the ch!cktionary

I'm Lena Chen, a writer, activist, and media producer who's been called a "skank" (by Bill O'Reilly) and "a small Asian woman" (by The New York Times). My favorite part of my workday is the hate mail.

For the unlikely story that is my life, read on.

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Ask Lena: Reader Questions Answered
Anatomy of an Outfit
Bad Feminist Confessions
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Posts tagged "social justice"

Wal-Mart Workers in 12 States Stage Historic Strikes, Protests Against Workplace Retaliation

This is an early Christmas present! I’ve been reading non-stop about these strikes. It was really hard for me to identify with Occupy Wall Street last year - from the language of occupation to the demonization of “corporate greed”, I felt like OWS (which was an admittedly diversified movement) oversimplified so many issues. What’s interesting about these strikes in particular is that workers are essentially protesting for the right to protest. They’re not asking for higher wages or better working conditions (though hopefully, those aspects of their job will improve as well). Rather, they’re fighting back against attempts to “”silence and retaliate against workers for speaking out for improvements on the job”. They want to speak for themselves.

During my senior year of college, I did research on class consciousness and identity formation among Walmart workers. I was inspired to pursue this topic by a friend of mine, who was on academic leave and had been working at his local Walmart. He got me access to interview subjects, who ran the gamut in terms of age, race, gender, etc. This was someone who spent the previous summer at J.P. Morgan, earning over the course of one internship as much as my mother makes in a year. He didn’t need to work at Walmart, but he came to love it because of the people he’d gotten to know there. He said the experience taught him more than any Harvard course, and I could say the same of the limited time I spent interviewing his co-workers.

This was one of the reasons why so much of OWS rhetoric rubbed me the wrong way. It’s not about greedy bankers or corrupt businesses or dividing people up into the 99% or the 1%. Whether it’s Wal-Mart or Wall Street, corporations often exhibit little concern for the well-being of their employees and the society at large. Everything is subordinated to profit, but that’s always been the nature of corporations. Most of my gainfully employed friends work in finance and yes, they make good salaries and would probably fall into the 1% category if you left it up to public opinion - but they too are consistently overworked and deal with abuse and are blatantly exploited by employers. Because of their background and the prestige of their occupations, they experience exploitation in a different manner, but they are nonetheless workers at the end of the day, who probably have a lot more in common with a Wal-Mart employee than they do with a CEO. And who knows? Maybe a Wall Street strike is next.

A good education does not prove itself in a test, but instead in practical application.

Totally proud and shamelessly bragging. There have been two Crimson articles in one week about Patrick’s course on inequality. This one is a staff editorial urging for more classes to merge theory and practice. I couldn’t agree more. My final semester of college, I took a course on feminist praxis taught by Susan Marine, the then-director of the Women’s Center. Susan asked students to apply feminist values and principles toward evaluating and making sense of our experiences interning at partner feminist organizations. This class left a huge impression on me and has informed many of my professional decisions since graduation. Two years later, I still refer back to it whenever I come up against contradictions in my day-to-day life and activism. So basically, I think about it every other week ;)

I would add that the goal of Patrick’s teaching method is not just to improve the education of Ivy League students, but to offer a better framework for addressing homelessness. In a culture in which academic degrees are synonymous with authority, I think it’s easy to forget that the people who are most informed on the subject of housing insecurity are not social scientists or leaders of non-profits or policymakers, but those who have personally experienced it themselves. Rather than simply theorizing about homelessness or trying to “save” people (both common tendencies in the academy), students have a responsibility to sit back, listen, and learn from the real experts.

Tomorrow’s the first day of class at Harvard! Is this on your shopping schedule yet?

Sociology 149: Inequality, Poverty, and Wealth in Comparative Perspective will examine social inequality in the United States, as well as the dynamics of poverty and wealth in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia, Russia, China, South Africa, and the European Union. Readings will expose students to current debates in the social sciences and competing intellectual perspectives ranging from neoclassical economics to post-colonial theory to the Frankfurt School.

In the final segment of the course, we explore alternative organizational models and sustainable technologies and consider the long-term viability of currently practiced solutions, such as redistributive policies, non-profit organizations, social entrepreneurship, and micro-finance. Students will collaborate on a final group project aimed at solving a social problem.The class will also include several guest speakers and experts, including a panel on food and housing insecurity which will feature local community members who have experienced homelessness in the Greater Boston region.

Attend the first lecture "What Is Inequality? Facts, Figures and False Conceptions" tomorrow at 1pm and invite your friends! Can’t make it? Tune in to the class Twitter feed or course website for updates.

As I mentioned before, there are no prerequisites to this course, and non-sociology concentrators are strongly encouraged to enroll, so please help me get the word out :)

Exciting news! Patrick is teaching the following course at Harvard this fall. Sociology 149 will offer a comprehensive overview of poverty in America and around the world. To eliminate barriers to access, there are no prerequisites and all readings will be made available at no cost to students. Trust me, you need to put this on your shopping list. Please reblog the following and spread the word :)

Inequality, Poverty, and Wealth in Comparative Perspective
Tuesdays and Thursdays 1-2pm
Sever Hall 209

This course combines insights from two fields – sociology and political economy – to introduce students to an understanding of inequality as a structural phenomenon. Rather viewing it in opposition to ideals of equality and distributive justice, students will learn to identify the economic and institutional causes of unemployment, food insecurity, homelessness, lack of medical care, and other common social problems that afflict capitalist societies across the world…

Call me biased, but I think my roommate’s going to be a great professor, and a class like this is absolutely relevant to everyone no matter what they’re studying. Non-sociology majors (and MIT students) are strongly encouraged to enroll, and auditors will be permitted with the permission of instructor. (Visit the course website for the syllabus and full course description.)

Please let your friends know about the class - reblog/tweet/Facebook your hearts out and invite other folks to the first lecture, which takes place this coming Tuesday, September 4th :) See you in class!

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Also, continuing from my previous 'question', you honestly used to be one of my favorite bloggers, as well as a role model. But that Gabby Douglass post completely changed my opinion of you. Like that other person said, you seem to be very bitter about your place in life and the world in general, as well as completely pseudo-intellectual and narcissistic.
lenachen lenachen Said:

I apologize if the rant-y nature of my initial “diatribe” made it incomprehensible (though honestly I think the situation called for a rant given the obscene miscarriage of justice we’re dealing with here). I’m not trying to say that news outlets should cover Chavis Carter, and I’m definitely not trying to say that news outlets shouldn’t cover Gabby Douglas. What I am saying is that there’s a reason one gets attention and the other doesn’t. Chavis was a young adult black male with drug offenses. Gabby is an up-and-coming female athletic star with a “million-dollar smile” (as emphasized by every NBC news anchor ever) - and yes, they’re both black but there is absolutely privilege in Gabby’s position, because no cop is ever going to think that he’ll be able to get away with staging her handcuffed suicide in the back of a police car.

Gabby has the type of mass appeal that eludes most Black Americans, and the latter is what I’m trying to draw attention to - the fact that most people who look like her do not have the same advantages, that she is the exception not the norm, and that by glorifying exceptions, we forget in the process that we live in an incredibly messed up nation, a place where media commentators have the audacity to allege that sport is the “great equalizer”, even as fellow citizens are murdered each and every single day for having the wrong skin color or being born into the wrong circumstances. Even for other aspiring black gymnasts, Douglas’ experience is worlds away from their own. Black athletes are routinely commodified or exploited by historically white institutions, particularly at the college level, and sociologists have long acknowledged the false narrative of competitive sports as a vehicle for social mobility. I don’t think that pointing out these unpleasant facts about our society makes one “narcissistic” or “pseudo intellectual”, but I choose not to take either of those accusations personally, just as I would urge any Gabby Douglas or Olympics fan not take my words to be a personal attack against them or Douglas herself.

There is one additional thing I want to point out - and I want to preface this once again with the disclaimer that I realize Douglas accomplishment was clearly not a run-of-the-mill event. I may not have any experience with competitive athletics, but I can appreciate what it’s like to train to the point of mental and physical discomfort. (And hopefully, the 100-hour yoga training I’m signing up for this fall will not break my body!) But while the regimen necessary to produce your average Olympian comes at great financial, emotional, and bodily cost to athletes across the board, Douglas did arrive in London with one undeniable advantage: she’s American, and as a result, she’s had access to first-world privileges and amenities throughout the preparation process. Her competitors from less prosperous nations have dramatically different training experiences, some of which you might even categorize as child abuse. So although I think Douglas could be a very positive role model, it’s important to put her achievement into context.

Which brings me to this: The Olympics produces far more losers than it does winners, and I am talking as much about the social and environmental consequences of the industry as I am about the impact on athletes themselves. It really bothers me that people like me and my friends consider the Olympics a fun excuse to throw a party, while disenfranchised populations - the poor, the homeless, non-whites, indigenous people - are being displaced, ignored, or literally pushed out of their homes to make room for what is essentially a contemporary Gladiatorial Games. I won’t go into all the details of why I don’t like the Olympics here (as some of them are historical reasons that have little to do with the games today), but I would advise anyone interested in further reading to check out Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism by Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, as well as the follow-up Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda. Lenskyj offers “a critical analysis of the politics of Olympic bids and preparations from the perspective of all those adversely affected by the social, economic, political, and environmental impacts of hosting the Olympics”.

All of that said, when it comes to the competitors themselves, I fully believe that no amount of money, but only some kind of passion inexplicable to others, could be the motivation for what they put their bodies through. So, even though I have always considered myself unathletic, that passion is something that I can find myself relating to, and it’s probably why, despite my distaste for the Olympics, I still find Gabby Douglas inherently likable and admirable. I know what it’s like to put a passion before your own best interests, to charge pass the established limits, to learn how to work through pain. That the world we live in treats such dreams like products to be packaged up and sold speaks badly not of Gabby Douglas, but of the industry she’s entered and of the society she lives in. It’s possible that when she won gold, there were millions of would-be black gymnasts in America who had been holding their breath and waiting for someone to represent them, to show them that they could do it too. To me, Douglas’ story does serve a purpose, not necessarily one of racial progress but one of hope, by demonstrating that there are some passions so beyond containment that they find expression even in the least accommodating of worlds.

More burning questions? Ask Lena.

Asker Anonymous Asks:
I really don't think it's fair pulling someone as inspiring as Gabby Douglass into your negative diatribe on the media & racial inequality. While I do agree that the Carter story should have been more publicized, there is no reason why Gabby's story (and the Olympics in general) SHOULDN'T be. The sad fact is that Carter's story is commonplace in our sad world. Gabby's story is not. If anything, Gabby's an inspiration to black youth everywhere and should be publicized MORE . - From a black girl
lenachen lenachen Said:

I think we’re basically in agreement here. It bears repeating that I have nothing against Gabby Douglas, since she clearly holds no personal responsibility for how the Olympics are broadcast or how media organizations make their content decisions. But ultimately, this is no more about Douglas than it is about Chavis Carter. She is merely an example of the type of story that most news organizations love to run when they feel like talking about race, and he is an example of the routine racial injustices that get ignored because stories like his probably make most people flip the channel. Yes, she won a gold medal, and yes, that is cool, but I think we can all agree that this accomplishment - while it’s great for her and great for aspiring gymnasts and maybe great for the Olympics too, it will nonetheless change very little about the lived experiences of the majority of black people in this country. And that’s because there’s exactly one Gabby Douglas in the world and as inspiring as she is, her story will never be the story of most Americans. But Chavis Carter? There are countless numbers of people with experiences like his. And if they each got even a fraction of the airtime that Gabby did, well, that wouldn’t be inspiring, no, it’d just be depressing, but it would undoubtedly outrage people and maybe even change the way Americans think about privilege and law enforcement and race.

I don’t expect gay people to prove to me, a straight person, that there’s actually homophobia. I don’t expect poor people to prove to me, a Harvard grad, that hunger and poverty are widespread problems. And if someone asked me, as an Asian person, to “prove” to them that racism exists, I would laugh all the way back to Chinatown. Marginalized groups are not responsible for explaining their marginalization to you. If you are actually concerned, you would take the initiative to do some research yourself instead of showing up at some oppressed group’s door step demanding a list of citations for things (racism, sexism, etc.) that are proven time and time again in the real world.

From the ch!cktionary — The Patriarchy Wants A Lesson On Privilege 101, written a little over a year ago :)

Jesus, over 4,000 notes on Tumblr now … AMAZING, people.

(via xtremecaffeine)

Asker Anonymous Asks:
Why haven't you had anything to say about the Occupy protests? For someone who self-identifies as "radical" and occasionally even "Marxist," your silence is unbecoming.
lenachen lenachen Said:

I haven’t commented on it because:

  1. I don’t believe I have an obligation to make all my personal views public. This goes for my political beliefs as well as my sex life.
  2. I don’t identify with the movement, but don’t feel like trashing it either. I do not agree with the methods, goals, or language of occupation, though I empathize with the concerns of the “occupiers”.
  3. I’ve lately scaled back on blogging current events commentary in favor of independent writing projects, which is why I didn’t cover SlutWalk or DSK either.

Just because I’m not blogging about it, however, doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought about the topic. I don’t think structural change will come out of this. Sure, there might be a couple occupiers who are actually advocating an end to capitalism, but I see far more who are preaching reform, who believe that there’s a way to essentially make capitalism nicer and less unpleasant. That’s a cop-out because in the end, you can’t reform a system that is defined by exploitation. How do you reform that away? Some people will always be owners, while others are workers. Some people will have more private property, which in turn, makes their neighbors worse off. Social inequality is built into capitalism. All you can do with a system like that is to get rid of it and start over it. You can’t make it “better”. Anyway, I can’t possibly offer this topic the nuance it deserves via a blog post, but if you want to know how I feel about Occupy Wall Street, read this article. It’s a perfect summation of my feelings on the topic.

More burning questions? Ask Lena.

Planned Parenthood of New York City (PPNYC) just launched CHOICES, an online comic written by teens for teens. I love that the organization isn’t talking at young people, but asking for their input and actively engaging them in the campaigns relevant to their interests and needs. I’ve always believed that’s the best way to build a strong activist base.

According to the press release:

CHOICES is written by former teen peer educators, and follows a few teenagers through their daily lives as they face tough choices about sex, health care, and life decisions.

“CHOICES” takes a format long popular with teens, the comic book, and presents it online in a way that offers real-time opportunities for direct, personal engagement with the story and the issues it raises.  This online comic strip takes the art of storytelling and makes it available digitally to a wide audience. Storytelling has been shown to be the best way to make issues “real” and personally relevant for a teen audience.

This is a great example of the teen outreach Planned Parenthood does in the community. If you’re in the New York area, support them by attending “Summer, Sex & Spirits”, their 7th Annual Benefit happening July 25th. They’re going to have a three-hour open bar, burlesque show, and a raffle with some amazing prizes (think: Christian Louboutin and Babeland)! I’m also giving away a ticket to a reader — and it’s super easy to enter via Twitter, Facebook, or my blog. (I’m surprised more of you haven’t entered!) More details here on the event and instructions on how to win :)

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville and Tami Winfrey Harris of What Tami Said hosted a blog carnival today for Planned Parenthood, which has been facing unprecedented funding cuts by state legislatures across the United States. Check out the blog carnival page for an extensive list of participating blogs, where folks have written about what’s at stake in the battle over reproductive health, how they’ve been helped by Planned Parenthood themselves, and why this constitutes an attack not only on women, but also on the poor. To learn more about the political situation, check out the updates on the Planned Parenthood Action Center, and if you have the means, please consider a donation to one of the branches in affected states.

In related news, the National Women’s Law Center is hosting the "Birth Control: We’ve Got You Covered" blog carnival on July 21st. (I’ve signed up for it; you should too!) They, along with organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood, are working to get the Institute of Medicine and the Department of Health and Human Services to include prescription contraception without co-pays as part of health care reform. This would mean free birth control under all insurance plans. This would mean significantly reducing unplanned pregnancies and abortions. This would mean that people would no longer need to base their birth control decisions on cost, but rather on what works best for their bodies and their lifestyles. It’s an incredibly important cause, because it stands to make a concrete impact on people from all walks of life. (The NWLC has a very lay-friendly summary of the nitty-gritty legal aspects to what’s happening.)

I’m currently collaborating with Planned Parenthood to plan a social media campaign raising awareness of the efforts to make universal contraception available in United States for the first time. In the weeks to come, I’ll be writing more about this topic, posting polls, and sharing your anecdotes about contraception. In the meantime, you can check out an extensive archive of birth control stories submitted by readers of this blog.