Tag Archives: Diversity

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 white British 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?

 

 

The Bathroom Debate and the Pursuit of Personal Comfort

5 Jun

gender_neutral_toilets_gu(Public domain image via)

 

Cisgender people have been sharing bathrooms with transgender people throughout history, whether they have been aware of it or not. So when conservative groups across the United States mobilized this spring to draft bathroom bills, demanding all citizens use public facilities “according to the sex on their birth certificates,” most people I know responded with a head shake and a shrug, summed up best by this meme.

Comedian Stephen Colbert declared on his show, “To all those lawmakers out there who are so obsessed with who’s using what bathroom and what plumbing they’ve got downtown? Newsflash: You’re the weirdos.”

Here in Berlin, unisex bathrooms have been on the rise over the past three years in parts of the city and federal buildings. (As seen in the image above.) Some citizens have expressed their outrage to reporters. Most have shrugged.

But in the U.S., the issue has been taken to court. When North Carolina became the first state to pass a bathroom bill in March, the federal government sued the state for non-compliance with anti-discrimination laws, and the Department of Education issued guidelines to schools nationwide for compliance regarding bathrooms and locker rooms. Attorney General (and North Carolina native) Loretta Lynch argued:

This is not the first time that we have seen discriminatory responses to historic moments of progress for our nation. We saw it in the Jim Crow laws that followed the Emancipation Proclamation. We saw it in fierce and widespread resistance to Brown v. Board of Education. And we saw it in the proliferation of state bans on same-sex unions intended to stifle any hope that gay and lesbian Americans might one day be afforded the right to marry. That right, of course, is now recognized as a guarantee embedded in our Constitution, and in the wake of that historic triumph, we have seen bill after bill in state after state taking aim at the LGBT community. Some of these responses reflect a recognizably human fear of the unknown, and a discomfort with the uncertainty of change. But this is not a time to act out of fear…

Let me speak now to the people of the great state, the beautiful state, my state of North Carolina. You’ve been told that this law protects vulnerable populations from harm – but that just is not the case. Instead, what this law does is inflict further indignity on a population that has already suffered far more than its fair share. This law provides no benefit to society – all it does is harm innocent Americans.

Conservative groups have fired back. Eleven states are suing the federal government. Matt Sharp, the lawyer for a faith-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom argued on National Public Radio:

And so we’ve got several families there that the Obama administration came in and forced the District 211 to allow a biological boy into the female’s restrooms. And so these girls are telling stories about how when they’re in their locker room changing for PE, they’re now uncomfortable knowing that a boy can walk in at any time under the school’s new policy. They talk about how one girl in particular does not change out of her gym clothes but rather wears them all day long, wears them after going to gym, after getting them dirty and nasty through PE class and then just puts her clothes on top of it because she’s so nervous about the possibility of having to change and shower and whatnot in front of this boy. And we hear stories like that across the country of these girls speaking out and saying, look, we don’t want this student to be bullied or harassed or anything, but we also want our privacy protected. And we just want to know that when we go into these lockers and shower rooms that we’re not going to be forced to share with someone of the opposite biological sex. That’s all these girls are asking for.

If we want to “protect” women in bathrooms and locker rooms from the presence of people who could be attracted to them, then we have to pretend lesbians do not exist. Or stamp out homosexuality altogether. We’ve tried both. Many times. It didn’t work. And countless people suffered.

If we want to assign people to bathrooms and locker rooms based on “the gender on their birth certificates,” then we have to pretend that intersex people don’t exist. Approximately 1 in every 2,000 people are born with sex characteristics that do not correspond with the traditional Western categories of male or female. Surgeries intended to “normalize” the appearance often cost the patient sensation and function. That few of us ever learn about the prevalence of such bodies in our biology classes at school—let alone anywhere else—is a testament to the Western World’s strong tradition of ignoring the evidence that questions the gender binary.

While conservatives argue on the shaky basis of common sense and personal comfort, our personal comfort is so often inculcated in us by our culture. Multiculturalism can increase conflict, but also open minds on both sides. In 2013, a devout Muslim student sued her school in central Germany over her right to be exempt from co-ed swim class on religious grounds. The court ruled that the right to religious freedom includes the right to adhere to a Muslim principle of modesty by wearing a burqini, but that it does not extend to being exempt from swim class and the knowledge of what boys look like in swimming trunks.

Here in the former East Germany, nudism is widely accepted at the beach. It’s not uncommon to see teens and senior citizens alike strip down for a quick dip in a lake at a park. While West Germans often find that a bit strange, they shrug at the fact that public saunas are unisex across the nation. Visitors from around the world, from Japan to the U.K., famously have a hard time accepting this.

Which is why I do not believe all of America will embrace such liberal values any time soon. And yet, 100 years ago mainstream American men and women alike were aghast at the idea of bare female ankles. And bathing suits looked much more like burqinis than anything the mainstream dons today.

After all, if you want to make a Northern European laugh, just tell them that mermaids in the U.S. are always depicted wearing seashells.

When society’s traditions clash with a person’s reality, one of the two will have to change. The moral question is: Who suffers more in the change? Demanding a trans woman use the men’s bathroom because she has an x and a y chromosome puts her at very real risk for harassment and assault. And any person, cis or trans, who is denied their gender identity is at risk for a wide range of horrific experiences. For society to change, we must learn to accept the unalterable fact of human gender diversity with a willingness to learn about it, so that our descendants may someday look upon it the same way we look upon exposed ankles. History implies we are capable of that.

 

 

On Teaching Kids (and Ourselves) Not To Assume

24 Apr

Televisión escolar(Image by Antonio Jose Fernandez used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I was about to help a 5-year-old remove her tricycle helmet when we were cut off by a man staggering slowly down the street. Unnerved by his sudden presence and unusual gait, she stepped back and did a double-take. She stared at him and then turned to me. “He walks strange.”

I smiled but waited a few more beats until he seemed to be out of earshot. In the meantime, I wondered what to say to her. The adult/cynic in me was responsible for my gut feeling that he must be struggling with drugs or alcohol.

But then I considered how useful gut feelings really are in such situations. Annette Funicello complained of being accused of drunkenness when she was struggling with the early stages of multiple sclerosis. I have had enough questions about my sway back and achondroplastic gait to the point where I can only guess how many people aren’t bothering to ask me and simply making their own silent assumptions.

And while some have claimed gossip can be beneficial, it is so often responsible for misinformation and arrogance – the bedrock of ableism.

“He might be sick,” I said to her. “But we don’t know. He hasn’t told us. Sometimes when you’re sick your legs don’t work right. Do you remember when I had a brace on my leg last year?”

She nodded, and then peered once more down the street at him. “I think it’s ‘cuz he’s old! He has a gray beard and lots of old people have gray beards…”

 “Some do!  Like Santa Claus, right?”

 She nodded.

 “And my dad has a gray beard and lots of people call him Santa Claus!”

 She laughed.

 “But [my husband] has little gray whiskers, too, and he’s not really old yet, is he?”

 “No… ”

 “Does your daddy have little gray whiskers, too?”

 “One or two… ”

 “Yeah. Do they scratch when he gives you a kiss?”

 “Yup!”

Neither she nor I will ever be fully liberated from the temptation to silently classify many of the strangers we encounter throughout our lives. But the idea that we can remind ourselves that we ultimately cannot know for sure, and that such conversations need not be engulfed in tones of complacency or pity is an idea worth considering. 

 

 

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.

 

 

Everyone’s Sexuality. Everyone’s.

31 Jan

(Via)

From the Archives

Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments. Don’t read the comments.

That’s what raced through my mind as I read “The Challenges of Having Sex As A Little Person” at The Atlantic. Of course I read the comments anyway.

And I was only slightly startled to find nothing but solipsistic snickering and overdone puns. The Atlantic doesn’t win any points for ending the article on a pun, either. But praise is due for addressing the topic at all. Based on an extensive interview with Dr. Marylou Naccarato, who has Kniest dysplasia, the article takes a wonderfully sex-positive approach to the experiences of people with dwarfism and the physical obstacles they can face in bed.

As per nearly every feature on dwarfism in the mainstream media, there are some factual errors. For example, one dwarf couple is quoted claiming that people with achondroplasia require “no medication, surgeries, special needs, nothing.” (See here for a list of the many complications we are at risk for.) But Naccarato is doing great work that is revolutionary in light of the fact that Little People of America, and probably most disability advocate organizations, repeatedly shy away from the topic of sexuality.

A simple reason for their silence is that almost all disability organizations comprise just as many parents and relatives of disabled people as disabled people themselves. And who wants to debate the best way to masturbate with Mom or Dad sitting next you? A more sinister reason for the silence is one of the building blocks of modern prejudice against disabled people: that is, the presumption that they are innocent, and therefore asexual. Most positive portrayals of disabled people are cute and cuddly. Is it the only way society can accept us? Refusing to see a minority as anything but asexual is to deny them their full humanity, on par with slut-shaming, prude-shaming, queer bullying, and objectification.

Before I go any further, let me say this: I do not want to talk publicly about what I do in the bedroom and I do not want to know what you do in the bedroom. My firm belief in sex-positive feminism and equality does not mean I think that you are sexy or exciting or impressive. Unless we’re close confidantes or I’ve indicated otherwise, please assume I don’t want any mental images of you and your naughty bits, no matter what they look like.

That said, I fully support anyone’s right to desire any sort of consensual sex imaginable. Without double-standards. Without the pressure of competition. Without the nuisance of others turning their personal preferences into rigid rules.

Take, for example, the way virginity is so frequently turned into not just a game but a high-stakes tournament. When and how did you lose it is an idea all of us are expected to base much of our identity on, even as adults. This is despite the fact that, according to medicine, virginity doesn’t exist. After all, what kind of sex does a guy have to engage in to officially “lose” it? And what about girls born without hymens? When exactly do lesbians lose their virginity?

Like race, virginity is a social construct and, in the words of a very wise person on Tumblr, what can be socially constructed can be socially changed. Last year the great Tracy Clark-Flory interviewed acquaintances about the sexual experience they considered to be their “first time.” The glorious thing about her inclusive project was that it revealed human sexuality to be just as diverse as everything else about us. Some defined their first time by their first orgasm, others by a particular first touch or experience of being touched. The problem with her stretching the definition of “losing your virginity” so broadly is that it robs competitive, insecure people of their ability to set standards with which they can gloat and put others down. Wait, no. That’s another glorious thing about it. There really is no problem with recognizing everyone’s experience as equally valid.

Failing to include everyone not only causes unnecessary humiliation, but it causes us to miss out on opportunities for true enlightenment. To quote the authors of You Can Tell Just By Looking: “Sexual minorities—people whose sexual desires, identities, and practices differ from the norm—do a better job talking about sex, precisely because they are constantly asked to explain and justify their love and their lust to a wider culture and, even, to themselves.” The more you examine harmful traditions, the less necessary they become.

This does not mean that minorities have better sex. Indeed, too many activists in the sexual revolution end up repulsing readers and listeners when they allow pride in their sexuality to devolve into arrogance, insisting their sex life is better than yours, rather than merely different. For a year, the BDSM club at my alma mater ran the slogan: “I do what you’re scared to fantasize about.” Not helpful. And kinda pathetic the more you think about it.

I will never judge someone for liking any particular kind of consensual sex, but I will judge anyone who tries to turn sex into a competition to calm their own self-doubts. Whether you’re a wise-cracking online commenter or a sex-positive pioneer, true sexual liberation is about moving beyond the middle school clique mentality, not indulging in it. It’s pretty much the least attractive thing there is.

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.

 

 

Cultural Appropriation vs. Cultural Exchange

25 Oct

(Via)

From the Archives

 

As Halloween approaches along with all the stomach-turning caricatures of minorities and foreigners, I find myself repeating the same question over and over: When is it okay to wear or adopt something from a culture you don’t belong to?

Obviously, the most offensive appropriations rely on inane stereotypes most people I know would never go near. But this doesn’t mean that globe-trotting, multicultural enthusiasts—like myself—can do no wrong.  Since the 1960s, upper/middle class whites dabbling in other cultures has been celebrated under the banner of “Diversity!”  But from the point of view of certain cultures, Nigerian writer Jarune Uwujaren argues, it’s often just another chapter in the long tradition of Westerners “pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return.”  American Indians do not appreciate headdresses used as fashion statements.  Hindus do not applaud non-Hindus flaunting bindis.  And Mexicans don’t enjoy seeing Day of the Dead re-appropriated as just another Halloween costume. 

Yet the Mexican Día de los Muertos is the result of Catholics adopting what was originally a pre-Columbian tradition.  Modern German children meanwhile have taken to celebrating Halloween, much to their parents’ chagrin.  There isn’t a holiday on earth that hasn’t been adapted from something else, leading atheist comedian Mitch Benn to observe, “If only practicing Christians can celebrate Christmas, then only Vikings can say, ‘Thursday.’ ” 

Indeed, intercultural contact always leads to intercultural mixing. Nowadays brides in China often wear two wedding dresses on their big day: a traditional Chinese red dress and a traditional Western white gown.  When a friend from Chengdu married her German husband in Berlin, she turned this trend on its head, wearing a Western designer dress that was red and then a cheongsam that was white.  Borders move and cultures blend constantly throughout history, often blurring the line between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange.

For this reason, it is important to remember that absorbing the fashions and customs of another culture is not always offensive.  But it is just as important to remember that it is not always open-minded, either.  After all, colonial history is rife with Westerners who filled their homes with foreign gear and lectured others about the noble savage.  Among the most ardent fans of Tibetan Buddhism, American Indian animism, and Norse mythology were the Nazis.  

We all love to show off what we’ve learned and delving into another culture can be enriching. But minorities tend not to like it when an outsider appoints herself an expert and lectures more than she listens.  Or thinks that listening to minorities is a heroic act, rather than common courtesy.  Visiting another country feels special when we’re the first of our friends and family to go, but there is no guarantee we’ll truly be acquainted with the culture.  Thanks to language barriers and the insular nature of expat bubbles and tourist tracks, it is fairly easy to study or even live in another culture for several years without getting to know a single person from that culture.  (Waiters and receptionists don’t count.)  

Whether venturing to the other side of the world or the other side of the tracks, it is always much easier to buy something, taste something, or get a bit of history from a book than to talk to someone from another culture.  Because books and merchandise can’t talk back.  They won’t call us out if we make false assumptions.  If we do actually strike up a conversation with someone from another ethnic group, whether Liverpudlian or Laotian, the temptation to flaunt the experience like a feat of greatness can be overwhelming. Jarune Uwujaren wrote about this pervasive temptation last month:

I remember that at my sister’s wedding, the groom – who happened to be white – changed midway through the ceremony along with my sister into modern, but fairly traditional, Nigerian clothes.

Even though some family members found it amusing, there was never any undertone of the clothes being treated as a costume or “experience” for a white person to enjoy for a little bit and discard later. He was invited – both as a new family member and a guest – to engage our culture in this way.

If he had been obnoxious about it – treated it as exotic or weird or pretended he now understood what it means to be Nigerian and refused to wear Western clothes ever again – the experience would have been more appropriative.

But instead, he wore them from a place of respect.

Appreciating the beauty in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia.  Enjoying a trip abroad that happened to involve minimal interaction with the locals is perfectly fine.  But drawing attention to oneself for reveling in the mysteriousness of a culture is to revel in its supposed Otherness.  Whenever an entire culture is reduced to its exoticism, it becomes nothing more than an accessory or a toy – not a sign of cultural understanding.  

And while adopting a sacred custom “just because it looks cool” can be inconsiderate, imbuing our reasons for adopting a trinket with too much meaning can also make a native roll their eyes.  It’s one thing to buy a handbag on a trip to Tokyo simply because it’s beautiful.  A Japanese woman is buying it simply because it’s beautiful, after all.  But it’s another thing to flaunt it like a badge of enlightenment. 

The blog Hanzi Smatter documents and explains the snafus and utter nonsense that so often result when Westerners get tattoos of Chinese characters copied off the Internet.  Such incidents demonstrate that vanity is often mistaken for art.  We’re all a little vain, yet the difference between art and vanity is crucial because vanity is an indulgence, not a challenge or an attempt to communicate.  When Dita von Teese donned yellowface for a London performance titled “Opium Den,” fellow burlesque artist Shanghai Pearl wrote:

I am not saying artists should not tackle controversial or challenging subjects. However, if we choose to take on challenging material, we should be prepared to have challenging conversations. I absolutely believe that art will not suffer from sensitivity. Sensitivity should make us work harder, research more, and think more. Art can only benefit from that.

Indeed, nothing suffers from genuine sensitivity.  The lesson from colonialism is not to stop exploring the world and reading about it, but to always bear in mind that there can be no cultural understanding without dialogue.  When deciding whether to adopt a tradition or style from another culture, we should consider what several people from that culture have to say about it.  Because there are no cultures without people.

 

 

Originally posted November 3, 2013

Difference Diaries Wants to Hear from You

19 Jul

Copyright Difference Diaries

 

I have recently become the Director of Educational and Multimedia Outreach at the Difference Diaries, and today marks the launch of the Difference Diaries Blog. We want submissions and we want them now.

The Need. This week Freeburg High School in Illinois jubilantly voted down a petition by Little People of America to retire their school mascot, the Freeburg Midgets.

Such incidents are hardly isolated. Dwarfs rarely make the news, and when we do, we often wish we didn’t. Two summers ago Slate magazine, one of my favorite socio-political periodicals geared at young adults, kicked off a blog about Florida with an opening article called, “True Facts About the Weirdest, Wildest, Most Fascinating State.” Among the facts that apparently render the Sunshine State weird are the python-fighting alligators and “a town founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets whose bus broke down.” On the day of its release, Slate ran the article as its headline and emblazoned “A Town Founded By Russian Circus Midgets” across its front page as a teaser.

Face-palm.

Here’s the thing about dealing with all this. You get used to it, but not forever and always. Sometimes it rolls off your back, sometimes it hits a nerve. This time, seeing a magazine as progressive as Slate brandish RUSSIAN CIRCUS MIDGETS on its front page while leaving disability rights out of its social justice discussion brought me right back to college, where friends of friends called me “Dwarf Emily” behind my back and someone else defended them to my face. Where classmates cackled about the film Even Dwarfs Started Off Small—“because it’s just so awesome to see the midgets going all ape-shit!”—but declined my offer to screen the documentary Dwarfs: Not A Fairy Tale. Where a professor was utterly outraged that her students didn’t seem to care about immigration rights or trans rights, but she never once mentioned disability rights. Where an acquaintance asked to borrow my copy of The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but awkwardly turned down my offer to lend her Surgically Shaping Children. Where roommates argued vociferously that they would rather be euthanized than lose the ability to walk. Where jokes about dwarf-tossing were printed in the student newspaper.

I won’t go into certain crude comments that involved me personally, but I will say that when a friend recently, carefully tried to tell me about how shocked he was to find a certain video of dwarfs in a grocery store, I cut him off and said, “Lemme guess, it was a dwarf woman porn video? That’s one of the top search terms that bring people to my blog.”

This is not to ignore all those I’ve met who, despite their lack of experience with disability, ask carefully constructed questions and consistently make me feel not like a curious object but like a friend who is free to speak her mind about any part of her life experience. And some young adults are doing awesome work for disability rights and awareness. But when a journalist and mother of a disabled twentysomething recently said to me, “No one wants to talk about disability rights – it’s not seen as sexy enough,” I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Maybe this is just a matter of my growing up, leaving the cocoon of childhood and finding out how uncaring the world can sometimes be. But ableism among young adults in the form of silence and/or sick fascination is a lot more prevalent than many would like to admit. And why does it have to be? Are physical differences truly not sexy enough? Is it because we associate disabilities, diseases and related issues—like caregiving—with older people and with dependence? Dependence is usually the last thing to be considered cool. But does it have to be?

The Means. As a non-profit organization, Difference Diaries aims to ignite ongoing conversation that will contribute to better lives for those living with defining difference as well as friends, families, and perfect strangers who “just never thought about it.” The young adults who share their stories offer real insights and an opportunity for viewers and readers to know a little more about “what it’s like.”

We focus on conditions as diverse as the individuals living with them including: cancer, hemophilia, dwarfism, sickle-cell anemia, albinism, facial deformity, blindness, HIV, amputee, hemangioma, vitiligo, diabetes, renal disease, Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, OCD and more.

This is why we want to hear from you. We are seeking blog submissions about living with Difference as a young adult. Prospective bloggers should consider: What does Difference mean to you? What is your personal experience of being Different? What has to be explained most often at work, school, out in public? What would be the most helpful thing for people to know about your Difference? How would you like to see society improve in how it handles Difference?

Send us your submissions via e-mail to info[at]differencediaries.org

 

 

Does It Matter If It’s Genetic?

16 Feb

Photo 02-07-14 12 29 21(Image by Eduardo Unda-Sanzana used under Creative Commons license via)

 

There is an argument gradually gaining momentum in the LGBT movement: “So what if being gay is a choice?” Rather than lecturing social conservatives that homosexuality is an inborn trait and not a chosen lifestyle, we should ask them what’s so bad about two consenting adults loving each other. With bisexual, pansexual, and genderfluid identities becoming more visible, and all sorts of people becoming more open to experimenting, who really cares if any of it is a choice?

It’s an important question in the broader debate about sex and gender. And it forces me to question the parameters of this blog.

Painting On Scars is founded on the rights of people who are viewed as minorities based on qualities they have no choice about: gender identity, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, class background, physical traits, and mental abilities. This foundation is built on my own minority status being indisputably determined by factors beyond my control. There is no doubt whatsoever that I was, as Lady Gaga hollers, born this way.

And when it comes to confronting bigotry, there is something particularly painful about being belittled for something you have no choice about. All of us can feel insecure about the decisions we make, but being told that you’re seeking work in the wrong field or that you talk too loud on the phone is still far less harrowing than being told that your natural appearance is universally repulsive or that your gender makes you intellectually or emotionally inferior. Every one of us wants to be accepted for the way we were born because a rejection of it feels like a rejection of our very lives. As autism activist Jim Sinclair explains:

When parents say, “I wish my child did not have autism,” what they’re really saying is, “I wish the child I have did not exist and that I had a different, non-autistic child instead.” Read that again. This is what we hear when you mourn over our existence. This is what we hear when you pray for a cure. That your fondest wish for us is that someday we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.

For this reason, Painting On Scars examines the existence of minorities who are born this way and the myriad reasons why any of us still struggle to accept them. (More on the complexities of parenting disabled children here.)

However, the born-this-way rubric is not always helpful. What about the explicit decision to not conform? What about the human right to the pursuit of happiness? It seems only natural—for lack of a better word—to defend alternative traits and behaviors that are very much a choice but do no harm. Women who don’t wear makeup. Filmmakers who dare to feature minority accents. People who want to preserve their parents’ cultural traditions rather than assimilate for assimilations sake.  Men who don’t identify as transgender but still very much like wearing dresses. Objection to these choices usually stems from a rigid belief in homogeneity or simply a difference in taste. Such objections make it clear to me as a blogger that as long as a difference doesn’t cause real harm, it is worth protecting from harm.

And conversely, I tend to defer to others when it comes to minority traits that people have little choice about but that do cause a good deal of harm: personality disorders, psychosis, sexual attraction to children, paranoia, trauma, suicide, or anything that precipitates emotionally abusive tendencies. I research these issues voraciously, not only because I have personal experience with many of them, but because they raise questions about human rights and individual freedom, as well as the greater good and personal safety. (The pro-mia and pro-ana movements, for example, argue that any attempt to treat or cure people with eating disorders qualifies as oppression rooted in narrow-mindedness.) Yet I refrain from opining about these issues publicly because my knowledge of them is as simplistic as they are complex.

Whether to change society or change oneself is a persistent predicament that accompanies every stage of life. When exploring the answer as it applies to minority issues, I keep coming back to the same question: Who suffers more in the change?  Humans have repeatedly proven to cause less suffering when we accept body diversity, intellectual disabilities, LGBT identities, and gender equality than when we oppress them.

Of course, what constitutes oppression and what constitutes acceptance is sometimes disputable. Alex Andreou argues this week in The Guardian that the current search for the gene for homosexuality is quite harmful. While LGBT activists have traditionally opposed the idea of homosexuality as a choice to combat those who argue for a cure through therapy, LGBT critics of the genetic research fear that discovery of a gene for homosexuality will lead to its elimination. Those of us whose conditions are genetically determined and socially marginalized have been acutely aware of this problem not just since the advent of the Human Genome Project 30 years ago, but since eugenicists began sterilizing all sorts of peoples over 100 years ago. In democratic societies where governments no longer dare to be too vocal about medical decisions regarding minorities, everyone still fears the coming of the day when insurance companies inform expecting parents that they will not cover children who will cost more. Because the existence of minorities precludes the efficiency of a one-size-fits-all system, we will always cost more.

In the spring of 1994, I was headed into the operating room to have my Ilizarov fixators removed. While prepping for surgery, one of the members of the surgical team excitedly told my mother, “Have you heard the news about achondroplasia? They found the gene! We can test Emily for it!”

My mother signed a release allowing for them to perform the test during the operation. Several weeks later I received a letter confirming that my fibroblast growth receptor gene 3 had the achondroplasia mutation. My first reaction was, “No shit. Who cares?”

I had been officially diagnosed with achondroplasia on my third day after birth, though admittedly, such an early diagnosis back in the 1980s was a stroke of luck. A girl with achondroplasia who later became my best friend had been born at the same hospital six months earlier, so the doctors recognized our similarities and ordered x-rays on my limbs. My achondroplasia was obviously a result of nature, not nurture.

Then again, in olden days dwarfism was often thought to be caused by mothers with loose morals. I myself had once asked my mother if perhaps I got achondroplasia because of the decisions she had made about the birthing process. (I had just watched Look Who’s Talking and had learned a lot about the pop culture understanding of what goes into having a baby.) The gene for achondroplasia explained how I got it, how I could pass it on, and lay rest to any modern blame-it-on the-mother mindset that might suspect it was because of aspirin or salami or cinnamon. Such information can—but does not have to—affect your sense of self.

A few years ago a woman living in the U.S. contacted me because her two-year-old daughter had been diagnosed with achondroplasia. The girl’s grandparents lived in another country and had steadfastly dismissed the diagnosis. “Americans are famous for over-diagnosing every little thing,” they shrugged. “She’ll grow out of it!” (Pun intended?)

A friend from the same country explained to me that disabled people there generally have few support networks and even fewer opportunities for independence. Perhaps the grandparents’ refusal to believe in achondroplasia stemmed from their fierce desire to remain hopeful about her future.

Would running a genetic test finally convince them to accept reality? When I was born, my parents and I benefited greatly from the dwarf rights movement of the 1970s and 80s, which had emerged due to the egalitarian spirit of the times that indulged in civil rights and celebrating diversity. As with the gay rights movement, millions of supporters showed that they did not need to see the results of genetic testing in order to justify and defend a minority’s right to exist and be accepted. If they could do it, so can we.

 

 

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

30 Dec

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fighting the Good Fight or Feeding The Ego?

19 Aug

Body Art Chameleon“I know so many men and boys and trans individuals who wear dresses for so many different reasons, and they do it a lot more than mainstream movies, TV, and advertising suggest.” 

I felt my fingers tremble just a tiny bit as I typed this sentence last week.  Not because of the subject matter.  Not because of the point I was trying to make.  Because of the “I.”  Was that word going to drive home my point, or derail it?

Studies show personally knowing someone who belongs to a minority group increases the likelihood that you will have empathy for that minority.  If you have a family member who is gay, you’re less likely to oppose marriage equality.  If you know someone with dwarfism well, you’re less likely to see their medical diagnosis whenever you look at them.  GLAAD emphasized the political potential for all this in a brilliant meme last fall.  Urging LGBT individuals to talk openly about their partners and love lives at the dinner table with the same frequency as their straight family members, they called it, “I’m Letting Aunt Betty Feel Awkward This Thanksgiving.” 

Truly caring for someone with a different perspective often—though, sadly, not always—inspires us to try to understand their perspective and this enhances our own.  Letting others know that They are not so different from Us because we know and care deeply about many of Them can effectively break down barriers.  And, when discussing social injustice, it’s always best to ask someone with personal experience, lest we unwittingly make erroneous assumptions.  But, of course, just having friends who belong to minority groups doesn’t solve everything. 

As I wrote about knowing men and trans people who wear dresses to elucidate that They are actually Us, I cringed at the idea of flaunting my loved ones’ Otherness for the purposes of my blog.  By inserting myself into the statement, there was a risk that some would think I was trying to prove my open-mindedness.  I’ve bragged like that in the past, especially when I was an egocentric teen.  (You know, back when you practiced writing your name over and over?)  And my own Otherness has been flaunted a few times by friends and acquaintances seeking attention for their open-mindedness.  It’s a serious problem in the social justice movements.  

In Black Like Me, the author tells the story of a New Yorker he encounters who has come to the South to “observe” the plight of the black citizens.  “You people are my brothers,” the New Yorker insists.  “It’s people like me that are your only hope.  How do you expect me to observe if you won’t talk to me?”  Although the man’s opposition to segregation was morally correct, his overt self-regard and patronizing disgust at his brothers’ “ingratitude” makes it one of the most cringe-inducing scenes in the book.

In Baratunde Thurston’s fantastic memoir, How To Be Black (just out this year), the author asks writers and activists about white people’s fear of being called racist.  damali ayo, the author of How To Rent A Negro and Obamistan! Land Without Racism, says it best:

It shows our values as a culture when somebody says, “I don’t want to be a called a racist.”  Really what they’re saying is, “I want you to like me.  I don’t want to not be liked.  I want to still be okay with you.”  They don’t mean, “What I really want is to know and understand experiences of people of color…”  That would be great.

And so, it just shows that, as I always have said, we are operating at this third-grade level of race relations.  And it’s that third-grader that goes, “Please like me, do please like me,” versus “Can I understand?”

We all want to be liked and we all want to do the right thing.  But the the third-grader mindset can’t help but focus more on the former.  It is evident in common phrases like:

“We were the only white people there!” 

 “I’ve always wanted a gay friend!” 

“I think I’m [bisexual/learning disabled], too, because I [kissed a girl once/have difficulty concentrating]!” 

“I’m not prejudiced!  I have so many [nonwhite/foreign/LGBT/disabled] friends!”

Of course, in certain contexts and worded differently, these statements would not be offensive.  What makes them offensive is the need to let others know all about us, the belief that our support for equality deserves praise, the patronizing (and unjust) view that minorities should be grateful for our lack of prejudice.  We can note that we were the only white people in a group in order to spark a dialogue about social segregation, or we can flaunt the experience like a medal from the Liberal Olympics.  We can worry that having a homogeneous circle of friends will limit our perspective, or we can believe that racking up as many minority friends as we can is proof of our expertise on all minority issues.  We can try to empathize with someone labeled “different” because of their sexuality or biology in order to remove stigmas and barriers, or we can try to seek the attention they are getting for ourselves.  We can respond to accusations that we have offended by trying to understand why someone would be hurt, or we can respond by listing our liberal credentials.

This depends primarily on the individual.  Someone who likes to brag about their open-mindedness usually brags about most things they do.  This personality trait seems to be particularly common among educated elites—parodied so well at Stuff White People Like—because elite education frequently fosters competitiveness.  (Taking the time to count your degrees, count the books you own, count the minority friends you have…)  Competitiveness is anathema to selflessness.   But while bragging about the number of books we own is silly because we’re obviously missing the point of reading, bragging about the number of minority friends we have is grave because we’re missing the point of human rights.

Do we donate to charity privately because it makes us feel better to spend the money on someone else?  Or do we hope that others will notice and admire our sacrifice?  Then again, drawing attention to the work we’re doing is usually important if we want to advertise the cause and urge others to join.  That’s where things get murky.

A while back, within a few months of each other, two friends stood up to ableism and told me about it after the fact.  A guyfriend came fuming to me about his teacher who had used the word “midget” and who had then insisted, despite my guyfriend’s protests, that it wasn’t offensive at all.  A girlfriend told me that a mutual acquaintance had said something crass about my dwarfism and that she had told him to back off repeatedly because she wouldn’t tolerate such bigotry in her presence.  The first friend focused his story on the offender’s behavior.  The second focused her story on her heroic defense.  People who want to understand the problem more than anything tend to focus their feelings on the injustice they encountered.  People who want to be liked more than anything tend to focus their feelings on their performance.

This shouldn’t ever deter anyone from working for equality and social justice, from celebrating diversity or from spreading awareness.  Open minds should always be highly valued.  But to paraphrase the recent words of the Crunk Feminist Collective, by not being racist—or sexist or homophobic or lookist or ableist or transphobic—we’re not doing anything special.  We’re doing what we’re supposed to do.