Tag Archives: Ethnicity

Political Correctness Makes You More Creative

21 Dec

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Are East Germans A Minority?

9 Nov

Ampelmännchen(Image by S. Freimark used under CC 2.0 via)

 

I needed only head out my front door and walk to the end of my block to get to the Light Border commemorating that 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall tonight. The price to pay for this was the waves of tourists that have been washing through the street all weekend. Parents trying to explain to it to their children have been constantly underfoot. Which makes you pause and wonder, How do you explain it?

The fall of the Wall is my very first memory of watching the news a child. It was bizarre to see so many people rejoicing that It is finally over!, when I had only just discovered that it had ever been there in the first place. In later years, I of course learned more – specifically, the American version of the story that asserts that Ronald Reagan brought down the Wall and America won the Cold War. The fact that so many Berliners were chanting, “Gorbi! Gorbi!” amidst the celebrations 25 years ago is conveniently left out of this narrative.

I moved from New York to Berlin 10 years ago, when the shine of Reunification had well worn off.  The former East Germany was known as the land of unemployment and racism, and the former West Germany was known as the land where little had changed and nobody cared about the East. The terms Jammer-Ossi (“Whiny Easterner”) and Besser-Wessi (“Uppity Westerner”) were well known.  Some East Germans began talking about what they missed about the old country: a much lower crime rate, better kindergartens, consumer products low in quantity but built to last. And, above all, no unemployment.

One of my earliest jobs in Berlin put me in a room with five other coworkers. One of them hailed from Munich and, while reading the morning paper, regularly scoffed about East German nostalgia. “There’s nothing to be nostalgic about!” she huffed. “It was disgusting, just like the Third Reich!” My other coworkers remained silent, but after her umpteenth outburst, a young man finally sighed, “It wasn’t the Third Reich. Yes, there was no freedom of speech or travel, but it was not about eugenics or mass genocide!” The conversation quickly unraveled into uncomfortable silence.

One of the women who had remained silent all along later approached me at the water cooler. “What did you think of that?”

“I thought she was maybe being a bit rude,” I shrugged.

“So rude! I just didn’t want to get into it. I fled East Germany to the West in the Seventies.”

My eyes widened.

“That’s a long story and I don’t want to get into it. But I can’t take her pig-headed opinions about it. She’s always going off about the dumb East Germans, but she doesn’t understand what those people went through!”

Indeed, few of us truly can. For the former East Germany to not only experience unemployment for the first time but massive unemployment—up to 25% in some places—is like a town where no one has ever been sick suddenly overrun with the flu. In the early 1990s, the very idea of writing resumes and performing job interviews struck many East Germans as crass: “You mean I have to keep telling people how awesome I am till they hire me?  That’s prostitution!”     

I have friends from the East who still feel pressured to abandon all hope of working anywhere near where they grew up, moving out of state in search of better futures in Frankfurt or Hamburg or Cologne. Many of their parents were white collar professionals shocked to find themselves unemployed after the Wall came down and have never been fully employed since. I also have friends from the West who moved to the East after Reunification and were ostracized in the workplace. Tensions have eased a bit in the 10 years I’ve lived here, but Berlin is undoubtedly the place you’re most likely to see people who grew up on opposite sides of the Wall intermingling. The extent of prejudice between the two former nations became a legal issue last year when a woman sued a potential employer for discrimination. Interviewers at a company in southern Germany had scrawled on her job application “Drawback: East German.” The court ruled against the plaintiff on the grounds that East Germans do not qualify as an ethnic minority.

Legal arguments aside, those who grew up in East Germany certainly have a different history that has had considerable impact upon their culture. Girls and boys named “Mandy,” “Cindy,” “Jenny,” or “Kevin” are easily identifiable as coming from East Germany, where Hollywood movies in the 80s and 90s set a trend. A recent study revealed that such names invoke prejudice among school teachers who often assume such children will come from anti-intellectual home environments. East Germans over 30 pride themselves on being able to read Cyrillic, while their relationship to Russia is less affectionate. When the Soviet Forces occupied the East, they looked upon it as That Country That Invaded Us Twice In 20 Years. Russia lost more of its citizens to Nazi Germany—the conservative estimate is 20 million—than anyone else. East Germans in turn saw the Soviets as That Army That Raped Over 1.4 Million Of Us. The two countries never became true friends.

But would it help to spread diversity awareness and promote tolerance between East and West Germans if the former were recognized as a minority? Or should we stick to seeing the Cold War and the Fall of the Wall as a struggle not of nations but of ideas? After all, it was democracy, not nationalism, that was the driving force behind the peaceful revolution that brought down the Wall. Yet democracy is frequently given little thought beyond its associations with that nebulous word “freedom.” As one East German friend pointed out, too many portrayals of Reunification focus a lot more on the freedom to buy a Porsche and choose between 16 different brands of toothpaste than the freedom from government surveillance, knee-jerk patriotism, voter suppression, and execution by the state. One of the quotes of the East German uprising most well-known over here—but rarely heard in the U.S.—came from protester Steffi Spira: “I want my grandchildren to grow up in a country where they do not have to salute the flag!”

When the Nationalist Party and Neo-Nazi groups find substantial support in the East among the disaffected youth of today, their opponents frame it as a battle not against evil but for democracy. Because nothing undermines dictatorship better than the idea that Everybody matters. It is the essence of both democracy and minority rights. And no developed nation knows as well as Germany how fragile this idea is.

 

 

The Real Reason You Should Learn A Foreign Language

27 Apr

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hai!” I’d reply with exorbitant enthusiasm.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Heritage on St. Patrick’s Day? It’s Complicated

16 Mar

IMG_1606(Image by Folke Lehr)

 

Along with millions of other Americans, I used to boast a bit every March 17th: “You know, I really am Irish.” It’s a common American pastime to cite one’s known heritage, either as demonyms (“I’m English and Irish and… ”) or percentages (“I’m a quarter Irish, one eighth Polish…” ). I still believe in self-determination, but having lived in Europe for nearly a decade, I have ceased to rattle off these titles. Not only is the latter a vain attempt at exactitude with no chance of ever being exact—we’re not even really sure if my great-grandmother was Polish or Belarusian—but it resembles the sort of puzzle-piecing that only pseudo-scientists of suspicious political convictions find relevant. And it makes Europeans laugh. And then correct me. “No, you’re not Irish. Your ancestors were Irish.” Which is true.

While Americans sometimes refer to their ancestors’ nation as their “homeland,” they usually can’t construct a sentence in the country’s official language and certainly cannot name the country’s current head of government, the second largest city, or any of its history that isn’t directly related to U.S. history. At best they know a handful of expressions, a recipe or two, maybe the region where their parents’ parents’ parents lived. For this reason, their claims to nationality usually strike the natives as silly.

But the melting pot concept is often admirably used to celebrate diversity. It bungles any sense of loyalty and prevents jingoism. I can’t really argue that the English are “naturally” evil for what they did to my Irish ancestors when my last name is Sanford. My known ethnic heritage is a split between some of Europe’s most notorious conquerors (English, German) and their victims (Irish, Polish). To claim only one or two of them as “my people” feels ridiculous. If I ever have children, their great-grandfathers will have fought on opposite sides of World War II.

Then again, not everyone’s heritage is such a hodge-podge, and plenty of conservative genealogists try to prove why the blending of certain cultures is “better” than the blending of others. That the perpetrators of segregation, Nazism, apartheid, aristocracy, and the internment camps are the most famous fans of genealogy causes me to cringe whenever anyone claims pride in having Irish or Italian or Icelandic “blood.”

Such pride is much more understandable when coming from minorities who have been made to feel that they don’t belong in the country they were born in. My grandfather, Michael Sullivan, was the grandson of Irish immigrants to America. He was the oldest of 9 children, my mother has 43 cousins, and I’ve never tried to count how many of us there are in my generation. He often began sentences with the word “ ’Twas,” and liked to sing folk songs that seemed to have come from Ireland, but may very well have originated in immigrant settlements in the States. This is the extent of my experience with his Irishness, but his was far more profound. He grew up in a time when he could easily find signs reading, “Irish need not apply,” and “mick” was a word he hated in the way that only people who have been called a slur do. When he married Barbara Tupper and her grandmother found out he was Catholic, she crossed my grandmother out of the family Bible. All this made John F. Kennedy’s election in his lifetime radical. It is my grandfather’s story and it is important. But it’s not my story.

An attempt to make it my story would feel intellectually dishonest and pretty flaky to boot. As Andrew O’Heir writes this week at Salon: “Irishness [in America today] is a nonspecific global brand of pseudo-old pubs, watered-down Guinness, ‘Celtic’ tattoos and vague New Age spirituality, designed to make white people feel faintly cool without doing any of the hard work of actually learning anything.” Indeed, my middle name endows me with no expertise when it comes to picking out Celtic music or Irish books and films. I can’t tell what most Irish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists any more than I can tell what Finnish people actually enjoy and what’s just on display for tourists.

As said before, taking an interest in other cultures is always preferable to xenophobia. But it often comes with the temptation to flaunt minimal efforts like feats of greatness. Claiming credentials based on ancestry feels not entirely wrong, but not entirely right either.

The boundaries of countries and ethnicities are as blurry as our sense of self. Heritage is often seen as the recipe that resulted in an individual, yet there are so many more ingredients to the recipe. Yes, I wouldn’t be here today if the branches of my family tree were arranged any differently, but I also wouldn’t be here today if my parents had slept together in April 1981 instead of March. And placing too much importance on genetics insults any families who cannot or choose not to have children using only their own reproductive cells. Family is what you make of it.

This is not to say that everyone should always downplay their roots. Children with at least one parent who emigrated from another country often have undeniable ties to their ancestral culture – in any case, ties that are far more likely to be based on fact than fictitious romanticizing. Most of what constitutes our inexplicable sense of culture comes from traditions and foods and pastimes we experienced growing up, and great writers like Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart, and Sandra Cisneros show that growing up with two cultures affords you special insights into both. If my German partner and I ever have children, we plan to raise them bilingually (English and German) and bi-culturally (Thanksgiving and St. Martin’s Day), teaching them anything there is to teach about where their mother grew up and where their father grew up. Whether or not to add some Swedish into the mix—my mother-in-law came from Stockholm—is a point of endless debate between us.

If we ever have grandchildren, it will be interesting to see how they approach their American heritage. If they’re at all ashamed or excessively proud, I’m determined to discuss it, but if they’re merely disinterested, so what? I predict that my great-grandchildren will not feel any strong connection to their American heritage, nor should they. As my partner points out, maybe they will be half-Czech or married to a Burkinabé and have their hands full raising their own children bilingually. Cultures and people move and morph constantly throughout time and space.

When I finally traveled to Ireland two years ago, there were traces of culture that seemed somehow familiar. And that was moving. But most of the charm—“The Irish Sea really is that green! They really do sing in the pubs!”—came from recognizing things I’d grown up seeing in movies, not in my grandfather’s house. And I also found traces of culture the following year in Amsterdam that were faintly familiar to me because, although I have no known Dutch forebearers, I grew up on Long Island.

My most impressive sense of belonging in Ireland came from the fact that I was not the palest person around. Not by a long shot. (Hence my captioning the above photo taken on the cliffs of Howth in an e-mail sent to friends: “If there’s anything Sullivan about me, it’s my complexion.”) Lookism can be a very powerful force. But it does not have to be. In Dublin, we were never once served by someone who didn’t have a Slavic accent. If the current flood of Eastern European immigrants end up staying in Ireland, their children will have much more of a claim to the place than I do.

They’ll at least be able to remember the name of the prime minister, after all.

 

 

The Most Racist Place On Earth

26 May

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picking & Choosing Our Tragedies

21 Apr

World travel and communications recorded on Twitter

(Image by Eric Fischer used under CC license via)

 

What a week.  A suicide bomber in Pakistan killed four people.  A fertilizer plant explosion in Texas killed at least fourteen people.  Sixteen people died in a goldmine collapse in Ghana.  President Obama and members of the U.S. Senate were sent letters laced with poison.  A journalist in Mexico was assassinated, presumably by agents of the drug wars.  At least 65 people died in terrorist attacks in Iraq.  More than 150 people just died in an earthquake in Szechuan.  And after two young women and a little boy were murdered by bombs at the Boston Marathon, it felt surreal if not uncomfortable to see my last post about America’s inexperience with bombs at home emblazoned across the blog.  But what to say? 

For most of the week, we had no trace of a motive for the Boston bombing.  And now that one suspect of Chechen origin is dead and his brother is in custody, we still don’t have anything we could officially call a reason.  Polemicists on the right and left are using the event as “evidence” for the necessity of their own political agendas, arguing that we should have used drones, or that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should face a military trial, or that we need more surveillance cameras everywhere, or that the two suspects seem more like the psychotic teens of Columbine than terrorist operatives.  As John Dickerson observed in Slate yesterday:

We need more restraint and less wild guessing. Free-flowing debate in the search for meaning is a part of these moments and a part of the human condition, but … In these fast-moving times when the only thing that is certain is that the first piece of news has repeatedly been wrong, perhaps those lawmakers and pundits who want to be part of the final conversation should (paraphrasing Mike Monteiro) follow the Quaker rule: Be meaningful or be quiet. 

Of course, we all like to think ourselves meaningful.  But so far, with no official motive, the only irrefutable point any politician has made thusfar came from the Ambassador from the Czech Republic, who urged the media to note that Czechs and Chechens belong to two different countries located over a thousand miles apart.

Distance and borders matter, obviously, since none of us are equally horrified by every single one of this week’s tragedies.  But why?  I had friends in the Boston area who were stuck at home during Friday’s lockdown.  (Two were hoping to be allowed out in time for them to make it to the annual birthday celebration of their late brother Bill, whom I wrote about at this time last year in a post on grief.)  But I’ll hazard to guess that most of those glued to the news updates from Boston did not have loved ones there.  The story dominated the headlines across the ocean in Germany, in France, in the U.K.  Everyone seemed to be watching. 

The simplest reason for this is that people are naturally empathic, upset to see others upset and, in the words of the Czech ambassador, “It was a stark reminder of the fact that any of us could be a victim of senseless violence anywhere at any moment.”  But dead people in Pakistan and Iraq no longer serve as reminders of that fact.  They instead represent our ability to compartmentalize, to exile certain tragedies to a semi-numb region of the mind, either because they seem too frequent for us to commit to or because we want to believe there is some crucial difference between Us and Them, protecting us from their fate.  It’s not malicious of us to compartmentalize in this way—to tear up upon sight of the beautiful little boy in Boston while not even checking to see if any of the victims in Iraq were children—but it’s not fair either. 

And so I stared down my last post about World War II bombs, feeling inexplicably uncomfortable, wondering whether it was callous of me to not say anything about the tragedies going on in my old home country, yet knowing World War II would never have happened had my new home country not embraced a dangerous idea of what makes a country “home.”  Borders are always bizarre.  In a digital age, distance is all in the mind.  I’ll never be able to rationally explain why some things feel “close to home” and others don’t.   I’ll always care more about the safety of those I know personally than those I don’t, but I’ll never be completely comfortable with this fact because ignoring our common humanity is what builds borders and facilitates cruelty.  I’ll always tear up if you show me a picture of an innocent victim.  I’ll always try to remember to ask why we are shown pictures of some victims, and not others. 

Or, as a friend in Boston observed during the lockdown, “It is so hard to be inside on this gorgeous, beautiful spring day.  Minor problem, but reminds me how lucky we are most of the time to feel safe outside our homes.”