On White Girls Being Dredged From the Woods

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Steven Avery’s mugshot, via hellogiggles.com

Last night, my boyfriend and I started watching Making a Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series that suddenly everyone is talking about the way last year everyone talked about Serial. It’s a drawn-out real-life series that explores the contradictory story of Steven Avery, a maybe-maybe-not murderer and rapist.

As we settled into bed to watch the show, Ryan said, “I think he’s an accused rapist.”

“I think he’s a murderer,” I replied.

This was a coded conversation. Over the past year or two of must-watch TV, I’ve developed (and communicated) a real aversion to shows scripted around the same boring sex crime, where a young white woman’s mutilated body is unearthed from the elements, from woods or water or some grimy basement. In fact, my boyf and I have come to share–several times now–a moment of recognition and resignation when we realize that another of the shows everyone is raving about is, at its core, about investigating the disappearance, abuse, rape, and death of some white woman who is never a character but instead plays the canvas that the white guys in the show get to puffer up their masculinity around. How trite.

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Kyle Chandler in Netflix’s Bloodline

Thank you True Detective, thank you Lake of the Woods, thank you Making a Murderer, thank you Bloodline. That last one was hard to take. I thought this show was about a family trying to hold their hotel business together against the creepy rising waters of the Everglades? Oh, and also Kyle Chandler, the town detective, has to slowly pull a pale Latino woman’s mutilated teenage body from the dark dikes, then lay her out on a table so that the camera can slowly, slowly pan over the gruesome makeup this actress with no speaking lines spent so much time receiving, so we can see how much empathy he has, give him a good excuse to look real torn up. Fun. He looks upset about it

It’s not that I don’t want sexual assault stories told. I’m a survivor; our stories are important. It’s that these stories aren’t really about us. They’re medeival, hero’s stuff, chivalrous men discovering, protecting, avenging. The rape victims never matter in TV stories about rape.

***

In several pieces of writing about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, I’ve suggested that America’s ongoing fascination with the Kardashians’ penchant for dating Black men is rooted in a hundred-year-old lynching narrative in which white women are continually at risk for defilement and death by oversexualized, dangerous Black men. Peep the assault scene in Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson’s favorite movie, in which the white woman character dares to open her family’s gate and immediately makes herself vulnerable–neigh, responsible, even–for being chased off a cliff by a unrestrained postbellum Black man.

In an essay for The American Reader I wrote a year ago, I considered the seeming absurdity of the Kardashians’ total domination of pop-media spaces that previous summer, even as news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and the protests that followed, spread (with little help from major news networks) around the globe. I argued that “cumulatively, what we are watching is a dissimulation of a lynching, where the murder happens in one corner of our screen while our coy rationales withdraw into the manifolds of popular culture.” That is, if we zoom out a bit from the individual television programs and look at the wider picture, what we see is a hypermediated recycling of the same story that was told under Jim Crow to justify lynchings, a story about the threat unrestrained Black men pose to white women’s bodies. The obsessive fixation with stories of white women’s despoilment on TV is a Pavlovian bell ringing through cultural history, calling up our country’s worst memories and worst arguments as it tenaciously fights against progress–against police reform, against prison abolition, against integration of the public schools, against affordable college, against the payment of college athletes, against anything that could allow a Black man to walk freely around in the open air in a neighborhood where a White girl might open her gate–a resistance as powerful as the one culture waged a hundred years ago when Black activists fought to protect their own from being murdered for an endless list of insipid excuses.

 

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Cultural fear-mongering on the cover of Star

One of the most surprising things about Making a Murderer is how, in the second episode, we see Steven Avery become a cause celebre for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin in the 1990s. Ah yes, the plight of the blue-eyed blondie who looks like every other blue-eyed blondie in Wisconsin demands the attention and sympathy of state lawmakers. I couldn’t help thinking what a diversion this had to be of justice-based activism in Wisconsin, when the face of wrongful incarceration is a smiling white guy, in the state that has been ranked the actual worst for Black Americans in the nation. HuffPo actually named Milwaukee–the regional capital of the area where Making a Murderer takes place–as the worst city for African Americans in the nation. Yet Steven Avery becomes the face of criminal justice reform, a face so compelling that without being sued or threatened, state lawmakers tried to rustle up a 6-figure settlement for him.

Can you imagine government functionaries producing reparations for a person of color without any external pressure to do so?

And then, in the second episode, we get another dead, raped white girl, a twenty-something, actually, who only talks once because mostly she’s missing or dead, laid out in the woods somewhere waiting for us to imagine what cruelty she experienced, waiting for white men to argue their goodness and integrity over the backdrop of her naked ass.

Netflix originals are cool and all, but where is the network that is ready to tell the real, diverse, systemic, important, exciting stories that this planet is brimming with? Stories of war, migration, agriculture, drugs, extortion, exploitation, mining, slaughterhouses, activism, revolution? From the perspective, goddamnit, of someone other than the white men who are invariably running things? I’m ready to watch them–and I think I’m not the only one.

 

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TV, Politics, Race: What I’ve Been Reading, and Planning to Write

As usual, I’ve had the same 15 tabs open for 3 weeks, waiting…for what? For this blog post. I have trouble closing the links I’ve already read that seem so important I want to share them. Of course, you all have plenty to read already, so I think I’m just a digital hoarder.

I also have a nice long list on my phone of all the blog posts I want to write. I want to write about Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat and how amazing it is to see TV shows featuring immigrant families who don’t speak monolingually in their homes or on the shows: both shows feature multilingual families from Venezuela and Taiwan, respectively, where a grandmother always speaks in the home country’s language (Spanish and Mandarin) while their children and grandchildren respond in English, and everyone can understand each other. On Fresh Off the Boat, the middle generation–children of grandma and parents of grandkids–also switch into Mandarin when they don’t want people around them to understand. (For my rhet/compers out there, Cue: Canagarajah.) Large swaths of the hiphop musical melodrama Empire is also written in AAVE; I would love to see one of their scripts. How are they formatting and editing their dialogue?

Meanwhile, Fresh Off the Boat and Broad City are also showcasing the appropriation of black language by Asian-American kids and white women, respectively; recent episodes of both featured leads in t-shirts of rappers. Acutally, FOTB has its lead, Eddie, wearing a t-shirt with a rapper’s face almost constantly. There is so much richness on television for language scholars to talk about right now. And FOTB is explicitly decentering whiteness in a way I’ve never seen before – usually the white characters on the show sound like delusional crazy people – and Jane the Virgin treated migrants’ undocumented status in a way that was humane and a part of a storyline just like it’s a part of people’s lives.

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I also wanted to write a post about how I wish Spotify would stop spending all its engineers’ energy trying to predict what music I like, and instead do a 1000% better job saving, categorizing, and making accessible to me all the music I’ve already been listening to, so I can find my favorite albums and artist as easily as if this was my music library.

I have also been thinking about how much time I spend as a teacher in the classroom doing managerial work vs. actual teaching –things like giving and reviewing assignments, talking about how things will be graded, coordinating who is giving a presentation on what day, giving students instructions for in-class activities, and so forth. This question was spurned by my reading of Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, which had me thinking, how much of the managerialism of the contemporary writing program seeps into the classroom? How much of teaching is actually managing?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading…

Jeff Chang’s “From Basquiat to Jay-Z: How the Art World Came to Fully Embrace Hip-Hop,” in The Guardian

francine j. harris’s “Civilly Unseen” in the Blue Shift Journal

Julianne Hing’s “Fresh Off the Boat’s Rocky Relationship with Hip-Hop” on Colorlines

Michael S. Schmidt’s “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” in the New York Times

Isabel Shepherd’s “Examining the Lasting Effects of Wilmington’s 1898 Coup D’etat” on HQR News

“Security Researcher Christopher Soghoian on How to Use a Cellphone Without Being Spied On” on Democracy Now!

Kirby Wilson’s “Lack of Diversity Leads to Burden on Professors of Color” in The Chronicle

Richard Florida’s “A Painstaking New Study Reveals the Persistence of U.S. Racial Segregation” on The Atlantic’s Citylab

Ben Sisario’s “Industry Issues Intrude in ‘Blurred Lines’ Case” in the New York Times

What I’ve been reading…so I can finally close all these gotdamn tabs!

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Brett Samuels and Justin Mattingly’s “Chancellor’s Workgroup on Sexual Violence Prevention, Education and Advocacy delivers final report to Syverud,” in the Daily Orange.

The workgroup found that without the Advocacy Center, “there is no longer a single office designated to provide information about services, advocacy, education, and prevention, as well as physical space for victims and survivors to informally congregate and support each other.”

Karen Narevsky’s “Remember Me as a Revolutionary Communist,” in Jacobin.

Leslie was so gifted at identifying working-class issues that even though Leslie had a Buffalo accent, Leslie came and infiltrated with me.

Natalie T. Chang’s “Who WIll Survive in America?” in the Harvard Crimson.

Most of the time I’m glaring so hard at everyone who walks by me that I probably should be stopped by the police, but it’s only because I learned a long time ago that if I don’t, eventually some white boy in a baseball cap is gonna look me up and down and ask if I can love him long time.

But forty years ago my parents were yelled at, spat on, beat up. Violence is tricky like that.

Chris Mooney’s “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men,” in Mother Jones.

And then suddenly, you have a horrible realization. When black faces and “bad” words are paired together, you feel yourself becoming faster in your categorizing—an indication that the two are more easily linked in your mind.

Irene Routte’s “What the Bodies Are Telling You,” on the Harvard Divinity School’s blog.

When systems, rituals, and rules dictate how our bodies can be or how much value our bodies hold, how do we not only envision but embody an affect of hope?

Tanzina Vega’s “Schools’ Discipline for Girls Differs by Race and Hue,” in the New York Times.

Black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.

Trish Kahle’s “Echoes of Mockingjay” on Red Wedge.

And if we step back for a moment, we see that even though Katniss Everdeen is the trilogy’s protagonist, Black rebellion is the driving force of revolution in Panem.

An anonymous reader’s “My Cousin was Shot Dead By Police in Albuquerque,” on Talking Points Memo Daily.

I’ll confess that I didn’t totally understand, either emotionally (duh: I grew up in white affluence) or frankly intellectually (they don’t just shoot kids, do they?).

But now I understand

Linda Chavers’s “An Elegy for Michael Brown” in Dame Magazine.

In other words, I am not just an English teacher, I’m among the keepers of the gates. And they need to see me here for the White boys.

“White Folks: Act Up Accountably,” on the SURJ Action Team blog.

Do:  Organize white people to participate in actions led by People of Color (POC).

Don’t:  Expect to lead those actions.

Sam Biddle’s “Leaked: The Nightmare E-mail Drama Behind Sony’s Steve Jobs Disaster” on Gawker.

You better shut it down

That is what you said

That sounded like a threat to me

Homely Genres and the Michael Brown Autopsy Report

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Tuesday night, as I was checking my Twitter feed just before sleep, the autopsy report on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown was released. How strange, to see this boy’s death described in the vague and also explicit detail of a bureaucratic, quasi-medical discourse. Someone had sat down and written this. I wondered who.

Now that I look at it again I see it was written by Wendell Payne, Medicological Investigator. Oddly, it does not seem to be dated, even though the first words of the prose narrative are “At 1330 hours.”

My immediate response was to screenshot each page, because, as Kanye once said, “They gonna take this off the internet real quick.”

The document contains a lot of information that we already knew, that Michael Brown lay in the street for hours while the crowds gathered, the panic rising—but here they are conveyed in the clear, firm language of the government:

There I was met by numerous officers of the St. Louis County Police Department and they directed my attention to the deceased who was located in the middle of the roadway with his head pointed west and his feet east….The deceased was lying in the prone position.

The deceased was cool to the touch. Rigor mortis was slightly felt in his extremities.

In the freshman composition class I teach we are researching “homely” genres, those genres people write in every day without even thinking about it as writing: e-mails, text messages, facebook posts, but also professional genres like case files, medical reports, and broadcast scripts, not to mention application forms and essays, tax forms, letters to contest parking tickets, and so forth.

What homely genres have you written in lately?

The term “homely” comes from Carolyn Miller’s seminal 1984 article “Genre as Social Action,” in which Miller consolidates previous rhetorical and discursive study of genre and lays the foundation for a given genre to be analyzed, beyond its language, format, or situation, “on the action it is used to accomplish.”

To consider as potential genres such homely discourse as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the white paper, as well as the euology the apologia, the inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon, is not to trivialize the study of genres; it is to take seriously the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the situations in which we find ourselves. (Miller)

After the release of the autopsy report that night, the tweets came out fast and furious. Was the report fabricated? Lying? Was the medical examiner biased?

These questions matter, but they won’t be answered by this report. But this report is important: very, very important. Miller writes that “as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality.”

That is: this autopsy report tells us about the logics and movements of our culture. It gives a text, an example of a genre–that is, the medical autopsy report produced by a police force–what is natively labeled “Narrative Report of Investigation”–an artifact about which we can ask, “Who wrote you, and for what audience? How were you circulated? Who typed you, printed you, held you, e-mailed you, handed you off? Who leaked you? And, in your original function, what were you supposed to accomplish?”

When I read the report last night, I gasped. I covered my mouth. I was horrified. But that is not the report’s intention, because I am not its audience. This genre wants everything to seem normal–or at least, accounted for. And it is, accounted for, for the most part. The report describes how Michael Brown was arrayed in the street according to the compass rose, it describes what he was wearing and what he objects were near him, like his flip-flops, and it describes his nine (9) gunshot wounds, and his “abrasions.”

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Stamped below this description, in the bottom margin of the page, in red ink: NOT FOR SECONDARY RELEASE.

What is not known is how exactly Officer Wilson’s weapon discharged nine times into the dead man’s body, only that “during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.” The report continues:

The deceased the ran down the roadway. Officer WILSON then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer WILSON. Officer WILSON had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.

As this is preliminary information it was not known in which order or how many time the officer fired his weapon during the confrontation.

Let’s pause with the language. Officer WILSON has a name, but Michael Brown does not. In this report, Michael Brown is a zombie, a “deceased” who can run away from a skirmish and then run back towards the officer who has already discharged his weapon at least once. He must be a zombie, this deceased, because what kind of person charges a police officer whose weapon is drawn and which weapon has already fired at least once, when they were tussling while the officer was still inside his squad car?

This is genre functioning, that tiny, crucial decision to call the dead person not by their name but by “the deceased.” A question for further research might be whether medical examiner reports of people who were not shot by police officers are also called “the deceased.”

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The last line of the report notes, “Any additional information will follow in the usual supplemental manner.”

The usual manner. This is the power of this genre: to usher its subject matter, that is the state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenage boy, into a file in a filing cabinet to which other documents can be added and consulted and called forth and held secret from the press and marked “Not for Secondary Release,” this stream of documentation and memo and language and mostly correct spelling and grammar and headers and signatures and case numbers that say everything is accounted for and is being handled and nothing is wrong in the universe where the correct papers have been filed.

Of course, everything is wrong. Everything is wrong! I can use all caps and expletives and images and links and embedded tweets all day long, but nothing in this blog post can make that report seem as abnormal as it makes itself, its own existence and the “preliminary information” it contains normal, filed, stamped, sealed, delivered, accounted for.

Last class I asked my students to read a blog post and then copied them my own homework by mistake, and none of them e-mailed me to say the link seemed weird. Only when I went into our discussion board and saw student after student comment how confusing it was, did I check the link and see I’d had them read about ancient greek rhetorician Aspasia of Miletus by accident, that the title was not the title on the syllabus or even on the link, let alone that the content was nonsensical in the context of our class. But words pass by our eyes and we are so used to them being there we don’t even ask what they are or why they’re there or who wrote them or what they are supposed to do, we just accept that this is the language that fills the homework and these are the papers in the Brown, Michael file.

These papers, this stream of memos, this is the stuff of colonial land treaties and apartheid laws and illegal wars and vast coverups of abuse: a series of memos pushed by paper pushers, filed by paper filers, read but not really read, injustice furthered again in that “genteel bureaucratic way” that injustice has of reinstantiating itself.

There is more to say, there always is, but this is a blog post, and blog posts are supposed to be short. Til soon.