Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails

—Philip Nel

Few things upset American adults more than books for children and adolescents. If you look at the American Library Association’s annual list of Challenged and Banned Books, the top 10 titles are nearly always those written for or assigned to young people: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. On those rare occasions when the books are not intended for school-age readers or given as homework, they’re on the list because young people are reading them anyway: E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, a favorite target for 2012 and 2013.

Banned and challenged books tell us very little about what is suitable for actual children. Instead, books targeted for censure offer an index of adult fears, reflecting, as David Booth says, “changing ideas about childhood and notions of suitability.”1 Censorship is also transideological, advocated by people of many political persuasions. Progressive censors seek to scrub away racism from Doctor Dolittle and Huckleberry Finn, creating Bowdlerized editions of the books. Conservative censors wish to protect children from knowledge of the human body: as a result, Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health frequently lands on the ALA’s Challenged-and-Banned Books list.

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.”2 A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.”3 Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Separating children from books also fails to recognize that peril is not distributed randomly throughout the population, but concentrated in groups identifiable by their members’ race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, or religion. Preventing teenagers from reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings impedes them from learning about what survivors of rape endure, and how peers and teachers might better help them. Blocking children from reading Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three prevents them from understanding that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too. Banning Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers’s Fallen Angels stops readers from discovering how war shapes a young psyche. Prohibiting Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian impedes young people from learning about the hard realities of life on a reservation, and from getting to know the novel’s resilient, funny protagonist. These books provide mirrors for young people of similar backgrounds or experiences, and windows for those of different ones.

Furthermore, preventing children from reckoning with potentially offensive works ill prepares them for the indignities that life will inflict. They should read books that trouble them, and have serious conversations about those books. For example, while Twain was a progressive nineteenth-century white author, if his Huckleberry Finn doesn’t offend contemporary readers, then they’re not reading it carefully enough. It’s not just the repeated use of the n-word, which should make people at least uncomfortable and at most angry (news flash: it was a racial slur in the nineteenth century, too). The portrayal of slave-owning Uncle Silas as a kindly “old gentleman” (Huck calls him “the innocentest, best old soul I ever see”) offers an apology for white supremacy. Assigning Huck Finn provides an occasion not only to talk about a classic American novel, but to teach people how to read uncomfortably, and to cope with experiences that upset them.

Though the motive is protection, restricting access to books hurts the children and teens who need them most. Young readers in vulnerable populations crave stories that help them make sense of their lives. Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk. In any case, children often have experiences that they do not yet have the words to express: reading books can provide them with the words, and help them better understand. As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.… Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to.”4

Young people do want to learn. Concerned adults should acknowledge innocence’s inevitable evaporation, and recognize that the young likely know more than you think they do. So, respect their curiosity. Take their concerns seriously. Let them read. Let them learn.


  1. David Booth, “Censorship,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (NYU Press, 2011), p. 26.
  2. Marah Gubar, “Innocence,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Nel and Paul, p. 122.
  3. Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” The Guardian 20 Sept. 2013: <>.
  4. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951; Bantam Books, 1988), p. 189.

Philip Nel has co-edited two books for NYU Press: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008, with Julia Mickenberg) and Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011, with Lissa Paul). His most recent books are Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (UP Mississippi, 2012) and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Vol. 1 (1942-1943) and Vol. 2 (1944-1945) (2013 & 2014, both co-edited with Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics). He is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University.

Are Jews Too Sexy for the Censors?

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jewish authors are tremendously popular when it comes to banned-books lists. Judy Blume, Lesléa Newman, and Anne Frank are all represented on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books of 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 lists. These are just a few examples of Jews whose work has been targeted, banned, and even burned in America. All of these women’s ouevres have one thing in common: sex. Sex, along with race and obscenity, is one of the most common rationales presented for banning books. Are Jewish authors too sexy for the library?

It is Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on how censorship has altered the American literary landscape and to take action on freedom of expression. For 2015, the week’s focus is on Young Adult literature: that mildly nebulous, wildly popular genre that crosses between “juvenile” and “mature” literature.

Jews, particularly Jewish women, have been stereotyped as licentious and sexually voracious ever since the nineteenth century brought us notions of the “exotic Jewess,” a seductive, Orientalized creature. More generally, the notion of “carnal Israel,” contrasted with “spiritual” Christianity, dominated many public discussions of Jews. As Josh Lambert argues in Unclean Lips, the very notion of obscene speech in American derives in part from reactions towards Jewish and other writing as insufficiently pure and “American.” Modern Jewish writers and filmmakers have received a disproportionate number of obscenity charges.

Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? caused a stir when it was first published in 1970. Censors charged that the book offends along axes of both sex and religion. On the one hand, Margaret famously discusses menarche with God, asking when she will finally get her first period; she also describes her early, and really quite limited, sexual experiences. At the same time, Margaret faces tensions as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and her Christian grandparents are particularly doctrinaire. As a result, the book was charged with “anti-Christian sentiment.” Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Blubber have also been banned, typically for explicit sex scenes or “immoral content.”

Fast-forward two decades to 1989, when Lesléa Newman, an out Jewish lesbian poet and children’s book author, publishes Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about a lesbian family. Newman has written about her desire to have all children see their families represented in children’s books; she also connects this longing to her own experience with the lack of Jewish family representations during her youth. In the New York public schools, the book’s inclusion as a suggested reading for the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum led to public outrage and the downfall of a schools chancellor.

Ironically, it was the protection of children—a very romanticized notion of the marriage as a primarily a venue for procreation—that drove Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer’s majority opinion in the very case that legalized marriage equality, just over a quarter century after Newman’s book. Heather Has Two Mommies was re-released just a few months before the decision, with some minor changes. Heather’s mommies now wear matching rings.

Think of the children! This is the double-edged refrain behind both intellectual censorship and legal progress. Both turn upon the notion of young people as innocent blank slates who lack the agency and discernment to make their own sense out of challenging material. This irony is starkest when we consider bans on one of the most popular Jewish authors across the globe, namely: Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

Various edited versions of her journal, usually titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, have been wildly popular and assigned in American schools since the book was translated into English in 1951. In 2013, the diary was almost removed from the Northville, Michigan. Most bans have stemmed from Frank’s explicit reflections on her emerging sexuality and the changes in her adolescent body. Once again, the Jewish female body is suspect: oversexed, potentially dangerous, and overtly described. Frank’s body is a particularly contested one, as her diary and other portrayals became fast forward forms of hagiography, leading contemporary Americans to resist associations between Frank and sex.

Does the censorship of Jewish-authored books truly stem from old, anti-Jewish caricatures? Is it mere happenstance? The causality is not simple. Intersectional identities cannot be neatly sorted out and untangled. I will say this: these particular Jewish authors do not shirk from our always-embodied lives. They trouble sexual taboos, portray powerful women, and challenge social mores, pushing for social justice in their lives and in their art. Like the much-maligned isha zara—the “foreign woman”—of the book of Proverbs, these women cross boundaries and give us new visions. What some see as transgression, others see as its flip side: wisdom.

Keep writing, Jewish women. Write strong.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University (PA). She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2015).

A Texas teenager’s arrest points to a deep and growing trend of Islamophobia

—Moustafa Bayoumi

By now you’ve heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim-American kid from Texas who built a clock at home and brought it to school to show to his teacher, only to be arrested on the ridiculous suspicion that his invention was a bomb.

Young Ahmed was handcuffed, taken to police headquarters, fingerprinted and questioned without his parents present. During his interrogation, as The Washington Post reports, the officers repeatedly brought up his last name.

Here is an inventive Sudanese-American teenager in a NASA T-shirt whose curiosity and ingenuity are rewarded with handcuffs and punishment.

Things turned out well for Mohamed in the end — President Obama tweeted at him, and Mohamed is fielding invitations to visit MIT and Harvard.

Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.

— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015

But the national attention his absurd arrest has garnered is an exception. Most of the time, bigotry against Muslims goes unremarked upon or even gets rewarded.

The same week that Mohamed brought his clock to school, vandals spray-painted hate-filled messages on a mosque in Kentucky. Days earlier in a Chicago suburb, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Sikh-American father of two, was repeatedly punched in the face while his attacker yelled, “Terrorist, go back to your country, bin Laden.” (Sikhs are often the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes because of their beards, turbans and skin color.) On this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a Florida gun shop owner offered $25 off any gun purchased online with the coupon code “Muslim.

In case you think anti-Muslim sentiment is limited to the fringes, consider this University of Connecticut study. Researchers there last year found that job applicants with identifiably Muslim names received “32 percent fewer e-mails and 48 percent fewer phone calls than applicants from the control group, far outweighing measurable bias against the other faith groups.”

Official agencies reflect these attitudes, too. The New York Police Department was caught spying a few years ago on every facet of Muslim life around the region. This was massive, expensive surveillance performed without even the hint of any criminal activity. And federal policies such as the Countering Violent Extremism initiative stigmatize Muslim-Americans as terrorists, even though the number of terrorist attacks that Muslim-Americans have committed are miniscule and far fewer than those that right-wing extremists have perpetrated.

Islamophobia infests our politics and our society. Republican presidential contender South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham supports the surveillance of mosques, while former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark recently proposed the reintroduction of internment camps for “radicalized Americans.” Muslims across the country regularly face opposition in constructing their houses of worship and are routinely demonized in the media.

What most Americans don’t realize is how exhausting it is to live a Muslim-American life in this environment. Many see anti-Muslim attitudes not as bigoted but as common sense. Ordinary things that Muslims do, such as cleverly making a clock at home to show off at school, can be interpreted as suspicious and threatening.

Islamophobia in the United States today is real and it’s growing. Like Ahmed Mohamed, we need to be inventive, and find solutions that will help our country live up to its ideals.

Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of This Muslim American Life (NYU Press, 2015), and How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. He is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY).

[This piece originally appeared in The Progressive.]

Playing (anti-)blackness: Expanding understandings of racism in sport

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

dengThe National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Atlanta Hawks entered the 2015 playoff run as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, and with one of the best records in franchise history. Even with injuries, to key defender Thabo Sefolosha, role player Demarre Carroll, and bull’s eye shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks’ efficient offensive attack and stifling defense propelled them to the Eastern Conference finals. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Hawks, there was much to rejoice for the Hawks after a very successful season of winning streaks. With their rewarding season, however, came a type of forgetting, or even worse, a limited understanding of race. As the Hawks did well, the racial violence within sport became an invisible background to their stories of sporting success. In this essay, I will demonstrate how narrow versions of blackness (as seen in the case of Hawks General Manager Danny Ferry and Civil Rights icon Andy Young) marginalize the black migrant, queer, and trans person which further de-politicizes and de-legitimates anti-racism campaigns.

During the recruitment period in the summer of 2014, General Manager of the Hawks, Danny Ferry was on a conference call with other team executives to discuss potential free agents. Ferry, a white male and former NBA and Duke University player, looked through his data on South Sudanese American player Luol Deng, and stated that Deng “has a little African in him.” With regard to the inflammatory comment, Ferry admitted to perusing through various sources of material gathered on Luol Deng and added, “He’s like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back.”

Danny Ferry’s comments remind us how the anti-black racism in larger American society seeps and bleeds into the very fabric of sport. The presence of black athletes in the NBA does not make mainstream American sport “post-racial.” These comments and the events that followed them not only demonstrate the presence of racism but also the containing of blackness as identity and politics. In present-day U.S. society, we must carefully evaluate the immediate history of anti-black violence and interrogate it, if we seek to fully understand the ways in which blackness is contained.

The loaded and vile evaluations of Luol Deng resulted in Danny Ferry taking a leave of absence. Many individuals came to the support of Danny Ferry. The support, as I will argue further, gives us a problematic understanding of blackness that is out of touch with the Black Lives Matter movement and the trans women color organizing. Organizations like the Audre Lorde Project link anti-black racism to xenophobia, anti-immigrant practices, and U.S. imperialism. We do not yet fully see this expansive social justice campaign in sport. Instead, after the leak of Ferry’s comments, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer (who was named 2015 “coach of the year”) iterated that it was the genius of Danny Ferry that played a part in the Hawks franchise’s success. This affirmation of Ferry as a professional genius and not a racist—unlike former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling who was pushed out by the league for his racist comments about black people sitting in his seats—is part of a new terrain of expressing race that is simplistic in its compilation of blackness and in privileging of whiteness. As Luol Deng was African, he was somehow outside the respectable bounds of care and thus not able or allowed to speak against racism. Certain types of representations of native-born blackness become iconic, while the black migrant Other is seen as duplicitous, dodgy, and untrustworthy.

To both my shock and expectations, former Atlanta mayor and civil rights legend Andy Young, a leader in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, came to the side of Danny Ferry. According to ESPN staff writer Kevin Arnovitz, when asked whether Ferry should lose his job, Young responded, “Hell no.” Young said that had he been the decision-maker in the Hawks executive offices, he would have encouraged Ferry to stay on. He added that he doesn’t believe Ferry is a racist. To make matters even more complicated, he substituted himself into this equation to free Ferry of any blame: “No more than I am,” Young told the Atlanta station. “That’s a word that you cannot define, ‘You are a racist.’ You can’t grow up white in America without having some problems. You can’t grow up black in America without having some subtle feelings.”

Andy Young’s comments, although disheartening in their disregard for the harrowing experiences of racial violence, should not be seen as exceptional. Rather, it is part and parcel of the projection of African American identity through which certain nefarious alliances are made between black and white elites. Accordingly, a version of blackness is created through Young comments; it is a narrow, constricted, and limited understanding of blackness that elides and dismisses entire groups of people. This version of blackness contains threads of xenophobia that justify racist acts against immigrant black individuals like Luol Deng.

I believe Young’s support of Ferry keeping his job is tied to a clearly bounded blackness with specific national contours. Deng’s refugee status and African identity underwhelmed claims to blackness and anti-black racism. In the process of constructing what black is by stating who is not—in this case, Luol Deng, we see the parameters of blackness and ideas of respectability come to the surface. By not condemning Ferry’s statements and supporting his dismissal, Andy Young manufactures and engrains versions of blackness that make the victim of racism the middle-class, native-born, heterosexual, Christian African American man.

Not seeing Ferry’s racial statements as problematic, Young defines blackness and subsequent experiences of racism in limiting ways that fails to account for the heterogeneity and contradictions within blackness. The overemphasis on the black Atlantic is prevalent in how we think about race, racism, and activism. Roderick Ferguson, in his chapter in Strange Affinities, asks us to imagine a blackness that complicates our understandings of Africa and accounts for various diasporic African populations on U.S. shores. Instead of centering western Africa, he asks for black studies to include work on east Africans in the United States. For example, there are large Ethiopian, Sudanese, and Somalian communities in Atlanta. In fact, the Lost Boys of Sudan (the young Sudanese who fled across nations and refugee camps at the height of the civil war in 1980s Sudan) have a strong community in Metro Atlanta and there is a large African refugee community in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston (see the fabulous book Outcasts United by Warren St. John).

When Andy Young dismisses the problematic discourse that ostracizes black refugee and immigrant bodies, this might be part of a larger societal discourse of blackness that does not attend to interconnected issues of racism, immigration reform, poor black communities, rising xenophobia, and the entrenchment of Islamophobia (see Junaid Rana’s Terrifying Muslims and Ahmed Afzal’s Lone Star Muslims). In many ways, his encapsulated and static understanding of race is easily worked into the anti-immigrant logic that sees immigrants, especially African immigrants, as non-subjects and not within the discourse of race and racial justice within the United States. As a result, the broken leg sustained by Hawks Afro-French player Thabo Sefolosha is not attended to by persons like Andy Young. Although the details have not surfaced as to how Sefolosha broke his leg in the encounter with police, Young’s conceptualization of blackness already projects Sefolosha outside the logic of racial communities and care.

To go back in time and come back to the present, the blackness that was central to the Civil Rights Movement could not and did not always accommodate blackness in radical ways. The mainstreaming versions of the Civil Rights Movement struggled and failed to attend to LGBTQI and immigration matters in the movement. Andy Young’s version of blackness and respective productions of social justice are therefore not expansive. Luol Deng did not fit enough to the middle-classed, light-skinned, and American-centered version of blackness. Young’s version of blackness was not as expansive as the Pan-African claims by Marcus Garvey, Audre Lorde, and many other scholars and activists. As we have increasing numbers of African players in the NBA and other professional sports, how will blackness account for the far reach and radical possibilities that move beyond our shores?

Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry plays into the xenophobia that governs how we think about U.S. identity and African American identity. There are many examples of how the histories of Africans, African diaspora communities, and African Americans have not always led to collaborative work. There are instances of tension between these groups, but “blackness” must be an open concept in order to create true change.

As a high school student in Atlanta, I came across the contradictions and entrenchments within blackness. One morning, in 1990, the students and teachers arrived to find anti-black racist graffiti sprayed against the walls at Druid Hills High School in Atlanta. This deeply affected the souls of my African American classmates and a few students of color. We had an African student at our school and he was an exceptional soccer player. Despite the racist happenings at my school, on many occasions, the African student heard racialized comments from African American young men stating that he should go back to the “jungle,” “take care of the goats,” and other such matters. Instead of building a coalition with what the Civil Rights Movement called “Pan-African” connection through an expansive concept of blackness, there continues to be black bleeding, but in isolation and silence. Africans were outside the scope of respectability based on certain bodily comportments, phenotype, name, accent, smell, and desires that defined blackness in Atlanta. This logic, I believe, is evident in Andy Young’s support of Danny Ferry. In the process, the Atlanta Hawks can use the iconicity of Andy Young and his blackness to leverage support and wash away the racist structures within Atlanta Hawks management. Thus, we have to ask: Why is there silence regarding Sefolosha’s broken leg? What does that silence tell us about Black Lives Matter when it took place during an encounter with New York police?

When we continue to figure violence only in terms of those people who we think are embodiments of the best of our community, we fail to see the true reach of racism. We fall into the trap of recognizing only certain persons as respectably human and worthy of attention. What does respectability have to do with that? Why should it be a concern? When respectability becomes the crux of why we care about certain deaths and bodies over others, as evident in Lisa Cacho’s wonderful book Social Death, we account for the horrific murder of the nine people at the historic AME church in Charleston. This tragic event has spaces for empathy as the dead included teachers, professionals, and respectable church-going people.

As we mourn the deaths of the nine people in Charleston, South Carolina, we have failed to collaborate to interrogate the haunting and continued silence concerning the killings of trans women of color. So many black trans women have been murdered since the death of Eric Garner and Mike Brown. Yet, the campaign to combat anti-black racism generally does not account for these persons. Trans women of color, especially, are marginalized, feel the wrath of poverty intimately, daily encounter the police state and racial profiling, and have little resources for survival. As organizations like the Audre Lorde Project and various others open up the category of blackness, the same must be true in all aspects of society, including sporting cultures. At the ESPY awards for sporting figures, Caitlyn Jenner received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage and service. There was great applause and a superficial demonstration of unity. Although this moment brought much-needed visibility to the anti-trans violence, it continued to drown out the activism of Kye Allums, a trans man of color who has been a fierce social justice advocate with sporting cultures for the last 5 years.

Furthermore, with the continued violence against poor African American women, will Andrew Young and the misogyny of the civil rights leadership corps account for the everyday struggle of poor black women? Will this blackness accommodate the young black homeless women like the ones described in anthropologist Aimee Cox’s Shapeshifters and Between Good and Ghetto by sociologist Nikki Jones? If not, then what we have is similar to the blackness that South Asian American athletes consume and appropriate in my book, Desi Hoop Dreams. It is a blackness that is sellable in the larger marketplace but devoid of fierce political fires. Yet, some South Asian American men consume cultural blackness as a way to critique U.S. society and the racial stratification of immigrants. There are other possibilities and openings for blackness that Andy Young and the larger Black Lives Matter movement must attend to in order to create a society for all.

We see how the politics of respectability plays out with regard to organizing against anti-black racism. Racism is expansive, fluid, and recruits a wide spectrum of black victims, yet the responses can be shallow, myopic, and limiting. Racism has always been tied to stratification, capitalism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, and imperialism. Blackness as a point of identification and as a compass for change must not have gatekeepers but infinite openings that make the category a vision and praxis for a just tomorrow.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, 2015).

How email ruined my life

—Catherine Zimmer

I got my first email account the fall I started graduate school, in 1995. Even then I had an inkling of the pressures that would come to be associated with this miracle of communication. My entry into grad school coincided with a relationship transitioning into a long-distance one, and what at first was a welcome mode of remaining tethered soon enough became a source, and an outlet, of demand, anxiety, guilt, and recrimination.

This early experience of the pressure and affective weight of email faded into memory alongside that relationship, and certainly at the time it did not occur to me to hold the medium responsible for the messages. But over the past couple of years, now that I am lucky enough to be firmly cemented in an academic job and stupid enough to have taken on an administrative role, that experience has reemerged for me as something of a retroactive portent of the place email would come to hold in my life. Because as anyone in an even remotely bureaucratic environment will tell you, “email” is no longer simply a way of communicating with others, though periodically a message gets through that is significant enough that the medium becomes momentarily transparent. Email is now an entity in and of itself—a gargantuan, self-perpetuating and purely self-referential monstrosity that I do not “use” but barely “manage,” a time-sucking and soul-crushing mass that I can only chip away at in an attempt to climb over or around to get to an actual task.

From epidemic-level ADHD and eye fatigue to degenerative spinal conditions at younger and younger ages—not to mention my self-diagnosed early-onset thumb arthritis—constant interaction with digital devices has arguably had widespread health consequences. It is also fraught with an expansion, intensification, and perversion of the emotions associated with that first email account. But while then I attached those affective elements to a romantic relationship, they are now purely indicative of my relationship to email “itself”: the phenomenon that makes constant and growing demands on my time, attention, and energy, requiring that I devote at least a modicum of substantive thought to each individual expression of its enormous, garbage-filled maw. Time spent on email has grown to hours every day. This is not a measure of increased “productivity.” In fact it is just the opposite, as answering email has become the forest I have to machete my way through just to get to the things that actually constitute my job. And while I do get angry at the jaw-dropping idiocy of certain student emails (Hi Mrs. Zimmer can u send me the syllabus because the final is tomorrow and i missed the last eleven weeks of class) and irritated at the endlessly accumulating details of academic work (Dear Dr. Zimmer, this is a friendly reminder that the due date for the Learning Outcomes Rubrics Departmental Self-Assessment Model is March 23rd) ultimately each one of these individually maddening iterations is just a sign of the incomprehensible sprawl of the medium. And when factored in with texting, messaging, social media, streaming television, and any number of other incoming and outgoing information flows, the sense of being “overwhelmed” seems unsurprisingly ubiquitous.

Email is of course inseparable from the character of any digital labor and the economy of which it is a part: it thus becomes a useful metonymic device to understand how convenience has become so profoundly debilitating. Though no one explicitly states it (because it would sound insane), the demand that we keep up with and process this level of information, and communicate coherently in return, is a demand that the human brain function closer to the speed of digital communications. Needless to say, it does not. Thus the unparalleled levels of prescription of amphetamines and pain medications are not merely the triumph of the pharmaceutical industry, but an attempt to make the human brain and body function alongside and through digital mediation. The relative ease of communications, the instantaneity of information exchange, does not make our lives simpler: it means that we are asked to attend to every goddamn thing that occurs to the countless people we know, institutions we are a part of, and every other organization whose mailing list you have been automatically placed on simply by having a single interaction with them. It’s like being able to hear the internal mutterings of both individual people and cultural constructs: a litany of the needs of others and the expectations of the social sphere (not to mention my own neurotic meanderings when I have to construct a careful response to someone, or an email I have sent goes unanswered). Finding it increasingly impossible to recognize and affectively react only to the articulations of each missive, I respond instead to the cacophonous noise of the whole damn thing. That noise is now constant, while its volume ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the work year. As the only constant, email becomes an end in itself. Email never goes away. Email is an asshole.

It is not surprising that this self-perpetuating mode of interaction comes alongside a proliferation of (self-)assessment and (self-)documentation—talking about what you will, have, or are doing instead of just doing it. Thus the ability to communicate about everything, at all times, seems to have come with the attendant requirements that we accompany every action with a qualitative and quantitative discourse about that action. Inside and in addition to this vast circularity are all those things that one’s job actually entails on a practical, daily basis: all the small questions, all the little tasks that need to be accomplished to make sure a class gets scheduled, a course description is revised, or a grade gets changed. Given how few academic organizations have well-functioning automatic systems that might allow these elements to be managed simply, and that my own university seems especially committed to individually hand-cranking every single gear involved in its operation on an ad hoc basis, most elements of my job mean that emails need to be sent to other people.

Once I send an email, I can do nothing further until someone sends an email back, and thus in a sense, sending that email became a task in itself, a task now completed. More and more it is just a game of hot potato with everyone supposedly moving the task forward by getting it off their desk and onto someone else’s, via email. Every node in this network are themselves fighting to keep up with all their emails, in the back and forth required before anything can actually be done. The irony of the incredible speed of digital mediation is thus that it often results in an intractable slowness in accomplishing simple tasks. (My solution has been to return to the telephone, which easily reduces any 10-email exchange into a 2-minute conversation. Sidenote: I never answer my own phone.)

In case it isn’t already clear, such an onslaught of emails, and the pressure of immediacy exerted sometimes explicitly but mostly by the character of the media, means that we no longer get to leave work (or school, or our friends or our partners). We are always at work, even during time off. The joy of turning on our vacation auto-reply messages is cursory, for even as we cite the “limited access” we will have to email (in, like, Vancouver), we know that we can and will check it. And of course we know that everyone else knows that it’s a lie. Even if we really do take time away from email, making ourselves unavailable (not looking at email, not answering our texts) does not mean email has not been sent to us and is not waiting for us. And we know it, with virtually every fiber of our being. Our practical unavailability does not mitigate our affective understanding that if we ignore email too long, not only will work pile up, but there will be emotional consequences. I can feel the brewing hostility of the email senders: irritated, anxious, angry, disappointed.

Even if I start to relax on one level, on another my own anxiety, irritation, and guilt begin to grow. Email doesn’t go away. It’s never over. It’s the fucking digital Babadook, a relentless, reflexive reminder of the unfathomable mass underlying every small transaction of information.

The nonstop stream of communication and its affective vortex are in part what philosopher Gilles Deleuze (and now many others) have described as “societies of control,” distinguished not by discipline but by the constant modulation and management of the flow of information. Ultimately we are exhausted by the endless negotiation of this unmappable terrain, and our personal and professional labors increasingly have the character of merely keeping ourselves afloat. Which is not to say that discipline no longer functions: those excluded from the privilege of control will often find themselves subject to the sharper baton of policing and incarceration.

There does appear to be increasingly widespread recognition that email is having a significant effect on both the amount of work one does and the increasing threat of that work to health and well-being. A widely and enthusiastically misreported news story that France had instituted a ban on sending work email after 6:00pm provided a much-needed salve for the idea that there is no outside to the onslaught. Never mind that this was a wishful, apocryphal version of a French labor agreement that in reality didn’t cut off email at any hour—the story still allowed France to perform its ongoing service as the English-speaking world’s fetish of a superior, butter-drenched, bicycle-riding quality of life, a life in which steak frites is now accompanied by possible escape from a particularly maddening incarnation of digital labor. That life is apparently now the stuff of internet rumor and media fancy.

The range of feelings I associate with the era of my first email account roll on through now and then as I check my inbox, and I could probably name them, though perhaps they were never discrete. And I understand that it is my job as a participant in digital culture to respond to email, and text, and instant messaging—in writing and in sentiment. But the truth is that I am just really tired. Perhaps the vacuum in affect attested to by the accumulation of emoticons and emojis has little to do with the flattening effect of digital communication. Maybe feelings are simply exhausted.

Catherine Zimmer is Associate Professor of Film and Screen Studies and English at Pace University in New York City. She is the author of Surveillance Cinema (NYU Press, 2015).

[This piece was originally posted on Avidly, Los Angeles Review of Books channel.]

Marriage equality: A conservative’s dream

—Kimberly D. Richman

On November 4, 2008, I was lying in a hospital bed, on bed rest while pregnant with my twin daughters, watching the election coverage that first delivered the elated news of President Obama’s win, followed by the heartbreak that Californians had passed Proposition 8, inscribing a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution. On June 26, 2015, I awoke to a celebratory text message from the National Center for Lesbian Rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared a nation-wide fundamental right to marriage for all couples, same-sex or different sex, and had the joy of explaining what this meant to my now 6 ½ year old daughters. Quite literally, the world shifted in the time it took them to reach first grade.

licensetowedIt’s safe to say that the dizzying pace of change in the world of same-sex unions was unexpected by those on both sides of the issue. What seemed like a distant goal in 1996 when I first started researching LGBT family rights, in the wake of the Defense of Marriage Act, is now so commonly accepted a truth that government buildings across the country—not just in my home town of San Francisco—have shrouded themselves in rainbow lights to commemorate the landmark Obergefell ruling. So much so, that to my daughters and their classmates, the idea of denying same-sex couples the right to marry doesn’t even register as a reasonable possibility.

But equally as surprising as the pace of movement on the legalization of same-sex marriage, is the ultimately conservative rationale and vision of family and partnerships on which both recent decisions by Justice Anthony Kennedy rest. Kennedy’s florid prose holds that “[t]he lifelong union of a man and a woman always has promised nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life…Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

Kennedy is correct in asserting that expressly excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry does them dignitary harm; I’ve found this to be the case for the hundreds of couples I interviewed and surveyed on the topic in my own research, as have other scholars and activists. However, to elevate the aspirations of those who wish to marry above those who choose to couple or do family and romance in other ways, entrenches a deeply conservative value—one that the proponents of the Defense of Marriage Act, Prop 8, and other anti-gay measures hold dear, ironically.

While Kennedy is careful to state that marriage need not involve a nuclear family with children, he does not leave much room for the myriad family and relationship forms that we now know some Americans choose—unmarried cohabitation, polyamory, or single parenthood, to name just a few.

In short, the conservatives who fought for so long to “protect” marriage should be thrilled by Justice Kennedy’s sweeping affirmation of the importance of marriage as “a keystone of our social order” and “building block of our national community.” Indeed, these couples who undertook a years-long, expensive, taxing legal battle to enter the institution of marriage do far more to affirm it than do the rapidly increasing numbers of heterosexuals who have given up on marriage, and chosen to do family and romance without it.

It remains to be seen whether those—gay, straight, bi or trans—for whom dyadic marriage has no appeal take up the cause as fervently to extend the material benefits that accompany it in future legal and political actions. When they do so, one can only wonder whether they will find an ally in Justice Kennedy.

Kimberly D. Richman, author of License to Wed: What Legal Marriage Means to Same-Sex Couples (NYU Press, 2014) and Courting Change: Queer Parents, Judges, and the Transformation of American Family Law (NYU Press, 2009) is Associate Professor of Sociology and Legal Studies at the University of San Francisco.

Obama and the N-word

—Andra Gillespie

The president said the N-word, and it became a top news story.

Now, it wasn’t the first time a president said the word — recordings exist in which Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon use the term artfully and prolifically.

However, it was the first time in recent memory that we know that a president used the term and meant to be heard saying it publicly. And, of course, it is not lost on audiences that said president is black.

Since I am someone who studies how black politicians born after 1960 advocate for African American interests, this story definitely piqued my interest.

What does it mean for any president, much less a black one who used race-neutral campaign tactics, to use such a word?

And is our attention on this story a distraction, especially in light of real racial issues, like police brutality and the recent hate crime in Charleston?

A proper use of language

I think people are making a bigger deal about President Obama’s use of this word than is necessary.

Yes, it is rarely heard in polite company. But if one has to use the word, the way in which President Obama deployed it was entirely proper.

He was not using it as part of his Chris Rock or Richard Pryor impression. He was not calling out any person or group of people. He used the term in the context of talking about people who say that word.

And frankly, by using the actual word instead of resorting to the contrivance of saying “the N-word,” he was rhetorically effective.

The problem is our collective American tendency to be superficial.

When President Obama invoked the N-word, he was making an important point about structural racism and our moral responsibility to be vigilant against all remaining forms of racial discrimination.

He rightly pointed out that some people think that refraining from the use of racial slurs is the sum of eliminating racism.

He rightfully observed that removing those words from one’s vocabulary is but a small part of promoting racial equality.

Yes, we should modify our language to be respectful of all people, but one can racially profile, deny jobs, housing and equal pay, and provide substandard schooling to minorities without calling them a racial slur. Frankly, these things are materially more important.

In his own way, President Obama was trying to shock Americans into thinking more critically about racial issues.

Starting a conversation about race

There is a tendency in this country to avoid serious conversations about race.

We’d rather relegate racism to the 1950s or contend that it is a province of backwards southerners.

Then, when we are confronted with the facts of continuing inequality — like the fact that in New York, black and Latino youth were more likely to be stopped and frisked by the police without cause or that last year, the Pew Research Center found that median white net worth was 13 times the median net worth of blacks — we look for every other possible explanation and refuse to confront the ways that racism explains a lot of the disparity.

Americans’ tendency to not address an obvious cause of so much inequality and strife dooms us to repeat the same cycle of racial conflict and even violence over and over again.

Some people might argue that by resurrecting such a hurtful word, President Obama was creating another smokescreen for racial issues.

Instead of talking about healing Charleston, for instance, news programs are devoting airtime to deconstructing the president’s use of this word.

Just one of the many media dissections of the president’s language.

Hopefully, though, the president’s deployment of this term (and his larger argument for having deeper discussions about how to reduce racial inequality) will sink in because of the shock of having him speak so bluntly about the issue.

If by next week, we are talking about actual structural inequality and not about the fact that President Obama said the N-word (to be clear, the current debate about the Confederate flag is an important one but a symbolic issue), then perhaps we can give him credit for having started a meaningful dialogue about race.

Andra Gillespie is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University and author of The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America (NYU Press, 2012).

[This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.]

A Queer Father’s Day

—Joshua Gamson

Given that I’m one half of a two-dad duo, I should probably see Father’s Day as double the pleasure, double the fun. After all, Mother’s Day is a somewhat awkward time for us—more on that in a minute—and Father’s Day would seem like a good chance to offset our May discomfort with some extra June celebration.

Also, it still seems to be the case that fathers as parents are taken less seriously than mothers, which ironically serves to justify the fact that women still do much more childcare than men; at my kids’ public elementary school, mothers still do most of the volunteering and organizing while a Dad’s Club invites the menfolk to “work hard and play hard,” to “get your hands dirty” with “light maintenance,” “campus cleanup,” and to raise funds through A’s game outings and the auctioning of manual labor. So Father’s Day seems like a nice chance for us to exhibit a more expansive view of fatherhood, in which men are necessarily full-on, competent parents rather than assistants, both “fathering” and “mothering,” clean- and dirty-handed, lifting heavy things and also doing hair. Plus it coincides with LGBT Pride Month, which I’ve often taken as an opportunity to parade around with my family basking in the cheers of people who are excited by the very fact of us.

This year, the state of my birth and upbringing, Michigan, has just passed legislation making it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against prospective parents on religious grounds, so apparently some people still don’t want us to be the fathers we are. We gay parents may have something to teach the world about being parents, though: There’s evidence that we operate with a more equal division of childcare labor than straight couples, and have a tendency to be “more motivated, more committed than heterosexual parents on average.” So there: We’re awesomer! Two Dads are better than one! Father’s Day should really be my favorite day of the year.

Still, somehow I have a hard time getting into it.

One problem, of course, is that Father’s Day is basically bullshit. It began in the early 20th century, as Ian Crouch has written (drawing on the work of Leigh Eric Schmidt) as a “celebration of the father’s engaged and able participation in the family” and “a sentimental corollary to Mother’s Day,” but was rapidly commercialized. From the beginning it was seen as a bit of nonsense, since giving gifts to the higher wage earner “created a kind of anxiety about gift-giving that still lingers,” but it got a big boost in the 1930s from a New York menswear trade group, which created the National Council for the Formation of Father’s Day and aggressively promoted the holiday as an explicitly commercial one. By the time Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1972, my own father was twelve years into parenthood. At that time, it was all about neckties and booze, symbols, as Crouch notes, of the middle-class “dad as a man apart.” Even now, when advertising suggests a kinder, gentler father—the soccer dad or nurturing diaper-changer, eligible to consume skin care products, vaguely emasculated and checking his phone for instructions from his wife—the commercial representations still “emphasize fatherhood as a fraught and unsettled emotional enterprise.”

Though I could certainly use some more Kiehl’s products and some Macallan single malt—email me for my mailing address—those Father’s Day origins don’t have much to do with what I understand as parenting. More importantly, it’s hard for me to see myself anywhere within this scene. I am neither the traditional father bringing home the bacon, nor the new Mr. Mom stay-at-home dad frying it up in a pan. There is no Mother in my home to whom I am a corollary, sentimental or practical. My fatherhood is basically a settled and unfraught, if also exhausting and sometimes tedious, emotional enterprise. My identity as a father is very strong, I love my kids like crazy and I think I’m pretty good at parenting, but Father’s Day seems to be made for other people and for other reasons.

It also seems wrong to treat Father’s Day as a solution to my ambivalent relationship to Mother’s Day, as if the doubling up on dads makes motherhood irrelevant. Mother’s Day brings some stuff up in my household. We don’t refer, for instance, to the women who helped bring our daughters into the world as their “mothers,” mainly because they are not. We refer to them by their first names, or as aunt so-and-so, and to the fact that they carried our kids inside them and gave birth to them. (We don’t talk yet about their egg donors, but when we do, it will certainly not be as mothers but as friends and people-who-helped-you-become.) Sometimes we call them “belly mommies,” to remind the kids that they came into the world like everyone else; “gestational surrogate” doesn’t quite have capture the relationships’ intimacy.To varying degrees and in different ways they are family—one, an old friend from way before the girls were born, is taking the girls to her annual family reunion in a few weeks. Still, these women are at once present and absent. We talk to them and about them, we see one of them occasionally and the other regularly. There are other mothers aplenty in our lives, of course, including my mom and my husband’s mom (who lives in our house), not to mention the many other women who love our children. But our daughters don’t have a mother.

Usually that’s not especially relevant—our kids are well loved, well adjusted, and lucky. But Mother’s Day serves as a potent reminder of our family’s difference, and of our different status in other people’s eyes that is tied to our children’s apparent motherlessness, about which we and our children do have feelings. Our older daughter once came home from Mother’s Day week in tears. Despite a Family Diversity curriculum and a queer principal, teachers and children can’t help but reinforce the notion that not having a mother in your life makes you somehow lesser. Reasonable accommodations are made: a shift in terminology when you’re in the room, some extra discussion, an alternative to the assignment of making a Mother’s Day card. Yet the message resonates, perhaps because it’s obvious that we are statistically rare—the only two-dad family in a school of several hundred—and even more because the one-mom/one-dad family is still ideologically dominant. Our kids watch television. They live on this planet. These girls know what the culture thinks of us, and sometimes it hurts, enough that I wonder if it’s ethical for schools to even celebrate Mother’s Day.

The politics of chucking out Mother’s Day without addressing gender inequality seem iffy, though. Especially in the United States, childcare remains an institutionally undervalued—if culturally romanticized—form of gendered labor. As Vivian Gornick and Marcia Meyers have shown, in Canada and much of Europe, family leave policies, labor market regulations, publicly funded early childhood education, and so on “encourage gender equality by strengthening mothers’ ties to employment and encouraging fathers to spend more time caregiving at home.” In the U.S., “parents—overwhelmingly mothers—must loosen their ties to the workplace to care for their children,” negotiate for leave or flex time, and buy private childcare or scramble for it, all of which exacts “a high price in terms of gender inequality in the workplace and at home, family stress and economic insecurity.” Behind this, the reproductive freedom of women in particular—the freedom not to reproduce, for instance, or to do so as a single woman—is under constant attack. In that context, rejecting Mother’s Day, or replacing it with the Parent’s Day nobody knows about but that has been on the books since 1994, seems misplaced. Adopting a gender-blind approach to the inequality between (in this case, heterosexual) mothers and fathers makes about as much sense as adopting a color-blind approach in a relentlessly racist society.

And so, each Mother’s Day, I am stuck, not just because of what it means to my kids but because of what it means to me: between resisting what Adrienne Rich called the patriarchal institution of motherhood and honoring the potentially empowering experiences of mothering. Father’s Day, even double Father’s Day or supergay Father’s Day, does nothing to resolve that tension.

Sure, Father’s Day is an outmoded, Hallmark-serving holiday that reiterates sexist gender role divisions and tired gender binaries, valorizes a narrow, class-specific, heterosexual version of family, and implies that people who choose not to have kids are less worthy of admiration and should at best be ignored. It’s part of a regime of normalcy that offers elevated social status and advantages to those who conform. I’ve experienced quite a bit of that since becoming a father; like marriage, parenthood is a status that, whether you want it to or not, legitimizes you, makes you easier to assimilate, and in doing so, positions you against those who do not want to (or cannot) conform in the same way. Father’s Day feels partly like a self-congratulatory celebration of that status hike, and that feels cheap and wrong to me.

And yet, I will not insist that Father’s Day be banned at my house. That normalcy is part of what makes Father’s Day meaningful, if only for a few minutes, for my children. For them, probably more than for kids in more conventional families, it’s a chance to participate in the parent-focused holidays around which they observe considerable hoopla, and to remind themselves that our family is like other families, which is also true. Father’s Day is an affirmation, maybe some kind of relief from feeling outside the circle, and an opportunity to express gratitude. I want that for them. They deserve it.

Perhaps the trick is to balance all that normalizing with queerness, to celebrate not just a respectably-gay version of fatherhood but also the ways in which our fathering is different, to align ourselves not so much with the Dad’s-Club-and-aftershave vision but with those parents who aren’t trying to be and will never be in that club—for instance, the genderqueer dads among us, the women who are fathers and the men who are mothers and the folks in between. Perhaps it’s not just about toasting the fact that we are fabulous fathers, but taking another moment to look at the ways so much of the world, including a lot of this country, still deny reproductive justice to so many, including (but not only) to people like us. “We are not having that,” the toast might be.

For now, I’ll still take breakfast in bed. It took a lot to get here, and parenting is hard, and these girls owe us. Then I’ll call my dad. I might be wearing a wig.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (forthcoming in September 2015 from NYU Press).