Archive | Scars & Race, Ethnicity & Nationality RSS feed for this section

Misremembering What “Great” Looked Like

2 Apr

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Some of the Latest Ideas about Reducing Racism

26 Mar

Our Public Schools are Still Separate and Unequal(Image by Joe Brusky used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I Loved My Grandmother. But She Was A Nazi.” This is the title of this weekend’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times by Jessica Shattuck. She writes, “My grandmother heard what she wanted from a leader who promised simple answers to complicated questions. She chose not to hear and see the monstrous sum those answers added up to. And she lived the rest of her life with the knowledge of her indefensible complicity.”

I live in Germany, where many if not most of my friends and family members could have written that. Here in Berlin, if you call your grandparents’ generation “the greatest”—as so many do back home in the U.S.—you might as well slap a swastika on your chest. Or try to argue that the earth is flat. The Sixties generation in West Germany shared their American counterparts’ love of rock music and peace signs, but their top priority was to expose how many of their professors, teachers, and public officials were former Nazis. If the cost of expunging Nazi thought meant the end of both nationalism and nostalgia, so be it.

While the Sixties movement left a lasting impact on German politics, education, and the media, Germany today could hardly be considered racism-free. Last year, there were 857 attacks on refugee homes perpetrated by right-wing extremists nationwide. Plenty of non-white and non-Christian residents tell of the prejudices they too frequently face. The Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has joined the global nationalist movement, calling for a return to the good old days when no one had to hear about celebrating diversity.

But the AfD is considerably less popular than nationalist parties in other countries. With every party in the Bundestag having pledged to never work with it, and with its best national polling numbers peaking at only 12% last fall, it stands no chance of winning the national election in September. The greatest fear is that the once fledgling party will come in third or fourth and garner well over 5% of the vote, which is the minimum required to be granted seats in the Bundestag. Human rights activists are right to believe than any success for the AfD will be a dangerous validation of ideas no citizen should embrace. But British and American nationalists have been far more successful in their respective countries as of late. Is there something anti-nationalist and anti-racist activists could learn from their German counterparts?

No one can say with any accuracy that German society is less racist than others. Proving one country is less racist than another is difficult to the point of nearly being impossible. But it is heartening to see the AfD’s approval ratings nowhere near a majority. I have asked many Germans how they have come to stigmatize nationalism so successfully. Don’t people get touchy? Don’t most people excuse away the Holocaust by arguing that most Germans never saw a concentration camp? Don’t most people tend to understand it from their grandparents’ perspective? One German explained the approach to me as “Verstehen, aber kein Verständnis,” which can be translated as “understand (as in comprehend) but without understanding (as in sympathizing).” One could describe Shattuck’s op-ed piece this way.

Some of this could be linked to a greater willingness in German culture to talk about problems, no matter how unpleasant. While American and British children are often told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” many Germans would consider this evasive to the point of being dishonest. Germans are raised to mean what they say and say what they mean, and are thus likelier to believe that airing dirty laundry is the only path to improvement. Never does one hear, “I was just saying it to be nice.” As Sabine Heinlein wrote earlier this year in the Daily Beast:

It has always struck me as odd how timid most Americans become when asked to object to something, even politely. At the dinner table, I’ve noticed, what Germans call a discussion, Americans call an argument.

I know I am often perceived as harsh because I speak my mind. But I also see how the very thing that makes America great—its people’s quiet acceptance of other beliefs, their overwhelming friendliness, their effort to always get along—now threatens to become its downfall. I loathed having to read my friends’ whiny Facebook posts about how they were dreading Thanksgiving because of the elections. “Boohoo, I have to talk about politics to someone who thinks differently than I do!”

Here, this German said it. Will you still like me? I am asking because I believe what stands in the way is Americans’ compulsive need to be liked. At moments like this, though, we need to learn to object and intervene—whether in public protest or simply around the family dinner table.

Americans do generally prefer to emphasize the positive. We like to think of our ancestors and ourselves as the Good Guys. But while it is true that my grandparents fought on the opposite side of the Nazis, their generation cannot honestly claim to have been innocent of racism. Many U.S. veterans returning from the liberated concentration camps and the Nuremberg Trials understood them as proof of why they had to help end segregation across the United States. Others returned and hurled tomatoes and death threats at 6-year-old Ruby Bridges as she attempted to enter an all-white school. To such white supremacists, World War II was not reason to consider that the Nazis had modeled many of the Nuremberg Laws on Jim Crow. It was proof of America’s inherent superiority.

Some Americans face our long history of racism, some mention it as a footnote in the otherwise Great American Story, and others go so far as to question its relevance. The night Trump was elected president, I was told by one of his white supporters that discussing racism divides the country. Yet race issues have been proven to be a strong motivator among many such voters. More than age, location, religion, economic status, level of education, or party affiliation, the most common factor uniting Trump voters was feeling threatened by the fact that whites are projected to no longer dominate the U.S. population by 2042. Of course not all Trump supporters share these feelings, but they risk repeating the mistakes of Shattuck’s grandmother when they refuse to confront the dangers they pose.

White people in the U.S.—and across the Western World—are taught by their culture that their skin color, ethnicity, and/or religious background is the standard. Consequently, they often envision multiculturalism as merely welcoming some people of color into their everyday reality without altering the centrality of their role in the narrative. Getting them to question this can be hard. Dr. Robin DiAngelo has written extensively about the white fragility she often encounters when teaching anti-racism workshops in the U.S. and how quickly this fragility can unleash obstinacy and outrage. But if white people want racial equality and racial justice—if we want to practice what every democracy on earth preaches in their non-discrimination laws—then white people need to be willing to approach racism from perspectives other than their own. And in order to do that, we have to be willing to engage with ideas that may make us uneasy.

Zadie Smith’s 2016 novel Swing Time is the story of a girl who grows up in a poor end of London with her black Caribbean mother and British white father. Her white friend Lily “solemnly explained to me one day as we played, that she herself was ‘color blind’ and saw only what was in a person’s heart.” But when the biracial girl wants to watch a musical with an all-black cast, Lily refuses: “Why was everybody black? It was unkind, she said to have only black people in a film, it wasn’t fair. Maybe in America you could do that, but not here, in England, where everybody was equal anyway and there was no need to ‘go on about it.’ ”

I could have thought, if not said, something like that at Lily’s age. With slogans like “one race: human,” colorblindness was hailed in classrooms in the 1980s and 90s as both the right goal for society and the right tactic for ending racism. And so I recall feeling concerned when a character on the sitcom Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper talked about being proud of being black, thinking that surely any racial pride was akin to racism. I was disconcerted when Family Matters portrayed Santa Claus as black. My thoughts on the matter shifted as my brain matured to handle more nuanced ideas and I absorbed more detailed arguments from non-white perspectives. This helped me eventually understand how the predominance of white people in mainstream culture in the U.S. had blinded me to the experiences of non-whites, which were far more different from my own than my younger self had assumed. I realized I had never considered how it might feel to grow up with a Santa Claus—and a throng of national icons—who did not share my racial status.

Some white people are reticent to discuss race at all because, like Lily and I, they were taught that any generalizations about any people are just as taboo as inaccurate stereotypes about traditionally marginalized groups. Other white people may be reticent because they are terrified of ending up the butt of the joke in revealing videos or interviews about white myopia. Such wariness is well-known to activist Jay Smooth, who explains:

Anytime we are dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic… The race constructs that we grapple with in America were designed specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we are grappling with something that was designed for centuries to circumvent our best interests. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up.

If we deconstruct all that maintains the unequal distribution of power based on race, white people will find themselves in situations unfamiliar. Anxiety at such a reality should never shut down the conversation, but it too often does. Seventy years after Hitler gave racism a bad name, 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? How do we open the minds of those who become instantly defensive in such debates? I was recently asking these questions with friends and then, as if the Internet was listening in, this meme popped up in my feed:
 

Morgan M Page
 
What do you think? Can we do it?

 

 

Will the Netherlands Be the Next Country to Greenlight Nationalism?

12 Mar

 

Dutch voters go to the polls this coming Wednesday for the general election, and long-time nationalist candidate Geert Wilders has a better chance of coming in first or second than ever before. A first-place finish would be no guarantee of his becoming prime minister thanks to the multi-party coalition system in the Netherlands, but it would prove surging support for his policies. On his agenda is leaving the EU, closing the border to all refugees as well as all immigrants from Muslim countries, closing mosques and Muslim schools nationwide, and banning the Koran. He was convicted of hate speech by a Dutch court earlier this year for his utterances in the video above.

No candidate will ever be endorsed on this blog, but politicians who promise to roll back the rights of minorities will be called out and the danger assessed. In the ongoing debate over the best counter-strategy to the rise of xenophobia in Europe and the U.S., James Traub argued earlier this week in The New York Times that calls to simply celebrate diversity are partly to blame for the crisis. He views right-wing nationalism as a backlash against “the unquestioned virtue of cosmopolitanism,” writing:

The answer to xenophobia cannot be xenophilia. For mobile, prosperous, worldly people, the cherishing of diversity is a cardinal virtue; we dote on difference. That’s simply not true for many people who can’t choose where to live, or who prefer the familiar coordinates of their life. That was the bitter lesson that British cosmopolites learned from Brexit.

Other critics have demanded similar compassion for the little old white lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by non-whites speaking Arabic/Farsi/Somali and wearing headscarves. Yet is she much different from the little old lady who reports feeling uncomfortable when her daily bus ride has her surrounded by young people talking in slang and playing techno/hip-hop/k-pop/whatever the kids are listening to these days? Indulging such concerns with legal action quickly devolves into infringements on freedom of expression. Society does best when citizens simply shrug at the sight of new piercings or the sound of a foreign language.

Yet no society has managed to rid itself of the Fear of the Other that convinces a good proportion of its citizenry that the new immigrants will never integrate or that youth culture is more depraved than theirs ever was. A hippie friend’s parents were regularly told in the 1970s, “If my kid ever dressed like that, I’d break his legs!” It feels strange when Americans my age try to imagine that the Beatles were ever considered a moral threat or that jazz was once branded “devil’s music.” It feels just strange when we hear comedian Dara Ó Briain tell of a British shopkeeper who suspected him of being an IRA terrorist based on his accent, or to see the 19th-century scientific articles that claimed the Irish were biologically closer to apes than humans.

Indeed, fear of the Irish was once rampant in Britain and the United States, based on the assumption that most were poor, uneducated, prone to violence at home and in the street, and/or terrorists. Their religion was also deemed a threat on both sides of the Atlantic. History has shown that isolating the Irish both as a nation and as immigrants would not have solved the crisis. On the contrary, Ireland has been one of the EU’s greatest success stories, transforming from the poorest country in Europe to one of the richest. This has coincided with an expansion of democratic reforms and human rights, including gender equality. Ireland was just ranked far ahead of the U.K. and the U.S. on the Democracy Index, and in 2015, what was once one of the most religiously conservative countries in the world became the first country to legalize marriage equality via national referendum in a 2 to 1 vote.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, has long led the continent in LGBT rights and, unlike most nationalist politicians, Geert Wilders has weaponized this, arguing that Muslims threaten these rights. His late predecessor, Pim Fortuyn, was openly gay and based his right-wing populism on the same ideology.

Many voters will be tempted by Wilders’ promise to protect Dutch gender equality by expunging Muslim extremists from the country. But such a policy is not only racist and undemocratic, but hazardous and hypocritical because a) it disregards both the work and rights of feminist and LGBT Muslims, and b) it says nothing about expunging non-Muslim  groups that oppose gender equality like the Christian Reformed Churches of the Dutch Bible Belt or the neo-nazis. If Wilders and his supporters are sincerely concerned about threats to LGBT rights, they would do well to partner with the Maruf Foundation and the European Queer Muslim network, rather than the right-wing populists of Europe and the U.S. who are far likelier to dismantle Western laws protecting gender equality than any Muslim extremist group.

Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland and Sweden’s Sverigedemokraterna argue for a return to traditional gender roles. Marine Le Pen pledged last week to nullify all same-sex marriages in France. The former and current leaders of Britain’s UKIP have repeatedly galvanized homophobic sentiment. Donald Trump used the Pulse night club massacre in Orlando last summer to argue for his proposed Muslim ban while at the same time partnering with Mike Pence and other leading members of the American Religious Right, who have been blaming feminism and LGBT equality for most of society’s problems since the 1980s.

Any gender equality movement must protect and support women and LGBT citizens of all ethnicities and faiths. This can only be done with a humanitarian immigration policy. The best hope for combating misogyny and homophobia anywhere is to support human rights activists everywhere. The best hope for successfully integrating immigrants is to learn from the past how it was done before. And to understand that xenophobes throughout history pick different targets but always say the same thing.

In 1751, Benjamin Franklin issued one of the very first warnings of the dangers of immigrants arriving in the United States, asking:

Why should [they] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their languages and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to … never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?

He was talking about immigrants from German-speaking regions of Europe, whom he did not consider “white people,” classifying them along with the Italians and Swedes as “swarthy” and dismissing them as “generally of the most ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.” The influx of Germans into the U.S. did end up flooding the country, but it did not end up destroying democratic values. The resilience of the fear of immigrants has proven time and again to be the greater threat to universal human rights. A strong showing for Wilders on Wednesday would, too.

 

 

Rare Conditions & the Tyranny of the Majority

5 Mar

Odd One Out(Image by Javier R. Lineira used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last Tuesday, February 28th, was Rare Diseases Day. (In leap years, the day is held on February 29th.) The organization’s website reports: “A disease or disorder is defined as rare in Europe when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000. A disease or disorder is defined as rare in the USA when it affects fewer than 200,000 Americans at any given time.” For the purposes of this article, I will supplant the word “diseases” with “conditions” since “disease” is a complex word already examined earlier on this blog.

Rare conditions are frequently misdiagnosed and poorly understood due to a lack of funding for research. All forms of dwarfism qualify as rare, since the most common form, achondroplasia, occurs somewhere between 1 in 20,000 and 1 in 40,000 births. Vosoritide, the drug developers hope may “cure” achondroplasia, is classified as an “orphan drug.” Such drugs are so named because of their difficulty in garnering support for research and development. The Orphan Drug Act of 1983 is intended to counteract this disparity, but vosoritide owes its existence to one father of a child with achondroplasia who had the financial means to launch the project.

However, I don’t think any of these facts were what motivated me as a child to ask my mother, “There are more dwarf people than tall people, aren’t there?” I knew the answer before my mother soberly shook her head. I remember that even at the time I knew I was issuing a hope rather than an honest question. I wanted there to be more of us. Because… Because even a four-year-old knows there is strength in numbers.

Numbers help build community and communities build solidarity. The women’s movement of the 70s, 80s, and 90s often touted the fact that we made up 51% of the world population. (This is no longer true.) Lists of adopted, dyslexic, Jewish, left-handed, colorblind, or genderfluid celebrities are but a Google search away for anyone seeking to celebrate diversity. Activists in the early days of the gay rights movement frequently argued that homosexuality was far more common than assumed. But arguing for a group’s rights on the basis of its ubiquity seems to contradict the foundation of minority rights. So why do we so often do it?

Minority rights advocates know that challengers of a certain group’s fair treatment will often try to portray low numbers as proof of anomaly and anomaly as deserving of a low degree of care. When singer Jason Webley tried—and failed—to defend his Evelyn Evelyn performance, for which he and Amanda Palmer dressed up as conjoined twins raised in the circus, he argued that the number of people who could be hurt by the project was small: “I had some fear that the few conjoined twins living in the world might find the project offensive.” (Emphasis mine.) One commenter sarcastically responded that Webley and Palmer should feel “lucky” that there were so few conjoined twins for them to offend thanks to the fact that the infant mortality rate of the condition is remarkably high.

A man from the U.S. recently complained to me that “LBG-whatever people are like .000001% of the population, but we gotta hear about their rights 24 hours a day!” In 1948, Alfred Kinsey shocked the public when he deduced from his interviews that roughly 10% of the U.S. male population was exclusively gay. The current estimates of openly gay and lesbian citizens are lower than this, but of course the effects of the closet combined with the complexities of self-identification and labels remain a wrench in the work of statistics. But even if studies someday decisively prove Kinsey was overestimating the percentage, they will not disprove the fact that gay people exist in every possible culture and sub-culture. Numbers will rise as shame and secrecy recede, which in turn will cause prejudice to recede. Studies have repeatedly proven that people are less likely to be homophobic if they personally know one or more people who are openly gay. Many more lives would have been saved had there been less homophobia and more funding for research in the first days of the AIDS crisis.

Acceptance is often aided by awareness and awareness is aided by prevalence. This is a frustrating fact for minorities who will always be low in number. Women and ethnic groups may dominate a given country at a given time, but people with intersex conditions or dwarfism will never do so. But while this may be a cause for loneliness—who doesn’t like knowing someone with similar experiences?—it should not be cause for existential threat. The guarantee of liberty and justice for all is founded on the very opposite of this. When liberal democracies commit to equality for all citizens, they commit to protect the few from the tyranny of the majority. In her essay, “What to Expect When You Have the Child You Weren’t Expecting,” philosopher Alice Dreger writes, “Your child’s civil rights and status as a human being should not depend on the prevalence of her condition.” (Emphasis hers. And mine.)

Whether you are a woman with the rarest form of dwarfism or a man with breast cancer or the carrier of a condition not yet named or a wheelchair user facing a staircase, your treatment should never be contingent upon how many others there are out there like you. Equality means rare and common conditions both deserve common courtesy. Whether a condition should be cured, treated or accepted by society should be determined by whether or not it inherently causes suffering. The quicker we learn to wrap our heads around that, the less suffering there will be.

 

 

Which Books Have Opened Up Your Mind?

12 Feb

Americanah(Image Sarah Mirk used under CC 2.0 via)

 

As the lists of hate crimes compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Slate and The New York Times prove every week, bigotry in the United States persists. (As noted before, statistics on hate crimes here in Germany are hardly more heartening.) As debates over the best way to stem such crimes abound, a judge in Virginia has ordered a group of minors found guilty of defacing a historic black schoolhouse to spend the next year reading one book each month about various human rights struggles and to write a report on each, analyzing it in both historical and modern contexts.

She was given the idea by prosecutor Alejandra Rueda, who told the Times: “It occurred to me that the way these kids are going to learn about this stuff is if they read about it, more than anything. Yes, they could walk into court and plead guilty and get put on probation and do some community service, but it wasn’t really going to bring the message home.” The books from which they can choose are:

1) The Color Purple by Alice Walker
2) Native Son by Richard Wright
3) Exodus by Leon Uris
4) Mila 18 by Leon Uris
5) Trinity by Leon Uris
6) My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok
7) The Chosen by Chaim Potok
8) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
9) Night by Elie Wiesel
10) The Crucible by Arthur Miller
11) The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
12) A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
13) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
14) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
15) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
16) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
17) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
18) Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
19) Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle
20) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
21) A Hope in the Unseen by Ron Suskind
22) Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
23) Black Boy by Richard Wright
24) The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates
25) The Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt
26) The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
27) Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
28) The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang
29) Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
30) The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
31) The Help by Kathryn Stockett
32) Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
33) Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton
34) A Dry White Season by André Brink
35) Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides

My own personal recommendations would include Jubilee by Margaret Walker, Trash by Dorothy Allison and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, since they contributed profoundly to opening my world view to perspectives and experiences I had never before considered. Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi and Good Kings Bad Kings by Susan Nussbaum were among the first nationally acclaimed novels I read that credibly portrayed experiences of physical disability. Please share any titles missing from the list that have had a similar effect on you in the comments.

 

 

 

From the Frontlines of the Women’s March in Berlin

22 Jan

berlin-00

 

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

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

My heart sank when I read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Happy Birthday, Dr. King

15 Jan

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial(Image by PBS Newshour used under CC 2.0 via)

  

Almost countless quotations by Martin Luther King, Jr. are as apt as ever today, but I have been most recently stirred by the following passage from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.

 
 

On Terror, Danger & Perception

8 Jan


(Video by the notorious Jan Böhmermann, NSFW: strong language)

  

The results are in. After the government accepted just over 1 million refugees primarily from Syria over the past two years, there were six terrorist attacks here in Germany committed by suspected Muslim extremists (the Islamic State and the Salafi movement) in 2016. There were 857 attacks on refugee centers across the country committed by suspected German nationalist extremists for the same period.

Whenever we attempt to address cultural problems and discuss who needs to learn proper values, the answer should invariably be: everyone. The price of democracy is constant vigilance.

  

 

 

 

 

My Beloved Berlin

21 Dec

berlin-copyright-emily-sullivan-sanford

 

This morning I woke up and said:

Good morning, Berlin – my beloved home for 11 years now.

Where the police have asked the public to be alert and “do not spread rumors.”

Where the administration has refused to assign blame “before all the victims have even been identified.”

Where reason, rationality, modesty and a refusal to engage in hot-headed hate is the dominant mood.

Where 11 leaders of different religions and sects joined hands in solidarity and condolence to the victims’ families yesterday, standing just a few yards from the untouched rubble of the Gedächtniskirche, which has been preserved for 70 years as a reminder to Germany – and to all – of the dangers of nationalism.

 

Blaming the Election on the Minority Rights Movement Is Flawed and Dangerous

20 Nov

 

It’s a trick you’re bound to encounter if you work with issues of diversity: Someone comes along and insists that he’s got nothing against any particular minority—in fact he’s all for progress!—but lots of people feel left out by diversity awareness so people should really stop talking about it. Now. I was told on Election Night by a voter that bringing up racism or homophobia is “divisive.” Mark Lilla writes in the New York Times this week that an over-emphasis on minority identities at schools and universities is what has caused the backlash seen in the recent U.S. election. 

This argument pushes the fallacious color-blindness approach to human rights, calling on us to “focus on our commonalities and not our differences.” Most people our society designates as minorities would love to be able to do this. We would be thrilled to live in a world where your race, nationality, gender, physical ability, sexual orientation, cognitive ability and appearance are considered no more remarkable than whether or not you’re right-handed or left-handed. Such a world is the final goal in the struggle for social justice. But the insistence that the only way to achieve such a world is to start pretending we live in it already demands we kindly stop filing complaints of inequality, underrepresentation, harassment and abuse.    

Dr. Michael Ain says in the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale, “When you wake up in the morning, and you do what you have to do, you don’t think you’re different. When I woke up this morning to go to work, I don’t think, ‘I’m short.’ It doesn’t approach me when I look in the mirror. It doesn’t cross your mind until someone makes it apparent.” He then talked about how many doctors tried to block his efforts to apply for medical school on the basis of his physical appearance. “The first guy I interviewed with told me I couldn’t hold the respect of my patients because of my stature,” he reports.

Many of the proponents of the commonalties-not-differences approach are noble in their intentions if naïve in their conviction that such cases are tremendously rare and best left viewed as isolated incidents. But other proponents are simply irritated when attention is afforded to injustices other than those they personally have suffered. I have encountered many arguments placing blame on the “entitled, whining” attitude plaguing minorities, who are too obsessed with their own victimhood to learn about hard-work and self-reliance. Nine times out of ten, supporters of this view then argue that straight, white men actually have it harder than anyone else thanks to the social justice movements of the past 50 years. Which begs the question: Wait, who’s really acting like a victim here? Who’s blaming others for their lot in life?

Minority rights groups contain many people also guilty of such self-centeredness: Blacks who suppress Jews, Jews who suppress women, women who suppress trans citizens, etc., ad nauseam. Which is why it is crucial to reiterate that if we’re going to support the rights of one group, we have to support them all. Your identity matters far less than your willingness to think beyond your personal experience and understand the diverse sorts of harassment and Othering experienced by citizens of all identities.

And speaking of commonalities, I am done reading lectures from professors, pundits and princess experts that claim those of us in the minority rights movements are elitist and don’t understand the “white working class.” People who could be lumped into the “white working class” include many of my friends and family. Some of them join overly educated hard-liners in blaming immigrants and minorities for society’s problems, and some of them are leading the discussions on human rights. Some of them are massively insecure and will lash out if they have to hear anything about xenophobia, and some of them listen to diverse points of view better than anyone of any political conviction. And a tremendous number of them are LGBT, disabled, immigrant and/or non-Christian. Many of them are fully accepted by their peers for who they are. Many are not. Reducing human rights discussions to attacks on—or defenses of—“rednecks” ignores and insults the diversity of that group. Human rights discussions must always cross class lines. Those of us who base our work on intersectionality have been saying this for decades.

Writing and teaching about diversity awareness can be exhausting when even the classiest behavior is accused of divisiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew this and so does Brandon Victor Dixon, the star of Broadway’s smash hit Hamilton, who made his now famous appeal to the incoming vice-president of the United States on Friday night. See the video above or the transcript here:

Vice-president elect Pence, I see you walking out, but I hope you will hear us, just a few more moments. [Some audience members begin to boo.] There’s nothing to boo here, ladies and gentlemen. We’re all here sharing a story about love. We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations. 

Critics on both sides of the political spectrum are reprimanding Dixon for making this plea. After all, isn’t Pence accepting all Americans by attending a play with a diverse cast like Hamilton? 

As many others have pointed out, Pence is a politician recently elevated to a position of tremendous influence who has given many Americans good reason to worry that his acceptance of them does not extend much beyond tolerating their presence on a stage. He has successfully fought for the right for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers and is an advocate of gay conversion therapy, which has been widely condemned as psychologically damaging by medical professionals. In his 2000 bid for Congress, Pence sought to defund any AIDS support organization that did not urge patients to repress their sexual orientation. 

Both stars of Hamilton are openly gay and one is HIV-positive. In a just world, they would have no reason to worry about their health under any presidential administration. But we do not live in that world yet, and Dixon’s appeal to Pence was as justified as it was polite.  I implore anyone who thinks otherwise to try changing their sexuality before they make a call for an end to diversity awareness.

 

 

While Facing A Trump Presidency, We Cannot Afford to Let This Slide

13 Nov

Ku Klux Klan(Image by Martin used under CC 2.0 via)
 

It’s been a good week for anyone who believes white Christian straight men deserve more power than anyone else. Donald Trump was elected to the most powerful office in the world with the support of extremist hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the alt-right, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Family Research Council. Many have felt validated by the electoral victory to voice what they really think of minorities. Graffiti found in Durham declared, “Black Lives Don’t Matter And Neither Does Your Votes.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, whose mission is to document and prevent hate crimes, reported over 200 incidents in the first three days after Election Day, mostly at K-12 schools, universities, and businesses. 

None of this is surprising to those of us who documented the uptick in celebratory hate crimes in the U.K. after Brexit and who have witnessed Trump do nothing to discourage supporters screaming Nazi slogans at his rallies. His long history in the public eye gives no indication he would start any time soon.  

Trump launched his political career by spreading fear that America’s first black president is not a U.S. citizen. Back in the late 1980s, he injected himself into the notorious case of the Central Park Five, wherein a group of black teens were pressured under duress by investigators to confess to raping and beating a female jogger nearly to death. Trump took out a full-page ad in the Times, calling for New York State to reinstate the death penalty because “THEIR CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!” In 2001, a lone man confessed to the crime and DNA testing proved the likelihood of his guilt to be 6 billion to one. As recently as last month, Trump insisted the Five were still guilty.

Trump has been accused by over a dozen women of sexual harassment and/or assault, and a leaked tape recording caught him bragging about forcing himself on women. Sexual violence prevention groups know that most sexual predators are serial offenders, and therefore the more people accuse someone, the more likely it is that he is guilty. It may be important to acknowledge that in the United States one is innocent until proven guilty. But the Central Park Five know that if you’re a black man in Donald Trump’s world, you may be declared guilty even after you’re proven innocent. Trump throwing a black supporter out of his rally upon assuming he was a “thug” has done nothing to ease worries about the way he likes to govern.

Many Trump voters have been joined by those who didn’t vote at all in calling for national unity now that the election is over. They take offense at any assumption that their political choice was based in such bigotry. The best response to this has come in a post by Michael Rex that’s gone viral:

I believe you when you say you didn’t vote for any of these things. Most of America wasn’t thrilled with the choices we had in this election. But… If you’re tired of being called a bigot, then you need to use the same voice you used on Tuesday and speak out against these things fully and clearly. It’s not enough that you didn’t say them yourself. You need to reassure your friends and family members who feel like they no longer have a seat at the table that you still stand with them, even if your priorities were different on Tuesday. If you aren’t willing to do that, then you have no right to call for unity.

Mark Joseph Stern writes this week at Slate, “I Am A Gay Jew in Trump’s America. And I Fear for My Life.” And rightly so. Not only are hate crimes on the rise in the U.S., but nationalist movements that blame immigrants, minorities and gender equality for their problems are gaining power here and in the U.K., Australia, France, Sweden, Germany and in Eastern Europe. In the countries where democracy is younger than I am, voters are reverting to authoritarians with little interest in the processes and institutions that protect human rights. Non-whites, religious minorities, women, LGBT citizens and those of us with disabilities know that the concept of universal human rights is younger than many people they know. A few wrong turns and authoritarians could turn all the progress of the past 50 years into a mere moment in human history when the law offered to protect us against violence, harassment, medical abuse, and other existential threats.

Trump hasn’t had a chance to change any laws yet, and the Alternative for Germany is only polling at 20%. But hate groups around the world have been feeling empowered for a while now. Neo-Nazis, Klansmen and any other people willing to beat someone up for the way they were born commit their crimes when they think they can get away with it – when there is a high number of people who aren’t violent but still share their views, combined with a high number of people who don’t care either way about human rights discussions.

A pregnant, non-white German woman was recently punched at a train station near a friend’s house for being a “lousy refugee.” An acquaintance in a wheelchair was told by a stranger on the street, “We should gas your kind.” Perpetrators are less likely to do any of this if they fear not just legal consequences but their friends and families shaming them for such despicable behavior. Which is why it is on all of us to support the watchdog organizations that aim to expose and combat hate crimes, to speak up for those who are being told that their place in the new world order is at the bottom, and to convince the people who don’t care about any of this that they absolutely must summon the bravery to.
 

  

U.S. Election Night 2016

6 Nov

 

This Tuesday night I’ll be featured live in English on Deutsche Welle’s U.S. Election Night Special, commenting on the results and what they mean to me as a U.S. citizen living in Berlin. I’ll be giving interviews between 6 pm and midnight EST (0:00 and 6:00 CET).

Deutsche Welle is broadcast internationally throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. You can watch its live stream here.

 

 

What’s the Point of Nationalism?

3 Jul

 
Brexit(Public Domain Image from Freestocks.org)

 

The National Police Chiefs Council reports hate crimes in the United Kingdom have increased fivefold in the days following the vote for Brexit. A Polish waitress was asked by two customers, “Why do you look so happy? You’re going home.” A German woman found dog excrement thrown at the door to her home. Bilingual cards reading, “Leave the EU – No more Polish vermin” were distributed in Cambridgeshire. Some Central Europeans and non-white Britons have been harassed on the street, others have had to evacuate their residences after threats. 

Paul Bagguley, a sociologist at the University of Leeds told The Guardian:

There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism…  People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.

While politicians argue about whether or not such incidents accurately represent the Brexit movement and its anti-immigration platform, no one can deny that belligerent nationalists have felt empowered by Brexit to say what they have been feeling about foreigners for a long time.

It may be nigh impossible to publicly reason with extremists – such as those who fire-bombed a halal butchery and the white supremacist who murdered Jo Cox. But it is essential to engage with anyone in the mainstream who may agree with their politics if not their tactics. So in the wake of all this, not to mention the Fourth of July, it bears asking, what is the point of nationalism? 

British political scientist Benedict Anderson called nationalities “imagined communities” because being American or German or British is all in the mind. No Briton will ever manage to get to know—let alone meet—all of his other 65 million fellow British citizens. In fact, he won’t ever meet a majority of them. But nationalism urges him to feel connected to them, and specifically more connected to all of them, across the country and overseas, than to anyone in Ireland or France, or to any Polish or German or Japanese people who live two doors down from him.

Sociologist Patricia Hogwood argues there are two models of nationalism states can choose from: the Nation of Culture and the Nation of the Constitution. The Nation of Culture, first made popular in the 19th century, determines citizenship by supposedly uniting millions through a common language, religion, arts, sports, holidays, traditions, and appearance. To be German means to speak German, belong to the Lutheran Church, read Goethe and the Grimm fairy tales, love beer and sausages, celebrate Christmas and Oktoberfest, and be tall and blond.    

With an exception made for those who are short with thick dark mustaches. And those who love döner kebab and hate Oktoberfest. (It’s Bavarian after all.) And those who speak Sorbian or Swabian as their first language. Not to mention those millions who are Catholic. Or Muslim. Or Jewish. Indeed, Nazism and the Holocaust was nothing if not a crisis of German identity, an attempt to dictate who was allowed to live in Germany on the basis of culture.

The Nation of Culture is a fallacy because no nation on earth is monocultural. Even bite-sized Luxembourg has three official languages, plus 30% of its residents are immigrants whose first languages is Portuguese, Italian or English. For all the jokes about the superiority of the Queen’s English to the American variant, the British Isles contain 11 living indigenous languages. Not long ago speakers of many of those languages faced the same sort of adversity documented in the past week in Britain against Central Europeans and non-whites. A Nation of Culture encourages the touting of one set of traditions, fashions and physical features while ignoring, or silencing, all others.

In a Nation of the Constitution, membership is defined by one’s adherence to the laws and rights guaranteed by a government’s founding documents. Which is what the European Union aims to be: an unabashedly diverse union of states united by a commitment to democracy and the European peace project. (Access to the European single market, the world’s largest, is ideally the reward, not the goal.) Member states must ensure the rule of law, freedom of the press, free trade union organizations, no capital punishment, equal protection of all minorities, and for all citizens the guarantee of freedom of personal opinion, the right to a secret ballot in free and fair elections at every governing level, and the rights listed in the European Convention on Human Rights. 

While many of these rights have long been preserved in Great Britain, they are less than 50 years old in Spain, Portugal, Greece, and the former Soviet Bloc countries. (And, contrary to common knowledge, the E.U. has expanded rights for women in the U.K. as well.) Turkey and Albania are both candidates for E.U. membership. A cultural model of membership might block their applications on the basis of their Muslim populations, while a constitutional model of membership instead demands improvement on their human rights records.

The E.U. has plenty of work to do in improving its implementation of human rights protections and anti-corruption laws, as in cases like Greece. But it is unwavering in its demands that members must openly recognize and celebrate their cultural diversity without clashing over it, in the same way New Yorkers can make fun of Californians for being loopy, passive-aggressive, granola-crunching, up-talking airheads and Californians can make fun of New Yorkers for being tactless, aggressive-aggressive, materialistic, shouting hotheads without going to war over it. Indeed, the most enthusiastic supporters of the E.U. often speak of its members some day becoming as open and close-knit as the fifty States across the Atlantic.

Generation Euro is, as one New York Times journalist put it, one that thinks nothing of “growing up in one country, studying in another, and living in a third.” When such intermingling does not outright prevent someone’s xenophobia, it forces them to confront it head-on. As reported in 2014, one million children have been born since 1987 as a result of the European study abroad program – that is, these children were born to parents who met because one of them was taking part in the program. This leads to multilingual families with multicultural social circles who bring diverse perspectives to the table when politics and the solutions for the world’s problems come under discussion. 

It may sound idealistic if not saccharine, but a mere glance at the last 1,500 years on the continent—battle after bloody battle of Protestants vs. Catholics, capitalists vs. communists, fascists vs. democrats, Belfast vs. Belfast, Nazis vs. everyone—should forever be a reminder that the European peace project can never be taken for granted. It’s a project that makes a lot more sense than any model of cultural nationalism.

 

 

Can Hobbits Be Human?

12 Jun

homo_floresiensis(Image by Ryan Somma used under CC 2.0 via)
 
Homo floresiensis or “Florian Man” is an extinct species of hominin, named after the Indonesian isle of Flores on which remains have been found. Its precise evolutionary origin and relation to humans remains an issue of ongoing debate, most recently continued in this week’s issue of Nature. Reports in the mainstream media refer to Homo floresiensis not only as “little humans” but as “Hobbits,” on account of their characteristic short stature.

Wikipedia attributes this nickname to the ubiquity of Tolkien fans in the scientific community, while the Tolkien estate has sued scientists for using the name in lectures and documentaries on the grounds of copyright infringement. Despite court rulings, the pop science media as well as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History continue to refer to Homo floresiensis as Hobbits.

There are plenty of cases of scientists tending toward the glib rather than the professional when it comes to naming. The famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis was dubbed “Lucy” after the Beatles song that was playing on the archaeologists’ radio as the remains were discovered. But Homo floresiensis qualifies as having dwarfism according to scientific, medical and social definitions. Dwarfism can be identified in humans, animals, and plants, but referring to them as “Hobbits” implies an Otherness that is non-human. Does this work as long as they remain mere relatives of humans, and not fully human?

Plenty will protest that “dwarfism” itself also has its origins in mythology. Which is why there are those who seek to dissociate all human medical conditions from fantasy jargon. The German Federal Association for People of Short Stature never uses “dwarf” (“Zwerg”) to avoid connotations brought on by fairy tales. The Intersex Society of North America rejects the ancient Greek term “hermaphrodite” because it spreads scientific misinformation and attracts fetishists.

Yet others embrace these terms in an effort to confront the confusion brought on by the mythological terms head-on. It is a means of declaring: We are the freaks you read and write about. Why are you so interested in making up stories about us? Are you willing to listen to our real-life stories? Humans with dwarfism have been around a lot longer than any of our known myths and legends, regardless of how we define Homo floresiensis.

Many have rightfully argued that when it comes to grouping people, labels often cause more trouble than they’re worth. But others also correctly argue that the words we use to talk about something or someone demonstrably shape the way we think about them. And the desire to study Homo floresiensis and all humanoids is rooted in a desire to understand ourselves and our place in the world.

 

 

On Using the “I Have A Friend/Sister/Coworker Who Is A…” Argument

29 May

light parade EXPLORED! (Image by Ashley Norquist used under CC 2.0 via)
 
It was one of those conversations where you bare all because you feel you have nothing to lose. A recent, unexpected statement about my dwarfism voiced to me by someone in a position of power had brought me to tears.  Three decades of being insulted both directly and behind my back by people I know, and indirectly by many of my heroes—from John Lennon to Stephen Colbert—had left me thinking that I had heard it all and was above it all. But this had left me shaken. My friend Dee, who does not have dwarfism, cracked open two beers and examined with me the best way to deal with the insidiousness of certain prejudices.

Those of us with achondroplastic dwarfism are roughly 1 in every 40,000 people, but Dee himself has heard demeaning comments about dwarfs with far greater frequency. When confronting such remarks, he argued:

I wouldn’t use the “I have a friend who is a dwarf” argument. Because it would sound like I only care about the issue because I have a friend who could be hurt by it. It doesn’t convince other people because it doesn’t force them to examine why the idea is cruel. It just makes them think, “Well, I’ll be sure not to say that around him anymore because he’s touchy about it because of his friend…” Instead I play dumb. I keep asking them, “Why? I don’t get what you’re saying.” And they can never explain why.

I had never considered this before. Many people use the “I have a friend who is…” argument in the hopes that this might illustrate to the ignorant that such people are everywhere – that they are our friends and siblings and partners, not just oddities we get to abstractly pick apart in headlines and on TV. Yet that’s not what others hear.

And members of a given group often do not appreciate exaggerated claims of expertise on the issue via association. Madonna and Bill de Blasio, both white parents of non-white people, have been lambasted in the past year for publicly cracking black jokes that fell flat. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates explained it best when she wrote:

Even though you’re dearly loved by and even related to black people, you aren’t black. You are NBA — Negro By Association — and that gives you props for knowing the culture and lots of little intracultural folkways. But it doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail card for using phrases like C.P. Time. Especially in mixed company, in public.

The Kinfolk Kollective has argued that white parents of adopted black children must always be ready and willing to understand a perspective they simply do not have and to stand corrected when necessary. When such a willingness is absent, the issue is not at all about opening minds but the desire for insider expertise.

And “I’ve dated someone who is…” is not a solid argument—neither in defending the minority in question nor one’s own character—because simply having dated someone is no guarantee of true understanding. Not only are exes the last kind of people we tend to regard fairly, but so many people of minority status must face the risk that their date sees them as little more than a fetish – as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!” 

And yet, in order stop rampant prejudice in its tracks, these issues must be talked about by those who are not experts. Journalists and writers like myself speak on behalf of all sorts of groups without belonging to them. The results are, of course, mixed.  

In the film, Stories We Tell, producer Harry Gulkin argues that the truth about any issue cannot be found by giving equal weight to the perspectives of everyone involved in any way. There are, he argues, three circles of knowledge: The first, innermost circle comprises the people who are the players involved in the issue, the second comprises those who are directly affected by the players and their actions, and the third comprises those who tangentially know about it because they have heard accounts from those in the first or second circle. This theory applies easily to the experience of someone considered Different by their society and the other lives affected by the attention society affords it. Using the example of disability:

First Circle: The person who is disabled

Second Circle: Their parents, siblings, partners, closest friends (who are not disabled)

Third Circle: Relatives, friends, coworkers (who are not disabled)

The people in the Third Circle are most at risk for spreading misinformation, regardless of intention. It is noble, for example, to fight the good fight in the bathroom debate because you know someone trans whom you really like. But it doesn’t mean you won’t misinterpret their thoughts and feelings, or give in to temptation and reduce some of their story to gossip.

The people in the Second Circle, as Madonna proved, are also at risk for such blunders. And too many partners, close friends and immediate family members err by letting their darkest fears and most selfish impulses lead them to say or do something terrible to the person in the First Circle. But on the flipside, much of the best work in minority rights has been produced by partners and parents of frequently marginalized people. And the experiences of the caregiver and their place in society is another kind of knowledge altogether.

Returning to Dee’s approach, the goal should not be about personal relationships and expertise, but about the most effective way to open minds and halt the spread of misinformation. 

Meanwhile, the More-Enlightened-Than-Thou game should be restricted to the smallest of circles. This was perhaps best elucidated to me by my friend Bill. Shortly after having come out, he mused to me, “I’ve decided you’re more open-minded than I am.” 

“Why?” I asked.

“Because you have lots of friends who are gay.  I only have one friend who’s a dwarf.” He took a sip of his Coke and smiled out of the corner of his eye. “And I’m thinking of dropping her.”

 

 

Muttertag

8 May

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

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 are not mothers but have raised a child as well as any mother could,

In gratitude and with the deepest respect.

 

 

How Much Should A Candidate’s Minority Status Matter?

21 Feb

White House(Image by Tom Lohdan used under CC 2.0 via)

 

With the presidential primaries well underway in the United States, voters are faced with the possibility of making history by choosing either the first female president, the first Jewish president, or the first Latino president. As in 2008, when Democrats were split between Clinton and Obama, the political sphere is deluged with arguments over how much minority status should and will influence the results.

As an American woman, I’ve been called upon by former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and feminist giant Gloria Steinem to join my sisters in solidarity for Clinton. It is intriguing to observe this living as a woman in Germany, where Angela Merkel has been chancellor for over 10 years. Her policies aside, I consider her greatest success as a female politician to be the way in which so little attention is afforded her lifestyle and femininity. Few people know what her husband looks like because he shies away from politics. That she has never had children of her own is rarely mentioned let alone a headline. And she has had to endure hardly any national discussions of her fashion sense. (Indeed, it took the media 18 years to notice that she’s worn the same dress at gala events for nearly two decades.) It seems crucial to appreciate such an absence of time-wasting sexism when considering the way in which Julia Gillard had to face down accusations of her partner being gay, the way in which Margaret Thatcher had to pose with pots and pans to prove her housewife credentials, and the way in which Hillary Clinton has had to field questions about her last name, her scrunchies, and her sex life.

So what will it mean if the next U.S. president is a woman, Jewish or Latino? Seeing a member of any long-oppressed minority rise to power can be very moving. Only the fiercest of cynics could not find it heartening to see the United States seriously consider a female president nearly 100 years after so many fought to crush women’s suffrage. The same goes for seeing Sanders’ brother Larry tear up when he wishes that their parents—Jewish immigrants who lost relatives in the Holocaust—were around to see Bernie get this far. “They would be so proud,” he smiles.

When Barack Obama was elected, I could not suppress the lump in my throat upon seeing Virginia and North Carolina—two states that had banned families like the one he came from—swing in his favor. It was exhilarating to consider anyone who had fought to block the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act now having to take orders from a black commander-in-chief.

Similar smiles were exchanged here in Germany in 2009 when the government was run by a female chancellor, a disabled finance minister, an Asian technology minister, and an openly gay foreign minister. Of the latter a friend grinned, “I like the idea of the heads of state in Saudi Arabia and Russia having to shake his hand.”

Representation can have deep repercussions on a subconscious level. The phrase “You can be anything you want to be!” so often secretly strikes traditionally oppressed minorities as absurd, silently countered with a sigh of I’ll believe it when I see it. Representation offers proof of possibility.

And yet, as Barack Obama’s presidency has shown, one single person’s ascent to the most powerful position in the land is no guarantee of equality for all. Black Americans shot by police continue to be twice as likely to be unarmed than white Americans shot by police. The Southern Povery Law Center reports the number of hate groups in 2015 had risen from the previous year. The 114th Congress is the most racially diverse in U.S. history, albeit men and whites remain over-represented. And of course racist backlash to the very idea of our first black president is all but a Google search away.

This is perhaps unsurprising when a closer look at Obama’s electoral victories show that in both 2008 and 2012, the majority of white men did not support him. Opposition to Obama is of course not always racially motivated, but the numbers do not show as many segregationist minds being changed as all the fanfare about a post-racial America seemed to indicate.

Similarly, the Bundestag under Angela Merkel’s current government remains two-thirds male. The U.K.’s parliament is roughly the same, nearly four decades after Thatcher broke the glass ceiling. Benjamin Disraeli’s legacy as the U.K.’s first Jewish prime minister did not prevent the country from turning away Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. There is thus little reason to conclude that simply electing a female, Jewish, or Latino president will signify a permanent absence of sexism or racism among the people.

But what could signify true and lasting change? Proportional representation has been shown to be a far better indicator of equal opportunity for all than the odd representation by a particularly powerful politician. Sweden has not yet elected a female head of government, but just under half of the representatives in the Riksdag are female. This percentage has been generally maintained for the past 10 years. It is the result of a continuous push from the Swedish women’s movement in the second half of the last century, which brought the proportion to 20% in 1972, 30% in 1990, and on up to the current near-parity. The U.S. Congress has the same proportion of female members now as the Riksdag did in 1972, ranking it 75th in the world.

This is why Steinem has been urging American women to help each other out in every election since the women’s movement, not just this one. Solidarity is certainly one of the best paths toward justice. But her eight-year history of accusing all of Clinton’s opponents of opposing the idea of a female president is unfair and as simplistic as sexism itself.

After all, voting for a candidate only for the sake of having a female head of government immediately supports not only the candidacies of Clinton and Merkel and Thatcher, but also of Sarah Palin and Marine Le Pen. Barack Obama and Ben Carson could not be more different, nor could Bernie Sanders and his former fellow senator Joe Lieberman. Policies should always—er—trump identity in the voting booth.

But while it is unreasonable to vote for a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority, it is also unreasonable to vote against a candidate only because he or she belongs to a certain minority. This is why the discussions of identity and institutionalized xenophobia surrounding this election are as valid as they are necessary.

 

 

Can We Understand Race In Terms of Medicine?

14 Feb

Take off your fucking mask(Image by Taylor Dave used under CC license 2.0 via)
 
Leaving you this Valentine’s Day with the urging to go read an excellent discussion at NPR titled “Is It Time to Stop Using Race in Medical Research?

Then go read Alva Noë’s essay, “Can You Tell Your Ethnic Identity from Your DNA?” He writes:

…even if, in the ideal case, we find meaningful clusters of similarity in the space of genetic variation, there is no reason to think that these will map onto ethnicity or other categories in terms of which we understand our own identity. Identity, after all, varies non-continuously. French and German villages may be separated by the smallest of geographic distances. Genetic variation, on the contrary, so far as we now know, varies continuously. DNA is just not going to carve up groups at their culturally significant “ethnic” joints.

This interests me personally because any sort of categorizing of humans ends up being far more complicated than our everyday discourse would have us believe. Race, gender, and disability are so often thought to be concretely definable through bodily indicators, yet our categories for these identities—black/white/Asian, male/female, healthy/disabled—often fail fantastically to represent a good portion of humanity. As I’ve shown before, dwarfism itself is a social construct. All identities are to some extent.

 

 

The Best Picture Books for Preventing Prejudice

13 Dec

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

From the Archives, one of the blogs most popular articles:

 

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking Big by Susan Kuklin – This book is out of print, but well worth the search, portraying a day in the life of an 8-year-old girl with achondroplastic dwarfism. She is great at painting, but needs stools to reach things at home and school. She has friends who hold her hand so she won’t get left behind on hikes, but she talks openly about the kindergartners who call her “baby.” She loves going to Little People of America meetings, but she loves being at home with her mom, dad and younger brother best of all. This book accompanied me from pre-school to 5th grade, read aloud by my new teacher to the class at the beginning of the school year in order to explain why I looked different from the others and to encourage my classmates to be upfront with their questions.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

***

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

***

The Best Book on Diversity To Date…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

 

No One’s Magical Object: Albinos, Dwarfs and Any Body You Can Think Of

6 Dec

Turning Green on Anatomy(Image by Wolfram Burner used under CC 2.0 via)

 

In his otherwise spectacular book, Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon issues a false point I myself have issued in the past: that we dwarfs are the only minority on earth to be associated with magic and mythology. Perhaps it is easy to forget that blind people have been associated in the past with “seeing” into the future and disabled children of all sorts were believed to be cursed by if not the very spawn of the devil in the Medieval and Early Modern cultures of Europe. But we should not forget any of this when considering the current scandal surrounding the abuse of albino people in Tanzania.

A BBC investigation in 2008 revealed that some adherents of supernatural belief systems in East Africa today advocate severing and stealing the limbs of albino people to keep as good luck charms. A harrowing documentary, The Boy from Geita, airing this week profiles the victims of such a crime.

Tuvalo Manongi, the U.N. ambassador to Tanzania is fighting back, arguing that the film’s trailer unfairly portrays his country as a land of bloodthirsty heathens in need of Great White Western enlightenment. The documentary does accuse members of Tanzania’s legislature of secretly condoning the practice, implicating some of its members in the sales of the body parts. The Canadian director, Peter Ash, stands by his story and says Manongi isn’t one to talk: “[Manongi] probably doesn’t hang around people with albinism for 12 hours a day and weeks on end in [Tanzania] like I do.”  Ash himself has albinism.

Post-colonial social justice activists generally agree that the best way to expand human rights in other countries is to support the activists in said country, no matter how few their numbers. Ultimately such locals should lead the charge lest foreign aid organizations indeed act out of ignorance of the local history and culture. Tanzania Albino Centre and the Tanzania Albinism Society are two organizations dedicated to combating the problem.

As an outsider, I have little else to offer other than the demand that we as humans let go of any beliefs—supernatural or otherwise—that fetishize extraordinary bodies. I’ve been asked by Western Wiccans and Lord of the Rings fanatics if I as a dwarf feel a connection to my “magical” history. People with dwarfism, intersexing conditions, and many, many other rare diagnoses regularly have to endure and/or stave off fetishists when dating (as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!”) or simply going about their everyday lives.

The ability to see beauty and interpret art in the rainbow of human bodily diversity is one of the greatest feats of the human imagination. But objectification is never okay without consent. And openly voicing our fetishes regarding certain bodies drowns out the voices of those who have no choice about owning those bodies. We’ve got a lot of work to do before this becomes universally understood.