Letters for the week of June 16-22, 2004

Race, ethnicity, and religion: Bobby Jones and his character defect, the author of Dirty Girls responds, and lots more on anti-Semitism at UC.

“Poking Fun at Pale Guys,” Trendspotting, 5/26

I hope I don’t get my ass killed
It has come to my attention that a recent review of my book by Anneli Rufus caused such a stir in the Bay Area that at least one of your denizens called the newspaper to say they wanted to off me. As in kill me. This caught my attention. So I read the piece.

I suppose that if what Rufus says I wrote were true, I might want to off myself, too. The way she writes it, I sound like a jackass. The only problem is, she’s lying. I know, it’s an opinion piece, so truth is subjective. But even the free flow of literary criticism must be based in fact of what has been written.

Most egregious is that Rufus theorizes that my book “makes fun of white people.” She says the six Latina characters of The Dirty Girls Social Club all bash “white people,” and, what’s more, that the book belongs to a sisterhood of white-bashing chick lit intent upon destroying the people Rufus refers to as Caucasians.

There’s only one small problem with this. Two of the six Latina characters ARE white, and at least one who is brown THINKS she’s white. Hmm.

So how, exactly, can Lauren, whose Cuban ancestors were white slave owners, and whose mother is non-Hispanic white, be a white-bashing “ethnic girl,” as Rufus says? How can my character Sara, whose family left Austria for Cuba to escape anti-Semitism in Europe, be nonwhite? I know the census at the turn of the last century said Jews were a separate race, but our government decided that wasn’t true. So, a full third of my main characters are WHITE, Rufus. And the only character Rufus quotes from my book as bashing whites is (drum roll) Lauren. The white girl.

I recommend Rufus and my would-be murderer check out the Census Bureau’s Web site. I quote: “Hispanics may be of any race.” That, dear Rufus, was rather the point of my entire novel — if not my life. Sorry you missed it.

The US mainstream media is used to dealing with a simple black-white racial paradigm in this country, and it simply doesn’t translate to the Hispanic experience. There are people of all races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds in Latin America, just like the US; and I tried in my novel to reflect the racial diversity of Latino America.

My book stars a black Colombian lesbian; a blonde, blue-eyed Cuban Jew; a red-headed, freckled, white Cuban-American; two mestizo Mexican-Americans (one who thinks she is purely European and the other who thinks she is Aztec) and a mulatto half-Puerto Rican, half-Dominican. How on earth did Rufus come away from this book thinking it was about “ethnic girls” bashing “white people”? The book is quite clear about who they are.

Rufus, here’s a tip: Read the whole book before you review it next time. And if you did read my book, I simply don’t know what to say. I guess you saw what you wanted to see, which was that “Latina” could not mean “white” or, for that matter, “black.” But it can. And does. It can also mean Asian; Alberto Fujimori was president of Peru, and he was Latino.

On a more serious note, this is just one in a long line of examples I’ve seen of the media confusing race, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, and nation of origin. As any amateur sociologist will tell you, they are not all the same. They overlap. I left daily newspapers because I got tired of seeing sentences like “the suspect was described as a Hispanic male.” What the hell does a Hispanic male look like? Sammy Sosa? Luis Miguel? We come in all colors, people. And if the US media ever gets that right, ever realizes that there can, in fact, be an ethnic group that encompasses many different kinds of people, we will be on our way to a more peaceful society as a whole. The very fact that my book was made up of diverse Latinas is, in my opinion, the driving force behind it having been a best-seller. Latinos know we’re not racially homogenous; it’s people like Rufus who don’t.

There are two other points I want to make.

One: Even if the characters in my book did bash white people without justification, it’s a stretch for my would-be assassin to decide that the author, too, is a white-basher. Stephen King writes about evil dogs, and few people assume him to be one. Dean Koontz, my favorite writer of all time, writes of evil space aliens, and I’ve never once assumed Dean was from Mars.

For the record, I share a genetic history with the character of Lauren, meaning I am what our census would call “white” on both sides of the family tree. I know I’ve been accused of self-loathing, but it generally centers around my weight or inability to break off my relationship with cookies. It’s not a race thing.

If Rufus were to ask me, the writer, my opinion on the whole issue of race, I’d refer her to an amazing book called Mapping Human History: Genes, Race and Our Common Origins, by Steve Olson. It’s the single most compelling book of our time, in my opinion, because it lets science and genetics prove what I think is obvious: Race is a social construct, not a biological fact. Blood samples taken all over the world, and cutting-edge genetics technology, show that all human beings alive today are related. Not only are we related, but we are very recently related. It’s only been 150,000 years since the ancestors of every single one of us lived in a small band of humans in Africa. In other words, regardless of what the characters in my book do or say, I, Alisa, the human being, am not an evil dog, or a space alien, and I do not believe in race at all. Nor do I believe there is such thing as an easily identifiable “white person” or “ethnic girl” or whatever other asinine term people want to use to box other people together. It’s like Louis Armstrong once said when asked what his favorite music was: “There’s only two kinds of music in the world, good and bad.” Same goes for people.

And two: My book doesn’t just make fun of “white people,” as Rufus says. My book makes fun of everyone. Rufus was able to find examples to boost her theory because my book, like me, is cynical and ruthless — which kind of rhymes with Rufus now that I think about it. If Rufus had wanted to write about chick lit writers bashing black men, she could have found it in my book in the way I describe Jovan. If she wanted something about beach reads that bash Hispanics, she could absolutely have found it in Ed the Bigheaded Texican, or in Usnavys’ ghetto mom, who is a lot like Lauren’s ghetto mom. If she wanted to write a review about anti-Semitic writers, she could have decided that the fact that Roberto was a wife-beater and a Jew made me out to get Jews. She would have been wrong every time. I’m an equal-opportunity cynic.

I’ll say one last thing. The “white people” Rufus cites Lauren bashing for their “whiteness” are actually all based on people I used to work for, or on my own mother. I really did have a boss who spoke too-loud English and asked me where to buy Mexican jumping beans, and employers have been surprised that someone named Valdes-Rodriguez could speak beautiful English, as if language and culture were genetic and not learned. If she wants their names, I’m happy to supply her with them. Call ’em up; have a conversation. If Rufus has a problem with the portrayals of these particular “white people” — when, in my opinion, they are just portrayals of silly people — she might start by talking to the people who do these sorts of things in real life and tell them to stop because it might end up in a novel making “white people” look bad.

Having worked nearly a decade in newspapers, I can only guess that Rufus was looking for a controversial angle to what would otherwise have been a snoozy book review, and so she decided I had joined the bash-whitey club. She’s wrong. I have no interest in self-flagellation.

I hope Rufus rethinks her narrow views on race, ethnicity, and socio-economic class before trying to be this cute again. Even more than that, I hope I don’t get my ass killed because of her lack of clarity and understanding.
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez

“Berkeley Intifada,” Feature, 5/19

Fostering a hateful atmosphere
Purporting to be an assessment of the atmosphere for Jewish students at UC Berkeley, the publication of an article by the Express, “Berkeley Intifada,” is nothing short of the classic Orientalist discourse that negatively depicts Muslim and Arab students in a deeply racist and insulting manner. At a time when anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is increasing and hate crimes directed toward the Arab- and Muslim-American community in the San Francisco Bay Area are almost a daily occurrence, this article actually contributes to and fosters an atmosphere of hate toward our community.

Rather than taking on the serious and needed analysis of race, color, gender, and power at the Berkeley campus, the Express decided to publish a piece that condemns an entire community with speculation, anonymous quotes and citations, false accusations, blatantly racist stereotyping, and implied associations. Our office is sending under separate cover a list of these misrepresentations and inaccuracies.

The journalistic integrity of this article is so compromised that it would be better suited for the tabloids, where innuendo and anonymous quotations are acceptable. In reality, the UC Berkeley campus (as is the case nationally) is filled with racist groups who attack our community and allies committed to social justice for all. Faculty, students, and staff who express pro-Palestinian viewpoints are routinely vilified by extremist elements within the pro-Israeli establishment. Many of these groups receive their funding from national organizations that seek to discredit any and all voices of justice that criticize the brutal policies of the Israeli government. It is truly unfortunate that the Express would publish something that foments hatred at a time when so many Iraqi and Palestinian children are being slaughtered in the name of “fighting terror,” and when the PATRIOT Act has had such a chilling effect on our civil liberties and constitutional protections. Clearly, this should be a warning to all people of conscience who support justice for Palestinians; if you speak truth to power, you will be attacked.
Dr. Jess Ghannam, president, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, San Francisco

Stereotyping of the worst type
“Berkeley Intifada” is an unacceptable work of journalism. This article misrepresents and misconstrues the truth, provides a very unbalanced account of reality, and is guilty of stereotyping communities that are increasingly facing hate crimes. This article plays into the larger effort to silence the Arab-American and pro-Palestine voice through tactics relying on false claims of anti-Semitism and through fostering xenophobia against Arabs and Muslims. We urge you to take editorial action to right this wrong. In your review, please consider the following examples:

The subtitle of the article makes a very strong claim that pro-Palestine students are responsible for intolerance of Jews on campus: “As students embrace the Palestinian cause, UC Berkeley has lost whatever reputation it may once have had for tolerance.” This is a very serious accusation that singles out a specific group of people and equates them to racists. Instead of arguing this claim, however, the writer’s very first lines are an account of an anti-Semitic act that occurred at a memorial for 9/11. Such an introduction links pro-Palestine students to this deplorable act, despite the fact that the perpetrator is unidentified and no student group played any part in that hate crime. Several times the writer quotes and describes unidentified racist and extremist protesters, and because this article’s concern is with pro-Palestine students, these unnamed individuals are taken to represent us all. However, a large number of protesters present at the Daniel Pipes event were not students, nor were they associated in any way with the university.

The writer presents Muslim females in such a way that they are made exotic and demonized. Several times, descriptions and quotations of female protesters are qualified by the fact that they are wearing a hijab, even though this detracts from what the protester is saying or doing. Furthermore, very subjective and unfavorable characterizations are attached to these women. Clear examples of these tangential and unfair descriptions: “Sophomore Sandra Tahani was one of the women wearing headscarves. ‘Daniel Pipes is trying to incite pure hatred and racism,’ she said with fire in her eyes.” “Other young women in headscarves clustered around her, their eyes blazing too.” “A young women in a kaffiyeh screamed up at a Jewish student significantly larger than herself. Her lips were wet with fury.”

Furthermore, the writer’s fixation on the hijab justifies the objectification of these women, making it seem acceptable to stare at “the other”: “Two male students, like college guys anywhere, eyed a group of young women whose hair was hidden under the hijab, their blue-jeaned legs and excited voices shivery in the cold.” We are at a loss to find any reason why so much attention was given to the hijab and so much effort taken to describe their alleged emotional states.

The photography also adds a biased element to the news story — it is one-sided and depicts pro-Palestine students unfairly. There are two photographs of Micki Weinberg, a Jewish student: on the cover, we have Weinberg posing in front of Sather Tower, and inside the issue, there is a picture of Weinberg smiling in front of a clutter of books he seems to be studying. Contrast this to the only photo of pro-Palestine students: an unposed photo of the students protesting. The students don’t know they are being photographed, and all but one have their backs to the camera. The student whose face is captured is caught in the off-moment of taking a drag from a cigarette.

The writer claims that at the MSA West conference, “Roughly 95 percent appeared to be of Middle Eastern origin.” However, it is more likely that 95 percent weren’t “of Middle Eastern origin.” A majority of the students at the MSA conference were of Pakistani descent, with only a minority of Middle Eastern members. This factual error not only demonstrates the writer’s incompetence and racial insensitivity, but also her false grasp of the reality of the situation. Furthermore, the relevance of such a detail is questionable, unless the writer is implying that anti-Semitism is synonymous with being “of Middle Eastern origin.”

The most frustrating aspect of this news story is its one-sidedness. The writer allows for three very prominent pro-Israel students (M. Weinberg, D. Frankenstein, J. Gabriel) to recount several of their experiences, opinions, and impressions in much detail. She relies on Weinberg for a summary of a speech by Hatem Bazian. On several occasions, such as the Deir Yassin Massacre protest, the reader is only given the reflections of the pro-Israel students. Contrast this to the fact that there is not even one quote from a leader or prominent member of Students for Justice in Palestine or the Arab Student Union.

This selectivity in displaying the truth is also apparent in her summary of the controversy surrounding Susanna Klein and her Arab instructor. The writer refers extensively to an article from The Daily Californian, but frames the incident in such a way as to make it better fit her thesis. What the author fails to mention is that the very same article she uses to portray Klein as the victim of intolerance also recounts an incident in which Klein spat on an Arab activist. This detail, however, is never mentioned, while Frankenstein’s personal account of being spat on is given the full spotlight.

And for that matter, no mention of any hate crimes against Arabs or Muslims is made, even though there has been an alarming increase in their incidence since 9/11. Several students have been assaulted for their Arab/Muslim appearance, women in hijabs are frequently accosted, and threatening vandalism and graffiti is increasing — for instance, last year a message on the recreational sports facility was spray-painted that stated, “All people named Mohammed need to die!” (Daily Cal, 4/11/03). However, the writer ignores these facts and relates to the reader not the whole truth about intolerance on campus, but only a selective and biased “truth.” While nearly every paragraph of the article had a biased element to it, we have pointed to the most unfair and offensive instances to make our claim clear.
Wael El-Nachef, Arab Student Union, Berkeley

Mohamad Raad, Students for Justice in Palestine, Berkeley

ANNELI RUFUS RESPONDS
With regard to the complaint that I did not quote any prominent members of Students for Justice in Palestine, I made several calls to one of the arrested students and sent two e-mails to SJP seeking comment. None of these efforts yielded a response.

CORRECTIONS
Our May 26 review of a production of Hamlet incorrectly stated that the New Shakespeare Company is the renamed incarnation of Subterranean Shakespeare. Actually, Sub Shakes is still alive and well and active throughout the Bay Area.

Elsewhere, in our June 9 Performance section, we erred in describing the plot of the 1987 movie Nuts, which has been adapted for the theater and is being performed through July 10 at Altarena Playhouse in Alameda. In truth, the high-class call girl does not want to be declared insane.

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