From the Capital of the Confederacy:  “Rumors of War” points to change

Rumors of War

This week in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy a monumental shift took place, literally, with the erection of a new statue, a young black man astride a horse. That statue by Kehinde Wiley, entitled “Rumors of War”, installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,  is located a short distance from a famous row of statues of Confederate war heroes and generals along Monument Avenue. Those statues, installed in the early 20th century, celebrate the Southern “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Confederacy, rather than being a defender of slavery, was a just and heroic effort, bolstered by the primacy of states’ rights. The era when the statues were erected was also the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which institutionalized segregation and the inferior status of African-Americans in all spheres of public life.

JEB Stuart monument

One of those statues, of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was, according to Wiley, the inspiration for his own statue. The Stuart statue was the first to be erected on Monument Avenue, in 1907. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when Wiley, on a visit to Richmond, first saw Stuart’s statue, it “filled him with dread”. As an African-American artist, that reaction is quite understandable. As a White Northerner, coming to Richmond in the 1970’s, I had a less visceral reaction to the Lost Cause iconography, one of surprise. In civics class in Illinois (“Land of Lincoln”) in the 7th grade, we understood that the South not only lost, but did so defending the cruel institution of slavery. My assumption was that folks in the South would much rather just forget that whole episode of American history. Imagine my surprise on seeing huge statues of the folks who were on the wrong side of history.

“Rumors of War” is of the same monumental scale as those of Stuart and the other Confederate heroes. The black man featured is no shrinking violet. He boldly sits astride his powerful horse, with looks that celebrate the contemporary young black American male: dreadlocks, ripped jeans, hoodie. In that way, the statue is not just a counterpoint to Stuart, it is a defiant celebration of young black men, a group not widely celebrated in the US today. As cited in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wiley wanted to suggest through the statue that US society “say yes to black men”.

A Christmas market heralds the Great Replacement

I was in Germany last week and, among other cities, I spent some time in Nuremberg (Nürnberg), the second largest city in the state of Bavaria. For US Americans, the likely association of the city is with Nazi Germany, as it was there where the war crimes against top Nazis were held after World War 2. It was, in fact, a favorite city of Hitler’s, where the huge Nazi party rallies were held every year and where the infamous Nuremberg Race Laws against Jews were announced in 1935.

For many Germans, the association is likely to be different, namely, connecting the city to traditional arts and especially to Albrecht Dürer, a native son and one of the greatest artists during the transition from medieval art to the modern era. The city had one of the best-preserved medieval town centers, until leveled during the war. Another – and possibly the strongest association – many Germans have with the city is its Christmas Market (Christkindlesmarkt). Many cities, large and small, throughout Germany have such markets, which provide street food (most prominently sausages) and drink (Glühwein = mulled wine), as well as traditional artisan products, gifts, and local specialties.

Nuremberg Christmas market

Nuremberg’s market stands out due to the number and quality of artisan products and its reputation as the center of production of Lebkuchen, a traditional gingerbread-style cookie. It also has a long tradition which includes a competition each year for a young girl to play the role of the official representative (Christkind) of the market. Her role is to open the market in a formal speech (and fancy costume) the opening day and to serve for 2 years as a goodwill and publicity ambassador for the market and the city

Benigna Munsi of Nuremberg

This year there was some controversy in the choice of the Christkind, Benigna Munsi, the local daughter of a father from India and a mother from Germany. After her selection was announced, a member of the far-right AFD Party (“Alternative for Germany”) posted on Facebook, along with a picture of the 17-year old girl, the comment, Nürnberg hat ein neues Christkind. Eines Tages wird es uns wie den Indianern gehen.” (“Nuremberg has a new Christkind. One day we will suffer the same


Benigna Munsi as the Nuremberg “Christkind”

fate as the American Indians”). The comment evokes the anti-immigrant and nationalistic “replacement theory“, the idea that whites are being systematically (and with support from Western governments) winnowed out of majority status due to mass immigration and low birth rates among whites. The comment was roundly denounced in Germany, but its racist tone is reflected in commonly heard remarks from far-right politicians in many European countries today. The white genocide conspiracy theory of the “Great Replacement” (title of a book by French writer Renaud Camus in 2011) was also on display in the US in the Charlottesville alt-right march in 2017.

The irony of making this racist statement in – of all places in Germany – in Nuremberg was surely lost on the Bavarian AFD Party. But the rest of us should make the connection between such dangerous racist remarks and Nazi ideology, which lead to real, not imagined, genocide.

A beloved McDonald’s…in France?!

McDonald’s in Marseille, France, under threat of closure

The popular view of French food veers toward the gourmet side – fine wines, superb cheeses, elegant sauces, local specialties – enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with rich social interactions. One of the delights of being in France is the high quality of dining at neighborhood bistros and cafes, with a surprising variety of dishes on offer. In other words: the opposite of American fast food, epitomized by McDonald’s, with its uniform, mass-produced food, designed to be consumed quickly, often on the go. 

France has its own fast-food traditions and street food, including croque-messieurs, crepes, and baguette sandwiches. But those foods seem more sophisticated and in tune with French culture than what you get at Mickey D’s. No surprise that McDonald’s has a checkered history in France, with its first restaurant in Paris in 1971 closing soon after opening. Over the years, as more McDonald’s franchises have opened throughout France, the company has experienced more success, but also continued resistance – not only to its non-French approach to food preparation and consumption, but also because for the French the company represents globalization, Americanization, and unfair trade and labor practices. In 1999 a group of protesters led by farmer José Bové destroyed a half-built McDonald’s restaurant in Millau.

So why is there a passionate campaign in Marseille to keep a McDonald’s threatened with closure? It’s not the food, it’s the community role that particular restaurant plays, according to the New York Times:

A group of workers and their union leaders in Marseille are fighting tooth-and-nail to save a McDonald’s from closing in a working-class, largely immigrant neighborhood. A so-called “Festival of Dignity” protest was recently organized by the McDonald’s employees in an effort to save their roughly 70 jobs. Even though McDonald’s was once seen as a cultural menace to a glorious French tradition, the workers say this particular McDonald’s, in its quarter-century of existence, has played a vital role as a social integrator in one of France’s most troubled districts — providing employment and shielding local youth from pervasive drug-dealing, getting them out of jail and helping them stay out.

The article chronicles a number of personal stories of neighborhood youth, all from economically disadvantaged families with migrant backgrounds, who were hired by the McDonalds, giving them an initial foothold in life and keeping them off the streets and out of trouble. That has been particularly important for Muslim youth, often facing employment discrimination. The restaurant is the second largest employer in that part of Marseille.

Ironically, the current owners of the McDonald’s want to sell the restaurant to a Muslim halal food operator who wants to open a new restaurant serving Middle Eastern food.  The reaction of McDonald’s employees to that plan, most of them Muslims, as reported in the NY Times has been anger: “’This is an insult. We’re fighting for laïcité here,’ said Salim Grabsi, a local schoolteacher and former employee, referring to France’s official credo of secularism. ‘The republic is one and indivisible’.” That perspective seems to echo the reaction from France decrying some comments on the African origins of the families of many French players on the French national soccer (football) team’s which won the World Cup in 2018 (for example, Trevor Noah’s “Africa wins the world cup!”). The point made was that in France, everyone is “French”, no matter their heritage (i.e., no hyphenated identity descriptors, as in the US).

Here’s another irony of the Marseille McDonald’s story: There was a controversy in Marseille in 2017 on a city government crackdown on street vendors of kebabs. Given that the owners of those establishments are overwhelmingly North Africans, most of them Muslim, this action was decried as “gastronomic racism”. As far as the closure of the McDonald’s is concerned, a French court for now has blocked the sale of the outlet – so that location will for now continue to offer the “Royale with Cheese” (McD’s quarter-pounders; see Pulp Fiction), not kebabs.

Monuments contextualized

The American Civil War Center

A new museum has opened up recently here in Richmond, Virginia, namely the American Civil War Museum, located in the former Tredegar Iron Works, along the James River. The new institution is a merger of two museums: the long-standing Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The museum is striking, dug into the Tredegar hillside, with a glass curtain as an entrance.  Upon entering, visitors pass through ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works before reaching the museum proper. The take on the Civil War is equally striking. Rather than serving as a shrine to the Confederacy, as one might expect in the city that served as the capital of that break-away entity, the museum strives to tell a balanced and broad history, one that includes narratives from the variety of participants: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, women and children, enslaved and free African-Americans. There is no attempt to provide a single perspective, but rather to mirror the diversity of experiences. According to the architect responsible, Damon Pearson, that idea is built into the building design: “The exhibits themselves are meant to be fragmented. We tried to reinforce that with the architecture. You’re meant to see this event from as many different viewpoints as possible. And you’re seeing all of them simultaneously” (interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch).

One of the crucial aspects of the museum artifacts is that they are shown and documented in context, with rich information on their provenance and on the people involved. That’s in contrast to the famous (or infamous) Confederate statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond (of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate war heroes), which are shown larger-than-life, sitting defiantly on their horses, inviting the admiration of viewers who must assume, given the statues’ size and prominence (on a famous avenue), that these were indeed great historical figures. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, as these were the men fighting to maintain slavery, the real issue of the Civil War, as the new museum makes clear. What particularly is missing in viewing the Monument Avenue statues in their current stand-alone status (a small name plaque provides basic info), is the fact that they were built during the Jim Crow era, as a manifestation of the belief in the Confederate “lost cause” narrative, i.e. that the Confederacy was a just cause and that the South was in its rights to secede (and to maintain slavery). In other words, the statues are a monument to white supremacy. Without the historical context, that is not immediately evident. Monuments have such a profound influence on the narratives that shape personal and group identities that we need to have as much historical context as possible to provide story lines that accord with historical reality.

One of the ways that context could be provided in viewing historical or culturally significant sites would be to use mobile technology through augmented reality. A mobile app could provide an overlay of information when a viewer points a mobile phone at a statue or other artifact. That is being done today often for tourists with apps such as wikitude, which uses image recognition technologies that allow for viewed images (through the phone’s camera) to trigger the display of localized information. That approach is being used today in Miami to provide context about climate change to murals in the Wynwood district of the city, famous for its many murals.

That might offer as well be an option in the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the horrific fire last month. There have been a variety of fanciful suggestions for re-imagining the roof and spire of the Cathedral. However, the French Senate recently passed a resolution to rebuild the Cathedral the way it was, to the extent possible. The creative re-workings of the Cathedral, if not present in reality, could be available virtually through an augmented reality overlay. That could include not only striking visualizations of Notre Dame’s roof (the spire as a beacon into space) but also historical info, such as the role of Victor Hugo’s novel (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in exerting public pressure to preserve the valuable cultural heritage the Cathedral represents.

Rejecting craft beer

Stone Brewing Berlin on a recent Saturday

Stone Brewing announced this week that it would be closing its brewery in Berlin. The announcement cited insufficient business, and also discussed the problems the company had in getting the brewery constructed in the first place. Greg Koch, the Stone Brewing CEO, said in his blog post announcing the move, that “the construction industry in Berlin is broken” and that the many delays in construction cost the company time and money (and, judging from the tone of the post, considerable aggravation). The long-delayed construction of the new Berlin-Brandenburg airport would seem to provide evidence for Koch’s assertion. That would seem to be supported as well by the growing housing crisis in the city.

On the other hand, I suspect cultural factors are at play as well. Germans have a long and proud tradition of beer brewing (and beer drinking). Traditionally, beer from the US has been seen as clearly inferior to German brews. There was a big uproar in Germany at the 2006 World Cup when only Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser (an official sponsor) was proposed to be served at the games. In fact, until the craft beer movement of the last decade, Budweiser was representative of the quality of US beers, that is, clearly inferior to German beer. The booming craft beer industry in the US has changed that situation, with American beers now winning many international awards. Craft breweries tend to experiment and innovate with small batch releases; they produce a wide variety of beers from strong IPA’s (with many Northeast and Brut styles recently) to sours (gose) and Belgian styles such as saisons. I suspect that a common German reaction to Stone’s coming to Berlin was why would they, in effect, want to bring coal to Newcastle, i.e. offer (inferior) American beer to compete with (superior) German beer.  That impression of inferiority was likely strengthened by the fact that Stones was making their beer available in cans. In Germany serious beer comes in bottles.

I visited the Berlin Stone brewery when I was in Berlin last month. In talking to the bartender there, he admitted that they were having trouble breaking through to German beer drinkers, who by and large know what they like and that is traditional German lager or Hefeweizen, not the stronger and more flavorful craft beers. He told me he was married to a German and had several times taken over Stone beer to his father-in-law, who had no interest in even trying it. When I visited the brewery, the very large restaurant and multiple bars were nearly empty – on a Saturday. The bartender also told me that part of the delay in construction was because the building was historic, an old Gasworks from 1901, and so they had special regulations to adhere to in doing renovation. Stone’s has a brewery here in Richmond and they have run up against a similar issue in starting work on transforming an old James River terminal into a restaurant. Meanwhile, the company just opened a taproom in Shanghai. It remains to be seen how Chinese beer drinkers will react to Stone IPA and the company’s other brews. Interestingly, the Chinese beer most consider the best is from the Tsingtao Brewery, founded in 1903 by – German settlers.

Black faces in Virginia

Freeman Gosden, in blackface, as Amos

The current crisis in the government of Virginia is full of ironies. The three men at the top, all Democrats, are each facing scandals and calls to resign. That started with Governor Ralph Northam last week when a picture from a yearbook surfaced showing a man in blackface and another in KKK garb (Klu Klux Khan, the violent white supremacist group) on his personal page. Northam first admitted he was one of the men in the picture, then the next day denied it, but did admit to wearing blackface at a dance contest, where he imitated Michael Jackson. Should Northam resign, he would be replaced by Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor, who is African-American. But Fairfax faces 2 allegations of sexual assault. Third in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted that he too wore blackface as a student at the University of Virginia. Should all three be forced out of office, the governorship would go to…a Republican! House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox. That fact has led to some recent support for Northam to remain Governor, after near universal calls for him to resign early on, including from both local and national Democrats.

The ironies abound. Justin Fairfax, just over a week ago, stepped aside from his usual duty as Lt. Governor, of chairing the State Senate, in protest over the celebration of the birthday of Confederate Leader, Robert E. Lee. Richmond, the Capital of Virginia, was of course also the Capital of the Confederacy, the defender of slavery. Richmond is also the home of Freeman Gosden, Bojangles Robinson, and Charles Gilpin. Gosden, a white man from a socially prominent family whose members had included high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army, played a black man, “Amos”, in the Amos n’ Andy radio show of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which was hugely popular. He voiced Amos, as well as other Black characters such as Kingfish and Lightnin’ in an imitation of Black Vernacular English. He became very wealthy, moved to California and played golf frequently with the President of the United States (Eisenhower). The other two Richmond-born entertainers, Charles Gilpin, a famous actor, and Bojangles, a celebrated dancer/singer, both Black, each died penniless and forgotten. Gilpin became well-know from playing the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but his career when downhill when he insisted that O’Neill remove the word “nigger” from the play. Bojangles paired with Shirley Temple in many popular films but died so impoverished that Ed Sullivan stepped in to pay for his funeral. A statue of Bojangles was erected in Richmond in the 1970’s

Statue of Bojangles in Richmond, VA,

but it pales in comparison to the huge statues of Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue. Gilpin also is remembered in Richmond through Gilpin Court, the oldest and largest public housing project in the city, but notorious today for its high rate of crime and decrepit condition.

The supreme irony may be that while the three Virginia politicians are facing strong pressure to resign, at the federal level, the President of the United States faces no such pressures, despite having been implicated in many instances of racial insensitivity, misogynistic actions, and voiced support for white supremacists.

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.

From cave to KFC

The Wild Boars football team in Thailand

The Wild Boars were released from the hospital yesterday to their families, the young Thai boys trapped in a flooded cave for over 2 weeks. They will be overjoyed to be back with their families, but they will likely be especially eager to get back to the food they love. Having suffered from hunger while in the cave, food was one of the things they tried not to think about, but which, according to notes they wrote to their families, they couldn’t help but daydream about.

Pad kra pao

The foods they craved in the cave provide insights into the tastes, at least, of young Thais. One of the dishes several boys mentioned was pad kra pao, a fried rice dish which usually served with chicken, normally quite spicy. That spiciness is a common theme across most of the dishes the boy mentioned. That even includes KFC, the US fast food chain. The menu in Thailand is quite different from that in the US (and other countries), with most of the chicken dishes being spicy.

It’s an interesting experience to visit fast food chains in different countries. I note that the “burgers” at the Thai KFC do not include any beef versions, only chicken or fish. That’s not maybe a big deal for KFC, but I visited a McDonald’s in India, curious about how beef (taboo in India) would be replaced; after all Big Macs and beef burgers are the staple of that chain – in India, too, plenty of chicken to replace beef, but also many vegetarian dishes.

A member of the KFC founder’s family, Colonel Sanders, has been in the news, defending the Colonel in accusations from the fired former CEO of Papa John’s Pizza, John Schnatter. Schnatter defended himself from accusations of racism by claiming that the Colonel himself had made racist comments, something refuted by the Colonel’s grandson, Trigg Adams

Sensitivity training at Starbucks

African-American being arrested at Starbucks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese prom dress inappropriate?

Keziah Daum in her prom dress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More desirable – less desirable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monument of shame?

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

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

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

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

Ruins of Castle Hanstein

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dirt Woman passes

Dirt Woman (Donnie Corker)

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

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

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

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