Voicing the Voiceless

Earlier today as I stood in line at checkout, I overheard one of the cashiers at another line ooh over a customer’s baby. “Look at her, she’s like, ‘I just wanna go back to sleep,'” the cashier said.

I thought about how quickly we map our expectations onto other beings, how easily we imbue them with personalities of our own designs. And how we tend to do this for those who can’t “speak” for themselves: babies and animals.

My pets have distinct personalities, but I’m not fooling myself. I know these personalities spring not from them, but from my idea of them. My interpretations of their behaviors. I speak for them in silly voices, attributing reactions and thoughts that they very well may not have.

I’ve caught myself doing the same thing to babies. My friend and I were hanging out with her toddler, and I found myself saying things like, “he’s like, ‘mm, mysterious berries!” or “he says, ‘I dunno about this strange lady.'” How presumptuous of me!

When we speak for animals and for babies, we privilege our interpretation of them over the ways in which they are already communicating with us. They have personalities, but can we recognize them? How much of a being’s personality originates with them, and how much is in the mind of the beholder? This is back to the classic conundrum of intent vs. interpretation, which I tried to suss out a few weeks ago.

And how can we even begin to untangle this when considering cases of pet personality development, much less human personality development? Luckily, I think humans are pretty good at asserting themselves when push comes to shove, outsider interpretations be damned. But until they can do so verbally, they’re at a disadvantage. Those of us who can speak tend to do so for them unless we really check ourselves. Hopefully their development isn’t too much at our mercy.

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Filed under Animals, Childhood, Power

Embodying the Other: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Regret, Hope

When I was about 6 years old, I used two paper bags from the grocery store to make myself an “Indian” costume for Thanksgiving. (It was the early 90’s. “Native American” wasn’t in use among 1st graders yet.) I was, and am, very white. No one in my family thought this home-made costume was problematic. On the contrary, I remember being praised and photographed for being cute and creative.

Wearing that costume was wrong. I wish I hadn’t done it. I wish someone had pointed out why this was an offensive sartorial choice.

As we near Halloween, we’re seeing the yearly outpouring of thoughtful articles about costumes, sexualization, and cultural appropriation. I hope, if I have kids, that I am able to communicate the importance of cultural respect and appropriate costume choices. Why wearing another person’s heritage is racist, violent, and erases their humanity. It reduces identity to a commodity, to something a white person can put on and, crucially, take off, because a white person has the power to remain unmarked.

It only gets worse when you consider the difference between costumes designed for women. Alden Wicker wrote recently about the intersection of sexist & racist costumes. Though not simultaneously, I, too, have been guilty of both. I hope to teach my children that “sexy” costumes are yet another way for our culture to control women and tell them that they only have value insofar as they cater to the straight male gaze.

With knowledge and respect for people of all cultural backgrounds and genders, perhaps my future children won’t make the kinds of offensive, dis-empowering mistakes I have.

I must do better than younger me, for future us.


Filed under Childhood, Commodification, Gender Trouble, Power, Racism

The Problem with Identity

This is a series of questions that circle back on one another. I do not have answers.

Anthropology seems at odds with itself. As a discipline, it’s charged with understanding people from their own cultural perspectives, maintaining that meaning arises from use. Thinking through these tenets, it leads to a tension between intention and interpretation. I’ve been thinking about this in terms of identity and personhood–who someone is, how that “who” comes into being, and who has the power to determine who the “who” is.

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Filed under Gender Trouble, Power

Who Owns Our Social Capital?

Shortly after Apple debuted its version of “the cloud” four years ago, I wrote a short post contemplating the future of ownership. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the shifting meaning of ownership in the context of the social networks within which we conduct no small part of our daily lives. Namely, Facebook and Twitter.

In this intriguing piece from Pacific Standard, the author suggests we all start charging companies for our online data, conveniently eliding the fact that there are deeply entrenched power structures that would need to do an altruistic 180 for that to even enter the realm of possibility. Short of opting out of, oh, all services, how can consumers leverage any semblance of power to make such a demand?

Not easily.

To his credit, the author admits he hasn’t considered the economic implications of his idealistic suggestion, and indeed, he doesn’t seem to see the landscape of the current information/data market for his money-tree of an idea. Alas, capital is highly concentrated among the very companies he wants consumers to charge for the privilege of collecting, storing, and mining their data. How can those of us without that volume of capital, social or material, possibly set our price? We are at their mercy.

I’m of the cynical view that consumers, even as a united front, have little actual power to effect change. The means of production are too tightly wound around the hands of those at the top. They even control the means of communication and socialization. Besides, consumers would probably need social media to mount an economic revolution. It’s one of the most viable mobilization tools we have at our disposal. What happens when the services don’t like what their users are saying and doing with it and turn it off?

Conversely, what happens if (when?) ostensibly “free” services start becoming less so. As many have pointed out, corporations pay for the right to advertise their products to people using these social media services. But profit margins for Facebook & Twitter are slim to nonexistent. So at what point do these services re-evaluate and start making their monetizing more visible and felt by the user?

At what point in the process of monetization do people start migrating to new, “free” services? When Twitter figures out how to monetize itself effectively, how will that affect user experience? Will users rebel by leaving? Or will the service’s gamble pay off, with users having become so entrenched and loyal that it’s easier to stay & pay than flee for free?

It’s tough to predict, but one thing I’m pretty sure won’t happen (at least not successfully) is users demanding to be paid for their participation in these social networks.


Filed under Contemporary, Power, Technology

Good Intentions

Sometimes I look at this blog and think, It can’t possibly have been that many weeks since the last post!

Warped sense of time aside, there should be something going up here within the next few days.

So she writes…


October 7, 2015 · 8:28 PM