Monday, September 23, 2013

How NOT to be a Bleephole on Twitter: Five Helpful Tips ( Response To The Public Backlash of The New Miss America)

Photographer: Michael Loccisano
Copyright Getty Images

For feminists the title, “Miss America” conjures up a kind of patriarchal acid reflux. It is gender performativity at its absolute worst, the pageantry of superficial expression and the horrifying realization that our nation is seriously undereducated. Brains and beauty as commonplace modifiers are issued as no more than pretense as the contestants struggle to geographically locate the Middle East, make insulting declarations on the sanctity of marriage and define sequestration as a qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby.

When I saw that Miss America was in the news this week, the first thing I thought was: “didn’t we just have one of those?” The next thought was a more expletively realized form of, “are you kidding me?” In case you’ve spent the week in L. Ron Hubbard’s starship, here is the condensed version of what happened:

Nina Davuluri, Syracuse born and graduate of the University of Michigan was crowned Miss America 2014 last Sunday (9/15). But thanks to the rapid-fire reportage offered by Generation Tweet, the former Miss New York’s deep dark secret didn’t go unnoticed for long. She may have been able to fool the national judges, the New York judges and virtually every photographer, but she was unable to circumvent the watchdog eye of the American public:

I want my tax dollars back! I’m moving to Canada!—Oh wait, this isn’t actually a joke.

While me and people like me were watching Downton Abbey reruns on PBS, Twitter was exploding with racist tweets about Miss America being a Muslim terrorist in a bikini. While Davuluri’s Wikipedia entry describes the backlash as a form of Indophobia, or anti-Indian sentiment, the content of the tweets points to an even more flabbergasting reality. Davuluri, an AMERICAN, of Indian (Hindu) descent was mistaken as an “Arab” and a Muslim. The controversy surrounding her win then, might more accurately suggest an unspoken assumption that Miss America should be white, because America is fundamentally white—which is fundamentally batshit crazy. Not to mention, racist. 

[While I was writing this article, Kenichi Ebina of Japanese origin won America’s Got Talent, a win which was met by the amateur pundits on twitter as a misrepresented viewing of “Japan’s got Talent.”]

In light of Davuluri’s win (and now Ebina’s) I have compiled a list of five “suggestions” that might prove useful before slipping up and exposing yourself as a racist asshole in 140 characters or less: 

1. All brown people are not “Arab.”

I’m sure somewhere in America, this reality is blowing someone’s mind; thinking:

“If all brown people aren’t Arab, how will we know who the enemy is?”

This is brownophobia (according to WikiAnswers).

For starters, we don’t live in a Die Hard film. In fact, we don’t even live in Rocky IV where Rocky has to defeat his Russian opponent—much larger, more “supplemental” than the 5’10” Sylvester Stallone—to somehow allegorically connect to the political tension between 1980’s America and Russia.

In fact, it may most certainly be perceived as culturally and racially insensitive to assume that all brown people are Arab—or (what they really mean) somehow related to the Taliban.  A fundamentalist political movement, not a race.

2. Muslim/Islam is not a race.

Identifying someone by their religious affiliation is almost as crazy as identifying them by their political inclination. If you were speaking to someone and they referred to a person as “Catholic” or “Presbyterian” or “Baptist” to somehow illuminate an individual’s physical markers, that would seem crazy. If the descriptor was somehow meant to allude to a particular moral code that seemed indelibly linked to their religious persuasion, then maybe this extra tidbit of knowledge is contextually relevant. But what race is a Presbyterian?


Then why is it okay to refer to someone as Muslim or Islam rather than their nationality? (Which in the context of Miss America is American.) Remember how confused everyone was when Brody (Damian Lewis) on Homeland turned out to be Muslim? Why is that? Because he is a white guy with red hair? His religious conversion then becomes explained as a kind of indoctrination during his captivity as a Prisoner of War by Al-Qaeda. Is this indeed, that crazy, that a Caucasian might convert to Islam? Islam is one of the three oldest religions on Earth, not a fly by night ideology cooked up in someone’s garage.

There are two groups of people whose identities are classed by both race and religion: Jewish and Sikh individuals. Not Muslim.  

3.    If you have to start a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…”

It might be a good idea to reconsider what follows.

4.    Your parents, my parents, their parents’ parents…

Were immigrants. Have you ever noticed how Americans are seemingly the only people on Earth who hyphenate their identity? (e.g. Italian-American, Indian-American, Arab-American, Korean-American…etc.) I feel confident in my sweeping assertion that in most parts of the world a nationality is identified by the country that issued the passport. In England, it would seem incongruous to hear someone say they were born in England but identified as German-British because their great-great-grandparents immigrated to Britain in the eighteenth century; but yet, it commonplace here in the US to provide transparency of our genealogical lines, and by extension authenticity.

In Angels in America (1995), Tony Kushner brilliantly describes America as “the melting pot […] where nothing melted.” Spoken through the voice of an elderly Eastern European Jewish rabbi, the “melting pot” as a metaphor crumbles underneath the weight of the real, lived history of Eastern Europe. A history that America is too young to possess, yet espoused with a particular arrogance in knowing more and knowing better than one’s elders.

But, in this universe, the one where people think they can hide behind a pixelated gravatar and spout racist quips over a Miss America pageant, it seems that our hyphenated existence—crammed in a pot without a burner— works only to divide us further into the haves and have nots, the “real” Americans and the immigrants; as if politics and religion weren’t divisive enough. 

5.    We’re talking about a “Miss America” pageant, not a Mensa convention.

Perhaps, this seems unfair to the beauty queens—and truly, I’m sure it is. I’m sure they are lovely women and I sort of remember enjoying Miss Congeniality. But, I am relying upon superficial anti-beauty pageant rhetoric to the same effect that artificial eyelashes can make or break a chance at the crown. A splodgy application of fake tan can take a girl from a predicted top five to an entire erasure from the live show. But in a nation where girls suffer serious body consciousness—endure abhorrent bullying for bad hair, love handles or a wonky eye—it seems only responsible to offer an alternative rooted in reality to counter the idealized visions of Miss America, glam mags or virtually any living celebrity.

If you want to be angry about something be angry about Syria, Navy Yard and the Kenyan hostage situation. Be angry about the fact that the government has cut spending on food stamps by $40 billion dollars! Because the government thinks we’re lazy and just to show us they’re going to strike—excuse me, white collar workers don’t strike, they just decide in unison not to go to work because they can’t get along—until we stop sponging off the government, living in the lap of luxury on $175/month and wanting healthcare to show for all of the money we spend in taxes so Warren Buffet doesn't have to. These, in my opinion, are things you should get angry about—livid, even—but not about a non-white Miss America who challenges your backwards comfort zone just by the color of her (enviably unblemished) skin.

If I seem hyperbolic, maybe even a bit patronizing, it’s because I intend to be. Until we are able to confront these situations with abject horror and incredulity, the cloaked racism that emerges at the intersection of popular culture and reality will continue to sink its roots while our eyes are averted. When we say, “it’s just a joke” or “I am being ironic” we enable a discourse that is loaded with the racial tensions that very clearly exist in contemporary America. The myth of a post-racial society is exactly that, a myth.

Articles that have emerged throughout the last week have called for public “shaming” of racist behavior; a shaming that relies on equality and color-blindness rather than equality and diversity. To be color-blind is to be ignorant. To be color-blind ignores the complexities of an individual’s heritage and experience.  Color-blindness, like sex-blindness, is what allows for loaded terms like post-racial and post-feminism to achieve a state of coherency out of willful ignorance.

This issue is not only relevant to America, but in the case of Miss America, it kind of sort of matters. Rather than celebrating the (albeit, tepid) display of diversity across the competition  (inclusion of non-white contestants were first permitted in 1970) we are engaging in an argument over what America—a fundamental abstraction—looks like; which, if the backlash that has ensued speaks for anything, it's that it looks like Miley Cyrus, even if it's embarrassing.

We, as Americans and as people, could learn a great deal from Sesame Street.  


Thursday, September 12, 2013

After the Halestorm: A Look Back on a Campaign


I was driving to Toronto when I got word my campaign had ended. Just miles outside of Buffalo, I received a call from a local reporter in Columbus, OH asking for my statement to the settlement (what settlement?). That’s how I got the news.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Carla Hale is a mother, a partner and a (now-ex) physical education teacher. She had taught at my old high school in Columbus, Ohio—Bishop Watterson—for 19 years and had been the first person I met that dreadful summer when I was 14, chubby and forced to take physical education with 100 psuedo-strangers, whose only prior acquaintance I had made at awkward middle school dances and summer parish festivals. Carla Hale was a no-bullshit kind of teacher; but we also knew that in a time of need she would extend us the greatest compassion. This was over 10 years ago.

Fast forward to April 2013.

I had just returned to Columbus, OH from London (UK) where I had spent the last five years completing a PhD. Four days back, I began hearing rumors that Carla Hale had been fired from Watterson, the details of which at the time were still ambiguous.  Without much digging the reason for her termination began to crystallize through the low-mutterings of Ms. Hale’s sexuality and the stock rationalization: “well, it is a Catholic school.” But after 19 years? This was the question that perplexed and continues to perplex anyone acquainted with the story. How, after 19 years, did the P.E. Teacher’s sexuality become an issue?

Since April, reporters have often asked me if we “knew” all along that Carla Hale was a lesbian. To which I often, and antagonistically, answered, “what does a homosexual look like?” They wanted me to revert to stereotype, the prodding encouragement of “she was a P.E. teacher” or by gesturing towards her cropped hair. They wanted me to satisfy the curiosity with an unspoken resignation that we knew but didn’t care, or we knew and it made no impact on her professional capabilities. All of which could have been true, but at the time, when I was 14 and I was so preoccupied with my crimping iron and what well-ranked universities look for in prospective students, I could have cared less about the private life of Carla Hale, or any other teacher for that matter.

So after 19 years, how did Carla Hale’s sexuality become the scarlet letter talk of the town? The answer is simple and shocking: an obituary.

Carla Hale’s mother passed away at the end of February.  The obituary printed in the Columbus Dispatch detailed the list of surviving kin as “Carla (Julie) Hale.” The events leading up to her termination go as follows (though, it should be said that the factuality of these details has been brought into question over the last few months):

A Watterson student goes home after school and asks her parent to pray for Ms. Hale as her mother has just passed. The student’s parent pulls the obituary and sees “Julie” listed after the P.E. teacher’s name. Incensed, the parent writes a letter to the Bishop of Columbus and expresses their discomfort with a lesbian teacher being allowed to teach in a Catholic school, adding that they will allow the Diocese time to conduct an investigation and will follow up with the school.

The letter was signed anonymously as a “Concerned Parent.” Carla Hale was terminated on March 28, 2013: Holy Thursday.

Some facts to note: Carla Hale was fired under a “morality clause” in her contract, which permits the school to terminate an employee due to any behavior deemed immoral. However, Columbus is one of 29 cities in the state of Ohio that upholds an anti-discrimination ordinance, making it illegal to fire an individual based upon sexuality. (Ohio is currently trying to make it a statewide ordinance under the Equal Housing and Employment Act, though this act would still allow for faith-based exemption.)

In early April I started a Facebook group calling to take action which eventually transformed in the campaign #halestormOhio which sought two things: 1. Carla Hale’s reinstatement and 2. Revision of Diocesan policy in accordance with the municipal anti-discrimination ordinance. Within weeks we had amassed 4,500 individuals nationally who had joined our movement, thanks in large to the endorsements from celebrities George Takei and Dan Savage. A petition seeking Hale’s reinstatement on obtained 130,000 signatures and we were able to secure news coverage in the NYTimes, LATimes, Guardian, Huffington Post and an interview with NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. There were of course the demonstrations at the Diocese, letter writing campaigns and phone trees mobilized and the unabashed solicitation of potential allies.

One of the most beneficial links we were able to make came in the form of the Central Ohio AFL-CIO, and particularly Pride @ Work, an AFL-CIO constituency organization that defends LGBTQ individuals in the workplace. With their help, we were able to transform this into a labor issue teaming up to host events and press conferences, encouraging the community and politicians to see work as the fundamental determinant in an individual’s success; an opportunity that was now being withheld from Carla Hale.

By June I had lost all track of time. I had been back in the US for two months and it had felt like 10 minutes. My identity as an individual had been completely subsumed by the campaign. The people closest to me were facing their own struggles and obstacles but I was too blind to see it. Nothing mattered to me quite like the campaign. If there is anything I am grateful for in this present moment, it’s that the people I only half-listened to stuck around and rode it out with me.

What was true when I started the campaign remains true for me now: this was always bigger than one individual. I was fighting for not only the restoration of Carla Hale’s reputation but also to put in motion measures to prevent this from happening to someone else. Carla Hale was not the first person this has happened to and sadly, is already proving not to be the last. In 2012 Al Fischer was fired from a Catholic School in St. Louis, MO after his plans to marry his partner of 20 years became public knowledge. And now, Ken Bencomo, an English teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in a suburb of LA, has been fired just in August of this year after marrying his partner on July 1, after the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage enabled California’s same-sex marriages to continue. Ken Bencomo taught at St. Lucy’s for 17 years.

None of what I have said so far is what fills me with writer’s block. The campaign, the wins and losses, the details of Carla Hale’s case which I know better than the birth dates of my extended family, none of that. It’s the end that I’m not so sure of. It’s my own inability, or rather, resistance to separate the needs of the individual from the cause that might be responsible for this hang-up.

On August 15, sometime mid-afternoon Carla Hale accepted a confidential settlement from the Diocese. Carla Hale would not be reinstated to her previous position but would be acknowledged for her years of service at Bishop Watterson High School. 

As a private citizen, I can respect Carla Hale's need to put all of this behind her. Her life has been put on display and scrutinized in a manner most people could never dream of. However, the larger issues this campaign fought for are still apparent: American workers are being subjected to discrimination. Lesbian and gay workers in this situation are second-class citizens. The Catholic Diocese has proven that there is a price tag attached to their right to enforce discrimination in the workplace that overrules municipal legislation. The right of any public or private organization or faith to overwrite the democratic process and civil laws sets a dangerous precedent. However our issues are still outstanding: discriminatory practices are still being endorsed and loyal and faithful teachers are being forced out of employment.  Who’s next?