Tag Archives: Identity

Identity beyond boundaries, cont’d: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes out of “the locker room ghetto”

kareem abdul-jabbar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently turned cultural critic by reviewing the HBO show Girls for the Huffington Post. In a follow-up article titled “Coming Out of the Locker Room Ghetto,” he addresses the naysayers who question his qualifications to do so:

There was much reaction. Some questioned why a man my age would watch a show about girls in their twenties, as if they’d just discovered me hanging around a school playground with a shopping bag full of candy in one hand a fluffy puppy in the other. Of course, these critics are right. When I read Moby Dick I first had to convince the bookseller that I was a former whaler named Queequeg. When I read the poetry of Sylvia Plath, I had to pretend I was a depressed white woman with daddy issues. Don’t worry, I used a fake ID. […]

But even among some of the positive response was an underlying head-scratching theme: isn’t it amazing that a former jock can have opinions on pop culture and articulate it with words and references to books and movies? Some mentioned my height, as if I was so tall that the air up here could not support intellectual development. […]

Maybe this will help: I have a degree from UCLA. I’m an amateur historian who has written books about World War II, the Harlem Renaissance, and African-American inventors. I read a lot of fiction as well as non-fiction. I watch TV and movies. I have acted in both. I have been a political activist and an advocate for children’s education. How should an aging, black jock like myself know anything about pop culture? Man, I am a living part of pop culture and have been for nearly 50 years. Beyond that, I think pop culture expresses our needs, fears, hopes and whole zeitgeist better than some of the more esoteric and obscure forms of art.

Be sure to read the rest. It’s smart, funny — and, I’m ashamed to admit, surprisingly so, to me. Apart from his cameo in Airplane!, I was mostly unaware of Abdul-Jabbar’s accomplishments off the basketball court — and had mentally relegated him to the “amazing jock” category without giving any thought to whether the man had any interests, abilities, or other fascinating facets as a human being outside the narrow field for which he’s recognized (and pigeonholed).

Mea culpa. As I’ve argued myself, it’s always unwise to put people into boxes of any kind. Once you get past your easy assumptions and really get to know them, people will endlessly surprise you. I suppose, at this point, we really shouldn’t be surprised at all.

(h/t Alyssa Rosenberg, whose take on Abdul-Jabbar is also worth a read. Image via The Muslim Observer.)

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: The hipster is the most authentic of all

Sophy Bot, author of The Hipster Effect, has kindly sent me the video of her TED talk on busting the “hipster” stereotype:

On her website she further writes about the way that the dismissive “hipster” image actually obscures a fascinating reality — the fact that being a so-called hipster is actually an indication that people are taking charge of their identities, and choosing how to define and express themselves, beyond the shackles of cultural expectations:

Whereas previously prevalent subcultures focused on group differentiation, hipsters focus on the individual. The hipster isn’t necessarily about finding other likeminded souls out there. It’s more about expressing yourself and doing your own thing, no matter how wild that may appear to others. As more and more modes of self-expression have made their way into popular culture, fueled largely by the wide-open nature of the internet and the vast amounts of content we now consume on a daily basis, we’ve come to adopt more and more iterations of style at a breakneck pace. And because we’re adopting so many different styles so rapidly, we don’t have time to create a shared set of meanings about trends. Instead, what’s going on now is that we’re creating our own meanings for each particular style or object. Classical meanings have been lost somewhere along the way; though half of the people in a room may be wearing thick-rimmed glasses, odds are good that each of them has a different reason for doing so. We, as a society, assume this to mean lack of authenticity, but in many ways it is at the very heart of authenticity — it is choosing for yourself exactly how you want to outwardly express yourself, imbuing each object with your own personally created meaning rather than using off-the-shelf cultural symbols.

The rest is here, and worth reading. I’d never considered the “hipster” phenomenon in that way before, but I think Bot absolutely makes sense. Who better than the much-derided hipster to serve as an example of humanist self-creation — of the idea that we create our own meanings, that we are who we choose to be?

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“My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman”

In her inspiring letter to her daughter, Mur Lafferty links to this powerful TED talk by activist Tony Porter, who reminds us that raising up women doesn’t mean putting down men; on the contrary, liberating men from the twisted social conditioning that leads them to denigrate women is absolutely crucial to the liberation of women as well. See the whole thing:


Dar Williams, in her incredibly wise “When I Was a Boy,” puts it this way:

Men and women are allies, or should be. And the idea that men should feel threatened by feminism is ludicrous, because feminism is a win-win situation: a path not to an imbalance or reversal of power, but to a society of mutual respect among fellow human beings, who have access to the entire range of human emotion and potential. We men need to try harder, to be humble, to learn more about how to be the fiercest allies we can be to our daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, friends. We owe it not just to them, but to ourselves.

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: “Do I look suspicious?”

In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the men of Howard University have put together a compelling video that challenges racial profiling and reminds us of its lethal consequences:

On a related note: In a previous post on “identity beyond ethnicity,” I’d written about Touré and the notion of post-blackness, questioning whether there’s any limit to the infinite flexibility of “racial” identity — whether, in an age when skin color doesn’t limit our desires, abilities, interests, and ambitions, being “black” (or any other color) means anything at all. But clearly it still does. Touré’s recent essay for Time, “How to Stay Alive While Being Black,” makes it clear to me that choosing your own identity is only half of the equation; the other half is how people see you — and how your reaction to their perception also shapes who you are:

You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black. Of course, you know better. Racism is about reminding you that you are less human, less valuable, less worthy, less beautiful, less intelligent. It’s about prejudging you as violent, fearsome, a threat. Some people will take that prejudice and try to force their will on you to make sure you feel like a second-class citizen and to make certain you get back to the lower-class place they think you’re trying to escape. The best way to counter them involves not your fists but your mind. You know your value to the world and how terrific you are. If you never forget that, they can’t damage your spirit. The best revenge is surviving and living well.

What does it mean to be a black man? It means that no matter what kind of human being you are, you can still be shot dead because of the color of your skin, the hoodie you happen to wear, and the prejudices of all the bigots around you whose existence you can’t afford to deny.

The day we put all this bullshit behind us can’t come fast enough.

(h/t Feministing)
Update: A heartbreaking take from David Brothers:

Martin’s story — all of these stories — is a reminder. It’s a reminder that you have so little control over your life that who you are doesn’t actually matter. All that matters is what other people can make you into. You’re not a person, not in the end. You’re just a thing to be used and discarded, no matter how good of a guy you were, no matter how cute your daughter is, they’re going to find something on you and that’s going to be that. Sorry, but Mister Charlie needs grist for the mill. […]

And it’s racism. All of it. It is unquestionably, objectively racism. It’s not some guy going out to lynch nigras for looking at white women, but that’s not the entirety of what racism is. Racism is a system. Racism is a way of thinking. Racism is subconscious. Racism is an entire country being trained to suspect an entire race of being shifty, lazy, or suspicious by default. I have to prove that I’m not a threat? How about I make America prove it doesn’t want to murder me, since there’s way more precedent for that than some skinny kid being a savage. If I have my hood up and I’m not smiling because I’m having a bad day, I’m a threat, someone to make you clutch your purse or hug your girl closer. I’m a thug? C’mon son. I’m just having a bad day in the big city. Get real. You’ve been trained to see brown skin and go to “Threat!” first instead of “Person!” You’ve been brainwashed. […]

The experience of being black in America is one of being constantly reminded that you are black in America, with all the drama that comes from it. The preferred term online amongst… whoever for black people is People of Color, or POC. I hate it, because yo, first, everyone has color, and second, how about you don’t define me in opposition to somebody else? I feel like that should be a basic human right. The right to not be not-White. It’s basic things like that that are what I mean. I can’t escape the fact that I’m black and have built-in baggage, even if I wanted to.

The whole thing is very much worth a read.

(via Let’s Be Friends Again, via Tor.com)

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Miscellany, and an apology for long silence

I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.

Meanwhile, some things of interest:

1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)

2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.

3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.

5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered […] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.

And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.

(Photo via Do Something)

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: The women of Community weigh in

A follow-up to my previous post: While movies are still failing to represent women adequately onscreen, television — at least some television — appears to be a different story. The Daily Beast has posted a great interview with the three female cast members of Community — Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Gillian Jacobs — along with Megan Ganz, one of the show’s writers; and if you’re a fan looking forward to the show’s return on March 15, this is definitely worth a look.

On the effect of having several women on the show’s writing staff:

Jacobs: […] It’s hard for us to tell when we get a script at a table read who wrote what line or who pitched what joke. But you always just have this feeling that there are women — smart, articulate, funny women — in the room advocating for these female characters.

Ganz: You wouldn’t be able to pull anything apart. It’s not like women work on the women types of storylines. We don’t just come in every day and say, “I think Troy and Britta should kiss.” Everybody works on every storyline. It’s the same reason that it’s good to have women in the room, and the same reason it’s good to have men and ethnicities represented and older people and younger people. If you find a story that everybody likes and everybody relates to in some way, then you know you have a good story. But if you’re telling a story and all the women are going, “I’m checked out of this, I just don’t really care,” then you’re going to have some problems.


Brown: […] I think what’s changing now is that more women are in positions of power. With your Tina Feys and Kristen Wiigs, you have more women in the driver’s seat. They know what we really are. The ladies in the Community writers’ office, they know who we really are.

On how the show challenges ethnic and gender stereotypes:

Jacobs: A friend of mine wrote a script, a feminist romantic comedy. She had a feminist scholar consult on it. My friend said, “Oh, my friend Gillian read it and really loved it.” She goes, “Gillian Jacobs, you mean: Britta Perry, feminist icon?” That gives me a lot of pride that women really identify with Britta. The thing that is unique about her is that she is never the subject of slut shaming. Like, she’s one of the only female characters that doesn’t ever get punished for having an active sex life. […]

Brown: As a black actor, it’s refreshing that I’m not playing the “sassy black woman.” It’s something that [show creator] Dan Harmon was cognizant of from the beginning. It is something that I’m always cognizant of. Every woman on the planet has sass and smart-ass qualities in them, but it seems sometimes only black women are defined by it. Shirley is a fully formed woman that had a sassy moment. Her natural set point, if anything, is rage. That’s her natural set point, suppressed rage, which comes out as kindness and trying to keep everything tight. […]

Brie: You could say the same thing too about Danny [Pudi] and Abed. I mean you know Danny’s played four or five Sanjays. […] Even still he’ll get called in for auditions and they’ll be like, “Can you do the accent?” We get to do different things in every episode, and it’s not just about gender or race. It’s about having well-rounded characters and a wide range of adventures so that we’re just never playing the same thing. […]

Ganz: The same thing that drives Dan away from your typical sitcom storylines is the same thing that drives him away from making any one character a stereotype, because it’s just too easy.

Read the rest. Community has been brilliant so far, and and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here. Including, I hope, a fourth season, if there’s any justice in the universe.

(Photo via NBC Universal)

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The infinite city, cont’d: Welcome to the grid

A fascinating new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” commemorates “the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the foundational document that established Manhattan’s famous street grid.”

Michael Kimmelman writes that the grid was “big government in action, a commercially minded boon to private development and, almost despite itself, a creative template.” Grid plans for cities had existed for millennia, but imposing such a plan on Manhattan was “deeply subversive” because the land had already been divided up into privately owned sections. Hence the hand of government: decades of surveying, redrawing property lines, transforming open fields into paved streets — and sometimes meeting with resistance from the public. As curator Hilary Ballon says elsewhere: “What I found absolutely remarkable […] was how the city had a commitment to executing this vision, which required a pretty significant transformation in how the city worked — a greater degree of governmental authority, changes in the taxation system to fund this road building, and a multigenerational commitment to its implementation.” The grid, in other words, serves as a prime example of why government matters, and what ambitious long-term government planning can accomplish.

With an indispensable caveat, of course: that, as Kimmelman says, “[a]n equitable and just city today depends on a vigilant populace keeping tabs on our planners and politicians.”

He also explores the metaphysics of the grid:

[T]he grid has proved itself oddly beautiful.

I’m referring not just to the sociability it promotes, which Jane Jacobs identified, or to the density it allows, which Rem Koolhaas celebrates, or even to the ecological efficiency it sustains, which now makes New York, on a per-capita basis, a very green place. I’m also referring to a kind of awareness it encourages.

It’s true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street. […]

The grid also makes a complex place instantly navigable. This isn’t a trivial benefit. Cities like Berlin and London, historic agglomerations of villages, include vast nowhere stretches, and they sprawl in ways that discourage easy comprehension and walking. An epicenter of diversity, Manhattan by contrast invites long walks, because walkers can judge distances easily and always know where they are. The grid binds the island just as New Yorkers are bound by a shared identity.

That is, the grid gives physical form to a certain democratic, melting-pot idea — not a new concept, and probably not exactly what the planners had in mind, but worth restating. In the same way that tourists who come to Manhattan can easily grasp the layout and, as such, feel they immediately possess the city, outsiders who move here become New Yorkers simply by saying so. By contrast, an American can live for half a century in Rome or Hamburg or Copenhagen or Tokyo but never become Italian or German or Danish or Japanese. Anybody can become a New Yorker. The city, like its grid, exists to be adopted and made one’s own.


Read the whole review (and see a slideshow) here.

(Photo by Todd Heisler)

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