Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

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.

Ugly Americans?

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Ryan Lochte and fellow US swimmers in Rio

Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.30.57 PMThe Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.

Too many Chinese?

From Timothy Yu's blog

From Timothy Yu’s blog

A poem this week in the New Yorker by Calvin Trilling, “Have they run out of provinces yet?” has caused some controversy. The poem begins:

Have they run out of provinces yet?
If they haven’t, we’ve reason to fret.
Long ago, there was just Cantonese.
(Long ago, we were easy to please.)
But then food from Szechuan came our way,
Making Cantonese strictly passé.
Szechuanese was the song that we sung,
Though the ma po could burn through your tongue.
Then when Shanghainese got in the loop
We slurped dumplings whose insides were soup.
Then Hunan, the birth province of Mao,
Came along with its own style of chow.
So we thought we were finished, and then
A new province arrived: Fukien.

The critique of the poem is that it characterizes China as an endless sea (what, yet another province!) of anonymous people (have they run out). A professor of Asian-American Studies, Timothy Yu. wrote a response he called “Have they run out of white poems yet?”, in which he writes:

When my family arrived from Fujian.
The country they found was now eager
For Chinese food, but not its people.
We’re now just a dish on the menu
For gourmets to sink their teeth into.

Others have defended Trilling, agreeing with his own rebuttal, that he was intending to poke fun at the foodie culture rampant today in US cities, where always finding something new and different is a badge of honor. In fact, Trilling is a big fan of Chinese food; he wrote a fun column about Chinese chef Peter Chang a few years, a master of Szechuan food, which we have the good fortune to have now in Richmond. It is more the tone of the poem (especially in the title) which are unfortunate. In fact, speaking and writing today of issues involving specific cultural groups or immigrant populations can be a minefield, even if writing about something as seemingly innocent as food. NPR published a piece today entitled “Why Hunting Down ‘Authentic Ethnic Food’ Is A Loaded Proposition” which explores some of those issues.

Given the great variety of Chinese culinary traditions, it is wonderful to see that variety finally showing up in the US. It would be ironic indeed for anyone in the US to see this welcome development as Chinese cultural imperialism, given the fact that we have saturated China (and the rest of the world) with our representative cuisine: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut.

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?

Good Germans?

Das Sound Machine, from Pitch Perfect 2 - Photo Credit: Richard Cartwright      © 2015 Universal Studios.

Das Sound Machine, from Pitch Perfect 2 – Photo Credit: Richard Cartwright – © 2015 Universal Studios.

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.

Appearance = character?

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Ece B. before her conversion

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Ece B. after her conversion

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.

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.

Hair as politics

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Quvenzhané Wallis as Annie

Two recent stories on NPR highlight the importance of hair styles for personal identity, and point to the cultural and political messages hair can send. There is a trailer out for the new movie version of the muscial Annie, which features African-Americans in the lead roles. That includes Annie, the orphan with the full head of red, curly hair. In the movie, Quvenzhané Wallis plays Annie and, as can be seen in the trailer, her hair is not styled at all, not really an Afro, as is the traditional image of Annie. Terri Francis from Indiana University commented in the story:

“The original Annie had a red Afro,” she points out. So when you’ve got a black actress playing Annie, why not keep her ‘fro? “The ‘fro is too political or too threatening or too black,” Francis speculates. “Or something?”

Of interest as well is the fact that Daddy Warbucks (renamed Will Stacks in the film), traditionally bald, wears a hairpiece:

Black baldness, says Francis, means something different than white baldness.
“The baldness is not about losing hair,” she explains. “The baldness is badness.” (And just to be clear, that’s baadnessss with “two A’s, four S’s,” Francis says.) Giving Daddy Warbucks a hairpiece tames him a little bit, she says. It makes him less virile.


If black baldness may send a signal, that is also the case with dreadlocks. That may be particularly true if the African-American happens to live in a predominantly white neighborhood. That’s the case with Mark Quarles, who wears his hair in dreadlocks and lives in an affluent area on the Monterey Peninsula in California, along with his German-born wife and 2 children. In a conversation with NPR’s Michele Norris, Quarles discusses how his appearance influences how his neighbors view him, which is with suspicion. He mentions that before he grew his dreadlocks, he had established stable employment and financial security. That plays a role in the advice he says he would give his son, if he were to say he wanted to have the same hairstyle as his dad:

Well, if he came home and said he wanted to grow dreadlocks, I would share with him – well, son, I hope you’re prepared and ready for what’s going to come along with that because it’s going to take a great deal of patience, and you’re going to have to be ready for what people will say and what they will think about you… and I would tell him, son, I’ve completed my education. I have a very good career. We have a nice home, and I did all of these things before I decided to grow my dreadlocks. And, again, the world will make assumptions about you based on your appearance. So right now, I just need you to be a clean-cut, well-dressed kid without your pants hanging off of your butt.

Hair plays a major role as well in a new Venezuelan movie, Pelo Malo, meaning “bad hair” in Spanish. The main character is a 9-year old living in a poor neighborhood in Caracas. As is the case with many Venezuelans, the boy has European, indigenous and African ancestry, which gives him thick, curled hair. In advance of having his picture taken at school, he becomes obsessed with straightening his hair, trying everything from blow-drying to applying mayonnaise. The signal that sends to his mother is that he must be gay.

It’s not just Venezuelans who think about straightening their hair; it’s the case with many women of African descent. Chimamanda Adichie has written about the importance of hair for Nigerian women (in Americanah), and for her personally. In a video clip she expands on the cultural and political significance of black hair:


As a child of the 1960’s, my experience of hair as politics goes back to the signal sent by hippies letting their hair grow long, as beatniks did before them, as a way to signal visually that I am embracing a different culture from the (clean-cut) mainstream. This was famously expressed in “Almost cut my hair” by David Crosby, a celebration of letting your “freak flag fly”.

Barbie Computer Engineer

barbie1-250x266Over the last few years, there have been a number of calls for more people to learn computer programming. President Obama made such an appeal last year, and last week Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, called for politicians themselves to learn to code. Not, he said, because we want them to spend their time writing software code, but because we want them to be able to make informed decisions about laws involving technology. This is the primary mover behind the “learn to code” movement, namely that networked computers have become such a central and vital part of contemporary society that it it’s not enough just to know how to use them, we need as well some insight into how they work. This is important in being able to conceptualize how technology can be applied to problem-solving and to understand what might be involved in programming computers or creating apps to deal with issues as they arise in the future. Giving children an early experience with coding puts them into a position to understand that side of their future lives, not to mention, providing possible job opportunities in a rapidly developing field. England in 2015 will be initiated computer programming in the school curriculum for all children from ages 5 to 16. Estonia is already teaching programming in the early years of primary schools.

The new book, Barbie: I can be a computer engineer, seems like it would reinforce this message. If even Barbie can learn to code, then it must be possible for lots of others to do the same. After all, Barbie has the glamor and the looks, but is not known for her intellect. In the opening pages we see Barbie working on developing a game:

“I’m designing a game that shows kids how computers work,” explains Barbie. “You can make a robot puppy do cute tricks by matching up colored blocks!”

That sounds great, but when Barbie’s sister asks to play the game, here is Barbie’s response:

“I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”

That’s right, Barbie of course can’t actually write the code – she needs boys to do that. As a blog post from Pamela Ribon details, things get worse from there. It turns out that Barbie has infected her own and her sister’s computers with a computer virus and that she has little clue what to do, or other basics of how to work with computers.

Clearly, this is not the model we’re looking for our young people to emulate. Given the outcry over the overt sexism on display here, Mattel today apologized and announced it is pulling the book from circulation. How in the world it ever got published in the first place is something I hope Mattel will explain.

A Mom’s White Privilege

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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.

Carefully taught

south_pacific“You’ve got to be carefully taught” is both a song title, from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, and an entry in the Race Card Project. Having grown up partly in Hawaii, I have a special feeling for the musical, but had not thought much about the message of tolerance it contains until a story this morning on NPR on the song, suggested by multiple entries for the song title in the Race Card Project, which happens to have the same number of 6 words called for by the project. The song lyrics are surprising for the year in which they were composed:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The message is clear: prejudice is not something you are born with, but is culturally conditioned. It’s so sad to see children spouting racist or homophobic slogans, as those early learned views are so hard to lose.

Check your privilege

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Tal Fortgang on Fox News

There has been a lot in the news recently about white privilege, following the case of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang. He reacted to the comment by a classmate that he should “check his privilege” by writing a piece published in Time Magazine. He rejects the idea that there is any kind of white privilege in American society and that he is any way someone who has enjoyed advantages from growing up white and male in a well-to-do upper middle class family. He points to the difficulties in his family history, including his grandparents fleeing the Nazis and immigrating penniless to the U.S.:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

Fortgang certainly has a point, that who you are is not determined by your gender or your racial identity. We all create our persona from multiple sources and influences, including, as Fortgang emphasizes in the story of his hard-working father, through industry and personal fortitude. But he implies that we all have the same starting point for being successful in US society, which I and many others would argue is not the case. The case for that was made by 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, starting out with these:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Interestingly, McIntosh was interviewed a few days ago for a piece in the New Yorker on “The Origins of ‘Privilege’” and commented on the Fortgang controversy:

When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.

McIntosh accepts Fortgang’s that the whole story “isn’t always told by sex or skin color”, but that there are many more factors at play. I was at a conference presentation recently in which the main topic was how to include diversity as a topic in online courses. The first question after the presentation was by the only African-American in the audience. I expected, as did probably the rest of the folks there, for her to comment on diversity from the perspective of growing up black in the US. Instead, she went on at considerable length about what it was like to grow up skinny and suggested that body size be included in discussing diversity and discrimination.

On the lighter side, Buzzfeed has an interactive checklist for seeing how privileged you are. For an alternative view on white privilege, here is Louis CK’s take on being white:

I, too, am Harvard

harvard2An article over the week-end in the NY Times discussed racial “microaggressions”, an increasingly used term on U.S. college campuses to describe “the subtle ways that racial, ethnic, gender and other stereotypes can play out painfully in an increasingly diverse culture”.  The Times cites examples: “A tone-deaf inquiry into an Asian-American’s ethnic origin. Cringe-inducing praise for how articulate a black student is. An unwanted conversation about a Latino’s ability to speak English without an accent.” These are clearly not examples of full-blown racism, but are indicators of a lack of awareness and sensitivity.  At a number of universities currently there are discussions of microagressions, through Facebook pages, photo projects, or blogs. There is debate in these forums as to whether the examples given are legitimate reasons to feel slighted or whether, as the Times states, they represent “a new form of divisive hypersensitivity, in which casual remarks are blown out of proportion.” The term’s prominence comes in part from the popularity of a blog begun by two Columbia University studens, the Microagressions Project.

At Harvard, a photo project called, “I, too, am Harvard” explores microaggressions experienced by black students at the elite university.  Many cite references to the appearance, often centered around hair, or casual statements about it being nice to be black when applying to Harvard.  That latter comment reflects one likely origin of such comments, the perceived experience of minority students receiving preferential treatment through affirmative action programs.  The photo project at Harvard has since morphed into a play.

An interesting take on such slights comes from Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In a recent interview on NPR, Adichie recounts the bafflement she felt when a black fellow student at Princeton took offense at a classmate talking about watermelon.  As an African, she has had to learn the cultural dimensions of being black in the U.S.  Interestingly, she has a lot to say in the interview about hair and the importance of how Nigerian women chose their hair styles, a topic that also comes up in her wonderful novel, Americanah.

Blonde angel

angelThat is how the Greek press described the 5-year blonde, green-eyed girl found in a raid on a Roma camp.  There was immediate suspicion that she had been abducted by the family with whom she was living and she is in the custody of the Greek authorities.  Meanwhile DNA testing has confirmed that she is the daughter of a Bulgarian couple.  It’s not yet clear how she came to live with the Greek Roma family.  The Bulgarian family has 9 other children and the poor living conditions of the family has resulted in the majority of children being taken from the family home and placed with relatives, foster families, or local authorities.  In Ireland this month two blonde, blue-eyed children were taken from their Roma parents, then later returned when DNA confirmed they were in fact the parents.  As a recent article in the NY Times points out, Roma are now the ones fearing that their children will be taken away.  The active scrutiny by officials and the intense interest of the public in such cases is of course based on age-old stories of Gypsy child-snatching.  It’s not likely that any suspicions would be aroused should blonde children be seen with Greeks or parents of other nationalities who happen to be dark-skinned.

France has also been the scene of controversy involving Roma families and government officials.  A 15-year Roma girl was taken into custody while on a school field trip and then deported to Kosovo together with her family. This follows controversial statements from the French interior minister expressing doubt that Roma had the ability – or the desire – to integrate into French society.  These and other incidents, including mass deportations of Roma from France have raised discussion in Europe of the “Roma question”, a disturbing echo of the “Jewish question” posed in 20th-century Germany.

Power of stories

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More Jane Austen needed?

Interesting study released this week in Science about the effect of reading fiction on our capacity to interact empathically with others. The study shows that even brief readings of excerpts from literary works of high quality can have a positive effect. The study found that not all fiction works equally well.  Popular fiction, with more simplistic and one-sided characters and a heavy emphasis on plot doesn’t stimulate emotional intelligence in the same was as “literary fiction”. According to the NY Times review of the article:  “The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Good fiction leaves gaps for readers to fill in, something reader response literary criticism in the 1980’s and 90’s explored in depth. We tend to think of reading as an isolating experience but the study points to the social benefits that reading fiction can provide. The NY Times comments: “The study’s authors and other academic psychologists said such findings should be considered by educators designing curriculums, particularly the Common Core standards adopted by most states, which assign students more nonfiction.” Maybe our kids need to read fewer biographies and more Jane Austen.

The article for me also calls to mind the nice TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie on the danger of a single story, in which she warns against using simplistic narratives as a basis for understanding other people and other cultures. Rich stories and multiple narratives open up new perspectives.  Stereotyping stories close minds.