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What’s Old and New about these Book Bans

6 Feb

Luis Alvaz, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

While it wasn’t the best book I read as a teen, Richard Peck’s 1995 young adult novel about a suburban town’s attempts to shield its teens from sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll certainly had the best title summing up the whole idea: The Last Safe Place on Earth. The 1990s are often thought of as a more placid era in America in contrast to today. After all, no politician from an opposing party angrily denied Bill Clinton’s electoral victories, let alone urged a mob of violent citizens to stop the congressional counts of the election results. 

But right-wing extremists embracing both anti-government and white supremacist ideologies bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City, murdering 168 people including 19 children. A total of seven women’s health workers were murdered and 13 more were injured by shootings, stabbings, bombings or acid attacks perpetrated by anti-abortion terrorists over the course of the decade. (That’s not counting attacks before or after the 90s.) I distinctly remember the day my schoolteacher wrapped up a debate about the death penalty and then soundly refused a student’s request to hold a debate on abortion. “Now way. Grown-ups can’t even handle that debate without resorting to violence,” he declared. In the 90s, the culture wars were raging as we, the kids of the Baby Boomers, sat in schools and parents fought over whether or not we should be allowed to learn anything from the feminists or the gays who had fought and were fighting for liberation. If you ever heard about a proposed book ban in schools or libraries, you could be fairly safe guessing it came from the Christian Right, opposing anything that didn’t portray premarital sex as sinful, feminists as destructive or queer kids as sick. 

The current calls to remove certain books from school libraries are novel only in part. The American Library Association provides statistics on the most frequently challenged books since 1990 and some of the titles and many of the topics on this year’s list remain the same. In 1990, Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal was the villain of the hour, while today it’s Cory Silverberg’s Sex Is A Funny Word. Comprehensive sex education has been attacked ever since it was first proposed in America and 19 states still mandate abstinence-only lessons. Last year’s miniseries Mrs. America deftly showed how Phyllis Schlafly used the power of an enormous mailing list to unite diverse conservatives and religious groups across the country in their staunch opposition to gender equality and make them into the massively powerful political force they have become. Judy Blume, who has long been the most challenged author in the United States, wrote about her experience in 1999:

There was no organized effort to ban my books, or any other books that I knew of anyway. The seventies were a good decade for writers and readers. Many of us came of age during those years, writing from our hearts and guts, finding editors and publishers who believed in us, who willingly took risks to help us find our audience. We were free to write about real kids in the real world. Kids with real feelings and emotions, kids with real families, kids like we once were. And young kids gobbled up our books, hungry for books with characters with whom they could identify…

Then, almost overnight, following the presidential election of 1980, the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organized and determined. Not only would they decide what their children could read, but what all children could read. It was the beginning of the decade that wouldn’t go away, that still won’t go away…

But the calls to remove books about the Holocaust and Ruby Bridges today are something new. I can’t speak to the experience of students in the Southern states, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy fought successfully 150 years ago to expunge discussions of slavery and human rights from school history lessons about the Civil War. But in the 1990s, it was very easy as a white teen living first on Long Island and then in an Upstate New York town with minimal racial diversity to think that racism existed but was mostly a problem of the past. I learned in school how heroic American soldiers had liberated the concentration camps and how heroic Northerners had helped Dr. King end segregation through non-violent resistance. Both stories had happy endings. I never learned about the U.S. government rejecting a ship of Jewish asylum-seekers during the Holocaust. Or about any of the Americans who supported fascism or antisemitism, or the two-thirds of Americans who said German Jews were either fully or partly to blame for their own persecution. Or about violent reactions to racially integrating schools in the Northern states. Or about white flight, past or present. The Oklahoma City bombing was taught as tragic, militia groups were framed as crazy, but there were no lessons about these groups’ ties to white supremacy. The Ku Klux Klan faded from our history books after we finished the chapter on the Civil Rights Movement.

I knew homophobia was everywhere – from my classmates (and the occasional teacher) who used slurs regularly, to national figures who called lesbians degenerate, to the outrage in the local papers over an attempt to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at my school. Such viciousness regarding race seemed to exist only far away. A friend and I were wide-eyed when we found violently racist graffiti on our playground. And when my mother bought a subscription to the newsletter of the Southern Poverty Law Center, I learned there were hate groups around the U.S. But such statistics were not taught in school and they did not make the front page of mainstream papers, which made me subconsciously wonder how big of a deal they really were. No mainstream sources were asking me to question why all the neighborhoods I had lived in were all-white, or where those who had so viciously opposed Dr. King had gone.

In the 90s, intersectionality and Critical Race Theory were around but never afforded attention outside of academia. Warren Beatty’s film Bulworth called out the left for having gone soft on human rights and taking Black voters for granted, but it attracted little more than passing popularity among my classmates for its brazen gangsta talk. We wouldn’t have been allowed to watch it in high school on the grounds of foul language.

At the same moment in modern history, my partner was across the Atlantic, sitting in a Catholic high school in Germany, learning in no uncertain terms that his country was responsible for the Holocaust. Here in Germany, book bans have widely been condemned since the 1960s to be the work of fascists, as memorialized by Berlin’s Empty Library, seen in the photo above next to the plaque reading, “Those who burn books are capable of burning people.” Susan Neiman’s excellent book, Learning from the Germans, outlines how U.S. municipalities and schools could teach about our own history of racism, sexism, ableism and human rights crises in a way that precludes complacent self-congratulation and nationalism. Proposals echoing such suggestions are the target of so many of the book challenges and vitriolic debates in schools today.

The rise of voices calling out modern racism in the U.S. began in the 2000s when I was in college, where many of my fellow Millennials embraced Michael Moore and John Stewart. Such voices were regularly dismissed as fringe by the mainstream media, and you were easily dismissed as a crazy lefty if you mentioned them around certain neighbors or relatives in the post-9/11 era. A college course in genetics confronted me with the faulty science of The Bell Curve, a book I could barely believe had become a bestseller in the 90s. Barack Obama’s first run on the campaign trail left me shocked at how many white voters—both Republicans and Democratic feminists alike—openly used racist arguments to attack him and his family in support of their preferred candidates. Discussions of racism in the mainstream appeared to gradually increase over the course of his presidency.

In 2015, the year after the first Black Lives Matter demonstrations, the New York Times revealed in a front-page story that the village of Yaphank, a 10-minute ride from my childhood home, was once the site of Hitler Youth camps and still had a whites-only housing policy on the books. In 2018, an in-depth, 10-part report featured in Newsday revealed that Long Island’s four counties—Suffolk, Nassau, Brooklyn and Queens—top the list for the most racially segregated counties in the United States. Such mainstream media attention to racist policies that have been there all along is new, and if students in school today are not learning about it, they should be.

Even John McWhorter, a frequent critic of today’s human rights activism, has lauded this mainstream shift as an improvement:

I welcome the increased awareness of the notion of systemic racism. Despite my alarm at the excesses of today’s progressive politics, I’ve never argued the simplistic notion that racism boils down to cross-burnings and white people saying the N-word. I recall sadly a conversation I had, when I was a grad student, with a white woman who was an undergraduate. She said, roughly: “So today, Black people can go anywhere they want, they can do anything they want — what’s the problem?” And she wasn’t terribly interested in an answer. Her question was more of a declaration, what she regarded as just facts, and she felt no civic impulse to even consider otherwise.

Of course, her perspective, then, is alive and well now. Yet an undergrad today would be much less likely to see race matters only that far. The racial reckoning of recent years; the cultural decentering of whiteness; and the airing of what is meant by systemic racism have brought about that positive evolution. The other day I heard some white kids—upper-middle-class New Yorkers—casually referring in passing to systemic racism while walking down the street from school, clearly thinking of it as an assumed concept. I was hearing no such thing in my grad student days. Gallup polling asking “Are Black people in your community treated less fairly than White people?” in situations involving the workplace, shopping, dining out, interactions with police and access to health care, shows that from 1997 until 2021, white Americans and Americans overall became more aware of racial disparities.

Whether it’s a backlash to more probing lessons about racism or a decades-long effort to marginalize queer citizens, restrictions on libraries always threaten democracy. The current efforts to curtail human rights discussions by removing resources on history in schools in the United States is a crisis. But we should never ignore the proof that the seeds for this crisis were sown long ago.

This Blog Is 10 Years Old & Beauty Has Become So Much More Beautiful

30 Jan

Welcome to sunny side! was one of the messages I received last month on my 40th birthday. I have indeed felt a glow about the whole thing. With 40 years under my belt, I’ve decidedand tell everyone I meetthat I now know everything. Joking aside, I began Painting On Scars 10 years ago this month and I knowdown to the very core of my beingthat so many things have gotten so much better in the last decade. Yes, some things have become horrifically worse. We’re entering the third year of an indisputably wretched pandemic, and my country of origin has been sliding down the list of robust democracies, and the partisan divide President Obama sought to overcome way back when has deepened and become more vicious no matter whom you ask. (More on that some day soon.) But Peter Dinklage is starring in his wife’s version of Cyrano, which hit theaters in the U.S. yesterday, and the way the media has responded is one of the many reasons I’m happy to be alive right now.

I’ve spent a lot of my life wondering how certain human rights movements took off when they did. The way our history books in school taught it, the Civil Rights movement was a burst of anger marking the end of the placid 1950s, brought on by certain great men like Dr. King who just suddenly got the idea to end Jim Crow. We never learned about all the activists fighting to ban lynching long before Dr. King or the family of Emmett Till, and we never learned how the Nuremberg Trials and Holocaust studies facilitated conversations about racism. Minority rights’ movements always seemed to come of out nowhere, led by great individuals. Lessons in school easily led us to believe that before Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony or Harvey Milk, no one had ever heard of equality for Black, female or gay citizens.

It wasn’t until the social justice movements that we’re observing nowthe New Left, the wokeness or whatever you want to call itthat I really understood how a movement breaks into the mainstream from the margins. It begins in activist circles and, with success, the circles begin to expand until one day you realize those high school friends who rolled their eyes at any talk of gay rights are putting up marriage equality logos on their social media accounts. Many in the mainstream feel that all this talk about trans rights and genderqueer rights, Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has been sudden, and they are not entirely wrong. The farther you are from the margins, the less likely you are to have heard the conversations that have been going on there for so long.

When I began Painting On Scars in 2012, Peter Dinklage won his first Emmy award for his role on Game of Thrones and at the ceremonies he made a brilliantly crafted plea to end dwarf-tossing. Mainstream media sources reporting on it implied via tone that the right to have one’s bodily safety and autonomy respected was not too much for men “suffering” from dwarfism to ask. But no mainstream journalist dared name any people or systems that had allowed dwarf-tossing to be seen as nothing more than a joke – like, for example, the bars that ran dwarf-tossing events, the politician who tried to remove a Florida ban to “stimulate the economy” or the creators of the hugely successful Lord of the Rings films. Dinklage was hailed as one of the best things about Game of Thrones, his alma mater invited him to give the commencement address, and Rolling Stone declared him a “Sexy Beast.” But his success was handled as an individual case. The argument that Hollywood should expand leading roles beyond its awfully short list of acceptable body colors, sizes and shapes remained at the margins. In the mainstream, it was at best acknowledged as a quaint pipe dream. Now Dinklage is on the media circuit for Cyrano and journalists are rolling their eyes with him at such passé limitations of imagination. What a difference a decade makes.

In 2012, debates about the lack of casting opportunities for actors of color and with disabilities were happening on places like feministing.com and The Patt Morrison Show. (Ever heard of it?) Not the Sunday Times. Leading men were overwhelmingly white, non-disabled and very, very, VERY not feminine. Flash forward to today and Timothée Chalamet has been hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a sex symbol, the male actor of his generation and, repeatedly, a softboi – one of many men enjoying mainstream success who feel as free as women to be masculine or feminine or a nuanced version of both. Or neither. In 2012, Eddie Izzard was the only male known around the world for wearing dresses and makeup unironically. In 2012, few would have believed an out and proud rapper could flourish outside the queer community let alone top the charts, as Lil Nas X has. In 2012, no one in the U.S. could name a transgender celebrity of any considerable renown. It would have been all too easy to imagine the producers of normcore Jeopardy! declining the application of a transgender woman on the grounds that such a contestant would be, you know, distracting. This week, Amy Schneider ended her winning streak on Jeopardy!, the second longest in the show’s 56-year-history. When she was recognized in the stands at a Warriors game, she received an ovation from the crowd. You know something’s shifted in the mainstream when basketball fans hail you as a hometown hero.

The growth in acceptance of so many different minorities signifies a broader awareness of intersectional social justice – the understanding of how different minority issues overlap. As Peter Dinklage recently told the Times, “The idea of a leading actor is changing now. Whether racially or whatever. It’s about time. We’ve been stuck with this stereotype of a leading man and it’s healthy to open that up. Love life is not the domain of pretty people – everybody has a love life.” Pretty has gotten so much prettier.

We can’t let this movement turn out to have been just a moment. And reducing bias and hate in the mainstream should never be mistaken for eradication. In 2012, five years before #MeToo, blatant sexual harassment and assault in the workplace were considered to be little more than shocking scenes seen on Mad Men, there to show how much had changed. HR departments and the women’s movement were thought to have made enough strides to render harassment the problem of just a few bad apples. Your willingness to believe a politician’s accusers fell heavily along party lines. And we were convinced of this as men like Harvey Weinstein were not only breaking into womens’ rooms at night, but doing so as his coworkers rolled their eyes and sighed, “Oh, that’s just Harvey.”

For all my pleasure at Peter Dinklage’s star treatment this month, the risk remains that he will be an anomaly among dwarf artists rather than a trailblazer. No other person with dwarfism has reached anywhere near his level of international renown in the decade since his first Emmy win. Marlee Matlin’s success in the 80s and 90s was followed by little else for the Deaf community. This fall’s acclaimed crime series Only Murders in the Building broke new ground by featuring an entire episode in American Sign Language led by a Deaf supporting character. That episode was excellent and its moment of upfront, vicious ableism made my heart jump into my throat because it rang so true. But could an entire series with a physically disabled leading man attract so much acclaim? Could it survive beyond one season, or remain a gimmick? How about several series starring disabled actors?

We can’t ever allow the comfort of success for marginalized minorities to devolve into complacency. 100 years ago, my beloved city of Berlin showed that mainstream tolerance of queer and intersex citizens could rapidly erode into tolerance for those who sent them to death camps. Explicit hate and danger remain very real threats today. And there are still far too many well-meaning but harmful assumptions left in the world to consider it equally safe and welcoming to all. For all of Dinklage’s applause for the new opportunities we’re witnessing in Hollywood, he had nothing good to say this week about the latest news of Disney’s live-action remake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

They were very proud to cast a Latina actress as Snow White… Take a step back and look at what you’re doing there. It makes no sense to me. You’re progressive in one way and you’re still making that f***ing backward story about seven dwarfs living in a cave together? What the f*** are you doing, man? Have I done nothing to advance the cause from my soap box? I guess I’m not loud enough. I don’t know which studio that is but they were so proud of it. All love and respect to the actress and all the people who thought they were doing the right thing. But I’m just like, what are you doing? … If you tell the story of Snow White with the most f***ed up, progressive spin on it? Then, yeah, let’s do it. 

Disney claims to be “consulting” the dwarf community in order to portray the seven men as respectfully as possible. In the vein of Dinklage’s suggestion for a truly progressive spin on the story, I think Disney should take inspiration from the several living room productions of Snow White I roped my friends and cousins into that starred yours truly. What could be more radical than to have Snow Whitethe young woman considered so extraordinarily beautiful by the queen she needed to be killedportrayed by someone with dwarfism? Kids of any body type, gender or skin color who have loved the fairy tale for its drama should be able to grow up to play the star. But do we think the public’s imagination could go quite that far? Are we there yet? If not, what will it take?

Here’s Hoping You’ll Be Hearing about Ali Stroker From More Than Just Me

1 Aug

Perhaps the worst thing about the arts—at the least the performing arts—is how they’ve ended up as the most powerful perpetuator of lookism around the world. From colorism to ableism to fat-shaming, mass media bears a remarkable responsibility for ignoring diverse beauty standards and marginalizing various body types. But the best thing about the arts is the way they dodge objectivity, remaining open to reinterpretation forever and ever.

When you hear “I’m Just A Girl That Can’t Say No” sung by a waif, it sounds like the mid-century acceptance of sexiness in women as long they stay coquettish – that is to say, naïve. When it’s sung by a strong-voiced but conventionally attractive woman, it becomes the anthem of the whore – a classic character whom tradition keeps in high demand but never in high regard. And when it’s sung by a woman in a wheelchair—who is the first actor in a wheelchair ever to make it to Broadway—it’s nothing but empowerment, a sonorous TAKE THAT! to our traditions that automatically deem physically disabled women off the dating market while behind the scenes rendering them seven times more like to be sexually abused in the United States than the general population.

When I read Ali Stroker had become the first actor using wheelchair on a Broadway stage in 2015’s Spring Awakening, my first reaction was, “Wait, what?” The very first full-length musical I attended was a production of Guys and Dolls at my local high school, with a classmate’s brother in the lead as Sky Masterson. He used a wheelchair—I cannot say if it was temporarily or permanently—and the image was presented so matter-of-factly that it imbued in me a deep-seated sense of “Well, why not?” When it comes to possibilities, seeing is believing. But visions can be deceiving and I was deceived into assuming this sort of thing happened all the time. It did not. In 2019, Stroker became the first actor with a physical disability to win a Tony in Daniel Fish’s dark revival of Oklahoma! (This highly acclaimed version originated at Bard College, my alma mater.)

Stroker has spoken at length about what equal opportunity and accessibility in acting truly means. She’s called out Hollywood and Broadway’s addiction to choosing only non-disabled actors to portray disabled characters like Franklin Roosevelt and Helen Keller, likening it to blackface. This week she spoke with the ACLU about the importance of integrating her disability and her wheelchair into any character she portrays without the need for explaining the disability.

I highlight this now because Broadway is about to re-open for the first time since the pandemic and because the worst thing we could do after her achievements is to let Stroker become a one-hit wonder and remain a novelty. Marlee Matlin made history in film and television as the first widely known Deaf actor in the 1980s and 90s, and Google reveals she continues to be the only one of such renown.

Of course, long-lasting change has to be structural. As both Stroker and Anthony Ramos of Hamilton have pointed out, people long marginalized in the arts must be represented not only on the stage but in the writers’ rooms and board rooms if the power imbalance is ever to be corrected and career opportunities for all are to be really, truly equal. That’s why I hope you continue to hear about Ali Stroker and many, many other physically disabled actors until the distinction no longer matters because there are too many to count.

How Can We Decide What Makes A Female?

20 Sep

This week the world lost one of the greatest warriors against discrimination on the basis of sex and gender – the very same week that the World Athletics track and field authority ruled that South African champion Caster Semenya will not be allowed to compete in women’s sports in the next Olympics unless she agrees to take medications to lower her testosterone levels. This ruling raises not only issues of bioethics, but—as you can see in the video from Vox above—the plain fact that who belongs to what sex entirely depends upon which scientific definition you choose to go by.

Many misunderstand “intersex” to simply mean a person who has a penis and a vagina. But intersexing conditions include people with ambiguous genitalia, people with one set of genitalia but another set of chromosomes, people with hormone levels rarely found occuring alongside the set of chromosomes or genitalia they have, etc., ad infinitum. White Western beauty standards traditionally associate softer facial bone structure with females and hairier bodies with males, which has led to people from other ethnicities whose biology does not conform to this more often being suspected by Western sports authorities of being intersex or transgender.

Sports obviously matter to Semenya almost as much as her identity as a woman does, so I am in no position to say what she should do in the face of the demand she take hormones. I can only contribute to the views of a public that honors sports and competition so highly that participants have been and are willing to all but torture their bodies for them. Semenya qualifies not only as a minority by virtue of her intersex features, but by her determination to refuse to take whatever body-altering treatments the authorities demand. Perhaps she understands on a deeper level that sports are are as made up as anything else in human society.

From the judging in gymnastics to the disputed calls of referees to the regular changes in rules and scoring, little is objective and everything is up for debate. I get the joy of being wowed by what the human body can do and the feeling of vicariously living through an athlete’s victory. But I also get Emma Gingerich, an Amish woman who left her community and, when asked to name something in modern American life she could never adapt to, replied, “Definitely, games are overrated. I don’t like playing games. I think it’s such a waste of time. I would rather pick up a book.”

Sports and its ever-changing rules aren’t going away anytime soon. Nor is sexism. But the more the world opens its eyes and ears to the many, many people whose bodies defy traditional definition and have until now been marginalized for it, the deeper our discussions of fairness become.

Quarantined? Use Your Screentime to Learn about a Health Revolution

5 Apr

Blogging for the first time in half a year has me starting up again in a brave new world. COVID-19 has brought most of us indoors and gone on to show that a worldwide, nearly universal phenomenon results in a profound diversity of experiences. More on that soon.

For now, I urge anyone with the time and a Netflix account to watch Crip Camp, a documentary about some of the founders of the modern disability rights movement in the U.S. that is on par with anything Ken Burns or Tavis Smiley has shown you. The film starts at Camp Jened, a Catskills retreat that slowly evolved into a community run by hippies fiercely dedicated to understanding the adolescent campers and recognizing their agency. Many of those campers went on to be central figures in the national fight for equality – from issues of accessibility to sexuality. (Irony of ironies, the word “quarantine” is uttered at a particularly giggly moment.) In true American fashion, adult topics and language have landed the film an R rating, which is unfortunate because it should be shown in high schools across the country. Everyone with the faintest interest in history needs to know what the ADA and Willowbrook were.

I have written before about the failure of many progressive circles to embrace disability rights with any meaningful sincerity. Despite dedicating themselves to challenging harmful stereotypes, progressives too often hail youth as an ideal, which can lead to overvaluing independence and physical strength. Crip Camp shows that not all radicals need fall victim to such narrow-thinking. Will self-proclaimed conservatives like the film? I can’t say, but the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama are the executive producers will surely attract as many viewers as it repels.

I only cried once, but for a long time: at the line “If it takes me all night!” It’s uttered by a kid in Washington, D.C. in 1990, and she could easily have been one of the kids I lived with at a rehabilitation center in that era. If you’re at all familiar with this blog, you know I was born with dwarfism and I have always been profoundly aware of that fact. But I had never considered myself disabled until I used a wheelchair and lived with other kids representing a rainbow of diagnoses for nearly half a year. I was a pre-teen then. The institution was primarily pediatric and thus not nearly as fun as Camp Jened appears. Barney the Dinosaur was the only artist whose record played on a loop, not Bob Dylan. But there was community and there were some very good caregivers. Crip Camp shows what a difference can be made by having a great community and excellent caregivers who are ready to fight for the right to self-actualize and become no longer a cute kid but a full-fledged citizen with a voice.

The film is brutally honest, but also a story of success, and so in the time of the coronavirus it can serve as both a salve and a wake-up call. One movement leader speaks of the hard truth that a world that ignores disabled people’s rights ultimately condemns them to go away and die. The very same truth holds for decision-makers whose actions imply that those most at risk of dying from the coronavirus are expendable. As filmmaker Nicole Newnton told Slate, “This health crisis is impacting people who are vulnerable, and this film shows how a lot of that vulnerability is systemic. We want people to see that it is possible to change things and make the world a better place for everyone. This film shows that a small committed group of people can make a huge difference. We need to ask ourselves, when this is over, how will we rebuild the society that we want to see?”

Because We Gotta Keep Telling the True Stories in Dwarf History

1 Sep

Anthonis_van_Dyck_013(1)

(Public Domain Image used via)

 

Leaving you this week with a must-read feature in the New Zealand Herald: “The Civil War Solider with Dwarfism Who Was Gifted to the Queen.” Following the extraordinary life of British man Jeffrey Hudson, the article quotes historian Dr. John Woolf who points out that Hudson’s being handed over to Charles I’s wife as a present was not unusual at the time:

Dwarfs were around in the courts of Ancient Egypt, China and West Africa. Alexander the Great (356BC-323BC) gathered a whole retinue of dwarfs. The Romans collected dwarfs as pets, placing some in gladiatorial rings to fight with Amazons, and tossing others across the amphitheater for entertainment. By the Middle Ages, dwarfs were kept side-by-side with monkeys, sometimes traveling between royal households in birdcages.

I never learned that in school.

Through resources provided by Little People of America, I became aware around the age 12 of the circus freak tradition in the 20th century to which so many dwarfs were left to turn. This made me increasingly suspicious as a teenager when watching period films and documentaries romanticizing the days of beautiful people darting between horse-drawn carriages and candlelight that none of what I saw would have been imaginable* back then for someone who looked like me. My own research later confirmed those suspicions. It’s time the rest of the world start to talk about it.

 

*Aside: As noted before on the blog, period films rarely depict what life truly would have been like for any of us. Invariably Victorian women are portrayed wearing makeup while too many pre-Victorian kings are portrayed without. Not to mention a third of us would have been more likely to die in childhood than survive long enough to make it into the history books alongside Charles I. During his reign, you were most likely to die of small pox. Play this game to find out what long-forgotten diseases would have killed you in other time periods in the West.

 

 

Can A Princess Ever Set Us Free?

18 Aug

Crown (Image by Andriy Baranskyy under CC 2.0 via)

 

Human rights activist and fashion critic Sinéad Burke is on the cover of Vogue for its September issue, along with 14 other women picked by tongue-twister of the moment, the Duchess of Sussex (aka Meghan Markle). Burke has achondroplasia, like I do, and has become the first woman with dwarfism to bring the issue of fashion for all to the highest levels: from the Met Gala earlier this year to the Council of State in her home country of Ireland. 

Many in the dwarf community are excited about the Vogue cover, reporting that such representation is doing wonders for their and their children’s self-esteem. As with all firsts, I am curious as to how much staying power it will ultimately have. The fashion industry is notorious for embracing differences as novelties. And as Helen Lewis writes in The Atlantic, we should be very careful about reading too much into what a fashion magazine edited by the wife of a prince can do:

There are sharp limits on the activism of royals… one of their major causes is mental health, where they stay safely away from making policy demands. Prince Harry has bravely spoken about undergoing counseling to deal with the death of his mother, but the charity he and his brother support, Heads Together, focuses on “changing the conversation” and “reducing the stigma.” It cannot, say, criticize the lack of government funding for mental-health services…

All of this adds up to a form of activism in which there are problems, but no villains. Markle can talk about marginalized women who struggle to find clothes for job interviews—and the charity SmartWorks, which she supports—but she cannot address the causes of poverty… 

As a royal, Markle is particularly constrained in what she can say. Other activists make the same bargain of defanging their criticisms to avoid causing upset for less compelling reasons. Identifying general problems—old-fashioned consciousness-raising—is worthwhile and helpful. 

But it isn’t the same as solving them. That requires politics, which is messy and divisive.

Too often, feminism—even when not championed by a beautiful, wealthy aristocrat—gets stuck in this toothless, villain-free zone. It is easy to champion diversity and urge girls to aim higher, but awkward to bring up the lack of state investment in child care and, well, the small matter of the class system.

While I loved princesses a child, I’ve been trying to figure out if the real-world ones have any reason to exist in a democracy. (I’ve only ever lived in countries that made no bones about kicking theirs out long ago.) With more documentaries and period films about the Windsors under my belt than I care to count, it seems to me that we in the modern world have three options: a) Barely notice them, b) Admire them in a way no one who has done so little deserves, c) Gossip about them in a way no one who was simply born into the spotlight deserves. The first option seems the least unreasonable.

But the desire to twirl about in a ball gown (or any of the clothes featured in Vogue) has never been about reason.

Yes, Sinéad Burke made it to the cover of Vogue at the invitation of a duchess, who made it to the palace at the invitation of her then-boyfriend, who lives there only because he was born into a family that, until very recently, was for Whites Only and is still off-limits to Catholics and adopted children. But Burke has certainly done the work to deserve her place on the page. May it have lasting effects on the world – lasting even longer than, dare I say, the monarchy.

 

 

Will Banning Scars on Bad Guys Bring Out the Scars on Princesses?

11 Aug

 

Of all the recent reviews of The Lion King, old and new, film critic Doug Walker’s sums it up best: “I blame bad parenting for [Scar killing his brother the king]. Because when you name one kid ‘Mufasa’meaning ‘king’and you name the other kid ‘Scar’meaning ‘scar’aren’t you just begging for something like this to happen?”

It’s been nine months since the British Film Institute made a pledge regarding films like The Lion King: No more funding for films featuring villains with facial deformities. Ben Roberts, the BFI’s deputy CEO, told The Telegraph, “Film is a catalyst for change and that is why we are committing to not having negative representations depicted through scars or facial difference in the films we fund.” The decision was in support of the #IAmNotYourVillain campaign by the British advocacy group Changing Faces, which is “for everyone with a scar, mark or condition on their face or body that makes them look different.”

Filmmakers and artists could argue that banning any portrayal (no matter how stereotypical) constitutes censorship. Which is why a more productiveand, arguably, radicalmove was the BFI’s simultaneous pledge to promote stories that portray disfigured heroes and heroines. This included funding for this summer’s critically acclaimed Dirty God (see above), about a woman facing prejudice both public and private after an acid attack. Perhaps the most groundbreaking aspect of the film is the main character’s portrayal by newcomer Vicky Knight, who has had burn marks on a third of her body since she was 8-years-old. This is an utterly extraordinary break in the long, long history of conventionally attractive, non-disabled actors slapping on makeup and prosthesis to portray deformed and disabled characters. And win awards for it.

And can I just SQUEE! for a moment over the fact that the Dirty God is also brave enough to make viewers watch and learn to empathize with a disfigured woman? Stories about learning to find true beauty within have existed before. But rarely has this been applied to a non-disfigured man meeting a disfigured woman. To quote a spot-on meme of Beauty and the Beast: “Appearances don’t matter. What counts is what’s in your heart. Unless you’re the girl.” As I’ve written before, tremendous progress will have been made when we as filmgoers can name numerous scenes wherein a heroine unveils a severe facial deformity and her strapping lover says, “I think it’s intriguing. And I wanna knock boots with you. So. Bad.” 

Is that too much to ask of the industry? The public? To quote Wonder, the best American film about a facial deformity of the past several years: “He can’t change how he looks, so we have to change how we see.”

 

 

Summer Body Challenge

4 Aug

embedded  bodies(Image by Camil Tulcan used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Yes, I know summer is halfway over. No need to tell me.

And it’s been seven years since I hailed eating-disorder survivor Chloe Angyal’s truism that there is no right way to hate your body. And in those seven years, I have come to see more and more what a pillar of everyday conversation body-bashing is, particularly in social circles dominated by women. Someone complains about their weight-gain since pregnancy. Another bemoans the physical signs of aging. Another comments on how fattening someone’s lunchtime meal is, which is why they opted against it. Another talks about some new product they love intended to combat certain bodily features. Another knocks a body part on someone they dated/are dating/want to date. Like insecurity, it’s everywhere.

I’m not going to pretend that kicking this habit is a quick fix. It’s far from easy to accept your every single physical feature despite how unfashionable the society you live in currently considers it. But if many of us enjoy challenging ourselves with strict diets and exercise regimens, why not challenge ourselves to stay off the body-bashing? At least until September 21st?  Until then, only positive or matter-of-fact observances about your physical features. And those that don’t belong to you. Discussing pain, illness, or disability is fine, but that should never link to comments on physical appearance. Discussing fashion preferences is fine, as long as they never link to comments about whose body can “pull it off”. Do you think you can join me in this? If not, why not?

Additional Rules for the Super-Disciplined Who Want to Push Themselves Even Further:

  • Food is to be enjoyed, not criticized. Don’t voice why you don’t like something or how it doesn’t fit into your diet, unless you have a dangerous allergy and traces of a given food could send you to the emergency room. If you don’t like something, quietly leave it to the side or request it be left off your plate. In turn, when you’re the cook, never comment on how much or little a guest ate.
  • Exercise, on the contrary, is to be complained about. Why do so many of us rave about how good we feel after an exercise session, but not, say, a hot bath? Is it possibly to garner attention and praise for having spent time on something so boring and uncomfortable? When I exercise, I groan and swear a good deal of the way through and I glare at any instructor who’s too perky. I’ve found that reiterating this afterwards makes people laugh – as opposed to bragging about my achievement, which might inspire some to follow my routine, but will certainly make some others feel worse and/or resentful. Some form of exercise is generally good for most of us on earth. But, like doing the laundry or taxes, we don’t have to pretend to like it. Those who sincerely do like exercising are blessed and therefore have all the more reason to be happy without needing external validation. They can curl up with their self-satisfaction and write about in their journals. The ones not posted online.
  • Do you have any suggestions to up the challenge? Tell me in the comments.

What’s the reward for those who meet this challenge? That’s for the winners to find out.

 

 

In School I Learned the Story of Emmett Till, But Never the Story of How Many Still Try to Destroy Him

28 Jul

Emmett Till(Image by Trending Topics 2019 used under CC 2.0 via)

 

This week the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered a photo of three fraternity brothers posing with guns next to bullet holes in a sign commemorating the spot on the Tallahatchie River where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 after he was tortured and murdered. One of the fraternity brothers posted the photo on his Instagram account, where it garnered hundreds of likes before it was drawn into the national spotlight. The fraternity has since expelled the men in the image.

Like many Americans my age, I first learned about Emmett Till in school when I was 15-years-old as part of a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month. I remember the eruption of “WHOA!” among my classmates when we first saw the image of Till’s battered face in the documentary Eyes on the Prize. We learned that Till’s mother insisted on an open casket to show the public what the murderers had done to her son for whistling at a white woman. We learned that this moment helped launch the Civil Rights Movement onto the national scene. And then we went about our day. As with most history lessons, we filed the tragedy as “in the past” and all but said, “Isn’t it good that  this doesn’t happen anymore?”

The memorial sign to Emmett Till would not be erected for another 10 years. I hope students today learn in their Civil Rights lessons that it has been repeatedly riddled with bullet holes ever since. My classmates and I didn’t learn in school where the opponents of the Civil Rights Movement ended up – not only the politicians and the Klansmen, but the white students in the South and the North who threatened their first black classmates. We watched the film version of To Kill A Mocking Bird with its fictional schoolgirl protagonist shaming a lynch mob into backing down simply by showing up at the last minute with her innocent face. We did not learn about the very real photographs of families smiling with their children next to lynched corpses that were turned into postcards and distributed as souvenirs at the time. When it came to such horrors, we learned that there were Bad Guys but there was the silent assumption that they all died off or had a change of heart because it was In the Past.

And it all had nothing to do with America’s Glorious Past. The way we learned it, the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements both cropped up randomly for some reason in the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries. We didn’t learn that the Supreme Court slowly began overturning racist laws at the same time that more and more atrocities of the Holocaust were coming to light, making overt racism less and less widely accepted. We didn’t learn that slavery was such a contentious issue among our Founding Fathers that it had to be jettisoned to the state-level lest it break up the United States before they could even form a country.

Since the very beginning of the United States, talking about racism has remained a quick and easy way to divide our citizenry. Our only hope of solving this gargantuan problem is not to merely condemn and expel individuals, but to fully admit and understand the scope – how far back it goes and how widespread it still is. That’s how you start to solve any serious problem really.

 

 

“Somebody Was Doing the Lion King Thing…”

2 Jun

 

Leaving you this week with the above BBC video of Things Not to Say to People with Dwarfism. With candid personal stories ranging from awkward jokes to physical abuse and assault, discretion is advised. This is not your typical the-only-disability-is-a-bad-attitude public service announcement. Kudos to all involved for the honesty. And to the rest of us, what are we still doing that allows these incidents to continue and pervade?

 

 

Mother’s Day & All It Touches

12 May

Mother and Son(Image by Andy415 used under CC 2.0 via)

From the Archives, updated

A very happy Mother’s Day to all the wonderful mothers I have had the pleasure of knowing, not least of all my own.

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

And to those of you who had to take care of your mothers (and yourselves) much earlier than the rest of us had to,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what neighbors (or politicians) may have said,

And to those of you who have tried hard to become mothers despite what nature ultimately decided,

And to those of you who bravely chose to have someone else become a mother in your stead,

And to those of you who are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

Enough with the Myths about Disability

27 Oct

 

Here I am discussing some of the most common misconceptions about people with disabilities on Germany’s Deutschland3000 program. Like, share, spread the word. (English subtitles available with Auto-Translate via the tools icon.)

 

 

Banned Books Week Should Fight Censorship & Simplistic Thinking

23 Sep

 

Today the American Library Association kicks of its annual Banned Books Week to spread awareness of the dangers of censorship. Each year the ALA releases a list of the top ten books that were most often requested to be removed from U.S. libraries—usually school libraries—by parents and political activists alike. In 2017, the majority of the most challenged books were stories about LGBT acceptance. However, as with nearly every year, a few titles on the list were targeted for use of racial slurs.

I love Banned Books Week if anything because discussing these issues is crucial. I do believe every public library should be free to contain every book humanity has ever brought forth. But, as examined before, those opposed to censorship should not assume the solutions are simple like censors do.

When it comes to kids, you’d have to look hard to find someone who believes that no one should ever take a child’s age and developmental level into account when selecting stories for them. I save many of my favorite books for the children in my life until they are old enough to appreciate them fully because infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers can get scared or—more likely—bored if they can’t follow along. Most children in primary school do not understand sarcasm, which is why Stephen Colbert did not let his kids watch The Colbert Report.

Children are a diverse group, so of course many kids will be ready earlier than others to handle mature topics. But just as I believe it takes a mature mind to understand the  BDSM portrayed in Fifty Shades of Grey, I believe there is a world of a difference between an older child who is ready to learn about the nuances of racism and a young child who will likely repeat the N-word without giving it much thought, and think it’s funny if it elicits shocked expressions among grown-ups.

With all this in mind, Banned Books Week should be about debate, endless and free.

 

 

“Midget-Wrestling” Events Canceled in the UK

16 Sep

Learn respect (Image by Duncan C used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Thanks to an online public outcry organized by members and supporters of the Restricted Growth Association, a handful of “midget wrestling” events have been canceled in the United Kingdom. The objectification of people with dwarfism in freak shows spans from the Early Modern Era’s court jesters well into the present day at dwarf-tossing events, “mini” cover bands, dwarf theme parks, and on reality TV shows. This is the first time in recent memory a certain freak show has not simply been condemned by human rights activists but in fact terminated. 

As Erin Pritchard writes in The Independent: “We do not put people who use wheelchairs, people who are deaf or blind, or people with learning difficulties on a stage and laugh at them.”

Then again, let’s not give the reality TV producers any ideas.

 

 

Dwarfs in Art & Shakespeare

19 Aug

 

Leaving you this weekend with a tip to watch Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective, which airs tomorrow night on BBC 4. I’ve long documented portrayals of dwarfs throughout history on the blog and this documentary promises to go into greater detail. Several of the portrayals of dwarfism are well-known enough to have become stereotypes dwarfs must combat with regularity – which is quite absurd when you consider how rare the condition is.

Featured in the documentary is academic Tom Shakespeare, who regularly writes about disability and bio-ethics, and has achondroplasia like I do. He is a professor at the University of East Anglia and a frequent contributor on the BBC with thought-provoking arguments on issues ranging from physician-assisted death to religion vs. spirituality to bucket lists. I’ve featured an interview with him from his project Disability and Sexuality (see above) because he deserves recognition far beyond the British Isles.

 

I Still Don’t Believe in Leagues

12 Aug

matrioschka (Image by Maria Zaikina used under CC 2.0 via)

 

One of the most harmful and ubiquitous of all impulses is the desire to have someone to look down upon in order to feel better about ourselves. When we are worried that we’re not winning at life—at work, at love, at health & fitness—we too often look for those we think could be ranked below us and use the idea At least I’m not like that! as a salve. Occasionally indulging in such thinking privately in our weaker moments is human, but to assert it out loud or act on it is to descend into the cowardice of a high school mean girl. It’s both socially poisonous and wholly ironic that the fear of not ranking high in a given hierarchy too often inspires us to buy more and more into the idea of the hierarchy, instead of inspiring us to question it.

Firm belief in hierarchies is the fastest path to hate and the fact that it feeds on human insecurity is reason enough to question it, as I recently did at a dinner party, attacking the idea of natural hierarchies of beauty: “Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There are no universal rules. I for one don’t find Dwayne Johnson or Tom Cruise or Jon Hamm attractive at all, despite what any magazine editor says. Johnny Depp, now he was once cute—”

“No, he wasn’t!” rebutted a friend.

“See? Attractiveness is always a matter of personal taste. There’s no such thing as being universally attractive.”

I’ve encountered lots of arguments to the contrary, but little evidence, which is why I looked upon the recent Atlantic article about “dating out of your league” with narrowed eyes. Upon closer reading, I realized the study it featured wasn’t really saying anything new. The phrase “out of my/his/her league” is generally used to mean people can be objectively divided into ascending ranks of beauty or sexiness and that only people in the higher ranks have a chance at those in the higher ranks. It’s one of pop culture’s biggest myths. That certain people attract more people than others in a certain social setting, however, is a fact that can be corroborated by evidence. And that’s what The Atlantic was talking about, noting: “dating ‘leagues’ are not different tiers of hotness, but a single ascending hierarchy of desirability… [and] people do not seem to be universally locked into them…”  

If you follow this blog, you know I frequently use the term “conventionally attractive” instead of “beautiful” or “hot” because there is no objective measure of anyone’s looks around the world and throughout history. The phrase “conventionally attractive” means your looks and/or style are considered attractive by the current mainstream fashion of your culture. It does not mean that you will be desired everywhere by everyone, which is why people disagree over Johnny Depp and are often bewildered by the fashions of their ancestors/teenage children.

In a world that’s produced the corset, foot-binding, neck rings, teeth-blackening, and the bagel head, it’s clear any body type or feature can be striking, intriguing, wonderful. And any body type or feature can become suddenly hideous when ruined by a sickening personality. When Polish-Danish tennis player Caroline Wozniacki mocked an African-American competitor’s body, I agreed with those commenters who noted that pink Northern European skin can be pretty, but it can also make you look like a pig.

Pop culture asserts that the inordinate attention conventionally attractive people receive is always positive, leading too many of us to think that being conventionally attractive corresponds directly to being successful in love. Doesn’t a throng of smitten people lined up outside your door mean that you can have your pick?

Yet if we listen to conventionally attractive people—instead of just look at them—the contemplative among them often explain how upsetting it is to have to face lots and lots of personalities they have pretty much nothing in common with but who are passionately convinced they do. As one conventionally attractive friend put it, “I am sick of casual dating.” Another spent years wondering if he had deep personality flaws since so many of his dates seemed to only want one thing. As said before, being desired by someone who doesn’t love you at all can get really creepy. Really fast.

When we first fall for someone, we pretty much always let the thrill of romance project great expectations onto the object of our affections. But lasting partnerships are not built on the intoxicating joy of first attraction alone. Psychologists are divided as to how long the limerence phase of a relationship lasts—some say between 6 to 18 months, some say up to 3 years—but they all agree that it does end at some point. Celebrity divorce rates alone indicate we all need something more than our partner’s face, body, and charisma to keep us interested. Broadening our concepts of beauty can only help us with that.

The primary reason I don’t believe in leagues is because I know too many conventionally attractive people who have fallen hard for those who are anything but. Mainstream fashion ignores all that to our detriment. The study in The Atlantic of online dating sites in Boston, New York, Chicago, and Seattle found white people, black men, Asian women, educated men, and very young women are considered far more conventionally attractive than black women, Asian men, women with higher education, and women over 18. Other studies have added to the list of types mainstream fashion seems to be too narrow-minded to handle like shorter men, people with disabilities, and women of color with skin tones considered “dark.” There is no good reason to let such disparities continue.

A friend recently asked me, “What if you’re just not into blondes?”

It’s fine to occasionally note your tendencies and tastes. The weakness lies in believing they are immovable or should be turned into rules. If you’re just not into blondes and date accordingly, you are simply more likely to lose at the game of love if there are one or more blondes out there who share your values, sense of humor, and idea of fun. And because values, sense of humor and hobbies do not correlate to physical features, it is statistically likely that there are such people out there in the very bodies you’ve vowed to avoid. When you decide you can’t possibly open your mind to love in a wide array of bodily forms, you miss out.

 

 

In Dwarf News

22 Jul

 

John Oliver kicked off the month with an excellent report about the complexities of gene editing. (See above.) Unlike most reporters of these issues, he manages in few words to explain precisely why ridding the world of genetic mutations like deafness and dwarfism should not be the solution to the problem of society’s hang-ups about bodily differences.

Meanwhile, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which I have referred to as The Best Book of the 21st Century, has been adapted into a documentary out this week in the U.S.

In less wonderful news, a Silicon Valley paper has uncovered an Amazon proposal for a newly patented robot that throws warehouse products into bins. The hypothetical item referred to 17 times in the illustrations that the robot could throw is a dwarf. Little People of America is not amused. Kudos to reporter Ethan Baron for shedding light on an issue few would more than laugh at.

 
 

 

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 Ijeoma Oluo 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.