Michelle Anya Anjirbag-Reeve

Scholar, writer, editor

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Your childhood faves are probably problematic – and we can learn from that

A few months ago, I made one of my normal screaming-into-the-void posts somewhere on social media about how, in light of a certain author of a certain Wizarding World’s TERFy statements, I was personally okay with being done with those products as a source of comfort (except for a vested interest in close reading them academically or as a cultural critic). It provoked some strong responses, both from people currently affected by the recent intolerance, and those who had reasons for why the author’s statements did not bother them. I was reminded again how art and cultural, and study and response to them, are not neutral, and how much individual positionality matters in media consumption and criticism.

As a child I rarely fell into liking things because they were popular. If not for my fiancé’s family’s insistence at the first Christmas I spent with them, I probably would have gone my whole life having never watched a single Star Wars film. Loving the Harry Potter books happened gradually. I was given the second as a birthday gift when I was in elementary school, and by the time the films were coming out, was swept up in both the cultural moment and what became a family tradition of enjoying these stories together. But the idea that Hogwarts was my “home” too, or somehow open to people like me? That never quite rang true. You see, when you’re young and you’re used to not seeing yourself represented in books or on screens, when you’re aware of the stereotypes deployed for not only your own kind of otherness, but other kinds as well, you become quietly aware of the absences. You swallow them – what else are you going to do? But that bitter taste never quite fades, nor does the subtle sadness of other peoples’ failure to see that absence. In my case, as with many, you put it aside, justify it, and try to celebrate the bigger, broader messages of hope and inclusion with the rest. But its a conscious choice. And at a certain point, we have to stop making that choice to hurt ourselves through exclusion, to accept the bad justifications for how we are written out of existence. Making that choice often means looking back at beloved things and saying, yes, I loved this. But yes, it is also wrong or harmful in many ways. I am convinced, in my paltry thirty years on the planet, that this is the only way that we can learn to build better art, culture, literature, or anything else.

The moral binaries that undergird Western European and North American (WENA) societies mean that it is hard to accept the paradigms where both sides of the paradigm can be equally true. After all, a moral binary implies that something must be either good or bad, and once that judgement is determined, then one might go forward with further analysis. But accepting multiple paradigms can lead to different conclusions, and can lead to industry growth rather than so-called culture wars seeded in most cases in this day and age by the far right (or in this specific case, TERFs in the UK who claim to be upholding feminism). Yes, the Wizarding World has been a phenomenon on many counts and people all over the world have found acceptance in this fantasy space when they needed it most. Yes, it simultaneously has always had massive problems with anti-Semetic tropes (the goblins), tokenism and stereotype in how it has handled diverse representation, erasure of LGBTQ representation, embedded misogyny, really twisted depictions of facism on both sides of its moral line, and as it has expanded its internal world to North America, has engaged in serious and damaging fictionalization and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. And yet, criticisms have largely been written off until the present moment, when the author herself through her statements on trans rights and identity has made it impossibly to ignore these embedded biases, and maybe reconsider the arguments that any of these things were simply accidental or oversights. Art and literature cannot be separated from the maker in this case; but there is a lesson to be had in problematizing childhood favorites from this situation.

Often when a work is problematized one of the most bandied about retorts is that it is “of its time” – from the racism of Dr. Seuss to the whitewashing of early Disney, to considerations of Shakespeare’s works and why medieval studies are so consumed by whiteness, to all of the nonsense in Tolkien’s worlds. We cut authors and creators a lot of slack by asserting that in comparison we live in a far more progressive era, and those who came before simply didn’t know better (whether due to the time they lived in or their relative geography i.e. the continued use of and defense of Blackface in Europe). I personally have a very hard time believing that platitude on two counts. First, we have enough historical counter-perspectives to accepted and manipulated hegemonic histories that asserting anything general about any period of history in terms of attitude towards anything like race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. is just lazy and bad praxis. Second, such statements give us in modernity far too much credit: we don’t actually live like we know better today.

The amount of resistance to the idea of needing to revisit things that hold nostalgia for ourselves personally and better come to terms with the fact that just because we ourselves might love them doesn’t mean that they did not also cause harm to others, does not bode well for the creation of a more enlightened, progressive society being built in the current moment. Especially when it comes to works of children’s literature, media, or family-oriented traditions that center on a conception of or focus on childhood, we need to learn to hold both criticism and nostalgia simultaneously.

One of the challenges of this, of course, is that criticism of something that feels formative to us, can also feel like a criticism of ourselves. Especially in academia, we become so good at separating the self from what we choose to analyze and how, that we can lose sight of how much our selves actually impact our work and how we approach different media phenomena. But academics or not, we need to learn to grapple with this challenge, in order to have a better response to someone else saying , ‘hey, this thing you like? it hurts me.’ Fundamentally, “this hurts me” (even if it is not put in those exact words) is a very different statement from “this offends me” or “I don’t like this,” and yet, more often than not, our reactions to criticisms of a beloved, nostalgic thing are much more in line with the latter two statements. We need to be better at stepping outside ourselves and listening, in general, to other peoples’ pain. It is hard but it is necessary.

For example, can we imagine for a moment if, when a Black woman was cast as Hermione in the Cursed Child stage play, in the face of the backlash Rowling’s ret-conning that the character was always meant to be able to be imagined as Black was not accepted as some kind of magnanimous answer. Because the truth is that Hermione had been depicted in sanctioned illustrations for many years prior, and not as a Black child. Such retconning simply allowed Rowling to sidestep the scandal, allowed fans to justify the whitewashing of the Wizarding World (if all your diversity involves token stereotypes including the Irish boy with a penchant for making things go boom, you have created a world that demands problematizing), and lost us an opportunity to push the gatekeepers of the publishing world to do better – and in doing so cause less future harm. The same issue comes to mind regarding the retconning of Dumbledore as gay; every time those of us not directly affected by an instance of stereotype or misrepresentation excuse it, we contribute to causing harm to the people who do feel directly harmed by such representation and the accompanying excuses.

Children’s and young adult literature and media sometimes feels like it contains the highest stakes regarding this issue, both because it is current and evolving, and because nostalgic feelings run high. Attachment to fictional worlds is strong precisely because when we find one that fits, it can feel that much more real than our own spaces. But it is precisely because this current moment is ripe for evolution, growth, and change, that learning to sit with the discomfort of recognizing that we can both like something, and that that thing might be problematic, becomes that much more important. Understanding that we need to reconsider what we put on pedestals as a society, that we need to interrogate things that become landmarks in the mediascape despite – or in fact because of – popularity will lead to a better mediascape, one that is sorely overdue. If we start to look carefully at the last thirty or fifty odd years of media, there is probably much that needs to be put under a different lens, and handled critically. A lot of old favorites will probably have moments that make us wince or cringe today. And that is okay – so long as we are willing to see those moments and learn how to do better from them, and not brush them aside as we continue to enjoy these things, but rather, continue to confront them.

Why One Educator Tells Bullies And Their Victims To Take It Outside—Way Outside

This post was originally published on GOOD.Is on 2 May 2017.

I learned to teach in a nontraditional classroom. It rarely has a roof or walls, and my students are not always younger than me. My only direct lessons involve tying climbing knots or how to keep people safe in trust-based activities. I observe more than I lecture. Over the course of a day, if I am doing my job well, I listen more than I speak.

For over 20 years now, I have been lucky to be a participant in, and then a facilitator for Challenging Outdoor Personal Experience, or COPE, a program in the Boy Scouts of America. That listening is a full-body activity becomes more apparent when the classroom of the day includes the wind blowing over a lake, redtail hawks soaring overhead, and squirrels chattering.

When participants in COPE programs in Killingworth, Connecticut, leave the school bus or their cars, they walk over a causeway between a lake and a lagoon, and then up the dirt road into the field. Once there, they enter a new space where how they learn is turned on its head. Technically speaking, the methodology is pulled from the theories of John Dewey and Bruce Tuckman’s stages of group development—forming, storming, norming, and performing—but it falls under the ever-expanding umbrella of “team building.”

We ask our participants, who range from scouts and school groups to college athletic teams and corporate groups, to be open to new experiences. At a time when 3.2 million kids are bullied every year, we also talk about what discounting—dismissing another person’s thoughts and feelings—means.

Our no discounting policy is strict: Everyone has value and the ability to contribute. Everyone else can teach us something about our world and ourselves, even if we think we have nothing in common. Once we stop discounting and create space where everyone is empowered, we learn that we have far more in common than we might initially think. And then, we walk further into the woods.

We talk about “leave no trace”—the idea that we can leave the outdoor space in a better condition than we found it, and act as good custodians so that the next group of people has the opportunity to enjoy this piece of wilderness. We talk about challenge by choice, and how this not only means that no one will be forced past their own boundaries, but also how their attitude in approaching challenges can determine what activity they might be offered next.

Our activities include obstacle courses and brain teasers that build skills as we move through different sequences. As the degree of difficulty and risk steadily increases, so does the group’s reliance on each other. Reaching the final goal of rock climbing or completing a high ropes course becomes a progressive lesson in learning and practicing communication and reflection skills.

Indeed, after every task, the groups debrief. They might be asked to reflect on something to be celebrated in another member’s efforts, or something they would change about their own. They might be asked to identify how they worked together and what roles they take on in the group, or where the learning moments were. Unlike a multiple-choice exam or a short-answer pop quiz, there are no wrong answers. The students are only building a tool kit that we hope they access after they leave.

But most significantly, as each program closes and our staff comes together for our own debrief, we discuss our highlights—the things that could have gone better, and our own opportunities to learn. I have found that there is an intrinsic empathy necessary to teach students to push outside of their comfort zone, face their fears, and learn to see the world in a different way. The discomfort of not only forcing oneself to live another’s experience in a particular moment, but also to actively search for a way to help is one of the hardest things to overcome. Perhaps, as the needs of classrooms change and the world shifts beyond all of our comfort zones, this lesson is more relevant than ever.

Not everyone can afford “mindfulness”: Freelancing and the things the self-care industry takes for granted

A version of this post originally appeared on Oxygen Blog’s “The Zeitgeist” in 2019.

By all accounts, my life is stressful. I’m balancing both finishing a PhD and getting married via a highly international, cross-cultural wedding in the next year, with applying for jobs, and setting up what the next academic project will be. My current moment life is in some ways the most stable, least hectic and least stressful, and most supported period of my life thus far. For the first time in a very long time, I’m not working multiple jobs, or commuting hours per week and watching the cost of doing work eat into the earnings of said work. I don’t need to worry about what I’m going to eat, where I’m going to live, or if I need a week of relying on public transportation or even taxis if I don’t have the energy to walk around the city dragging twenty books with me everywhere. I’m supported by both my fiancé and my college in such a way that my basic needs – and beyond – are taken care of. Because of this, I can afford to have weekly therapy appointments and take yoga classes on average four times a week, and visit a physical therapist as needed to deal with the mental, emotional, and physical ramifications of a stressful life while also being a productive scholar, writing when I want to, and doing volunteer work I care about. I am incredibly privileged to be able to put my mental, physical, and emotional health first, in a holistic way, the way in which the current attitude towards “wellness” or “mindfulness” peddles as the secret to happiness in an ever-more precarious world.

From college campuses to corporate strategy to what feels like every fifth Instagram hashtag, “wellness” and “mindfulness” sometimes seem to have replaced the chi bracelets and essential oils of several years ago (never mind yoga-as-cure-for-all-ills) as the “health” movements du jour. It’s a wonderful fantasy – if only we could all just tap into a sense of inner peace, live our lives more deliberately, well, we’d all be so much healthier. We’d all just be able to put aside our stress and insecurity and precarity and be happy with what we have. Again, it is a wonderful, wishful fantasy, that the right mindset is all one needs to overcome all odds.

However, it is also an attitude towards health, and what it means to be healthy in society, that is highly problematic in the face of structural inequities that consistently undermine the security of society’s most vulnerable, on top of being incredibly classist, racist, and ableist, as well as often Orientalizing or co-opting specific cultural practices to fit Western narratives of “wellness.” Like most “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” arguments, such thinking puts the onus on the people struggling to “just do better”: as such it is a form of victim-blaming that ignores that it is only possible to buy into these movements if you are not struggling just to cover your basic needs.  One very concrete example of this as explored by Christine Byrne for HuffPost US is the swell of “simple” or “budget-friendly” cooking tips, to keep children and families healthy. However, as Byrne explores, most of these tips and cookbooks actually ignore that such practices as bulk-buying and relying on instant pot recipes require a certain amount of time and money that the proponents of such measures take for granted while essentially pointing a finger and crying “why don’t they just…” in the direction of people struggling. A budget crockpot or slow-cooker on Amazon is about $40 – the most inexpensive instant pot I could find was about $68. The fact of the matter is that if you already work multiple jobs and are still not sure about being able to feed yourself, you are not going to be dropping that kind of money on an appliance. Essentially, the attitude to “wellness” and “mindfulness” are the same – you need to have your basic needs secure (think the base of the pyramid from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) before you can start to think about self-actualization.

When we direct people to wellness and mindfulness, under the guise of just practicing self-care, we are making a lot of assumptions about both their health and their resources while putting the onus on them to deal with adversity better, rather than addressing the causes of adversity in the first place. Telling someone to meditate or practice mindfulness as a way to “cure” their anxiety regarding their financial precarity is a bit like telling someone to light some incense to “cure” a broken arm because they cannot afford the hospital bill. It doesn’t work. While practices like meditation have greatly improved my own life, I am very aware that it is in part because I’m not in a precarious position, and I have an actual doctor that I work with on my mental health as well. My self-care is expensive – maybe it shouldn’t be, but it doesn’t change the fact that ignoring the expense related to such care will not fix the systemic problems that contribute to poor mental health among freelancers and other precarious workers. The only way to fix those problems is to stop focusing on ‘life-hacks’ and shortcuts, and start demanding change in terms of how freelancers are undervalued and even then still do not get paid on time. In other words, it’s not about making self-care ‘affordable’ or ‘accessible’ or something that can ‘be done quickly on your own time,’ if the wellness industry actually cares about the mental health and wellbeing for people facing precarity it needs to start using its considerable voice to advocate for systemic change.

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