Don’t hate; reappropriate.
April 8, 2008 81 Comments
I would like to share a full-length article with you, outside of the traditional mechanisms where I’ve shared works and articles. Normally, I list the work’s name and its creator in the title; then the body of the entry shares the video/essay/poem/story, etc. I try to make sure I offer proper accreditation, and I tend not to make any modifications of the original work.
In an effort to demonstrate the need of doing exactly what Jenn’s blog title suggests — to reappropriate — I will take a different tactic with this article. I will not alter the original text; I’ll only redirect its emphasis. For my sister, Brownfemipower.
In all the furor over rising immigration rates in the U.S. – often disguised as concern over “illegal” immigration — one story in particular demonstrates that contrary to scare stories about the effect of immigration on this country, the reality is that this country is often a scary and oppressive place for immigrants. And immigrant women, having drawn the double whammy card, are especially vulnerable. A 22-year-old immigrant from Colombia exposed her immigration agent using the threat of deportation to rape her, using her cell phone to tape the assault. Unfortunately, as is all too common with these sorts of stories, most reports describe the event as sex, even while making it clear that the sex is question was coerced, and should be more accurately described as rape.
The story has hooks most likely because it’s about how a common crime — sexual blackmail against immigrants and other women marginalized in society — became more difficult to hide and ignore because of new technologies. But despite the dubious reasons why this story hit the mainstream news, the activist community can still seize this opportunity to make two very important points: 1) Immigration is a feminist issue and 2) The distinctions between “legal” and “illegal” immigrants is red herring to distract from the fact that it’s immigrants, full stop, who face oppression under a tidal wave of anti-immigration sentiment.
This woman’s story demonstrates the way that the cut-and-dry distinctions between illegal and legal immigrants touted by the Lou Dobbses of the world tend to turn shades of gray when examined closely. Or actually, shades of paperwork. The rape victim entered the U.S. legally on a tourist visa and overstayed, but managed to enter the system to get her green card by marrying a citizen, which all but the worst mouth-breathers accept as a legitimate way to get a green card. Her story shows why it’s front-loaded and racist to describe a human being as “illegal,” especially when her illegal actions were misdemeanors such that they didn’t even raise the ire of the law when she got her paperwork in order. I’ve managed to drive a car before after letting my inspection lapse, and then got the ticket straightened out by renewing my inspection sticker, an equivalent crime. No one describes my very being as illegal, though. Though rape, on the other hand, is not a minor crime and is earth-shattering enough that it’s acceptable to describe the people who commit that crimes as “rapists,” I suspect that rapists get called by that moniker less often than immigrants without their paperwork in order get called “illegals.”
Words like “illegals” dehumanize immigrants, whether or not they have their paperwork in order, and that dehumanization makes immigrant women juicy targets for assorted sexist oppressors, from anti-choicers to wife beaters to rapists, as this woman’s story shows. One Honduran immigrant faced charges after trying to self-abort with an ulcer medication, an attempt that failed to induce abortion, but was linked to her giving birth to a premature infant who passed away. The same article notes that a 22-year-old Mexican immigrant living in South Carolina was put in jail for inducing her own abortion with the medication at home. That immigrant women often resort to self-abortion should surprise no one. Not only is safe, legal abortion financially daunting for a number of women, the atmosphere of dehumanization of immigrants makes many women understandably eager to reduce their encounters with authority figures of any type, including doctors.
Green card manipulation isn’t just a trick practiced by immigration officials wanting to control and dominate women, either. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund (PDF), many domestic abusers use threats about immigration status to keep women in relationships with them. Whether married to citizens or non-citizens, the quasi-legal status assigned to immigrants means that many victims of domestic violence fear seeking help; consequently, the rates of domestic violence are significantly higher for immigrant women than women at large. Congress stepped in to create the International Marriage Brokers Regulation Act, which gives immigrant women the right to leave abusive marriages without being deported. It also requires that men who go through “marriage broker” services to disclose their domestic violence histories to potential brides.
If you ever want to despair of the human condition, Google the term “IMBRA” — the vast majority of the results returned are authored by men outraged at these entirely reasonable measures that keep men from beating their immigrant wives and using green cards as leverage to perpetuate the violence. Strangely, few of these websites argue that men should be given the direct right to beat women, but it’s hard to imagine what other worldview they could be operating under, when they think that it should be perfectly legal for a man to threaten his wife with deportation if she leaves him after a round of beating. If you are under the incorrect impression that sexism is dead and feminism isn’t needed anymore, I recommend listening to the howls of men who think the government owes them the right to treat immigrant women like a population available for their punching bag and sexual assault needs. That goes double for you if you’ve ever sneered at the term “intersections of oppression,” because I can’t think of a better example myself.
So, X of Pandagon
and of RH Reality Check:
P.S. If I’ve given you too many examples, start with this one link. That’s probably the best point. Know that people say women of color are sometimes dark as night, not born last night.
edited by request.
Another thing this debate conjures for me is when people have been caught for writing fictionalized memoirs, race, and the question of authenticity. I’m sure people have heard about the Margaret B. Jones debacle, for example. I think in situations like Jones’s, the clear line where appropriation diverges from attribution begins to rise and become clear.
Stereotypically, the situations and narratives Jones identifies in her work are experiences linked with a certain class and race in America. But Jones, through her whiteness, gained more popularity and eventual notoriety because she came to the situation 1) writing with a distinct claim to authority on that experience (one that was later determined she didn’t have) and 2) writing with knowledge of what people with no authority on the subject would like to read and see. Which is where the privilege of her white lens became a boon for her and a new opportunity to ignore similar narratives from people of color living the same and similar realities. Like the autobiography of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, from the overhyped but under-acclaimed series The Wire, for example: Pearson could likely claim authenticity for her work, but because of the stereotypical nature of our system and the fact that she is writing with no conscious head nodding to the white lens, the lens of distance and cultural observation, her work is undervalued in this discourse.
That’s the same as what’s happened in this situation. No one backpedaled on the accusation of appropriation. My post, which I was careful to compose, does not link point for point where Amanda “stole” things word-for-word from BFP. Rather, it makes BFP’s work — who is just one of the bloggers who have been tying feminism with immigration before the article Amanda quoted hit the “zeitgeist” — visible. And it questions why Amanda took upon her shoulders the claim of authenticity on critical issues on immigration and feminism, immigration and dehumanizing language, and immigration and sexual abuse without giving some indication of the longstanding body of work from multiple people of color who have identified more heinous crimes, who have pointed out more causal links, and whose work undoubtedly could lead to honest and critical engagement with the situation and possible broader activism in coalition with people who don’t want to touch the situation.
Because without that reference, it invisibilizes people who do have that authenticity and experience, who live those experiences, because they cannot impose a lens of detached whiteness that they did not have into their narratives. They cannot pretend that they’re horrified witnesses without a dog in the fight who have sympathetic and probing viewpoints in the matter. And as a result of not being able to claim that detachment, you get the phenomenon Belle quotes from BFP, as well as a continuing dependence on people carrying the white lens to ferret ideas from people of color for publicizing and spreading awareness. The peddling of brown people without last names who get mundane yet detailed narratives of their every move because it’s so different. Who get their horrific moments sensationalized and their tragic and common moments ignored.
THAT’S the sinister nature of appropriation. And in this instance, by not linking to anyone that inspired her viewpoint — forget BFP, even — Amanda tapped into this narrative that has been tapped into by countless folks online and offline. And each leaking into this scheme hurts and makes the victims of invisibility less than charitable once someone white sees us and says, “Hey, what’s wrong? Please write us a book report with cross checks and proper cites, perfect spelling and grammar, and completely objective — that means don’t interpose your oversensitivity into it — yes, please write us a great screed telling us everything very clearly about what’s wrong. One ‘t’ uncrossed, and you lose your argument. And please, make sure you note everyone involved; if you fail to do so, that’s intellectually dishonest and we’ll refuse to engage with you!”