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Do We Need Statues of Real People?

1 May

Happy May 1st! The idea of “the people” and “the public square” and “equality-means-everybody” has me thinking about statues. And about historical figures and artists and everyone whose work had an undeniable impact on the world and the problem of their having also done or said terrible things that contributed to the subjugation and/or suffering and/or marginalization of many people. And I wonder, do we need statues of real people? (Or faces on coins and bills?) Germany places its statues of undisputed criminals in museums. I’d be hard pressed to find any recent statues of real people around here.

Does any society need statues of real people? The human impulse to want to learn about – and usually like – someone whose work we like is so powerful, it’s surely impossible to eradicate from our systems. Fandom is here to stay. But books, articles, documentaries and museums exhibits can/should force us to learn about the person in context, learn about everything they did, whom they helped and whom they hurt. Statues simplify people, remove context, rinse them of responsibility for any harm they caused. In turning them into idols, we place them above others, which is the opposite of equality. Do we really need statues of real people in public? What will be lost if we ended the tradition?

Imaginary figures seem fine to me, whether unnamed as in the nice big lady above you can see in Oslo, or well-known fictional characters. I don’t think there is a problem with statues of the Greek gods. Everyone knows they were jerks.

What’s Old and New about these Book Bans

6 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can We Decide What Makes A Female?

20 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

Defeating Five Centuries of Racism Is Hard Work

7 Jun

 

No child is born a racist, but every child—from Toronto to Tokyo to Tasmania—is born into a world containing messages about race that were used to justify 500 years of colonialist white supremacy. Before the civil rights and decolonization movements that emerged in the decades after World War II, such messages were explicit. Progress has been made, but we are far from finished. Just watch people flip out over the idea of changing the story of Santa Claus into a penguin to be more universally inclusive. (I’ve yet to hear anyone who steadfastly claims that a Black Santa Claus is historically inaccurate argue with the same fervor against illustrated bibles teaching kids that Adam and Eve were white.) Or listen to the far more depressing defenses of the London School of Economics paper that argued white and Asian women are “naturally” more attractive than Black women. Arguments for The Bell Curve and its controversial author are in no way difficult to find. And it gets worse from there. Much, much worse.

Hence the ongoing protests that have blossomed on every continent on earth.

White people of today didn’t create colonialism and its pseudoscience of race. But we reveal how deeply we have come to believe in it if we can’t handle the idea of seeing the system change. I’ve asked before and I’ll ask again: How many of us are willing to strive for racial justice beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones? How many of us are willing to listen more than we speak? How many of us are willing to endure this as often as necessary?

I don’t want to take up too much space at a time that truly belongs to people directly targeted by racism. Police are far more likely to treat me like Amy Cooper than Breonna Taylor. I am grateful to those who have done the hard—often personally painful—work of arguing why and how we can work to expunge the poison from the system. Here is a tiny selection of those who have helped to open my mind:

We Need to Talk by Celeste Headlee
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Want wit along with wisdom?
How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

Want something more academic?
Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele
The Lies That Bind by Kwame Anthony Appiah

Online resources are almost countless, but for now I’ll just say thanks to this news source and this call to action.

History changes when you change the perspective. And that is the only way to change the present or the future:

This Universal Pandemic Proves Our Diversity

19 Apr

Hidden Object (Image by Hans-Jörg Aleff used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Most of the world has been asked—if not ordered—to stay at home and only socialize online. Almost immediately the divisiveness inherent to social media was out in full-force. My friends and family have been venting almost since Day One about the posts and tactics they find most distasteful:

“I can’t go online anymore if it means finding out another one of my friends is blaming this on Chinese people, black people, or city people.”

“There SO many high-horses out there right now – people trying to shame anyone who goes to a bakery or uses public transportation or orders online and therein endangers delivery workers.”

“Be grateful your friends at least are committed to social distancing right now! Half of mine are still convinced anyone who does so is a sissy.”

“I’m gonna unfriend the next person who lectures about how we should be avoiding chocolate or shampooing with strawberry jam because it’s good for your brain cells and therefore your immune system. It’s hard enough to get people to listen to the clear-cut facts. We don’t need the airwaves clogged with theories!”

“I can’t take the memes that tell everyone to stop whining. ‘All we’re being asked to do is stay on the couch and watch Netflix’?! Complaining is helpful in a crisis!”

Indeed, orders to immediately have perspective and shut up sound crotchety at best and ice-cold in light of the escalation in unemployment, mental illness, domestic violence, and child abuse under lockdown. We absolutely owe it to seniors, disabled and chronically ill people, and every essential worker to do what we can to slow the spread of the virus and lessen the danger they face. But that doesn’t mean shrugging off even smaller problems like loneliness, cabin fever, or the obliteration of the work-life balance. A single mother of toddlers who works as a journalist said every minute of her day is a choice between neglecting her job or her children, and leaves her feeling every night that she failed at both. The U.K. reports an increase in custody battles over children since the lockdown. Less acrimonious legal procedures like immigration and adoption procedures are now in limbo.

Not since the last pandemic a century ago has everyone on every continent faced the same exact enemy. Earthquakes, bombings, hurricanes, and even World II occurred in specific locations. Some if not most people on earth lived far away from those catastrophes and only knew them as news reports. Right now I can ask my friends and family in every time zone the same question: How is it for you? I live in Germany, which so far has one of the lowest death rates of any of the infected countries and, at the time of this writing, has more residents recovering from the virus than infected by it. While that is some cause for hope, the diversity in international infection and death rates pretty much ensures that non-essential international flights are a long way off. For so many parents like me, seeing our kids hug their grandparents is almost certain to be the very last thing governments will allow. I know I am still partly in denial over that.

Social media is a hard substitute to accept. Unlike speaking to friends in very small groups or one-on-one, social media (like mass-emails) excludes the extremely helpful ways in which we each alter our speech and tone according to whom we’re addressing. And so we speak to everyone at once and too quickly alienate those whose experience we forget. Posts about what to read or watch now that we all have so much time at home alienate those whose workload has tripled. Or evaporated. Posts that overemphasize the dangers of the virus in order to try to frighten people into staying home make those with at-risk loved ones burst into tears. Posts trying to point the finger at wet markets or the Chinese government (or U.S. Democrats or cell phone towers) prove that the blame game is always poisonous and always fraught with fallacies. Scientists and journalists from Nate Silver to Bill Bryson had long been warning that humanity was due for a pandemic. The differences in how states have handled it proves that our political choices do ultimately determine how many will be in danger.

We all face the same virus and what it means for each of us is as diverse as humanity itself. Recognizing the wide range of experiences is necessary. It will degrade us if it is done with jealousy instead of empathy. Solidarity means no one is more expendable than I am and bravery in the face of a worldwide threat means overcoming the urge to think only of my experience.

Escaping social media and moving to the phone, I’ve found friends and family to be overly gracious. Jeez, I thought I was inconvenienced, but it’s nothing compared to what you’re going through! they say so often to each other. We vent and then edit ourselves, counting our blessings and privileges without humblebragging, and express sympathy for each other’s individual plights. For all the vile xenophobia that is but a Google search away, online organizing shows that many are ready and willing to aid people in poverty, African-Americans, refugees, homeless citizens, and prisoners, all of whom are a greater risk. The applause from balconies for health care professionals across Europe and North America has been heartening, and in many places it has been followed by concrete efforts for increased funding.

And who keeps even more people alive in a hospital than the doctors? The cleaning staff. This crisis has shown the need for paying our workers based on the necessity of their labor, not the skill-level. It has shown that childcare is absolutely and always a job in itself, worth as much as any other. It has shown how difficult it is to communicate simple but scary facts to over 7 and a half billion people. And it has shown we do have some choices about our responses and we can let the better angels of our nature prevail. When this is over, history will tell whether or not we did.

 

U.S. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.thehotline.org/

U.S. hotline for the Deaf for help in domestic abuse: https://thedeafhotline.org/

U.K. hotline for domestic abuse: https://www.nationaldahelpline.org.uk/

German hotline for domestic abuse, in several languages plus German Sign Language: https://www.hilfetelefon.de/

German hotline for depression: https://www.deutsche-depressionshilfe.de/corona

 

 

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

28 Jul

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

For A United Europe

26 May

Europe(Image by Niccoló Carranti, used under CC 2.0 via)

 

It’s Election Day in the European Union and I haven’t I witnessed so much pro-EU spirit here in Berlin since fireworks were going off to welcome 10 new countries into the Union 15 years ago. Today blue star-spangled flags are hanging from balconies. The E.U. anthem blasted down my street from speakers strapped to bicycles. My social media feed is flooded with European friends urging each other to get out and vote. A good number of these friends are reminding anyone who will listen that they were born in countries under the rule of dictatorships. Democracy can never be taken for granted.

Brexit has scared many into realizing that the E.U. may very well be fighting for its life. Conversely, the disastrous Brexit negotiations have also scared many anti-E.U. parties into changing their tune. No longer are the Sweden Democrats, the Alternative für Deutschland or the Front National pledging to end their countries’ membership in the E.U. but instead calling for reform. The reform they advocate of course is fiercely nationalistic, threatening open borders and the rights and freedoms of minorities. As I wrote three years ago when the vote for Brexit first set shock waves across the continent, nationalism is at best an illusion.

At the March for a United Europe last weekend, the atmosphere among the 25,000 who showed up was as celebratory as it was serious. Omas Gegen Rechts (“Grandmothers Against the Right”) smiled amidst bubbles and balloons, telling reporters about having been called lousy Nazis as children whenever they traveled through Europe. (If you ever want to hear older people worrying out loud that kids these days just aren’t anti-war enough, just head to an E.U. demonstration.) Of all the signs I saw that day, my favorite read: Migration is the mother of humanity beside a historical map.

This afternoon I’m accompanying my extended Berlin family to the polls. Of the four adults and four children among us, only one of us does not owe their existence here in Berlin (or on earth) to immigration. Mother of humanity indeed.

 

 

Mother’s Day & All It Touches

12 May

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

From the Archives, updated

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

And to those of you who have lost your mothers,

And to those of you who have lost a child,

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

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

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

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

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

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

Banned Books Week Should Fight Censorship & Simplistic Thinking

23 Sep

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

What’s the Difference Between Immigrants & Expats?

3 Jun

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fabricators Like Rachel Dolezal Need Help, But Not Public Sympathy

20 May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those Genetic Ancestry Tests

6 May

Lollipop (Image by Jackie used under CC 2.0 via)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

The Hart Family Murder & The Dangerous Assumption that Adoption Is About “Rescuing”

29 Apr

Kids Playing(Image by Duane Story used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last month Jennifer Hart drove her wife Sarah and six adoptive children in their SUV at 90 miles per hour over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. When the story first broke, the public saw a wide array of photos posted by Jennifer on social media portraying a happy, hippie family at music festivals, farmer’s markets, and human rights demonstrations. Over the past four weeks, details have emerged suggesting the parents who proclaimed “Love is always beautiful” were as narcissistic as they were idealistic.

The Hart mothers were white and all of their children black, adopted from the foster care system. In 2010, one daughter showed bruises to her teachers and claimed Jennifer had spanked her over the edge of a bathtub and held her head under cold water. Sarah took the blame and was convicted of assault. A week later the parents switched to homeschooling all the children. They soon moved to Oregon where they were again investigated for physical abuse and food deprivation in 2013. While the social workers’ report concluded that abuse could not be proven, it noted that the children were at risk and found only one of the six children to be the correct size and height for his age. The Harts then moved to Washington State. Last month Child Protective Services attempted to contact the family three times after neighbors reported one son had finally asked them to after weeks of begging for food. Four days later, the family SUV was found at the bottom of the cliff. Two of the children’s bodies are missing, but all family members are presumed dead and investigators are classifying the crash as intentional.

The first thing that stuck out to me was just how many photos there were in which the black children of the white parents were paraded around like heaven on earth. “It’s important for abusers to manage their identity,” says professor of criminology Hannah Scott. “It was very important that they look good outside their family.” The second thing I noticed was the cult-like praise friends of the parents fired off to the media in the wake of the investigation: “These children came from scary, scary home situations [before their adoption]… I think Jen and Sarah should be idolized.” Mary Elizabeth Williams wisely inquired at Salon, did the children have any friends who could say the same thing about the Harts? Indeed, like so many children of abuse, witnesses now attest that the Hart kids were discouraged from having any relationships outside the family.

In her piece, Williams cites an article from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education warning that children who are adopted, disabled, and/or homeschooled are commonly found among abusive parents. Most homeschooled (or adopted or disabled) children in the United States are not abused, but a 2014 study of tortured children found three-quarters had been either homeschooled or never enrolled in any form of education. Laws regulating homeschooling vary widely from state to state. After the Harts fled Minnesota, they moved to Oregon and then Washington, where parents are required to register homeschooled children with their local school district, but the onus is on them to make contact. Homeschooled children in the U.S. are exempt from the regular health checkups schools provide that would detect starvation and other forms of abuse. Williams blames the holes in this system on America’s highly individualistic culture: “That same American culture of ‘Don’t you dare tread on my freeeeeeedom’ that gave us our gun obsession also feeds the lack of accountability in families that circumvent the intervention systems that schools can provide.”  

Children’s rights are more strictly protected here in Germany, where homeschooling and all forms of spanking are illegal. I don’t expect the U.S. to be able to ban homeschooling or all corporal punishment any time soon, but making it a felony to fail to register homeschooled children with local school authorities could be a step in the right direction. Hawaii has become the first state to introduce a bill requiring parents who seek to homeschool to undergo background checks. Alexandra Argyropoulos, who had notified authorities in Oregon of abuse in the Hart family, has been inspired to start a White House petition calling for a national child abuse database that would allow Child Protective Services to share information across state lines. All these steps of course face loud opposition.

Meanwhile many have pointed to the racism inherent in the Harts’ story. Rachelle Hampton writes at Slate, “The ways in which Sarah and Jennifer managed to continually evade the notice (or action) of officials is a luxury that is by and large only provided to white parents.” Biological relatives of three of the children have come forward to dispute Jennifer Hart’s claims on Facebook that they were rescued from a violent home. Whatever the facts, Hart’s narrative did exploit the widespread assumption that black American children are often better off in white middle class families like hers. Far more importantly, it also breaks the rule taught by many adoption advocates that the child’s backstory belongs to the child and is not for the adoptive parents to advertise to strangers like juicy gossip. Indeed, while the Hart family tragedy epitomizes many problems of race relations in the West, it also epitomizes many of the widespread prejudices adoptive children face.

The National Adoption Attitudes Survey in 2002 revealed the pervasive assumption that adoptive children must have adjustment problems while their adoptive parents must be particularly “unselfish.” Abusers like the Harts thrive on these assumptions. In the documentary Somewhere Between, a teenager expresses unease at being called “lucky” by strangers who know nothing about her except that she was adopted from China by white American parents. In her excellent piece “The Uses of Orphans,” adoptee Alison Kinney analyzes in depth “the casual, commonplace expectations of edification, gratitude, and cultural ambassadorship foisted upon orphans and adoptees.” She explains:

From the time I was 10, strangers wanted me to discuss my adoptive parents’ fertility, the cost of my adoption, the imagined poverty, sexual habits, and mortality of my birth mother, my genetic relationship to my sister, my wise advice to potential adopters, and my gratitude to parents and idle bystanders for my welcome in this country. They’ve used my “success,” for which they also claimed credit, to shame the supposed failures of the less fortunate…

…I’m far from the only former orphan whose life has been shaped by the expectation that I would serve as translator, apologist, cheerleader, and double-agent. One adoptive father called me an ungrateful bitch, because I supported birth mothers’ rights.

Some adoptive children have been abandoned by or removed from horrifically abusive birth families. Others have been lovingly placed in the care of adoption services by birth parents who have bravely admitted that they are not in a position to provide what every child deserves. To assume, however, that all adoptive children fall into the former category and would therefore automatically be better off with pretty much anyone so much as considering adoption is the old model. Prospective adoptive parents are routinely warned against it by many adoption experts who have seen what damage it can do. We should all be warned against it.

While we should all be grateful to our parents—provided they did not abuse us—no child on earth should be expected to be more grateful for receiving basic care and kindness. In her post “10 Questions to Ask Yourself to See If You Have A Savior Complex” at Adoption.com, activist Sarah M. Baker writes about the wrong and right ways to do it:

I have read about religious organizations encouraging people to adopt because it is their “duty” to help orphans. They place the people who do adopt these orphans on pedestals and boast about their good deeds. But, most adoptive parents I know chose adoption to fulfill their need to grow their family, to parent a child, to fill a void in their homes and hearts. While it is true that the children they adopt are in need of a forever family, these parents don’t overlook their child’s losses or take compliments from strangers lightly. They often remark back that they were the ones who were “saved” by adoption.

Baker highlights the ubiquity of the problem among religious communities, but it also exists among self-proclaimed progressives like the Harts. Many adoption agencies are acutely aware of the risk of attracting the narcissistic personalities most likely to think of themselves as heroes at the expense of the child’s well-being. One family told me their agency wants prospective adoptive parents to be brutally honest about which sorts of adoption scenarios might challenge them. They are particularly suspicious of anyone who says, “We can handle anything!” because saying yes and then finding out you can’t handle it is deeply unfair to the child. The Harts proved this point tragically well.

 

 

Rebecca Cokley & Never-Ending Diversity

28 Jan

Light Box Body(Image by Luca Rossato used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Leaving you this weekend with a link to an excellent personal essay and video published at CNN.com last month by Rebecca Cokley, a civil rights lawyer who worked in the Obama administration. The granddaughter of a segregationist judge, Cokley has achondroplasia and her average-size husband is African-American. She writes about the ramifications of these intersections for her two children who also have achondroplasia. She writes about the doctor who planned to sterilize her without consulting her. And she writes about the mistreatment she experienced at last year’s Women’s March:

People often act as though disabled people don’t have a right to bodily autonomy. When I attended the women’s march in D.C. in January, I was repeatedly grabbed and manhandled by women who wanted to know where was my mommy and why didn’t I know better than to wander away from her. They all looked shocked when I responded, “I am the mommy,” but not a single one apologized to me.

In the video, she also delves in to the many ways in which she and her family are privileged.

Profiles of people with dwarfism are rarely brave enough to venture beyond the comforts of human interest stories and into the very real but hard political realities. (I know. I google them weekly.) And most headline the subject as “small but [insert compliment here].” This piece is definitely worth your time.

 

How Not to Cover the German Election Results Today

24 Sep

german_opinion_polls_2017_election1

(Image by KevinNinja used under CC 3.0 via)

 

We will have the German election results in just under six hours. After the unanticipated success of Brexit and Trump in 2016, many here are terrified that the Alternative für Deutschland will end up doing better than the polls predicted. There is speculation that many of its voters would never reveal their decision to a survey-taker. If the AfD does do better than predicted, it will declare victory – even if over 80% of the country has voted against it.

If this happens, please be thoughtful—not careless—when you consider using Nazi language to describe what’s going on. Some members of the AfD have definitely earned the Nazi label because their rhetoric and policies are flat-out militaristic, authoritarian, and/or racist. But German political scientists are careful to only apply terms like “Neo-Nazi” and “fascist” when it is apt. Much of the foreign media too often uses World War II jargon—like “marching to victory”—to describe any right-wing politics that happen in Germany, while refraining from using it to describe right-wing movements in their own countries. Rule of thumb: If you didn’t use those words to describe the xenophobic politics of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Brexit, or Donald Trump, think twice about using them now for the AfD. At best it’s lazy and at worst it implies that racism among Germans is worse than racism among any other sorts of people. As nationalist politicians across Europe and the United States continue to threaten democracy, no one can afford to be complacent.

And please beware the term “refugee crisis.” Over one million Syrians have arrived in Germany and guess what? Very little has changed. I live a few blocks from a refugee housing unit and couldn’t name one difference in my everyday life since the doors were opened. Perhaps I pass by more refugees than I realize on the street – but they’re not really any different looking from any of the other immigrants and expats. To be fair, many refugees are certainly experiencing crisis. The war in Syria is a crisis. The horrid conditions along the Balkan Route constitute a crisis. The bureaucratic mess paralyzing several authorities that refugees are required to deal with is a crisis. But when you broadly use the word “crisis” to refer to the arrival of people in Germany, you’re doing white supremacist groups like the AfD a huge favor.

Some other fun facts you might miss? Germany’s voter turnout over the past decade has been consistently higher than in the U.K. and the U.S. All voters over 18 are automatically registered here and receive the address of their polling place via mail. Because Germany has a coalition system, every voter gets two votes. The polls have consistently projected the two largest parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) to garner the most votes, while the four smaller contenders have been separated by a mere 1%. (The graphic above of the recent polls illustrates this well.) If the AfD shoots ahead, this will be newsworthy. If it comes in third place but only by 1 point, that should also be noted in all post-election analysis. Failure to note it will only help the AfD create a narrative of overblown success.

In politics, as often in life, narrative is everything.

 

 

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

17 Sep

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Don’t Be A Sucker

20 Aug

 

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

 

 

 

 

Charlottesville

13 Aug

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

23 Jul

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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