Monday, October 28, 2013

Russell Brand, Ty Moore and the Difference Between Voting as a Strategy and Voting as a Tactic

Originally published at Opine Season

Like many of us, I learned as a teenager that voting was the single most important thing a person who cared about creating change could do. In social studies and history classes, protest movements were generally referred to as things that happened in the past, and that today, we could only engage in the political process by casting a vote every few years.

In college, I learned that this wasn’t true. I learned that real change happens because of organized social and political movements on the ground that put pressure on politicians or even work outside existing power structures to create positive, sustainable change. Voting (particularly in a two-party system dominated by corporate money and power) was treated as a distraction, a way for the powers-that-be to co-opt struggles and ultimately weaken them.

Both viewpoints find avatars in this recently-viral debate between comedian Russell Brand and journalist Jeremy Paxman. Brand argues that to vote is to be complicit in a system that does not care about common people, while Paxman continually returns to the point that voting is just how democracy works.

It took a long time for me to unlearn this “either/or” framework. Both sides of the debate are easy to embrace (one is practical and realistic, the other beautiful and revolutionary) and simultaneously easy to denounce (one represents drone-like assimilation into a harmful system, the other pie-in-the-sky abstract idealism). And both sides are flawed.

For me, it boils down to strategy vs. tactics. If you care about, for example, environmental justice, or the prison industrial complex, or combating poverty, “voting for the right candidate” is not a winning strategy. Challenging massive, entrenched systems takes mass movements encompassing an array of tactics—educational campaigns, media campaigns, direct action, marches, rallies, boycotts, canvassing, building trust and community, and much more.

But that doesn’t mean that electoral politics can’t be one facet of this larger strategy. Running for office, attempting to influence people already in power and voting can all be useful tools when incorporated tactically and intentionally into a movement.

Elections represent a few important opportunities. First, they’re winnable. Even small victories are something concrete and energizing, which helps sustain larger movements (when these victories are put in a means-to-an-end context and not treated as ends themselves). Second, they’re a great media force-multiplier: because so many people still see voting as the primary way to “get involved,” a specific candidate can sometimes spread the word about an issue further than a broader activist campaign can; they may even be able to mobilize people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved. Finally, elections can put good people into positions of power. We’re not just talking about the president here—this is about school boards, city councils, state reps and more. Local elections are a power bottleneck, and it just makes tactical sense to take advantage of them.

This year, I’m particularly excited about Ty Moore’s city council campaign here in Minneapolis. Moore is a committed activist, with experience working on the ground with Occupy Homes MN and a wide range of other struggles. He has so much experience, in fact, that when I first heard he was running, part of me asked “won’t this distract from the other good work he’s involved in?” But seeing how his campaign has grown, witnessing the community support that has blossomed around it, and talking to Moore himself, I’ve become convinced that his bid for city council really illuminates a lot of what I’m writing about here.

Occupy Homes MN is one of the most inspiring activist campaigns I’ve ever seen, and in their endorsement of Moore they stated:

"As our movement grows, it is critical for us to transform our grassroots demands into concrete policy change. Having a grassroots champion like Ty on the city council can help us turn Minneapolis into a nationwide leader in policies to ensure safe affordable quality housing is a human right for all and that we have democratic control of our homes."

Voting can matter. Getting good people into office can matter. Neither Moore himself nor Occupy Homes MN are naïve enough to believe that getting Moore elected will be any kind of magic key; but they can see the possibilities. And those possibilities are worth fighting for.

Voting by itself is never going to change the world, but neither is anything “by itself.” Movements are big, complex, multi-layered organisms. If we care about creating change, we have to reject the narrow views of how change happens, and embrace every opportunity to make our communities– and our world– better.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reflections on my week-long artist residency at El Centro College in Dallas

I spent this past week at El Centro college in downtown Dallas, TX, teaching some 20 classes, plus performances, discussions and more. While this is the kind of work I do all the time, El Centro was my first opportunity to combine the more in-depth, week-long residency work I generally do in high schools with the kind of arts-and-activism material I do with college students. And it ended up being one of the best experiences of my career.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Reframing the Debate Around Racist Halloween Costumes

Originally published at Opine Season

Every year in recent memory, October is when progressive writers, bloggers and activists try to convince people that dressing up like a stereotype of someone else’s culture for Halloween is maybe not such a great idea.

There is now an online treasure trove of writing on the subject, and each autumn adds a few more thoughts to chew on, even if the overall message remains the same. Here are a few examples, including this one from my own blog:

Here’s the thing: I know “you weren’t trying to be racist.” I know that “I’m not getting what you were going for.” I know you think your costume is just “riffing on stereotypes” or only represents “one specific character, not an entire race.” But dressing up as a caricature of someone else’s culture is still a terrible, uncreative costume idea and you should have thought of something better.

Thea Lim at Racialicious breaks down the bigger issue:

The reason why “ethnic costumes” are so problematic is because they posit a cultural identity as a costume – they compress the complexity and intricacy of an entire culture into dress-up; into something that anyone (or really, usually someone with class and race privilege) has the right to use for the most superficial purposes.

Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations talks about how this isn’t just politics or PC-policing; it’s about human beings. There is an emotional cost:

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

Students at Ohio University came up with a powerful poster campaign fighting back, as Jorge Rivas writes in this piece for Colorlines:

“This is happening across the country. It’s not just here in Athens, Ohio,” says Williams, who is the president of a student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS). The group, made up of 10 students, has created an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” that juxtaposes images like the one Williams saw last year with an actual African-American student. It adds a simple statement: “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

And time and time again, there are the same responses:

It’s not a big deal. People are just having fun. Get over yourself.

No matter how many times I hear these responses, I’m baffled. I get that most people don’t have access to high-quality multicultural education or in-depth conversations about oppression. I get that most people, especially people coming from privilege, aren’t constantly engaged with these issues. But this isn’t exactly social justice rocket science.

We’re not talking about reparations or the need for an armed rebellion to overthrow white supremacy here. This is just about having the common decency to not treat someone else’s culture like a prop, to choose one of the millions of other Halloween costume ideas out there rather that one of the few dozen racist ones.

It is mind-boggling to me how this debate is always framed as “why shouldn’t I be allowed to dress up like a stereotype?” as opposed to “why would you want to dress up like a stereotype?” But that's how power works. Some people get the benefit of the doubt, some don't.

The burden shouldn’t be on people of color to “prove” that something is offensive; the burden should be on the (overwhelmingly, but not exclusively) white kids who consciously choose to dress as stereotypes to explain their awful choices.

Of course, they will. They will rationalize and whine; they will get defensive and try to derail the conversation. But the pressure to think critically and cultivate empathy will be on them.

And some will get it. Some may only need a little push. I encourage people to re-post any of the articles linked to above; continue this conversation in whatever spaces you have access to. I hate that we have to start with facepalm-inducing stuff like “blackface makeup = bad,” but the conversation around racist Halloween costumes has the potential to be a gateway for so much more. This is never just about Halloween; it’s about whose stories and histories are valued in our society. It’s about how stereotypes dehumanize entire communities and lead to policies and practices that hurt people. It’s about making the connections between the so-called “little things” (like Halloween costumes, but also like Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the name of the football team based in our nation’s capital, and much more) and the larger reality of oppression.

Finally, for the inevitable comments that accompany any piece like this, a few preemptive responses:

If it’s “not that big of a deal,” then it should be super easy for you to just choose a different costume.

If the only way you can “just have some fun” on Halloween is to choose a costume that you know offends people, that is kind of sad.

And if you’re angry that someone has the audacity to point out that your costume is offensive, I guess all I have to say is this:

Get over yourself.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Don't Buy Miss Saigon: A Few Must-Read Pieces

(photo of the Don't Buy Miss Saigon unity event outside the Ordway)

If you follow my blog or my regular Opine Season column, you may notice that I talk a lot about social justice through the lens of pop culture-- offensiveness, language, representation, etc. Many writers and bloggers do this, because pop culture is a common baseline, something lots and lots of people understand. Potentially, it can be a gateway to begin to understand some broader ideas related to oppression and justice.

Here in the Twin Cities, the Ordway is presenting Miss Saigon again, and there's really no better example of how our culture can form the foundation of both oppression and liberation, depending on how it's used. I could write about why I think the musical is messed up, but some of my favorite writers in the world already have. Check these out:

Bao Phi: War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer's History Against Miss Saigon

David Mura: The Problem(s) With Miss Saigon (or, how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical)

Naomi Ko: The Plague of Miss Saigon

Multiple Voices: Don't Buy Miss Saigon (Our Truth Project)

Lots of good stuff in those links, and Bao's piece in particular is just devastating and essential.

This is, of course, about a single piece of art that perpetuates stereotypes and harmful narratives; but it's also about more than that. It's about whose voices we value. It's about whose stories get to be told, reinforced, and driven into our collective cultural consciousness. It's about who gets to represent our community and who doesn't. It's about money. It's about institutions. It's about evolution.

For Twin Cities arts administrators, arts professionals, promoters, organizers and artists in the Twin Cities, these points are absolutely vital to consider. This is bigger than Miss Saigon.

It's interesting to juxtapose the Miss Saigon protest with Andrea Swensson's recent piece on Caroline Smith and appropriation, or Toki Wright's "Love Letter to the Twin Cities" (here, scroll down), or my piece on local iconography, "Cherry Spoon Bridge to Nowhere." I love the Twin Cities. And I love the Twin Cities arts scene. But that love is not unconditional. We-- and especially those of us in positions of power as gatekeepers, funders or tastemakers-- need to ask some difficult questions and ultimately take part in providing some difficult answers.

And for those of us who aren't in positions of traditional, capital-P "Power," it's business as usual: keep fighting. Keep pressuring the established institutions to be better. Keep building our own institutions to be even better. Keep making brilliant art and building community through it.

Because with any protest like this, it's about the issue, but it's also about the people. We can argue back and forth about what is or isn't offensive, or how this is just PC censorship, or how art should be completely free, or whatever. I'm past that conversation. What I saw last night were literally dozens of my heroes (and a few hundred other cool people), some of the people I respect and look up to the most in my life, fighting for what they believe in. These organizers are beyond inspiring to me, and make me want to quadruple the work I've been doing. Thanks to all of them.