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Jerry Maren Was A Munchkin & A Mythbuster

10 Jun

 

The death of Jerry Maren at age 98 last month was just reported this week and has been making headlines because Maren was the last surviving actor who played a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz. Despite other roles ranging from Buster Brown commercials to Seinfeld, Maren said nothing topped telling people he had acted in The Wizard of Oz.  Like most of the cast, he had never heard of the story before he was cast as a member of the Lollipop Guild (see above).

In the United States, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most well-known films of all time—only Star Wars is cited more often in pop culture—so it’s unsurprising that even a tangential association with it ignites stars in people’s eyes. This is only problematic insofar as the Munchkins—along with Oompa-Loompas and the European fantasy tradition of Dwarves—are one of the first things most people think of when they hear about dwarfism. And the film does perpetuate the widespread myth of short-statured people constituting a race that lives separately from average-sized people. The ubiquity of this myth is why most people are surprised to hear that 80% of all people with dwarfism in the U.S. are born to average-sized parents. In L. Frank Baum’s books, Munchkins do originate from Munchkinland, but there are also individual Munchkins integrated into all walks of life across the land of Oz. One of them is a general in a militant army of feminists. Progress?

Jerry Maren, however, did not only contribute his role as a Munchkin to dwarf history. With fellow actor Billy Barty, he helped found Little People of America, the first and largest dwarf advocacy organization in the United States. As someone with dwarfism, my life was far more greatly impacted by this than by the Munchkins.

According to The New York Times, Maren also campaigned against rumors spread by Judy Garland that the Munchkin actors were lecherous and alcoholic:

In his book, Mr. Maren blamed a troubled Judy Garland, who played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” for erroneously painting her dwarf castmates as miscreants. Referring to a 1967 television interview in which she told Jack Paar that the Munchkins “all got smashed every night” and had to be “picked up in butterfly nets,” Mr. Maren wrote: “Judy was telling it according to her pills and booze that day. She left behind a legacy of untruths about us.”

That stereotype of people with dwarfism as horny little drunks goes back to Victorian era, if not farther, and is still commonly found today in the freak show portrayals found on reality TV and MTV, at dwarf-tossing events, etc. Kudos to Maren for calling a star as big as Garland out on this. Hopefully the film’s millions of fans interested in what went on behind-the-scenes are just as interested in facts as fiction.

 

 

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What’s the Difference Between Immigrants & Expats?

3 Jun

immigrant(Image by Charles LeBlanc used under CC 2.0 via)

 

The past month has seen some deeply depressing images of what cruelty humans are capable of when they fear large numbers of people from across the border. From the now scandalous policy of a “hostile environment” for suspected undocumented immigrants in the U.K. to the separation of children from their parents at the U.S. borders to the report that only 10 percent of Hungarians feel “totally comfortable” being friends with an immigrant, xenophobia has a lot to celebrate.

“I don’t mean you.” It’s a phrase I often hear when I point out my status to someone going on about foreigners here in Germany. In one of the most painful exchanges I’ve ever sat through, a man specifically told me Germany should be doing more to allow nice, hard-working, honest people like me into the country instead of opening the door to “all those dirt people.”  

I wish I had asked him what exactly separates me from them. Even though I could likely guess the answer, it’s an important question to ask. Did he see me as nice and honest because he’d met me twice before, unlike those constituting the faceless mobs? Or by nice and honest did he mean expat instead of immigrant? What’s the difference? Legally none. Both groups have to get their visas from the same immigration office.   

Expats are generally less feared than immigrants and I postulate the biggest reason is because expat is implicitly understood to mean more likely to be in the middle- to upper income brackets and have a college education. Expats are generally defined as foreigners brought to their new home not just in search of employment but by their employer, who is almost always a multinational company, a university, an embassy, or an international research organization. Their employer is likely to ensure that their stay is temporary, so expats usually replace each other, rather than accumulating.

There is of course another type of expat that is slightly more likely to permanently immigrate. Western countries have long produced wandering artists, scholars, and backpackers who seek inspiration and happiness far from home. Technically they are in search of work when they land in their new country, just like immigrants. But they are viewed as expats and not immigrants if their economic background ensures that they will be able to maintain a middle class (or upper class) level of financial security no matter what happens. If things go really bad, Mom or Dad or someone else back home will ensure that they never risk tumbling into true poverty.

I came to Berlin 13 years ago this month fresh out of college and looking for work just as many of my classmates were doing in cities across the United States. I chose Berlin not because it offered great opportunities—it rather infamously did not—but because I had fallen in love with the city while studying here. I had made friends—all fellow students—and they and their families welcomed me warmly. Obtaining my work visa was in no way easy, but it was far easier than the ordeal faced by the people from Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America who sat next to me in the waiting room at the immigration office.

When there was a long delay in the application process, family and friends loaned me the money to cover my rent. When I was told I needed more offers of employment than I had presented, a professor I knew from a past translation project offered me a position as one of his research assistants. Another got me in touch with her colleague who was looking for a nanny. All these connections had been made during my college years and they helped keep me legally safe and financially secure as I struggled for the right to stay in Germany. It would be dishonest to pretend I did it all myself and that diligence and determination are all anyone really needs. Nothing shapes your life experience quite like the social network you belong to and the average income of that network. A black friend whose family is middle class and immigrated from The Gambia told me he hears “I don’t mean you” from xenophobic voters fairly often, too.

Class differences create hierarchies of immigrants that promulgate dangerous myths about superior and inferior cultures. Immigrants to the United States from China and India, for example, are stereotyped as “the model minority” because they are two of the few ethnic groups to earn more on average than white Americans. Pundits of all political stripes have insisted that the stereotype of hard-working, high-earning Chinese and Indian immigrants versus uneducated, low-wage Latin American and Caribbean immigrants can be simplified down to a matter of having the right values. This ignores the realities of the visa system, outlined best by Prof. Janelle S. Wong at NBC.com. She points out that in the U.S. , 50% of all immigrants from China and 70% of all immigrants from India have a bachelor’s degree, while only 5% of the people living in China and 15% of the people living in India do.

This is due to changes in immigration laws that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. Prior to that, most Chinese immigrants such as those that built the U.S. railroad did not have college degrees and were stereotyped in the harshest possible ways, which culminated in The Chinese Exclusion Act. The parallels to U.S. policy proposals aimed at Mexican immigrants today are emphasized in a new PBS documentary named for the act. Sometimes stealthily, sometimes brazenly, societies treat those with a higher education very differently than those without.

But the advantages I have here in Germany over other immigrants are not only economic or education-based. Once I was harassed on the street for speaking English with my partner because “this is Germany and we speak German here! You’re hurting my ears!” But I’ve never had the police stop me on the street and demand to see my German residency permit, unlike a friend from Jamaica. When I plan a vacation, I’m free to move around Europe and most of the world without a travel visa, unlike friends from China and Côté d’Ivoire. I’ve stood near skinheads here in Berlin and been horrified, but I’ve never once felt threatened. That’s what being simultaneously white and Western gets you. No matter how much money you have in the bank or where you went to school.

Mawuna Remarque Koutonin argued years ago in The Guardian that the only difference between expats and immigrants is racist thinking and it has to go. As we have seen, she is right that the distinction can be profoundly offensive. In these xenophobic times, solidarity among foreigners (and humans) of all sorts is crucial. But any expat who claims to face the same probability of persecution as an immigrant is also problematic, ignorant of the very real and systemic privileges bestowed upon some but not others. Naming the different realities faced by the different people lining up at the immigration office is important because if you name it, you can talk about it.

And we absolutely must talk about it because too many nationalist voters across the Western world don’t want to. They don’t like to talk about the ramifications of class background or the power of racism. They don’t like to talk about why they fear foreign poor people more than local poor people, and they don’t like to talk about local poor people either. They like to talk about cultural differences being insurmountable, about having good values and bad values, good people and bad people. And that’s where the problem starts.

 

 

Fabricators Like Rachel Dolezal Need Help, But Not Public Sympathy

20 May

 

Self-determination is key to identity. There is no hierarchy of oppressions. What can be socially constructed can be socially changed. We must be the change we want to see. These are all pillars of social justice I’ve quoted on this blog and they are all true. But then came Rachel Dolezal. And she proves these truisms require a blaring asterisk that screams There’s also more to it than that!

The much-debated documentary The Rachel Divide was released last month on Netflix and reveals that Dolezal’s is a complex story. Most know her as a white woman born in rural Montana who began self-identifying (or masquerading) as African-American as an adult and was suddenly forced to resign as president of the Spokane NAACP in 2015 when her parents exposed her origins to the press. Her ex-colleagues are right in saying, “Who’s affected by this? All the people that the NAACP had been advocating for… She destroyed something that now we have to rebuild if we can.” Her teenage son is right in saying, “She did not choose her words carefully. And it affected me. It affected my brother. The more I talk to people about it, the more it drains me.” And Dolezal is right that there are reasons she tried to escape her past.

Her parents are white religious fundamentalists who raised her and her older brother Joshua along with four black children they adopted. Two of those children, Izaiah and Esther, currently corroborate Dolezal’s claims that their parents were abusive and that the older brother Joshua molested the girls in the family. Many, including the legal system, have cast doubt on these claims in light of her deceit about her race. Others, including some of her critics, believe this part of the story to be true. Either way, when Dolezal and her two siblings fled their family, this was the beginning of her journey toward tanning her skin, donning wigs and fully identifying as a black woman. Izaiah and Esther don’t seem to see much problem in any of that. But the rest of Black America certainly does.

And they have good reason to. Coping with abuse comes in many forms. The public is in no position to decide what sort of professional help would be appropriate for Dolezal to recover from her traumatic childhood, but you don’t have to be a therapist to know that honesty is mandatory for healing. Dolezal’s past decision to lie and current decision to demand that she maintain a life built on that lie is helpful to absolutely no one.

All of her steps forward take her back to her very public role as a black activist. She is now desperate for work but only applies to teaching positions in Africana studies. She obviously loves her children, but repeatedly drags them into the lion’s den of social media, bragging about their black identities and receiving hate mail in return. She cannot retreat into obscurity because her name is known across the nation, so she changes it to something Nigerian. In interviews, she says her only option other than continuing the ruse is to go back to being the abused daughter of religious fundamentalists in Montana. No right-minded person would wish any survivor to return to an abusive home, but Black America isn’t asking her to. They are simply asking her to tell the whole truth.

Some have expressed bewilderment at the degree of outrage Dolezal has faced for simply being who she feels she is. After all, Dolezal argues that she can be black because race is a social construct. Indeed it is. But so is money, as Ijeou Olou said in her interview with Dolezal last year. And having money and not having money create vastly different life experiences.

Yet that too is an idea many people fail to grasp. You don’t have to look hard to find those whose exaggerations expand into fictions about having grown up poor. Plenty delude themselves that not being able to afford everything they want as soon as they want it is just as hard as living below the poverty line. Like Dolezal, they infuriate those who have truly have known what the privileged pretend to. Because it’s dishonest, misleading and, perhaps above all, tone-deaf.

I do not know what it’s like to have grown up poor and to listen to trust fund kids claim they did, too. Nor do I know what it’s like to be black and to watch Rachel Dolezal take up so much of the discussion on race relations. But I do know what it’s like to be disabled and read about those who fake (or wildly overstate) debilitation and illness. If no one faked illness, we wouldn’t need doctor’s notes to go on sick leave. I wouldn’t have to carefully figure out the best way to explain that I sometimes need assistance and I sometimes want to just brave it when discussing my disabled status with my employers and the bureaucrats of social services. While most truth-stretchers merely exaggerate minor symptoms, some go to extremes, faking cancer or other life-threatening diseases to garner sympathy. Anyone who believes illness is enviable to the point of plagiarizing it does not understand the inescapable pain inherent in it. Such plagiarism often triggers a backlash fueled in part by a desire to make them understand exactly how painful it can be. That desire is not noble, but it should not be surprising.

Nor should it be surprising that those who have falsely claimed to be Holocaust survivors have faced similar vitriol.

As The Rachel Divide shows, Rachel Dolezal’s deception did hurt the civil rights movement, but she shouldn’t be granted enough power to inflict lasting harm because there are ultimately very, very few out there like her. You can talk to thousands of black women in America and you are very unlikely to come across one who was born white. The majority of hate crimes reported this year have been verified by the Southern Poverty Law center. And most people who say they have cancer really do.

Fabricators must face the consequences of their actions. They deserve to be reprimanded for exploiting people and the institutions who are there to help. They deserve to be made to understand how terrible it feels to be lied to. And, even if their lies were born in desperate circumstances, they do not deserve any sympathy from those who have been true victims of oppression. Some may be able to approach Dolezal more neutrally than others, but black Americans should never be expected to. Perhaps if Rachel Dolezal ever manages to comprehend that, she will begin to comprehend what she did.

 

 

 

 

Those Genetic Ancestry Tests

6 May

Lollipop (Image by Jackie used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Our neighbors recently told me that their adoptive daughter had been musing about her background. Little was known about her biological family because her birth mother had requested anonymity at the hospital. Her file contained almost no information other than a note from a nurse that the birth mother seemed to be Russian. I wondered aloud if the nurse could tell the difference between a Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian or Bulgarian accent. After all, I had met a boy who spent a good deal of time believing his birth father was Turkish, only to later find out that the social worker who wrote it down had made an error (as we all do in the course of a work day), and that his birth father was in fact Arab. Our neighbors said their daughter was interested in taking a genetic test.  

My father and his siblings recently took such a test. After long wondering whether their great-grandparents, who had anglicized their Slavic surname upon immigrating to the U.S., were Polish or Belarusian, the test had an answer: they were probably Eastern European. I had to laugh. Our family’s study of historical records and names has given us far more specific information about our ancestors’ origins and cultures than the DNA tests have. 

Indeed, the DNA of one of my father’s siblings was estimated to be 30% Western European, whereas another’s was estimated to be only 2% Western European. That’s because we all inherit half of our genes from one biological parent and half from the other, but not necessarily the same halves as our siblings. So are you not very British at all if you inherited a lower percentage of those genetic markers than your sister, even if your surname is British? Surnames of course can also come from step-parents. And DNA tests render invisible all the cultural heritage and influence of adoptive parents anywhere in a family tree.

And as Sarah Chodosh warns at Popular Science, “all of your ancestry data is mostly an estimate. That’s why companies attach a confidence interval to your results. They may say you’re 48 percent Eastern European, but that they’re anywhere from 30 to 80 percent sure of that result. Most people focus on the 48 percent and forget that the results aren’t for certain.”

The popularity of direct-to-consumer genetic tests has exploded over the past year in the U.S., where they are unregulated. The country’s identity as a nation of immigrants inspires many to be curious about their ancestors that left the Old World for the New. But why only claim them as your ancestors? If you consider yourself Irish because someone in your family tree emigrated from Dublin, why not consider yourself Scandinavian seeing as the Vikings founded Dublin? When does identity start and when does it stop?

As philosopher Alva Noë explained at NPR, DNA tests can currently explain some things about ancestry, but nowhere near the whole story:

Consider: Even if you are a descendant of Shakespeare, there is only a negligible chance of your having any of his DNA. This is because autosomal DNA gets passed on randomly. Shakespeare’s kid probably had 50 percent of his DNA; his kid in turn, on average, a quarter, and so on. Within 10 generations, Shakespeare’s DNA has spread out and recombined so many times that it doesn’t even really make sense to speak of a match. Putting the same point the other way, each of us has so many ancestors that we have no choice but to share them with each other. Moreover, we don’t share any DNA with the vast majority of them. True, you will share Y-chromosome DNA or mtDNA with very distant ancestors, but these make up a vanishingly small percentage of your total ancestry.

Indeed, if you go back far enough, we start to share ancestors, which is why everyone with any European ancestry is related to Charlemagne. Does that make our DNA more interesting or less? Rarely do I meet people here in Germany who are interested in any of their ancestry that reaches back farther than their great-grandparents, unless they have an unusual surname, a claim to nobility, or an interest in nationalist politics. 

This is important to bear in mind as a heated debate continues in the U.S. about genetic studies of different human populations and/or “races.” You can read about the arguments from those who fear more fodder for racism and those who believe any such fear is idiotic political correctness, but so far Ian Holmes has summed it up best in his article “What Happens When Geneticists Talk Sloppily About Race”:

It’s common for natural scientists to eschew questions of linguistic semantics, preferring to steer debate to technical issues. This relates to how we define ourselves professionally: Science as a discipline seeks objective truth via empirically testable hypotheses, not subjective questions of public perception. “Now we’re just talking semantics” is a line that often signals imminent consensus, in friendly arguments among members of my profession.

But when speaking publicly about race, language matters. Regularly in American history, slavery, discrimination, and other forms of racism have been justified using distortions of science and pseudoscientific ideas. The U.S. program of eugenics was second only to Nazi Germany’s, which it directly inspired and informed.

Indeed, clear and conscientious communication from scientists is key because most of us do not understand genetics very well. And the general public is quick to apply social values to scientific facts researchers may have assumed would be perceived as neutral. With reports like “You’re probably Eastern European” or “you’re probably French-German,” many people are making broad assumptions about their heritage, unaware that these tests tell them next to nothing as to what language their ancestors spoke or which holidays they celebrated because these regions were very culturally diverse in the age before nationalism and mass media, which are very new inventions. Robin Hood and Richard the Lion-Hearted didn’t speak the same language, despite what romantic Hollywood portrayals would have us think. As recently as 1880, three-quarters of the people living in France didn’t speak French.

Ethnic identity is more often a matter of a piece of paper than a gene. Because politics happen on paper. And it’s politics that define borders, decide which languages and dialects are taught in schools and which are not, which religions are allowed to practice freely and which should be made to not feel at home, which people we decide are Us and which people are Them.

The most famous moment on the PBS show Finding Your Roots was when Larry David, who has had a long career in comedy that often highlights his experiences as a New York Jew, discovered some of his ancestors were Southern slave-owners. Such a revelation came from studying legal documents, not genomes, because there is no such thing as slave-owner DNA.

An American-German couple I know are working to obtain a U.S. passport for their son who was born here in Berlin so that he will feel a connection to his American heritage. Will that do it? I know a Norwegian man with a U.S. passport who spent less than year in the States. He was born there and the family then returned home after his father’s job transferred him back to Oslo. His older sisters, however, spent five years there and remember them well because their memories were formed after infancy. They don’t have a right to citizenship because they weren’t born in the U.S., but culturally, they’re more American than their passport-holding brother.

Records on ancestry are few and far between for the descendants of colonialism’s victims. For most of Western history, their ethnic identity has often been dictated by laws intended to uphold racial hierarchies. The American One Drop Rule was invented to prevent the descendants of slaves and slave-owners from inheriting the latter’s wealth. Clearly it can be poignant to discover with a DNA test that your ancestors didn’t just come from “Africa” but a specific region in Africa – even if it is a big, diverse region with just as many conflicts between groups as there have been in Europe and the other continents over the centuries. The case of South African Sandra Laing famously revealed the resilience of racism based on appearance despite changes in the laws regarding ancestry. Or, in the words of Black-ish:

 

Maybe grouping humans ethnically based on ancestral DNA markers will destroy many prejudices, but maybe it will cement many others. The story of human history is the story of various groups embroiled in conflicts, many of which have ramifications well into today. This is why we cannot afford to be careless when we talk about genetics and heritage.

But perhaps we can also be careful without being too serious. My grandmother would frequently tease her son as he reported new genealogical findings, asking, “When are you going to finally tell me that I’m a Russian princess?”

Hopefully never, I joked to my partner. All families should be valued, but I for one would not be pleased to find out that mine was thoroughly inbred.

 

As in many of my articles, the identities of many of the unnamed people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

It’s Dwarfism Awareness Month and I’m Aware that Most of Us Don’t Understand Genetics and Medicine

8 Oct

Bones(Image by Gema used under CC 2.0 via)
 
 
“Hey, I had a test question about achondroplasia today!” an old roommate of mine reported to me a few years back. He was a medical student and had been studying for his licensing exam.

“Oh, yeah?” I asked. “What was the question?”

“Whether or not achondroplasia affects intelligence.”

“And the answer was…?” I smiled.

“The answer was no,” he replied, returning the smile.

That this was a test question implies a necessity for teaching this fact. Indeed, for a good part of modern history, children with achondroplasia and other types of dwarfism were too often assumed to be intellectually disabled and placed in institutions or special ed classes for life. Hence a meme from Little People of America that’s been floating around the Internet in honor of Dwarfism Awareness Month: “A common misconception about people with dwarfism is that they are cognitively delayed or mentally impaired. This is NOT true.” Activism will remain crucial until this misconception is no longer common.

What are the chances that it ever will be? Equality and empathy are the heart of every human rights movement, but these ideas alone did not disprove the idea that lower than average height is indicative of lower than average intelligence. Science did that. The scientific method uncovers the facts. Political activism spreads the word.

Despite what some extremist conservatives claim, science doesn’t have a liberal bias. It often reveals facts upsetting to many. For example, contrary to some Dwarfism Awareness campaigns, people with achondroplasia cannot be anything they want to be. They cannot be construction workers, gymnasts, military combatants, weight lifters, or participate in most contact sports because the achondroplastic spinal column is compressed, rendering these activities more life-threatening for us than for most people. That’s a scientific fact.

It need not be a cause for regret. I don’t consider a life without the ability to participate in contact sports or construction work any less enriching than a life without the ability to sing on key or identify bird calls or cut hair or write without spellcheck. (When I’m feeling snarky, I steal a line from this movie: “Dear White People on Instagram: You own an iPhone and you go on hikes. We get it.”) Competitive and aggressive feats of strength can be a way to be a stronger person, but they are not the only way. You can tell me a million times that I cannot safely lift anything heavier than a small child over my head and I will never take it as an insult.

What is insulting is to tout broad assumptions about conditions and bodies as facts when they have not been corroborated by several studies. Someone with dyslexia is unlikely to master a word scramble, but that does not mean she cannot be a skilled writer. Someone with Down Syndrome cannot practice medicine, but that does not mean he cannot get a job. If you hear that people with dwarfism cannot have a high IQ, teach, drive, play tennis, perform surgery, give birth, or take care of children, these are not facts. They are assumptions. Yet they have been dispersed far and wide, terrifying far too many people with dwarfism and their parents.

Having a rare genetic mutation has taught me that teaching science to the masses is hard. Most of us who are not scientists develop our understanding of medicine based on doctor’s visits, pop science news articles, and hearsay, as opposed to peer-reviewed research published in medical journals or textbooks. This is to be expected—when was the last time I read a medical journal straight through?—but it results in all sorts of inaccurate and potentially dangerous assumptions.

When I recently tried to explain to some new friends that the gene for achondroplasia is dominant, one insisted, “Achondroplasia can’t be dominant because then most people would be dwarfs!” Wrong.

When my parents visited one of their first Little People of America meetings shortly after I was born back in the early Eighties, one volunteer said, “Dwarfs don’t live as long as average-sized people do because they have to walk twice as many steps in their lifetime.” Also wrong. The most common cause of lower life expectancy among dwarfs throughout history has been a lack of access to appropriate health care due to social marginalization.

When a journalist asked the owner of a Hollywood freak show last year why one of his main performers had died at the age of 32, he replied, “A lot of them don’t have long life spans. Little hearts and the whole thing.” The reporter revealed in his excellent exposé of the depressing freak show business that the performer in question died of alcoholism.

My career as a writer has helped me see how much we love stories that are both out of the ordinary and easy to understand. My dwarfism has caused me to be confronted with the ubiquity of scientific misinformation in these stories and has helped me see how xenophobia facilitates the lazy thinking perpetuating scientific myths about minorities. Black Americans can’t swim? More like they were barred from learning how. Half of gay male teens have AIDS? File that one next to the Victorian belief that masturbation causes blindness. Women don’t have the skills to be Silicon Valley programmers? In Western cultures where men are expected to be bread-winners, women have been dissuaded from pursuing the highest-earning jobs, whether we’re talking about doctors and nurses, professors and school teachers, or milk men and milk maids.

This is why I approach most scientific and medical “facts” uttered to me with a heavy dose of skepticism. This can be draining. Some days I would like to simply trust Google or a Facebook Group for dwarfs instead of having to track down out-of-print medical textbooks or wait months for my orthopedist to have a free appointment in order to find it out if I should be concerned about osteoporosis or fibroids. But doubt is the fuel of innovation and vigorous research ultimately harms no one.

And when facing complex disabilities and learning about what certain bodies absolutely can and cannot do, we should not confuse being talented with being good. Just as it is hard for us to resist a fascinating story, it is hard for us to resist the idea that strength of body and mind also indicates strength of character. But acing any sort of competition says little about your ability to be brave, honest, generous or humble. Need proof? Celebrity scandals are but a Google search away.
 
 

How to Insult 10 Different Kinds of Families with One Campaign Poster

17 Sep

Bundestag(Image by Michael Fötsch used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I was riding the bus home from work earlier this week through downtown Berlin when I caught sight of this campaign poster for the Alternative für Deutschland party. Featuring a white woman’s visibly pregnant belly, it reads: “New Germans? We’ll make them ourselves!”

Talk about a punch in the gut. At first glance, the poster appears to be promoting closed borders and “traditional” family values. But it can never be read free from the history of the Nazis’ obsession with using women to make white, Christian, non-disabled babies. Lebensborn was an association built expressly for that purpose. Women across Germany who had four or more children and who were not branded degenerates were awarded medals by the Third Reich. Anyone who has gone to school in Germany knows about all this.

It would be perverse to claim this AfD poster is more upsetting than any of the others, which target burqas, halal cooking and the idea of multiculturalism. But as a woman with both a residence permit from the immigration office and a disabled ID card in my pocket, I felt the attack personally. The deep sadness then turned to desperate hope that the poster escaped the view of those who are more likely to be targets of street harassment than I am (people of color, LGBT couples and religious minorities), and anyone returning from a fertility clinic or an adoption agency.

Germans go to the polls next Sunday. Over the last ten days the AfD has been projected to win between 8% and 12% of the vote – far behind the top two parties, but fighting neck-in-neck with the Greens, the Left, and the pro-business Free Democrats for third place. As long as they reach the 5% minimum necessary for earning seats in the Bundestag, a difference of three or four percentage points will technically have little effect on the AfD’s ability to influence policy. Because all the other political parties have refused to work with the AfD, it will not be able join a coalition. But coming in third place instead of fifth or sixth will make a big difference in the post-election narrative. Both critics and supporters of the AfD will claim that Germany is shedding some of the post-WWII taboos and political correctness that have defined its democracy for the past 50 years.

Many voters here tell me they hope the AfD’s success in next week’s election turns out to be a one-hit-wonder that quickly falls apart like so many small parties have done before. But no matter what happens on September 24th, it is important to remember that the 12% of voters who have ever been sympathetic to the AfD and its xenophobic politics have been around for a long time.

Unlike the ostentatiously angry Nationalist Party, which has never come close to garnering 5% of the vote, the AfD has sought success by branding itself the moderate voice of xenophobia. They hope to appeal to conservatives and left-wingers alike who worry about multiculturalism gone mad. Most of their voters like to think of themselves as open-minded, not hateful. They just think there need to be restrictions on immigration because they’ve heard tales of towns overrun by foreigners who don’t know how to put their garbage in the bins. They just want to ban burqas and niqabs because sexism. And Islamic holidays and symbols should not be prominent in public or in schools because Germany should be recognized as a Christian nation. They don’t mind that the AfD’s candidate for chancellor is openly lesbian. It would just be nice to put an end to all this talk about LGBT rights. They tell my friends and me that when they complain about immigrants, “I don’t mean you.” C’mon, they’re not Nazis. They’re just asking, “What about me?” If you’re gonna call it racism or sexism, then it’s the reasonable kind. The kind every person is born with. Common sense.

The short but bombastic history of the AfD proves that xenophobia in moderation doesn’t work. The party was founded by pro-business politicians who opposed the EU à la Brexit. These founders were soon driven out and replaced by the anti-immigrant populists of today. Every few months the party has had an internal war involving someone who said something that’s just too reminiscent of the Third Reich. On the outside, friends of color report more frequent street harassment since the AfD’s increased presence. The disability rights organization AbilityWatch reports the AfD was the only party who declined to respond to their issues. The gay and lesbian alliance LSVD rates the AfD the most homophobic of all the major parties despite its current leadership.

That campaign poster embodies all this. It’s what you get when you think some degree of xenophobia is reasonable.

 

Disclaimer: As noted before, no political party will ever be endorsed on this blog, but political threats to human rights and equality, both historic and contemporary, will always be analyzed.

 

 

Don’t Be A Sucker

20 Aug

 

Leaving you this weekend with original 1947 U.S. War Department film containing the two-minute clip that’s gone viral this week. It’s relevant in the wake of Charlottesville, and of yesterday’s anti-nationalist marches in Boston and here in Berlin. But it’s particularly relevant in its familiarity. The warnings of the dangers of authoritarianism and the assertion that there is no scientific proof of racial differences in character or ability have been repeated countless times in the 70 years since its release. Because so many have claimed otherwise. So often thinking theirs is a new, radical idea.

 

 

 

 

Charlottesville

13 Aug

Unlearn Racism 1(Image by Joe Brusky used under CC 2.0)

 

A woman lost her life over the removal of a statue. Her murder is an atrocity and a tragedy. But the greater danger of the horrors that went down in Charlottesville is the readiness of anyone to sympathize with or relativize the white supremacist movement that brought it on.

“I’m tired of seeing white people pushed around,” one marcher told The New York Times. “Jew will not replace us” was chanted by torch-bearers on Friday night. I don’t want to run through the specifics of Confederate monuments or Nazism or the global wave of nationalism. I’ve done that before and plenty are doing that now. Some of the marchers call themselves Neo-Nazis, some call themselves alt-right activists, some identify as Trump supporters first and foremost. But all were white-supremacists.

While plenty of spectators from afar will surely protest that the acts of violence were carried out by only a few, white supremacy is not limited to the willingness to harass minorities into submission. White supremacy is so much bigger than that.

If you believe it’s important that white people remain the majority of the U.S. population—or any Western country—that’s white supremacy. If you want to decide what words are and aren’t offensive to minority groups without listening to anyone belonging to those groups, that’s white supremacy. If you feel self-conscious as the only white person in a room but never consider how often people of color endure that situation, that’s white supremacy. If you feel pushed around at the sight of a non-white or non-Christian person getting a job, a raise, a promotion or an honor that you didn’t get, that’s white supremacy. If you more readily fear non-white and non-Christian criminals and terrorists, that’s white supremacy. If you tend to believe white poverty is about unfairness or personal problems while any other poverty is about inferior cultural values, that’s white supremacy. White supremacy is about power, and if any of us feel threatened when the descendants of slaves request the removal of honors for those who fought to keep their ancestors in chains, we absolutely must ask ourselves where, when and why we feel powerful.

It’s not easy to face these questions. White people in the West grow up used to seeing white people at the center of most conversations. White people today didn’t create slavery, anti-Semitism, colonialism or this white supremacist reality. But we reveal how deeply we have come to believe in it if we can’t handle the idea of seeing the system change.

 

 

 

Should You Avoid the Word “Inspiring” When It Comes to Disability?

6 Aug

lying body(Image by Crodriguesc used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Many of the [deaf, dwarf, autistic, schizophrenic, disabled, transgender & gifted] people I interviewed said that they would never exchange their experiences for any other life – sound thinking, given that exchange is unavailable.

– Andrew Solomon in Far from the Tree

 

Clichés are ideas, images, and sayings that are overused. They start off as messages that easily convey meaning. Such ease may at first be a sign of their success. But when they are repeated too often, they foster laziness. They hamper inquiry and innovation. We see a happy picture of a mother and child, we recognize it and all the uncomplicated feelings it is intended to convey, and we move on. Clichés hinder change and therein progress.

The opposite of a cliché has the opposite effect. It makes us pause, look again, consider the world and our assumptions about it, and—in the best case scenario—prompts a shift in us and our habits.

The term “inspiring” is cliché in the realm of disability, which is why it is on its way to becoming a taboo, if it hasn’t already. A boy who walks with crutches while flashing a smile is inspiring. The sheer willingness to face each day with lupus is inspiring. A runner with prosthetic legs is inspiring. Inspiration porn refers to such images in posters, human interest pieces, and memes, and their use as a reminder to a non-disabled person of how good they have it. This reminder is ever-so brief in comparison to the life situation that triggered it.

Inspiration porn is unrealistic but it has its roots in truth. Well-being is often achieved through a sense of gratitude and gratitude comes from having perspective. But the overuse of inspiration porn is problematic because it is one-sided. We are shown the simplicity of happiness but never the complexity of bioethics, the politics of disability rights, or the repetitiveness of chronic pain. The predominance of grinning patients is worrisome to disabled people because we could conclude from it that the world is only interested in us insofar as we are willing to repress anything contrary to the sunny narrative. This implies that the world is our ultimate fair-weather friend.

Inspiration porn can enable emotional vampirism. In the name of being “inspired,” we are often invited to watch someone with a disease or disability on reality TV, shed a few tears, congratulate ourselves for our willingness to dabble in sadness, and quickly move on to life as it was, perhaps lecturing others on just how hard others have it, while never considering our indirect role in any hardship. How many people say they have been “inspired” by Little People, Big World but then do nothing to change the U.S. policy on the U.N. Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities? I’m gonna say lots. Those addicted to emotional vampirism empathize in all the wrong ways, frequently muddling the truly tragic and the merely different.

But “inspiration” need not be unproductive. Watching and reading about disability, illness, and loss can ground us to humanity. After all, what else can – besides knowing someone personally? Such connections can lead us to genuinely understand the frivolity of our daily worries about job promotions, physical fitness, and that thing a supposed friend muttered to us that may have been a back-handed insult or may have been nothing at all. Having perspective is rarely a bad thing. There’s no harm in feeling gratitude—not pride, but gratitude—for every day that we do not have to endure intense physical pain or face probable death.

We can draw both good and bad conclusions from seeing someone doing something we didn’t know was possible. I am concerned when exceptionally talented disabled athletes are promoted as proof of why no one should ever take a break or not take risks. But I was suddenly overjoyed the first time I was treated by a doctor with a visible disability. (Seriously, I almost hugged him.) Representation feels good. Seeing is believing, to use a cliché.

History has proven that innovation and bravery are often contagious, as are idleness and cowardice. We’re social animals. Progress relies on our recognizing the world’s hurdles that need to be removed regardless of whether or not we have a personal connection to those they hold back.

But “inspiring” is overused. Maybe “humbling” is a better term. In this day and age, humility is so rare we may as well consider it radical. And how about “provoking”? When we see someone face struggles we can only imagine, we could ask ourselves if it provokes anything in us. And go from there. 

 

 

When A Hero Comes to School

30 Jul

IMG_7178(Image by Gordon Tarpley used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Leaving you this weekend with a short video of British actor Warwick Davis’s visit to a Nottingham primary school to explain dwarfism on behalf of Jasmine Chapman, a pupil with dwarfism who had asked Davis to come.

Davis has starred in a variety of block-buster fantasy films alongside the likes of Daniel Radcliffe, Val Kilmer, Diane Wiest, and Carrie Fisher. While his average-sized co-stars have had careers expanding far beyond the fantasy genre, Davis has not. This is frustrating.  As I’ve written before, it’s a problem that almost no disabled actors are famous, and the tradition of dwarfs in fantasy is complicated. Davis’s role in Ricky Gervais’s one-season-long series Life’s Too Short was even more so.

But most primary school children are unaware of all that. And sometimes that’s a good thing. I had a crush on Davis as a child after first seeing him in Willow in 1988. He had a lovely speaking voice replete with British accent and long curly hairy and he ended up the hero. I bought it. I was blissfully ignorant of the clash between adults telling me I could be anything I wanted to be and the reality of the job market for people with dwarfism at the time. Children need heroes.

I watch the video of nine-year-old Chapman sitting next to Davis as he explains that he and she are only different by virtue of their size and otherwise just like everyone else – sidestepping the intricate issues like chronic pain, necessary surgeries, disability funding, bioethics, political correctness, beauty standards, street harassment, and job discrimination. I watch the way he holds the kids’ attention by reiterating his lines as Professor Flitwick in the Harry Potter films. I watch it and I know that at Chapman’s age, I would have simply loved every minute of it.

 

 

Another Reason Why American Students Should Protest Campus Speakers If They Want To

23 Jul

Protest(Image by Jorgen Carling used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Academics across the political spectrum are debating whether or not students should protest speaking events on their campuses by controversial figures like Charles Murray, Bill Maher or Milo Yiannopolous. Murray tried to prove in his bestseller The Bell Curve that black people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence than white people. Maher has made no effort to differentiate between Muslim extremists and all Muslims in political discussions on his TV show Real Time. Yiannopolous is a professional Internet troll who says to anyone who finds his arguments upsetting, “Fuck feelings.”

Lisa Feldman Barrett argues in The New York Times that Yiannopolous should be protested and rejected by academia because “he is part of something noxious, a campaign of abuse. There is nothing to be gained from debating him, for debate is not what he is offering.” She puts Charles Murray, however, in a different category. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue back in The Atlantic that any campus protest of any speaker is an attack on free speech and contributes to a dangerous culture of victimhood that coddles college students. Both articles make interesting points. Both articles miss the point as to why I primarily believe students should protest any or all of these speakers.  

Unlike students here in Germany, where higher education is free, college students in the U.S. are not mere pupils who have been accepted based on their academic performance with the purpose of engaging in profound discourse that benefits both themselves and the academic community. College students in the U.S. are customers that go into sometimes life-long debt in order to purchase the product that is their four-year education. UC Berkeley, where students protested Bill Maher as a commencement speaker, currently charges $29,784 for one year of tuition, room and board. A year at Middlebury College, where Charles Murray was met with violent protests, right now costs $63,917. Google why tuition in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past four decades and you will find countless theories. But the fees are real as is the fact that guest speakers are not only invited but paid by these colleges. It is thus perfectly reasonable for students to express their opinion as to how their tuition money is being spent, just as it is perfectly reasonable for consumers to launch boycotts against companies that engage in unethical practices or belittle minorities.

Furthermore, these guest speakers demand exorbitant speaking fees. Charles Murray charges between $20,000 and $30,000 for a single speech. Bill Maher charges between $50,000 and $100,000 per event. I was told by a staff member at my alma mater that his  department could not afford one speech by a well-known theorist in the field of language. His fees were lower than Murray’s, let alone Maher’s.

My college education was invaluable. And academia confronts, examines and debates controversial ideas that can be deeply upsetting to many people every day: ideas like when does life begin and end, who can be considered human, is love or attractiveness quantifiable, should blasphemy be considered hate speech, should we breed shorter people to save energy, etc. But these debates alter when someone who has made a career out of arguing for one side is paid an enormous sum to give a speech about it. Aspiring teachers, social workers, and librarians have a right to say whether they are willing to go into life-long debt so that a celebrity can earn between $20,000 and $100,000 in one afternoon on campus by firing off some rants. They have a right to say whether the hosting professor should perhaps instead use college funds to pay $25 for one of Murray’s or Maher’s books and photocopy a chapter for his class, where the ideas can then be debated over a few days if not weeks.

That is precisely how I first encountered Murray’s argument that black people are genetically predisposed to a lower IQ. My genetics course culminated with analyzing The Bell Curve and discovering how scientifically flimsy Murray’s evidence is. This absolutely endowed me with a detailed understanding of how inane the colonial belief in separate races is and prepared me to confront those who still cling to it. I am very glad for that. But would I want the tens of thousands of dollars spent on my education to have helped contribute to the wealth Murray has accrued from reiterating this intellectually weak but attention-grabbing idea? The same class addressed the fact that the eugenics movement both resulted in the sterilization and deaths of thousands of disabled people but also contributed intellectually to the early stages of genetics as a science. As someone with achondroplastic dwarfism, I found it important to learn about that. But should I have stood idly by were the college to invite and pay a eugenicist to give a speech? How about a Neo-Nazi?

That is an ethical quandary at best. One that warrants debate. And peaceful protest is a form of debate, an exercising of the right to freedom of speech. 

Not all protests on college campuses are on the right side of the issue. The dumbest demonstration I ever witnessed in my student days was against the ban on smoking in the cafeteria. This migraine-sufferer was ever so grateful to see the fumes disappear. But I wasn’t enraged at the idea of the smokers voicing their dissent. I walked by their protest without bothering to comment and later mentioned my disagreement when asked. 

I was sympathetic the following year when students held a peaceful but angry protest of the new performing arts center, which was designed by Frank Gehry and cost $62 million. Some of my friends on campus were there in part thanks to scholarships but nevertheless had to work 65+ hours a week in the summer to cover the rest of tuition. They showed up at the protests, arguing that the $62 million should have instead been spent on scholarships. Despite what many like to think of most campus protesters, they were not spoiled children shielded from dissent and far too used to getting exactly what they want in they life. They were more aware than most of the way money works in the world – a world their college claimed to be preparing them for.      

 

 

“A Publicly-Funded Freak Show in the 21st Century”

11 Jun

Jester (Image by Quinn Dombrowski used under CC 2.0 via)

 

This satirical video advertising a “fidget midget spinner” appeared this week on funk, an online media site owned by Germany’s public broadcasting channels ARD & ZDF. Michel Arriens, president of Germany’s Federal Association for Short-Statured People and their Families (BKMF), released a video in response. He argues:

“Midget” means “dwarf” and as a short-statured person, I do not want to be referred to that way. “Midget” is a slur in America, in Germany. And short-statured people are short-statured people. And I am Michel and I have many abilities and maybe some faults, too, but I do not want to be compared to a dwarf or a Lilliputian because Lilliputians come from Gulliver’s Travels and dwarfs appear in Lord of the Rings, but I’m from Hamburg and I’m made of flesh and blood, and you don’t seem to get that.

I demand that you immediately delete this video, apologize to the community and in the future use our tax money for better, more sensible things than ableist, inhumane  s***. 

Funk has not deleted the video, but posted the following a statement directly below it:

Hey Everyone: After hearing your reactions and discussing this issue both within our team and with Michel Arriens, we have decided to leave the video here because we don’t want to put an abrupt end to the discussion. We did not wish to hurt anyone and yet we obviously did – and for that we want to apologize. If you are interested in learning more about short-stature, we recommend visiting the website of the Federal Association for Short-Statured People and their Families at www.bkmf.de. We are also grateful to you for getting this discussion started with your comments and we want to continue to learn about this subject in more depth.

Funk’s apology appears as sincere as the original video is cringe-worthy. The supposed hilarity too many find in short-stature continues from the courts of Medieval and Early Modern Europe on into the present day comedy of online videos, sitcoms, dramas, sketch shows, late night shows, and art-house films.

As for Arriens’ argument about words, here in Germany the word “dwarf” („Zwerg“) is used to refer to little old men featured in fairy tales and the fantasy genre, and it is also commonly a pet name for little children. It is therefore considered a slur. Over the course of the disability rights movements of the last few decades, the medical term “dwarfism” (“Zwergwuchs”) has been dropped and replaced with “short-stature” (“Kleinwuchs”). 

Such a change has not occurred in English—or French or Swedish or Spanish—medical terminology, which is primarily why I use the terms “dwarf” and “dwarfism” on the blog, much to the chagrin of many of my German friends. I have written extensively about make-believe dwarfs and the problem of lookism in both the fantasy genre and the real world. The debate over terms may be never-ending, but hopefully the same will not hold true for the debate over freak shows.

 

 

Recommended Weekend Reading

28 May

Grand Court(Image via Arild Storaas used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Speaking of politicians belonging to historically marginalized groups, here’s some upbeat news from Ireland. It shows that minds can be opened faster than many believe. Our challenge is to keep them opened now and forever.

 

 

 

 

Never Call Something “The Last Acceptable Prejudice”

21 May

Primitive Negative Art(Image by Primitive Negative Art used under CC 2.0 via)

 

When my family moved from one the most diverse school districts on suburban Long Island to rural Upstate, I was taken aback by the prejudices locals had about the New York metropolitan area. Reactions ranged from a creeped-out exclamation of “Ew!” to concerned questions about crime and pollution. “I despise New York City with a passion!” said one little old neighbor while passing the rhubarb pie during a Sunday get-together. Deeply homesick, I was resentful of the local disdain for what to me had been a wonderful, Sesame Street-like checkerboard of cultures. And I became slowly horrified the more I began to understand that “inner city” and “crime-ridden” were all too often euphemisms for “non-white.”

When I went on to college, however, I was reunited with City kids and professors who were equally open about their disinterest in rural life. They weren’t so much passionately hateful as consistently apathetic, convinced that anything that lay beyond a one-hour radius of Manhattan was more imaginary than real. Jokes about “hicks” often sprang up at the mention of hunting or farming. Many of these urbanites also considered the sheer existence of insects to be a personal affront no citizen should ever have to endure.

Now residing in a major city, I have little patience for bigotry about either setting. The jokes are only ever good when told by those who have actually lived there. And neither group gets to claim that they are the targets of “the last acceptable prejudice.”

Comedian and political commentator Trae Crowder argues just that in The Liberal Redneck Manifesto: “You ever notice how rednecks are pretty much the only subgroup of people in this country that it’s almost entirely socially acceptable to mock publicly?” Similar assertions have been made in reviews of J.D. Vance’s best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy. Last month Bill Maher repeated his claim that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice. Columnist Marina Hyde pointed out that The Guardian has declared old, white male-bashing to be the last acceptable prejudice, The Economist has decided looking down on regional accents is the last acceptable prejudice, and Religious Studies professor Philip Jenkins pronounced anti-Catholicism to be the last acceptable prejudice. An article last year in The Independent announced, “Laughing at Dwarfism Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice.”

I understand the frustration behind the sentiment. Dwarfism does not get much attention as a human rights issue. Much of this is due to our rarity in the general population, but also due to the pervasive and enduring belief that our existence is too funny to take seriously. As researcher Andrew Solomon writes in Far from the Tree, “At the mention of dwarfs, [some of my] friends burst into laughter.” As I’ve written before, students in a course studying the power of language told me they would never find the word “midget” as horrifying or upsetting as the N-word or the C-word because their gut reaction was to think of dwarfs as too cute and amusing to be controversial. So yeah. It’s an uphill battle.

But that hardly means that all of this constitutes the last acceptable prejudice. What about the ubiquity of condescension toward the rural poor or the elderly or those who speak in dialect? What about the G-word for Sinti and Roma? What about crude assumptions about adopted children? What about tired tropes about identical twins? What about gingerism? How many self-identified transvestites are out, besides Eddie Izzard? How many of the 1 in 2,000 people born intersex feel safe to be out and proud about their bodies? How many overweight people have never been shamed? And for the all the complaining about PC gone mad, how many racist and sexist jokes and arguments can you find just by sifting through TV shows, Facebook comments, or political party platforms?

The phrase “the last acceptable prejudice” is often used to impart the urgency of a human rights crisis, but it can also connote competition. And it veers dangerously close toward Oppression Olympics. During the 2008 election campaign, Hillary Clinton argued, “Oppression of women and discrimination against women is universal. You can go to places in the world where there are no racial distinctions except everyone is joined together in their oppression of women. The treatment of women is the single biggest problem we have politically and socially in the world.”

Such assertions almost always betray ignorance of the oppression of people other than those you identify with. To argue that there are places with no oppression of racial or ethnic minorities is a sweeping generalization, and to conclusively prove this would be a very tall order indeed. And to argue that the treatment of women is “the single biggest problem in the world” implicitly downplays the problems of xenophobia in places like Denmark, where the current political status quo is committed to gender equality initiatives but also committed to harsh restrictions on immigrants, refugees and religious minorities. 

The only time it is useful to compare oppressions is when you want to highlight another group’s success to prove it a plausible goal for your own. When African-American men and women were freed from slavery in the U.S., suffragists pounced on the opportunity to demand why only African-American men and not women would be granted the right to vote. Both the first and second women’s movements in the U.S. stemmed from the abolitionist and civil rights movements, and the gay rights movement stemmed from both. Transgender, queer, and intersex rights movements have advanced from that, as have others addressing widespread prejudice about birth, blood and the human body. 

Yet divisive bigotries and competitive thinking survive within these movements and thrive when Oppression Olympics is accepted as fair play. Solidarity is threatened by that, which is why we would do well to agree that inaccurate, superlative phrases like “last acceptable prejudice” harm more than they help.

 

 

A Mother’s Day Tribute to a Sullivan Woman

14 May

Barbara Sullivan 1975

 

I don’t remember when I came to the conclusion that being a dwarf meant I absolutely had to care about all forms of discrimination and social injustice. It seemed to always be there. I remember at age 19 stumbling upon some closed-minded corners of the Internet and promptly firing off mass e-mails reverberating with shock and outrage about the prevalence of homophobia in the dwarf community – a community that I believed, if any, should be particularly sympathetic to the concerns of those persecuted for how they were born. Solidarity among those ostracized for inherent traits they have no choice about should be automatic and unwavering.

But plenty of people who can be categorized as minorities disagree. There is a ream of reports about homophobia among many minority advocates, racism and misogyny in gay communities, transphobia in lesbian communities, and plenty of social justice groups fall short of embracing disability rights and the openness to bodily diversity it requires. It seems we can’t go a few days without some social justice activist revealing ignorance of and/or apathy toward the work other minority groups have been doing for years. In other words, not everyone “born different” feels the same automatic solidarity I do. It’s why the divide-and-conquer strategy so often works.

And perhaps there are other reasons for why friends frequently tease me for being an “issues person.” On Mother’s Day, it would be negligent of me to ignore another influence on my worldview that has been as powerful as my dwarfism. My mother, Susan Sullivan, is a social worker after all – and she decided to become one a good 10 years before my birth brought her and my father into the dwarf community. Her mother, Barbara Sullivan, was a social studies teacher. She would be 100 years old were she still alive today. Her worldview and its legacy deserve more than a cursory mention.

The 1975 article announcing my grandmother’s retirement in the Peru Central School newspaper reads:

Mrs. Sullivan, who teaches Problems of Democracy and Consumer Education, is presently teaching her last semester…

She has taught us many things. Maybe the most important of which is the ability to empathize or put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is the foundation from which we can solve local, national and personal problems. Then she has gone one step further.

Mrs. Sullivan has opened many eyes to racism, sexism, poverty and the injustices present in our court and prison systems. Not only has she opened the eyes of her students, she has also helped her fellow teachers.

A lot of work is done in her classes but also a lot of discussions. The kind of discussions that help end individual prejudices…

You can bet she will be involved in the community projects that time has not allowed for in the past. Because that is the kind of person Mrs. Sullivan is – caring, understanding person who will always be remembered by any student who has ever taken any of her courses.

A little article cannot give appropriate thanks for all she has taught us. The best way we can show our thanks to her is to go out into the world and work toward ending the injustices that trouble her heart so much. Until we can do this, all we can say is… Thanks.

Grandma Barbara also taught the school’s first sex education class – a feat my teenage mother at the time found as impressive as it was embarrassing. But Grandma Barbara preferred interacting with teenagers over younger children, asking me with deep interest about drug use and the AIDS crisis when I entered middle school. When I was younger, the discussions were simpler but nevertheless motivated by sociological pursuit. She examined integration at my school by asking whom I interacted with, and I received my first black doll from her. She had been an ardent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and was deeply concerned about racial injustice long after it was fashionable. The night Barack Obama was elected president, I quietly shed a few tears over the fact that she had not lived to see it. But in my head I could hear her shrieking, “Hallelujah!” with all the abandon for which she was famous among her friends.

How much her own background brought her to such conclusions about the world I cannot say. She grew up in a small town in Western New York where pets were named unprintable racial slurs. An avid reader, perhaps her relentless pursuit of knowledge helped. But her intolerance of injustice was as intellectual as it was visceral. I remember her smacking the side of her head and clenching her fist in fury during a scene in the 1994 film The Jungle Book when Mowgli is shoved about and laughed at by British officers at a gentleman’s club. Through example, she inculcated in us an inability to stand idly by while others are ostracized.

One of the first Mother’s Days in the United States was proclaimed by suffragist and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who envisioned something far different from the celebrations embodied by flowers and greeting cards we have come to know today. She called for a day when the mothers of the world would commit to peace. She firmly believed that war would end across the globe once women were given the right to vote because no mother would vote to send her son into battle. Her belief was noble, however naïve or inaccurate.

And Grandma Barbara would have appreciated the sentiment. She was in so many ways a simply loving grandmother, who spoiled my brother and me with sweets and treats, and chased us around her backyard chanting, “Tick tock! Tick tock!” in pretending to be the crocodile from Peter Pan. But her boisterous love of the world was matched by her passionate desire to repair the world. My mother and I cannot deny she passed it on to us. It is a gift for which I will be forever grateful.

Misremembering What “Great” Looked Like

2 Apr

Rogier_van_der_Weyden_(workshop_of)_-_Portrait_of_Isabella_of_Portugal(Public domain image used via)

 

How much of a story about life in the good old days is fact and how much is fiction? In the HBO miniseries John Adams, a mob of Patriots attack a British customs officer, strip him naked and cover him in tar and feathers. The scene shows the victim slathered in asphalt tar – a substance that did not exist in the 1770s. Mobs instead used pine tar, which is brown instead of black, but filmmakers of course knew that modern viewers would not recognize it as easily as they would asphalt.

Such artistic license is arguably negligible and John Adams deserves distinction as a period drama that is predominantly accurate, rendering its characters and indoor scenes as gray and as musty as life was before electricity and indoor plumbing. Most filmmakers prefer to embellish period dramas, opting for audience appeal over historical accuracy. In the 2002 film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, the Victorian protagonists serenade their beloveds with an upbeat jazz number, which is the equivalent of playing disco music in 1945. And for most of the story, Colin Firth and Rupert Everett look like they always do – that is, clean-shaven and donning boyish coiffures they previously wore in romantic comedies set 100 years later. While parasols and top hats abound, no one in the film is flaunting the glistening hair gel and heavy handle-bar mustaches of the play’s original stage production in 1895.

Directors almost always decide that lovers and heroes in period pieces should adhere to contemporary fashion rules from the neck up, lest audiences be less likely to swoon. Thus pretty much any film set in Ancient Egypt, Rome or the Early Modern Era pretends that men never wore eyeliner or lip rouge. (And that all the good guys looked white.) Films set in the Victorian era correctly leave cosmetics off the men but wrongly apply it to the female characters, who would have been insulted by anything more than face powder. (Makeup was for actresses and prostitutes, and Victorians didn’t see much difference between the two.) Even though Queen Elizabeth II is the most famous woman in the world, the actress who portrays her in the award-winning series The Crown has a far daintier nose and jaw, with eyebrows plucked to evoke the cover girls of today. Filmmakers who wish to forego such historical inaccuracies face an uphill battle, according to John Adams director Tom Hooper: “Wherever possible I wanted to do things that weren’t about making people beautiful. The truth is there’s a whole machine of filmmaking that’s all about making people look great. And you have to really intervene in every department to sort of say, ‘No, I don’t want that. I don’t want people to wear any makeup. You’re not allowed to wash people’s hair.’ ”

Hollywood takes such liberties in the hopes that the audience will barely notice. Viewers watch period dramas in order to oo and ah at the finery, and imagine that they could easily slip into an earlier era and have a grand old time. They can imagine this because they are protected from unpleasant information such as the fact that the powdered and painted aristocrats of Louis XIV’s courts regularly relieved themselves in the gilded corridors and behind the velvet curtains of the palace. Horace Walpole noted the stench at the time, but Hollywood has yet to. The audience’s comfort comes at the expense of the opportunity to learn that standards of attractiveness, cleanliness, and morality are far from universal, shifting continuously throughout human history. Likewise, it is an opportunity to learn that our feelings of disgust are often not innate but a product of where and when we grew up.

A handful of films and plays have thrived by underscoring the changes between then and now. Mad Men earned critical acclaim and a loyal following not only for its meticulously authentic fashion but for subtly laying bare the secrets of everyday life in the early 1960s that TV shows of the era had omitted: rampant infidelity, casual racism, sexual harassment, anti-Semitism, misogyny, covert homosexuality and vicious homophobia, legal date rape, domestic violence, and health hazards as far as the eye can see. Hamilton has been a Broadway sensation for deliberately altering the facts and urging the audience to take notice – wanting all to be fully aware of the historical significance of people of color portraying national heroes who owned slaves.

Mad Men and Hamilton have garnered attention precisely because they deny audiences the escapism so commonly peddled by period pieces. Escapism can be innocuous, but not when it warps our sense of reality and the world as it is, once was, and should be. When wildly popular stories like Gone with the Wind and Song of the South portray plantation life as merry, influential social conservatives argue that African-Americans had no complaints before the Civil Rights Movement. When populist politicians inform voters who pride themselves on a lack of “elitist knowledge” that they can make their countries “great again,” difficult truths about the past remain problems unsolved. Too often our glorious history as we like to think of it is more fantasy than fact – which is why sociologists call it The Way We Never Were.

 

 

“Sometimes It’s Better to Deal with a Terminal Illness Than to Live with a Dwarf for the Rest of Your Life”

19 Mar

body(Image by Anthony Easton used under CC 2.0 via)

 

A Sydney woman has been declared fit to stand trial after being charged with murder for the 2010 death of her infant daughter. The judge has concluded that before the child died, the mother was “obsessed with perfection,” and was panicked that her daughter had achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. She insisted that skin tags, a flat nose, and the shape of the baby’s forehead were proof of the condition, and subjected her to rigorous x-rays and genetic tests, which all came back negative. The Sydney Morning Herald reports: “When one friend got ‘fed up’ and told her she wasn’t dealing with something like cancer, the mother replied: ‘Sometimes it’s better to deal with a terminal illness than to live with a dwarf for the rest of your life.’ ”

That her daughter did not have achondroplasia is wholly irrelevant. Neglecting or harming a child on the basis of a bodily deformity she did or did not have is tragic no matter how you cut it. It sends two extra shivers down my back stemming from the fact that I have achondroplasia and would have a 50% chance of passing achondroplasia on to any children I were to have biologically. In several previous articles, I’ve examined the complicated issue of children with rare conditions and parents who lack the skills to give them the support they deserve. I am equally preoccupied with what it means for the child and what it means for the parent.

I’m not interested, however, in judging the accused woman personally because we can draw few accurate conclusions from the reports of her case. Many will argue that her schizophrenic disorder was the sole catalyst of her actions, while many experts on mental illness have tried to convince the hard-to-convince public that having schizophrenia does not make someone more likely to commit murder or manslaughter, and bigotry against achondroplasia is certainly not a symptom of the illness. Schizophrenic disorders are complex, and armchair diagnosis is a dangerous game far too many of us like to play. The temptation is best left resisted.

But it is safe to say that the likelihood of incidents like these would dramatically decline if our society saw nothing wrong with looking like a dwarf. Humans have a long history of parents abandoning or murdering deformed or disabled children. It goes as far back as Ancient Sparta and was codified into law here in Germany under the Nazi regime. And even in cultures where disabled or deformed citizens have generally not had to fear a death sentence, being humiliated or abandoned for having a certain body type is horrid enough. Firm belief in bodily hierarchy can be found in countless corners of modern society, from the glossy pages of lifestyle magazines, to Nobel Prize winner James Watson’s lectures on inherent attractiveness, to capitalist icon Ayn Rand’s arguments about who should be considered subnormal. 

Yet while the long history of ableism and lookism may be a daunting fact, it is also a fact that fashion is constantly in flux. Humanity’s habit of relentlessly coming up with new ideas for how bodies should look is a cause for hope. Not because a woman with achondroplasia winning a beauty pageant could ensure our universal acceptance once and for all. It couldn’t. But by understanding how utterly diverse beauty standards, athletic standards, and intelligence standards really are throughout time and space, and by facing the very real dangers of xenophobia in extremis like the horror in Sydney, we should be able to agree that we’re all better off never being “obsessed with perfection” when it comes to bodies.

 

 

High Heels Are A Civil Rights Issue

26 Feb

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(Public domain image via)

 

Last week there was much discussion on the blog about the social ramifications of height, but what about high heels? The Women and Equalities Committee of the U.K.’s House of Commons recently found that employee dress codes that require heeled-shoes for women are violating laws banning gender discrimination. The Committee reviewed the matter after receiving a petition signed by 138,500 people and started by Nicola Thorp, a London receptionist who in December 2015 had been suspended by her employer without pay for violating the company’s dress code for women by showing up for work in flats.

I personally find high heels frequently quite becoming. I also personally find them physically hazardous. Pretty much anyone with any sort of orthopedic disability has been advised by their specialists again and again to limit the time they spend in heels to a minimum. While reporting on the U.K. ruling, NBC News let women in on “an essential secret — carrying a pair of trainers in your handbag.” This is cold comfort to those of us who know that back pain is also caused by carrying more than 5% of your body weight in your handbag. One twentysomething friend with an invisible disability was told by her spinal surgeon that she should wear heels pretty much never. Thorp was right to sue on the basis of gender discrimination because only women are required by some employers to toddle about on their toes, but a case could be made on the basis of disability discrimination as well.

That disabled women could be fired—or simply looked upon unfavorably in the workplace for “not making an effort”—is indeed a social justice issue. We in the West have come to regard heels as a sign of female beauty and professionalism not so much because they are inherently smart looking, but because they were invented to signify wealth.

Heeled shoes were designed to be painful and inefficient if you walked around much because the upper classes around the world have traditionally used their fashion statements—from foot-binding to corsets to flowing robes and fingernails—to prove that they were wealthy and didn’t need to labor to survive like the lowly workers. Prof. Lisa Wade offers a wonderful break-down of the history of the high heel at Sociological Images, pointing out that they were first considered manly because men were the first to don them to display social status. Women began wearing them to imitate this status, which led to men abandoning them. Wade explains:

This is a beautiful illustration of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class distinction. Bourdieu argued that aesthetic choices function as markers of class difference. Accordingly, the elite will take action to present themselves differently than non-elites, choosing different clothing, food, decor, etc. Expensive prices help keep certain things the province of elites, allowing them to signify their power; but imitation is inevitable. Once something no longer effectively differentiates the rich from the rest, the rich will drop it. This, I argue elsewhere, is why some people care about counterfeit purses (because it’s not about the quality, it’s about the distinction).

Eventually men quit wearing heels because their association with women tainted their power as a status symbol for men. (This, by the way, is exactly what happened with cheerleading, originally exclusively for men). With the Enlightenment, which emphasized rationality (i.e., practical footwear), everyone quit wearing high heels.

What brought heels back for women? Pornography. Mid-nineteenth century pornographers began posing female nudes in high heels, and the rest is history.

In many moments in the history of many cultures, extra pounds of body fat have also signified high social status because wealth was needed to keep someone well-fed. The price of sugar and of meat plummeted in the 20th century in the West and were soon no longer considered delicacies only the wealthy could afford. This coinciding with the eugenics craze in the early 20th century brought about the birth of our modern preoccupation with not just longevity and bodily cleanliness but physical “fitness.” These shifts are why modern fashion dictates that those who wish to project high social status should dress inefficiently, like a traditional aristocrat, while remaining physically strong, slim and active, like a traditional laborer.

High-status men are now encouraged to wear expensive attire in addition to building and maintaining a muscular physique that can get down in the dirt – something the manly dukes and earls of yore would have considered horrifically common. High status women are now encouraged to diet and exercise to be “healthy” in addition to wearing heels to hint at sexiness in their physique via the historical association with both princesses and porn stars – at the risk of breaking down their bodies as they rush off to work and back like the peasant women of yore.

Indeed, our modern fashion rules for professional women are ever so young because upper class women who worked were an anomaly in the Modern Era until the 20th century. The First and Second Wave feminists successfully fought for our right to vote and become actors, bankers, flight attendants, and politicians, but we have yet to expunge the idea that a woman who suffers for beauty is admirable, rather than irresponsible. Nicola Thorp’s petition, however, has dealt it a blow.

Women should feel free to wear heels almost whenever they wish, but disabled women should not have to suffer social consequences for choosing to protect their bodies. True equality may also come when men can wear heels like Mozart and Louis XIV without fear of gay bashing, as long as such a fashion shift does not harden into a fashion decree. If it does, then disabled men will have to use their right to petition against discrimination.

No matter how you personally feel about them, just remember that modern ideas about fashion, gender/sex, class, and disability all meet whenever we consider a pair of high heels. That’s why we call it intersectionality.

 

 

 

How Much Does Height Matter To You?

19 Feb

Mann und Frau
 

As I wrote on Facebook after I saw friends posting them, I really don’t like those #TinyTrump memes. I’m not outraged. I’m just really, really uncomfortable whenever human size is used as an insult or a sight gag. (And yes, I have had friends and admire several human rights activists who are almost as short as Trump appears in those memes.) Being physically small isn’t hilarious or humiliating. It just is.

200 years after Napoleon, political discourse is still rife with the insidious concept of small man syndrome. Male acquaintances still report conversations coming to a screeching halt on Tinder after they answer an interested woman’s inquiry after their height. So here is an old, popular post on the subject that is just as apt as it was when I first published it:

I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again. I did not undergo limb-lengthening to “look normal.” I did it to function better in everyday life with less difficulty and less pain. Height has mattered tremendously to me as an issue of accessibility. But as an issue of social interaction, I tend to find it only slightly more significant than eye color.

Throughout high school, I had a Yoko Ono quote taped to my bedroom wall: “You call me ‘little,’ but I have a universe in my head.” Every teen needs role models. I got excited when I lived for six months in southern France, where I encountered several women my size. There is something inexplicably pleasing about being at eye-level with someone. Which is what made the moments when guys have gotten on their knees to dance with me utterly touching.

But my husband stands at 6’5” (1.96 m), more than a foot taller than I am. Being at eye-level with someone can feel important, but it’s not that important.

And we’ve gotten compliments for being such a striking couple due our height difference. (Should we thank John and Yoko for blazing the trail?) But as said before, when we tell our loved ones what exquisite hair or adorable hands or gorgeous eyes they have, it’s more a display of affection than a statement of what we require to be intrigued. When we tell someone, “You are so beautiful,” and we mean it, it’s a testament to the sum of their parts.  To the entrancing union of their perfections and imperfections. Height is what you make of it.

I generally find a preoccupation with height amusing. When my father-in-law, who is from the Black Forest, married my mother-in-law, who was from Stockholm, they had their wedding photos shot only in close-up, so that you can’t tell that he was standing on a box.

When I was undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I explained to one of my teachers, “I’ll never be super-model tall. The muscles tighten up when you stretch them and that’s why there is a limit to how far you can lengthen your legs.”

“Well, that’s actually good for you as a girl,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, you wouldn’t ever want to be too tall and end up walking alongside a man who’s shorter than you!”

I looked at her quizzically and then smirked to myself. Sure. That was my first concern about undergoing limb-lengthening.

Eighteen years later, as I prepared my wedding, I came across a discussion on a forum for brides-to-be about the ubiquity of complaints about heels that were too high.

“Why am I hearing so many comments about not wanting to be taller than your husbands?” the main commenter wrote. “I mean, seriously? This is the 21st century. We’re all liberated about LGBT rights and feminism and healthy body image and equality, but we’re still convinced it’s unfeminine for a woman to be taller than her husband?”

Nine out of ten of the replies all said, “Well, I don’t want to look like some freak.”

This week, HuffPost Live features an interview in which dwarf reality TV star Ben Klein reveals his past struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts due to social isolation and bullying. Earlier today on Germany’s ZDF Sundays morning news show, opera singer Doris Michel revealed that no man has ever been able to get over her dwarfism and see her as a romantic partner.

It’s easy to shake our heads and feel sorry for these individuals, and then to be inspired by the courage they have demonstrated in overcoming such hardship. We praise them for raising their children to be self-confident enough to face adversity. But when the adversity is inflicted by our society’s lingering attachment to something as silly as height, it is crucial that we own up to our collective responsibility for it.

We have to ask ourselves, Is my daughter the type to trash other girls’ bodies? Does she look up to women who do? Would my best friend snicker at dwarf-tossing? Would the guys I hang out with shout at a dwarf in the street? Would I be brave enough to call them out on it? Have I ever accused someone of having a Napoleon Complex? What do I think of when I think of a freak?

Surely if Klein and Michel can overcome bullying and denigration, we can overcome any hang-ups we have about size.  And in the nature vs. nurture debate, we gotta stop saying “nurture” and start saying “culture” because it takes more than one set of parents to change the world.
 
 
 

 

From the Frontlines of the Women’s March in Berlin

22 Jan

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German newspapers currently estimate 2.5 million people worldwide—on every continent, including Antarctica—took part in yesterday’s Women’s March.

Earlier this week there was a debate about the mention of disability in the official platform of the March on Washington. Disability advocate Emily Ladau wrote:

My heart sank when I read it.

The first time the word “disabilities” is mentioned, it shows zero recognition of disability as a social justice issue:

We recognize that women of color carry the heaviest burden in the global and domestic economic landscape, particularly in the care economy. We further affirm that all care work — caring for the elderly, caring for the chronically ill, caring for children and supporting independence for people with disabilities — is work, and that the burden of care falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, particularly women of color. We stand for the rights, dignity, and fair treatment of all unpaid and paid caregivers. We must repair and replace the systemic disparities that permeate caregiving at every level of society.

I also recognize that women of color disproportionately take on the caregiving as a job, that caregiving can be extremely demanding work, and that fair compensation is imperative. But you know what it says to me that this bullet point is one of only two places where disability is mentioned in the entire platform released by the Women’s March? It says that my existence as a disabled woman is a “burden.” My existence as a disabled woman is “work” for someone else. My existence as a disabled woman does not matter.

Disability is mentioned only one more time in the entire platform… And considering that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans have disabilities, disability rights deserve more than a cursory mention in the official Women’s March platform.

This touches on two problems: the vast swaths of feminism that ignore the discrimination burdening disabled women, and our macho culture’s fear of men taking on caregiving roles or any jobs done primarily by women. While feminists continue to fight for mandated paid maternity leave, mandated paid paternity leave is widely considered a bridge too far in the United States. Only 12% of American men offered it by their employers take it. Some economists have tried to explain away the election of Donald Trump by talking about the emasculated feelings of male workers facing a paucity of management opportunities in the American Rust Belt and that the only way to appeal to them is to give them jobs that make them the primary breadwinners in their homes once again.

While fair wages and economic inequality should be a paramount concern of any human rights movement, the insistence that men must be the primary breadwinners and will never be satisfied turning to “pink jobs” like caregiving is not highlighting an indisputable truth about all men – it is highlighting a problem in white male American culture.

Those who say the male ego simply cannot budge on the issue need only look to American black men, who pursue caregiving jobs at a rate 3 times higher than white American men do. Or look over here to Germany, where 1 in 5 students in caregiving programs are male. (Eighty percent of German men also took some form of paid parental leave—which is mandated by the government—in 2013.) Or look to the the Dulais Valley coal miners whose true, history-making story was the inspiration for in the 2014 film Pride. In that film, the problem of emasculation is recognized when one of the strike leaders argues against accepting donations from a gay and lesbian group: “Think of the men! It’s bad enough that their wives are financially supporting them, but now they’re relying on a bunch of gays and lesbians?!” Spoiler alert: By the end, the men they’re talking about open their minds. Or demonstrate that they were never concerned about it to begin with.

The Women’s March stated loud and clear that it’s on all of us to open minds about gender roles until our entire culture changes. We feed the denigration of women—not to mention all other forms of xenophobia—when we agree that white men should feel denigrated to do anything traditionally done by women. We need women who would be embarrassed to date a man in a traditionally feminine job to abandon such thoughts. We need men who are tempted to belittle a guy for going to nursing school to prove he is braver than that, until the man who does snicker is the one feeling out of place. And everyone needs to agree that caregiving is freakin’ hard and deserves to be compensated accordingly.

Yesterday’s Women’s March was a resounding success. Despite Ladau’s valid complaints—as well as earlier reports of friction among some white, middle-class feminists and feminists belonging to other minority groups—the day ended up awash in calls for combating injustice faced on the basis of disability, gender, race, sexuality, class, nationality, ethnicity/religion, immigration status, and appearance. In Washington, Gloria Steinem demanded a moment of silence for those who could not be at the March because they had to work in underpaid jobs. Tammy Duckworth got up out of her wheelchair and onto her crutches to demand unwavering defense of the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Angela Davis seemed determined in her speech to mention every single marginalized group in the United States and overseas. And when the crowd in Berlin began chanting, “Black lives matter!”, one black woman at the center began singing for joy with tears in her eyes.

There were many signs and songs that not every protestor immediately embraced. One marcher who identifies as queer told me he disliked the portrayals of Donald Trump in drag because being trans or feminine should never be a source of shame. Plenty of marchers of all political stripes expressed unease with blatantly owning the sexualized slurs so many women are the target of. Those of us who are fans of cyborg feminism cringed at gender essentialist references to “Mother Earth” or “natural” womanhood. Others winced at all the swear words. But democracy is hard work. And it was a victory for democracy that millions were willing to march together and engage in an international conversation that sometimes made them uncomfortable. A willingness to leave one’s comfort zone is the first step toward fully embracing and protecting universal human rights.