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Wiley Wandering

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December 26, 2009

Despite its Socio-politically Charged Criticisms, I Enjoyed Avatar! What About You?

Annalee Newitz cites Scifi writer Nalo Hopkinson for stating in the Boston Globe that “In the US, to talk about race is to be seen as racist. You become the problem because you bring up the problem. So you find people who are hesitant to talk about it.” She further states that the main mythic story you find in science fiction, generally written by whites, "is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it." Does this describe Avatar? Is it a film about race? Is Hopkinson correct in her assertion that to talk about race is to become racist? (For the record, I agree with her assertion. In my experiences talking about it, I have been labeled racist many times because I unabashedly engage it in my lectures, presentations, and classes). More so, is it even difficult for people uncomfortable with discussing race, or any significant socialized differences, to even go and see Avatar once the hype about its socio-political message is out there? Is it possible that people will be afraid of what they see, or afraid of what it might say about them?

Should we allow the criticisms of the new James Cameron film “Avatar” to prevent us from seeing the film? In the article When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like Avatar, by Newitz, she asserts that “Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it's about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest sci-fi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy.” The author goes even further in drawing comparison to the films “District 9” and “The Last Samurai.” Can you think of any others?

Newitz further states that “These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare.”

I love the article because I thoroughly enjoy most anything that challenges my way of seeing. I also agree, to a certain extent, with the author's assertion that Avatar is a new-age version of "Dances with Wolves" and "Enemy Mine" etc. However, what I don't agree with is the somewhat veiled assertion that these movies should no longer be made, or at least Whites should cease making them. The writer, Newitz, makes the mistake that the world has as sophisticated a lens, a way of seeing, as she does, which more than often is not the case.

The overriding moral of the story is that people are selfish and hence act selfishly until motivated to act differently. Yes, Whites do tell these stories with Whites as heroes in the end after some huge epiphany, but would the author herself ever have arrived at her "way of seeing" these stories if she hadn't seen a plethora of them herself? It may be that Ms. Newitz needed to see a certain amount of these films to acquire the consciousness that she obviously has achieved. If we liken racism to a fort, the fort that represents racism needs to be attacked from all sides, and removing these types of films from the collective efforts would be a mistake. If Ms. Newitz and others who are so-called conscious no longer need to see these movies, then they should stop watching them. However, don't assume others won't benefit greatly from seeing them and moving from phase one into phase two of social consciousness about social justice.

Ms. Newitz’s description of the Jake Sully character, and generally many White protagonists who become change agents, or activists for social justice, practically ridicules historic figures like John Brown (whom Quentin Tarantino is supposedly considering making a movie about). What is really wrong with a White person changing her/his perspective and then taking a lead to right social wrongs? I hope you will really dig deep on this question and philosophically extend an answer for consideration.

Is a cause actually better served if arguably the best leader takes a back seat because her gender, class, race, etc. provides her too much privilege or could divert the focus away from the project she perhaps should be leading? Would "Avatar" have been more/less socially relevant if Cameron had made the Jake Sully character Jacquelyn? With that change, then would the movie’s socio-political message have changed so much that our focus on Jacquelyn’s leadership as a White female would have been adversely affected because of her interracial and now lesbian relationship with Zoe Saldana’s character “Neyteri?” If Jake Sully had been Black, Hispanic, or Native American, would the racial critics then have been kept at bay? He was already a member of an underrepresented community by the mere fact that he was physically challenged, having lost use of his legs as a soldier, but is ableism so far off our radar screens that most of us don’t consider the depth of Sully’s compassion for the other fused in his being social ostracized and marginalized?

What are your thoughts about Avatar as a social statement? Are the social statements it is being taken to task for undercutting the film’s worth, or adding to it?

December 3, 2009

Should This Holiday Gift/Sentiment be Given 24/7/365?

With the holidays upon us I was reflecting on the notion of what it truly means to keep someone in the center. The notion of centering continuously appeared over the last couple of weeks as I have wandered here and there. In my last blog (Girl Talk, When If Ever Is It Appropriate, Nov 14) we talked about language and how terms like girl infantilize women. We talked about how the acceptance of the term girl by women as non-problematic can easily be interpreted in many cases as internalized oppression not too dissimilar to the way other disenfranchised groups internalize disparaging statements as non problematic as well (gays with the terms “fag” and “straight,” Blacks with the word “nigger,” Whites with the term “cracker,” people with disabling conditions with the word “retard,” etc.) when articulated by in-group members. Our conversation also included phrases that aren’t necessarily deemed problematic (i.e. you guys), but that contribute to keeping men at the center, which means the use of such phrasing subconsciously contributes to de-centering or marginalizing women. On top of all this, I recently attended the third conversation of a scheduled seven that the SUNY Chancellor is hosting in support of situating our higher educational system to achieve its potential greatness. In that conversation with the Group of 200 (the name given the collective of representatives from the 64 SUNY campuses) we discussed some of the overriding goals that should permeate each campus. Two of these goals were academic excellence and student centeredness. Yes, there is that “centeredness” concept again.

While I strive to assist students in achieving academic excellence, I endeavor just as much to be student centered as a college professor and administrator. I take centeredness serious enough to have asked my colleagues in the Group of 200 if it was possible to be student centered and committed to academic excellence if we aren’t pursuing professional development in diversity and social justice. When I concluded my remarks, unlike some of the other contributors who received applause for their contributions, I received an eerie silence. Later, one of the Group of 200 approached me and said I was perhaps a bit too progressive and that the faculty at our colleges were still not ready for that conversation, because of its implications with the problem of academic tenure. While I appreciated his support it none the less left me with one thought, if the desire is to be student centered, then we must exhaust the possibilities to accomplish that goal, even if it means removing ourselves from the center. I’m not suggesting working for free, but I am challenging my colleagues and myself to make sure that we are challenging our students to be the best that they can be when we grade their papers, design courses, and engage them in what often are invaluable discussions about their dreams and aspirations. And doesn't student centered also mean taking the time to get to know ourselves and the never ending influx of students that are quite different from the type of student we were when we entered these institutions of higher learning. In other words, can we truly be student centered if we aren't being professionally developed in the realities that our students, many of whom are a couple of generations away from us, have originated from. Are we student centered if we have no clue that "a stupid coat" is not necessarily an insult or illogical statement, but instead could actually be considered quite a compliment?

Considering all of that, what does it mean to be child centered? As parents, what does it mean to keep our children in the center of our lives? Does it mean letting them watch television or hang out with dysfunctional friends so as to have them think we are cool? Does being child centered mean using our children against our spouse to make a point that doesn’t serve anyone but us? Is it appropriate for us to take a trip, or purchase a new car, or buy a new laptop, when our children could use a new coat, haven’t seen their grandparents in quite some time, or would like a new bed (and due to a sudden growth spurt actually needs one).
Just like the isms (ableism, sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, intellectualism) that dominate us on very subconscious levels until we consciously unpack them, selfishness or self centeredness is learned behavior, albeit subconscious or unconsciously learned. Many parents were never consistently placed in the center by their parents and therefore replicate the behavior of their parents towards them in their relationships with their children. Instead of talking about their childrens' needs, desires, concerns, or questions, they submit their children to ageism and summarily dismiss their voices as irrelevant, or not worthy of proper consideration, while often valuing input from the outside of someone whose parenting skills would never win an award.

Why don’t we keep our children at the center? When you were a child, how did it feel to be kept at the center, or not? I somewhat recall my mother, who was a young mother relative to her children in age, once telling me that she didn’t remarry and seldom if ever (I don’t recall which) brought men home to even meet us because she had concerns about men she might date being inappropriate with her oldest child, my sister, who was only 16 years younger than her. Some might call that paranoid, but I definitely see it as child centered.

At what point should we stop keeping our children at the center? At what point does it become counterproductive to dote on our offspring, to pacify our progeny?
Those of you who don’t have children yet can’t escape this conversation either. You should be able to relate to being at the center of your parents lives and should be able to recall the joy of how it felt when you were or pain felt when you weren’t. You should be thinking about whether or not you are prepared to place and keep your future children at the center of your lives. After all, if you aren’t prepared to do that, perhaps you shouldn’t have children until you are.

As we approach the Winter holidays that are so often framed by gift giving, what are your thoughts on centering our children, which just as easily can mean putting their needs before ours? Many parents will leverage major bills or encounter significant debt during the holiday season to ensure that their children don’t feel neglected. Is this centering, or succumbing to a culture of consumption? And let’s keep it real, is this “centering” always a reasonable expectation, or often an undeserved act for children who can be quite self-absorbed or overtly spoiled from having been centered far too much.