Sensitivity training at Starbucks

African-American being arrested at Starbucks

This week I was on the way to a conference in Illinois and changed planes in Chicago. I had time, so I stopped by Starbucks for some caffeine. I asked the barrister whether she shouldn’t be at sensitivity training. She laughed and said she thought it was a big joke. The executives of Starbucks certainly didn’t see it as a joke. This was May 29th, the day when most Starbucks (except apparently the airport outlets) closed down for sensitivity training. The employees were asked (on a voluntary basis) to take part in a workshop on countering bias and prejudicial treatment of customers based on their race or ethnicity. This developed out of an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in which 2 black men waiting there to meet others for a business meeting were arrested. The rationale given by the manager was that the two men had not ordered anything and thus were not allowed, according to Starbucks rules, to be there. Many people have pointed out that if the men had been white, the manager likely would have not called the police.

Following the uproar over the incident, Starbucks announced the training session, aimed at showing employees their unconscious bias, with the hope that doing so would result in more equitable treatment of all customers. Part of that training was viewing a powerful 7-minute video by documentary maker Stanley Nelson, which included moving statements of personal experiences:

As good as that short video is, its effect, as well as that of the rest of the 4-hour training may expose Starbucks employees to the reality of inequitable treatment of African-Americans in public spaces, but there’s no guarantee that such knowledge will change behaviors. Sherrilyn Ifill comments in the film that when Whites in the US encounter Blacks they use “the shortcut that’s been wired into your brain because of the society we live in that tells you when you see me that you should be nervous”. Such prejudicial views may not be something we are aware of – it is likely to be a case of unconscious or hidden bias.

This is a topic that has been studied in sociology and social psychology as well as discussed in public forums. The Project Implicit provides a popular online test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to reveal “your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics”. However, being aware of one’s implicit biases may not be the key to changing behaviors. A recent critique of the IAT by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz points out that “the implicit bias narrative lets us off the hook. We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious. The forgiving notion of unconscious prejudice has become the go-to explanation for all manner of discrimination”. The article cites studies that have “found that reducing implicit bias did not affect behavior”.

The kind of training and workshops being conducted by Starbucks have been used by many other companies and organizations in recent years. It is certainly well-intentioned, but it may not be the best approach to changing people’s hearts and minds. Goldhill points to what may be more effective:

Hiring goals, diverse senior management, and penalties for those who repeatedly exhibit prejudiced behavior—rather than a soft talk about how we’re all biased but it’s not really our fault because it’s unconscious—would be effective alternative strategies for those serious about changing institutional inequality.

In the US – and we’re not alone in this – we’ve made slow progress in bringing more diversity to upper levels of management and government. Seeing more individuals who are not white males in high social, educational, and other institutional roles may over time shift views. However, it is no easy task to change systems that benefit those holding privileged positions and thus have the power to hire and fire.

Chinese prom dress inappropriate?

Keziah Daum in her prom dress

The issue of cultural appropriation often comes up in the US in relation to Halloween. Costumes based on Native American traditions, for example, are considered to be inappropriate, unless one has that particular ethnic background. Especially problematic is the use of blackface by whites. This month cultural appropriation was in the news in reference to a prom dress, an important dance and social event for North American high schoolers in their last 2 years of school. An 18-year old from Utah wore a Chinese dress to the prom and posted pictures on Twitter.

This caused a great deal of tweeting about whether it was appropriate for a white American to wear this traditional Chinese dress, known as a cheongsam (from Cantonese), also known as qipao (from Mandarin Chinese):

Others on Twitter pointed out that dresses, fashions, and other items associated with particular cultures are “appropriated” all the time with no criticism:

This is in fact an issue in which opinions may vary significantly and where sensitivity is called for, as well as looking at contexts and intentionality. I wrote about that in a post last year:

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

A related story in the news recently is about a quite different case of cultural borrowing, namely a white woman passing for black, Rachel Dolezal, who taught in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University and even became head of a local chapter of the NCAAP. She has now been charged with welfare fraud, after authorities in Washington State learned that she had income from a variety of sources, while receiving public assistance from the state.

Best time ever to learn languages?

MinorMynas app for language learning

The BBC recently ran a story, “Is this the best time in history to learn a foreign language?”, with the subtitle, “Today’s youngest generation is more multilingual and wired than ever. Could the tech they’re using breed a global army of polyglots?”. I would say that depends. Certainly, the opportunities are there now for language learning through resources on the Internet, most available on mobile phones as well. The article provides an example, through this combination of collaboration and smartphones, with a profile of Hillary Yip, a 13-year-old student from Hong Kong, who created a smartphone app (MinorMynas) for enabling young people to connect with one another for the explicit goal of language learning. The article cites the increase in migration patterns worldwide that increases the multicultural make-up of the population in many countries as one of the developments that is leading to greater interest in language learning: “This increased migration, especially in cities, brings people with a wide variety of cultural and linguistic backgrounds into close contact. Could a more multicultural world lead to a more multilingual generation?”. Yes, that could be the case, certainly among the younger generation, as the article points out. Unfortunately, in older populations, the influx of newcomers from different cultures may lead to discrimination and nativist political views, as we’ve seen in the US, UK, and elsewhere.

The article references the idea of “translanguaging”, the informal mixing of languages common today on the Internet, as well as in many multicultural classrooms. The opportunities for encountering other languages online are increasing, as social media enables contact with people from around the globe. One of the new options is the availability of streaming videos–especially in English– in the target language (with native language subtitles) now available in many countries through Netflix and other services. In many countries, TV shows and movies, shown on TV networks, are dubbed. However, in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, videos are shown in the original audio soundtrack. It’s no coincidence that citizens of those countries have typically had better English language skills. The availability of target language videos on commercial services as well as on YouTube offers the possibility of learning or refreshing a language through entertainment. This is, as the article discusses, a way to learn without having the goal to learn, or even without the realization that one is learning.

Several recent studies document this process for learners in Europe and in Brazil. The study from Brazil found that “fully autonomous self-instructed learners” of English gained a high level of proficiency without formal instruction, revealing “how the new affordances for naturalistic learning through the Internet have transformed informal language learning, enabling significant numbers of independent, informal learners in foreign language contexts to achieve very high levels of proficiency” (Cole & Vanderplank, 2016, p. 31). In fact, the study showed that the autonomous learners studied had fewer “fossilized errors” than classroom-based learners at a similar proficiency level, that is, fewer persistent, baked-in errors in grammar or word usage. This may be a wake-up call for instructed language learning, to look at more ways to encourage students to make use of online language resources.

Cole, Jason, and Robert Vanderplank. 2016. “Comparing autonomous and class-based learners in Brazil: Evidence for the present-day advantages of informal, out-of-class learning.” System 61: 31-42.

Tech addictions

The Yondr device for locking up smartphones

The current episode of “On the media” discusses the recent breach of privacy at Facebook and the backlash against the company, which has led to calls to delete the application altogether (#deletefacebook). This is difficult for a variety of reasons. For many people, particular Facebook-based communities have become centrally important in their lives. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal describes leaving Facebook as “socially messy and psychologically fraught”. Many users have gotten so habituated to use of Facebook as a way to connect with friends and families that the idea of leaving would likely mean a loss of meaningful human contact. In some cases, I imagine it may lead to withdrawal-like reactions. There is also a practical problem leaving: People have used their Facebook login as a way to authenticate themselves to different online sites and services and will have to do a lot of new registrations and password resettings.

The problem for Facebook to solve is not an easy one: how to protect users’ privacy when their entire business model is based on being able to supply personal data to advertisers. In other words, how Facebook does business flies in the face of the company’s claim that they “put privacy first.” Somehow, Facebook needs to figure out how to be a viable company (i.e. to make money) while still keeping user data private. Facebook has become a public utility – in that role, being at the same time a profit machine is problematic.

If Facebook is additive, so are smartphones. Giving up or restricting smartphone use is a topic that’s been trending lately, as in the recent piece in The Atlantic, The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone. It highlights the use of Yondr devices, small fabric pouches, which close with a proprietary lock that can be opened only with a Yondr-­supplied gadget. They have been in use at concerts, as well as in hospitals and law courts, to prevent use of smartphones in those environments. The article also discusses education-related initiatives, such the proposal by French President Macron, to ban student phone use in public schools.

Banning phones from schools, to my mind, is misguided. I made that argument recently in a white paper for Cambridge University Press: Using mobile devices in the language classroom. I argue that for language learning in particular, having access to smartphones in class can bring significant benefits, both in terms of language learning resources and communicative/collaborative opportunities. Banning mobile devices can have undesirable results:

  • A good number of students will likely continue to use their phones, but surreptitiously, possibly resulting in classroom conflict.
  • Prohibiting phones leads students to view what happens in their language classroom as separate from their ‘real’ lives.
  • Students don’t see their devices as potential learning tools, in particular for language study.
  • Classroom instruction does not take advantage of the wealth of tools and resources available for language practice on mobile devices.

The white paper outlines a number of specific activities using smartphones that can enhance student learning in the classroom. I also point out that having a class full of distracted students may tell us something about the dynamics in the classroom:

In a classroom in which students are fully engaged in the learning at hand, there are likely to be fewer bored or distracted students. In communicative language learning, we expect students to be using the language actively as much as possible, collaborating and communicating among themselves, not listening to the teacher lecture. In that sense, introducing mobile devices as a new teaching and learning tool follows this instructional pattern, with the teacher as guide and facilitator.

I advise in the paper steps for creating a productive environment for mopbile use in  the classroom: Discussing the issue with all stakeholders – teachers, students, administrators, families – is a recommended first step. Studies have shown that students are very much aware of the distraction factor and are amenable to finding and adhering to a workable set of guidelines.

Imagining worlds

I’ve been interested for some time in organizing a course focusing on developing competence in intercultural communication through fiction. An obvious choice are language autobiographies such as Eva Hoffmann’s Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language (1989) or Richard Rodriquez’ Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982), which offer insight into language and culture through individual stories, making language choice and the affective side of second language acquisition personal and concrete. Fantasy stories and science fiction, from Tarzan to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy provide radically different perspectives on human culture. They invite us to see our world through fresh eyes. The best of such fiction engages us emotionally, making us participants in the stories, and thus making them meaningful and memorable.

At times, they may offer interesting takes on human language as well. That’s the case with the fiction of Ursula Le Guin, who died last month. A recent blog post by Martin Edwardes points to this aspect of her work:

Le Guin’s tales give us insights into different ways of being human, from the deceptively mundane (the Orsinian Tales) through the remote but plausible (the Hainish Cycle of science fiction novels), and into the enchantingly fantastic (the Earthsea stories). Her stories help us to understand others and ourselves. They demonstrate the great power that language has in creating imagined worlds.

This came naturally to Le Guin, growing up with parents who were both anthropologists. That may have been at the root of her interest in languages, which is a major theme in her fiction. In the Dispossessed (1974), an anarchist society (on the planet Anarres) is evoked, which has no laws and no property ownership. The people of Anarres have developed their own language to reflect that culture and ideology. In that language, Pravic, there are no possessive pronouns (“my”, “your”, “their”, etc.) and there are no verbs such as “have” or “give” which index personal ownership.

Other kinds of stories offer different insights into the human condition and how it is manifested in different cultures. Folk tales, such as the Brother Grimm’s fairy tales, evoke shared human dreams and desires through the many variations stories like Cinderella have in different cultures. On the other hand, works which are concrete and localized in their story lines and social contexts may offer illuminating views into our own lives and times. A recent story on NPR reported on two sisters in Pakistan who were inspired by the novels of English writer Jane Austen, such as Pride and Prejudice (1813), to curate reimagined Austen-like stories set in contemporary Pakistan, Austenistan (2017). Austen’s stories revolve around women who need to marry well and face pressure from family and society to do so. The Pakistani sisters, Mahlia Lone and Laaleen Sukhera, explain in the NPR interview that that situations is very similar to theirs:

We find it easy to relate to her. We find it easy to relate to her era and her characters because Pakistan 200 years later is still very similar to the Regency period… So one of the basic themes in, for example, “Pride And Prejudice,” was the law of primogeniture. If there is no son, then the father’s estate goes intact to his next male relative. We actually have a law like that here. How much more real and substantial can it be?

In some respects, contemporary Pakistan may have some cultural characteristics and norms which share more similarities with the world portrayed in Austen’s novels than does 21st-century England. In his book Intercultural Communication and Ideology (2011), Adrian Holliday points to this aspect of Austen’s work:

While many historical cultural references may be shared, the early 19th-century British society depicted by Jane Austen is no less alien than that of a so-called ‘other culture’. The richness of thick description in Austen’s literature as art enables greater understanding than the fragmentation of available information about such foreign locations.

The “thick description” Austen provides – detailed information about the setting, the characters’ social and economic situation, the social mores and laws in place at the time, the insights into the characters’ thoughts and dreams, which may be at odds with social norms – makes the world both real and believable, enabling the reader to experience the events vicariously, along with the heroines. As Holliday points out, this is quite different from the fragmented and arbitrary views we typically get into other cultures. In the case of Brits reading Austen, there is also not the barrier of a foreign culture:  “Understanding Austen’s society is not inhibited by our long history of mistrust for the foreign Other. Studying Austen’s society would be an excellent basis for studying the universals of the nature of culture.”

That is the wonder of reading novels, being able to see common human characteristics through individual life histories. The stories intrigue us with their uniqueness and specificity, while the shared human experience they evoke may lead us to more acceptance of surface-level differences among us. An article in Science a few years ago described experiments that showed how literary fiction can play an important role in “understanding others’ mental states…a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies”. In other words, stories lets us experience what it is like to see the world from someone else’s perspective.

Leaders of state and language

A recent article in the NY Times discussed the influence that Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, has had on the development of a new alphabet for the Kazakh language, which is currently written using a modified version of Cyrillic. Nazarbayev announced in May that the Russian alphabet would be replaced by a new script based on the Latin alphabet. However, there is a problem with representing some sounds in Kazakh. The President has decided, according to the article, “to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.” Apparently, linguists had recommended that the new system follow Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, not apostrophes, but the President has insisted on his system. According to the article, this has led to intense debate in the country, with the President’s views being widely mocked:

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.”

Another President, Donald Trump, has made waves with his use of language as well, as in his re-interpretation of “fake news” to mean any reporting critical of him or his actions, his use of vulgar language to describe African countries, or his habit of using insults and abusive language in his tweets. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle recently, well-known linguist, George Lakoff, commented on Trump’s use of language. Lakoff laments how the wide-spread reporting of the President’s tweets tends to cite the texts. According to Lakoff, just having that language repeated – even if within an article attacking what was said in the tweet – tends, through repetition, to plant Trump’s ideas in our heads. He points out that this is the strategy used by Russia propagandists and the Islamic State in their online messaging. The twitter bots used by Russian hackers repeat tweets over and over again, with slightly different texts, but always using hashtags that support divisiveness in the US population and electorate. This was done in the 2016 election, and is continuing, as in the recent bots’ activity in spreading the #releasethememo hashtag, in reference to the controversial classified memo that some Republicans say shows bias in the FBI’s Trump-Russian probe. This is in an effort to discredit both the FBI and the investigation into the Russian electoral interference, in the desire to undermine the US people’s faith in their government, and thus weaken US democracy.

Lakoff’s advice to the media on reporting on Trump tweets:

Don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is.

He’s not advocating stopping news reports on the tweets, but rather to put them into a proper context, and point to factual discrepancies, when they exist – and in the reporting, to forego inadvertently spreading messaging through textual repetitions. The way that politicians use language can make a big difference in how policies and actions are viewed by the public, especially if a term is repeated frequently. We are seeing that currently in the US in relation to immigration. Trump and Republicans use the term “chain migration“, which has negative connotations rather than the term preferred by Democrats, “family reunification”, which makes the process sound much more positive.

More desirable – less desirable

https://abagond.wordpress.com/category/interracial-marriage/

Example of ad for online dating service featuring “yellow fever”

A recent story on NPR shines a light on racial and ethnic prejudice in online dating services. The story, “‘Least Desirable’? How Racial Discrimination Plays Out In Online Dating”. The story highlights the difficulties Asian men and black women in the US have in using online dating services. A Filipino man reported receiving disturbing message from dating apps, such as the following:

I don’t date Asians — sorry, not sorry.
You’re cute … for an Asian.
I usually like “bears,” but no “panda bears.”

The story also provides examples of the difficulties African-American women have. It cites Ari Curtis, a young black woman, who used data she saw from the dating service OkCupid about the role of race, as the basis of her blog, Least Desirable, about dating as a black woman. According to Melissa Hobley, OkCupid’s chief marketing officer, the service is trying to “encourage users to focus less on potential mates’ demographics and appearance and more on what she calls ‘psychographics.'”. She defines that term as “things like what you’re interested in, what moves you, what your passions are.” That may be a hard sell in a society which is still widely segregated. It also runs up against the familiar human phenomenon of homophily, our tendency to want to be together with those similar to us.

A quite different angle on dating across racial lines was discussed in a recent piece in the NY Times, “The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish“. It turns out that the white supremacists have what’s sometimes termed “yellow fever”, an Asian woman fetish. The articles gives numerous examples of alt-right leaders dating or marrying Asian women. This is despite political positions that would seem to make this unlikely; Richard Spencer, one of the most prominent on the alt-right commented at a conference that the USA was a “white country designed for ourselves and our posterity.” According to the article, the fetish “exists at the intersection of two popular racial myths”. The first is that of Asian-Americans as a “model minority”, stereotyping them as “hard-working, high-achieving and sufficiently well-behaved to assimilate”. Of course, the reality is quite different, obscuring the vast differences among Asian-Americans. The “model minority” myth also, according to the article, tends to strengthens the white liberal order in the US and “legitimizes white America’s power to determine who is ‘good’ and to offer basic dignity and equal rights.”

The other myth involves a stereotypical view of Asian women: “The second myth is that of the subservient, hypersexual Asian woman. ” As the article points out, this view is “consistent with the alt-right’s misogyny and core anti-feminist values”. White women have become too feminist, while “Asian women are seen as naturally inclined to serve men sexually and are also thought of as slim, light-skinned and small, in adherence to Western norms of femininity”. The article, by Audrea Lim, traces these myths back historically, and offers some interesting insights from the author, based on her own experiences growing up as an Asian-American.

Monument of shame?

Replica of Holocaust memorial next to Björn Höcke’s home, a German politician who called the memorial “a monument of shame.”

This year there has been considerable controversy in the US over historical monuments, namely statues of heroes of the Confederacy. That came to the fore this summer in the white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The debate over monuments has led to discussions on how to interpret the US Civil War with, for example, White House chief of staff John Kelly citing as the cause of the war an “unwillingness to com-promise,” not the maintenance of slavery.

A similar debate has occurred recently in Germany. In this case, it is not about the removal of monuments, but rather the placement of a monument. Last month, the local head of the right-wing political party, AFD, the Alternative for Germany, awoke one morning to find a new monument next door to his home. It was a smaller version of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, a set of concrete slabs. The miniaturized monument was set up as a protest over politician Björn Höcke’s comments on German history, particularly the statement that Germans were “the only people in the world to plant a monument of shame in the heart of their capital,” referring to the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. This challenged the founding narrative of modern Germany, the acceptance of guilt for the crimes of Nazism.

Höcke is the leader of the AfD branch in the central German state of Thuringia, a place rich in history, as remarked in a recent story in the NY Times: “The memorial has put an uncomfortable national spotlight on Bornhagen, a village of 309 inhabitants on the former border of East and West Germany in the fabled rolling hills of Thuringia, where the Brothers Grimm long ago collected fairy tales.” The situation is rich in ironies and contradictions, pointing to the complexities both of German history and recent German politics. Bornhagen has a connection to the greatness of German culture – not just the Grimm Brothers, but also Goethe visited the town. The major tourist attraction there (up until the new monument) has been Burg Hanstein, the ruins of a 13th-century fortress, a reminder of the old German empire.

Ruins of Castle Hanstein

That is the setting for a popular Christmas market every year. As the fortress was almost on the border between the two Germanies, one of its towers was used by the East German border guard as a watch tower.

Because of Höcke’s prominence as a spokesperson for the extreme nationalist wing of the AfD, Bornhagen is considered a very “brown” town, in German political symbolism, a color associated with neo-Nazis. In fact, in the federal election in 2017, the AfD captured 34% of the votes in the town. On the other hand, Bornhagen is home to 80 refugees from countries like Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, a large number for such a small village. Reports indicate that the refugees have been treated well and some have found employment there.

The NY Times article concludes with comments from a local inhabitant, Susanne Prinz, who visited the monument and found that it serves the purpose of leading people to think and to take a stand on historical events:

“You can’t just look the other way; that is one lesson we learned from history,” she said. “When children ask questions, you have to explain.”
“Yes, it’s uncomfortable,” Ms. Prinz added. “But then, Germany’s history is uncomfortable.”

That discomfort is a feeling that has become familiar this year in the US, as a new President has upended many long-accepted views on a variety of issues, including US history.

 

Voluntary simplicity?

Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year

It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”

In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.

Dirt Woman passes

Dirt Woman (Donnie Corker)

The PR folks of my home institution are happy when the university’s name comes up in the national news. However, the story recently on NPR, in which Virginia Commonwealth University was mentioned, may not be the publicity they seek. The story was about the death of a local character who hung out near the university. This was Donnie Corker, better known as Dirt Woman, a well-known transvestite who engaged in a wide variety of public activities, from selling flowers on Grace Street to crashing the Inaugural of Governor Doug Wilder. He was notably involved in a variety of charity endeavors. He was out as a transvestite at a time when that was not an easy thing to do, and his popularity encouraged others to come out. In the NPR story, transgender Ellen Shaver talked about how important Dirt Woman had been for her:

Here it was. He was already 200-and-something pounds, and he was out there dressing the part and getting away with it. As far as I could go was probably the perimeters of my house. And Donnie was down there parading up and down Grace Street acting like, who cares?

I remember Dirt Woman well, as he appeared in the 1970’s and 1980’s, sitting on a stool selling flowers, an unusual figure, but harmless, friendly, and always upbeat. His haunt, Grace Street, has changed a lot since then, as the university has transformed a porno theater into a fine arts venue and bought out former sketchy bars, stripjoints, and nightclubs. Our original German conversation group, the Richmond Stammtisch (now meeting Thursday evenings at Mojos) started with a small group meeting at McClean’s at the corner of Grace and Shafer Sts. (where VCU GLOBE is now). In fact, in the very first Stammtisch in 1980, I met for the first (and only) time, the colleague in the Foreign Language Department whom I was hired to replace, Gerhard Kallienke. He had been sitting at a table nearby and overheard us speaking German and came over afterwards to introduce himself (and trash all his former colleagues). Soon afterwards, he moved to Oklahoma, where, according to The Oklohoman, he was murdered in the early 1990’s in a gruesome case which involved teenage girls having “taunted Kallienke by pouring coffee, sugar, flour and shaving cream on his body as he lay naked in a drunken stupor” and then dousing him and his room with gasoline before setting fire to the building. The girls allegedly had “traded sexual favors for money after he hired them to clean his house” and then forged and cashed his checks.

Now that’s a situation which I’m sure VCU was happy to have happened after Kallienke was far away from Richmond and no longer associated with the university. Dirt Woman may not have been an academic, or had a conventional lifestyle, but he was nonetheless someone who had an inspiring influence and not a person we should regret having had a close connection to the university.

Banging pots for independence

Catalan students advocating independence

Catalonia votes today on independence from Spain, that is to say, many Catalans will try to do so, although it appears there will be many roadblocks to voting created by the federal government, which has declared the vote illegal. It’s not clear what the outcome of the vote will be, but it’s likely it will not settle the question of Catalonian independence, just as the vote in Scotland in 2014 has not prevented a movement for a new vote for independence.

A recent story on NPR points to how vital the Catalan language is in the Catalan identity as being distinct from Spanish. Catalan is, in fact, not a dialect of Spanish, but a separate language derived from Vulgar Latin. It was suppressed in Franco’s time, but since then has seen a dramatic resurgence. In the NPR piece, Catalan specialist, Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, describes how Catalan identity differs from that of the Basques, another group which has sought independent status: “Basque nationalism is ethnicity…But this, it’s basically a language movement. We are Catalans because we speak Catalan.”

Young Catalans largely support secession. In fact, at the University of Barcelona students have occupied buildings in support of non-interference from Madrid. One student commented on NPR: “I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan,” says Marta Rosique, 21. ” I think in Catalan and I dream in Catalan…And then there is a government that tries to do as much as possible so that Catalan doesn’t exist anymore! There is something that tells me to fight for my own identity, for my own language.” For that student, at least, identity and language are interchangeable.

An interesting aspect of the movement has been the non-verbal demonstration of support for independence through the nightly 10 p.m. banging of pots and pans on Barcelonan terraces and balconies. This began last month, after the Spanish government started sending in army troops to prevent the referendum. This is a form of social protest familiar in South America (known as cacerolazocacerolazo, or casserole). The pot banging may be low-tech, but it’s loud and coming at a time when Barcelonans are starting their evening eating and socializing, which gets going later in all of Spain than in other European countries.

Take a knee

Colin Kaepernick

In the last two days, US President Trump has tweeted 15 times about professional (American) football players either dropping to one knee or linking arms during the playing of the US National Anthem before games. While the players (and in some cases, coaches and team owners) were expressing solidarity with those players (starting with Colin Kaepernick last year) who dropped to a knee to protest social injustice and police brutality, the President interpreted those actions differently, as expressing disrespect of the anthem and the US flag.  The US professional football players’ action is quite different from the non-verbal behavior often associated with sports teams, which typically involves intimidating the opponents, rather than expressing social or political stances. A well-known example is the war dance of the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team, based on the indigenous Māori “Haka” tradition.

As pointed out in a blog post on “Mashed Radish”, the action of dropping to one knee has a long history outside of sports:

The gesture of taking a knee is a dynamic and complex one, and one that many soldiers…do to show respect for their fallen fellows or to take a rest while on a mission. Catholics also traditionally take knees—or genuflect—before the altar, as did subjects before rulers in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Marriage-proposers also traditionally take knees when asking for their partner’s hand in marriage. Kneeling, here, is at once submissive and reverential, showing humility and adoration.

The use of the expression to “take a knee” (now appearing in hashtagged form as either #TakeAKnee or #TakeTheKnee) is examined in a post yesterday on Language Log.

The action of dropping to one’s knees unexpectedly can have a dramatic effect. This was the case in Willy Brandt’s “Kniefall von Warchau” (the Warsaw genuflection) in 1970. As German Chancellor, he was on a visit to the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1943), when, after laying a wreath, he suddenly dropped to his knees in a gesture of humility and repentance for Nazi Germany’s atrocities.

“Too much technology”

The disabled USS John S. McCain being tugged to shore

That’s the quote from an article in the Navy Times, expressing the author’s take on the root cause for the surprising series of incidents recently involving the U.S. Navy. There were two fatal collisions of Navy warships with commercial vessels, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. The culprit, according to the article, and other reports, is the transition from face-to-face training in ship navigation from SWOS (the Surface Warfare Officers School Command) to the use of computer-based training. The article describes the process:

After 2003, each young officer was issued a set of 21 CD-ROMs for computer-based training — jokingly called “SWOS in a Box” — to take with them to sea and learn. Young officers were required to complete this instructor-less course in between earning their shipboard qualifications, management of their divisions and collateral duties.

The article asserts that those navigating the ships which suffered the collisions were trained under this system and concludes that “the Navy’s growing reliance on technology has eroded basic seamanship skills”. A story on National Public Radio last week echoes this view, with the commentator describing the change in the approach to training in this way: “They’ve been given a load of CDs. That’s right – online learning”.

The dismissive tone used here is something one hears often in connection with online learning, with the implication being that of course it cannot be as effective as face-to-face instruction. The problem here, as is often the case, is that this assessment does not consider the nature of the computer-based learning environment. It’s entirely possible to have such instruction be ineffective. Self-paced learning materials which center around static content presentation through presentations and documents are not likely to foster effective learning. But a slew of studies have shown that computer-based learning can be effective – if done right, with dynamic, media-rich, and interactive content. It’s particularly effective if incorporated into a socially connected and collaborative online learning environment. I have no idea how well the Navy’s training materials were designed, but neither did the commentators cited above. This kind of undifferentiated assessment of the use of technology in education and training gives a distorted picture of the reality of online learning.

Charlottesville: Lots of symbols

Statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA

Today, there was a memorial service for Heather Heyer, the young woman killed last Friday in Charlottesville, after a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters to the white nationalist rally. Living as I do in Richmond, the events in Charlottesville has really hit home. The white nationalists were in Charlottesville to protest the planned removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In Richmond, we have a series of statues of Confederate figures on Monument Avenue. The Mayor of Richmond today announced that he had changed his mind on the statues, and now is supporting their removal. The controversy over Confederate statues follows that over the Confederate flag. For many, these Confederate symbols stand for racism, as they relate to a cause which centered on the maintenance of slavery. Others claim the symbols are part of their identity as Southerners, representing their Southern heritage. The problem with that perspective is that honoring these symbols is deeply offensive to many people, particularly African-Americans, as the symbols – no matter their original meaning or intent – now, in most peoples’ eyes, stand for white supremacy. The Swastika was originally (and still is) a spiritual symbol in India, but no one would accept anyone today wearing a swastika as being anything other than a symbol of Nazism, and therefore of hatred, intolerance, and violence.

Speaking of Nazis, for those of us familiar with German history, the torch march of white nationalists was chilling, as it had so many echoes of similar marches of Nazis in the years before Hitler came to after, and thereafter. Other symbols on view in Charlottesville were also taken from Nazis, the Othala, a pre-Roman rune and the “black sun”. An article in the Deutsche Welle discusses the links of US white nationalist to Nazi Germany. Some of the slogans used in Charlottesville were also creepingly familiar – “Blood and Soil” is a word for word translation of “Blut und Boden”, which as the Deutsche Welle articles states, “expressed the idea dear to Nazis that ethnic purity is based on blood descent and land.”

Slogans and symbols carry deep meanings and often can be integral to a person’s identity – one might think of the what the cross means, for example, for devout Christians. That’s why it’s so important for our leaders to denounce those groups who use symbols like white sheets and hoods or swastikas that divide people and strive to spread their message of hatred. Young people can be easily misled by the facile and false slogans used by hate groups – they need to be contradicted strongly. Heather Heyer posted in social media: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention”. Let’s hope that many Americans, especially those in power, will express their outrage over the views and actions of the extremists marching in Charlottesville.

An example of that reaction is what has now become the most liked tweet ever, by President Obama, citing Nelson Mandela, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…”

Gastronomic racism?

Kebab food truck in Besançon, France

That term, “gastronomic racism” was used by Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher at the University of Toulouse, to describe a crackdown on street vendors of kebabs in the city of Marseille. In France, a kebab is a sandwich in pita or flatbread filled with meat, usually mutton, with salad and sauces. The city is making it harder for owners of kebab shops to be licensed to operate in the central business district. According to the story on PRI’s The World: “Although kebab shops are not singled out, the owners of the establishments fear the initiatives will effectively force the entrepreneurs to shutter.” The owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslims.

This is not the first time that kebabs have been involved in issues around immigration and discrimination. According to the story, “A stall at the 2013 annual convention of the far-right Front National called for ‘Ni kebab ni burger, vive le jambon-beurre.’  That means, ‘Neither kebab nor burger, long live the ham and butter sandwich,’ the classic French fast food — a baguette with ham and butter.” In the recent presidential election campaign, the Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, tweeted the following:

The tweet, “J’ai craqué”, literally, “I creacked”, means I gave in, namely to the guilty pleasure of eating a less than healthy snack, namely the kebab and fries shown.

France is not the only country where kebabs have entered the political arena. Chancellor Merkel has been pictured repeatedly with the popular German version, Döner Kebab. Her love of the Turkish street food has sometimes been seen ironically, in the context of her famous statement in 2010 that “Multikulti ist tot” (multiculturalism is dead). On the other hand, she has been celebrated with being out front in welcoming refugees into Germany. Given the large number of newly arrived Syrians in Germany, maybe in the future she will be pictured enjoying the Syrian version of the kebab, Kufta Kabab.

Story in The World: