Not a token of appreciation

On Friday I posted a brief note about my emotional reaction over the Jezebel article on Lila Downs and her status as a Latina icon. My reaction then didn’t move further than one of outrage and “grumble/ rage; who authorized the republishing of this nonsense?/ How is this editorial fail allowed on a mainstream site?”. I didn’t quite elaborate on why I was so upset but the issue has been bugging me ever since and I have managed to more or less put a few (semi) coherent thoughts together.

I live in The Netherlands, where racial matters and subsequent discussions are framed very differently from those in North America. I suspect that due to the fact that The Netherlands has lacked an equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement, race issues are still stalled in a colonial phase where oppressive language and the relevant discourse have never been properly disarmed (and hardly analyzed at all outside academic circles). To give a bit of background, the Dutch state has a classification system for those of us who live here. This classification is not necessarily framed on ethnicity but on place of birth (both for the classified subject and her parents). The Dutch state uses a word appropriated from biology, “allochtoon” to refer to us. This term originally denotes any organism which is non native to a given ecosystem. They have, in turn, created a scale of “foreignness” in which a Native Dutch (known as “autochtoon” in Dutch state parlance) is at the top of the food chain, followed by “Western foreigners” (i.e. Americans and other Caucasian Europeans) and then we lowly “non-Western foreigners” (i.e. everyone who comes from a country classified as non Western or underdeveloped). This foreignness is determined not only by the place where one was born but also by the place where one’s parents come from. So, someone could be born in The Netherlands, but still be classified as a non Western foreigner because one of her parents hails from such place. Because I am South American, I am one such “Non Western Foreigner”. My status as an ethnic foreigner is also made evident by the way I look (I am consistently addressed in Arabic or Turkish because of my completion).

The laws of the country are such that I am obliged to disclose my “Non Western foreigner” status in a multitude of ways: if I am to apply for a job, I am obliged to tell; if I am to take a language course, I am obliged to tell; my healthcare provider demands to know this and I am obliged to tell (supposedly for statistical purposes); education plans and programs are put in place specifically for people like me (and my children if I had any).

Media representations of people like me (i.e a non Western foreigner) are scarce, if any. In general, they fall under one of these categories:

  • Oppressed woman that needs state assistance and paternalistic laws to protect her (i.e. burqa bans/ programs framed in our inability to live independently)
  • If I am in any way successful, role model for other non Western women (i.e the token allochtoon who shows the rest “how things should be done”)
  • Victim of a crime (i.e. my partner is supposedly an abuser and I am going to be used as an example of the “oppressed other” who comes from a lawless environment)
  • An example of how it is my fault that the values of this country are being eroded and ruined/ the sole responsible party in the “multicultural debacle

Now, because I have been somewhat successful and because I am involved in several social issues, I have been featured as the “role model type” on occasions. I have been interviewed by one of the biggest newspapers in the country on my views, opinions, etc. My work has been featured in publications, etc. I am, supposedly, a role model for other immigrant women. That, in turn, comes with a whole set of expectations of how I am supposed to act, dress, express myself and behave. It also involves a careful examination of my public statements, the issues I choose to give an opinion on, the way in which I frame them and yes, also the way I dress and present myself.

So, when Jezebel publishes an article that contains this, I get quite incensed:

(…)lately I’ve been embracing my ethnicity (Portuguese with some Moor tossed about in there) and to see someone I so admired seem to diss her heritage while at the same time saying she’s embracing it… has left me confused and annoyed and kinda hurt.

What they are saying is that we should become complicit in the tokenization and actually stifle our personal explorations or development to serve a system that pigeonholes us, that refuses to present us in the plurality of our individualities and instead of demanding a more varied set of representations, we should play the part and become immobile figurines so that a third party (from an entirely different minority group to boot) has a referential role model.

Sorry, but fuck that noise. If anything, this article is yet another building block in the perpetuation of the status quo, lending a voice to those who insist we should act “this way” or “that way” to conform to whichever stereotypes the system of oppressions has put in place for us. The article is also a testament to the lack of racial sensitivities and voices in Jezebel (the epitome of “gossip and fashion with a feminist bent for white, middle class women” as illustrated in this comment) and it is deeply offensive for those who actually want to live lives as individuals and not as tokens to further “otherize” minorities. Media representations should not come at the expense of individuals. If anything, media should be subject to the myriad ways in which individuals choose to express themselves. To republish an article that says exactly the opposite is to imply that women should not be allowed to make their own choices. Last time I heard, that is exactly at odds with the basic principles of feminism.

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