Sunday, September 21, 2008

On Race and Competitive Sports

I love sports. More specifically, I love competitive team sports. And, above all else, I love American football. I'm also Asian. So what's up with that?

This is a post a long time in coming. The topic is one I've seen addressed a few times, but to such an unsatisfying (and disastrous) level that it makes me a little bit crazy. I seldom see anyone "on the inside" address it. And I've NEVER seen it addressed by someone "on the inside" who also has a hefty dose of science in their background. But there's a first time for everything, right?

The question is: how does race (and genetics) contribute to athletic success? I've seen various questions (and answers) regarding this in response to the Jamaican sprinting success at the Olympics (with a number of references to East African dominance in long-distance thrown in for good measure).

The answer I generally see tries to use science to suggest that black athletes (from wherever) have a set of physical traits that makes them better "athletes." I've seen studies about fast-twitch muscle fibers. Then I've seen references to endurance. I've seen references to slaves and how they were "bred" and/or "naturally selected" through the rigors of travel on slave ships or through living the life of a slave.

And I call bullshit. Right here, right now - complete and utter bullshit.*

Why are there no studies proving the "genetic" lung capacity of white swimmers? When Michael Phelps dominates the Hell out of the Olympics, why does nobody attribute it to his race's "genetic advantage"? Why does Lance Armstrong not represent "just another physically-advantaged" white cyclist? What about Roger Federer? Is it because he's white?

No. Dominant white athletes are treated as individuals. They are not held up as representatives of their race. Tom Brady does not lose credit for his success because of his race. Nor is he held accountable for the actions of other athletes of his skin color.

And this whole f-ing "black people have physical differences that make them better athletes" thing is just one more example of that same white privilege mentality that holds people of color as examples of their races, while white folks are merely individuals - not representative nor accountable for anything else their race does.

So let me drop some common-sense, science, and personal experience on you all to make my point clear (not necessarily in that order).

In fact, let's just start with my personal experience. I played football in high school. I got offers to play in college (but chose otherwise). I played semi-pro. And I coached high school ball. I've seen the look on people's faces when a black player walks onto the field. The expectations that come with that. The instant-respect and assumption of skill that ensues. The added patience if that player does not immediately fulfill those expectations.

On the flip side, when I played semi-pro, everyone assumed I was either Samoan (because Samoans have a history of success in football) or Latino. Nobody even considered that I could be part-Asian. In high school, I was constantly reminded that "Asians don't play football." My freshman year, most of the skill positions (those involving quickness and agility - tailbacks and defensive backs, specifically) were filled by Asian kids, but by the time I finished my high school career, it was just me and one other Asian kid.

I grew up in the Bay Area, where there was a large number of Asian kids, and yet this "Asians don't play football" thing still prevailed. When I was in elementary school, the local lore was that the Asian kids were the quickest (we always won the sprinting events), but somehow, by the time I finished high school, we had become almost completely absent from the sports scene (in every sport). Why?

I would suggest that it's a priming thing. To be brief, "priming" is the power of immediate suggestion. How women end up doing MUCH worse on tests in science or mathematics when they are "primed" (reminded, or made to think of) their identities as women right before taking the tests, as opposed to when they are "primed" to think of other ways in which they identify. Same as Asian-Americans doing much better on the same tests when they are reminded of their Asian-ness, while doing worse when reminded of other identities. African-Americans performing better on standardized tests when primed to think about African-American achievements (Olympic champions, MLK, etc.) as opposed to other aspects of African-American identity. Get the picture?

So, getting back to football - I was CONSTANTLY primed, as Asian, to think that I couldn't play football. That I was too small. Not strong enough. Didn't have the "natural" instincts and abilities. And so I watched all the other Asian kids on the team (who used to be some of the better players) drop off the team to do other things. Luckily for me, I was blessed with an over-active sense of self-confidence, so I was able to push through and continue competing, with great success.

The flip side? African-American kids who are primed to think that they are SUPPOSED to be good at sports. Having people EXPECT them to be better. And so, with those expectations comes the end result - more African-Americans play sports, CONTINUE to play sports, and therefore EXCELL in sports. Athletic dominance is about confidence. There is a reason you do not hear about great athletes and their self-doubt in critical situations. It's because confidence is everything. Confidence calms nerves and enables a player to make the "clutch" plays that their less-confident (and therefore more nervous) counterparts cannot make. That's a fact. Anybody who plays sports understands that fact. And so constant priming over the COURSE OF YEARS can make a drastic difference in regards to later confidence and success (as well as having an immediate effect every time the player steps onto the field).

And with that comes sticking to it or quitting. If you are convinced that you CAN'T do it (like the Asian kids on my team), you end up quitting, with no chance of coming through. If you are told that you CAN do it (and you get more chances from coaches and teammates alike, who EXPECT it), you are more likely to stick with it, keep working hard and practicing, and break through to success. Because, just like with the great white athletes, no black athlete becomes a great one without ridiculous amounts of hard work.

The science part is simple. First, priming is a real phenomenon. And it has ridiculous statistic validity in scientific tests with pretty drastic outcomes.* So I use that to support my previous claims. On the flip side - "race" is NOT a genetically valid category. None of the studies I have read about how black sprinters have "more fast-twitch muscles" are double-blind (ie. they test those they know to be black sprinters - then show they have "more" fast-twitch muscle fibers - as opposed to taking a whole lot of random black folks, white folks, Asian folks, etc., sprinters of all races, some random folks in between, and THEN trying to figure out which ones are the black sprinters based on presence of "more fast-twitch muscle fibers). Also, the physical qualities that make a good sprinter or football player are COMPLETELY different from what makes a great marathoner - and yet the same scientific arguments are applied.

Finally - a bit of common sense. Who do African-American kids have as role models in this society? Who are the successful, adult African-Americans that kids look up to? Mostly? Successful music artists (mostly hip-hop and R & B) and athletes. So who do these kids strive to emulate? Successful music artists and athletes.

Guess what (generally) leads to success - in any field - in this world? Practice. A lot of work. And a bit of luck and help. So do people tend to practice things that they want to pursue into the future? Do kids practice things that their idols are successful in? Of course. Do people work harder when they see people they identify with being successful in that same field? Of course. Do they work less hard or quit when they DON'T see people they identify with being successful in that field? Of course. And are people more likely to get a helping hand in a field where there are MORE people like them at the top or less? Where there are more, of course.

And there you go. Nobody would argue with any of those common-sense arguments if I was just sticking to music. Are there studies out there about the "rapping" gene? Was that specially selected-for because slaves needed good flow to survive the dangerous ocean travels from Africa to the Americas? Hell no. It's about exposure, and culture, and role models.

So why does it change when it comes to athletics? Is it because people want an "excuse" for why black folks actually are quite successful in that field? Does it bother the status quo to think that successful black athletes might just work their asses off and are confident because it's one of the few areas of life where they get consistent positive reinforcement? Is it scary to think about what might just happen if they got consistent positive reinforcement in the media, or in school? Or is it because the idea of an "athletic" gene helps us stick to the stereotype of African-Americans as more "brutish" or "savage" or "violent"? Make it more "scientifically valid" to claim that African-Americans are "naturally" less intelligent?

We have no problem blaming the woes of black America on gangsta rappers as poor role models - so why don't we equally give credit for black America's athletic success to positive black role models?

I am an artist, a scientist, a teacher, and an athlete. I'm tired of hearing people try to separate success in all of those fields. It's all about hard work. You do something a lot, you get better at it. You do it even more, and you get really good at it. People tend to work harder and practice more at things they get positive feedback for. Hence - they get better at those things.

So - the reason my African-American students tend to be my best math students? The same reason African-Americans tend to be successful athletes, of course. Because somebody has been telling them they are good at it, and they know - and believe - it to be true.

* I generally like to edit my swear words on this blog, but that's how strongly I feel about this particular topic.

** Anybody who wants some sources, just let me know, and I'll spit some statistical validity at you.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On Being "Other"

I enjoy going to the movies. Any movie, really. Stupid action flicks, comedies, dramas, fantasy - whatever. I just enjoy going to the movies. But there's always a price I pay.

For instance, the other night, I decided I wanted to go see a movie in the theatre. I didn't know what I wanted to see, but I noticed that "Burn After Reading" (the new Coen brothers movie) was showing at the little neighborhood theatre down the street from me. So I went. Alone.

And so I got there, bought my ticket, got some popcorn, and found a seat. I was a little bit early and - this being a little "historic" theatre - there weren't any ads or anything else playing before the show time, so I had a chance to munch my popcorn and look around the theatre. And - lo and behold - I was literally the only non-white person in the room.

The only one. Nobody else. A full theatre. And I was the only non-white person. And it's not that there were some "probably-white" folks thrown into the mix. No - everybody was as white as white can be. Everybody. Except me.

And then the previews started. And one of them was a preview for a movie coming out (poorly) lampooning Michael Moore called "An American Carol" (let's just say they made a slavery joke and two Arab jokes in one minute-long preview) that got a couple laughs.

I brushed it off. I hadn't come to see that - I already know that people like that exist, that people find that kind of thing funny. Moving on.

So the real movie started, and I got pulled in, and off I went. But while I was getting into the movie, I couldn't help but count that there were only four people of color in the whole film (with speaking parts - none of them more than two lines), and I'm pretty sure that included the extras. But I knew that was going to happen - it always happens like that - so I moved past it. I brushed it off and kept watching the movie.

And - overall - I enjoyed it. I thought it was pretty funny. Nothing in the movie was overtly racist or pissed me off (one of the speaking characters of color was the Latino janitor . . . but they didn't really go there in a bad way, so I could shake it off). So when the movie ended, I felt more or less satisfied.

But then, as I got up to leave the theatre, I saw everyone else around me again. And I was reminded: oh yeah, EVERY single other human being in the place was white. Everybody. Except me.

And then I re-reflected on the characters in the movie - oh yeah, everyone that even slightly mattered was white. Not like me.

And then I started thinking about the fact that I was probably the only person at that showing that actually gave a sh-- about any of that. That noticed that. That looked out at that sea of white faces and felt uncomfortable in any way. Because - for all those people - what they looked at when they did so was "normal." It was like them. It was like what they were seeing on the big screen. It was like what they see all day every day. "Normal."

And so one more little chip settled onto my shoulder. One more added for another day when I couldn't avoid thinking about my other-ness in the particular world and city I live in. Just like every other day. One more chip piled onto the thousands already settled there. One more chip that my soul has to adjust to, get a little stronger to carry. Because that's how "normal" treats those that don't look like the "norm."

And that's the thing that keeps white folks from EVER being able to understand race. Because "that one time" doesn't do it. A whole year or two of voluntarily (and I stress, VOLUNTARILY) standing out in a foreign country doesn't do it. It's a lifetime. And the knowledge that it's going to last the REST of that lifetime, as well. There's no going home. There's no changing my mind. A plane ticket isn't going to do anything. There's no choice.

And yeah, yeah - I chose to see that movie, at that theatre, in this city. I chose all that. And I knew exactly what to expect. But that's not the point. It's that I have to very consciously think about those decisions and what that's going to mean for me, as an experience. That if I choose to go with "mainstream" - I'm going to get this experience. That I have to choose very specific movies and locations in which to watch those movies to get a taste of a different kind of "norm."

THAT'S what race means in this country. It's carrying around this weight on a daily basis and constantly having to adjust and think about how and where and when you're going to walk around in the world. Having to "brush off" constant little reminders and insults and frustrations just to stay sane and smiling.

And when I think about all this, it occurs to me: for some people, that ISN'T the case. For some people, what they see on tv and in the media actually does somewhat resemble what they see in the mirror. For some people, the sea of white skin that poured through my evening wasn't even noticeable because that is what "normal" looks like. For some people, that ever-so-slight ache of loneliness doesn't hit them every time (or any time) that that kind of "normal" surrounds them.

And that's kind of crazy to me. Because, for me, the consciousness and ache and other-ness . . . THAT'S "normal" in this country. And I wouldn't want to be on the other side if it meant losing that awareness. But those few hours per month (or two, or three) when it all flips upside-down? DAMN, if I don't appreciate it . . .

On "Conscious" Music

I pretty much only listen to hip-hop these days. The music I write leans more heavily towards hip-hop sounds. And my lyrics? Definitely based on a hip-hop flow.

But it wasn't always this way. In fact, it's only in the past year or two that hip-hop really took over my musical tastes. Before that, I was one of those "a little bit of everything" people. A little longer before that, and I would have said that "indie rock" was the most represented genre of music in my collection.

So what happened? Well, basically - I was politicized. And then I started really listening to lyrics. At that point, I was left with no option - it was get inspired and hear something worth being said, or settle for "loves lost" and interesting instrumentation. I chose the former, of course.

Because Portland has knocked the apathy right out of me in regards to politics. It's something about being in the whitest city in the country, surrounded by self-proclaimed "liberals" that causes a person of color to really start seeking out something MORE. To actively start looking for friends that run a shade darker than the omnipresent majority and are conscious of what's going on around them. Seeking white friends who are willing to acknowledge their own privilege and ignorance. And to look for a place or state of being where those things are the norm, as opposed to how the rest of life in this city can be.

And that led me to hip-hop. Or, more accurately, led me into a specific sub-set of hip-hop culture closest to its roots. The political brand that has come to be known as "conscious" hip-hop. Of course, that name is applied broadly, and I don't exactly agree with all the various artists that people call "conscious," but we'll move past that for now. The point being that hip-hop was the only genre of music that seemed to have something to really offer me when I was looking. Something for a person of color frustrated with a world dominated by white folks (or at least a white world-view). Somebody looking for the calming deep breath that being around other folks of color could provide.

And it makes me wonder - was there anywhere else to go? Now I'm more than happy with where I landed (and how that has been working out for me, artistically and socially), but I wonder if other genres could have offered me something similar. And I don't really know.

Because I'm not aware of too many other "conscious" forms of music. I wasn't alive for the punk scene of the 80s. Bob Marley has been appropriated by the very middle-to-upper-class white folks that he was originally fighting against. All the gods of the blues are dead, and their music has been appropriated, run-over, or put on the back-burner. John Lennon is dead.

So is there anybody else out there? Do white rock singers really only care about how depressed they are? The Dixie Chicks drubbed up such back-lash and press when they got a little political - but is that because they were the exception? What they said was a drop of water in the ocean of conscious hip-hop's messages, so did people care because it was so uncommon in the world of white music?

I want answers. I'm curious. Is there "conscious" indie-rock? Are there underground, struggling political rock lyricists fighting the good fight? If I knew where to look, could I find Asian-American singers with something real to say to mirror the Blue Scholars or Native Guns? Is there a stage in that setting where I could stand up and say what I often NEED to say and get a positive reaction?

Are there musicians outside of hip-hop that can speak to the politicized (i.e. aware) me?

This is the question I ask my new batch of readers (now that I'm really getting a lot of them coming through). And if the answer to all of these questions is a resounding no - then my back-up question is: why? What keeps that from happening (even in a small way)?

Music is an interesting social phenomenon, and this is likely to be just the first of a series of posts examining the politics and psychology of musical tastes. I hope to learn a lot from my readers in this regard, and I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, September 15, 2008

On Gentrification

We're hurting. Hard. The school I teach at is severely under-enrolled right now, and we keep losing kids. Why? Well, there are different reasons (many of them based on the transient population we serve*), but the biggest one is this: gentrification.

Now, when I talk about gentrification right now, all I'm talking about is property costs going up in certain areas, forcing out those who used to live in the area (usually those in a lower economic bracket). Usually this happens when the middle-to-upper-middle-class moves in. When coffee shops start popping up on every corner, hip bars and restaurants appear, and the streets get a little white-washed.

But this isn't how it always is. It's not always about race and the immediate area getting noticeably fancier. Sometimes, it's so subtle that nobody is really aware of it except for people in certain situations that make them see it first-hand. Like those of us working in my school.

Because people who know Portland "know" the gentrified (or gentrify-ING, more specifically) areas of town: the Alberta Arts area, the Pearl, MLK (proceeding steadily northwards). But they wouldn't really think of the area my school is in. Because it's just not as obvious. Sure, the steady creeping is visible, but not far enough that you would think of this as a "gentrified" neighborhood.

Partly because it's not necessarily people of color that are getting moved out. Most of those we've lost who have had to move far out of town to find affordable housing are white kids and their families (I guess that's naturally how it works in a city as white as Portland). So it's a lot less visually obvious when they are getting replaced by more white folks.

Second, there aren't a lot of coffee shops around here. The fancy stores and boutiques haven't crept in (and probably won't for a while). In fact, the coffee shop that opened across the street has already closed. Because it's just not that kind of neighborhood yet. There aren't any condos on our main street.

But it's coming. Oh, yes - it's coming. Because the steady shift has already begun. In fact, it probably started a few years back, but now we're starting to feel the first tremors, here on the ground. I'm watching kids that have finally found a school that works for them, where they can actually trust the staff around them, have to up and move out of town because of economics. Many of them.

So much so that our numbers are devastatingly low. Which is going to hurt our funding, which causes us to have to make compromises to make up for it, which leads to us not being able to do our best work. It's this trend that has seen many public schools in Portland closed due to under-enrollment (and let's just say it's not the ones in the "better off" areas of town). It's this trend that is squeezing the working-class of this city. And in this time of increasing gas costs, having to move FARTHER from work hurts all the more.

But there's not much that can be done, as far as I can tell. The only people who really care about it or are affected by it are the ones without the power or voice to really DO anything. Many of the folks who work in organizations like mine trying to SERVE those people affected by this trend are also - ironically - the ones moving into these neighborhoods; being proud of the "diversity" of where they live while displacing the original residents. And then everybody else is excited about it all because it shows that Portland is in a time of "renewal" and has so many "up-and-coming" neighborhoods.

So who do I talk to to stop this? Is there really a point in trying? Are we just going to lose more and more kids until we become an alternative school for the children of the "hip," middle-class liberals that replaced our original families?

I don't really know. But it worries me. And bothers me. And saddens me when my kids keep coming in and telling me that they're not going to go to this school anymore because they have to move. Sure - it's all part of the job I took on. It's all part of who we serve - and I am aware of that and able to handle it. But I still don't like where this is all leading . . .

* I teach at an alternative middle school that serves primarily "at-risk" youth. I hate using that term because of how much it smacks of catch-phrase, but most people know what I mean by that. It's kids who have gotten kicked out of the public school system or were otherwise unsuccessful for many different reasons (although poverty often plays a large part).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

On Globalization

It seems appropriate that I would be writing this particular post on September 11. It's (mostly) coincidence, as the responses to my last post have got me thinking about this a lot, and I think it's time I threw down my thoughts.

People understand the concept of globalization in a number of different ways, so I'm going to specify my angle before I continue. I'm talking about the "shrinking" of the world through international business, the internet, tourism, and international organizations (such as NAFTA, the UN, the EU, World Bank, etc.) and how it all relates to "humanitarian aid." I'm not going to touch on media here simply because there is just too much, and I want to keep my length digestible.

A number of years ago, I was about to graduate from college. My plan post-graduation was to return to Tanzania (where I had studied abroad) to "give back" in some way. Do a little bit of "development work." Why Tanzania? Because now I knew some people, spoke the language, and it was one of the poorest countries in the world (and still is - people just don't know much about it because they have no valuable natural resources).

Anyhow, I ended up spending a little over a year living and working in Tanzania for an NGO that had just recently been established (I believe I was their second paid volunteer ever). I was teaching and helping to build a sort of Library/Study Center for a town in the middle of nowhere.

Okay - to keep a long story short, I learned a lot about NGOs and "humanitarian aid" over the course of my time out there. First off, the vast majority of NGO-related ex-pats (mostly European, some white American) lived the imperialist colonial life out there. They had servants and drivers and tvs in places where no locals even had electricity or running water. I also learned that that was how those people kept themselves comfortable enough to stay out there for years and years to do the work they did.

The only problem was that the work they did was mostly useless. At one point, some guy who had worked for UNICEF out there gave me some statistic that there were enough NGOs in Dar es Salaam (the major urban center of Tanzania) meant to help street children to give every handful of street kids their OWN PERSONAL NGO to work with. Guess what? There were still street kids all over the place. So what was the matter?

Well - the NGOs all competed against each other, instead of working together. They were all started by idealistic Westerners who thought that THEY had the master plan for "saving" the street kids of Dar. And since they were the only ones with THE solution, they didn't bother doing their research to find out that there were so many other similar organizations already in place. And so they actually caused each other to be LESS effective (much less so). And since the art of grant-writing and reporting to donors consists of data-massaging, exaggeration, and very little real oversight - nobody really knew.

Of course, there was also the issue of the donors, themselves. Because the donors all thought they knew what was important and helpful (even though none of them had actually been to the places where they were donating money to supply aid), so they had strict rules for how their money could be spent. And so some organizations found themselves handcuffed - needing to pay local employees to really help out, but instead having to use their newest cache of donor funds to buy ceiling fans or to ship a container full of run-down, obsolete computers for people to use (without anyone to teach them or run IT on the constantly-crashing computers).

And it wasn't just in Dar - it was everywhere. And I really mean EVERYWHERE. Wherever I traveled in that country, I met some NGO employee (or ex-employee) with similar horror stories.

Because the real issue comes down to who ends up being a part of these organizations (and/or starting them): misguided idealists. YOUNG, misguided idealists. All with great intentions and a desire to make right in the world - but little to no real experience (vocational or life) and not enough wisdom under their belt to have some humility. They go looking for an adventure and drastic change. They go full of their own self-belief and righteous indignation at what the rest of their peers are doing with their lives.* And they screw it up. Not on purpose. Not because of intentions of wrong-doing - but due to being young, dumb, brash, and inexperienced.

The problem is that - once they screw it up, they get too frustrated to make up for it. They don't stay long enough to gain the experience and know-how and wisdom to learn from their mistakes. No - they spend a couple years (or less) and then head back to a comfortable, privileged life back in their home country. And then the next batch heads out to take their places.

And the cycle continues.

Because what happened to me? I started figuring it out. I realized how f-ed up everything was, and I began working more closely with the Tanzanian staff of our organization. I started taking their side more and more often - and then I basically got fired from my "volunteer" job because I pushed too far. And then I came back to the States and I haven't been back since.**

And I doubt I was the only one. I hope I wasn't the only one. I do have this gut-feeling that my situation as one of the (exceedingly) rare NGO workers of color out there helped me see a little bit more clearly. Let me fall in with the other side (in this case, the Tanzanians we were "helping") a little more quickly. I was a bit more experienced in seeing privilege than the others, and so I reacted more strongly.***

But did I make any difference? Absolutely not. Has the organization I left done anything? Well - they've built things. Programs have been initiated. But the town I lived in is still just as poor as when I left it, and nobody's education has improved. So . . .

And then there's the whole issue of "humanitarian aid" in general. The problem is this: when we just give money and services out as we see fit, we ignore what the people on the ground, of that culture, and who know what's really going on (and - likely - what doesn't work) already know. It's patronizing. Insulting. And - usually - somewhat racist in origin. It's no different from the missionary style of the 1800s - "convert the heathens." Whether it's a conversion of religion or of "how to do things, developmentally" - there's no change in the true, background message: "We know better - so shut up and do as we do, savages." I like to mention that the most open-minded and understanding foreigners I met in Tanzania was the German missionary couple living in the town with me.

Oh yeah - and doing all that doesn't work. It doesn't. You just have people asking for a school to be built, for computers, for books, etc. And then they get obsolete computers that don't have internet access. They get college textbooks written in English in a town where few people even SPEAK English conversationally. And then they wait for more, getting more and more dependent on "aid." As with genetically-modified corn that they can't grow themselves - so goes other donated "aid."

So now what? Again - it comes down to taking care of business at home. I am a middle school teacher, and I have always believed that you can't be a decent youth worker until you deal with your own crap; because, otherwise, you can't see past your own perspective to open yourself to the kids you work with. The same with the global world of humanitarian aid - until I have dealt with my own privilege, and the systemic problems of the culture in which I live, I won't be able to help people from a different culture successfully - and permanently - handle their own stuff. Because I won't be open enough to see what is really working (and what really isn't).

And that goes for the large-scale. If our country became more progressive in terms of cultural understanding - we wouldn't be invading other countries to "free" them. If we could dismantle the rich white power structure to get some real equality happening, the general population would be better equipped to justly lend aid to the rest of the world, without getting bogged down in "our way" at the expense of "their way" of life.

Of course - this is all so theoretical, it aches. That's the other problem with idealists and activists - we're all about the grand plan and big picture without being able to solve the nitty-gritty (or without the patience to do so), leaving us impotent to GET to the big solutions . . .

But it's a start. I'm older now - more experienced - and I've gotten over myself enough to be able to see my past flaws. Patience really is a virtue, and there's no reason to expect to be able to make any sort of lasting change in the world until you're into your 40s (maybe your 30s), anyway. Because youthful vigor is great - those are the ones willing to DO and risk more, in general - but my middle school students have tons of energy and self-belief, too, and they'd be in trouble if they didn't have their elders to help bail them out of their rash mistakes, as well.

* Incidentally, I count my Tanzania-self in this company.

** I have promised myself that I will head back to visit friends and adoptive "family" before the next two years are out.

*** I still know jerks who have worked and lived in African nations that still refer to the whole damn continent as if it was just one country.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On "Freeing Tibet"

A land populated by a people with thousands of years of history, thriving cultures and traditions is invaded by an occupying army. Through a brutal campaign of violence against an entire people - women, children, and the elderly - millions of people die, and the land is taken and occupied. The occupying government encourages its people to take over land that was previously populated by those they killed. The occupied population dwindles and is forced onto the worst land, where they deal with poverty, alcoholism, and depression. They are forced into new schools, their culture brutally stamped-out and tarnished.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Yeah - exactly, it's how the United States was colonized. It's how the Native Indian populations were subjugated, robbed, and destroyed. It's how the original occupants of the land I currently live on hardly exist, anymore. It's how the most successful colony in the world occupied its current territory and got away with it.

It's not too different from how businessmen - that's right, freaking BUSINESSMEN - overthrew the sovereign Queen of Hawaii and then handed the land over to the U.S. government to "annex," so they could make a people's homeland into a glorified theme park for non-native tourists.

Reminiscent of how the same government forcibly interned its own citizens - who happened to have Japanese blood - and stole their property with no real reparations (I don't count a lip-service "apology" and token money generations later as reparations).

Did I mention that they got away with it?

Because where are the international protests when WE host the Olympics? Why doesn't the world cry out in rage about OUR human rights injustices?

Is it because those that benefitted from the theft are the ones who generally protest against all the rest of the world's injustices? Is it because there's an expiration date on justice and what's wrong or right? Or is it just because that would be awfully inconvenient for a lot of people?

Now, don't get me wrong - I don't exactly think the whole current Tibet situation is all good. I don't. I don't think there's a problem with seeing wrong in the world and wanting to bring attention to it - or to try to do something about it. I'm all for it, really.

What I AM against is this ridiculous level of blind hypocrisy that so often goes hand in hand with protesting. If you are a United States citizen, then how can you spend time and energy protesting the situation in a foreign continent and not spend more time and energy trying to fix the injustices of the country in which you live? How can you be against foreign occupation by the Chinese, and then be okay with the fact that your house is built on land that your government lied, cheated, killed, and stole to get?

And the answers all seem to come the same way - "well, that was so many generations ago - I didn't do it." Right. So then shouldn't we all "stop living in the past" and worrying about what China did 50 years ago (before most of the current residents were born)? Of course not. So then the "past is the past" argument is B.S. People are still suffering and paying for it. Native Indian cultures are in greater danger of dying out than the Tibetan culture - so, if anything, it should be more pressing to do something NOW.

Oh, but right - that would be so very inconvenient.

Because the second response is the "what am I SUPPOSED to do about it?" To be honest - what the Hell are you really going to do about the Tibet situation? Right - build up media attention, get the information out, not give the government an excuse to ignore it, MAKE IT MATTER. Now imagine if it was the country's own residents doing it. Not just Indians, themselves, but the people who benefitted. What if there were tons of "Free the U.S." benefit concerts headlining the biggest American bands? What if there were thousands of volunteers and protesters doing their part every day? What if popular media personalities talked about it? Maybe something could actually happen. Probably not - but so far all that hasn't changed China's mind, either.

And the fact is - unless you're willing to give back your land to whichever tribe it originally belonged to (REALLY willing to do so), then you have no right to protest against all these foreign "occupiers." Want to know why they don't give up their occupations (this goes for Israel, to China, to Morrocco)? The same reason the people of this country aren't willing to give up their homes and land to make right for the ridiculous, horrifying injustices of this nation's past. And all these other countries didn't kill off a whole other race of people to make good on their occupations.

And it always gets flipped, right? The question - so what are YOU (meaning me) doing about it all? No, I don't hold protests. I'm not organizing a petition of people willing to give their land back (although, maybe I should get started on that). But I AM asking the questions. And I try to get people to think. It's not enough - and I'm enabling the injustice to continue, as well - but in none of that does it make it non-hypocritical for U.S. citizens to fight other people's battles while ignoring that of the occupied in their own country.

And that's the problem. That's white privilege. Or "upper-middle-class" privilege. Or "developed-nation" privilege. Or "superpower" privilege. Whatever you want to call it - the tendency to think that we know it all and have the right to tell other people how to do things. That we know better, and thus are "doing good" by getting mixed up in other people's problems, as we view them from our own narrow cultural world-view. Meanwhile, we let injustice happen on our own doorstep because "it's not my fault - I'm not directly responsible" or there's "nothing I can do." And then we re-convince ourselves that we're "making a difference."

Yeah - we ARE making a difference. But the direction in which that difference tends is up to more of a debate than we like to think.

* Pretty good of me to write this whole essay without even putting it on the current popularity of China-bashing (because they're starting to get some clout) while we ignore white countries' similar injustices (Ireland, for instance), isn't it?

** Oops - I guess we can ignore footnote number one.

Monday, September 1, 2008

On Making History

Barack Obama is the Democrat Presidential Nominee. Historical, for sure. I don't really have anything to add to the enormous amount of press about that. So I will go in a different direction:

Is that enough?

Is it? To me, it isn't. Sure, it's pretty mind-blowing that Obama got the Democratic ticket. I didn't even really think he was going to win that (due to my distrust of the voters of America - and not just the white ones). I thought that, by default, Hillary Clinton was going to get that nomination because, at least, she was white. That was the theory.

So it really gave me some hope to see that Obama was still able to get the nomination. Of course, for me, that's not quite enough. Because, first, I feel like he may only have been able to win the ticket because his strongest opponent was a woman. And I'm not saying that in terms of "women aren't capable" - but I'm saying that in terms of history. The Democrat bigots had a choice - "where is our rich white man?" He wasn't there. And so, they had no choice but to make history with their votes - wherever they went. I'm not going to play the Oppression Olympics - I'm not going to try to decide if sexism or racism is 'worse' in our society - but I just don't know what would have happened had Obama's opponent been a white man. Clinton confused the "liberal" bigots just enough, so that race wasn't as big of a deal in the primary. Just enough.

More than enough?

Either way, though - shouldn't I just be excited about what Obama's nomination (no matter his opponent, etc.) means to this country? To people of color? To mixed people of color? There's finally somebody on the presidential ticket that seems to represent me (at least somewhat) in a real sort of way, and here I am picking holes in it. I just sit here, too terrified to let myself get really excited. Trying to battle down the hope that continuously rises inside me about the prospect.

Because, for me, this isn't enough. It isn't. I don't want to see Obama get THIS CLOSE without getting all the way. Because, for me and a lot of the world, that's just going to say, "See? A person of color can't REALLY be the President." It tells the Democratic Party - "See? It doesn't matter how strong or charismatic a leader a black candidate is, they can't REALLY win the Presidency." And then, I fear, we won't see another viable candidate of color for the next 50 years. Because this would prove that this country really isn't ready for a non-white president.

Why? Because people are so ready for a change. Republicans are getting tired of their party. McCain is crazy and has pissed a lot of people off. People are showing up in record numbers. More and more people are registering to vote. The tide of potential change - and clamor for change - is rising high. And so, if - in spite of all this - Obama doesn't win, it will give us the answer we all fear: that this election really IS about race - and racism and stereotypes and prejudice are still so strong that we can't punch through.

So damn negative and defeatist, aren't I? A perfect demonstration of how burdensome the spectre of race is in this country. Getting weighed down by all the media white-washing, the racial slurs, the ignorant comments, the B.S. claims laid by white liberals, white privilege in all its forms, so often being the only person of my skin-tone in a room . . . It's beaten me down enough that I don't WANT hope. That I just assume that it can never be and don't want to put myself in a position of hope, to raise myself high enough to get swatted again.

Because - what if OBama won? What if it turned out that there WAS hope? That we could show ourselves and the international community who REALLY lives in the U.S.? What if I could turn on the tv and see a report on the first family of this country - and they WEREN'T white? If, suddenly, I had more in common with the president because of his mix-raced background and experiences than the Bush dynasty had with the president? What if?

I can't even begin to fathom what that would all mean. The hope it would give the kids I work with. The powerful force of TRUTH it would convey to statements to youth of color that "you can do/be ANYTHING you want." And the inspiration and motivation it would bring to people of color in this country working for change - because it would prove all of us beat-down negative naysayers (like me) wrong. And all I want - so badly - is to be proven wrong in my beliefs about race in this country.

So I'm terrified. And excited. And terrified again. I don't know how I'm going to be able to survive the next two months in the lead-up to the election. I don't know how I'm going to be able to control my anxiety and confusion. I don't know how I'm going to act like it's all good and I'm not so worried when this election means EVERYTHING . . .

I don't know.

All I know is that I hope that there's a smiling photo to go with my post on November 4th. And that I'm scared to hope that.