Sunday, February 14, 2016

When Neutral is Really Default Setting For Male (and White): A Slightly Non-Scientific SocMed Experiment

I have written before about online gendered harassment and trolling.  The recent report by the Women's Media Centre provides horrific - if unsurprising - statistics of gendered harassment that in large part echo women's IRL experiences (please do read. Makes for an illuminating if unedifying read). The centre's director recently shared this handy illustration to make sense of the scale and forms of the issue:

The wheel however leaves out aspects other than visible gender that impact our experiences online, including but not limited to race, nationality, religion, and sexuality.  Here I want to talk about just one of the above intersections: of gender with race. 

As a non-white woman who has spent much of her adult life on line as a blogger, writer, journalist and social media user, I am particularly aware of how visible markers of race - especially name and photograph - add to the gendered interactions. Women of colour face - IRL and online - a harassment on both axis. 

Moreover, given the scope of the Speech Project, the wheel does not take into account the drip feed of gendered, sexualised and racialised micro-aggressions  (such as derailment, dismissal, sealioning) that women, and more acutely, women of colour must cope with online. It is also necessary to differentiate the two - legally defined harassment and microaggressions - even though some impacts may be similar and the intents and tactics may be on the same spectrum. 

After over twenty-five years online (cue bad memories of early web and late 1980s fashion), I have come to expect abuse, trolling, harassment (as per the wheel) but also gendered and racialised microaggressions such as sealioning as the norm. This is simply by dint of presenting as a visibly nonwhite woman at the same time as holding opinions. Yet I am still (and frequently) surprised that often those opinions don't need to be about 'big things' like war, politics, economics, or even 'controversial' topics such as feminism or free speech (or Gamer Gate!). Even opinions about relatively niche topics such as theatre or art can suddenly trigger massive pushback with gendered and racialised language.  

Two weeks ago, before going to bed I tweeted some relatively innocuous thoughts about Caryl Churchill's new play at the Royal Court. I woke up next morning to a surprising amount of pushback, some abusive, other merely condescending and/or dismissive. On another day, I would have probably moved on but this came on the heels of weeks of Berniebros who seemed to stalk the internet looking for even the mildest criticism of their idol. First hint of even a question and they would pounce. Or perhaps I was just tired of the constant dripfeed of mansplaining and whitesplaining, both online and IRL. Without particular planning, I decided to embark on a social media experiment (do check that twitter thread as it outlines the parameters and concept). 

I decided to change my twitter profile photograph. From back in 2013, when I was harassed and abused systematically for nearly ten months, I already knew that when I had used a diving photograph - underwater, with a mask and regulator hiding my face - not only had gendered abuse dropped to zero but male 'experts' also assumed I was a man and approached me in a more collegial way. This time I wanted to see if non-human avatar would have a similar result, especially as quite a few feminist friends use similarly 'neutral' photographs for their profiles. 

Then a twitter friend suggested that Sunshine Mutt as my handle as that would also partly veil my racial/ethnic identity. Of course a closer look on twitter would still show my name but it was worth a test. 


Initially, and perhaps as a defense mechanism, I used this photograph. I found it secretly amusing as it is our young puppy, a female Rottweiler named Pixie (talk of subverting stereotypes!). 

Unsurprisingly albeit sadly the results were instantaneous. The change in photograph dropped sexualised and gendered interactions to zero instantly. Surprisingly, racialised interactions also dropped instantly. The change in handle took all sexualised, gendered, and racialised interaction to zero. Some discussion with women friends on twitter raised the additional possibility that perhaps a large dog, especially a Rottweiler, was being read as male. The next step seemed to test out (1) if this were true and (2) would a dog visually read as more 'femme' change the interactions. So next photograph was of our little Dachshund.

Through the changes, I kept tabs on the progress, posting and discussing the experiment on twitter regularly: I posted: 

1. after 24 hours. Zero harassment, abuse and microaggressions although my tweeting topics, opinions, language, all remained the same. 
2. 48 hours. Still zero. This was particularly interesting as I had posted and critiqued Bernie Sanders online but received not a single one of the usual pushback accounts. 
3. Even four days later, there had been zero racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions. This again was interesting as the Iowa primaries took place in this period and despite the 'coin' controversy, I got zero racialised, gendered, sexualised pushback. (The above links are for twitter threads and may be worth a read).

On the third day of the experiment, I switched my handle back to normal to see if the pushback was primarily racial or gendered, or whether race added an additional axis to gendered pushback. Despite the switch to a racially/ethnically identifiable handle, nothing changed. With the dog avi, I still got ZERO racialised, gendered, sexualised interactions.

Initially I had planned on switching back to my normal photograph and handle after 48 hours. But testing out various permutations meant that nearly a week went by. That's when I realised the full extent of the toll of the constant online microaggressions: I was so enjoying being read as a man, so relieved that I could express my opinions without fearing immediate condescension, aggression, abuse, that I really didn't want to change back to my normal photograph.  So instead I enjoyed the fake neutrality which is really the privilege of being perceived as a man for another few days. 

A week later, I finally switched my photograph to my own. And wouldn't you know, five minutes later, I was back to be being mansplained, patronised, abused, sealioned. 

Conclusion: the primary and first trigger for online harassment - as perhaps can be said also of IRL - is gender. My name can and is often read as male so I have experienced a sort of misplaced male privilege before (especially for book sales and professional correspondence but that is material for another blogpost).  So even after my name was visibly and clearly racially identifiable, I got no aggression. This chimes with experience of male friends who are continuously surprised that they can speak on the same topics (even express the same views) with absolutely no aggression at all. 

My theory is that gender is the primary - and universal - trigger for pushback. However, race when visibly identifiable becomes an additional target. Other axis of marginalisation - including sexuality, ability, class, age - also play a part to aggrevate the silencing and erasure. Yet gender - at least - in the past two weeks of my unscientific social media experiment emerges as the first and most obvious starting point. 

And then they say feminism is dead. Or not needed. Sigh! 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Arab Spring: To Dream of a Fairer World is Not Only Possible But Also Necessary

There is something surreal, even unbelievable, about realising that today marks five years since that extraordinary January 25th when Egypt rose to demand 'bread, freedom and social justice.' Many of the voices who led that uprising have been silenced: by murder, jail, torture and exile. Yet for all the deserted, heavily militarised streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and elsewhere, the conditions that led to those now-mythical Eighteen Days have not changed. If anything, the situation has grown more acute. But this is not a piece about politics, or even war. Instead, I want to write about history, and dreams, and imagination.

On February 6, 2011, I had lamented that we had no Edward Said to help make sense of the events.  I had specifically noted that the Arab Spring movements were another set of developments in the decolonisation process for the world:

"The foundation of Egypt's uprising as well as many others bubbling around the Middle East are cultural. The key to this uprising is the not only the change in narrative, but also the newly found power to shape it. And that is also the reason that the political failure or success of these protests is immaterial in the longer term (although obviously hopefully they will succeed; failure will mean brutal oppression of these brave young people)."

In the five years since those heady Eighteen Days, my fears of brutal oppression have sadly come true. However, a huge shift in culture has also become clear. Even as voices are silenced in the region by dictators, militias, their international backers and a profitable weapons industry (Syria is an exception in this cocktail although more for the geopolitical mix of its backers instead of a difference in factors), the struggle for a narrative of decolonisation has not stopped. And just because Western mainstream media moves on, grows bored, or indeed  refuses to cover complex stories, does not mean the transformations have stopped.  On  March 21, 2011, I wrote:

"In the long term, these convulsions of history are unescapable. They will continue - not on media schedules and not for the next few weeks - but into the next couple of decades as historic changes do!  At the end, those who put short term interests over long term paradigm shifts will find themselves on the wrong side of history."

It was obvious to me even in 2011 that we needed completely new "definitions of statehood, political franchise, strategic relations, political and cultural narratives.  We are in the midst of historic times where none of the old models and certainties can hold."  

These definitions and ideals cannot and will not arise in five years. Rather they need both analysis and imagination. And most of all, these need the power to dream. It is crucial to think of the Arab Spring not in terms of days or months or even years, and not even in terms of a struggle for fundamental transformation of political, social and economics structures, but in terms of imagining new, fairer, different worlds.  In November 2011, I responded to the many 'hot takes' about the failure of the revolution

"What we are witnessing is not a blip in time but a massive and extraordinary change.  Not SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt Army's junta) nor USA's paid stooges, nor Saudi Arabia's useful idiots, nor Europe's favourite business boys will be able to withstand the wave that has risen.  And whether the revolutionaries stand or fall, live or die, are incarcerated or free, is immaterial. The change is inevitable. The only choice is the side we choose - within Egypt, and abroad - to stand."

Today as we stand at a what appears to be the nadir with the devastation wreaked by Assad in Syria, rise of ISIS, Erdogan's near ignored crimes against Kurds, and Western-backed bombing of Yemen seemingly flagging up the worst of our fears about the region. All too often in these discussion, the old Orientalist narratives are reassserted - by the region's regimes and by their often Western backers (and increasingly - albeit temporarily, I would argue - by Russia). We are told about 'blood thirsty savages' but rarely about how they are funded or armed. We are told to shudder in horror at beheadings by ISIS but to ignore those by the Saudi regime. The destruction of Palmyra is held up as evidence of 'their' barbarism but the destruction of historic Sanaa by Western bombs delivered by a Western ally (KSA) with targets identified by Western advisors is almost entirely erased from our news channels and papers (Meanwhile, the sale of Palmyra antiquities looted by ISIS and magically sold in European markets is something few are even ready to discuss). We are told about the horrors of Russian bombs in Syria but apparently Western drone and airstrikes, even on MSF hospitals, are 'humanitarian.' If the above paragraph seems like another outraged postcolonial rant, it is deliberately meant to be so. 

I am tired. Tired of seeing lives shattered, families torn apart and displaced, people slaughtered. But more than that, I am tired of the lack of imagination on part of these regimes, as well as the bulk of Western leaders and commentariat (I also add Putin to this list, with his desperate need to emulate empire-builders despite the many economic and political constraints). To varying degrees, imperial thinking has a near complete lock on Western politicians, journalists, academics, analysts, leading to little more than short-termism, and endless replication of  outdated thinking dressed up as analysis. As long as instant sales of tear gas, missiles, guns, or building another prison in the Gulf, can bump up annual profits of another friendly corporate and buy 'stability' from another dictator, our leaders seem satisfied. It is a geopolitical version of the same short-term thinking that many on the Western left accused the bankers of back in 2008-9. And it is a form of policymaking that is so locked into short-term profits and fears of losing them that it can see no further than knee-jerkism. 

But exhaustion does not mean despair. Many pieces are moving on history's chessboard, many of which we have yet to take notice of completely. Over Christmas, I re-read Frantz Fanon's Toward the African Revolution, with many of the essays written during the Algerian war. I was struck by the prescience in the writings as well as Fanon's equanamity in accepting that the decolonisation process would be bitterly opposed by the constantly mutating forms of the declining empire(s).  It reminded me of the biggest mistake in my thinking in 2011: I had underestimated the bitterness with which the decolonisation has been opposed, even as the forms of colonisation and colonisers have evolved and mutated. We no longer have  formal colonies, but the colonial elite (as described accurately by Fanon) continue to be propped up, helping shore up unjust, exploitative, brutal economic, political, social structures for their former masters and current paymasters.

But recognising the intensity with which decolonisation - of social, political, economics structures, but more importantly of culture, narrative and minds - is being resisted also gives me hope. In the past five years, even as many voices have been silenced in Middle East and North Africa region, the change has not stopped. Instead, the Arab Spring gave decolonisation another historic push - Rhodes Must Fall, for example, is a not so distant, albeit often unrecognised offspring of the Arab Spring, as are many resistances across the world. In 2011, the revolution was waged in the 'Arab' world. Five years later, it is being dreamed in many lands and minds across the globe.

And note that term: dream. Because five years later, as the former colonisers make their paucity of imagination amply clear, there are many new dreams being woven in minds across the globe. To look at the world today is to see a clash of mythic proportions. Not between civilisations, as many without imagination would prefer to think of it. Instead, it is an epic struggle between those who demand the right to dream for ourselves and those with much fear and no imagination. In this battle between imagination and fear, January 25th, is not only the Egyptian or Arab, but decolonisation's 'shot heard around the world.'

Decades from now, when historians look back at our times, that may well be the most influential legacy of the Eighteen Days.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

On Teaching Creative Writing as a Woman of Colour

Ten years ago, I took up the challenge of leading a BA: Creative Writing in the UK.  At the interview (and in the decade that has followed) I kept one secret. I was deeply sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, although I could not have articulated my discomfort at the time. This post is an attempt to begin to do just that: explore why I had been sceptical of Creative Writing programmes, how I confronted that discomfort and tried to find solutions, and - in doing so - stumbled upon on something very unique.

When I first began my teaching job, I had inherited the curriculum and syllabus and in the first years I had very little leeway. Yet it was apparent in the very first class I walked into that neither were adequate, appropriate, or indeed to use management-speak, 'fit for purpose.'

I teach one of the most diverse (British and international) groups of students possible. But beyond that simplistic term lies a whole range of experiences and identities: my students are often from economically and socially disadvantaged sections of British society. They are often the first in their families to pursue higher education. Many juggle multiple jobs with family responsibilities for parents, children, siblings, and are often primary carers for more than one person. In many cases, they are first or second generation Britons, with complex migratory pasts, cultures and histories. Institutionally, many are classified as 'mature students' which flattens the life experiences that they bring to the classroom. All of this makes their decision (especially after the fee changes) to study Creative Writing even more risky (and brave).

Yet none of the course that I inherited ten years ago reflected the reality of students we were teaching. Junot Diaz's brilliant 2014 MFA vs POC essay was still years into the future but I was in a strange situation of living out the dilemma. Albeit from the other side! I wasn't a PoC writer participating in a workshop (An aside: I never did an MFA in Creative Writing. The very few workshops and writing groups I have experienced were enough to turn me off them. And for all the reasons that Diaz details). I was instead the course leader and tutor who could - perhaps, just perhaps - make a difference.

My first changes were discreet. I couched them in pedagogically acceptable language of familiarising students with the canon, with critical theory, with contemporary writing.  Surreptitiously writers like Leslie Marmon Silko, Wole Soyinka, Mourid Barghouti, Alice Walker, Nawalel Saadawi made into my reading lists, as did bell hooks, Edward Said and Frantz Fanon.  The reading list has steadily grown and expanded over time to include writing in translation as well as newer writing (Alex Wheatle and Ta-Nehisi Coates are two of the more recent additions).

Then a couple of years ago, when I got a chance to redesign the course as part of a university wide exercise, I decided to expand the curriculum to include more critical fiction on the grounds that you can't write it if you haven't read it.  And I expanded the syllabus to be focussed on aspects of not just writing as a craft but also research skills, critical thinking, and most importantly critical writing (Critical Fictions is now a set text and I wish someone would republish the volume).  Then I fought to include modules that gave students a chance to learn about the publishing industry, to devise query letters, book proposals, elevators  pitches. I wanted to discuss publishing not in a NYC/London-centric way but open it up to global changes, markets, and developments. It makes sense when my students are from as far away as Brazil and Burma, and want to write and publish for their own people.

In the past ten years, my students have gone on to do amazing things. They write, perform and publish powerful, critical imaginative worlds. They work in publishing, media and cultural industries across the globe. Many teach, mentor and nurture, hopefully paying forward some of what they acquire during their degree.

Teaching Creative Writing has also helped me recognise and articulate my own discomfort. Junot Diaz is right in flagging up MFAs (and in the UK, MAs and BAs in Creative Writing) for their inability to support and nurture PoC.  From the other side of the line, my conclusion is perhaps more distressing: Creative Writing courses are by definition imagined and designed for writers who are primarily white and middle class. The courses are designed to not confront or engage in the necessary emotional, psychic, intellectual, critical and yes, political, work that is required when writing from the margins. It isn't just the workshops that exclude - as Diaz astutely notes - but the very structure, design and conception of these courses.

This is why Creative Writing courses don't - and can't - serve those of us who are PoC, queer, non-binary, differently abled, or in multiple other ways structurally and historically disadvantaged. Even the token getsures towards nonconformist, challenging writing are designed to channel the writer on the margins into more conformist spaces. This coerced conformity is not limited to PoC experience in just workshops but at all levels, including the prescribed readings, the forms and themes considered culturally valuable (and thus worthy of being written), and the critical engagement (or lack thereof) with not only words on a page but also literature as a whole, forms and barriers to cultural participation, and thus with the world beyond.

In the past ten years, I have tried to find ways to circumvent thees design flaws and subvert the underlying premise of teaching Creative Writing. I must admit that it is a draining, exhausting task that often means I finish leading my workshops (and academic terms) feeling shattered. Yet it is also the most rewarding job I have ever held because I am - hopefully - widening the ladder, smoothing the climb, extending a hand to pull in yet another fellow writer from the margins.

Toni Morrison said recently that 'We don't need anymore writers as solitary heroes. We need a heroic writers' movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious." I keep hoping that with each graduating cohort, I am contributing a little to this possible heroic writers' movement.

But damn...I wish it were not so exhausting, draining, and all too often so very solitary!

PS: if the above speaks to you, or sounds familiar, or you'd like to swap ideas, please get in touch.

PPS: I hope to blog more about my reflections on my experience of teaching Creative Writing so watch this space.