I went back and watched some of the footage of Jeantel’s testimony. I could see why some observers might be disturbed that the teen wasn’t able to express herself more clearly. At times she was barely audible, she didn’t always use standard English and she sometimes didn’t seem to understand what the lawyer was asking her. It can be painful for us to see inarticulate black folks propped up on a national stage, speaking to a mixed audience with an unpolished tongue—particularly when words like “creepy-ass cracker” and “nigga” are freely tossed into the mix, words that Jeantel told the jury that Trayvon used to describe Zimmerman to her.
It reminds me of the way my parents described their pain and cringing embarrassment whenever boxing great Joe Louis was being interviewed on television and he would give the English language a vicious beating. We have a desperate need to want to always put our best selves forward. If you are in a position representing the whole of black America—and let’s face it, any black person being covered on a national stage still represents each of us, as much as it hurts us to admit it in 2013—every syllable you utter is going to be vigorously scrutinized. With social media, the scrutiny is going to be magnified like an electron microscope. [Exhibits A, B and C: Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown and Antoine Dodson]
I understand all of that. But let’s not take this thing too far.
Rachel Jeantel is a teenager, a 19-year-old girl who told the world what she heard that fateful February night on the phone with her longtime friend Trayvon. From the news reports produced by the mainstream media, you got the impression that Jeantel was genuine and believable. Of course reporters from outlets like the New York Times, Miami Herald and the AP are not going to feel the need to describe Rachel’s attitude or overuse of black English vernacular, but they will feel compelled to describe the effectiveness of her testimony. And I saw them use words like “transfixed” to describe the all-female, nearly all-white jury’s reaction to what Jeantel was saying. Perhaps if the prosecutors had done too much coaching of their star witness, her genuineness would not have shone through.
I also saw incredibly mean things said about her looks on social media, even seeing her described as “Precious”—referring to the movie character brought to life by Gabby Sidibe, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the troubled overweight teen. Disturbingly, this has become the go-to moniker for overweight, dark-skinned girls—aided by rapper Kanye West, who leveled that scarily ignorant line in his song “Mercy.”
Plus my b*tch, make your b*tch look like Precious
Jeantel had to live through a close friend being murdered, watching his killer walk free for far too long, then sitting in front of the world and recounting the painful night with an intimidating older white man directing questions at her while she’s clearly scared out of her mind.
Now, on top of all that, she has to endure some assholes critiquing her looks?
Really, people? Grow the hell up.
In the aftermath of Monday’s Boston Marathon attack, a heaving pile of junk information clouded the breaking news reports. Casualty figures were botched, the number of explosive devices was misreported, and suspects were wrongly identified. On that last front, one of the families deeply affected by the press and public’s false conclusions was that of Sunil Tripathi, a 22-year-old Brown University philosophy student who went missing on March 16.
The Tripathi family’s ordeal collided with the Boston bombings shortly after the FBI released images of the two suspects late Thursday. Reddit and other popular social-media platforms, already abuzz with theories of suspicious characters caught on camera near the bomb sites, embarked on a mission to ID the two young men. One of the young women who went to high school with Sunil thought she recognized him from one of the photos released by the FBI. Redditors also picked up on the supposed likeness, and by the evening Reddit and Twitter (on which “Sunil Tripathi” would soon trend worldwide) had exploded with the theory. By about 7:30 p.m. EDT, the Tripathi family began to be flooded with calls, Facebook posts, and harassing emails raising the allegation. The family suspended the Facebook page at around 10 p.m., flagged the messages, and reached out to law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.
"The hardest part of this was how far from any actual evidence there actually was, and how quickly and how painfully this traveled."
Many national and local reporters caught wind of the Reddit-powered theory, and by Friday morning roughly a dozen news vans had parked themselves at the Tripathi residence in Radnor eager to question the family. (All of this, even though Sunil’s Tripathi’s name was never once mentioned on the Boston police scanner prior to the initial suspicions on Twitter.)
"We were hoping the Boston investigation was advancing fast enough that it would publicly prove what [my family] all knew," Sangeeta Tripathi, Sunil’s sister (a 2004 Brown graduate who now works as an NGO public health professional), tells me. "The hardest part of this was how far from any actual evidence there actually was, and how quickly and how painfully this traveled…We find it incredibly unfortunate that media outlets were so quick to jump without checking with authorities, but we hope they use the same energy and intensity they showed in the past 24 hours to really help us find Sunil."
The moderator of the “FindBostonBombers” subreddit page (going by the name “Rather_Confused”) released a statement apologizing: “This event shows exactly why the no personal information until confirmation rule is in place. Out of respect for Tripathi and his family, I ask that users here please remove any and all links about him.”
I asked Sangeeta if her family had yet received any apologies from news organizations whose employees (including BuzzFeed and Politico) helped push the erroneous ID. “No, we have not,” she says. “Apologies have been limited to particular individuals and a few network-based responses, including the Reddit apology.”
Asawin Suebsaeng, “My Innocent Brother Was Made Into A Bombing Suspect: Sunil Trihpathi’s Sister Speaks,” Mother Jones 4/19/13
Colorlines reported today that Rhode Island police identified Sunil’s body off the coast of Providence. The family issued this statement:
“As we carry indescribable grief, we also feel incredible gratitude. To each one of you-from our hometown to many distant lands-we extend our thanks for the words of encouragement, for your thoughts, for your hands, for your prayers, and for the love you have so generously shared,” the note continued.
“Your compassionate spirit is felt by Sunil and by all of us.”
“This last month has changed our lives forever, and we hope it will change yours too. Take care of one another. Be gentle, be compassionate. Be open to letting someone in when it is you who is faltering. Lend your hand. We need it. The world needs it.”
As we got up from our seats and stood in place to enter the aisle, the white woman behind me stood next to me in the aisle and was determined to gain the place in the line ahead of me. Elisabeth was standing by her seat in the row beside me, and the woman’s husband was standing behind us in the aisle.
We stood a long time, as it seemed to take longer than usual for the passengers ahead of us to file out of the passengers’ cabin. When it became closer for our row to exit, the elderly woman beside me started walking ahead and somehow got three rows in front of us. I am not sure how she managed that, but she did, leaving her husband behind us. So far, we have simple rudeness.
As she left the plane, she was about eighteen passengers ahead of me on the ramp. So, when it was my turn to walk out, I asked her husband if he wanted to go ahead of us, and he politely said, “Please go ahead.” So, my daughter and I stepped from the passenger cabin.
As we passed the elderly woman on the terminal ramp, she had an angry look on her face as my daughter and I emerged from the door ahead of her husband. She was waiting for her husband in disgust. Her displeasure was written on her face, and as we walked past her, she said aloud to her husband, “I can’t believe you allowed the Chinese to get ahead of you!”
She said it loud enough so that I could hear. As the words left her mouth, her spitefully-based statement to her husband angered me more than such events may warrant. My first thought was the perception that an Asian is always already viewed as a foreigner no matter how long they have been living in this country. Even fourth or fifth generation Asians are viewed as the “perpetual foreigner.” Asian Americans have been depicted as “perpetual foreigners,” “unassimilatable,” and other stereotypes that reveal historic and persistent racism experienced by this racial/ethnic group. For example, almost every Asian in America has been afflicted with the perpetual foreigner syndrome. Many have been asked, “Where are you really from?” This loaded question, which I shall call the “really-question,” differs from the usual one, “Where are you from?” The really question figuratively and literally ejects the Asian American respondent to Asia, because the assumption behind the question, even if the questioner is oblivious to it, is that Asian Americans cannot be “real” Americans.
Muslims face prejudice, but Muslims from the Caucasus face a particular kind of prejudice - the kind born of ignorance so great it perversely imbues everything with significance. “There is never interpretation, understanding and knowledge when there is no interest,” Edward Said wrote in Covering Islam , and until this week, there was so little interest in and knowledge of the Caucasus that the ambassador of the Czech Republic felt compelled to issue a press release stating that the Czech Republic is not the same as Chechnya.
Knowing nothing of the Tsarnaevs’ motives, and little about Chechens, the American media tore into Wikipedia and came back with stereotypes. The Tsarnaevs were stripped of their 21st century American life and became symbols of a distant land, forever frozen in time. Journalist Eliza Shapiro proclaimed that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “named after a brutal warlord”, despite the fact that Tamerlan, or Timur, is an ordinary first name in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Her claim is equivalent to saying a child named Nicholas must be named in honour of ruthless Russian tsar Nicholas I - an irony apparently lost on New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who made a similar denouncement on Twitter (to his credit, Kristof quickly retracted the comment).
Other journalists found literary allusions, or rather, illusions. “They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons ,” explained scholar Juan Cole, citing an 1862 Russian novel to explain the motives of a criminal whose Twitter account was full of American rap lyrics. One does not recall such use of literary devices to ascertain the motives of less exotic perpetrators, but who knows? Perhaps some ambitious analyst is plumbing the works of Faulkner to shed light on that Mississippi Elvis impersonator who tried to send ricin to Obama.
Still others turned to social media as a gateway to the Chechen soul. Journalist Julia Ioffe - after explaining the Tsarnaevs through Tolstoy, Pushkin, and, of course, Stalin - cites the younger Tsarnaev’s use of the Russian website VKontakte as proof of his inability to assimilate, then ranks the significance of his personal photos.
"The most revealing image of Dzhokhar is not the one of him hugging an African-American friend at his high school graduation, but the one of him sitting at a kitchen table with his arm around a guy his age who appears to be of Central Asian descent," she writes . "In front of them is a dish plov , a Central Asian dish of rice and meat, and a bottle of Ranch dressing." Again, it is difficult to imagine a journalist writing with such breathtaking arrogance - why is the Central Asian friend more "revealing" than the African-American one? What, exactly, are they "revealing"? - about the inner life of someone from a more familiar place.
One way to test whether you are reading a reasonable analysis of the Tsarnaev case - and yes, they exist - is to replace the word “Chechen” with another ethnicity. “I could always spot the Chechens in Vienna,” writes journalist Oliver Bulloughs in the New York Times . “They were darker-haired than the Austrians; they dressed more snappily, like 1950s gangsters; they never had anything to do.” Now substitute the word “Jews” for “Chechens”. Minority-hunting in Vienna never ends well .
Rahim Thawer, a social worker and activist in Toronto, was at Woody’s, a well-known bar in city’s LGBTQ neighbourhood, back on December 16th, 2012. His reaction to a racist, Islamophobic drag performance that night appeared days later in the Huffington Post. Donnarama, a famous Toronto drag queen, performed in a pseudo-burka and a bindi, with bombs attached to her abdomen, complete with choreography suggesting gun violence and explosions…
The media reactions that followed, a small handful at best, didn’t characterize the performance as seriously problematic. Instead, much of the commentary seemed to hide behind superficial arguments about freedom of expression, without any analysis of political, social, and structural contexts. Donnarama is not a poster child for the far-right in Canada. And the incident didn’t seem to sustain any broader, louder conversations about racism, sexism, and Islamaphobia in the LGBTQ community. While disappointing, this isn’t entirely surprising. Ultimately, the performance reflects how oppressive attitudes can sink deeply into communities that we otherwise may consider “liberal,” and become normalized to such a point that they may even be celebrated.
The second article, by Zev Chafets, offers an account of Maryam Basir, New York model and Muslimah, and a subtle view of sexism within Muslim communities. Basir’s experiences illustrate the tensions that exist between her firm, personal identity as a Muslim woman and others that don’t see her occupation as legitimate within the context of Islam.
I don’t think Hadiza was expressing an opinion that belongs solely to “radical, extremist Muslims.” In fact, the message smacks of the same long lectures I got from my mother in high school. “Those pants are too tight! That shirt is too short! What are the Aunties and Uncles going to think?! What impression do you want to give to the world when you’re on the subway?!”Fancy that my younger brother was never subjected to those same lectures or sunset curfews. Hadiza’s Facebook message to Basir carries a sexist subtext, alluding to the expectations bestowed upon Muslim women to always carry themselves as representatives of the faith and as models of purity. In other words, whether willing or unwilling, Muslimahs are being asked to live to a higher moral standard for the sake of upholding the Islamic identity and image.
Basir’s response to the sexism is sharp, unapologetic, and public…
Thawer and Basir offer snapshots into the subtleties of racism, Islamophobia, and sexism that help us think of oppression in bigger, broader terms. In contrast, much of the mainstream media discourse of oppression is limited to blatant, stark forms that also describe the perpetrators as extreme. The media, for example, largely identifies Trayvon Martin’s murder as racist but also describes the accused, George Zimmermen, as a vigilante. The perpetrator of the tragic Sikh Temple shooting in August 2012 is largely characterized as an “ex-Army, white supremacist” without any critical analysis of where his racist ideologies came from.
Khan’s article, the one which began this post, shares the same issues; If we focus upon the fact that the vast majority of anti-Muslim attacks upon Muslimahs are perpetrated by supporters of Britain’s far right, then we lose sight of the subtleties that Thawer describes along with understanding that Muslimah women likely experience Islamophobia daily, in a myriad of ways, across different contexts, and through their interactions with a range of people that represent the political gamete. If we attribute sexism in Muslim communities to the “extreme, fundamentalist” clerics, then we may be unable to identify the subtexts of sexism within the judgements we make about Muslim women like Basir.
What do you think when you hear the word Latin? Or Latina, to be more exact? Spicy? Or perhaps “loud,” “flamboyant” and “sexy”? Maybe the word just inspires images of women like Salma Hayek and J-Lo. Many of us are, sadly, very familiar with the image of what “Latinas” are supposed to look like. Just think of bombshell Gloria from Modern Family, hyper-sexual Gabrielle Solis from Desperate Housewives, or Michelle Rodríguez, the sexy tomboy, from Fast and Furious.
As a Latin American woman, these stereotypes have always bothered me, especially because, in some cases, the stereotypes surrounding “Latinas” are often perpetrated by some high-profile Latin Americans themselves who tend to abide by the sexualized stereotypes even outside their TV or movie characters.
Personally, I prefer the term Latin American to “Latina” which I see as a Western creation that conjures up these stereotypes.
Several things bother me about how Latin American women are portrayed in the media. It is not only that most of us look nothing like the women mentioned above, but also that I hate labels. I do not see myself as a bombshell, let alone as a hyper-sexual woman looking to please Western men. I do not see my self in the “Latina” image, which I see as a creation of the patriarchal Western imagination. Instead, I like to think of myself as a plain and simple Latin American woman… no one’s fantasy or stereotype.
This image of the hypersexual “available” woman can be parallel to the way Muslim women were represented in Orientalist depictions of the odalisque. Nowadays, of course, this has changed. While both Muslim women and Latin American women are seen as coming from communities with close family ties, cultural religiousness, and with an attachment to the traditional gender roles of women as mothers and wives, their images are very different.
Today, a common depiction is that of the niqabi, all covered in black, who represents a mystique that is not present in the Latina imagery. Apparently, Latinas have a lot to show and are happy to do so. They leave nothing to the imagination as opposed to Muslim women that “make” Western men work for it.
MMW has discussed, in several instances, the continuous attempts to portray Muslim women as mysterious figures underneath black robes and sheer face veils. One example that comes to mind is woodturtle’s piece on Sebastian Farmborough’s work depicting niqabis emerging from the water. I cannot help but thinking that if his work showed Latin women, they would be wearing skimpy bikinis and showing a lot of skin. Apparently it is either one or the other…either we show everything or we cover everything up!
Now, keeping that in mind, what happens when Latin women (sexy, voluptuous Latin women) become the new face of Islam?