Archive | September, 2013

An Open Letter to Michigan

30 Sep

Dear Michigan,

I know you’re busy. After all, you’re a state. To be honest, I’m busy, too, but I had to write to you when I read the news that the Supreme Court would be hearing the case about your ban on affirmative action in your public universities (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/03/25/us-usa-court-affirmative-idUSBRE92O0GM20130325).

First, I wanted to express my empathy. I, like most people, understand your frustration about “preferential treatment” in the admissions process, which is, after all, supposed to accord fair consideration to each and every applicant. When your Attorney General Bill Schuette declared, “Entrance to our great colleges and universities must be based upon merit, and I remain optimistic moving forward in our fight for equality, fairness and rule of law at our nation’s highest court,” I found myself nodding in agreement. For the record, I don’t think anyone is for anti-merit admissions. I mean, come on now.

But I am concerned because, as you know, these things (by which I mean the judicial process of the highest court in the nation) take months. And the question–nay, the opportunity and even the responsibility for fair access to education shouldn’t have to wait any longer. I’m sure you agree.

So, Michigan, I’m writing to ask you to put your admissions process where your litigation is and do something today to free admissions from the policies and practices, written and unwritten, that grant preferential treatment to some groups over others just because of who they are.

What can you do today?

You can end the unfair practice of preferential treatment for legacies.

You can end the unfair practice of preferential treatment for siblings.

You can end the unfair practice of preferential treatment for big donors.

You can end the unfair practice of preferential treatment for athletes.

Because aren’t these discriminatory practices also what you mean, Michigan, when you refer to “preferential treatment”?

(I’m sure you don’t just mean racial preference. Because ignoring, perpetuating and protecting all those other forms of affirmative action while singling out racial affirmative action would be… well, racist.)

But I digress. This is about our shared ideals of equity in admissions. And this is just to say: You don’t have to wait on the Supreme Court, Michigan. You can act for equity today.

And as you do, I, too, “remain optimistic moving forward in our fight for equality, fairness.”

Thanks for reading, Michigan.

No, I’m not bored. Just Asian.

26 Sep

My eyelids have folds.

To be specific, my eyelids feature epicanthal folds, which create the “almond” eye shape, characteristic of many Asian people. Including Julie Chen, host of the reality TV show Big Brother.

Julie recently shared her story about deciding to get a blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery to get rid of her folds) on the daytime talk show The Talk. According to Julie, it all started when she was a reporter/aspiring TV news anchor at WDTN-TV in Dayton, OH. Her then-boss explained her career prospects to her, saying:

“You will never be on this anchor desk, because you’re Chinese. Let’s face it Julie, how relatable are you to our community? How big of an Asian community do we have in Dayton? On top of that because of your Asian eyes, I’ve noticed that when you’re on camera, you look disinterested and bored” (http://blog.sfgate.com/hottopics/2013/09/12/julie-chen-had-eye-surgery-to-make-her-look-less-asian/).

And so she got surgery. And, according to Julie, her career took off (after the year it took for her eyelids to heal).

To summarize: a racist comment about her un-promotability inspired Julie to undergo a delicate surgery and, after a year’s recovery, seems to have led to career success.

Perhaps like me, you’re having a visceral reaction to this story.

I mean, while there’s a lot that Julie shared that didn’t surprise me, it still feels like a punch in the gut (or maybe in the slanty eyes) whenever I hear a story like this. And trust me, there are lots of stories: “Westernizing” plastic surgery is all the rage in East Asia right now. Most popular redo’s at Asian plastic surgery centers? Eyelids, noses and “facial contours”  (http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/asiapcf/05/19/korea.beauty/index.html). (Just for the record, I had no idea my contours were so Asian.)

And it’s not just Julie’s story or even the collective stories that I find myself reacting to: I’m also having a visceral response to the story that’s unfolding about how others hear these stories: how they’re responding to the reality of Asians seeking happiness in whiter features. There’s a startling racism-denial going on.

Let’s start with the WDTN-TV station president and general manager’s statement to the press after Julie’s interview aired:

We are sorry to hear about what happened to CBS’ Julie Chen in 1995 when she was a reporter at WDTN-TV. The station was under different management and ownership during that time. At WDTN and WBDT, we don’t tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind (http://blog.sfgate.com/hottopics/2013/09/13/tv-station-apologizes-to-julie-chen-for-telling-her-to-fix-asian-eyes/).

No plot twist here. Pretty much your standard response to a public incident involving race. And yet.

I want to stop and take a moment to talk about what it means to “not tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind.” Because I think this whole story of hearing what Julie has to say is fraught with examples of exactly what it means and looks like to tolerate racism and discrimination of any kind.

It seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you think an apology to the individual who was subjected to the racist/discriminatory action or speech suffices. Let me be clear: an apology is important. But when we respond only on an individual level, we actually help perpetuate systemic discrimination by ignoring the cultural and institutional causes, symptoms and effects. If WDTN-TV really doesn’t “tolerate racism or discrimination of any kind,” it would be upfront about the real biases that typically drive decisions about whom to put in front of the camera (it’s no coincidence that so many anchor people are white, physically able, hetero-normative-in-their-banter and slender with full heads of hair). WDTN-TV would actively cultivate more diversity at their news desk (because their audience isn’t just people who think Asians look bored), and the station would be proactively educating its staff and audiences about -isms, discrimination and bias to make sure that it wasn’t letting unconscious prejudice derail its mission to deliver the news (presumably in the most efficient and effective way possible).

It also seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you regurgitate the same discriminatory ideas that you were fed, in order to justify your compliance with that discrimination. I’m talking to you, Julie. This isn’t just about what the network did. In your interview on The Talk (click on the link above), you say of your “new” eyes: “I look more alert.” So even as you challenge the racism that prompted you to get surgery, you agree that Asian eyes are inherently a flaw. And you assert the superiority of your “new” eyes as fact, not opinion. Julie, it is a fact that your eyes are bigger now. But the idea that your “old” eyes looked “bored and disinterested” is only an opinion. A racist opinion that you are perpetuating to an audience of people who may take you at your word as a one-woman authority on the subject. What I wish you would have said? Maybe something like this: “People like my old boss seem to think I look more alert. But then again, my nickname these days is ‘Chenbot (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Chenbot).’ So apparently, a lot of people think I’m pretty lifeless even now. And even if they’re not talking about my eyes, I wonder how much the criticism is still about my being Asian, and a woman. Because that kind of discrimination is still real in this industry.” To be clear, I don’t blame you for racism, Julie, and I’m sorry for what you experienced. I really am. I just flinch at how your story is playing out. And how racism continues to drive your narrative. Point in case…

It still seems like tolerating racism and discrimination when you hear Julie’s story, and (see The Talk video link above):

  • your only comment is: “Fabulous!” (about her post-surgery look)
  • you imply that Julie didn’t experience racism because she’s not black
  • you laugh along with the implication that Chinese people (including those who are told they don’t have a future without eyelid surgery) don’t know from racism
  • you ignore the context of racism and reduce the issue to “whatever makes you happy”

Actually, now that I think about it, these aren’t examples of tolerating racism (and sexism and classism–eyelid surgery ain’t cheap, I imagine!) These are example of perpetuating those -isms. As long as we focus on the trees and refuse to the see the forest, as long as we compete in the Oppression Olympics (“And the gold medal for long distance racism goes to…”), as long as we accord credibility or authenticity to speak about diversity based on identity (watch Julie’s deference to Sheryl Underwood in The Talk clip), and as long as we listen sympathetically to stories like Julie’s and content ourselves with shaking our heads before turning back to our TVs (or iPads) to watch more approved-for-broadcast faces and bodies, then we’re not just tolerating racism and discrimination. I’ll agree with WDTN-TV on that one. We’re colluding in it.

Hi, I’m cisgender

24 Sep

I learned about my identity this summer, reading Dan Savage’s book American Savage. I’m cisgender.

I had to look up the term, having never heard it before. According to Basic Rights Oregon:

Cisgender is a term used to describe people who, for the most part, identify as the gender they were assigned at birth.  For example, if a doctor said “it’s a boy!” when you were born, and you identify as a man, then you could be described as cisgender. In other words, ‘cisgender’ is used to describe people who are not transgender (http://www.basicrights.org/uncategorized/trans-101-cisgender/).

And right there I understood why I hadn’t heard this term. When it comes to identity and diversity, we have two sometimes asynchronous habits about what we name. We tend to give words to:

  • what we think is obvious, fundamental and safe (ex. “female” and “male”–while these identities aren’t always obvious, a general unspoken assumption that they are leads us to assume it’s totally safe to refer to others as “she” or “he” without asking how that person identifies)
  • whatever we think is different or other (ex. “transgender” as opposed to “cisgender”)

These sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging rules of the diversity-speak road leave more than a few gaps in our vocabularies. Including, at least for me (and I suspect I’m not alone): cisgender. Here’s my thinking: while cisgender is perhaps so normative and safe that it’s a no-duh to name, it’s also so normative and safe to say… that we don’t.

And yet not having a word for identifying with our birth gender is a real problem. For everyone, for our culture, and ultimately for social justice. In its definition of cisgender, Basic Rights Oregon argues:

So why do we say ‘cisgender’ instead of ‘non-transgender’? Because, referring to cisgender people as ‘non trans’ implies that cisgender people are the default and that being trans is abnormal.  Many people have said ‘transgender people’ and ‘normal people’, but when we say ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ neither is implied as more normal than the other.

Using the word ‘cisgender’ is also an educational tool.  To simply define people as ‘non-trans’ implies that only transgender people have a gender identity.  But that’s not true.  Like sexual orientation, race, class, and many other identities, all of us have a gender identity.

Language is important; it defines human relationships.  That is why it’s important use language of equality and inclusion.

In short, not having a word for cisgender or other normative and majority identities strips the majority of a way to name a vital part of who we are, to understand our commonalities and differences with people who may not identify like us but who identify nonetheless, and to recognize that any struggle for equity is ours, too.

**Note: Spellcheck on wordpress didn’t recognize “cisgender” as a word. But mine does now.

Savage book recommendation

16 Sep

Over the summer, a colleague recommended that I pick up American Savage by sex advice columnist Dan Savage. I did, I read, and now I have to pass on the recommendation. Please read this book.

Notwithstanding the use of “American” (which always bugs me, because, like saying “people of color” when you mean Latino/as, or “students with learning differences” when you mean kids who are disabled in traditional classrooms, using the term “American” when you mean US American is an unnecessarily inaccurate and unhelpful overgeneralization), I love this book cover to cover.

Savage does what I aspire to do in my own work: respond with reason, self-awareness, cultural savvy and all my wits about me when flat-out bigotry rears its head. And he does it with such charm.

From recounting his son “coming out” to his two dads, to explicating the ideal of monogamy, to just straight (pun intended) talking about sexuality in committed relationships, Savage covers the personal, the biological, the social (including political and religious) and the sacred, by which I mean love.

So whether or not the writings of a sex advice columnist are your thing, American Savage offers a lot more, and probably something you didn’t expect.

 

** Thanks to my colleague JE for the book recommendation. Keep ’em coming!

You can play

12 Sep

Doing some research on homophobia, sexism and racism in online and WiFi gaming, I came across the You Can Play Project (http://youcanplayproject.org/). In the organization’s own words:

You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.

You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.

You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.

Now the words “without regard to” are always tricky to me when it comes to identity and diversity. All too often, what this means is pretending not to notice differences that are going to impact our status, access to opportunities and resources and even safety in a community, whether or not anyone admits to “regarding” them. And while the idea of “focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit” sounds well and good, let’s face it: “skills, work ethic and competitive spirit” don’t just flow out in the universe on their own, disembodied from people who have skin colors, reproductive organs, sexualities, beliefs and socioeconomic resources.

So I found myself worried, while at the same time grateful, that YCP is out there. And then, I hit “play” on the Dartmouth video featured on the website’s home page. I love it, and I believe in what they’re saying–please watch when you have a moment.

Even superheroes?

6 Sep

Apparently, even superheroes can’t escape homophobia.

According to science and sci fi website io9, “DC [Comics] forbids Batwoman’s gay marriage” (http://io9.com/this-sounds-like-a-horribly-homophobic-decision-on-the-1257246409).

Because nobody tells Batwoman whom she can marry, her creative team is leaving the powerhouse comic book publisher. Hopefully, that means a wedding in the superhero’s future after all.

I don’t have much to say about this beyond what you can read in the article, especially because I think io9’s Rob Bricken says it really well in concluding:

Leaving aside why DC would piss off one of their best creative teams, I can’t fathom why DC would think this was a good idea, or at least not realize what a horrendously bad idea it is. Perhaps they thought that by never bringing it up they could keep the controversial Card hire from getting back into the spotlight, but surely someone at the company realized that allowing the marriage to take place would be a lot less controversial than refusing to let the marriage take place. Did they really not think it would come out? Who are they trying to please with this decision, other than Orson Scott Card and his ilk? Are they really worried about Card’s feelings more than the majority of their readership?

Originally, I asked if DC realized ignoring the problem isn’t actually a solution, but instead another part of the problem. Let me amend that: DC clearly has a problem here. And the fact that they don’t seem to even realize it has a problem is possibly the biggest problem of all.

I do think that discrimination like this in the fictional world matters because comics aren’t just make-believe: they’re manifestations of what we can imagine and what we believe. What is a superhero comic, if not a manifesto about good v. evil? And they are, as Batwoman’s creative team J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman demonstrate, created and consumed by real people.

Maybe because I’m old

5 Sep

Let me first identify myself. I’m 42. So I’m biased. But it’s not just that…

Rewind. Here’s what Mark Zuckerberg had to say about age and intelligence at an event for startups at Stanford University in 2007:

I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important (http://www.sfgate.com/business/bottomline/article/In-Silicon-Valley-age-can-be-a-curse-4742365.php).

Like Zuck, I don’t know why most chess masters are under 30. And while I like the idea of that statement about simplicity, I can’t agree that “young people are just smarter.” Because “smart” isn’t just about an individual. It’s about how an individual processes and performs in their environment.

Part of “smart” is freedom from negative stereotypes about how smart you are. Negative stereotypes like: old people are just dumber. They’re forgetful, out of date, techno-stupid and too old to learn new tricks.

Part of “smart” is the privilege of learning or working in an environment that’s designed for you. I was “smart” in school because I could perform in the environment that school imposed on me. If I appeared “smarter” than some other kids, it wasn’t just because I was innately more intelligent. It was because the conditions in which we were expected to perform favored my abilities and facilitated my performance of “smartness.” So I would ask Zuck: what are the environmental factors in the culture of competitive chess or the offices of Facebook that are biased toward young people and help them as a group to thrive?

Finally, part of “smart” is working with people who aren’t like you. Abundant research concludes that heterogeneous groups outperform homogeneous groups in problem-solving (Page, 2008) because heterogeneous groups are more likely to generate opinion minorities, which enhances divergent thinking, perspective-taking (Nemeth, 1992), and integrative complexity (Gruenfeld et al., 1998; Antonio et al., 2004). (Of course, it helps if these groups intentionally practice inclusion and equity in order to push past default biases and unhelpful cultural norms.) What kind of diversity unleashes this more multidimensional and considered thinking? Any diversity, especially diversity that is apparent. Racial heterogeneity itself enhances integrative complexity. So too with heterogeneity of age, sex, physical ability, and other differences that aren’t always apparent–like sexuality, faith and socioeconomic status.

So yes, I am a bit miffed by Zuck’s unfounded (by his own admission) ageism. Not just because my brain is 42 years old. But because it’s neither true nor helpful.

** For counterpoint and analysis of Zuck’s perspective, check out Vivek Wadhwa’s “When It Comes To Founding Successful Startups, Old Guys Rule” (http://techcrunch.com/2009/09/07/when-it-comes-to-founding-successful-startups-old-guys-rule/). Unlike Zuck, Wadhwa actually cites and conducts his own research on the question of age and leadership in the start up world.