Tag Archives: Classism

“Power for Good”

28 Jul

tumblr_mqm3ypKbXg1qz5q5lo1_500(Via)

 

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

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

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

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

As my friend Sarah Winawer-Wetzel recently said:

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

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

 

 

Advertisements

The Year In Review

30 Dec

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

 

When I launched Painting On Scars at the beginning of this year, I had loads to say and almost as much worry that few would be interested in issues of disability and physical difference.  As the year comes to a close, I look back and see that the posts about ableism and lookism have generally been the most popular, followed by my spring article about family planning, reproductive rights, and privacy.  This hasn’t been the only surprise.

Lots of people find this blog by googling “dwarf + woman + sex.”  I have no idea who these people are.  They may be fetishists, they may be researchers, they may be women with dwarfism.  Your guess is as good as mine.

Since March, Painting On Scars has been read in over 100 countries.  To the surprise of few, no one in China reads it.  To the surprise of many, at least one person in Saudi Arabia does.  So have people in St. Lucia, Jordan, and Benin. 

Thanks to blogging, I’ve discovered there is a considerable online community committed to combating ableism with its own terms and tropes such as “supercrip” and “inspiration porn.”  I love such communities.  I also love bridging communities.  Because responses to my blog have shown me, perhaps more than anything has, that I want to talk to everyone.  And I really don’t care what your label is. 

I don’t care if you consider yourself Republican or Democrat or feminist or anti-feminist or religious or atheist or socialist or libertarian or apolitical or intellectual or anti-intellectual.  Well, okay, I do take it into consideration.  Somewhat.  But there is rarely consensus when we ask that everyone define these terms.  And none of them carries a guarantee against nasty personality traits like narcissism and defensiveness and aggression and cowardice.  Novelist Zadie Smith noted that we are told every day by the media and our culture that our political differences are the most important differences between us, but she will never be convinced of that.  When lefty comedian Jon Stewart was asked earlier this year if there’s anything he admires about right-wing hardliner Bill O’Reilly, he said, “This idea that disagreeing with somebody vehemently, even to the core of your principles, means you should not engage with them?  I have people in my own family that make this guy look like Castro and I love them.”

This is not to say that it’s all relative and I see no point to social justice or politics.  On the contrary, difference continues to be marginalized by the tyranny of the majority, as evidenced by the fact that the number one Google search term that has brought readers to my blog is “freaky people.”  And far too many kind people will more readily lash out at a person or group whose recognition demands they leave their comfort zone, rather than the forces that constructed and defined their comfort zone.  Well-intentioned friends and parents and bosses and classmates and leaders and partners and siblings and colleagues are capable of the vilest selfishness when they are scared of a power shift.  (As the Christian activists pictured above acknowledge.)  This is heart-breaking.  And it is not okay. 

But on the flipside, people are constantly smashing the prejudices I didn’t even know I had about them.  Every day friends and family and strangers demonstrate strengths that highlight all the mistakes I make, proving to me that politics are tremendously important but they will never be the most important element of a human being.   That may be a political idea in itself, but regardless of the divisions, most people on earth do seem to believe deep down inside that everybody matters.

And that’s what makes the struggle for social justice worth it.  If you are friendly and well-mannered and generous and honor your commitments and don’t let your self-doubt make you self-centered and try to listen as much as you talk and are honest about your problems without fishing for compliments and are big enough to apologize when you’ve screwed up, I respect you and admire you and am humbled by you.  I want to do the best I can because of you. 

 And since you’ve read this far, it’s more than likely you’re good at listening.  Thank you and happy new year!

 

 

Berlin Loves You

8 Jul

Ponys für alle(Image ©Folke Lehr)

 

The very first time I entered Berlin, on a backpacking trip across Europe, I remember thinking that it was fairly ugly compared to Paris and the idyllic villages of Bavaria.  But seeing the remains of the Wall at The East Side Gallery and the Memorial Church left from World War II blew my mind.  By the time I finished studying here, I was deeply in love.  Soon I will have lived here longer than any other place.  My partner calls it “the only livable German city.”  Even though I am still very much American, Berlin is home to me in every sense of the word. 

And seeing as I kvetch so much about the cultural and social problems of our day, I want to take a breath and gush about a place I adore.  (I’m quite sure my head will explode if I see myself write the word “society” one more time without a break.)  So what’s the big deal about Berlin?

For one thing, it’s a city, and having grown up at first in the suburbs of Long Island and then rural Upstate New York, I’ve found I’m happiest in the urban setting.  Yes, people are less friendly and there’s more pollution.  But there’s also little room for gossip or judgment or homogeneity.  You can wear anything you like and no one cares, or you accidentally start a new trend.  Nothing is done only for tradition’s sake.  So much is done for art’s sake.  You can get anywhere you need to go, including out of the country, without a car.  And while it’s no social utopia, anyone who’s visibly different gets stared at less in the cities than anywhere else.

But Berlin also has lots to offer that New York and Paris and London and Hamburg and Munich do not, because, in the words of our mayor, it’s “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy):

Decent Housing.  While gentrification is naturally creeping into many of my favorite neighborhoods sections, Berlin still offers cool places at a fair price.  Students and recent graduates are not economically exiled to ludicrously dirty or dangerous or diminutive areas.  The less expensive districts have beautiful parks.  Social workers can afford three-bedroom turn-of-the-century apartments with stucco lining the walls and balconies with French doors.  Housing developers are also restricted to buying up only a few houses in a single block to prevent aesthetic monotony.  I believe a society that doesn’t remind you every day of how little you earn by refusing you security, cleanliness or beauty is a free society.  (The S word!  Oops!)

Hip without the Hipsters.  In the words of Gary Shteyngart, “Whether German or foreign, these young people genuinely care about the communities they have forged out of the rubble of the 20th century’s most problematic metropolis… It’s still okay to be excited by things in Berlin.”  Take that, Williamsburg.

Das Kiezgefühl.  It’s a city five times the area of Paris, yet every neighborhood has its own cozy feel to it.  We know our postman by name.  Our favorite bookstore owner lent us his bikes while we were on vacation in his home country.  My partner buys groceries for the little old lady who lives above us.  On Christmas Eve this year, I said hello to seven familiar faces in the 10 minutes it took to walk home from the U-Bahn station.  In between I hummed, “Can you tell me how to get?” 

Good Parenting in Public.  Unlike in the U.S. and other nations I’ve inhabited, it’s extremely rare to ever see a German parent screaming at their child.  It’s also your responsibility to call the police if they so much as slap them, which I’ve never once witnessed.  With the introduction of paid paternity leave, many Berlin dads have jumped at the chance to take time off to actually get to know their children, pushing baby carriages with all the finesse of an expert.   

No Urban Sprawl.  Along with containing huge forests, nearly 70 lakes and more canals than Venice, Berlin ends at the countryside of Brandenburg.  The budget of communism and the physical imposition of the Wall made the city stop rather abruptly, and the environment can be grateful for it.

You Can Walk Around Freely At Two in the Morning.  Despite having the highest crime rate in Germany, Berlin is very laidback compared to most major cities.  I also love it that local crime is rarely a topic of conversation among Berliners, unlike in the U.S.

Döner Kebab.  And kettwurst and currywurst and Bionade (organic soda).  And flammkuchen and excellent schnitzel.  Furthermore, German breakfasts—a wide selection of good bread and soft pretzels with salami or liverwurst or mettwurst or teewurst or jam or cheese or honey or Nutella—cannot be beat.  Yeah, and beer.  And in the words of a recent English guest, “It’s dirt cheap!” 

Streetcars!  And no turnstiles, meaning no hassles with over-sized luggage or broken card readers or premature goodbyes.  And the S-Bahn seats are heated in winter.  And it’s one of the few cities whose airports are directly linked onto the public transportation system, so there are no exorbitant shuttle fees obstructing your way to the city center.

The Scars of Recent History.  The Berlin Wall once stood at the west end of my street.  On the east end, Soviet and Nazi bullet holes line the columns of the local school.  Street markers signify houses where Jewish families were arrested.  The city’s biggest mountain, Teufelsberg (“Devil’s Mountain”), is made out of rubble.  Undetonated bombs are still discovered regularly throughout the year.  The local tabloid newspaper screams hysterically when the Homosexual Memorial is vandalized.  Berlin knows what happened here, and it wants you to know, too.    

Anything Still Goes.  Every year, the districts of Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg rebel against their joint bureaucratic status by having a food fight on the Oberbaum Bridge.  It’s known far and wide as the “Gemüseschlacht” (Battle of the Vegetables).  Need I say more?

 

 

Don’t Think They’ll Miss It

25 Feb

Rings (Image by Margot Trudell used under CC license via)

 

The French government has done away with “Mademoiselle,” the term of address for unmarried women, becoming the second country I know of to have officially done so.  The other country is my current residence, Germany, though most foreigners are unaware that “Fräulein” was tossed out in 1972 and sounds quite sexist today.  I have explained to my husband that many Americans use it because most of their knowledge of German comes from The Sound of Music, but he says any use by an American immediately evokes the image of U.S. Army soldiers cat-calling, “Hey, Fräulein…”  Every woman in Germany is addressed as “Frau” (literally, “woman”) and now every woman in France is “Madame” (“my lady”).  No more attention is given to their marital status than is given to the men’s.  It’s simple and I like it, especially in contrast to the Anglophone attempts at a solution, which have been anything but simple.

In English, the non-sexist term is the neologism “Ms.”  It’s pronounced “mizz,” possibly in a subconscious attempt to be as unphonetic in its spelling as “Mrs.”  Neologisms can be tremendously helpful because they can be devoid of connotation.  Take, for example, the word “cis.”  It has been invented for the purposes of referring to anyone who is not transsexual.  It avoids any insinuations of “normal” or “natural,” an all-too-frequent problem when discussing biological traits that deviate from the average and those that don’t. 

But neologisms are not always free of connotation.  I have met numerous women who buck the term “Ms.” based on its association with the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, while others embrace it based on the same association, and so all three terms continue to be used.  In order to avoid offense in Anglophone culture, it is necessary to know both the woman’s marital status and her political leanings.  Non-native speakers of English frequently find themselves tongue-tied and brain-cramped trying to differentiate between “Ms.” and “Miss.”  (“Which one’s sexist again?  And how do you pronounce it?”)  Swedes find this particularly silly, having done away with honorific titles altogether in a refusal to draw any attention to marital status, gender, age, or class.  

Growing up with a mother who did not take my father’s surname, I argued that “Ms. Sullivan” was the only appropriate title for her because “Miss Sullivan” would imply she wasn’t married and “Mrs. Sullivan” would imply it was my father’s name.  But is the latter really true?  Every day I have lived in Germany, both before and after my wedding, I have been addressed as “Frau Sanford.”  If, before my marriage, anyone were ever to call me “Fräulein Sanford,” it would sound as ridiculous as calling my husband “Master Lehr.”  Treating women and men equally is often not just the fairest way of doing things, but the easiest.

 

 

Working with the F Word

12 Feb

audre lorde rough paper background by Starving ArtistIf you’ve explored this blog, you’ve heard me toss around that lovely word “feminism.”  And I bet a few of you cringed, rolled your eyes or ignored it: “Feminism is the idea that men and women are equal.  We get it.”

Traditional gender roles inflict thousands of double-standards on women and men, and I’ll discuss them in greater detail soon.  But feminism is so much more than that.  Despite the “fem” in feminism, women’s rights are neither the limit nor the core of equality.  As Gloria Steinem recently said, it’s about challenging hierarchies.  It’s about saying, “You’re not the boss of me!”  There is no other word for opposing all hierarchies based on characteristics about which we have no choice: our ethnicity, our sexuality, our race, our gender identity, our class background, our physical traits and capabilities, our mental capacities.  There should be.

Because chauvinism is the common enemy.  Feminism started off aiming to liberate women.  And that includes poor women.  And women of every possible ethnic background.  And in every country.  And women with physical differences and disabilities.  And women with mental disabilities and psychiatric disorders.  And women who are attracted to women.  And women who are attracted to both genders.  And women who transition into their sex.  And those who transition into another.  And those whose biology or sense of self does not correlate to either male or female.  And those who are men.  As a woman with achondroplasia, how could I ignore anyone who is screwed over for the way the way they were born?  As a woman with achondroplasia who chose to undergo controversial limb-lengthening procedures, how could I condemn anyone forced to make deeply personal decisions directly linked to their identity?  And the questions logically expands to: How could anyone?

Do “human rights” or “egalitarianism” adequately imply opposition to any manifestation of chauvinism?  Labels are so problematic.  Internet and library searches for “egalitarianism” usually produce discussions of class and poverty, while “human rights” tends toward macrocosmic, international issues of war, poverty and suffrage.  In effect, these terms can be narrower or broader than feminism.  Yet there are advantages to redefining a well-known term like feminism rather than trying to invent and disperse a new one.  When self-proclaimed feminist Amanda Palmer defended a project objectifying conjoined twins, Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown gave her the lecture of a lifetime that sums it up better than I’ve ever heard:

… this “feminism” thing: it’s not for some people, it’s not for you specifically, it’s not a fun little badge you get to slap onto your actions when it suits you. It is a system of carefully worked-out thoughts, which has been developed for many, many years by many thousands of people, and one of the most unavoidable parts of this system, which we can’t get away from if we are thinking for even a second with any ounce of intellectual rigor or honesty, is that everybody matters. Everybody matters precisely as much as you do. Which is why you don’t get to use them as a means of gratifying yourself with attention when the attention is good, or deny them the right to be heard or respected when the attention is bad.

Feminist history is stained with instances of female chauvinism, racism, ethnocentrism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism, and continues to be by the likes of many.  And we’ve got to keep calling that out with the same vigilance we accord any issue.  As the xenophobic view claims that multiculturalism and universal human rights are inefficient and the only battle worth fighting is your own, a non-violent society only functions when based on the concept of reciprocity.  Despite the structures in place that assume otherwise, everybody’s health, job, relationships, sex life, family, and happiness matter exactly as much as yours do.

That’s what the F word means to my husband, my mom and my dad, my sister-in-law, my closest friends, my favorite teachers, and me.  And if that still makes you cringe, if you still find the label too problematic, leave me a well-thought out argument in the comments.