As I am writing this, at a state dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being served by the White House chefs a dish famous as a late-night treat in Quebec, poutine, composed of French fries, covered with cheese curds and topped by brown gravy – a triple cholesterol threat. The version being served at the state dinner is somewhat different, according to the Washington Post: “shavings of smoked duck and cheese curds finished with red wine gravy and served on delicate wafer fries: a one-bite canapé.” The basic dish is well known in Canada and in parts of the northern US and, according to Wikipedia, in other places as well, including an Italian poutine with Bolognese sauce. Given the numerous jokes about US citizens moving north of the border, as soon as President Trump is sworn in, those would-be Canadians may want to get used to the notion of eating the fastfood treat, but without the gourmet makeover being served tonight.
This past week there have been some remarkable public comments on personal appearance and body builds. In the most recent Republican debate, “Little Marco” (Trump’s term) tangled with “Big Donald”, with Donald Trump commenting on Marco Rubio’s statements about his hands, clearly referencing his male prowess: “And, he [Rubio] referred to my hands — ‘if they’re small, something else must be small.’ I guarantee you there’s no problem. I guarantee.” This follows Rubio’s comments about Donald having wet pants in the breaks from an earlier debate. In a press conference, Trump commented on how much Rubio sweats: “Can you imagine,” Trump said of Rubio meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, “and he walks in and he’s drenched. I have never seen a human being sweat like this man sweats. … It looked like he had just jumped into a swimming pool with his clothes on.” Speaking of Putin, there we clearly have a politician who feels that projecting a hyper-masculine persona is important for his image. He frequently is seen in press photos bare-chested, playing sports, or engaging in other activities that highlight his body build. His walk is best described as a swagger. It’s sad to see US politicians engaged in outdoing each other in terms of masculinity – the last thing that should determine who is best able to be President is the level of testosterone (or the ability to hurl insults).
A controversy over skin color emerged in the last week in reference to the movie of the life of singer Nina Simone. This has brought out for public discussion the issue of colorism – the idea that skin tone (how light or dark) and not just race, can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The actress selected to portray Simone is Zoe Saldana, who is Latina, but self-identifies as black. Her parents are from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, where, as elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a mix of ethnic and racial backgrounds which results in a broad range of skin tones. Saldana is light-skinned, in contrast to the dark-skinned Simone. This has been seen as one more example of “Hollywood’s attempt to sideline women with dark skin”. What makes the issue particularly troublesome is that for the movie Saldana wore black face, recalling past racist practices in the entertainment industry. Many have pointed out also that it’s not just a case of trying to cast someone that comes close to the appearance and background of the person portrayed, but that in this case Nina Simone famously made a point of talking and singing about her blackness, which she celebrated but which also resulted in missed opportunities, such as being refused entry to the Curtis Institute of Music.
Another issue of appearance arose in an interview this week-end on NPR with Joanna Hausmann, a Venezuelan comedian who makes videos for The Flama, focusing on Latino culture. Hausmann has a Jewish father, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and a Cuban mother. She uses her personal background as one of the main sources of her comedy:
I think that I grew up explaining who I was, right? As a white Latina with a Jewish last name. That does not make sense in the conceptualization of what a Latina should be. Also I’m not particularly suave, I’m incredibly awkward. There’s something about my identity that does not mesh with what people think the identity should include. …
[Growing up] I was trained in explaining my identity in a way that wasn’t surface level. And it also opened me up in understanding that people can literally have absolutely any background and what we conceive to be their identity, or their reality or their background is usually not the case.
Hausmann celebrates not only the variety of appearances of Latin Americans, but also the variety of ways in which Spanish is spoken, as in the video below:
In the recently released “White Privilege II”, white rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis address uncomfortable questions of cultural appropriation and the role of white Americans in support of the protests over Blacks being shot by police. The song starts out this way, with Macklemore referencing the the 2014 Black Lives Matter march in Ferguson, Mo., that he participated in:
Pulled into the parking lot, parked it
Zipped up my parka, joined the procession of marchers
In my head like, “Is this awkward?
Should I even be here marching?”
Thinking if they can’t, how can I breathe?
Thinking that they chant, what do I sing?
I want to take a stance cause we are not free
And then I thought about it, we are not “we”
Can the “we”, i.e. those marching, include someone (white) who has not had the same experiences as those (blacks) marching? Should he be a participant or just an observer:
“Am I on the outside looking in,
Or am I on the inside looking out?
Is it my place to give my two cents
Or should I stand on the side and shut my mouth?
‘No justice no peace’
Oh yeah, I’m saying that.
They chanting out BLACK LIVES MATTER
But I don’t say it back.
Is it O.K. for me to say? I don’t know, so I watch and stand.”
The song is actually a sequel to the the 2005 release “White Privilege”. It may be that the title of the new song is in part an effort to remind us that Macklemore’s not a Johnny-come-lately to the issue. On the original “White Privilege,” he had already acknowledged the fact that he’s using an art form that has its origins in a wholly different context from his: “Hip-hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to/ To counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through”. Macklemore is not of course the first white rapper; as he mentions in the song there have been a whole host of singers, going back at least to Elvis who have built careers off of songs or styles originating in African-American culture. Not all have acknowledged the debt or pointed to the potential unfairness of the process: “We take all we want from black culture, but will we show up for Black Lives [Matter].”
Macklemore ends the song with Black poet and singer Jamila Woods singing the final lines, which some have interpreted as an attempt to legitimize his right to rap on this topic by including a supportive Black voice. Gene Demby, the lead blogger for NPR’s Code Switch team, who is African-American, wrote a piece this week, “Guess We Gotta Talk About Macklemore’s ‘White Privilege’ Song”, indicating by its title and its opening (“So. Macklemore. I suppose we have to talk about Macklemore.”) a distinct lack of enthusiasm. He does credit Macklemore with good intentions, and admits that engaging in dialog (at least among whites) is helpful:
It’s worth noting that Deray McKesson, one of the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, has argued that this song does exactly what lots of people say they want more of in conversations about race — that is, it would be great if more white folks actively engaged in uncomfortable conversations about race with each other. McKesson’s note was ostensibly an endorsement, but it’s also an acknowledgement that this song is not really meant for people of color. That would seem to underscore Macklemore’s larger existential dilemma regarding his relationship to black audiences: He really seems to want to be talking to us, but he’s not saying anything we don’t already know.
At nine minutes long, the song may not prove to be a hit, but it does stir the pot.
There have been a couple of interesting cases recently in the US concerning freedom of expression on the part of university professors. This week Melissa Click, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Missouri at Columbia, has been in the news (article in the Atlantic) due to an incident that occurred in November, when she threatened to bring “muscle” to help her stop a student journalist filming a campus protest and may also have tried to grab the camera herself. She and students involved in the protest had set up what they considered a “safe zone” on the campus quad, where they were protesting police violence. Now a deal has been cut that will allow Click to perform community service rather than face a misdemeanor assault charge. Click is up for tenure this year, but in the meantime she has been suspended from the university.
In December, a professor of political science from a private Christian College near Chicago donned a hijab as a symbol of solidarity with Muslims. The professor, Larycia Hawkins, was placed on leave December 15, and now Wheaton College has initiated the process of firing her. The College states that the cause is not her wearing a hijab, but because of a Facebook post in which she stated , “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.” The evangelical Christian beliefs of the College, in contrast to those of the Catholic Church, do not support this view, given the fact that Islam sees Jesus as a prophet, not as divine. Whether that is in fact the reason for the College to fire her is unknown. In an interview on NPR, Hawkins sees her case as going beyond religious views: “It’s a bigger academic freedom question than Wheaton College alone. It’s actually not even just a religious institutional question…I’m not the ‘hijab professor’; I’m the professor that’s trying to teach my students to move beyond theoretical solidarity, sitting on our laurels in the classroom, towards embodied politics, embodied solidarity.”
Interesting story recently on NPR about Watson, the IBM super computer that won the “Jeopardy” game show. It apparently has now been retooled to analyze texts written by an individual on social media in order to provide insight into personality traits. The assumption is that our choice of words unconsciously reflects who we are. In itself this is nothing new. In the 1990’s James Pennebaker used a computer to analyze individuals’ use of personal pronouns. An abundant use of the first person pronoun, according to Pennebaker is revelatory of someone’s personality and/or state of mind:
If someone uses the pronoun “I,” it’s a sign of self-focus. Say someone asks “What’s the weather outside?” You could answer “It’s hot” or “I think it’s hot.” The “I think” may seem insignificant, but it’s quite meaningful. It shows you’re more focused on yourself. Depressed people use the word “I” much more often than emotionally stable people. People who are lower in status use “I” much more frequently.
According to the NPR story, the Watson program goes well beyond the analysis of pronoun use. It created “personality dictionaries”, correlating words in English to 5 different personality traits, with the acronym of OCEAN: “O for openness, C for conscientiousness, E for extroversion, A for agreeableness and N for neuroticism”. Texts an individual has written on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts and in other online services are collected and parsed. For the story, Facebook posts for the reporter, Aarti Shahani, were analyzed, which she found reflected fairly accurately at least some of her major personality traits. But, as she pointed out in the story, our online identity may be quite different from the identity we have in other contexts. Our behavior and language may differ significantly if we are at home with family, for example, rather than in the workplace. Likewise, our language use online may depend on the medium being used, as well as on the purpose of the communication, and on the particular situation or people we are addressing.
Watson was less accurate in its function as an “emotions analyzer”; it misread the emotions behind some of the statements in letters between Shahani and her ex-boyfriend. You can try out how well your emotions are analyzed using a trial version of the Tone Analyzer available online. A demo version of the writing analysis tool is also available. Given the interest in both big data and social media, it seems likely we will see more such tools, probably as mobile apps. One could well imagine their use in dating services.
There were many stories this past year dealing with cultural appropriation in one way or another. In the US a number of universities issued guidelines to students before Halloween, advising them not to wear costumes that represent cultures to which they do not belong. One of the specific cautions was the use of blackface, dark makeup used to make someone appear to be black. That has been a controversial issue in Belgium and the Netherlands, surrounding the tradition of “Black Pete” ( Zwarte Piet), the companion to St. Nicholas. This month, the Flemish minister of culture, Sven Gatz, was heavily criticized for a tweet in which he appeared as Black Pete. Earlier this year, the Belgian Foreign Minister likewise appeared controversially in blackface. While the tradition is reminiscent of other companions of St. Nick, in Germany (Knecht Ruprecht) or Austria/Bavaria (Krampus), who either help distribute treats or punish misbehaving children, the Black Pete tradition has been criticized because of the belief that it may reflect lingering racial attitudes from colonial days, an especially delicate issue in Belgium because of the legacy of African atrocities under the rule of King Leopold II in the 19th century. Others believe figures like Black Peter or the Swiss Schmutzli (i.e. “Little Dirty”) are carryovers from pagan ceremonies, associated with the ceremonial use of ashes.
In any case, the appearance of such figures in the US would not be socially acceptab;e. The recent case of Rachel Dolezal brought out strong reactions to what was perceived as an attempt to use skin darkeners and an African-American hair style to pass as black. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Dolezal responded to the accusation of using blackface:
That was a pretty harsh accusation. I didn’t expect that at all because blackface, you don’t look like a light-skinned black woman, you look like a clown. It’s made to be a mockery. Blackface is not pro-black. Blackface is not working for racial justice. Blackface is not trying to undo white supremacy. I would never make a mockery of the very things I take the most seriously…Do we ask women why they airbrush freckles on themselves or why they change their noses? We don’t ask if somebody’s boobs are real or not. I do my hair and my makeup and everything according to how I feel I’m beautiful. Sometimes I use a spray bronzer, sometimes I don’t…Before this happened, nobody was asking me why are you lighter or darker on certain days of the week, depending on how much time I had to get myself together that day; if I had time to give myself a glow. And if I didn’t, I was out the door.
In the interview she says she has been using braids and weaves in her hair for years and does not see that as cultural appropriation, but as a compliment to black women. In fact, as she points out, women have for generations been using perms to change their hair styles. For many people, what is troublesome about the Dolezal case is not so much the change in appearance, but the desire to pass as black without the trials of growing up African-American in the US.
I’ve been familiar for some time with the small German-speaking community in Texas, centered around towns in the Texas Hill Country, particularly Fredericksburg and New Braunfels (home to a very nice German restaurant). Unfortunately, the Texasdeutsch dialect is dying out. The clip below describes the dialect – note the opening scene in the wonderfully named town of Weimar.
But apparently, Norwegians in Texas are doing fine, according to a recent article in The Guardian, about Clifton, the “Norwegian Capital of Texas”, although it’s not evident that the Norwegian language has survived there.
The piece was prompted by an article in Texas Monthly about the use of the word “texas” as an adjective in contemporary Norwegian, meaning crazy or wild. The article cites a number of articles illustrating the use of “texas” in spoken and written Norwegian. It most commonly appears in the expression, “det var helt texas”, describing something wild and chaotic. In a report from the BBC, the use of the word is traced back:
[The use of texas] became part of the language when Norwegians started watching cowboy movies and reading Western literature, according to Daniel Gusfre Ims, the head of the advisory service at the Language Council of Norway. ‘The genre was extremely popular in Norway, and a lot of it featured Texas, so the word became a symbol of something lawless and without control,’ he says.
Ims mentions in the interview that Texas is not the only US state that is used in this kind of metonymy (a thing or concept being called not by its own name, but by another name which is associated with it): “Norwegians also use the term ‘hawaii football’ to describe an ‘out-of-control’ match”.
The Guardian actually asked people in Clifton if they had heard of the “texas” adjective use in Norwegian – no one had.
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?
A recent study in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) caught my attention. It deals with reactions to being touched by others and examined reactions across a variety of cultures (Finland, France, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom). The researchers survey people from those countries using an “Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool”:
Touch is a powerful tool for communicating positive emotions. However, it has remained unknown to what extent social touch would maintain and establish social bonds. We asked a total of 1,368 people from five countries to reveal, using an Internet-based topographical self-reporting tool, those parts of their body that they would allow relatives, friends, and strangers to touch.
The fact that allowable areas of touch are related to group membership is no surprise. We would expect to see significant differences between partners and strangers in that regard. The study also asked about family members and distinguished between male and female subjects (respectively colored blue or red in the chart). Also expected was the study’s results in terms of what body areas are teemed “touchable”, which depended on the nature of the relationship:
Human social touch is particularly dependent on the emotional bond between the parties: The bodily regions where one may touch different individuals in their social network are relationship- specific, with hands and arms being routinely touched by even emotionally distant acquaintances, whereas touching the head, neck, and buttocks is typically restricted to emotionally closer relationships.
One of the findings I found less expected was the fact that cultural differences did not make as much of a difference as did gender:
The sex of the participant and the toucher significantly influenced the TIs [the touchable index]. When considering social network members having the same type of social relationship with the participant (e.g., sister vs. brother), females were allowed to touch wider body areas than males. The sex-related TI differences were significant for all male–female pairs of the social network (P < 0.05, t test). Accordingly, participants also reported stronger emotional bonds with female than male members of their social networks. Moreover, female subjects reported, on average, higher TIs across all members of their social network than males did, with the exception of female acquaintances and female strangers…Female, rather than opposite-sex, touch was, in general, evaluated as more pleasant, and it was consequently allowed on larger bodily areas.
Across the cultures, the most often used reason for touch was in greeting. In terms of cultural differences, some results surprised the researchers: “Somewhat surprisingly to the Finnish and Italian authors of the present study, Finland had larger TIs than Italy.” On the other hand, the culture least comfortable with touch may be easily predicted: the British. Unfortunately, the cultural variety was limited, so the results can hardly be generalized to include cultures from Asia, Africa or Latin American, where there may in fact be significant differences in terms of touch.
I watched recently with my daughter Pitch Perfect 2, a movie about a cappella music groups who compete in an international competition in Copenhagen. The main competition to the US group (the focus of the film) is the German group (“Das Sound Machine”), who are portrayed as strange, humorless, threatening, semi-robotic, and focused on winning at any price. Not an unusual stereotype, when it comes to Germans (cf. “Sprockets” from Saturday Night Live). Another popular image is currently being played out both in Munich and in local Oktoberfests across the US (and in many other countries): happy, singing, Lederhosen and Dirndl wearing beer drinkers.
Interestingly, the images of good Germans and scary Germans are playing out in a very real arena today: the reception of thousands of migrants (probably up to a million this year) in Germany, the preferred destination of most of those fleeing Syria, as well as others from Afghanistan, northern Africa, and many other countries. In contrast to their reception in Hungary, many Germans have come out to greet the new arrivals and to provide food, supplies, and toys. Some have opened up their homes to the new arrivals. Angelika Merkel has received a lot of positive press for announcing that Syrians who make it to Germany will be granted asylum. However, now that so many are arriving daily, German officials are taking a closer look at who’s coming across their borders. They also are sending newcomers away from the Oktoberfest festivities in Munich (and away from contact with the thousands of free-spending tourists) to Nürnberg, where they will not mar the fun.
The scary Germans are the ones fire-bombing the centers for housing refugees. This has been under-reported in the press outside Germany. This summer, there have been almost daily arson attacks, particularly in the former East Germany, ironically a part of the country where there have been relatively few foreigners. This is the region that gave birth to the “PEGIDA” movement last year (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident).
If the members of that group think that the influx of vast numbers of Syrians and others will change the character of the nation, they are right. The evidence is clear: the Turkish “guest workers” (who arrived in large numbers in the 1950’s and 1960’s) and their descendants have had a significant cultural impact. Turkish-German music (mostly hip-hop), novels, and films have been phenomenally popular in Germany. Turkish words have infiltrated the German language, not to the extent that English has, but any German today will recognize words such as döner (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), babo (boss), lan (buddy), and many others. Just as African-American culture has enriched the US, that has been the case with Turkish-German culture as well, and is likely to play out in a similar way with Syrian-Germans.
The other benefit to Germany, of course, is the influx of warm bodies, to counter-act the declining birth rate – those young Syrian-Germans will be paying for the pensions that allow retired Bavarians to have their Mass (liter) of beer at the Oktoberfest.
The language we speak is a crucial part of our individual identities. Language can also be a social identifier – a way to tell who’s in and who’s out. This has been the case within the Native American Navajo Nation, where a candidate for president was disqualified last fall because he didn’t speak Navajo fluently. That candidate, Chris Deschene, had an impressive resume, having graduated from the Naval Academy, and subsequently earning a law degree and a master’s in engineering, before serving one term as a state representative. But he doesn’t speak Navajo fluently, having grown up away from the Navajo community. According to a story last year on NPR, “Deschene blamed his limitations on what he calls the tribe’s cultural destruction. Up until the 1960s, the U.S. federal government forced thousands of American Indians to attend boarding schools – among them, Deschene’s mother. While there, she was punished for speaking her native language. The U.S. government later relocated his parents to Southern California, where Chris was born.” This summer the Navajo Nation held a referendum on whether the president of the Navajo Nation should be required to speak fluent Navajo. The majority voted no. The story on NPR about the issue included laments from members of the Nation that the vote will erode the connection between the members of the tribe and their culture. It will also, they say, lead to less interest among the young in learning the language. They point out that many rituals and traditional aspects of the Navajo culture are tightly linked to the language.
The Navajo Nation has been in the news this summer also because of the action taken to tax junk food and soda. This too has a cultural side to it. The action was taken because of the very high rate of obesity and diabetes. The intent is to encourage members of the tribe to eat healthier food, especially more fruits and vegetables. One of the problems on the reservation has been the paucity of grocery stores; as a consequence, many people rely on convenience stores and fast food restaurants. To get to a good grocery store, tribal members need to drive off the reservation. According to Denisa Livingston, a spokeswoman for the grassroots group that pushed for the tax:
When people have to drive that many miles across the Navajo Nation in this food desert, it definitely is discouraging because healthy fresh fruits and vegetables and healthy foods will not last a very long time when you have to take it back hundreds of miles across the Navajo Nation.
The tribe plans to use the funds generated from the junk food tax on local farm initiatives. This is the socio-cultural aspect of the plan. Traditionally, Navajo people traditionally lived off the land. New initiatives such as the North Leupp Family Farms have helped about 30 families return to subsistence farming and eat healthier foods.
Moving the Navajo people – or any other community in the US – in the direction of embracing traditional ways of life, including native language use, family farming, and healthy food culture, is likely to be an uphill battle, given the ubiquitous presence of mainstream US media and advertising which point decidedly in opposing directions.
Given the treatment of women by ISIS (“Dash” or the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan”) it’s hard to imagine women voluntarily joining that radical Islamist group. But in fact a number of young women from Western countries have done just that. The largest number are from Britain, but they have also come from other countries, including Germany. Recently, a 17 and 18 year old traveled to Iraq to Join ISIS from northern Germany. They created a big splash in the German media, particularly because the father of one of the girls committed suicide. One of the aspects of the story that struck me was the gradual change in behavior and appearance of the girls, as they came under the influence of ISIS online propaganda. There was an interview with the mother of one of the girls who remarked on the change in appearance, with her daughter beginning to use a headscarf, then gradually moving to a body-covering outfit. She said in the news story that she had spotted her daughter in town at a bus stop and only knew it was her from the purse she was carrying. She went to her and forced her to take off the robe she was wearing.
In this instance, the way the girls were dressing was a clear indication of their turn to a different way of life, namely radical Islam. A very different case is that highlighted in a new movie called 3½ Minutes, Ten Bullets, which is about the shooting of four African-American teenagers over the volume of their rap music, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis, by Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old Caucasian man. One of the interviews that was conducted for the documentary was with Jordan Davis’ mom. She described him, as did other witnesses, as a well-behaved young man. In an NPR story about the film, she was asked about how he dressed, which was often in hip-hop style with this cap cocked to the side. She said that she told him repeatedly to pull up his pants, but he wouldn’t listen. She warned him that if he kept dressing that way, she would pull his pants down in public, which in fact she did at a mall, much to his embarrassment.
In this case, in contrast to the German girls, how Jordan dressed was not indicative of a major change in his worldview. It was just a matter of fashion, not an indicator that he had become a gang member or anything else nefarious. That, however, may not be how some whites view someone dressed that way, which, as in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin, may in this case as well have contributed to his death. The reality is that how others are dressed often provides a powerful first impression, often based on stereotypes of questionable validity.
The recently crowned Miss Universe Japan, Ariana Miyamoto, is an unusual beauty queen selection for Japan, as she is hafu, or mixed-race Japanese, having an African-American father and a Japanese mother. After she won the contest, according to a recent NY Times article, some people posted messages criticizing the judges for selecting someone who didn’t look Japanese. However, more Japanese had positive things to say about the selection
Ms. Miyamoto grew up in Japan, where she says other children often shunned her because of her darker skin and tightly curled hair. That experience has driven her to use her pageant victory as a soapbox for raising awareness about the difficulties faced by mixed-race citizens in a country that still regards itself as mono-ethnic. “Even today, I am usually seen not as a Japanese but as a foreigner. At restaurants, people give me an English menu and praise me for being able to eat with chopsticks,” said Ms. Miyamoto, who spoke in her native Japanese and is an accomplished calligrapher of Japanese-Chinese characters. “I want to challenge the definition of being Japanese.” Her self-proclaimed mission has raised eyebrows at a time when race relations are receiving new scrutiny in Japan, which had long seen itself as immune to the ethnic tensions of the United States.
Japan is usually portrayed as an extremely homogenous culture, with age-old traditions characterizing the way of life. In fact, there are still few immigrants, as the government keeps tight restrictions on the flow of immigrants into the country. As the article indicates, Japan’s relative diversity comes from the ethnically mixed children of marriages between Japanese and foreigners, which is a small but growing population. Ms. Miyamoto’s father was a sailor in the US Navy and returned to the US soon after Ariana was born. She reports that she had to endure many taunts growing up, with other children and even parents called her “kurombo,” the Japanese equivalent of the N-word. It remains to be seen whether having Ariana represent Japanese beauty will contribute to changing views on what it means to be Japanese as well as to people with dark skin becoming more accepted in Japanese society.
Rachel Dolezal , head of the Spokane, Washington NCAAP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), the largest black advocacy organization in the US, has white parents, whose heritage is European-American, mostly German and Czech, according to her father. She is clearly not African-American biologically. But in recent years she has been active in leadership and advocacy roles for African-Americans, teaching African heritage course. Ironcially, as a college student, Dolezal sued Howard University, a historically black university, alleging discrimation against her in favor of African-American students. The revelation that Dolezal is not black stirred a social media firestorm when the news broke recently. According to CNN:
Some defended her by pointing to her activism and efficacy as a leader while adding that someone shouldn’t be barred from being a civil rights leader because they’re white. Others blasted her for lying and asserting she’d diminished the real struggles of African-Americans by claiming she had suffered hurtful racism like them, even though she grew up white in Montana, and had used that identity to advance her career as an activist.
Her identification as black has been especially controversial in the African-American community. It brings to the fore experiences that that community has had in the US. Historically, if there has been a trace (“a drop” in race laws) of black blood, that US citizen is identified as “black”. Black Americans have not had the option of presenting and performing as “white”, even if they were, like Barack Obama, of mixed white/black heritage. In that sense, Dolezal’s claim to be “black” has been seen as a instance of “white privilege” – white people can choose their race, while blacks can not. The case has also brought up another identity issue currently under discussion: how is that it is possible to choose ones gender (i.e., Caitlyn Jenner) but not one’s race?
On the lighter side is comedian Dave Chapelle’s take on the case: “The world’s become ridiculous…There’s a white lady posing as a black lady. There is not one thing that woman accomplished that she couldn’t have done as a white woman. There’s no reason! She just needed the braids!”
I’m in Limerick, Ireland for a conference and have just been watching Irish TV (RTE 1) which was broadcasting live a session from the Irish parliament, the Oireachtas, meeting in Dublin. The Members were giving condolence speeches following the death of 5 Irish students and one Irish-American in Berkeley, California, when a balcony in an apartment collapsed during a party celebrating a 21st birthday party. A couple of things struck me. One was the fact that a number of the members spoke in both English and Irish. Irish is the national and first official language of Ireland but it is spoken natively by only 5 to 10% of the population here. In certain areas within Ireland, there is a much higher percentage of speakers. But the members speaking in Irish were not all from those areas, and certainly not all, judging from their accents and hesitancy in speaking Irish, were native speakers of the language. In fact, Irish has been on the rise in recent years here, with a number of elite schools in Dublin offering immersive instruction in Irish. Traditional music sung in Irish is a booming industry. Similarly, in Wales, and Scotland, the Celtic languages there, namely Welsh and Gaelic, are thriving, which has long been the case in Wales. Unfortunately, the last native speaker of Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, died in 1974. But there have been substantial, and largely successful revival efforts. So, why were the Members of the Irish Parliament speaking Irish? I assume it’s because Irish has such a strong symbolic and national significance in Ireland, as an important aspect of Irish identity. Given that, it’s no surprise that politicians here would find it important, especially at a time of national tragedy, to speak Irish as a gesture of solidarity.
Another thing that surprised me in the TV coverage of the tragedy in Berkeley was the mention of “J1” visas, the work-exchange visas the Irish students were on. This came up incidentally by Members and others interviewed without any explanation of what a J1 visa is. Apparently, it is so common for Irish college students to go to the US to work or study in the summer (especially in the Bay area of California) that no explanation for Irish viewers was needed. In fact, the Irish Ambassador, talking about the tragedy, mentioned how sad it was that this had happened “at the beginning of the season”, namely the season of Irish students going over to the US. Of course, there is a long tradition of the Irish coming to the US, including the mass migration during the potato famine of the 19th century. During the session of the Parliament, there was mention of the “Minister for the Diaspora”. That there is such a minister in the Irish government is a telling statement of how many Irish and their descendants live outside the island.
The brings me around to another language note, namely the use of the term “Plastic Paddy”, to refer pejoratively to those outside Ireland claiming (unjustly or not) to be Irish, but not having any real knowledge of or experience with actual Irish culture. Paddy is a diminutive form of Padraic (“Patrick”). According to Wikipedia, “This is a reaction to and defiance of the diaspora-based celebration and increasing commercialisation and sponsorship of St. Patrick’s Day as being demeaning to the Irish. It can also be used in a derogative term for Irish people who support English football teams; while Irish journalists have used the term to characterise Irish bars in Sydney as inauthentic and with the ‘minimum of plastic paddy trimmings’.” This identification with a group to which one has only a tenuous relationship is sometimes called “symbolic ethnicity”. It brings to mind something else in the news recently, namely the controversy around the white woman, Rachel Dolezal, who headed up a local branch of the NAACP, and who identified herself as African-American. I’ll save that for a later post.