activity marked by class and ethnic position. However, testimonials, life stories, and oral histories are a significant mode of remembering and recording experiences and struggles. Written texts are not produced in a vacuum. In fact, texts that document Third World women’s life histories owe that existence as much to the exigencies of the political and commercial marketplace as to the knowledge, skills, motivation, and location of individual writers…After all, the point is not just to record one’s history of struggle or consciousness, but how they are recorded; the way we read, receive, and disseminate such imaginative records is immensely significant.” (78).

Documentary making in Mampujan. As far as I know, no one is the community has seen the end result.
Documentary making in Mampujan. As far as I know, no one is the community has seen the end result.

What happens when I, as a Canadian, write a graphic description of an experience of personal violence in Colombia,  for a Canadian audience, as a blogger for Canadian Mennonite recently did? There is a good chance that the context in which the situation took place will not be familiar or understood by my Canadian audience because they do not live here. Instead, their understandings of violence in Colombia may be be further cemented towards stereotypes. The victim of the incident may become the hero, for being brave enough to live and work for change in such a dangerous place, while the Colombians already working for change remain unseen and unheard.

Even though the experience is true, Colombia is misinterpreted and the structures and stereotypes that have helped contribute to increasing urban violence across Latin America are perpetrated. Policies of structural adjustment, free trade deals, deportation of migrants, military interventions: all of these global  realities remain unacknowledged and an opportunity to think critically about our negative role is lost because no context is provided.

When our stories portray Colombia as a land of chaos, filled with terrorists, random violence and poverty, we justify Plan Colombia and other interventionist policies. We rationalize the spending of development dollars, such a the collaboration between mining companies and giants of the development world, on economic policies that end up harming the people we believe we are helping. We ignore the Colombians already working for change and become heroes. It helps to remember, as Magaly Sanchez points out, that “Rather than viewing violence as a personal deviation from societal norms, it is more appropriate to consider it a product of structural inequalities, a social phenomenon in which multiple actors resort to the use of violence under similar social circumstances and in mutually reinforcing ways, not as isolated individuals.”

This does not mean that we cannot share our stories of violence. #yesallwomen is a powerful opening to talk about the global violence against women everywhere.  To deny our own stories simply because they happened outside of our local context is to also become a victim. But by choosing to work and live in another context, we also must accept the ethical responsibility of how and where we tell our stories so that violence and stereotypes do not continue to be perpetrated, especially when, because of language and publication location, those we write about are not able to respond. Even the way I tell my accident story or write this blog is implicated and requires revision.

Jun 3, 2014

solidarity poetry

Like You
By Roque Dalton (Translated by Jack Hirschman) (original Spanish in the image)
Like you I love love, life, the sweet smell of things, the sky- blue landscape of January days.
And my blood boils up and I laugh through eyes that have known the buds of tears. I believe the world is beautiful and that poetry, like bread, is for everyone.
And that my veins don’t end in me but in the unanimous blood of those who struggle for life, love, little things, landscape and bread, the poetry of everyone.

May 20, 2014

solidarity can easily veer into saviorism

I am horrified by the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria. I am disgusted that teachers asked not to hold the exam, because an attack was likely, and that the government insisted it go ahead. I am outraged that the government knew four hours before that the Boka Haram was moving in to attack and did nothing. I am sickened that the police and military are deeply corrupt in Nigeria, and ineffectual at protecting civilians. I am heartbroken that the parents found where in the woods they had been taken, and though they stayed there for some days, could not get a police response. I am saddened that impunity in Nigeria appears to be even more rampant than in Colombia, and criminals can engage in these sorts of acts knowing that it is extremely unlikely they will ever be brought to justice.  I am not surprised that the Nigerian president has used the #bringbackourgirls campaign to extend 'emergency rule' (the state of exception, suspending even the very limited protections that normally exist).

I am heartened that there has been an outpouring of global concern for the girls who were taken.  I am astounded at how quickly attention and concern can grow through social media and the pressure it can create.  I am worried that this pressure, instead of targeting the Nigerian government, has veered to pressuring the US, and will be used to support even greater US military involvement in the conflict, and in Africa generally (as the Kony campaign was - and apparently John McCain has called for the US special forces to go in even without Nigerian approval).  I am fearful that instead of negotiations for their release this campaign will lead to a military rescue by a deeply corrupt and dangerous Nigerian military that is likely to put not only these particular girls but all Nigerian civilians at greater risk of harm.  I am amazed at how few people in the US seem to realize that Nigeria is a major oil producer and thus a key part of the US's geopolitical chess game.

Without a clear ask for action, it is easy for the campaign to be misused for militarized ends. I was reminded by my compa William Payne of this quote:

"Compassion is an unstable emotion.  It needs to be translated into action, or it withers…  And it is not necessarily better to be moved.  Sentimentality, notoriously, is entirely compatible with a taste for brutality or worse."  
-Susan Sontag (Regarding the Pain of Others)  

I am not surprised at how hard it has been to hear the actual voices of the girls and their families, and their specific asks for specific actions. Most stories don't even give a number of the missing (53 escaped, 223 were taken). The website chibokgirls was set up to encourage families to share the photos and individual stories of each girl. But it seems unlikely these families have the means to do that, or would want to since it is likely this would increase the stigmatization the girl will already face in her community once she is returned (since it will be assumed that she has been raped). So the website is left with no stories, and instead just this creepy picture representing each girl instead. Much better is this interview with school girls about what it's like to be a school girl in Nigeria - but note that they are in school in Lagos, which is quite different than the rural North in the heart of this armed conflict.  I have only found this one interview with one of the escaped girls, and it is literally very hard to hear her, it seems because of her fear though probably also because of the lack of an English interpreter - a key thing to have if you want to listen well to people who are afraid and don't speak English as a first language.

There has also been little analysis of the context in most stories. Have you read any stories about this that talk about how dangerous it is to protest in Nigeria? How frequently protesters are killed by the army? Maybe you saw one of the few stories about one of the mother's of the girls being arrested at a meeting with the First Lady - but she wasn't actually even one of the mothers, as often portrayed, but an ally who lived in the city and had been asked by the mothers to go to the meeting because the leader who was meant to go wasn't able to get through on the bad roads from Chiboke. She was released a few hours later when it was confirmed that she was not an imposter, but really?

And what about the context of the conditions all girls in Northern Nigeria face, where only 4% of girls finish school and it is one the areas with the most unschooled girls in the world? Or what about the massive environmental degradation across the country, thanks in large part to Shell oil? Meaningful solidarity requires some sense of context, and dialogue with and leadership from the folks most directly affected. Both of these seem in scarce supply on this campaign, and the huge outpouring of solidarity has frequently veered into saviorism.  

As Teju Cole put it in his White Savior Industrial Complex article in reference to the Kony campaign, "If we are going to interfere in the lives of others, a little due diligence is a minimum requirement." He went on to say, "there is much more to doing good work than "making a difference." There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them. .... One song we hear too often is the one in which Africa serves as a backdrop for white fantasies of conquest and heroism."

But there are plenty of heroes in Nigeria, who are incredibly brave and struggle for justice even though it is crazy dangerous.  This has been an African led campaign, as you can clearly see in this tweetpic. And there are plenty of elder African statesmen that could negotiate a prisoner swap. Rather than saving, in the US and Canada we could be doing more powerful solidarity to support this work.
If the US government wants to 'help', I suggest it pressure president Jonathan to meet with the brave Nigerian women leading the campaign, and pressure the Nigerian government not only to effectively pursue the kidnappers, but also to end human rights abuses against its own people (like killing and arresting protestors, and not protecting school children). Perhaps the US could also offer funding and training to the legal system. But then, ending impunity is not nearly as sexy as sending in the special forces.

Amnesty has a petition for folks in the US to sign to pressure the Nigerian ambassador. I do appreciate that this is one of the few that goes beyond asking for their safe return to ask that they "ensure that all children are able to access their right to education in safety, and to respect, protect and fulfill the human rights of all Nigerians without discrimination." This petition by human rights first is to the US Defense Secretary, and says the  Department of Defense should partner with State and USAID to support anti-corruption, rule of law, and police reforms. It should also ensure that the United States is not allying with people complicit in the victimization of the kidnapped girls or other civilians.

But still, I wish that the asks were more clearly coming from the women leading the campaign on the ground in Nigeria, that we could listen better and hear them and the escaped girls more clearly, and that the hashtag was connected to more context and less militarism.

But there is one critique of this campaign that has been circulating that I disagree with. Megan MacKenzie, amongst others, argues that ‘our girls’ implies ownership rather than solidarity.  I disagree, and am surprisingly ok with this 'our'. It does not feel appropriative or silencing to me, in the way that the various ‘I am’ campaigns have (I am Malala, I am Trayvon).  For the same reasons that I liked We are all Juan, I like #bringbackourgirls. I don’t think it implies that I AM their mother (or sister, or aunt), but that I am part of their larger community, and that I stand with them. 

May 2, 2014

... and I'm back!

The blog has been quiet because I've been on the road for a month, between conferences and an international interview tour.  Still getting my feet under me, so just a quick note about feet - to say that TOMS one day without shoes event just came around again a couple of days ago.  I have posted before about the TOMS shoe giveaway, and about this baring your feet in solidarity action. 

Rarely does cause related marketing (a la buy a bottle of water and 10 cents will get donated to those without water) ask you to pretend to 'pretend to be the one you're with' quite like this.  This year's action came with the hashtag #withoutshoes.  It had a lot of photos of people's bare feet on it, and reminded me of the photos from the Colombia solidarity action a few years ago where the Movement of Victims of State Crimes asked folks to send pictures of our feet around the world to express that we were walking with them virtually from around the world on their big march against impunity and for justice. The flicker stream I linked to that post has changed since then but you can see some of the feet photos they collected at the bottom of this page.  Quite a different feel to these feet photos! In comparison the TOMS photos feel even more like charity, as opposed to solidarity. 

I would rather walk with others, than walk without, for others. 

Mar 24, 2014

ISA brain candy

I'm looking forward to another International Studies Association conference this week.  There is a vibrant feminist security studies community there that I always learn a great deal from, and I still get a kick out of the Cynthia sightings.  How is it that there are so many fabulous Cynthias in that bunch? Cynthia Enloe, Cynthia Cockburn, and Cynthia Weber are all fun to get to hear. 

There is also an active peace studies group.  It's really striking every year how many more sessions there are on peace at the ISA compared to the geographer's conference (AAG), which I will be going to two weeks later.  I am pleased to be presenting, with my colleague Nick Megoran, geographers' takes on peace and geopolitics.  We are in fabulous company on that 'presidential panel' and I'm particularly thrilled that Lorraine Dowler and Jo Sharp will be there speaking on feminist geopolitics.

In a separate session I will be presenting my work on the gendered dangers of women playing the civilian card when working to build peace across borders, trying to think my fieldwork through the fabulous recent work on the gendering of the civilian by Helen Kinsella (The image before the weapon) and Charli Carrpenter (Innocent women and children).

Mar 21, 2014

Pope Francis on solidarity

For the record, I'm a Quaker, not a Catholic, but I'm still a huge fan of the new pope. 
Pope Francis greets refugees during a visit to the Astalli Center of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Rome Sept. 10. (CNS/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo)
He's been talking about solidarity alot in the past year.

"Solidarity, this word that strikes fear in the more developed world," he said. "They try not to say it. It's almost a dirty word for them. But it is our word!"

He also said that solidarity is "a word that is too often forgotten or silenced, because it is uncomfortable.”

He called for more solidarity in the world in his first New Year blessing, "We all have a responsibility to act so that the world may be a community of brothers who respect each other, who accept their diversity and who take care of one another."  Ok, so it would have been nice to have the word sisters in there, but I appreciate the call. 

Entertainingly, he also said that the internet is a gift from God that can help us build solidarity. 


Mar 13, 2014

peace as the fruit of solidarity

I have been trying to think through the differences between Christian and labor/socialist imaginaries of solidarity.  Solidarity is a core Christian value, generally interpreted not as a unity of interests or common cause, as per the more labor or socialist take on solidarity, but instead as a sense of connection and mutual responsibility of all for all as the children of or expressions of God, or the light within, as Quakers would put it.

In the process of thinking about Christian imaginaries of solidarity I ran across this description of solidarity and geopolitics by none other than Pope John Paul II. It starts out sounding like charity to me, and I'm not sure that wealthier nations 'surmount imperialism' by having a sense of responsibility for other nations, but I'll admit, I love the idea of peace as the fruit of solidarity.  Of course, his idea of peace and mine are probably different, but the full quote is below.  More later on Francis's visions of solidarity.  

"The exercise of solidarity within each society is valid when its members recognize one another as persons. Those who are more influential, because they have a greater share of goods and common services, should feel responsible for the weaker and be ready to share with them all they possess. Those who are weaker, for their part, in the same spirit of solidarity, should not adopt a purely passive attitude or one that is destructive of the social fabric, but, while claiming their legitimate rights, should do what they can for the good of all. The intermediate groups, in their turn, should not selfishly insist on their particular interests, but respect the interests of others. 

"Positive signs in the contemporary world are the growing awareness of the solidarity of the poor among themselves, their efforts to support one another, and their public demonstrations on the social scene which, without recourse to violence, present their own needs and rights in the face of the inefficiency or corruption of the public authorities. By virtue of her own evangelical duty the Church feels called to take her stand beside the poor, to discern the justice of their requests, and to help satisfy them, without losing sight of the good of groups in the context of the common good. 

"The same criterion is applied by analogy in international relationships. Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity, based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all. That which human industry produces through the processing of raw materials, with the contribution of work, must serve equally for the good of all. 

"Surmounting every type of imperialism and determination to preserve their own hegemony, the stronger and richer nations must have a sense of moral responsibility for the other nations, so that a real international system may be established which will rest on the foundation of the equality of all peoples and on the necessary respect for their legitimate differences. The economically weaker countries, or those still at subsistence level, must be enabled, with the assistance of other peoples and of the international community, to make a contribution of their own to the common good with their treasures of humanity and culture, which otherwise would be lost for ever. 

"Solidarity helps us to see the "other"-whether a person, people or nation-not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our "neighbor," a "helper" (cf. Gen 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God. Hence the importance of reawakening the religious awareness of individuals and peoples. Thus the exploitation, oppression and annihilation of others are excluded. These facts, in the present division of the world into opposing blocs, combine to produce the danger of war and an excessive preoccupation with personal security, often to the detriment of the autonomy, freedom of decision, and even the territorial integrity of the weaker nations situated within the so-called "areas of influence" or "safety belts." 

"The "structures of sin" and the sins which they produce are likewise radically opposed to peace and development, for development, in the familiar expression Pope Paul's Encyclical, is "the new name for peace."68 "In this way, the solidarity which we propose is the path to peace and at the same time to development. For world peace is inconceivable unless the world's leaders come to recognize that interdependence in itself demands the abandonment of the politics of blocs, the sacrifice of all forms of economic, military or political imperialism, and the transformation of mutual distrust into collaboration. This is precisely the act proper to solidarity among individuals and nations. 

"The motto of the pontificate of my esteemed predecessor Pius XII was Opus iustitiae pax, peace as the fruit of justice. Today one could say, with the same exactness and the same power of biblical inspiration (cf. Is 32:17; Jas 3:18): Opus solidaritatis pax, peace as the fruit of solidarity.

"The goal of peace, so desired by everyone, will certainly be achieved through the putting into effect of social and international justice, but also through the practice of the virtues which favor togetherness, and which teach us to live in unity, so as to build in unity, by giving and receiving, a new society and a better world." (SRS, 39) - See more here