This week, Georgia Senator David Purdue, warming up the audience for a Trump rally, in Macon, Georgia, pretended he didn’t know how to pronounce the first name of the Democratic vice presidential candidate: “Ka-MA-la, KA-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever”
Perdue then warned the crowd of a potential liberal takeover of government with “Bernie and Elizabeth and Kah-mah-la or Kah-ma-la or Kamamboamamla or however you say it.” It should be pointed out that Senator Perdue has served with Kamala Harris in the Senate for 3 years, in fact on the same committee. So he clearly knows how to say her name, but through pretending to have trouble with the pronunciation, he wanted to draw attention to fact that she does not have a familiar first name, from a white American perspective.
In fact, both Harris’ parents were immigrants to the US, with her mother coming from India. They gave her a name that in the original Sanskrit (कमला) means “lotus” or “pale red”. For Harris, her name is a reminder of her heritage. For Purdue, it points to her foreignness, implying through the mocking way he played on her name that there was something not quite right about her. In other words, his words were a clear racist dog whistle, a signal his audience understood quite well, as they laughed along with Purdue.
This is not the first racist action from the Senator. He recently ran an ad, increasing the size of the nose of his Democratic opponent in November, Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish. Purdue has also accused Ossoff and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of trying to “buy Georgia.” In embracing the caricature of Jews with large noses and leveling the scurrilous accusation that Ossoff and Schumer – both Jewish – are trying to buy influence and power, Perdue invoked two of the world’s oldest antisemitic tropes.
This is another troubling sign that open racism has unfortunately become mainstream in many segments of the US population.
Both serve as national icons, the President of the US and Miss America, but they represent institutions not normally brought together, although President Trump does have a history with beauty pageants.
Both figures were in the news this week. It so happens that the recently crowned Miss America, Camille Schrier, is a VCU student, working towards a doctorate in pharmacy. Her talent in the contest was doing chemistry experiments, with eye-popping results. She was back at VCU this week as part of her national tour to promote medication safety and to prevent drug misuse. She has said that her mission was also to promote science careers for girls, stating in an interview, “I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy]…That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.” Although in the pageant, Schrier wore a white lab coat and safety goggles for the talent performance, it’s clear that if she were not an attractive woman, she would not have earned the crown. However that may be, she is leveraging the exposure and publicity she is receiving to engage in public service, something in fact that is expected of every Miss America. In that sense she is working within normal institutional parameters.
That is hardly the case recently for many US politicians, including not only the President, but members of Congress as well. Their behavior in the impeachment process has been largely dictated by personal political interests, not by a concern to strengthen the institutions they represent. That’s not true of all those in Congress, but it’s a pattern that we’re seeing more often, and not just in politics. Self-interest rather than institutional support has become a driver of actions and attitudes, leading to wide-spread distrust of institutions in the US.
That’s laid out in a new book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, recently discussed with the author on NPR. In the interview Levin points out that many members of Congress “think about the institution as a way to raise their profile”, for example, Senator Ted Cruz after every session of the impeachment trial hosting a podcast commenting on the session. While Levin comments that it is legitimate “for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture”, doing so excessively and making that one’s major focus, “makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it”:
When members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for…What happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.
One can make the same argument for President Trump, who has used the institution of the presidency as a platform, through Twitter, to promote himself:
President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he’s been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.
In the process, he is debasing the institution of the Presidency, leading to growing public mistrust. This is all the more disturbing given the power of that office. Levin sees this as a lesson for us all:
All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.
In other words, in the institution in which we are involved, we should all be focused on civic engagement. Our current Miss America can function as a model. While she had participated in pageants as a girl, she stopped on starting college, as she wanted to focus on her interest in science (she has undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and systems biology). When she was a graduate student, she heard that the Miss America pageant had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That provided an opportunity for her to showcase her own interest in science and potentially to serve as a role model and mentor for girls, demonstrating that, in her words, “Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America”. She is using the institution, as she found it, to further goals of inclusion and acceptance, not self-interest.
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’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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Over 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.
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.
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.