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Content Warnings and Microaggressions

20 Sep

Grunge Warning Sign - Do Not Read This Sign

(Image by Nicolas Raymond used under CC license via)

 

There’s a heated debate going over at The Atlantic over trigger warnings and microaggressions. For those less familiar with online minority rights debates, trigger warnings originated as labels for video or texts depicting graphic violence, often sexual, that could be triggering for survivors of assault suffering from PTSD. They have since evolved into “content warnings,” used to label any video or text containing arguments, comments, humor or images that marginalize minorities. I most recently ran into one preceding a beer ad in which two brewers tried to joke about never wanting to have to do anything so humiliating as dressing in drag in the red-light district in order to earn money.

Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have argued that content warnings have led to “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a culture of silencing, wherein too many are afraid to initiate dialogue on these issues, lest they offend. They criticize restrictive speech codes and trigger warnings, and suggest universities offer students free training in cognitive behavioral therapy in order to “tone down the perpetual state of outrage that seems to engulf some colleges these days, allowing students’ minds to open more widely to new ideas and new people.”

“Microaggressions” is a term invented in 1970 by Harvard professor Charles M. Pierce to refer to comments or actions that are usually not intended as aggressive or demeaning but nevertheless do contribute to the marginalizing of minorities. Examples would be certain physicians being addressed as “Nurse” at the workplace. Or nurses, secretaries, cashiers, and storage room workers constantly hearing the widespread Western belief that low-skilled jobs deserve a low degree of respect. Or men still being expected to prove their worth through their career and never their emotional fulfillment. Or lesbians being asked if they’ve had “real sex.” Or anyone hearing from magazines, sitcoms or even loved ones that body types like theirs are something to avoid ending up with or hooking up with.

Microaggressions are the essence of insensitivity and they highlight the widespread nature of many prejudices about minorities. I analyze them all the time on this blog, without labeling them as such. Finding blogs that feature them in list-form can be done with little effort.

Citing a sociological study by professors Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, Connor Friedersdorf has argued that calling out microaggressions on social media sites has led to a culture of victimhood, wherein the emotions of the offended always matter more than the perpetrator’s intentions. Victimhood culture is “characterized by concern with status and sensitivity to slight combined with a heavy reliance on third parties. People are intolerant of insults, even if unintentional, and react by bringing them to the attention of authorities or to the public at large.”

Cue the overemotion. Simba Runyowa rightly rebuts that many of Friedersdorf’s examples of hypersensitivity are cherrypicked, but then goes on to deny that anyone would ever want to be seen as a victim. (Not only do most petitioning groups—whether the majority or the minority—claim to be the victim of the other side’s moral failings and undeserved power, but it appears he has never tried to explain what it’s like to have a rare condition, only to be interrupted by the insistence, “I think I have that, too!”) On the other side, Haidt, Lukianoff and Friedersdorf have attracted plenty of support from those who are only too happy to believe that college campuses and the blogosphere today are ruled by the PC police, rendering such places far worse than Stalinist Russia.

I rarely issue content warnings on videos or quotations or any examples of bigotry I analyze on this blog. My primary reason is that a majority of the content we consume every day is arguably misogynistic or heteronormative or ableist or racist or classist or lookist. This does not at all mean that we should not address those problems, but demanding “warnings” on whatever has marginalized me leaves me open to criticism for not doing the same for all the other injustices I may not see.  As both a Beatles fan and a social justice blogger, I will always prefer to read or hear a comprehensive critique of John Lennon’s ableism than to see warnings on his biographies.

And I don’t label microaggressions as such because I agree with Friedersdorf that the word seems at odds with its definition. Insensitivity can be very hurtful. It can contribute to feelings of alienation by functioning as a reminder of how millions of people might think of you. But it is not aggressive. Highlighting, questioning and debating ubiquitous prejudices, stereotypes and traditions is crucial to human progress. Mistaking ignorance for hostility, however, is an obstacle to it.

Would it be accurate and productive to post something like this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another parent talk about how thrilled they are to have been able to give birth “naturally.”

(Avoiding C-section is never an option for women with achondroplasia like me.)  And would it be accurate and productive to something like post this?

Microaggression: Having to hear yet another childfree blogger brag about how great it is to have the time and energy to do things I’ll never be able to do like hiking or biking, let alone if I have kids.

Would it be more practical to tweet such complaints rather than pen an extensive article about the intricacies of the problem because few have time to read the particulars of considering parenthood with achondroplasia? Would posting them on a site featuring microaggressions serve as a much-needed wake-up call, convincing the perpetrators to see the issue from my perspective, or would it put them on the defensive? Would it spark dialogue or shut it down? Are the comments that marginalize my experience veritably aggressive? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

But whether we think people on either side of the majority vs. minority debates are too sensitive or insensitive, we should be aiming for dialogue over exclamation points.

 

 

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Happy Birthday, ADA!

26 Jul

 

This week marks the 25-year anniversary of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. As others have noted, the law was ground-breaking not only because of its international ripple effect, but because it recognized disability not as an issue of health, but of human rights.

Author of the bill, Robert L. Burgdorf, Jr. writes in The Washington Post why this was so necessary:

People with disabilities were routinely denied rights that most members of our society take for granted, including the right to vote (sometimes by state law, other times by inaccessible polling places), to obtain a driver’s license, to enter the courts and to hold public office. Many states had laws prohibiting marriage by, and permitting or requiring involuntary sterilization of, persons with various mental or physical conditions, particularly intellectual disability, mental health conditions and epilepsy. A number of states restricted or denied the right of people with mental disabilities to enter into contracts. Several U.S. cities, including Chicago, Columbus and Omaha, had what became known as “ugly laws” that banned from streets and public places people whose physical condition or appearance rendered them unpleasant for other people to see. These laws were actually enforced as recently as 1974, when a police officer arrested a man for violating Omaha’s ordinance.

In some instances, discrimination threatened the very lives of individuals with disabilities: Lifesaving medical treatments that would routinely have been made available to other patients were denied to patients with disabilities; in 1974, the New York Times cited an estimate that unnecessary deaths of babies with disabilities in the U.S. resulting from withholding of medical treatment numbered in the thousands each year.

Things have improved substantially, which is cause for celebration. But not complacency. Which is why NPR’s article “Why Disability and Poverty Still Go Hand-In-Hand” is well worth your time, as is the above TED Talk by the late, great Stella Young, whose unexpected death last winter was a tremendous loss to the disability rights movement and to anyone who enjoys a good dose of sarcasm with their social critique.

 

 

Why Do Names for Minorities Keep Changing?

14 Jun

midget not wanted(Image by CN used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I’ve been writing about the word “midget” more than usual this month, thanks to an Irish public service announcement and then GoogleTranslate. The taboo nature of the word in the dwarf community is almost amusing when we consider that the world’s largest dwarf advocacy organization, Little People of America, was originally named Midgets of America. No lie. (You can read about why I feel that the change was hardly an improvement here and why others do as well here.)

Minority names have been changing a lot throughout the last century. This social pattern has been dubbed the Euphemism Treadmill by psychologist Stephen Pinker. Toni Morrison has pointed out that it’s all about power: “The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.” But as names for minorities keep changing, many laypeople keep complaining about the seemingly convoluted nature of of it all:  

“Can’t they just stick to a name and be done with it?”

“Why should I have to be careful if they’re going to be so capricious about it?”

“It seems like they’re just looking for us to slip up so they can call us out!”

It’s not hard to understand where this frustration comes from. No one likes being accused of insensitivity for using a word they had thought was in fact accurate and innocuous. But rarely does anyone ask why the names change.

In 2010, President Obama signed Rosa’s Law, classifying “intellectually disabled” as the official government term to describe what in my childhood was referred to as “mentally retarded.” “Mentally challenged” and “mentally impaired” were other terms suggested and used in PC circles in the 1990s. Already I can sense a good number of my readers wondering whether these changes were truly necessary. I can also sense, however, that few would wonder whether it was necessary to abandon the terms “idiots,” “morons,” and “imbeciles” to refer to such people.

“Idiot,” “moron,” “imbecile,”  and “dumb” were all medical terms before they were insults, used by doctors and psychologists across the Anglophone world. But gradually laypeople started using them to disparage any sort of person they disagreed with. And now this is their only purpose. Instead of getting all of us to stop using these words as insults, the medical minorities have stopped accepting them as official names.

The names for psychiatric disorders and developmental disabilities are particularly prone to being re-appropriated by the mainstream to describe behaviors and tendencies that barely resemble the diagnoses. “Sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I once heard a colleague apologize. “I have such ADD today.”

“I think you’re becoming pretty OCD,” quipped a friend upon perusing my books, which are strictly organized by size.

“That movie kept going back and forth. It had no point! It was so schizophrenic.”

For over 10 years now, psychiatric researchers and patients have been working to abandon this last one. Using “schizophrenic” to describe anything that oscillates between two opposing views or behaviors can easily lead to widespread ignorance about the intricacies of the condition. “Psychosis susceptibility syndrome” is one proposed replacement, but the ubiquity of “psychotic” in common parlance may prove to be equally problematic. “Salience syndrome” was the term most preferred by patients participating in a survey at the University of Montreal and was published in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013.

This is the choice we have about labels for minorities: We either stop using minority labels to insult people, or get used to minorities asking us to use different labels to refer to them.

But if only it were that simple. Getting people to abandon marginalizing terms for minorities without fighting about it is as difficult as the word “political correctness” itself. There are two reactions all too common in any given conversation about political correctness and they both invariably botch the conversation:

  • Libertarian Outrage: “You can’t tell me what to say!  I can call anyone what I wanna call ’em and it’s their own fault if they’re upset!”
  • Liberal Outrage: “I’ll humiliate you for using an old-fashioned term because PC is all about competition and it feels cool to point out others’ faults.”

Both reactions are based on a refusal to listen and a readiness to assume the worst of the other side. Plenty of anti-PC outrage is fueled by the belief that any discussion about names and language is hot-headed and humorless, and plenty of liberal bullying is fueled by the belief that honest-to-goodness naiveté is as morally objectionable as outright hostility.

Political correctness is not a competition, and if it were, it would be one that no one could win. A human rights activist may be an LP with SAD who is LGBTQIA and know exactly what all those letters mean, but they may not know that “Lapland” and “Fräulein” are now considered offensive by the people once associated with them. And it’s less likely they know about the taboo term in German for the former Czechoslovakia.

And as someone who’s spent her life having to decide how she feels about “midget” and “dwarf” and “little person,” I can tell you that attitudes are far more important than labels. Because even if the word often matches the sentiment, this is not always the case. There’s a difference between the stranger who told my father when I was a kid, “She’s an adorable little midget!” and the coworker who told my cousin recently, “The best thing about Game of Thrones is getting to laugh at that midget!” 

I will always prefer to have an in-depth discussion with someone about the meaning of dwarfism than to call someone out for using a certain word.  I will always prefer to hear someone earnestly ask me how I feel about a certain word than witness them humiliating someone else for uttering it.

Too often these discussions are diluted down into simple lists that start to look like fashion do’s and don’ts, and this is perhaps the gravest insult to the noble intentions of those who kick-started the PC movement. As one progressive blogger pointed out years ago in The Guardian, her lesbian parents are firm supporters of trans rights and, up until recently, used the word “tranny” without any idea that it is widely known among trans people as a pejorative. Too much sympathy for the couple’s ignorance could be harmful. When the mainstream insists that no one should be expected to know about newly taboo terms for minorities, it implies that no one should be expected to be listening to the human rights conversations that are going on about these groups. But conversely, too little sympathy for sheer ignorance is equally unproductive.

Because bigotry is not ignorance. As a wise man said, bigotry is the refusal to question our prejudices.   

 

 

Baltimore Is Everyone’s Problem

3 May

Mural, Baltimore(Image by Eli Pousson used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I could write about the year I spent in downtown Baltimore, when I rode past the above mural every day, when the neighborhood I lived in was serving as the inspiration for the crime show Homicide: Life on the Street. But this is not the time for white people to talk about themselves.

This is the time to consider the undeniable disparities between white people and black people living in Baltimore, and elsewhere in the U.S. This is the time to acknowledge the privileges and freedoms black Americans still cannot enjoy today. And this is the time to listen to what we are being asked to do by those who have good reason to be upset about all this.

If we spend most of our time telling poor and disenfranchised people how they should behave rather than examine what we regularly take for granted, then we’re not interested in fixing the problem. We’re just interested in congratulating ourselves for being better than others.

 

 

Is It Wrong to Give Your Kid an Extraordinary Name?

26 Apr

Hello My Name Is... (Image by Alan O’Rourke of workcompass.com used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Every coupled friend I have here in Germany is, as of this year, a parent. And looking upon the names bestowed upon the new generation, I must say I like them all. Or at least, I don’t hate any of them. This is impressive when considering that, if my partner and I ever want to get into a fight, we simply start discussing names we would hypothetically pick for a child. Just give us five minutes and soon we’ll be shouting, “Bo-ring!” “Flaky!” “Hideous!”

And then we run up against the unanswerable question: Is it harder to have a mundane (a.k.a. boring) name or an unusual (a.k.a. weird) name?

While I enjoy the sound of my own name—as many if not most people do—I haven’t enjoyed seeing Emily end up in the top ten of the most popular U.S. baby names for the past three decades. Emily was the first name a sociologist in Freakonomics came up with when asked to list “typical white girl names” in the U.S. One hot summer in Upstate New York, I worked in a room with five other Emilys, all my age. One friend had so many Emilys in his life that he added permanent descriptors to differentiate us. (I was “Home Emily.”) Matt Groening was definitely on to something when he listed meeting-another-kid-with-your-name as one of childhood’s greatest traumas.

This is why I see the appeal of extraordinary names. After all, the whole point of giving a child their own name—as opposed to, say, calling them Person or Daughter No. 1—is to distinguish them from others. To have them, and not four other people, look up when you call them. In my years as a school teacher, I had a much easier time remembering Xenia, Letitia and Suma than Tom, Jim and Kate. I’m also grateful to parents who opt to avoid the sound-combinations that happen to be trending, reducing the likelihood of my having to remember which student is Julie and which is Julia, or whether the boy in front of me is Leon, Leo, or Leonard. I regularly confuse Kristen Stewart and Kristin Scott Thomas, but I’ll never forget Quvenzhané Wallis till the day I die.

Black Americans are renowned for frequently giving their children names that sound vaguely African with modern flourishes, from Baratunde and Beyoncé to Kwame and Malia. I spent a good deal of my childhood on Long Island and in Baltimore where I had classmates and friends named Chiwanna, LaTaesha, Zeeyaré, and Teyonté. South African comedian Trevor Noah has poked fun at how very not African such names sound where he comes from, but the attempt to reconstruct cultural ties, however inaccurate, is perhaps most understandable in the context of those whose ancestors were violently removed from their culture:

 

 

Looking down on extraordinary names can have xenophobic undertones. After all, the pre-1960s model of blending into middle class America resulted in immigrants named Wei-Li and Helmut swiftly transforming into Winnie and Herbert. An insistence that it’s cruel to name your child something unusual suggests something wrong with diversity or being a minority.

“That kid is gonna get teased so bad!” is the usual response to an extraordinary name. But wouldn’t it be better to teach your child how to react to schoolyard teasing with self-confidence and empowerment rather than avoid anything that might make them remarkable? Studies show the Boy Named Sue Effect is real. That is, my friends Lucrezia, Baldur and Bronwyn are more likely to have strong and sturdy personalities than my friends Matt, Matt and Matt.

As one psychologist explained in The New York Times:

Researchers have studied men with cross-gender names like Leslie. They haven’t found anything negative — no psychological or social problems — or any correlations with either masculinity or effeminacy. But they have found one major positive factor: a better sense of self-control. It’s not that you fight more, but that you learn how to let stuff roll off your back.

Then again, some endeavors to be different do seem less defensible than others. As noted before, a study in 2010 showed that teachers here in Germany are more likely to give lower grades and presume unruly behavior of kids named Cindy, Mandy or Kevin because they are assumed to come from anti-intellectual, anti-social homes. These names are common among children born in the Eighties and Nineties in the former East Germany where Hollywood had a strong influence, Kevin having boomed right after the international success of Home Alone. Smashing stereotypes about the people from behind the Iron Curtain is admirable, but destigmatizing Macauley Culkin feels less necessary.

And what about the potential for sounding pretentious? German punk singer Nina Hagen named her daughter Cosma Shiva after having allegedly seen a UFO while pregnant. The most compelling argument against picking a name from a distant culture I’ve heard comes from a fellow Long Islander with an Indian first name and a Jewish surname given by her Jewish dad and mother whose parents hail from Chennai:

I don’t think it’s offensive when a white couple reaches around the world for a name. I think it’s tacky. If you want to name your kid something foreign and exotic, then get to know someone foreign and exotic, and marry them. Otherwise, stick to what you know well. You’re trying to sound deep and yet your relationship to the culture isn’t deep. It’s shallow.

Not to immediately insult Dhani Harrison, but she has a point.

Having no cultural context for a name can be very problematic. What if the foreign name you’ve picked “just because it sounds nice” is widely known abroad as the name of a brutal dictator, infamous celebrity, or literary villain? If a WASPy American couple stumbled upon “Mohammad” or “Fidel” for the first time and decided to give it to their son just for the sound of it, they would be looked upon with a good deal of suspicion. In Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife, a man returning home to China after a trip to the U.S. tricks his rival into taking on the name Judas when dealing with Western businessmen, promising him that it is the name of very well-known, powerful historical figure.

And controversy aside, phonetics often don’t translate easily across cultures. Not only are my favorite English names often butchered by German accents, but most of the German names that sound loveliest to me and my American family elicit horrified looks from my contemporaries in Berlin. (Apparently “Hannelore” is one of the ugliest names anyone could ever think of in Germany today.)

This proves, however, that it is often nothing more than a matter of taste.  One person’s tacky is another person’s terrific, and there is little we can do to change that.

 

 

Political Correctness Makes You More Creative

21 Dec

Europe According to Germany(“Europe According to Germany” by Yanko Tsvetkov used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Study On Avoiding Stereotypes Smashes Stereotype About Avoiding Stereotypes. Sounds like an Onion headline. The recent study at UC Berkeley reveals that encouraging workers to be politically correct—that is, to challenge and think beyond stereotypes—results in their producing more original and creative ideas. As Olga Kazhan points out at The Atlantic, this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which asserts that political correctness stifles the truth for the sake of acquiescing to the hypersensitive. Yet the study shows that truth and knowledge are obscured when facts are simplified into stereotypes.

Take, for example, the belief widely held in the West that women talk more than men do. Unpacking this stereotype unleashes several revelations about modern Western culture. All in all, women do not use more words than men on average. Women do talk more than men in certain small groups, but men talk more than women at large social gatherings. Listeners, however, tend to become more easily annoyed by women talking in such settings, so they notice it more. Baby girls in the West do start talking earlier than baby boys do, leading pop culture to promulgate the idea that female loquaciousness must be inborn. Yet more than one study have found that girls’ advantage may very well be because mothers talk more to their infant daughters than to their sons. And what about the stereotype that women remember emotional experiences better than men do? There appears to be evidence for this, rooted in the fact that American adults tend to ask girls more questions about their feelings during their developmental years, while encouraging boys to instead focus on their actions and achievements.

So while the genders may behave differently in some respects, further scrutiny shows that we certainly treat the genders differently. Political correctness demands we alter this. And then see what happens.

But instead of being seen as a great generator of progress and innovation, political correctness is more often perceived as a silencing technique, if Google’s image search is any indication. There is some valid cause for this concern. One of the worst tactics taken up by some minority rights activists is the phrase You can’t say that. It often stems from the noble idea that no one should have to endure threats, harassment and direct insults in everyday life. But simply banning bad words can lead to the destructive assumption that simply using the right words makes everything okay.

After all, avoiding stereotypes is not about shutting up but embracing depth and nuance. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi researches happiness and creativity, and in his latest book, he finds that one of the best tools for innovation is not limiting our own selves to gender stereotypes:

Psychological androgyny… refer[s] to a person’s ability to be at the same time aggressive and nurturant, sensitive and rigid, dominant and submissive, regardless of gender. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. It is not surprising that creative individuals are more likely to have not only the strengths of their own gender but those of the other one, too.

While the studies cited here focus on gender stereotypes, it’s easy to see how political correctness can foster productivity when applied to all sorts of minorities. For example, one way to react to  urgings to avoid antiquated terms like “Bushmen” and “Hottentots” is to ask why. This will reveal that “Hottentot” was a name assigned by Dutch and German colonists meant to caricature the sound of the Khoekhoe language, and that “Bushmen” was a derogatory name for the San first assigned to them by the Khoekhoe. This uncovers the fact that the San have been the most exploited people of southwestern Africa, primarily because their society has no system of ownership. They have been stereotyped as primitive and therefore less intelligent, but like so many non-state societies surviving into the present day, they have done so by developing skills that help them live in isolation – i.e., in unforgiving environments where other peoples have perished.

Or you can react to the urging to avoid “Hottentots” and “Bushmen” by simply saying, “I’ll call them whatever I want to call them!”  As the saying goes, stereotypes are there to save us the trouble of learning.

 

 

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

30 Nov

Book sculpture (Image by Ellen Forsyth used under CC 2.0 via)

Perhaps you are looking for gifts for little ones this holiday season. Or perhaps, like me, you simply know a staggering number of kids who will all have birthdays in the coming year. For either scenario, here is a sample of excellent—i.e., not boring or ugly—picture books that help raise diversity awareness through reading. All of these books have been featured in my workshops for pre-school teachers about helping minority children feel represented and teaching all students to see minority kids as their equals. They are divided into five categories based on objective.

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Books That Know Not Every Family Is Upper/Middle Class with a White, Straight, Biological, Married Mom and Dad… The most delightful thing about pre-schoolers is that they have almost no idea what “normal” means. Of course they are surprised by the extraordinary, but they don’t place value judgments on it until someone older teaches it to them. Critically analyzing the media images and stories kids consume is crucial because the media not only educates them about the world beyond their doorstep, but it instills them with subconscious ideas about what kinds of people society believes deserve to appear in books, film, and television. Kids are of course individuals and some may be temperamentally predisposed toward narrow-mindedness, but a preemptive strike against prejudice never hurt anyone.

 

 

 

Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis (available in German & Spanish) – A story of adoption as told from the point of view of the child. “Tell me again how the phone rang in the middle of the night and they told you I was born. Tell me again how you screamed. Tell me again how you called Grandma and Grandpa, but they didn’t hear the phone ’cause they sleep like logs…”

 

 

A Chair For My Mother by Vera B. Williams – A story that portrays poverty without uttering the word. The daughter of a single working mom tells of the day they lost everything they owned in a house fire. They’ve been saving up every spare cent they have to buy a big comfy armchair for their new home ever since. In the end, Mom finally has a place to lie back and rest her sore feet when she comes home from work at the diner, and her daughter can curl up to sleep in her lap.

 

 

 

Two Homes by Claire Masurel (available in French & German) – A boy proudly shows off his two homes. “I have two favorite chairs. A rocking chair at Daddy’s. A soft chair at Mommy’s.” The parents are portrayed as having nothing to do with each other, while always beaming at their son. “We love you wherever we are, and we love you wherever you are.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (available in Spanish) – Ezra Jack Keats was one of the first American illustrators to feature everyday black children in his stories. All of his books portray kids growing up in inner city neighborhoods. This is a brilliantly illustrated, very simple story about a boy enjoying freshly fallen snow in every way possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis – Written in verse, Susan swings, makes faces, sings songs, plays tricks, splashes in the water, rides on her dad’s shoulders, races in the back of a go-cart. Susan also happens to use a wheelchair.

 

 

 

What Makes A Baby by Cory Silverberg (available in German & Spanish) – A book about reproduction (sperm, egg, uterus) that leaves out gender (mom, dad, man, woman). No matter how many people want to ignore it, plenty of kids have been born via IVF, surrogacy, and to LGBTQ and intersex parents. This book allows those kids to have a conversation about where they came from, while emphasizing that your family is the people who were waiting for you to come into the world.

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Books For Extraordinary Situations That Have To Be ExplainedThese stories get into the specifics of certain disabilities, conditions and diverse backgrounds, but there is no reason they should not be read to every child.

 

 

 

Thinking Big by Susan Kuklin – This book is out of print, but well worth the search, portraying a day in the life of an 8-year-old girl with achondroplastic dwarfism. She is great at painting, but needs stools to reach things at home and school. She has friends who hold her hand so she won’t get left behind on hikes, but she talks openly about the kindergartners who call her “baby.” She loves going to Little People of America meetings, but she loves being at home with her mom, dad and younger brother best of all. This book accompanied me from pre-school to fifth grade, read aloud by my new teacher to the class at the beginning of the school year in order to explain why I looked different from the others and to encourage my classmates to be upfront with their questions.

 

 

 

 

 

I Have A Sister My Sister Is Deaf by Jeanne Whitehouse Peterson– A day in the life of a hearing girl and her deaf sister. They play, argue, and help each other out, while explaining deafness as a mere difference in terms young kids can understand. The story has a gentle, poetic rhythm. On a deer hunt, the narrator explains, “I am the one who listens for small sounds. She is the one who watches for quick movements in the grass.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Black Book of Colors by Rosana Faría (available in French, German & Spanish) – Like the illustrations, everything is black for Thomas, so when it comes to colors, he smells, hears, and feels them. “Red is as sweet as a strawberry, as juicy as a watermelon, and it hurts when it seeps out of a cut on his knee.” The images are embossed for the reader to touch. The Braille alphabet is provided at the back of the book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

People by Peter Spier (available in French & German) – A superbly illustrated celebration of human beings and cultures all around the world. We have different skin colors, noses, hair styles, holidays, favorite foods, alphabets, hobbies, and homes, but we’re all people. It should be noted that this might be a bit of an information overload for children under 4.

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Books About Moments When Diversity Is Considered Disruptive… These books empower kids who have been teased or interrogated for standing out. They can also be used to teach a bully or a clique how to understand and accept harmless differences. Some teachers rightly express concern over introducing the problems of sexism or racism to a child who has never seen a boy in a dress or a black girl before. Doing so could foster the notion that we should always associate minorities with controversy. Save them for when conflict does arise, or when the child is old enough to start learning about history and intolerance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman (available in Arabic, German, Panjabi, & Urdu) – Grace is a master at playing pretend. When her class decides to put on the play Peter Pan, she’s told by some know-it-all classmates that she can’t because she’s a girl and she’s black. She shows ’em all right.

 

 

And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (available in German) – Penguins Silo and Roy live in a New York zoo and are utterly inseparable. The zookeepers encourage them to take an interest in the lady penguins so that they can soon have baby penguins, but to no avail. Silo and Roy build a nest together and end up adopting an egg. When Baby Tango is born, the three of them couldn’t be happier.

 

 

You Be Me – I’ll Be You by Pili Mandelbaum (available in French) – A biracial girl tells her white dad she wishes she looked like he does. Dad explains that he is milk and Mom is coffee, and she is café au lait. He says she is beautiful and sometimes he wishes he looked like her. Soon they’re dressing up in each other’s clothes, she’s braiding his hair, and he’s powdering her face. She wants to go into town and show Mom. On the way, they pass by a beauty shop and Dad points out how many white women are curling their hair and tanning their skin, while so many black women strive for the opposite.

 

 

“Sick of Pink” by Nathalie Hense (currently available only in German, French, Japanese, Norwegian & Portuguese) – The proud musings of a girl who likes witches, cranes, tractors, bugs, and barrettes with rhinestones in them. She knows boys who sew pretty clothes for their action figures and who paint daisies on their race cars. When grown-ups shake their heads and tell them, “That’s for girls!” or “That’s for boys!” she asks them why. “That’s just the way things are,” they tell her. “That’s not a real answer,” she deadpans.

***

Fairy Tales Beyond White Knights and Helpless Princesses… Even the most iconoclastic of people have their fantasies of love and heroism shaped by folklore. Yet the idea of revising Western fairy tales to make them less stereotypical has been met with a strong backlash. Whether or not you think it’s appropriate for kids to read Sleeping Beauty, Little Black Sambo or The Five Chinese Brothers, there is no harm in providing them with additional legends about love, valor and wisdom to make our cultural heritage more inclusive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Children of the Dragon by Sherry Garland – Selected tales from Vietnam that rival any of the Grimm’s fairy tales in adventure, imagination and vibrancy. Many of the stories are supplemented by explanations of Vietnamese history that provide context.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sense Pass King by Katrin Tchana – A girl in Cameroon outsmarts the king every time. Besides being one of the greatest illustrators of the 20th century, Trina Schart Hyman was a master of ethnic and socio-economic diversity in her many, many picture books.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tam Lin by Jane Yolen – A Scottish ballad wherein a young maiden rescues her true love from the clutches of the evil faerie queen. In the end, she wins both his freedom and her clan’s great stone castle back. Not suitable for easily frightened children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liza Lou and the Yeller Belly Swamp by Mercer Mayer – A fearless girl triumphs over a ghost, a witch, a troll and a devil on her way to Grandma’s house in the bayous of Arkansas. Some of the best illustration there is. Think Little Red Riding Hood had she managed to outwit the wolf on her own.

 

 

 

 

 

The Talking Eggs by Robert D. San Souci – A Cinderella story of sorts set in the backwoods of the South. An elderly wise woman uses magic to help a kind, obedient girl escape her cruel mother and spoiled sister. In the end, she rides off to the big city in a carriage. (With no prince involved, this one passes the Bechdel test.)

 

 

 

 

 

King and King by Linda de Haan (available in Czech, Dutch & German) – It’s time for the prince to hurry up and get married before he has to rule the kingdom, but every princess who comes to call bores him to tears. The very last one, however, brings her utterly gorgeous brother, and the king and king live happily ever after.

 

 

 

 

The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch – After outwitting the dragon, Princess Elizabeth rescues the prince only to be told that her scorched hair and lousy clothes are a major turn-off. She tells him he is a bum. “They didn’t get married after all.” She runs off into the sunset as happy as can be. I have yet to meet a child who does not love the humor in this story.

***

The Best Book on Diversity To Date…

 

 

 

Horton Hatches The Egg by Dr. Seuss – A bird is sick of sitting around on her egg all day, so she asks Horton if he would mind stepping in for just a minute. He is happy to help, but the bird jets off to Palm Beach the minute she is free. Horton continues to sit on the egg while awaiting her return. He withstands the wind, the rain, a terrible cold, and three hunters who insist on selling him and the egg off to the circus as a freak show. Throughout it all he reminds himself, “I meant what I said and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” After he becomes a media sensation, the bird comes back to claim her prize.

Whenever I used this one in the classroom, I would ask the kids whom the egg belongs to. The 3-year-olds, with their preliminary grasp on logic, would always give the black-and-white answer: “The egg belongs to the bird because eggs go with birds.” The 4- to 5-year-olds would invariably go the other way, plunging into righteous indignation over the injustice of the bird’s demands: “The elephant! The egg belongs to the elephant because he worked so hard and he loved it so much and she just can’t come back and take it!” In the end, the egg cracks open and out flies a baby elephant bird, who wraps his wings around Horton. This is Seuss at his best, showing that loyalty makes a family.

CPS: The Sticky Business of Not Minding Your Own Business

20 Jul

(Via)

 

A South Carolina woman was arrested earlier this month for allegedly letting her 9 year-old daughter play alone in the park while she went to work at McDonald’s. The mother had given her daughter a cell phone for safety’s sake, but a concerned stranger’s call to Child Protective Services led to the mother’s incarceration and loss of custody. Bloggers on both sides of the political spectrum are outraged over what they are calling a case of helicopter parenting gone mad. On Twitter, stories of “When I was a kid…” abound.

I wholeheartedly share their shock and dismay. (Seriously, couldn’t CPS have merely talked to the mother and helped her find a friend or a caregiver whose home could be a base for the girl during mom’s eight-hour shift?) But I am concerned about the mounting vitriol aimed at those whose job it is to protect the child. I grew up among social workers. And these bloggers, while rightfully critical, are failing to acknowledge that the mind-your-own-damn-business mentality they advocate is exactly what prevails in societies where everyone looks the other way when a child is neglected or abused.

Of course there are terrible social workers out there, just as there are those to be found in any profession who should really be working elsewhere. More importantly, it is dangerous to pretend that institutionalized xenophobia does not exist. A 2012 report revealed ableism appears to be a tremendous problem at CPS, with many disabled parents living in fear of being declared incompetent by social workers with a poor understanding of their abilities. In the South Carolina case, it seems reasonable to postulate that two of the American South’s most infamous cultural institutions—classism and authoritarianism—are what led to a cruel and unusual punishment doled out for what was, at best, a misdemeanor by a working mother.

But while attention to this case is warranted, news outlets tell real-life tales of wrongly accused parents to such an extent that one would assume most actions by CPS are unjustified. The media bias tends toward parents because parents are legally allowed to talk publicly about their children. Were a social worker to attempt to tell his side of story, he would be breaking the law. And children and families grateful to CPS for repairing broken homes rarely head to their local news station to rehash their past personal struggles.

We must acknowledge and condemn every instance of misconduct by social workers, just as we must acknowledge and condemn every case of medical malpractice, and of police brutality. But unlike doctors or police officers, social workers do not enjoy a wealth of Hollywood blockbusters and TV shows glamorizing what they do. Most portrayals in film and on television are fiercely unflattering: from the soulless bureaucrat too obsessed with rules to know love when she sees it, to the more sinister instrument of a government conspiracy to threaten political dissidents by taking away what they hold most dear. These stereotypes invariably evoke sympathy for the devastated parents and children, who wish those heartless busy-bodies would just learn to stay out of other people’s business. Rarely are social workers featured fighting the good fight.

And yet, that’s what they are there to do. Not to get a thrill from ripping crying kids away from their distraught parents, but to listen to every member of the family until they understand the source and extent of the problem. While pop culture promotes individual therapy as a path to wellness on par with yoga or meditation, the idea of family therapy tends to be seen as an outrageous invasion of privacy imposed by some glaring ice queen who is just waiting for the parents to slip up. Yet adept social workers know that the parents of neglected children sometimes have significant learning disabilities or were the victims of abuse themselves. When funding allows, parenting courses are available for those who have a hard time remembering how often diapers need to be changed, or that there are often alternatives to screaming and spanking. Adept social workers also know that neglected children are often overly forgiving of an abusive loved one, just as victims of domestic violence often are. And adept social workers know that children are far more likely to be abused, molested, or kidnapped by a member of their family than by a stranger. As with women, the most dangerous place for a child is their own home.

When I was an 11 year-old on Long Island, there was a report that a girl my age named Katie Beers had been kidnapped from a local arcade where I’d attended birthday parties. The perpetrator turned out to be a friend of the family, who kept her locked in his basement for 17 days. When he broke down and confessed to police, Beers was not returned to her mother, but placed in a foster home. I clearly remember the mother’s tearful face plastered across the headlines: “I just got her back and now they’re taking her away from me!” CPS investigators had discovered that, prior to the kidnapping, Beers’s mother had left her for years in the care of her godparents, where she was treated “like a slave” and repeatedly raped by her godfather. Beers writes today that she was ultimately relieved to be placed in foster care and that, had she not been taken out of her home, she never would have graduated high school, let alone college.

When it comes to the legal rights of the child versus the rights of the parent, the court of public opinion will always be fueled by vitriol. Family court, of course, should transcend this, putting reason and research first and foremost. CPS is undoubtedly rife with problems, many due to its miserable lack of funding. But we as a society will never put forth a sincere effort to endow social workers with enough funding to do their job well until we truly value what they do in the first place.

 

* Please note that while my sympathy for the social worker’s perspective is inspired by what I’ve learned from those I know, the views and conclusions expressed here are mine and mine alone.

 

 

Segregation Loses In German Court

25 May

Untitled(Image by Angela Schlafmütze used under CC 2.0 via)

 

People must learn to accept their disabled neighbors, a Rhineland court ruled this week in a case that—thankfully—has attracted controversy. A woman in the town of Kaltenengers, near Koblenz, filed suit against the construction of a home for severely disabled citizens near her apartment block. According to the Rhein-Zeitung, the woman and several other residents had expressed outrage at the supposed imposition upon their community, while their court arguments sparked outrage among the public. The plaintiff claimed that, “The vocalizations and noises made by the disabled will injure our own psychological well-being.” Talk about not-in-my-backyard.

All of us have sympathy for the NIMBY mindset to some extent. I’m fine with my neighbors playing music as long as it’s the right kind of music. (ZZ Top, yes. Opera, no. I can attest that nothing pierces through paper-thin walls at 2 am like a soprano aria.) When it’s the night before the most important exam in your academic career, you want everyone within a five-mile radius of you to shut up. When it’s the night after you’ve passed that exam with flying colors, you wish those prissy neighbors interrupting the celebrations to tell you to pipe down would let go and live a little. Such moments serve as reminders that Everybody matters is easier said than done.

There will always be debates about pristine parks, where the grass is there to be looked at, versus people’s parks, where the grass has been picnicked to the brink of death. (Berlin votes today on that very issue in deciding the fate of Tempelhof Park and, for many, the definition of Berlin itself.) But NIMBY descends into a segregationist mentality the moment we reject the idea of certain types of people outright. And in this court case, pitting disabled residents against their huffy neighbors, it makes you wonder who is really the most challenged in becoming a well-adjusted member of society.

 

 

Does Pride In Being Different Lead to Narcissism?

11 May

Being different(Image by Niccolò Caranti used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Long before there was Buzzfeed, there were online personality quizzes. (Back in the Analog Age, they featured in teen magazines like Sassy and YM.) Today they’re the rabbits of the Internet, every new one that pops up signifying ten more in gestation. “Which Mad Men Character Are You?” “Which Star Wars Character Are You?” “What City Are You?” Leading columnist Emma Roller to wisely observe, “No one cares.

Just for once, I’d love to see a quiz-taker being told: You’re Werda, Germany! Or You’re Selden, New York: You’ve got some nice areas and some sketchy areas, and a lot of perfectly fine but nondescript highways and sidestreets. A famous person passed through once, though that was ages ago. Some people like you, some people don’t. Most people haven’t heard of you except the couple thousand people who live there, plus the people who visit them or send them mail.

Or how about a quiz that announces, You’re one of the soldiers in Star Wars who gets killed in the first three minutes. Without you, and a bunch of other characters like you, there would be no shoot-out scene, and without the shoot-out scene, the audience wouldn’t know soon enough that they should fear the Empire. You are certainly useful—that’s why the actor who played you got paid after all—but no one will be looking for your name in the credits.

If such a result on a personality quiz sounds unthinkably cruel, then maybe we really do have a narcissism epidemic on our hands. Narcissism, after all, is the tendency to put your own needs ahead of others’ because, deep down inside, you believe you are more deserving of praise and sympathy. Because you’re different and special. (“Maybe there are a lot of Werdas and Seldens out there, but not me!”)

Every single one of us needs to feel special to someone, but the severity of this need can determine the difference between being self-confident and being self-involved. And when minorities embrace our exceptionality and take pride in being special, are we part of the problem?

It is easy to understand why minorities celebrate diversity with pride parades and slogans. Anyone who has been beaten up, harassed, or excluded for qualities they have no control over is understandably in need of a salve, whether that means spilling their hearts out in group therapy or singing along with the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus, “I am beautiful, no matter what they say.” When I mentioned to my mother that I’d been asked at school at least ten times in one month, “Why is your head so big?” she replied, “Just tell them you have an extra package of brains, honey!”

It was a sweet, wonderful piece of advice. With one hitch. My ten year-old self took her explanation literally, thrilled by the news that dwarfs are neurologically advantaged! And even when I later found out that she meant it figuratively, I continued to believe for a period that I was truly smarter than any ignoramus who had questions about my body. Society does have many hang-ups about difference that fuel rude questions and comments, and this is indisputably problematic. But it is also problematic to counteract these hang-ups with the conviction that your difference makes you essentially better than everyday people.

It is no coincidence that the minority rights movements of the 1970s and 80s peaked right before the height of the self-esteem movement. With self-determination seen as the key to obliterating prejudice and fear of the Other, millions of children in my generation grew up chanting, “I’m special!”  I remember singing along with Piglet and Tigger:

If everybody were like everybody else,

How boring it would be.

The things that make me different,

Are the things that make me, Me!

Stand tall.

You’re in a class by yourself.

Be proud.

You’re not like anyone else.

No doubt about it.

You’re second to none,

’Cause you’re the one and only,

Genuine, original,

You’re the one and only one!

This approach was very well-intentioned, but half-baked.  Everyone is special insofar as everyone is unique. But we so often use “special” interchangeably with “extraordinary,” as in: not merely unique, but better than the rest. It is statistically impossible for everyone to be second to none. We can simultaneously be unique and ordinary, yet it’s a fact that is hard for us to wrap our heads around and even harder for our egos to accept. It is unsurprising that raising a generation of individuals to celebrate their exceptional qualities has unleashed millions of adults who are now struggling to deal with the countless moments in which they are reminded that they are not all that different from anyone else. And who wince at the thought of being called “average.”

This doesn’t have to yield narcissism, but it can. Narcissism causes people to repeatedly bring up their differences not in order to feel comfortable with them, but in order to prove their exceptionality. It causes them to talk more than they listen, to abandon relationships after the initial shine wears off, to justify hurting their partner or bailing out on their families. Narcissism causes non-famous people to pity themselves as underappreciated, undiscovered geniuses lost in a sea of lowly idiots, and it causes famous people to fanatically envy those who are more famous. Narcissism can cause someone to not merely believe in changing the law in the pursuit of justice but to see herself as being above the law. And while it may help her keep her head held high when someone criticizes her unfairly, narcissism leaves her bitter and spiteful when the criticism is on the mark. 

And where there is narcissism, there is the savior complex – the desire to help people not because you would want someone to do the same for you in the same situation, but because you recognize an opportunity to be seen as special. This attitude betrays a very bleak view of minorities and those in need – the self-appointed savior believes they should be grateful to him because he is exceptionally open-minded, unlike normal people, who would be repulsed by them.

This is why the minority rights movement is inherently opposed to narcissism. Narcissism upholds hierarchies and depletes empathy, and there can be no human rights without empathy.

In fact, being seen as ordinary is the ultimate goal of any minority rights movement. After counteracting fear and hatred with enough celebration of diversity to preserve everyone’s well-being, most minorities hope to one day garner about as much recognition as left-handed people. In the West today, no one tries to nervously change the subject or get ready for attacks when someone brings up their left-handedness, nor do they gush about how great it is to know someone so different! The idea of putting left-handed people on display in a theme park is unthinkable. Not only would that be spectacularly inhumane, but who on earth would go? Left-handedness is interesting, but it’s not that interesting.

Narcissism fosters an addiction to the idea of being recognized as interesting. Encouraging a wallflower ostracized for her looks to question mainstream beauty standards can help boost her self-satisfaction and all-around happiness.  Encouraging her to disregard anyone who doesn’t explicitly praise how she looks can trigger anti-social behavior. So how do we avoid this?

Superb articles at Slate and The New York Times have been exploring better methods for teaching children modesty and emotional intelligence, while recent novels like this and articles like this have been making self-proclaimed progressives examine our sometimes monstrously selfish habits. And how did I come to stop thinking that my dwarfism made me superior?

A few months after our discussion about my exceptionally sized skull, I was bragging to my mother about being the only kid at my elementary school with dwarfism. Although I don’t remember exactly what I was bragging about, I vividly remember my mother’s concerned look before she said, “I hope you don’t think you’re special.”

W-w-hat? Wait, I’m not special? Her words stuck with me like a stone in my shoe, as most good pieces of advice are wont to do.

My parents are the most supportive people any child could wish for. They also called me out whenever they sensed I was taking up too much space.   

My dad beamed upon hearing that I had passed all of my exams after having struggled to find time to study during a year of two surgeries and lots of physical therapy. But he laughed in my face the next summer when I tried to boast about working TWENTY hours a week.

At the end of one of my limb-lengthening procedures, when six metal rods were unscrewed from my thigh bone without local anesthesia, I screamed until I couldn’t hear myself anymore because the femur is the biggest bone in the body and the pain matched its size. The last coherent thing I remember shrieking was directed at my surgeon: “I HATE YOU!” My mom later told me he apologized to me with every turn of the screw, but I was too hysterical to notice. What I do remember is lying on the table with no one left in the room but my mother and her friend who had come along to help, my eyes stinging with the salt of the tears, hyperventilating and moaning until the friend interrupted me: “Emily, stop it! You’ve cried enough. It hurt, you were upset, but now IT’S OVER.”

That’s what friends are for. To be proud of your achievements, sympathetic to your pain, and to also tell you when you’re being ridiculous.

 

 

The Real Reason You Should Learn A Foreign Language

27 Apr

Language Scramble (Image by Eric Andresen used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Emily Sanford speaking, how may I help you?”

“Yeah, hi, I just got put through to you by one of your coworkers, and that guy can barely speak a damn word of German! Why do you hire foreigners? Because they’re so cheap?”

“I’d be happy to help you if you could tell me why you are calling, sir.”

“I need to ask about where to distribute some flyers your company mailed me, but I really want to know first why on earth you hire foreigners? I mean, seriously? Is it to save money?”

I pressed him for the details about the flyers, suppressing the urge to blurt out something in German to the effect of, “I American. I no understanded what you say me in Deutschy language.”

Contempt for immigrants who can’t speak the local language at the C1 Level or higher seems to pervade every country. I’ve witnessed an initiative to make English the official language of my parents’ tiny village in Upstate New York after some white farmers heard two words of Spanish on the street, and I’ve been yelled at here in Germany by surly locals for speaking English in public. These complaints are usually steeped in the explicit or implicit stance that if you can’t speak the language, you shouldn’t be here.

Yet speaking a second language is unlike any other skill. Plenty of fiercely intelligent people are terrible at foreign languages and, unlike being terrible at arithmetic or project management, this weakness will render any of their other talents virtually invisible if the job market does not operate in their mother tongue. Speaking the local language flawlessly and eloquently is the best bet to integration in any society. And if it doesn’t happen to be a language you grew up speaking, it’s a lot of work.

I speak German, French, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Dutch, but “speak” is a relative term. I can hold basic conversations in Russian and Spanish, but they’re always peppered with errors. (Im probably the American equivalent of the intelligible but amusing foreigner who says things like, I vant you to come sit on de table.) A few years of self-teaching have led me to understand almost anything written in Dutch, but I can’t understand the nightly news and I can’t say anything not in the present tense. My in-laws in Stockholm sweetly praise whatever I dare to say in their language, but I miss most of the details of whatever they say among themselves. After starting a book called Swedish In Three Months seven years ago, I’m still on chapter four.

I’m fluent in German and French, but “fluent” is too simplistic a word for the complexity of what it denotes. My German feels about as good as my English was back when I was in middle school. That is, I can say almost anything I want to say, but I sound a lot less diplomatic and nuanced than I would like to. I still learn new words every day. (Added to my vocabulary this week were “chisel,” “epic,” and “sexual exploitation.”) Explaining an intricate issue like a budget report to a superior at work can still make me falter. I occasionally hear myself using the wrong gender or preposition, an instant giveaway that I’m foreign.  And because double-digit numbers in German are said in reverse order (e.g. “twoandthirty” instead of “thirty-two”), I hate taking down numbers. Always have and always will.

This is why it would be deceptive of me to simply say, “I speak seven languages.” To Brits and Americans, it sounds like bragging, and to Europeans, it sounds suspicious. After all, it’s an unspoken but well-known fact that Brits and Americans who fancy themselves cosmopolitan love to exaggerate whatever knowledge of a foreign language they have, especially when they’re in the company of those who can’t possible test them on it. As British-Canadian satirist Christian Lander writes at Stuff White People Like:

… two years of college Italian does not confer fluency.  For the most part, these classes will only teach a white person how to order food in a restaurant, ask for a train schedule, and over pronounce words when they are mixed into English. Amazingly this small amount of proficiency is more than enough to warrant inclusion on a resume under “spoken languages.”

… When you hear a white person say that they speak your native language, you will probably think it’s a good idea to start talking to them in said language.  WRONG! Instead you should say something like “you speak (insert language)?” to which they will reply “a little” in your native tongue.  If you just leave it here, the white person will feel fantastic for the rest of the day.  If you push it any further and speak quickly, the white person will just look at you with a blank stare.  Within a minute you will notice that blank stare has shifted from confusion to contempt.  You have shamed them and your chance for friendship is ruined forever.

Finally, though they won’t admit it, white people do not believe that learning English is difficult. This is because if it were true, then that would mean that their housekeeper, gardener, mother-in-law … are smarter than them.  Needless to say, this realization would destroy their entire universe.

Indeed, my linguistic repertoire doesn’t sound at all impressive to the 216 million people around the world who speak four languages or more. Most of these people live in Africa and, unlike me, their range always encompasses completely unrelated languages like French and Bangangte, or English and Wolof. 45% of my Facebook friends speak two or more languages well enough to say or describe whatever they want to say. For them, and half of the people on earth, speaking more than one language is like knowing how to drive or swim. Sure it requires dedication and practice, but it’s not something you flaunt once you learn how to do it. You just do it.

Conventional wisdom says it’s best to be complimented on your language skills by a native speaker.  But if that native speaker is monolingual, they will only notice what you can’t do.  It takes a polyglot to appreciate how far along you are because they know just how much work goes into what you’re trying to accomplish. Anyone who’s lived 24 hours a day in another language knows about the headaches, the falling into bed exhausted at 8 pm, the horrors of meeting someone who talks fast.

Tech reviews across the Interwebs have been abuzz this year about a new language program called DuoLingo. The online program claims to be revolutionizing the way Anglophones learn other languages via the addictive nature of video games. That DuoLingo inspires passion and dedication is wonderful, and after checking out the advanced German program, I’m impressed with how authentically modern the dialogue is. (None of that old school drivel still found in too many online programs: “I am charmed to make your acquaintance. Which way to the discotheque?”) But I’m skeptical of the company’s insistence that you can learn a language without ever speaking to people.

Does the game teach you how to develop an intelligible accent? Does it teach you how to dive into a dinner conversation with sentences shooting at you from every direction? And, perhaps most importantly, does the game warn you about the crucial cultural connotations of certain words? To cite just a few examples, in German a “Pamphlet” isn’t just a pamphlet, it’s a manifesto. The word “deportieren” means what it sounds like except it’s only used to describe someone being sent away to a concentration camp. And you will come off as crass if you ever call a German woman “Fräulein.” As with all my knowledge of German slang, I learned these lessons from German people, not dictionaries. Language is culture and there are no cultures without people.

And just like every culture on earth, every language is a moving target. What sounds hip and what sounds sophisticated and what sounds rude and what sounds stuffy differs from generation to generation, from place to place, and from person to person. It’s exhausting, but it’s also pretty cool. In an increasingly homogeneous world, the most resilient differences are linguistic. American tourists are often disappointed to discover that businessmen in London dress more like Bill Gates than Winston Churchill, or that women in Barcelona don’t walk around with roses clenched between their teeth. But no matter the visual monotony, their ears are guaranteed to be confronted with new music.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, I suspect that DuoLingo’s personless approach to foreign language learning is exactly what many bilingual wannabes yearn for. In my experience, the number one reason adults will avoid or give up learning a foreign language is not that they dislike grammar or are overwhelmed by accents – it’s that whenever you try to speak a new language, you are bound to be laughed at.

Unlike learning to dance or sew or build a shed, you can only master a language by repeatedly practicing in the company of experts—i.e., native speakers—who are not paid to have the patience of teachers. No matter how good you are, the moment you venture out of the classroom to talk to others, someone will smirk at you and someone will correct you and someone else will get frustrated with how long it takes you to say the simplest thing. Someone is bound to make fun of you. And adults do not like being made fun of.  

They don’t like being corrected mid-sentence or being told they sound “cute.” It reminds them of being back in school, and they’ll do anything to avoid it. This is why trying to learn a foreign language from a romantic partner often puts strain on the relationship. Sure it’s fun to proudly whisper “I love you, my sweetness” to your boyfriend in another language. But it’s exasperating to try to discuss a film you just watched together and see a smirk creep across his face as you say, “I think that part not so good, but other part a little, little okay, but it hard understand why the… the… the… what’s the word?”

Adult pride can be so sensitive that there are debates as to whether or not it’s rude to correct a grown person’s linguistic mistakes outside of the classroom. I’m of the camp that insists on gulping down our pride because, as my French hostess told me my third day in Provence, “Do you want to learn French or don’t you?!” Her commitment to this credo was proven when she shouted grammatical corrections to me from another room while I was talking on the phone.

But there are other conflicts where the rules for etiquette are not so clear. My partner and I recently told a Danish-German couple about our latest trip to Stockholm. We had had a few tiffs about my being left out of the Swedish conversations and his relatives being left out of the English conversations. 

Our friends nodded knowingly. “The answer to that problem,” the Dane said with a grin, “is that it’s incredibly rude of them to leave you out of a conversation by speaking a language that’s hard for you, and it’s also incredibly rude of you to insist that everyone switch to a language that’s hard for them just for your sake.”

Indeed, being excluded from anything is a nasty feeling and nothing excludes like a foreign language. Then again, once a couple is fluent in more than one common language, the ability to speak in code is a pretty sweet reward. (Ex: “Do you mind if we change the subject, honey? I don’t want to hear him get going on this again… ”)

Many adults insist that they would have become fluent in a foreign language if only their parents had paid for early lessons because kids pick up languages better. There is truth to this argument children living abroad for a year or more are indeed more likely to become fluent than their parents are, but few understand why. I do not believe the pop science assumption that kids have an easier time learning languages because they are neurologically predisposed. Studies at Cambridge University—and my own experience as an English teacher in Berlin pre-schools—show that kids above the age of three start off a new language with the same bad accent and tendency to make mistakes as adults do. The three advantages children do have over adults are all social.

First of all, while they don’t exactly enjoy being laughed at, kids are far less self-conscious about making mistakes than teenagers and adults are. Secondly, immigrant and expat kids can easily be immersed in the local language simply by being enrolled in school, as opposed to their parents, who must first land a job in the language and therein already demonstrate some proficiency. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, kids have a lot less to learn to achieve fluency in their age group than adults do. A first grader’s mastery of a language involves being able to talk about Disney films and their favorite flavor of ice cream and all that other stuff found at the intermediate level of any language course. Fluency for an adult means being able to engage in debates about the next election or to write business letters or to make witty jokes with a killer punch-line, all skills for which we each need 12 years of schooling just to master in our first language, never mind a second one.

Learning a foreign language takes a lot of patience and a sturdy ego. In return, it endows you with empathy for students of your own language. And with this empathy it is not rude to smile at a non-native speaker’s mistakes or to poke fun at languages and accents. It’s hilarious to hear someone with a thick German accent try to say “weather vane” (usually comes out as “fezzerwane”), and it’s just as hilarious to hear Americans try to say, “Geschlechtergleichberechtigung” (“gender equality”).

When I was staying in Tokyo two years ago, my friend Kazumi would call me to dinner. “Em-i-liiii!”

Hai!” I’d reply with exorbitant enthusiasm.

This always made her and her fiancé burst into giggles. “So cute how you say, ‘Hai!’ ” she would smile.

“So cute how you say my name,” I’d smile back.

This exchange would not be so innocuous if one of us were portraying the other’s accent as a sign of stupidity, or complacently refusing to ever leave our own linguistic comfort zone.

When Brits complain about the invasion of other languages and dialects, they ignore that millions throughout Asia, Africa, Oceania, the Americas and the Caribbean gave up their first language for the King’s English lest they face punishment. When Americans insist that they shouldnt have to learn another language because immigrants and foreigners should learn theirs, they ignore that more than three-quarters of us are descended from ancestors who had to learn English as a second language. Many Americans seem to believe they did it so that we wouldn’t have to. But if they want to fully comprehend what exactly their ancestors achieved and what exactly they’re asking of immigrants today, then they will have to try to do it themselves. If I had wanted to be truly fair to my caller so angry about my coworkers German, I would have switched into my own language and waited to see how well he fared. 

Learning a foreign language is not about picking up enough exotic words to be able to show off at dinner parties.  Its about understanding why foreigners make mistakes in our language by exposing ourselves to the mistakes we are bound to make in theirs.  It’s about both the guest and the host, the tourist and the immigrant, not giving anyone attitude for failing to speak flawlessly to them in their own language. Its about forging a path to greater empathy, until it expands into your own backyard and all around the world.

 

 

A Challenge for Supporters of “Traditional Marriage”

13 Apr

(Via)

 

I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigoted. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.

But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly revolting about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.

My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the global population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in the world. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.

Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.

Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties, no matter how hard it may be, while others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.

Because Ive said it once and Ill say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.

Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and racism and aristocratic inbreeding and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.

Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing society for the better—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.

Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”

 

 

Barbie vs. Lammily

9 Mar

Lammily is Barbie’s new contender(Image by Day Donaldson used under Creative Commons license via)

 

Barbie turns 55 today and her birthday risks being overshadowed by a rival. Designer Nickolay Lamm has kicked off a very successful crowdsourcing campaign to fund the production of Lammily, a doll whose body is modeled after the mean proportions (taken from the Centers for Disease Control) for an American 19 year-old because, as her slogan goes, “average is beautiful.” The center photo above shows Lammily at her earliest design stage in contrast to Barbie. The left and right photos show her updated, final form.

Despite that her name sounds like the way most toddlers mangle mine, Lammily does seem quite lovely. But mostly because the problems with her competitor are countless. Barbie represents—and was very much intended to represent—an idea born in the middle of the last century that little girls should play not just with baby dolls or girl dolls, but with a woman doll, a post-pubescent beauty they should aspire to. The very first Barbie was inspired by the German Lilli, a character featured in tabloid comics who worked as a secretary by day and an escort by night. While it’s disputed whether or not the Lilli doll was in fact a sex toy, the longer you look at Barbie, the more that explanation makes sense.

Barbie is all fantasy: too thin to menstruate, with breasts so big she’d have to crawl on all fours to get around. (Sporty Lammily could knock her to the floor with a light kick.)  Fantasies about beauty are fine as long as they remain a niche, not a standard. If her fame and influence were not so unparalleled, Barbie wouldn’t be a cause of much trouble. But she is the most famous doll in the world, and while she often changes jobs and outfits to bend to society’s trends, her body type never budges from the sex toy standard.

My mother swore I would never own a Barbie—how could it be healthy for a girl with dwarfism to idolize a lady who’s all legs?—but a neighbor bought me one for Christmas, and within the next 10 years I owned 12: Tropical Barbie, Superstar Barbie, Ice Capades Barbie, Gymnast Barbie, Fun-to-Dress Barbie, Loving You Barbie, Hollywood Hair Barbie, Cool Times Barbie, Dreamtime Barbie, Dream Glow Barbie, Dream Date Barbie, and my mother’s own, dragged-out-of-the-attic Barbie from the 1960s, whose earrings had turned her cheeks green. The funny thing is that every one of these Barbies had a slightly different face and slightly different blond hair with varying lengths and textures. But, just like the Disney Princesses, the bodies were all exactly the same. Barbie’s oh-so-80s Rocker friends Diva (brunette), DeeDee (black), and Dana (possibly Asian?) represented a broader range of hair and skin, but their bodies were all replicas of Barbie’s. This is what makes Lammily so radical.

But I don’t want an answer to Barbie. I want many answers to Barbie. Lammily correctly demonstrates that an average girl in the Western world is not blond. But blondes shouldn’t be any more excluded or celebrated than anyone else. Declaring “average” bodies and physical features a beauty standard continues to marginalize girls who deviate from the average. Another word for average is “normal” and it’s never fun for a young girl to hear that her body is “not normal.” Both Barbie and Disney have dared to dabble in the beauty of different ethnicities, but they haven’t been brave enough to try different body types – short, curvy, bony, disabled, with freckles or scars or glasses or birthmarks in the shape of Mexico.

As Hannah Blanke shows in her stellar piece, “Real Women,” there is no wrong way to have a body. If Mattel can invent over 50 varieties of blond hair for their preeminent princess, surely doll manufacturers can find a way to profit from providing a rainbow of body types. Maybe they will be brave enough by the next time International Women’s Day rolls around. That’s my fantasy, anyway.

 

 

The Best Book of 2013 (and the 21st Century)

30 Dec

 

“Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.”

So begins Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity, a book that profiles families with children who are profoundly different from their parents – deaf, gay, autistic, short-statured, schizophrenic, transgender, intellectually disabled (Down Syndrome), multiply disabled, born out of rape, prodigious, and criminal. With every story, Solomon ends up returning to the same question: What is family? And in asking this, he demands, again and again, What is love?

He conjectures that true love is 30% knowledge of who someone is, 30% percent acceptance of who they are, and 30% projection of who they are. Projection is as indispensable as the other elements, but it is by far the most problematic. Love is threatened when it relies more on projection than anything else. When driven by a fear of being alone, projection can dangerously blind us to others’ faults: “You like the same bands I do?! You must be so deep!” When driven by a fear of being burdened, it can dangerously fuel our least empathic feelings: “I can’t handle taking care of a freak!” It would seem that our best hope for filling our lives with true love is to be better informed. If so, Solomon’s book is an ideal source of information.

He writes poignantly of his own mother’s difficulty accepting his homosexuality. In the West today, we are just as quick to judge parents who seem to hurt their children as we are to judge children who seem to hurt their parents. But in examining his mother, Solomon wisely observes that “she did, like most parents, genuinely believe that her way of being happy was the best way of being happy.” Who among us does not tend toward such self-righteousness?

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t pride themselves on something they believe they do better than their parents did, an improvement they would like to pass on. Even my friends who take little interest in children tend to talk about their hypothetical progeny as projects: e.g. “My kids will never/always… ” And with projects come projection. The children in Solomon’s book, himself included, are dynamite to that projection.

While he is determined to understand his mother’s feelings that caused him so much pain, he is unwavering in his assertion that homophobia, ableism and all other irrational fears have no place in the future of a healthy society. He calls the forces that inspire current legislation limiting the rights of minorities a “crisis in empathy.” And he practices what he preaches – his determination to empathize with the United States’ most marginalized families is utterly humbling. He does it not only for the sake of compassion, but for the sake of practicality. We’ve already tried condemning and isolating the kinds of people who make us uneasy. On a grand scale, it hasn’t gotten us anywhere.

When I described the book to friends – many themselves minorities – several winced at the idea of rape victims and schizophrenic people. “Sounds like a fun book!” they sighed. Such reactions are hardly unknown to Solomon, who notes, “One’s own identity, replete with problems though it may be, usually looks more tenable than someone else’s identity.” Indeed, my own gut reaction is to glare at anyone who dares to compare the experience of having a child with dwarfism to the experience of having a child who grows up to murder students at Columbine High School. But gut reactions tend to be more hurtful than helpful. “At the mention of dwarfs,” Solomon writes, “[some of my] friends burst into laughter.” Fear always conquers by dividing us, and for this reason I adore  Solomon’s ferocious intersectionality. It is rare but contagious.

He profiles several different families in each chapter, which is admirable because it is comprehensive. However, at times it can feel like overkill. I might have preferred three families per chapter rather than seven or eight. The medium isn’t conducive to such a large cast because it’s difficult to keep the characters from blending together if you can’t physically see their faces or hear their voices. I thus found his videos series a source of clarification, not mere supplement.

But Solomon is an exquisite writer. Plenty of ink has already been spilled on the disabilities and social issues he examines, but it’s too often bogged down in language that comes off as dry or downright dreary. It’s not easy to push through 770 pages of the most marginalized lives imaginable, but Solomon’s writing is as poetic as it is sensitive. He is never too meek make assertions and yet, unlike countless journalists, he manages to do so without ever ignoring the agency of those he describes. True empathy never condescends because it transcends fear.

I am, of course, a biased critic. It was 32 years ago this month that my parents got the news that I had dwarfism. And they did everything right – the best any two human beings could when faced with a rare diagnosis that traditionally brought on social isolation. (As Solomon documents, mothers of dwarfs in olden days were often thought to have caused the condition by being lecherous.)

What my parents did perhaps best of all is something all the great parents of the world do – to make me feel so unconditionally loved that I always felt free to discuss with them what might have been done better. Sometimes my critiques are correct and sometimes they’re flat-out wrong. But the freedom to examine what you need to change about yourself in order to be a tolerable person and what you have the right to protect about yourself in order to be a happy person should be a freedom granted to every member of every family. On both sides of the parent/child relationship, or any relationship, “love is made more acute when it requires exertion.”

In a just world, no one should have to be any more grateful to their parents for accepting them than anyone else should have to be. As I’ve written before, caregiving is freakin’ hard, and our gratitude to those who raised us deepens when we consider that, as a whole, they have been more accommodating and respectful of their children than any of their historical predecessors. Solomon points out, “A hundred years ago, children were effectively property, and you could do almost anything to them short of killing them.”  But despite how far we have come since then, we have yet to reach an acceptable rate of justice for all. 

Solomon points out that 1 in 4 participants in a recent survey said they would choose abortion if their pregnancy tested positive for dwarfism.  At least half the children up for adoption in the United States have disabilities of some kind.  Crisis in empathy indeed.

Individuals who cannot parent a child profoundly different from themselves should not be forced to. Likewise, society’s hang-ups about difference should not encourage parents to flee from it.  Considering the current statistics, Solomon’s book is as necessary as it is beautiful.

 

 

What Makes You So Special?

13 Oct

Leg-formsDisney World is changing its policy for disabled customers this week since it’s come to light that many families have been hiring disabled people to help them cut to the front of the lines.  Like stealing disabled parking spaces, this kind of cheating requires a brazen combination of laziness and self-righteousness.  What kind of family believes that the agony they experience waiting in line is comparable to what a disabled customer experiences?  

MSN reports, “Stories of wealthy families hiring disabled tour guides to pose as family members have drawn national attention and scorn. But the more common abuse is subtler: people faking hard-to-verify handicaps such as heart murmurs, back spasms or claustrophobia… ”

The news broke the very same day that I had my first meeting with an adviser here in Berlin to explore the options available to me for disabled status. 

“It’s important not to lie,” he said bluntly.  “Don’t exaggerate your pain, but don’t feign bravery, either.” 

Indeed, ego-driven dishonesty can go either way.  Some lie and cause themselves unnecessary discomfort all for the sake of their own pride, while others lie and take advantage of assistance all for the sake of garnering special attention.  It creates a burden for genuinely disabled people who must convince cynics that their medical conditions are bona fide, but not necessarily tragic.     

I don’t know what level of disabled status I currently qualify for.  In elementary school, I took a specialized phys ed class and I was the only kid who was allowed to sit in a chair instead of on the floor during story-time to avoid distracting back pain.  Yet on both occasions that my family took me to Disney World, I managed the hour-long waits in line without assistance.  But I couldn’t manage that today.  Then again, I have good days and bad.  Should I mention all this on my application, or does it sound like I’m making things up?

Determining disability is to determine whether your suffering—which is always unique and important to you—is in fact unique to your peer group.  Decades of being designated as different cause many disabled people to balk at the idea of being given special treatment. (As I’ll explore next week, many in the dwarf community go so far as to insist that dwarfism isn’t a disability.)  Yet those willing to hire a disabled person for a day at Disney World appear to rebel against the idea of not being given special treatment.

I hesitate to delve into the topic of lying and whining because, in far too many parts of the world, victims of horrific suffering are readily silenced by being dismissed as liars and whiners.  To a heartless person, anyone’s complaint qualifies as whining, except his own.  In an intolerant society, “Suck it up!” is barked at anyone who ever sheds a tear or speaks up about injustice.  The world usually needs more compassion than cynicism.  Given the choice, I’d rather live with too much whining than too much cruelty and abuse. 

But whining abuses compassion.  I don’t believe the majority of cheaters at Disney World deviously set out to fake illness and maliciously steal a disabled child’s spot in line.  In my experience, it’s much more common that people with mundane problems truly believe their difficulties entitle them to exceptional treatment. 

A friend who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in childhood once said that whenever he tries to explain this to a group of 20-somethings, more often than not a few will start saying, “I think I have that, too!”  This can happen innocently enough: Most of us like to consider new experiences by seeing how they relate back to those we are already familiar with.  And misery sure loves company.  But anyone with clinical OCD knows that this condition is not simply about odd habits that make for charming little anecdotes, or pathologizing our eccentricities so that they cannot be questioned.  In our individualistic LOOK AT ME! culture, there is a fine but crucial line between trying to empathize in order to understand a different experience, and trying to empathize in order to snag a place for ourselves in the spotlight. 

This is not to silence those whose problems are ordinary.  (We all need to vent about the lines at Disney World.)  But false equivalencies can also silence those whose problems are extraordinary.  Being spoiled doesn’t just render us disagreeable – it renders us ignorant.  To relativize all difficulty risks misunderstanding and overlooking the profound effects of true disability, true poverty, true trauma, and true grief.

When middle class college grads complain about being “poor” because they can’t buy as many DVDs as they did when they lived with Mom and Dad, they’re disregarding the poverty line.  When a young woman claims to suffer from PTSD after being pickpocketed, she’s stretching the definition of the word into meaninglessness.  When breaking up with a boyfriend or losing a pet is described with the same superlative words we use to describe battling cancer or losing a child, we overlook the difference between the kind of pain no one should have to endure and the kind of pain everyone should expect.  Blunt comparisons—“I know exactly what you’re going through!”—downplay severity and dramatize the mundane, impeding rather than spreading awareness. 

In applying for disabled status, I will find out from an objective source just how disabled I am.  If my weekly pain, fatigue and weakness qualify as Severe or Moderate, then I’ll swallow any pride I have about wanting to appear stronger and accept it.  If my difficulties are judged to be Mild, then I’ll discard any selfish wishes I have about the benefits of Severe status and accept it.  I do feel substantially exceptional when I’m the only one in a crowd of friends who absolutely must sit down after a 20-minute walk.  But other experiences make these inconveniences seem not only minor but trivial.

I lived in a pediatric rehabilitation hospital for five months when I was 11 years-old and undergoing my first limb-lengthening procedure.  On my first day in group therapy, the patients introduced themselves to me and explained why they were there. 

The first guy had a degenerative nerve disorder that was life-threatening.  “I was talking about it with my dad and he told me, ‘I wish you’d never been born.’  Thanks, Dad.”

The second kid had been shot in the hip and paralyzed in a gang war. 

The third guy was quadriplegic.  “I’m actually ready to be discharged, but I’m having a hard time finding my own apartment with a caregiver to live with me.  My mom has decided she doesn’t want to take care of me round the clock.”

Then a teenage girl talked about her upcoming discharge.  The room erupted into congratulations until she began to choke back tears.  “I’m being discharged because the treatments aren’t working.  At this point, they said they can’t even tell me if I’m going to live to see tomorrow.” 

Then it was my turn to introduce myself.  “Um, I’m having my legs lengthened so that I can be taller.” 

I’m sure this was met with courtesy and active listening, but at that moment I felt I deserved nothing but crickets.  That night in my hospital room, I tossed and turned, wondering if she would live to see the next day.

My fellow patients in group were ultimately sympathetic to any struggles I needed to discuss.  What they taught me above all else is that, as my advisor said, it’s important not to lie.  Tell the truth, and be aware of where your reality lies in relation to others.  Fight against the stigma surrounding disability, poverty, trauma, and grief.  And don’t claim to know the unique despair experienced by those who live it.   If you claim to already know, you’ll miss what they have to teach you about the world you live in. 

Like why someone would really need to cut in line.

 

 

The Parents and the Childfree Are Ignoring A Very Important Group

11 Aug

Hay que reorganizar los cuidados

(Image by gaelx used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“Now I’m going to ask you something that you officially don’t have to answer, but I’m going to ask you anyway…”

I was in the middle of a job interview, and the résumé splayed out on the table betrayed my age. I knew exactly what was coming.

“Do you have kids?” the interviewer asked.

“No,” I smiled, remembering that German law protected me from having to tell him if and when I ever planned to.

“Good,” he smiled back, glancing to the side as if afraid of being overheard. “Because I hate to say it, but employees with kids will not be able to do this job.”

It was clear to me he wasn’t being sexist or anti-family – just honest. The job in question involved shifts at all hours of the day that would change from week to week. There wasn’t any room for developing a schedule of any regularity, or for excusing oneself repeatedly during flu season. And it wasn’t the only profession I’d heard of that demanded flexibility while offering none back. This year has seen study after study reveal that childless women are heavily favored in academia and the corporate world, while men in any field face miserable stigma if they dare prioritize paternal commitments over professional ones. Parents have it so hard.

But then again, so do childless employees. Yet another study out this year revealed that middle class childless women in the public service sector face stigma and sometimes even harassment in the work place for defying traditional gender expectations. In these jobs, working moms are sometimes accommodated more readily than single ladies, leading Amanda Marcotte to complain at Slate of “women missing dates, exercise classes, and social outings in order to cover for the mothers they work with.” In New York magazine, feminist Ann Friedman argued:

Many corporations now strive for a veneer of family friendliness, so it’s not likely a woman will get the stink-eye for leaving early to catch her kid’s soccer game. Which is a feminist victory. But if a childless employee cops to the fact that she’s ducking out for a yoga class? It’s seen as downright indulgent and may even show up on a performance review.

If you’ve ever waded into the debate between childfree adults and parents, online or off, you know they tend to be rather resentful of one another. I usually find myself playing devil’s advocate to both. At this time last year I wrote about the depths of the pain self-righteous parents can inflict on others. But for every supercilious mother I’ve witnessed flaunting her offspring like Olympic gold medals, I’ve also seen huffy child-freers rolling their eyes the moment a toddler enters their field of vision, having no qualms with letting everyone know that the mere existence of a child in their presence is an assault on their personal freedom. Which brings new meaning to the word “childish.”

It’s a shame because the childfree movement has many excellent points to make about society and gender bias. Summing it all up to the inherent undesirability of children is the worst possible political tactic because no one who believes in human rights can write off an entire group of people who have no choice about belonging to that group. Would we tolerate anyone saying, “I can’t stand the elderly”? Or “There is no way I am ever going to learn to like mentally disabled people”?  And anyone who trashes someone else’s reproductive decisions in order to justify their own will never, ever convince the skeptics they need on their side. They’ll just come off as intolerant and judgmental.

And while mothers hit a wall if they insist that theirs is the hardest job in the world, I don’t think we’re going to get very far arguing that employees should have just as much right to leave work early to make it to yoga class as they do to make it to their kid’s soccer game. In the choice between work versus yoga, nothing but my own happiness is riding on the decision. Because it’s me-time. In the choice between work versus my nephew’s soccer game, someone else’s happiness is also at stake. Because it’s caregiving.

This is not to say that single people have less important lives than those with children. Nor do I intend to suggest that parenting is the hardest job in the world. (As mother and feminist Jessica Valenti pointed out in Why Have Kids?, can anyone say with a straight face that being a parent is harder than being a firefighter or an oncologist?) But those who dedicate a large chunk of their time to others in need of care should always be accommodated more readily than those who don’t. Because helping others in need—whether it’s your kids, your parents, your friend’s kids, or anyone you know who is dependent due to age, disability or illness—is work in itself. It’s often a labor of love, but it’s labor nonetheless. And usually it increases your need for me-time, while leaving you with even less time for it.

As a childless woman, I have occasionally been an unpaid caregiver and frequently the one in need of care. I’ve taken time off from work to babysit my neighbors’ toddler, to bring my nephews to the pediatrician, to pick up a friend’s daughter from kindergarten, to help organize a funeral and sort through an estate. And my parents, relatives, husband and friends have taken time off from work in order to take me to physical therapy, to check-ups and procedures, to be at my bedside before and after surgery. The ideal family-friendly workplace would accommodate any employee’s need to help someone in regular need of assistance.

And maybe if we extend the value of good parenting to the value of good caregiving, we’ll be able to have more discussions about how freakin’ hard it can be. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.  And some are naturally better at caregiving than others, regardless of gender.

But why is taking time off for your child’s recital more generous than taking time off for a date with a friend? Isn’t a childless peer just as valuable as a family member? Of course, but let’s not fool ourselves. Sitting through an entire school recital is a lot less fun than fine dining. (Hence the rule at Springfield Elementary: “No leaving after your kid’s part is done.”) And helping a friend through a typical young adult “crisis” like a breakup will never require the same sort of patience, empathy and thick skin that you need for helping someone through serious illness, severe injury, death or divorce. Commiserating, while still noble in its intentions, is simply saying, “I’ve been there!” and swapping sob stories within the boundaries of our comfort zone. Empathizing is forcing ourselves to stretch our imaginations and open our hearts to someone whose experience frustrates us, or maybe even scares us, because it is essentially different from our own experience. Because empathizing is so much harder, it is undeniably more noble.

Young, childless, upper/middle class adults like me will probably always be seen as the most self-indulgent because our stage in life is the least likely to involve illness or dependency. But those who volunteer after work to play with underprivileged children or tutor illiterate adults or regularly call their lonely relatives demonstrate that social segregation is in part a choice.

This is not to guilt everyone into feeling that our lives are meaningless unless we start volunteering. But we should be honest, not touchy, if our lifestyles are in fact more self-centered than others’. This year, unlike years past, I find myself only occasionally dedicating my time to someone else. My husband has been the giver, exerting himself to maintain the work-life balance constantly threatened by the pressures of his job and my medical needs. And for that he deserves accommodation from his employers, and both gratitude and admiration from me.

 

 

When Saying “I Don’t Judge” Is Judgmental

4 Aug

Beautiful and Softly(Image by Thomas Hawk used under Creative Commons license via)

 

“I’ve learned not to judge other people.” In the debate on marriage equality, many former opponents have softened their opinions with this all-too-common phrase. While a little progress and diplomacy in any debate is better than none, this should hardly be considered an acceptable assessment of same-sex marriage. Because whenever we say, “I don’t judge,” we’re implying that we think there is something morally ambiguous to judge about the situation.

We say “I don’t judge” when we observe pain or dishonesty and are hard pressed to think of a way it could have been prevented. We say it when we observe someone lose control and we know that everyone loses control sometimes. We say it when at least two sides are sparring and both have made major mistakes. It’s dishonest to pretend that we don’t have opinions about the decisions and actions we witness, because we all do. But ultimately saying, “I don’t judge” means my opinion is incomplete because I can’t say for sure what I would do in that situation. And when the act in question falls short of intentionally cruel behavior, it is often the appropriate thing to say.

It’s appropriate when we hear about a neighbor’s divorce (“I don’t know the details of the marriage, so I can’t judge”), when we hear that someone took a job that compromised their morals (“I can’t say what I would do if I were that strapped for cash”), when we see people with parenting methods that differ from our own (“That child isn’t my child, and I don’t know what I would do if she were”). We say it not to ignore the harm it may have wrought, but in order to remain humble, to avoid hypocrisy, and to remember that different circumstances prevent the human experience from being truly universal.

But we do not and should not say it regarding lifestyles that raise no moral questions. We don’t say, “She’s dating a foreigner, but I don’t judge,” or “They adopted a child, but I don’t judge.” If anyone said of my partner, “He married a woman with dwarfism, but I don’t judge,” that person would be implying there is something shameful or irresponsible about me and my condition.

A little over a hundred years ago, doctors were saying just that. A Virginia medical manual in 1878 advocated criminalizing marriages between average-sized men and women with dwarfism, insisting that such an act was on par with “murder.”

Modern readers hopefully find nothing morally ambiguous about two consenting adults falling in love and deciding to commit to one another. Regarding interracial or same-sex or international or medically “mixed” marriages, the only people who should invite our judgment are those who impugn these relationships with the statement, “I don’t judge.” It’s an oxymoron, not unlike a “Please” slathered sarcasm. And it would be swell to see it less and less in political discussions on civil rights.

 

 

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

Tropes are ideas we construct based on observing patterns in society and wanting to understand them. Stereotypes are ideas we construct based on hearing about patterns in society and accepting them at face value. Needless to say, stereotypes based on that which we have no choice about—our sex, gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, physical traits, or mental abilities—usually do more harm than good.

Not only do they deny minorities equal rights and opportunities, but a recent study shows that embracing racial stereotypes leads to creative stagnation. So how do we combat them? 

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin verdict and President Obama’s call for a dialogue on race in America, Harvard researchers announced a competition to find the quickest, most effective method for getting people to let go of the prejudices they have about a certain group. The results? Calls for empathy and other try-to-put-yourself-in-their-shoes methods were largely ineffective.  What worked best was showing the participants counter-stereotypical images. World leaders with severe disabilities. Parents proudly painting their son’s toenails. Construction workers nursing their babies. Sons helping out with the housework.  Seeing is believing, apparently.

It is crucial to note that celebrating diversity can feel patronizing, especially to the subjects. The goal, after all, is to drive stereotypes to extinction so that observers find absolutely nothing extraordinary about any of the above images. Because the subjects do not feel extraordinary, at least not all the time – they feel normal.  No person who can qualify as a minority or counter-stereotype should feel pressured to spotlight their everyday life if they don’t want to.  But it is encouraging—if not unsurprising—to see that altering media portrayals of society alters a good deal of the prejudices plaguing too many corners of society.

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

For me, it validates the importance of being out as a gay person. How else are people going to believe that a nice white Jewish girl who dresses femme and doesn’t look particularly counterculture can be queer if I’m not out like a friggin’ lightbulb everywhere I go? I’m not doing it just for me – I’m doing it so that when a little kid looks at the world and thinks about being gay, that kid sees the full spectrum of possibilities, not just a cultural stereotype. Those of us who control visuals and representations of people in the media need to remember to wield our power for good.

We often forget the power we wield when we have a stereotype in our hands, thinking it’s bigger than anything we can do about it. But it is not.  And that is wonderful.

 

 

Liberty and Justice For All

30 Jun

(Via)

 

The Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 are dead. Less than nine years ago on Election Night 2004, when eleven states banned gay marriage in one fell swoop, I would never, ever have dared to think that change could come so rapidly. Of course, marriage equality does not yet exist in thirty-seven of the fifty United States, but with young people around the world overwhelmingly and increasingly showing their support, it is coming. Thank goodness, in the best sense of the word.

There are those—gay, straight, bi and queer—who are saying, “I can’t be happy about this after what happened to the Voting Rights Act this week.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until full equality is granted to trans citizens.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until the AIDS crisis gets more attention.”

And, “I can’t be happy about this until we realize that single people deserve federal benefits, too.”

And every one of these people has a valid point. It’s a common political strategy in such triumphant moments to grab the opportunity to shed light on other civil rights abuses while you have everyone’s attention. Drawing attention to other injustices—especially the attention of those whose privileges put them at risk for remaining oblivious to such issues—is crucial because no one is free when others are oppressed. This is why I am always willing to discuss the latter half of any of the above statements.

But I do take issue with the first half: the too-cynical-to-celebrate attitude that is begging to be called out for its hipster glass house. Because marriage equality is a victory for everyone.

Anyone familiar with the history of minority rights in the U.S. knows that granting civil rights for one group has had an undeniable domino effect on other groups. Not long after debates about slavery, segregation, and voting rights culminated with the nation’s belief that all men are indeed created equal, women asked, “Why just men?” And not long after so many women proved that straight relationships can be egalitarian, gay and lesbian citizens asked, “Why just straight ones?” And somewhere amid gays and lesbians proving that the way they were born hurts no one, trans people asked, “What about how we were born?”  And somewhere in between all the discussions about genitals and bodies and skin color and size, disabled people asked, “What about our bodies and brains?” Because no one is free when others are oppressed.

Likewise, when one kind of inhumane prejudice gets knocked down, all the others are under threat.

This is not to take attention away from the people most directly affected by this week’s momentous legal decision. Friends of mine in Massachusetts can suddenly enjoy concrete federal benefits now while my husband and I have always enjoyed these benefits simply because we’re in a straight relationship. I am so happy for them, and so sad one of my dearest friends never lived to see this day.

But the victory is truly for everyone – even those marriage equality opponents who fail to see how they will benefit from a society that is a little bit freer, a little less fearful, and lot less lop-sided. Because this is a victory for anyone who has been bullied for traits they never had any choice about. This is a victory for anyone with something that has made them stand out in their family. This is a victory for all the couples who have choked back tears when someone said that marriage is all about a man and a woman being able to procreate. This is a victory for all the parents who have tried to teach their children to never grow up thinking they are more important than anyone else.

Congratulations to all of you out there.

 

 

 

The Most Racist Place On Earth

26 May

world map 3D(Image used under CC license via)

 

Where in the world are people most likely to say that they would not want “people of another race” as neighbors?  The results, from the Swedish World Values Survey, were published this week in The Washington Post in the form of a map by Max Fisher, who drew some conclusions here.   The Swedish research team, meanwhile, found that racism does not necessarily decrease when economic freedom increases.   (But homophobia does.)     

The results are fascinating, but they should not be seen as inerrant proof of how things stand.  Nor should the map be used as a travel guide.  In the case of Sweden, which has seen on-going riots in the poor suburban neighborhoods of Stockholm all week, qualifying as less racist than other countries hardly proves you are racism-free.  And as Fisher points out, there is no guarantee that the respondents answered honestly. 

When both Americans and Germans hear the word “race,” only the most socially inept among them do not know to respond very, very carefully.  In Germany, even seemingly objective words like “home” and “deport” make most people immediately think of the Holocaust.  But if you said to a white German, “How would you feel about having gypsies live next door?”, or if you said to a WASP American, “How would you feel about having neighbors who are illegal immigrants?”, you might get a more cynical answer.  (I use the offensive terms “illegal immigrants” and “gypsies” for hypothetical purposes.  Readers outside the U.S. and Europe should note that “undocumented immigrants” and “Roma” are more objective, less derogatory terms.)  Almost everyone in the U.S. and Germany knows racism is a bad thing, which is why most racists will not admit to it.  As Desmond Tutu said, five minutes after apartheid ended in South Africa, you couldn’t find anyone who had ever supported apartheid.    

Indeed, while readers in India have been reacting angrily to their nation’s standing in the survey, there is a tremendous risk that people from the countries that appear less racist are, or will become, dangerously complacent about their supposed open-mindedness.  The U.S. and U.K. appear slightly more tolerant than Germany, but a friend from India has openly said she feels much more respected and protected here in Berlin than in New York, where she has been harassed by Homeland Security officials, or in London, where her brother was beaten up for being a “Paki.”  Anecdotal evidence is less empirical than statistical evidence, but statistical evidence is far from infallible. 

Take for example the fact that France ranks as one of the most racist nations in the West.  The strongest evidence to support this finding is probably the popularity of the right-wing, anti-immigration party National Front, which won 17.9% of the vote in the first round of last year’s presidential election.  But racism cannot always be measured so plainly.  In the United States, hate groups are on the rise, but most segregationists and white supremacists vote either Republican or Democrat because they must operate in a two-party system if they want to get anything done.  Many members of Congress have been members of the nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens (also known as the CCC, which sounds a lot like another white supremacist organization), which in 1997 presented the former head of the National Front with a Confederate flag.  The U.S. ranks as more tolerant than France in the survey, yet a great deal of its racism survives covertly.    

And on the flipside, America’s history reveals more overt racism than France’s.  All anti-miscegenation laws were lifted in France 175 years earlier than in the United States.  French literary giant Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, was the son of France’s first black general, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was the highest ranking black general in any Western country until Colin Powell rose to the rank in 1989.  Racial segregation laws did not exist in modern France until the Nazi Occupation, which is why many black American celebrities like Josephine Baker expatriated there.  Anecdotal evidence suggests people of sub-Saharan background have been better integrated into French society than people of Arab and/or Muslim background, but this is difficult to examine because, unlike in the United States, it has been illegal in France since 1958 to collect data on race or ethnicity.

Indeed, what do we mean by people of a “different race”?  What do you imagine?  In the United States, we tend to think of ethnicity as something we can’t quite put our finger on, while race is widely thought to be based on indisputable biological facts.  Having pale skin, brownish wavy hair, and no epicanthic fold makes people think of me in the U.S. and Europe as white, affording me all the privileges that implies.  The precise details of my ethnicity and heritage—growing up in a WASP family with ancestors who were English, Irish, German, Polish, Scottish, and also possibly Jewish—are rarely an issue.  Nowadays.  But marriage to my Irish Catholic grandfather in 1943 led my grandmother to be disowned by her own grandmother. 

And today the ethnicity of a white person of Middle Eastern background is a major issue for many right-wing Westerners.  Some will argue that the dark hair and olive skin tone common among Middle Easterners renders them a separate, biologically identifiable race, but then what about Greek or Spanish people?  What about Austrians and Southern Germans?  What about that Harry Potteresque raven-hair/pale skin combination so common in the U.K. and Ireland?  Is this starting to sound silly?  Jokes about redheads suddenly become less innocuous in light of violent gingerism.  For better or for worse, predominantly white societies recognize tremendous physical diversity across Europe, but usually fail to differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, or West Africans and East Africans.  Race is in the eye—or mind—of the beholder.  

Years ago, my German-Swedish boyfriend almost went through the roof when a teenage friend of the family said she felt a bit nervous in Berlin “because of all the immigrants around.”  How could she say such a thing in front of his American girlfriend?! he seethed.  But she didn’t think of me as an “immigrant” because I’m middle class, I have the same hair color and complexion as the majority of German citizens, I celebrate Christmas, and I immigrated to Berlin simply because I loved the city, not out of economic necessity or a fear of persecution at home.  Around the world, some people are intolerant of any race that they perceive as different from their own, while others are intolerant of only certain races.  Which kind of racism is preferable? 

No matter the answer, the existence of the second kind proves that both kinds of racism are unnatural.