Sophi’s choice is America’s shame

3-year old Sophi

From a story on NPR:

At a Border Patrol holding facility in El Paso, Texas, an agent told a Honduran family that one parent would be sent to Mexico while the other parent and their three children could stay in the United States, according to the family. The agent turned to the couple’s youngest daughter — 3-year-old Sofia, whom they call Sofi — and asked her to make a choice.

The choice the little girl was asked to make was whether she wanted to go with her father, to Mexico, or stay with her mother and her siblings, in the US. If this sounds eerily familiar, you may be thinking of the film starring Meryl Streep, Sophie’s Choice, about a Polish woman in a Nazi concentration camp who is forced to make a horrendous decision about her family, namely to decide which of her two children will live and which will die.

How can it be that in the US we are tearing families apart? And that we are asking a 3-year old, likely already bewildered by her journey and the strange new culture and language, to make such a choice? The Honduran family’s dilemma is a result of the US government policy known as “Migrant Protection Protocols” — also known as “remain in Mexico” — which requires Central American migrants to wait in northern Mexico while their immigration cases are handled by U.S. courts.

Sofi’s family was trying to migrate to the US because the violence in Honduras was coming very close to the family; her grandmother was killed by the gang MS-13, a murder that Sofi’s mom witnessed. Sophi’s aunt was also a witness and was later kidnapped, tortured and slain to keep her from testifying against the gang. The gang then posted a note on the family’s door telling them they had 45 minutes to leave. That’s when the family decided to flee. Added to the very real threat of violence, little Sophi has a heart condition. A US doctor examined Sophi and pronounced her condition as serious. With the help of the doctor, the Department of Homeland Security was convinced to allow the family to stay together for now. Whether they are eventually granted asylum in the US is uncertain.

BTW, Sophi elected to stay with her mother, but she and her brother and sister wailed when their Dad was led away and clung to him to try to prevent the agents separating the family.

Civility: Necessary or stifling?


President Trump mocking asylum seekers / Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock

NPR has been broadcasting recently a series on civility, mostly centered on the increasing lack of civility evident in public/political life in the US. While there have been many calls for toning down belligerent and ultra-partisan speech, there are also concerns explored in the series that the advocacy of civility may be in essence an attempt to stifle minority voices.

The opening broadcast defines civility as the “baseline of respect” that we need to show one another, a kind of social contract not to step over certain lines in the ways we address others, particularly those with whom we disagree. Those lines of behavior represent unwritten, but presumably widely shared (within a culture) social norms. Many blame President Trump for breaking those norms and being largely responsible for the nastiness in the public debate in the US, with his wide use of disparaging names and nicknames for opponents. The name calling tends to create bitterness, hardening positions on each side and making it more difficult to reach consensus. Social media spreads vitriol quickly, and services like Twitter make it easy to make and spread inflammatory comments.

On the other hand, calls for civility can be seen as attempts to limit the public discourse on important issues, as a way to silence particular groups. Historically in the US incivility has been a charge leveled against those flighting inequality or injustice, as in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 20th-century or the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. The story cites Lynn Itagaki from the University of Missouri: “Civility has been about making sure that the status quo, the hierarchy of the status quo at the moment, which means racial inequality, gender inequality, class inequality, stays permanent.” To bring about social change, groups have found that it is necessary to demonstrate and disrupt, to be uncivil, in order to garner the public’s attention so as to have their arguments for change be listened to and acted on. The series gives as examples the ACT UP AIDS activists of the 1980’s or Colin Kaepernick inspired kneeling during the playing of the national anthem (to protest police violence against Blacks).

An interesting case study in the debate on civility is the Charlottesville City Council, just down the road from me here in Virginia. That’s the city in which the violent “Unite The Right Rally” was held in 2017. The local authorities were blamed for not doing enough to prevent the bloodshed. As a result, the meetings of the city council became free-for-all shouting matches. The mayor at the time tried to set ground rules for how long people could speak along with prohibitions on heckling, harassment or foul language. However, this was seen by some, especially African-Americans, as a means to exclude voices. Jalane Schmidt, a Charlottesville organizer for Black Lives Matter comments:  “Civility is actually used to shut down discussion. It is often a way to ‘tone police’ the folks that don’t have power and that don’t speak in four-syllable words.” The current major, a Black woman (Nikuyah Walker) has not enforced those rules of civility, allowing citizens to speak freely and at length. This has resulted in very long council meetings. According to Council member Wes Bellamy, there is now in the Council meetings a more inclusive view of civil discourse:

I could have a conversation with you and because my vernacular is not the same, and because a topic makes me more emotional and I’m more passionate about it, it doesn’t mean that I’m not being quote-unquote civil. It could just mean that when I was talking to you in a way that you may deem civil, you refused to listen to me.

The Charlottesville City Council may be an example of how messy and inefficient it may be to allow for a wide-ranging exchange of views. Democracy is often untidy and aggravating, but in the end it should still allow all voices to be heard. By the same token, I would argue that it is the responsibility of those in power to provide an example to others of helpful ways to define ones views and address disagreement. That means not belittling others and certainly not stooping so low as to mock those fleeing violence and injustice in their home countries, as unfortunately President Trump has done recently.

Learning from history, or ignoring it

Lynching Memorial in Montgomery

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

History is not an abstraction: past events shape our culture and our view of others. That’s why it’s so important to get history right. Made-up history can be as damaging as made-up science.

An episode from the NPR radio show On the Media, The worst thing we’ve ever done, that was broadcast this week (originally aired in June) seemed quite appropriate for this time of the end of the year, when we take stock of the past. It was an interesting comparison of how a shameful period in a nation’s history has been viewed by later generations. The contrast was between Germany and its Nazi period and the USA and slavery. The report pointed to how many public reminders there are in Germany of the Holocaust and how it is extensively present in education and in the public sphere generally. An interview with Peter Weissenburger, journalist for the Berlin taz was enlightening in that regard. He talked about how ubiquitous the presence of the Nazi past was for him growing up, in school and in the media. For him, German identity is defined by Nazi Germany, something that can never be “resolved” so that it belongs to the past: “There’s no point in which we can say, ‘ok, we’re done now.’ This is always going to be what happened.”

In contrast, the period of slavery and the following violence and discrimination against African-Americans is far less known in the US, or acknowledged as a problematic period in US history. According to the report, many US citizens believe that in fact slaves were treated well and are skeptical that lynchings took place (despite numerous photos and other documentation). Indeed, there are monuments to well-known slave holders and heroes of the Confederacy, which defended the institution of slavery. The report discusses initiatives to bring to the public’s attention the crimes and injustice associated with slavery and its aftermath. In Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, there are two monuments to that past, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As seen from the photos above, the massive hanging steel columns in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, each dedicated to a lynching in a particular US county, is impressive and haunting, similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. However, the project takes a step further, in an effort to bring home to local communities the reality of racist actions in the past. It is inviting communities where lynchings occurred to claim their histories in a tangible way:

The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not. (Monument’s web site).

The current embrace by some of “alternative facts” has led to the questioning of widely accepted scientific findings, in areas such as climate change and pollution. Pseudo-science is used to justify political views and further entrenched economic interests. History too can be retold, refused, or re-focused to accommodate political or ideological positions. The Nazis used pseudo-history to legitimize their power, presenting themselves as continuing ancient heroic Germanic traditions. Just as we need to learn from history, so as not to repeat it, we need to recognize how history and science can be distorted to support group interests.

Africa wins the World Cup!

There have been some interesting stories coming out of the recent World Cup which deal with the make-up of European teams consisting of players from families with immigrant backgrounds. Given the large number of players on the French national team with North African roots, Trevor Noah, the host of the US TV show The Daily Show, exclaimed on his show last Monday, that “Africa won the World Cup!”. It was a joke and meant as a complement (Noah is himself from South Africa), but the French Ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, didn’t see the humor. He wrote a letter of complaint to Noah, in which he wrote:

As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23, were born in France. They were educated in France, they learned to play soccer in France, they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of France’s diversity.

Noah read the letter on the air and added commentary. After reading the statement in the letter that the variety of backgrounds of the players “is a reflection of France’s diversity,” Noah paused and commented, “That line here was interesting. Now, I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.” That is indeed the hard reality of French diversity, that in fact the French language and aspects of French culture were imposed on those conquered countries – it’s not that they had a variety of options to choose from and selected French.

The Ambassador’s letter continues: “Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team it seems you are denying their Frenchness.” This is in fact an area where there is a clear distinction between France and the United States. Many Blacks in the US identify as African-American and many other “hyphenated identities” are commonplace: Asian-American, Native American, etc. Rachel Donadio wrote about the difference in The Atlantic recently:

In the United States, just about everyone’s hyphenated. In France, or among parts of the French establishment, the notion of communautarisme, American-style identity politics in which groups derive identity and clout from their backgrounds, is seen as anathema, an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state…It’s a hard-won notion of citizenship that comes from a history in which the ancien régime was overthrown to create a modern French state.

France has a particular history that shapes attitudes towards citizenship and identities, especially the French Revolution and its embrace of secularity and social leveling as well as colonialism and its bitter end (Algerian war). Indeed, all European countries have histories and geographies that guide perceptions. Immigration in recent times has played an increasingly important role in that process, as large numbers of migrants have changed ethnic and racial population mixes. In Germany, there are a large number of inhabitants with Turkish heritage, with many families arriving in the 1950’s and 1960’s as Gastarbeiter (guest workers) and eventually settling in Germany. One of

Özil with the Turkish President

those families was that of a prominent soccer player for the German national team, Mesut Özil. He has been in the news recently, having quit the team under accusations of racism that he wrote about on Twitter. He stated there “I am a German when we win and an immigrant when we lose”. In fact, Özil has been criticized not only for lackluster play in Germany’s embarrassing early exit from the World Cup, but also for something he did before the competition. He had his picture taken with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is a controversial figure in Germany, a country of which he has been very critical in recent years. The picture was much discussed in the German media, with some seeing it as evidence of misplaced loyalties.

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.

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.

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:

Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Halloween correctness

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University of Louisville has apologized after the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes was posted online. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via Associated Press

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University has apologized for the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via AP

There have been recently in the US media a rash of reports related to what is often called cultural appropriation, namely taking on superficial aspects of another culture (appearance, dress, speech) in a way that can be perceived as prejudicial and insensitive. Today, there was a story out of Yale University, which, as other US universities did for Halloween, issued guidelines for avoiding cultural insensitivity in choosing a Halloween costume – eliminating what used to be mainstays of Halloween costumes such as Native American princesses (Pocohontas) or a Chinese warrior princess (Mulan). At Yale, an email was sent out to all students outlining what kinds of costumes are inappropriate. One of the categories was “Socio-economic strata”, which would have eliminated my stand-by Halloween costume as a kid, a hobo, a term which, too, has become unacceptable. The email sent out to Yale students by the “Intercultural Affairs Committee” prompted a response by one faculty member, Erika Christakis, who commented in an email of her own:

This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween. I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

The idea, advocated here, for Yale students to decide issues of appropriateness of costumes for themselves, was met with a storm of protest from Yale students, with one encounter (with Christakis’ husband, also a faculty member) being captured on video. The Atlantic today has a long article about the controversy. One of the points made there is that the students’ strong reaction to Christakis’ email was likely not just caused by the email, but came from feelings of many minority students at Yale that racism was prevalent on campus. A NY Times article details some recent incidents.

The tension between free speech and cultural insensitivity is something that many US universities have struggled with, for example in creating “speech codes” which limit certain kinds of speech. It’s not just college campuses either. The NY times ran a piece recently on fashion asking “Does anyone own the cornrow?”, a hair style associated with black women, but one that has become popular with young white women as well. The case of Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who until recently claimed to be black) also has raised interesting questions of identity formation – is it offensive for someone to try to look black because she feels black and identifies more with African-Americans?

Greeks & Germans: Cultural contrasts

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

There are a number of contentious issues in the conflict between Greece and the European Union over the country’s economic situation. What we hear about in the media are disagreements related to taxes and pensions.  The popular perception outside of Greece, and particularly in Germany, is that the Greeks have not been good shepherds of their resources; they retire early with fat pensions and do not pay the taxes they owe. It turns out that those views are outdated; there have been major reforms of the pension system and crackdowns on tax evaders (see the story in this week’s On the Media about that). But popular perceptions are slow to change, especially when there are compelling and long-established stereotypes at work: Germans are industrious; Greeks (and southern Europeans) are lazy. However, there are indeed some striking cultural distinctions of interest.

One of the aspects of the Greek crisis that I’ve been following with interest are the conflicts that have arisen that have nothing to do with money. A few weeks ago, when the Greek prime minister and other officials were in Brussels to continue negotiations, German TV news conducted an interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Schäuble said he didn’t think the Greeks were serious about finding a solution to the crisis. Why? Not because their proposals were deficient, but because the Greek delegation wasn’t showing up on time for meetings. He gave specifics. He also commented on the fact that at the time of the interview, in the morning, the Greeks were having a leisurely breakfast, rather than showing up for meetings. For Schäuble, if you are serious about getting work done, the first requirement is that you be on time. The Greek perspective is different, seeing deadlines as less important. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras pulled out of negotiations and announced the referendum that was held last Sunday, he was asked about the problem of missing the June 30 deadline for Greek to pay back 1.6 billion euros. His response: he couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem if there were a delay of a few days while a deal was worked out. Yesterday, the EU officials were flabbergasted that the Greeks did not show up for the meetings of finance ministers with a new proposal. Prime Minister Tsiparas had promised to deliver a new plan within 48 hours, if the Greeks voted “no” in the referendum. The Greeks responded yesterday that they were working on it.

For individuals used to a “monochronic” time orientation (doing one thing at a time; keeping to deadlines), like Schäuble, it was inconceivable that agreed-on time commitments were not kept. For those with a “polychronic” time orientation, time is not seen as segmented, but fluid, and other priorities may have precedence. From the Greek perspective, the Germans were being unnecessarily rigid and unreasonable. The problem here is not really related to being on time, but on establishing and maintaining a cooperative attitude that could lead to a successful negotiation. The Germans, not taking into consideration the different time orientation of the Greeks, interpreted their behavior as one more signal that the Greeks were not serious negotiation partners. The Greeks didn’t help by not being aware of and taking into consideration the German imperative for punctuality. It’s not just the Germans who have this perspective; the Lithuanian prime minister said today that for the Greeks “everything is always mañana“,  thus taking a swipe at several different cultures.

This was not the only cultural conflict. Schäuble offered a dramatic contrast in style and tone to the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who announced his resignation yesterday. Schäuble is tight-lipped and serious, being cautious in his pronouncements. Varoufakis, in contrast, is free with his opinions and has not hid his disdain for some EU and German officials. Schäuble wears dark suits with conservative ties; Varoufakis goes for leather jackets. The Greek prime minister also does not wear ties. The German convention is that if you are doing serious business, you dress the part. Of course, the contrast between the two finance ministers is also a case of different personalities, as well as a generational divide. But it remains that if the German and Greeks are far apart on economic issues, they are as well in terms of some social norms and practices.

Measles and Willful Ignorance

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

The super bowl will be played tomorrow and there is some concern that with so many people in one place, there is danger that the recent measles outbreak may lead to cases from those attending the game, particularly as there have been cases reported in Arizona. But wait, wasn’t measles declared eliminated in the U.S.? Yes, it was, back in 2000. The problem is not that the vaccine has stopped working; it’s that there are a substantial number of parents – especially in California – who refuse to have their children vaccinated. It’s bad enough that this endangers the children of these parents, but it also endangers others, particularly infants who are too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, or people with immune problems that prevent them from being vaccinated. There was a story recently on NPR about such a child, recovering from leukemia, whose father it asking that the school in Marin County, California, his son attends bar students from attending who have not been vaccinated.

Why are the parents refusing to have their children vaccinated? Because they have bought in to the anti-vaccine movement which claims a link between vaccination and autism. This idea comes from an article by Andrew Wakefield published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The article has long since been discredited and Wakefield, based on evidence that the study was fraudulent and that Wakefield had a financial conflict of interest, has been bared from practicing medicine in Britain. All the available scientific evidence indicates that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. That evidence has not been enough to convince doubters, which include some politicians (Michele Bachmann) and TV personalities (Jenny McCarthy). In addition to citing the junk science represented by Wakefield, such voices also talk about parental rights. However, individual rights have to be seen within the context of social responsibility – no one has absolute rights to take actions that endanger others.

This phenomenon is one more case of willful ignorance, the refusal to accept evidence-based science. We continue to see this among evolution deniers and those who don’t believe in global warming. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates how large the gulf is between the views of scientists in the U.S. and non-scientists across a wide range of issues. The results confirm the importance of encouraging more attention in our schools to critical thinking and the process of scientific enquiry.

Fighting Extremism: Integration is key

Pegida movement in Germany

Pegida anti-immigrant movement in Germany

Yesterday President Obama, in the context of a joint press appearance with David Cameron, talked about ways to fight the rise of extreme Islamists who carry out the kinds of attacks experienced last week in Paris. He pointed to the importance of the Muslim population integrating into U.S. society:

There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength. Now, it doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the kinds of tragedies that we saw at the Boston Marathon. But that, I think, has been helpful. There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case.

Providing all residents – citizens and immigrants – the same opportunities for education, employment, and free exercise of their chosen religion is clearly one way to lessen the likelihood of frustration, hopelessness, and anger, feelings which provide a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views. This does not equate with immigrant or minority groups giving up their cultures (including language) and becoming indistinguishable from the majority culture. When groups such as “Pegida” in Germany (“Patriotic Europeans against the islamification of the West”) rail against the threat to Judeo-Christian culture represented by Islamic immigrants, what they are advocating for is religious intolerance, just what fuels the flames of extremist elements.

It’s not just in the West that lived experiences lead to the growth of extremism. In her new book on Afghanistan, Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes describes how the wide-spread practice of bribes and graft create strong feelings of injustice, powerlessness and rage, leading to the embrace of violent means to create a new social order. In an interview on NPR, she cited a number of examples of the humiliation Afghans experience through being extorted for bribes for all kinds of daily interactions (such as using the post office) and how contemptuously people are often treated by officials. This has understandable consequences:

It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that’s around and looking to recruit people, there’s a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or – or five of them or 10 of them – that are ready to get some revenge.

We’ve tried war, nation-building, and demonizing Islam as ways to fight terrorism – none has worked. The common sense – and just – approach is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to build their lives in an open and tolerant society. This is as true in Muslim countries as it is in the West.

A Mom’s White Privilege

threat

Potential shooters?

Following the events in Ferguson, Missouri in which an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a policeman, there have been many discussions on race relations in the US. One of the more interesting perspectives I’ve seen is the blog post a young white mother posted about her sons:

I have three sons, two years between each. They are various shades of blond, various shades of pinkish-white, and will probably end up dressing in polo shirts and button downs most of the time. Their eyes are blue and green. Basically, I’m raising the physical embodiment of The Man, times three. The White is strong in these ones.

She goes on to comment on the day-to-day experiences her sons are likely to have, living in the United States, starting with the following:

• Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something.
• Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white.
• People do not assume that, with three children, I am scheming to cheat the welfare system.
• When I wrap them on my back, no one thinks I’m going native, or that I must be from somewhere else.
• When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry – that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
• I will not worry that the police will shoot them.

She continues, giving examples from recent incidents in which an African-Americans woman was shot to death when she went to a house for help after a car mishap or when a young black man wielding a toy pistol was killed by police in a Walmart store – experiences her sons are unlikely to have.

She concludes:

My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America. For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons. It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying. Your sons may become the shooters.

Her comments echo those of Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples. Her essay was in the news earlier this year in the context of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang’s rejection of the idea that as a white male attending an Ivy League university he should “check his privilege”. It seems likely that such divergent views will continue, given the diversity of experiences of white and black US citizens. Interestingly, a good number of the protesters against the killing in Ferguson were white.