Friday, July 31, 2009

When to say you're sorry and moving onward and forward

[Yep, another long and rambling post--but if you are a regular reader, you expect this by now, right?]

One of the things I've noticed about us Americans is that we like to be apologized to. We like to have people say "I'm sorry" in a genuine way, so that we, in turn, can forgive and move forward.

Of course, perhaps this isn't an American trait--I haven't lived in any other country for a length of time that gives me a baseline comparison, but I *feel* it to be a very American trait--that we are a nation imbued with the values of fair play, and when that is called into question, we want an apology, we want to forgive, and then we want to move on.

Problem is, it's hard to figure out when you should say you are sorry. There's also the whole issue of the empty apology or the apology that doesn't address the underlying problems.

Little aside: A friend once told me this story about his grandfather and father. When his father was a young boy, he and his siblings and cousins were having a pillow fight in one of the bedrooms, and since this was a time in which they were real feather pillows, the feathers literally started flying. So when the grandfather came to scold his kids and his nieces and nephews, they all apologized but he said, "Sorry doesn't pick up the feathers." Which I find to be a useful phrase to show that while it's all very well and good to feel bad, you have to be able to actually do the work of repairing the situation.

Recently on What Tami Said, Tami cross-posted my "Race: Always more complicated than you think" post. And since my internet access has been down for the last 36 hours (just got it back up and running this morning--thank you Cable repair person!) I didn't notice the cross-posting and most especially did not see the dozen comments, a number of them from "anonymous" commenters who were chiding Tami (forgetting that she was not the author of the blog) for her post (which was really my post) and faulting her/me for criticizing Lucia Whalen, for describing the situation as racially motivated, when clearly it wasn't since Lucia Whalen's 911 tape was released and she has spoken out about how hurtful the "racist" label has been for her, and especially since the great "beer summit" happened yesterday at the White House between Dr. Gate and Sergeant Crowley. Apparently Tami was trying to address some people who believed that she should apologize for calling Lucia Whalen a racist or apologize for being quick to believe that Lucia Whalen could be a racist, and Tami's response was to cross-post my blog entry about race being a complicated issue, I suspect because I specifically wrote in that post that while I now see that Whalen didn't intend to racially profile Gates or his driver, none-the-less I do not absolve her for her part in the "Gates-gate" if you will.

So why am I not apologizing for calling Lucia Whalen a racist, (that was in the "rant" where I admitted to everyone that I was taking off the educator's hat and speaking from the gut). I guess my first thought is, do I need to? Does Tami need to apologize for assuming that Lucia Whalen was acting out of racist beliefs and racially profiling Professor Gates when this is what every seemingly reliable news source was telling us? And moreover, isn't it possible that Lucia Whalen holds subconscious biases and prejudices that she has picked up from society--ones that equate black men with crime?

It's not nice to call someone a racist, but the truth is, people bandy that word about so much and it has taken on a life of its own--it has this power that, for all you Harry Potter fans out there, is similar to "he that shall not be named"--it's like calling someone a racist is the WORST thing you could ever do to another person--like worse than, I dunno, mistakenly arresting someone in his own house after he showed proper identification and proved that he was the owner of the house and you arrest this person, an older gentleman with a cane, because he's showing his frustration and anger and you don't think he's exhibiting enough respect for the law and how hard your job is and by the way, you always considered yourself to be one of the good guys--the non-bigoted guys who has a black friend or two and trains other law officials on race profiling. But you do not need to apologize because you did nothing wrong and how dare anyone accuse you of being racist, because now you are the victim in all of this and you have suffered and if there's going to be an apology shouldn't it come from the highest quarters, like say an apology from the President of the United States with an invitation to share a beer?

Where was I?

Oh yes. Lucia Whalen. I have to say, I feel for her. She has gotten a lot of negative attention, a ton of hate mail, and a lot of public scrutiny. And she wasn't invited to join the big boys at the White House for their little tete-a-tete, which I think was a mistake and a blind spot in terms of the dynamics of sex in all of this as well (because lets face it, there are sexual and racial dynamics intertwined in all of this). I don't know Ms. Whalen but she seems to be a conscientious person who tries to do the right thing, even though the best laid plans often blow up in your face (and boy did that happen to her with this one).

But I do believe that her internal biases played a part in her decision to call 911 on behalf of her neighbor rather than calming her neighbor down or asking the two men on the porch, from the safety of the very public and visible sidewalk of this very wealthy and well trod and trafficked Cambridge Street, if they needed any help.

The person I think who says it best is Tenured Radical, who has an EXCELLENT post on this subject (click here) and who addresses Ms. Whalen and her elderly neighbor directly:
So Mrs. Cambridge White Neighbor, what should you have done? You should have stopped and asked the gentleman who was trying to get into the house if he needed help -- and did he want to use your cell phone to call a locksmith (hint: burglars don't jimmy the front door in full sight of everyone.) If he had no business getting into the house, he would have left. If he did have business in the house, he might have said, "No thanks -- I think I've got it!" Or, "We've had so much rain, are your doors stuck too? " Or, "Yes, thank you, I need to call my wife -- hi, I'm Skip."

Do I owe Lucia Whalen an apology? Does Tami? Does the nation? Does Dr. Gates or Sergeant Crowley? Does President Obama (for not inviting her to the WH for a cold one)? I think the answer is no. But what I will say is that I do take back calling her a racist. Because I should know better. Because I believe what Jay Smooth has all too eloquently said himself: it's not productive. It really just flames the fires of people's emotions to use that word, even if, in the case of certain instances, like The Valley Club or Sonia Sotomayor's hearings, you really feel that racism is underpinning the questions. Or even in the obvious discrepancy between what Sergeant Crowley CLAIMS Lucia Whalen said to him--that she saw two "black men with backpacks" on the porch when Ms. Whalen denies ever describing the men in this manner and, in fact, went out of her way not to talk about their racial background, until she was asked (and then she said that one seemed to be "Hispanic" but always her language was qualified).

I think the more telling thing among all these blog comments is why some commenters, esp. the anonymous ones on Tami's blog, are so up in arms over this and why they need to demand an apology from an African American female blogger who is speaking her own truth the way she sees it. Perhaps its my friendship with Tami or the common cause I share with her, but I bristled at the comments on her blog (in no small part because I did realize that they were aimed at me). And so what I want to say to everyone is that I will apologize to Lucia Whalen for mistakenly calling her a racist the minute that Sergeant Crowley apologizes to Professor Gates and admits that his own internal prejudices and bigotries may have been a factor in his overreaction and arrest of Dr. Gates in his own home.

But in an effort to move onward and forward, let me just end with saying that I'm not sorry that this has all happened. I mean, I'm sure that everyone in Cambridge, most especially Ms. Whalen, Dr. Gates, and Sergeant Crowley are all WISHING that this had never played out this way. But I think that the dialogue and conversations about this topic have been illuminating and helpful, if for not other reason than to put to rest this silly notion that we are living in a post-racial era or that the election of Barack Obama spelled the end of black disenfranchisement and racism.

The road is long people. We need to keep up our strength, and we need as many allies as we can to fight the good fight.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Being another type of "other"

If there was a short film that best encapsulated the mood of this blog, I'd pick this film by Andrea Chia and Jerry Henry to be a top contender in communicating what it means to be mixed race in America--the problems and pleasures of such mixing--and the hope of a future where multiracial Americans get to be another type of "other."

[Tip of the hat to Anti-Racist Parent]

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Michael Jackson's influence in the Phillipines

Two years ago, the inmates at Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center, Cebu, Philippines re-created the video from Michael Jackson's iconic "Thriller," and the video went viral:

Two years later, in commemoration of Jackson's death, the men have performed a routine to a medley of Jackson songs from the Dangerous album:

I'm not sure what to say about these videos or what to think about them. I do find them utterly fascinating and they are hypnotic to watch. And I'm not sure why Jackson's music and dance/videos seem to be so powerful for these inmates that they would re-create them in minute and accurate detail. Thoughts anyone?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Race--always more complicated than you think it is

[Warning: Another long and rambling post--there's just something about all these racial incidents happening that loosens the fingers on my keyboard]

It's nearing the end of July, and after perusing the list of blog entries I've written this month, I've noticed that there have been A LOT of things I blogged about this month--a lot of news items related to what seemed, to me, to be obvious instances of racism/white privilege/racial insensitivity. From items relatively innocuous as Kristof's list of best kids' books (I'd put that on the "racial insensitivity" end of the spectrum or perhaps "white privilege") to the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Junior and the question of racial profiling.

I say the question of racial profiling, because there seems to be disagreement about whether this was, in fact, a case of racial profiling and, perhaps more to the point of this post, whether race played any factor in the arrest of Professor Gates.

If you are a regular reader, you know that I've already vented through a very long, very rambling, and non-educator's rant on the topic of the prevalence of race and racism in our supposedly post-racial society.

What I want to do now is to put my teacher hat back on. Because the truth is, race is always more complicated than we think it is. It's certainly much more complicated than I understand it to be, and I am someone who thinks about race A LOT. I read books about race. I read blogs about race. I talk about race, both to people who I consider to be part of the choir as well as others who probably think I am a tone deaf singer. And yet, after all this reading and thinking and writing and talking, I'm never certain that I have a handle on race and racism--because it's SO SLIPPERY.

And one of the slippery things that has just emerged is the release of the 911 tapes form Gates arrest. And the tape does not conform to the news reports that came out in the aftermath of the arrest nor the assumptions many of us made based on these reports.

I had, like many others, assumed that Lucia Whalen jumped to the racist conclusion that two black men trying to open a stuck door must be burglars and that she myopically ignored obvious evidence: the luggage, the way the men were dressed, the town car. However, the 911 tape reveals that Lucia Whalen had not just been casually walking by when she made the call--that she called on behalf of an elderly neighbor who had just moved into the neighborhood. And Whalen admits that while she didn't recognize either man, she did speculate that they may live at the residence because she mentions seeing luggage on the porch. And when pressed to identify the men--to describe their race, she says that she is unsure but believes one man to be "Hispanic"--she never described either men as African American, and according to her attorney, she never spoke directly to Officer Crowley except to identify herself as the one who placed the 911 call. In other words, she claims, through her lawyer, that she did NOT tell Crowley that she saw two black men with backpacks trying to break open the door.

I should note that Whalen also does not seem to get all the details right--she describes two "large" men--yet anyone who has seen Professor Gates would describe him as a slight man. I also don't want to absolve Whalen from her part in this whole incident. While she may not have described the two men as "black"--the fact that she didn't go over and simply ask if they needed help--that she didn't inquire about who they were; to introduce herself as someone who works for Harvard University through their magazine and to render assistance--because she, herself, says that “I don’t know if they live there and just had a hard time with their key"--leaves me wondering whether unconscious bias and stereotypes of black men as criminals didn't somehow enter her mind when she placed the call on behalf of the elderly neighbor. If she works on that street, chances are she had to have a good hunch that the house was owned by Harvard University--she could have easily placed a call into the housing rental office rather than call 911 to find out who lived there and to report that there seemed to be two men breaking into the unit. Why didn't she just talk to the men, really, that's what I want to know. It was the middle of the day. She didn't have to go up on the porch, she simply could have called out from the sidewalk and offered aid/assistance, and her instincts could have then taken over if she felt anything was amiss--and she could then assuage the fears of the neighbor, perhaps even facilitating an introduction between Gates and the elderly neighbor.

Whalen's remarks and the article in The New York Times clarifies something I had been puzzled about, namely why Gates had not been troubled by Whalen calling the police--why he was not angry with her or why he did not accuse her of racial profiling him. And why all his anger seems to be (or seemed to be) directed at Crowley and the Cambridge Police. Because it's pretty damning evidence to have Whalen's tape and her statement via her lawyer claiming that she never identifies Gates or his driver as black (and for the record, Gates's driver is actually Moroccan not African American, as Gates clarifies).

So why does Crowley write in the police report that the caller identifies 2 black men on the porch with backpacks? Why does Crowley at first claim that Gates was so unruly and loud in his house that he couldn't speak to his dispatcher, yet clearly the tapes reveal that he did speak to his dispatcher and requests police backup and the presence of the Harvard police because he apparently fears for his life.

Yet things don't add up. If he was so afraid of Gates, why enter his home? Why follow him to his kitchen while Gates goes to retrieve his id? Why not just wait on the porch for Gates to show him the id and/or wait for police back-up to arrive? What could Gates possibly do in the five-minute interval it would take for Harvard police to arrive to confirm his identity? Steal something and run out the backdoor? Since Gates walks with a cane, it'd be hard for him to get very far. If Crowley is such a veteran of the police force and sensitive to racial profiling, why wouldn't he be courteous to Gates from the get-go? Why not simply wait for an invitation to come in or wait on the porch and, most importantly, what goes wrong in the communication between the dispatcher and Crowley--is he the one who ignores the comment about the luggage being on the porch or that the caller thought that one of the men could live there--that she wasn't certain this was an instance of a break-in? Why doesn't Crowley do what Gates had assumed he would do--politely introduce himself, tell him that there has been a report of a break in, and ask if Gates is the residence of the home and can produce id. Even if Gates still went ballistic, the whole incidence could have been easily defused from that point, something Crowley should have known as an instructor sensitive to issues of racial profiling.

Crowley has refused to apologize to Gates--which makes me believe that it's his pride that is at stake--that as a white police officer, someone who believes that he is sensitive to issues of race, someone who claims to have a "mixed" group of friends, that he doesn't believe he did anything worth apologizing for. And yet, if Obama has to retract the word "stupidly"--if Obama, the president of the United States and the most powerful man in our nation (at least supposedly, right) recants the remarks about the Cambridge police acting stupidly, Crowley can't muster the same type of humility and swallow his pride and apologize for at least SOME of his actions and remarks? Instead, he acts like he's the victim--he goes on radio talk shows and gets interviewed by media outlets claiming he is the one who is the victim in this whole situation.

And that, my friends, is white male privilege. Crowley doesn't believe he has to apologize because everything in his upbringing--everything he is told by society, especially given his line of work, tells him that there is nothing HE has to apologize to anyone. He is the ultimate symbol of white male authority--he is a white police officer.

Was this a simple case of racial profiling and racism? Nothing is ever that simple. But to ignore the evidence--to ignore the history of African Americans in this nation, especially their relationship with police officers, is to be blind to the way that race, racism, and white privilege operate in our world.

Finally, I give the last word in this post to Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis, a Sociology and black studies professor at CUNY who has written a very insightful post about flash point racism. And in the spirit of Dr. Lewis, I do hope we can untangle the complexities of race and have a richer dialogue about race and racism, because as I've already repeated in this post (and in this post's title): race is always more complicated than you think it is.

Friday, July 24, 2009

T.G.I.F.: Allies

The past few weeks have been pretty disheartening from the point-of-view of being an educator and activist who believes in anti-racism and who also works on educating herself about other forms of oppression (classism, sexism, homophobia, etc...). Especially reading the comment threads on a lot of mainstream blogs and/or on-line newspapers can be downright depressing--because people are constantly challenging what counts as racism--even in the face of things that seem to be so obviously and blatantly racist.

But then I am reminded about allies. And I feel a warm fuzzy coming over me. Because allies are what we need to fight various forms of oppression, as well as to recognize the ways that oppressions are linked together--homophobia and sexism fit hand and glove, and racism and classism are so intertwined that people just take their interrelated nature for granted.

I have had several important allies in my life--both personal and professional. People who have fought with me and for me--mentors of all genders, sexualities, and ethnicities who have nurtured me and helped me to grow into an aspiring ally myself.

So in honor of the allies out there in the world, let me say THANK YOU and to highlight some blogging allies who I believe are instrumental in speaking truth to power in numerous ways:

*What Tami Said on gay Bishop Rev. Eugene Robinson

*Poplicks on an offensive ad for Israeli cell phones

*Tenured Radical on the need for access for all

And finally, these two clips by white allies on addressing issues of racism"

[From Angry Asian Man, Terry Keleher breaks down "Reverse Racism"]

[From Stuff White People Do, Lincoln Trudeau on the phrase "I'm not racist but..."]

For all these allies and many more, the T.G.I.F. award honors their contributions in working across lines--because at the end of the day, we should all be working together to try to make the world a better and fairer place for everyone.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

We are NOT living in a Post-Racial America

[Readers beware--what follows is a LONG RANT--the educator in me is taking a back seat to the angry Asian American activist]

To all the people out there who believe that the election of Barack Obama means we are living in a post-racial era,

Yes, I'm talking to you. Yes you. And I'm talking to all you white liberals out there who cry "I'm NOT a racist! I voted for Obama. I had a black roommate in college. My daughter's best friend is an adoptee from China. I'm talking to you too. And I'm talking to all you people of color who think that being a racial minority in this country gives you carte blanche to be an authority on race without examining and reflecting on your internal racism and biases, especially ones about people from racial groups that you don't belong to, or how race and racism intersects with sexuality and gender.

Racism is alive and well. Obama's election didn't end racism. Obama's election doesn't make people more tolerant. Obama is not the messiah, and he will not solve the nation or the world's problems with racial oppression. There have ALWAYS been exceptions. Phillis Wheatley, an African America poet of the 18th century, was embraced by white New Englanders and heralded as a poet of renown. Did that mean that all subsequent black writers were similarly embraced or even that New Englanders decided that black Americans should be educated and encouraged to write and create art? Nope. And this was the NORTH.

Other exceptional African Americans? Oprah Winfrey. Maya Angelou. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. Most Americans, of any racial or ethnic background, would probably say that they love/like/respect/admire these contemporary black American celebrities. And sure Tiger Woods can play any golf course in America--but can his niece play any golf course, especially if she doesn't announce who her famous uncle is? There are SEVERAL courses and clubs she'd be barred membership in, based on her race and/or gender. Just because we admire these exceptional African Americans doesn't mean that the average African American doesn't experience serious racism and racial profiling.

And yes, serious racism and racial profiling means those incidents that have come to light at The Valley Club and the arrest of Professor Gates. And don't get me started about the questioning of Judge Sotomayor during her Supreme Court nomination process. Or the racist bile that spewed from Pat Buchanan's mouth about how white folks built America. And let us not forget Brian Kilmeade's gem of saying that unlike the pure Finns and Swedes Americans marry other species and ethnics, which is apparently a problem for K-K-Kilmeade.

This past month has seen people try to defend the actions and behaviors and language of the indefensible. So let me set the record straight people:

*The Valley Club returning the money from the Creative Steps Camp--where the campers are predominantly black and Latino and the members of the Valley Club are overwhelmingly white (Montgomery County where the club is located is over 90% white) is racism. The kids were told to leave not out of concerns of safety, not because they were misbehaving, not because the director had a brain fart and got confused about the number of campers coming. They returned the money and told the kids to leave because they didn't want non-white kids in the pool. They didn't want to change the "complexion" and "atmosphere" of the club. Because having these black and Latino kids made other members feel uncomfortable--and kicking these kids out and refunding their money is racism--it is exercising power and privilege based on RACE and then trying to mask it by claiming other factors (safety, for example), which is simply lame and cowardly, especially after the director named COMPLEXION as a primary factor for returning that money.

*Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. being arrested in front of his house is racial profiling at its purest and simplest form. Even Barack Obama agrees with this assessment, even if he doesn't spell it out. Lucia Whalen calling in the 911 call in the middle of the day is a white woman making assumptions about black men in a wealthy Harvard Square neighborhood and signals the myopia--the utter BLINDNESS that she did not recognize one of Harvard University's most recognizable professors. And this woman works for HARVARD MAGAZINE as a fundraiser! Is she really that stupid? Is she really that racist? The answer to both questions seems to be yes. And the police officer who questioned Gates clearly didn't like being told he was racist and didn't like that Gates was asserting authority IN HIS OWN HOME and demanding that the officer identify himself to Gates and to prove WHY Gates needed to show identification to him. It was not reasonable to think that seeing two men try to open a stuck door means they were breaking into the home and robbing it--it was 12:45pm--it was BROAD DAYLIGHT. Just because you see two BLACK men pushing against a door doesn't automatically mean they were trying to rob that house--what about the luggage? What about the towncar parked in front? What about the driver in the suit and tie? WTF???!!! And it's simply b.s. if anyone thinks that two white men would have had that woman calling 911--she probably wouldn't have looked TWICE if those men had been white.

[Update: I just found this interview with Henry Louis Gates Jr. on The Root, and there is a section where Prof. Gates really breaks down the whole post-racial myth:
I thought the whole idea that America was post-racial and post-black was laughable from the beginning. There is no more important event in the history of black people in America than the election of Barack Obama. I cried when he was elected, and I cried at his inauguration, but that does not change the percentage of black men in prison, the percentage of black men harassed by racial profiling. It does not change the number of black children living near the poverty line. Which is almost a similar percentage as were under poverty when Martin Luther King was assassinated. There haven’t been fundamental structural changes in America. There’s been a very important symbolic change and that is the election of Barack Obama.]

*As for Sotomayor being biased, this is the one that drives me most nuts. Because (and this requires all caps) I AM TIRED OF PEOPLE ASSUMING THAT IF YOU ARE A WOMAN, IF YOU ARE A MINORITY THEN YOU ARE AUTOMATICALLY BIASED AND THAT ONLY STRAIGHT WHITE MEN ARE CAPABLE OF NEUTRALITY OR OBJECTIVITY. Why don't you all check your privilege? Because it's showing--your white privilege, your male privilege, your straight privilege--it's out there. And it's ugly. Really, really ugly. And it makes you look like a stupid bigot. So don't say it. Do not say that people of color are racists and bigots against white people. Don't scream reverse racism. You look like an ass when you do, especially when it's directed at Judge Sotomayor, whose credential are OUTSTANDING by any measure. You don't get to be the hall monitor telling ME what racism looks like.

*And don't tell me that affirmative action harms white men or that white men are the new minority and are being victimized by people of color and women. Don't tell me that WE are taking things that belong to YOU--like your jobs, your promotions, your voice. Guess what? They weren't yours to begin with. Where on earth did you ever get the idea that you OWNED everything and that everyone OWED things to you? No one ever OWED you anything. The 1950s were not a gentler, simpler time when everyone knew their place. It was a time of terror and horror for a lot of folks who had different skin tones, phenotype, gender and sexual identities. And guess what? White men are doing pretty well last time I checked. They make up the majority of people in positions of power--in corporate America, as judges, in Congress, in education, on police forces, as fire fighters. We got one. We got Barack Obama as President of the United States...FOR THE FIRST TIME IN THREE CENTURIES. Every other president has been a WHITE MAN and now we have a mixed-race African American President. BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT RACISM IS OVER OR THAT THE FUNDAMENTAL POWER STRUCTURE IN THE UNITED STATES HAS CHANGED.

So the next time you want to say that Barack Obama's election means that we are living in a post-racial America, don't be surprised if someone secretly or not so secretly rolls their eyes at you or if someone stares at you long and hard. They are staring at you because your attitude antiquates you so much--blinds you to the reality of race in America and what real racism looks like--that they are probably surprised that you can walk around without tripping over yourself since your shortsightedness must make it hard for you to navigate our mixed race American world.

[Rant ends, rationality may start to set in again...but I'm sure I can get fired up in the comment section, if need be]

[Update: Friday, July 24: I'm watching "Morning Joe" on MSNBC and the coverage of the Gates incident and the issue of President Obama weighing in and saying that he thought the Cambridge police acted "stupidly" is driving me CRAZY! The blond female anchor sees SHOCKED that Gates would have called Sergeant Crowley racist (if he did, indeed, call him a racist since that's one of the issues under dispute--this anchor woman wants to somehow push the idea that this story is NOT about race at all! AGHHH!!!! AND she seems to think that Obama just made everything WORSE by talking about it. But you know what? Obama knew EXACTLY what he was doing when he called on that reporter at the end of his health care conference. He said that he wanted to leave time at the end of the conference to get to her question, and then the reporter from the Chicago-Sun Times asked about Gates. Obama had to have known or guessed the topic of her question. And he's not backing down or taking back what he said, and I'm glad. Because he just made the issue of racial profiling national headlines. And yes, we're seeing a lot of ugly stuff coming out. But we're also hearing story upon story by black and brown men (and some women) not nearly as famous as Gates tell their own stories about how they've been harassed by the police or other authorities. I also have to say that Mike Barnacle (who is white) and another one of their corresopndents (whose name is Carlos and is black) are the two people who are INSISTING that race absolutely played a role in this incident and that a white man wouldn't have been arrested outside his home once he was identified as the homeowner. I just want to knock some sense into these people--the mainstream media is part of the problem here--they're interviewing the white officer but no one, NO ONE is giving credence to Professor Gates's statement or the reports from The Root, because apparently a black man can't be objective about his own story so we're going to take the side of the white police officer. AGHHH!!!!!!]

[Second Update, July 24 @9:45pm: So I came home after being at an all day conference and learned that President Obama has apologized for using the word "stupidly" to characterize the actions of the Cambridge Police Department, although he does not apologize for the sentiments he expressed at Wednesday's press conference nor does he back down from his belief in the problem of racial profiling in this case and many others in the nation. In reading this article in The New York Times, I became so FRUSTRATED by the Cambridge police believing that they were OWED an apology by Obama for his remarks--and they say that it is Professor Gates who turned this into a "racial" situation, completely IGNORING the racism that propelled the 911 call by Lucia Whalen. And is it just me, or do others find it weird that Gates is giving Whalen a "pass" on her racial profiling and he's focusing his rage, instead, on Officer Crowley and the other officers. (Sigh).]

OK, rant once again over.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

White people built this country and other lies by Pat Buchanan

I'm sure for those of you who either watch Rachel Maddow or who follow left-wing blogs, the news of Pat Buchanan going on Rachel Maddow's show and saying a bunch of crazy, right-wing, racist, b.s. is not new news. If you didn't get to catch him in the act, let me refer you to the clip below.

Ahhh...affirmative action discriminates against white males. Sonia Sotomayor is a suspect candidate because of her "bias" as a Latina woman. And "this is a country built basically by white folk."


Let me direct you to others who have already said what I feel too frustrated to say:

*The Advocate

*What Tami Said


*This Week in Blackness

And by the way, since Pat Buchanan thinks that white folks are victimized by people of color in today's society, I say go out and hug your white friends today and reassure them that you are not trying to subjugate them with your racial bias. Really, Stephen Colbert says it best in this piece on neutrality -- go to Stuff White People Do for some great analysis and to see the clip of Stephen Colbert.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Opening a stuck door while black can now get you arrested

On Thursday, July 16, 2009 at approximately 12:45pm, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a prominent and esteemed professor of African American Studies, a man who directs the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and who holds a university professorship (there are only 20 at Harvard) was arrested outside his home after police responded to a 911 call by a white female jogger who reported two black men breaking into a home in the afternoon. The men in question turned out to be Professor Gates, who had just returned from a trip to China where he was filming part of a documentary, and the driver who picked him up from the airport, who was assisting Prof. Gates with his luggage.

[Photo of Gates from 2008]

Ultimately the charge that got him arrested was disorderly conduct/resisting arrest--because Gates demanded the officer show him his identification (badge) and give him his name, and he was apparently understandably upset that the police were racially profiling him IN HIS OWN HOME after returning to the U.S. on a transpacific flight that was at least 15 hours long (I've done it--it's long and exhausting).

For more on this story, you can see this AP wire piece on the ABC website and The Root has a statement released by Gates' attorney, notable and esteemed African American law professor, Charles Ogletree--you can also download a copy of the police report on The Root website.

Racial profiling in the Cambridge, MA area has finally reached an all-time low where a black man can be arrested in front of his own home for simply trying to open a stuck door. Who are those people claiming that since we have a black president we now live in a post-racial world? Does anyone believe for a minute that if Barack Obama weren't quite such a well-known face and figure that the results would have been any different? Or if Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods lived in more modest homes and weren't instantly recognizable, couldn't we imagine the scenario playing out the same way in Illinois, California, Florida? Post-racial my ***!

[Update: 10:30pm: Charges against Dr. Gates have been dropped--the City of Cambridge (my former hometown while in grad school) has said that what happened to Gates was "regrettable" and the Cambridge Police spokesperson claims that "This incident should not be viewed as one that demeans the character and reputation of professor Gates or the character of the Cambridge Police Department." For more on the dropped charges click here for the All Things Considered piece (which you can listen to) on NPR and click here for a piece that NPR did about racial profiling (which you can also listen to). Additionally, we now know more about the woman who placed that 911 call that started this whole mess. Her name is Lucia Whalen and she is the Circulation and Fundraising Manager for Harvard Magazine. She is a 40 year-old white woman who lives in Malden, and Harvard Magazine took down her email address from their website because I'm sure this woman was receiving a LOAD of painful email--which honestly she deserves because how can you work for Harvard Magazine, whose doors are literally a few doors down from Gates' residence and NOT recognize Henry Louis Gates Jr., and even if you didn't recognize your neighbor and one of the most famous professors at Harvard, how could you not recognize the black town car parked in front of the house--the luggage--the fact that the driver was dressed in a suit and tie--and how could you add all this up and think that two black men were trying to rob a house IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY? Shame on YOU Lucia Whalen...shame on you. And shame on the Cambridge Police department and Sergeant James Crowley for making the initial arrest. Gates is demanding an apology by Sergeant Crowley, but regardless of whether Crowley apologize or not, Gates is keeping his options open for a lawsuit against the police force and city. Guess we haven't heard the last of this saga.]

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Journey to the West -- short film

Check out this cool short film by Lawrence Chen, a recent graduate of Duke University who got an invitation to screen this film at Cannes:

[Tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man]

You can find out more about this talented filmmaker at his website (click here). I hope we will be seeing more of his films (longer versions) in the years to come!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Remembering Walter Cronkite

On Friday, July 17, 2009, Walter Cronkite died in his NY home at the age of 92. I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of Walter Cronkite--he always seemed to be on t.v. And while I wasn't even born when he covered the news of the 1960s (his half hour interview with JFK, breaking the news of JFK's death, announcing the death of Martin Luther King Jr., being on-air when Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon--I always knew he was an important voice in news broadcasting.

And oddly enough, perhaps I first gained respect for Walter Cronkite not through watching his broadcasts but in reading a children's book when I was around eight or nine, Lizard Music by Daniel Manus Pinkwater, because in this book the hero/protagonist is a huge Walter Cronkite fan. And rather than thinking that was odd, it made me also want to watch Walter Cronkite cover the news (which probably says a lot about how geeky I was/am and my budding love of politics).

Anyway, in honor of Walter Cronkite's life--particularly his esteemed title as "the most trusted man in America" I leave you with this article from The New York Times and a video piece (click here for the link--I wasn't able to embed it successfully into this post) that discusses his coverage of the JFK assassination and the very human emotions he showed when finally announcing the death of JFK. In particular, at the end of the piece below, Cronkite, tearing up again at the memory of JFK Jr. saluting the coffin of his father, says that anchor's aren't supposed to cry. Maybe so, but I think everyone is glad that he did.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

My new favorite website: This Week in Blackness

For those of you who saw Monday's post, you'll notice that I closed with a video from the Brooklyn Comedy Company and their show/blog/website, "This Week in Blackness."

Editor-in-chief and chief talking-head, Elon James White, is featured in a series of videos discussing different aspects of "black" America. I have been going through their archive all weekend and found myself laughing out loud at times and at others shaking my head and saying "Yes!"

So check out their site (click here) and let me leave you with this particular piece from early on in Season 1, where they talk about white privilege and encourage someone to give Tim Wise a hug (and I whole-heartedly agree--someone SHOULD give Tim Wise a hug!):

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Save the U.C. System

[An Open Letter to the President of the California State Senate and Lt. Governor of California, John Garamendi]

July 16, 2009

Capitol Office
State Capitol, Room 1114
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: 916.445.8994
Fax: 916.323.4998

Dear Lt. Governor John Garamendi,

I am writing to you as a former resident of the state of California and an alum of the University of California at Santa Barbara because I am deeply concerned about the impending budget cuts that are about to hit the U.C. system (and I should mention the CSU, community college, and K-12 system as well). The cuts to the U.C. system has hit national news, and two different blogs that I read have also covered the upcoming crisis about to hit the U.C. system. And most recently I received a letter (as a UCSB alum) from the U.C. Regents urging me to become engaged in the fight to save the U.C. system from extreme budget cuts, such as the one described in this particular sentence:
"In the past 20 years, the amount of money allotted to the University through the state budget has fallen dramatically: General Fund support for a UC student stood at $15,860 in 1990. If current budget projections hold, it will drop this year to $7,680."

I applaud your efforts to be the lone voice of dissent at the most recent U.C. Regents board meeting--and I agree that we need to fight fiercely now in defense of the university system. And I want to add my voice to that fight, even from afar. I know others do as well, since there is a petition circulating to stop U.C. budget cuts.

I am a product of the public school system. From kindergarten to UCSB, I attended CA public schools and received a quality education, even in a working-class/middle-class neighborhood that wasn't expected to send its students on to ivy league schools, let alone four-year universities. Many of my college-bound classmates went to a UC school, a CSU school, or the local community college with expectations of transferring into a CSU or UC after their A.A. I was so inspired, while at UCSB, by the number of friends and relatives I had who took this specific route--attending a community college and then transferring into a U.C. school, that I decided I wanted to become a college professor and to work at a school whose commitment to its students were similar to the California state university system. The California state university model has allowed so many students, like myself, to earn a degree and to imagine career possibilities that seemed like a pipe dream when I was in elementary school. One of California's strength has been this model, and as a beneficiary I am saddened that the state may turn its back on students who want a quality education at a price they can afford.

I know that there are tough choices that the state government has to make, and I don't envy the hard decisions that the government and the residents of California must face; they are similar to the tough choices that we are all experiencing across the nation, especially those of us who teach in higher ed. I know this is just one letter, but I'm hopeful that my letter, along with the letters of many others and the petition signatures as well as phone calls, faxes, and email messages to your office and others throughout the California legislature may send a message to the government and citizens of California that the U.C. system should be protected from severe budget cuts.

The U.C. system is where ethnic studies was born on the West Coast. It's where Asian American studies and the Chicano studies movement and pan-racial coalitions began. The U.C. system is where Angela Davis teaches and where the first Asian American chancellor took office and where students went on hunger strikes to demand an ethnic studies requirement system-wide in the late 1980s. The U.C. system is where my consciousness was raised, where I became a feminist, where I became a queer ally, where I began to put together the pieces of how power operates, where I first learned the word hegemony, and where I developed my passion for Asian American literature, mixed-race studies, and social justice issues.

Please--help make my letter be part of a movement to save the U.C. system.

The blogger of Mixed Race America

[If you are an alum of the U.C. system, please consider signing this petition. If you are a resident of California, you can click here to find your state legislative representative and write a letter in support of the U.C. system, and if you are out-of-state, like myself, you can email Garamendi's office by clicking here or you can write your own letter to his address at the top of this blog post]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Whiteness and masculinity are NOT default settings

Years ago, while I was in graduate school, I taught an introduction to fiction class and received my very favorite *anonymous* student evaluation at the end of the semester. It began by saying I was hands-down the worst teacher this student had ever had, and then went on to enumerate all my teaching sins, among which was that I concentrated too much on issues of feminism and ethnicity, taught only women and minority writers, and moreover (and here's my favorite part) that I

"taught from a female centered perspective"*

*These are the ACTUAL words the student used in the evaluation--I memorized them because I liked them so much.

Why did I love this evaluation? Because for one brief and shining moment, I got under the skin of this student--I challenged, even in a subconscious way, what an authority figure looked like in the classroom, by virtue of my gender and ethnicity. I was a woman of color teaching fiction and because of my identity, the student's reaction to the literature became colored through the prism of my body. The syllabus contained exactly 7 novels/short stories written by women and 7 novels/short stories written by men, and, incredibly enough, 7 novels/short stories written by people of color and 7 novels/short stories written by white people. I did not plan this; I chose works by writers I like who had interesting tales to tell. I put Austen together with Ondaatje with Achebe and Atwood. For this student, true parity looked like partiality--actual equality appeared to be majority rules, with the voices of women and people of color dominating, in his mind, the discourse.

But to get back to his actual language, what seemed to disturb him most was my "female centered perspective"--but just HOW ELSE should a woman professor teach? Was I supposed to somehow mimic a MALE perspective? And furthermore, what is the problem with teaching from a perspective that organically came from my identity as a woman? Clearly, for this student, a woman teaching from a female centered perspective was not teaching from a legitimate or authoritative position. Yet for one semester, I did precisely this. I taught this student and he was so twisted up by this change to his worldview, that he had to vent his frustration at me at the end of the semester.

And I am reminded of this evaluation after reading about Judge Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings and, specifically, the relentless line of questioning she kept getting from Republicans over some of her biased (and in the Republican pundit world "racist") language and words she used in various speeches in which she claimed that her identity--her Puerto Rican background, her female gender--has an impact on her experiences, the way she sees the world, and hence her decision making.

[Note: I'm assuming that if you are here, we are on the same page about the accurate definition of racism--one borne out of decades of scholarship on this subject--but in case you need a refresher, let me direct you to the sidebar where my post "Defining Racism" should help explain some things about this term--and there are of course several other posts in which I talk about racism and what it means in our society]

OK, so I don't think I have to get into how ridiculous it is to charge Judge Sotomayor for being a racist because she once said that

"a “wise Latina woman” might reach better conclusions than white males without the same experiences"*

*taken from a New York Times article

And here's the thing, she's right. Experience matters--being able to understand the nuances of a situation matters. Knowing what it feels like to be a person of color subject to oppressive forms of discrimination based on race matters. And if you parse her quote, she didn't say that a Latina woman is absolutely better equipped to judge--she said that this person *might* reach better conclusions. And she didn't talk about making rulings or judgments--she said conclusions.

Why did no one question John Roberts about his worldview coloring his experiences and his conclusions? Why do we assume that fairness, being unbiased, being a reliable authority comes from being male and white? For my student, my gender (and implicitly my race/ethnicity) rendered my ability to be objective null and void. And it would seem that for those questioning Judge Sotomayor's previous speeches about her identity as a Latina woman raised in a working-class environment, they also felt that she could not be trusted with handing down unbiased judgments--that her very capacity as an authority figure was rendered suspect by her race and gender.


The only thing I feel encouraged about is that everyone feels her nomination will be a fairly open and shut case. Which means that very soon we'll once again have two women on the bench and, for the first time, two people of color and our first Latina female Supreme Court Justice. And maybe, just maybe, Judge Sotomayor will help people to realize that wise Latina women DO come to excellent conclusions based on their life experiences.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Brian Kilmeade thinks that Americans mix too much with other "species"

I don't really have much to say about this clip--it pretty much speaks for itself and others (Angry Asian Man, Gawker, The Faster Times, Huffington Post, Salon) have already weighed in (and I'm sure I'm missing a lot more blog posts about this).

Really, between The Valley Club and Fox and Friends, the instances of blatant and bald racism just keep on coming. Puts that whole idea of "post-racial American" to rest, doesn't it?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Protest The Valley Club--say NO to racism

By now most of you are familiar with the racism that has occurred at The Valley Club, a private swim club in Montgomery County, PA, a suburb outside of Philadelphia. In a nutshell, here's what happened (taken from this Chicago CBS affiliate news piece):

The Creative Steps camp in Northeast Philadelphia had contracted for 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon to The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, camp director Alethea Wright said Thursday. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments.

"A couple of the children ran down saying, 'Miss Wright, Miss Wright, they're up there saying, 'What are those black kids doing here?"'

Wright said she went to talk to a group of members at the top of the hill and heard one woman say she would see to it that the group, made of up of children in kindergarten through seventh grade, did not return.

"Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded," Wright said. "Only three members left their children in the pool with us."

Several days later, the club refunded the camp's $1,950 without explanation, said Wright, who added that some parents are "weighing their options" on legal action.

In case there is any doubt about the real motivation for the refund, in the immediate aftermath of this debacle, the club president, John Duesler, explained that

"There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club."

(click here to see the original quote in this story)

Let me now direct you to two blogs and their insightful/outraged/thoughtful posts on this story:


*Anti-Racist Parent

And if you are feeling incensed--let me urge you to channel that anger into action. At the most minimal level, you can let people know about this issue. Feel free to forward this post to others or write your own mass email, and please do link to this site for and sign their on-line petition to protest the actions of The Valley Club.

You can also go one step further and actually send a letter--a stamped-and-addressed-envelope-U.S. Postal Service-delivered letter to

The Valley Club
22 Tomlinson Rd
Huntingdon Vly, PA 19006
(215) 947-0700‎

[You can, of course, call and register your protest, although I imagine they aren't answering their phone due to heavy call volume of angry Americans protesting their racist members, but check it out for yourself! Then there's the handy email address to register your distress, although I think snail-mail, in our digital/new media age, really sends a message that you are SO PISSED OFF at this incident you are actually spending time and money to MAIL something]

What you should know is that Senator Arlen Specter has asked for a Federal Civil Rights investigation against the club. Lets hope justice prevails.

Finally, here's a clip from "This Week in Blackness" that really says it all:

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Afro-Asia connection

Yet another tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man for this super-cool photo from back in the day:

Would Bob Marley be rolling over in his grave or am I being oversensitive?

This morning someone sent me this video of Bob Marley's song "Three Little Birds" being covered by Britain's Got Talent's young 6-year old phenom, Connie Talbot:

Now, I know that it's not fair to rip on a little girl. And I'm not trying to quibble about Talbot's talents (although I am personally not fond of young children's voices doing covers of some of my favorite songs), but when I watched the above video, I had a viscerally NEGATIVE reaction to hearing and more importantly SEEING the image of this blond, white British child covering black Jamaican Bob Marley's song, all the while traipsing about the island and coming to the aid of the poor beleagured black Jamaican children in her video.

It reminded me of the scene from Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye where an adolescent African American girl, Pecola, explains why she hates blue eyed, blond haired baby dolls--why she wanted to gouge out their eyes -- why she HATED these dolls and only later, as she grew older, did she learn to turn that hatred into love, a very twisted form of love born out of being conditioned to SEE the blue-eyed, blond haired doll as being the epitome of beauty and worthy of love and affection.

And so I just have to wonder, do the little black Jamaican girls in the music video feel like they wish THEY could be singing Bob Marley's song and making a video where THEY are the one's covering the song by this man who is from THEIR country, who is like THEM and not like the blond little white girl who is here on Easter vacation but who will go back to her own island nation--the same island nation that had colonized Jamaica, killed off the indigenous people, and enslaved men and women who were the ancestors of the little black girls in the video as well as Bob Marley.

[OK, before everyone jumps all over me, let me say that yes I do recognize that the racial politics of Jamaica are complex and reducing Marley or any of these girls into "black" Jamaicans obscures a history of racial mixing (one borne out of violence in many ways) and ignores the multiracial and multiethnic history of Jamaica--but if you go to the sidebar or search for my past Jamaican posts, you'll get a sense of me writing about this topic already]

Am I over-analyzing? Perhaps. It's what I do. So in an effort to show you that I am open to acknowledging the author's intention, let me direct you to an excerpt of the lyrics for "Three Little Birds" and a wiki answer for what those bird symbolize within the song:

"Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right.
Singin': "Don't worry about a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"

Rise up this mornin',
Smiled with the risin' sun,
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin' sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin', ("This is my message to you-ou-ou:")

Singin': "Don't worry 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right."
Singin': "Don't worry (don't worry) 'bout a thing,
'Cause every little thing gonna be all right!"

So a lot of sites talk about how the 3 little birds are a reference to the holy trinity or another biblical reference about birds and forgiveness and love, or that the 3 little birds are a reference to Marley's 3 backup singers. But according to the booklet in Marley's Songs of Freedom,

"When Bob and his brethren at the Island House would pick the cannabis seeds out, the birds would eat them off the floor"

Which means, when you re-read the lyrics, it's basically about how smoking weed helps you to relax and not worry. Which also puts the above video by little Miss Talbot in an odd context...a six-year old endorsing marijuana use to chill out.

And in case, like me, you needed to get the above video (and voice) out of your head, here's "Three Little Birds" sung by the one and only Bob Marley:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The ebony & ivory approach to race relations

On Monday the New York Times had an article headline that declared "Interracial Roommates Can Reduce Prejudice." There are, apparently, studies that show that if interracial roommates (and although the language in the article refers to "roommates of different races" there is an assumption that "interracial" refers to a white and black roommate) can tough it out beyond the 10 week mark, then what the study discovers is that the white roommate undergoes a type of transformation in which s/he has less bigoted beliefs towards black people.

So, of course, I have a couple of thoughts:

*I wish the article was more explicit and detailed and careful in their use of language. Although, as noted above, they refer to roommates of different races, the article only references specific white-black interracial roommate pairings. Which is fine. But then, the article should not conflate "interracial" with white-black or even majority-minority pairings. For instance, are Latino-Asian roommates reducing their levels of prejudice against each other? Against other non-white races? Or even against whites? What about white-American Indian roommates--in other words, does the improved view of race relations hold for other majority-minority pairings other than black-white?

*Actually, there is an oddly worded paragraph that suggests that the studies in question, by Ohio and Indiana, are specifically showing positive effects for black-white pairings and NOT other types because:

Several studies have shown that living with a roommate of a different race changes students’ attitudes. One, from the University of California at Los Angeles, generally found decreased prejudice among students with different-race roommates — but those who roomed with Asian-Americans, the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice, became more prejudiced themselves.

WTF??? OK, so my first quibble is wording (because I taught grammar and composition for years while in grad school). The parenthetical phrase embedded in the last sentence, "the group that scored the highest on measures of prejudice"--does that mean that Asian Americans ARE the most prejudiced of racial groups--that Asian Americans exhibit more bigotry and racist values than others? And are Asian Americans haters towards all other groups or specific races/ethnicities?

[Aside: This reminds me of the strangest interview question I've ever been asked. It was years ago, at a small liberal arts college the nation. An octogenerian white male professor asked me: "It's clear that you can teach Japanese students, but how do you feel about teaching Filipino and Korean students?" Generally baffled, I asked him to rephrase the question, assuming I misheard or misunderstood. The interviewer repeated the question, and I answered perfunctorily (I think my generic response was something like, "I will teach any student who walks through the door of my classroom") but what I REALLY wanted to say, assuming I was going to throw that job away, was "Well, Filipino students, sure I can teach them but don't get me near a Korean student because I will just EXPLODE." Guess this guy assumed Asian Americans were a pretty prejudiced group--against one another!]

*My other beef with that above quotation is the idea that living with an Asian American means you will develop into a more bigoted individual. Really? Asian Americans are such a viral group that we will infect others with our prejudice, passing it along like the swine flu?

And furthermore, it's unclear who the target of the prejudice is. If a white guy has a Chinese American roommate, will the white guy become MORE racist towards all races or specifically towards Asian Americans?

*My other big thought about this study is the burden placed on the roommate of color; in the terms of the article, it's specifically the burden placed on black college students paired with white students I want to address. Because the person they interview for the article, Sam Boakye, said that he worked HARDER as a freshman in his classes in order to prevent his white roommate from thinking bad things about black people:

“If you’re surrounded by whites, you have something to prove,” said Mr. Boakye, now a rising senior who was born in Ghana. “You’re pushed to do better, to challenge the stereotype that black people are not that smart.”

Now, it's an interesting twist on the Claude Steel study about stereotype threat. And in some ways there may be a spark of truth, at least I can relate, to Boakye's sentiments--because I definitely felt that way in grad school. But even if it yields good results for Boakye personally (and academically) and yields potentially good results for his white roommate, who must now change his opinions about African Americans' intelligence levels, it still puts the burden on the black roommate rather than the white roommate. In other words, it's up to the black student to help the white student overcome his bigotry. And that's just a lot of responsibility to put on the black student.

But the truth is, it's always there--that pressure to "represent" and hence help change racial attitudes. And while I'm heartened to know that there are some studies that suggest that things do improve under the "Ebony & Ivory" approach to race relations in college dorms, I also want more. I want a more progressive and sustained effort on behalf of white Americans, especially WHITE ALLIES and by other people of color, cross racially and ethnically so that we're not placing the burden, always, on the person who has to "represent" his/her race/gender/sexuality/religion/fill-in-the-blank identity marker.

Finally, for those of you who grew up on MTV music videos from the '80s, here's a flash backwards to the original "Ebony & Ivory":

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Re: A response to Kristof's "Best Kids' Books Ever"

Yesterday, as I was perusing the New York Times, I noticed that columnist Nicholas Kristof has a list of "The Best Kids' Books Ever." Since I LOVE reading and developed my love of reading as a child, I was interested in his list.

So I guess a few caveats about Kristof and his list. To the best of my knowledge, he's not an expert. What I mean is, his academic training isn't as a Children's librarian, in reading education, or education/English at all. I'm sure he is a father (I think he alludes to this) and thus has as much "hands on" experience as any parent engaged with their children. I mention this because I'm trying to cut Kristof some slack, because I was, quite frankly, a bit shocked at his list.

My first reaction is, it's pretty antiquated. And I use that word purposely--he's got Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Prince and the Pauper on his list. Now don't get me wrong--some of the best stories that the world has produced are its oldest stories. But Kristof opens his piece by citing stats about U.S. levels of literacy and reading levels, and particularly lamenting the gaps that emerge with kids who don't come from affluent backgrounds or rigorous school districts--lower-middle, and working class kids essentially. He actually refers to them as "poor" kids (which, to the best of my knowledge, has a certain condescending ring to it, although it's also brutally honest I think in some cases).

Anyway, Kristof seems to offer his list as a exhortation to these "poor" families to get their kids to read rather than to be stuck in front of the Ninetendo wii all day. And yet, who does he thinks he's talking to? I mean, first of all, kids who grow up in working class families and communities are not going to rush out to read Little Lord Fauntleroy or the Hardy Boys series. I mean, some will and will love it, but those are the kids who are readers and who take a flashlight to bed and spend all their time in the library. We aren't worried about those kids, whatever class background they come from. The real question is, how do you get the kid who hates to read--who doesn't see anything in the books s/he is assigned in school and who doesn't see his/her LIFE reflected in these books--to start reading? Having books that either take place in the late 20th early 21st century or that were written in this time period may just be one place to start.

But my other beef with Kristof's list is its unrelenting MALE-ness. I mean, he does list Charlotte's Web as his #1 book, but if you look down the list, at the books that HE remembers liking and reading, it's no surprise that most of them have male protagonists or fairly masculine themes or were written by male writers (including Charlotte's Web, although I am a big E.B. White fan).

Let me be clear, it's not that I don't appreciate kids' books written by men or with male characters/protagonists. But this is Kristof's list for kids--all kids, not just little boys who grew up in predominantly white suburban families. With the exception of Anne of Green Gables and the author J.K. Rowling, it's a pretty masculine list--and he makes a fairly disparaging comment about Nancy Drew that I particularly take offense to, given the fact that Nancy Drew, as a children's book series, emerged at a time when there just weren't a lot of female literary role models for young girls to draw on. Books that Kristof failed to mention, either written by women or featuring strong girl characters include: The Little House on the Prairie book series, works by Madeline L'Engle, such as A Wrinkle in Time, Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Series, a truly wonderful series of fantasy books with a central male character (like Harry Potter) but with equally strong female characters and lovely writing, plotting, character development, and works by Ellen Raskin, particularly The Westing Game, one of my favorites (and I should note that Raskin is one of the few writers to include multicultural characters in fairly nuanced ways).

Which brings me to my final bone of contention with Kristof's list: his vision of race in kids' literature. It's pretty white. No, let me amend that. It's ALL white. Maybe with the exception of a few characters in the Harry Potter series (like Cho Chang and others, but they are not main characters) there are no characters of color and there are no writers of color in his list. My guess is that at least some (dare I saw 1/3) of the "poor" people that Kristof is trying to reach out to with this list are people of color, families of color (I'd guess for some of his readers when they read "poor" they are equating "black/Latino" in their minds, but let us not forget that many rural poor families in the South and mid-West are poor WHITE families--and there are also urban poor white families as well, which isn't to say that there isn't a correlation between race and class, especially given the way that racism has operated in this nation, but you all know that already so I'll stop preaching it).

What was I saying?

Oh yeah, race. Or rather the fact that Kristof's vision of his "best" kids' books are a rather monochromatic lot. And even if all the "poor" kids he envisions are white kids, don't they still deserve to read about non-white kids? In fact, in a mixed-race America--given the demographics of race and ethnicity in America, it seems criminal nowadays not to acknowledge that the world is really racially diverse. So giving kids a list of books to read that doesn't help them see a variety of races and cultures and ethnicities (and I mean I don't even know where to begin with sexuality and I already covered gender) just seems to be of PARAMOUNT importance.

While I was in grad school I paid the bills by working for a summer program that mentored high school kids, predominantly non-white, helping to prep them to get into college. We assigned a common reading, a novel, to them, and my second summer with the program I recommended Frank Chin's Donald Duk as an appropriate reading level book, but more importantly, as a book that the kids in the program (about 1/3 of them were SouthEast Asian) could relate to. It was a big hit--not just among the Asian American kids but among the black and Latino and white kids as well. They could relate to the main character, Donald, and his feelings of ethnic self hatred and his feelings of pride that eventually grew. But especially for the Asian American boys in the program, they said that this was the first time they read a book with someone who "looked" like them--who had similar experiences and who came from similar class and ethnic backgrounds. They were profoundly moved by the experience of reading Donald Duk, and I was profoundly moved by how much literature could make a difference--the right literature. There were kids who had JUST learned English the year before, who really struggled to get through the book--but they said it was the first time they read a book in English that they enjoyed--that they finished AHEAD of schedule.

So the last thing I want to leave you with, dear readers, is a plea for some suggestions of your own--ones that will combat the whiteness, the maleness, and the out-of-touch nature of Kristof's list (and especially if you have suggestions about works that touch on sexuality, that'd be great). I'm a bit out of the loop with the world of kids' books. I grew up reading (and loving) books like The Phantom Toll Booth and fantasy works by Lloyd Alexander (like the Prydain series). But I know that the world of kids' books has really grown since the mid-1970s (thank Goodness!) and works by writers like Allen Say have grown in popularity, so hearing your suggestions in the comment section will help all of us have a better sense of what "Best Kids' Books" should be on the reading list of a Mixed Race America.

[UPDATE: This post has been cross-listed on the Anti-Racist Parent blog (click here) and California NOW (click here). Thought I'd mention these cross-postings because especially on Anti-Racist Parent, there are some great suggestions for kids' books that are much more diverse than Kristof's list]

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Independence Day -- Free your mind

Today is July 4th--Independence Day. This has never been a big holiday for me or my family. Not for any particular reason--more because it was a holiday that took place during the summer, so often my friends were out of town. Also, celebrating the Fourth of July in the California suburbs really meant having a bbq and some sparklers.

Of course, now that I'm older and understand the fuller history of the U.S. (the one that most of us weren't taught in our high school history and civics courses), the Fourth of July becomes a bit problematic when considering just who gets to celebrate "independence." But here's the thing--nothing is ever static. We can choose to celebrate today not as the ultimate expression of U.S. patriotism but as a day that we choose to free our mind--to understand the real history of the U.S. (in all its complicated, ugly, and yet progressive wonder), to recognize the progress we've made (and the costs of that progress), and to work harder to make this a nation that reflects the values we believe in--values that are for everyone.

So, for a different take on the Fourth of July, let me direct you to this Weekend America piece, "A Native American Take on Independence"--you should definitely click on the audio link and listen to the various First Nations people that they interviewed; there's a particularly funny bit that they excerpt from the film Smoke Signals, a 1998 film based on work by American Indian author Sherman Alexie.

Here's a trailer to the film Smoke Signals:

And for nostalgia's sake (and I'm talking to all you 30-somethings out there) here's how most of us learned to recite the Preamble to the Constitution (thank you School House Rock!). What I find interesting about this piece is the revisioninst history embedded within it--the jury box in the 18th C. has black Americans and women, and these would NOT be people allowed to serve on juries (or vote or be fully enfranchised citizens until the 20th C.), so in a way this little piece was trying re-vision history the way we'd like it to be (plus I don't think anyone ever put a big "O.K." stamp on the constitution...)

Friday, July 3, 2009

America and the myth of meritocracy

The Fourth of July holiday weekend is upon us. Fireworks, backyard bbqs, and a rhetoric of freedom and democracy permeate the air in the U.S. right now. And so I think it's appropriate to think about the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that will have lasting repercussions for how we think about race and hiring. Very specifically and recently, the Supreme Court ruled (5-4) in favor of the white fire fighters (and sole Latino) from New Haven who sued the City of New Haven for throwing out test scores that would have been used for the promotion of fire fighters into leadership positions. And in today's New York Times, there is an article about the sole Latino firefighter, Ben Vargas, and the flack that he has been receiving from other fire fighters of color and his resolve and reasoning for going ahead with the lawsuit, to quote Mr. Vargas (who is of Puerto Rican descent) on the impact this will have on his sons, he said:

“I want them to have a fair shake, to get a job on their merits and not because they’re Hispanic or they fill a quota”

Merit. There lies the rub. Mr. Vargas earlier in the article declared himself to be an "American" and that as proud as he is of being Puerto Rican, the opportunities he has for advancement could happen no place but in the United States. Mr. Vargas, the white firefighters, in the suit, and their attorney all believe in a system of meritocracy--in fact, their lawyer, Karen Lee Torre declared that the men had

“become a symbol for millions of Americans who have grown tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity.”

It all sounds good on its face. Lets evaluate people solely on merit. Let the person who does the best job get the job. Let the person who is the best manager/leader secure the promotion.

But don't we all realize that this is NOT the way it works? And the idea that affirmative action is being touted as an unfair system of racial preference is galling.

Because let me say that I agree with Ms. Torre. I think that plenty of people are tired of seeing individual achievement and merit take a back seat to race and ethnicity--except I like to refer to it as the period of U.S. history starting from colonial times before the Republic had taken shape through to our present day when implicit biases let alone conscious feelings/values of discrimination plague all Americans.

If we are supposed to celebrate freedom and democracy this weekend, let me remind everyone that the U.S. was founded on free and cheap labor, mainly by people who were darker or more foreign than the European colonists and eventual Euro-Americans who gained power and prominence in this country. So there is something to celebrate for the darker Mediterranean European immigrants who were originally vilified and then overcame their inherent "ethnic" difference to melt into the pot of American idealism. But for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and the numerous American Indian tribes "melting" wasn't really ever an option and centuries of messages about racialized "difference" and the values of discrimination and prejudice are hard to overcome. That they have been to the extent that we have many important people of color in powerful positions is something to celebrate. And I'm not even referring to Barack Obama's election--even before Obama there have been numerous people of color who lived through Jim Crow discrimination or faced other hostile climates in which they were told that they were less-than or un-American. And they succeeded to top posts and positions of authority.

But here's the thing. Prejudice--our gut level reaction to someone of a different race, or even someone of our same race--that stuff is so embedded in our individual AND collective psyches, it's hard to overcome. And we can't learn to dismantle bigotry until we recognize it and own it and work to understand just how privilege operates. And to understand that if someone is living with oppression in this nation, then we aren't really the land of the free.

I know I'm mainly preaching to the choir on this issue, but for those of you skeptical or on the fence (or for those of you wanting to find more rationales to help you combat others' assertions that we are living in a color-blind, postracial world) let me direct you to some interesting articles/resources:

*The Myth of Meritocracy. Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller Jr. of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, have published an article and a book on the myth of meritocracy. They have some compelling evidence for why meritocracy isn't a truly equitable means of distribution in the U.S.--why the myth of the "American Dream" has brainwashed us into thinking that we are all capable of lifting ourselves up and getting ahead on our individual merit/talent/intelligence without recognizing systems of inequity that have always plagued U.S. society (and really, racism/white privilege is but one--discrimination based on gender/sexuality/religion/class have also predominated within U.S. history).

*Claude Steele's research on stereotype threat is still as pertinent today as it was when he first began running his lab at Stanford--and the article in The Atlantic "Thin Ice: Stereotype Threat and Black College Students" in 1999 is still relevant 10 years later on the subject of why biases and prejudices impact our own abilities.

*Raina Kelley has an interesting piece in this week's Newsweek, "The Roots of Racism: What we don't know can hurt us"--in particular, you should think about the IAT...

*The IAT: Implicit Association Test. This was a test developed by researchers to measure our internal biases and prejudices. There are a variety of tests you can take on-line. I did one measuring connections between Asian Americans vs. European Americans and which group is more "American" and/or "Foreign." Interestingly my score said that I have a slight bias towards believing that Asian Americans are more "American" and that European Americans are more "foreign." In some respects I'm not surprised, since I've been trained through my PhD and my current research to really react to any associations of Asians as foreign--apparently so much so that I see Asian Americans as REALLY American. Anyway, you should try it for yourself (click here).

There you go. Four links for some Fourth of July reading on what it means to be an American in today's society. By all means, enjoy the fireworks and the hot dogs and hamburgers. And celebrate America's birth as a nation. But also remember that while we talk about freedom and democracy and who counts as a "real" American, we need to remember that not everyone feels these things and maybe being a real American is understanding our past history, warts and all, and working to make a better future. After all, open dissent and criticism is probably the most American act you can participate in.