The Personal and the Political: Violence in our World

In talking about one of the recent crises in our world, a friend commented that he/she was trying to refrain from being too political in analysis. Since that time about a week ago, the feminist refrain, “the personal is political,” has been consistently on my mind. When feminists discussed the personal being political, part of the argument is that sexism isn’t just something people (especially women) experience in personal relationships – it’s about the political structures we are a part of shaping all of our relationships. That’s something that’s true for both those who benefit and those who lose.

I’m very aware that as a white, middle-class, well-educated woman living in the United States, too often I have the privilege of allowing myself to think in personal, versus political terms much of the time. When I think about the start of the new school year for my daughters [only two days away!], I can focus on such things about what they will learn or which talents I want to help them develop. I can think about what will make them thrive, the question almost all parents want to think about for their children. Even when I engage with political issues, I can think about the personal…. How will they choose to engage with diversity? How can I constructively teach them about racism today? How can I help them to become better at understanding the perspectives of others?

I am also aware what I DO NOT have to think about, because of my white privilege. Every story of violence, happening in the US Midwest, at the US border, or in Iraq, reminds me of this reality. I don’t wonder if my daughters will be shot out of fear, will be unwelcome because of their immigration status, or will be tortured because of their Christianity. Living in a system where my daughters are largely protected by the state means I can focus on their thriving versus their protection.

Those questions of thriving, while cast as personal, are very political. For white Christians living in the United States, our privilege can blind us to the ways that personal lives are shaped by political realities. For the most part (and I recognize this is not true all the time for everyone), we are materially “safe” from political decisions that are made. My physical life, and those of my children, are usually not threatened by a political policy. Yet the fact that my children benefit from an unequal (and yes, racist) society is just as political as the realities of children being denied their human dignity because of their race or immigration status or religion.

If I am honest, when I engage in causes for justice, it is something I often feel I can pick up (and drop) when I like. I can forget, for an instant, that black men’s lives are not valued when I play with my white daughters. I can forget, for an instant, that praising Jesus doesn’t come with a threat of bodily harm. I can forget, for an instant, about the thousands of Central American children, separated from their families, who are being denied dignity as my daughters are welcomed in their schools and neighborhoods. When in the company of other people, I also find there is even the expectation that I should forget these things… to just relax, to have fun, to enjoy life.

Even as I know that my life and life chances are undeniably intertwined with those of others around me, I can chose to forget this. Here is a list of things I commit to doing — some I’ve mentioned before — to not obscure that reality:

1. Voting and advocating for political change. Police forces, for example, need to have better training, and match the racial demographics of their communities. Immigration law needs to change. Foreign policy needs to take more seriously non-“American” lives. These are often not the single-issue topics that grasp the attention of the public in the United States, but they shape the lives of families everywhere.

2. Acknowledge that the oppression and violence directed towards others is linked with the benefits and protection I receive… that racism doesn’t just affect the lives of Black Americans, but of White Americans. Michael Brown’s death is about both the fact that the lives of Black Americans are undervalued AND that white Americans lives are valued more. Talk with that about my daughters, my students. Many people, for example, don’t believe that we still deal with much institutional racism in our society, which is one of the first steps towards changing it. Education and discussion are important.

3. Use my wealth in ways to support positive and healthy relationships, especially in regards to issues of race, nationality. In this blog, I mention the importance of our purchases.

4. Be critical towards my consumption of media and other public information. In another blog last year, I mentioned why this is so important in shaping stereotypes and how we think about others. One statement made in defense of Darren Wilson (the officer who shot Michael Brown six times) is that he was scared.

5. Pray and Worship and engage in Bible Study. In the gospel of Luke (3:10-14), John the Baptist calls for those repenting and turning to God to be in right relationship with others, especially those who are marginalized. When the crowd asks what to do to repent, he tells them to share your clothes and food with those who have none. When the tax collectors ask what to do, he tells them to not take more money than they must. When the soldiers ask what to do, he tells them to be just with people and to not extort money. I am thankful to serve a God who sees those right relationships with others as central to what it means to believe and repent. I want to join with God in God’s mission for the world. I do not think we should be obedient to God in the name of pursuing justice; we should be obedient because we are called too. However, better understanding God’s heart can help us to live more justly.

Economic Choices, the Media, and Racism

At the end of 2013, I wrote a blog post entitled, “The Problem with Giving Tuesday,” where I suggested that we have a responsibility and Christian mandate to more seriously reflect on our economic purchases and decisions.  I also noted that I was changing my consumption behavior when it came to chocolate – a decision that continues to prove challenging.This is a follow-up blog.

As we study about systems (like the chocolate trade), we learn the problems are bigger than we individually can solve.  It is important to be involved in political and social action, to demand greater regulations from both the state and from businesses themselves. Sin is individual and social; we are accountable for the sins of systems in which we participate and support in some way.

But that doesn’t negate the need for individual changes.  In calling us to hold ourselves accountable for what we buy, I’m not suggesting that our individual economic purchases are the most important way to fight injustice and exploitation in the economic system. But it acknowledges the link between the personal and the structural.  As a wise colleague noted to me recently, this means we often may feel that any decision we make will involve some level of sin, because of the society we are embedded within.

As I continue my commitment to not buying chocolate where the source is unknown, my second commitment is to change the media I consume. A number of racist and sexist stereotypes are promoted by much of the media, and the persisting racism and sexism in our society is shaped in part by media. First, I want to encourage and support more media with intentionally different messages about race and gender.  Related, I want to change the messages that I willingly consume, and that impact my own perceptions and stereotypes (of myself and others).

The Structural Problem

As many have written about more eloquently than I could, this past week was a bad week for the United States (and Florida in particular).  Yet another African-American murdered youth, Jordan Davis, died without justice from our legal system.  Michael Dunn, the white man who killed Jordan Davis, was considered not guilty for the murder.

While I would agree that Michael Dunn performed a heinous act, what is more disturbing is that our society accepted that act. Sociologists talk a lot about the issues of structural racism that persist in our society today, and that even as we may want to point to individuals who do “racist things,” the actions of those individuals are shaped by their culture, and allowed by the legal system that they live within. Michelle Alexander, a lawyer, scholar, and activist, recently wrote The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New Press, 2010). It provides great examples and analysis of the ways our criminal justice system contributes to a racial caste system in the United States (and can also help illustrate what it means to live in a society that promotes structural racism).

Culture and structure are often linked together, and the negative and racist stereotypes and attitudes that continue to exist in our society are closely linked to these structural realities.  Given that we continue to live in a racially segregated society, for many, media plays a crucial role in perpetuating racist stereotypes. Artist Jonathan Edwards has beautifully (and provocatively) depicted the “white vision” glasses that many from the majority racial group (and some who are not part of the majority) have towards African-American teenage men.

As Christians, this should be totally unacceptable to us.  For those who grew up in predominantly white contexts, we should be asking how we challenge these stereotypes that continue to be perpetuated and accepted, even if they are “rejected” explicitly in theory or discourse. In an earlier post this summer, I provided a quotation from Emmanuel Katongole, a Ugandan priest who wrote The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2010). I want to repeat here the same quotation, because I think this characterization of African politics is not that different from what recent acquittals for Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman communicate today about how the United States values the lives of African-Americans:

 That these [African lives] are not unique, precious sacred lives; these are Africans, mere bodies to be used, mere masses to be exploited. That this theological claim has come to be widely assumed is obvious from the casualness with which the wastage of African lives is accepted. For a new future to take shape in Africa, the wanton sacrificing of African lives would have to be confronted-no, interrupted-by a different story and its accompanying practices in which the sacredness, the preciousness, the unviability, and the dignity of African lives are foregrounded? (17, bold-emphasis mine)

Individual Economic Behavior as One Source of Action

Given these steps backwards for racial justice in the United States, clearly social and political action is needed.  But on an individual level, I want to also ask how my economic choices matter, given my attention in the blog this year to our economic behaviors of consumption. As a result, I commit to being more proactive in the media I watch/read. While I already reject racist/sexist media as much as possible, I want to be more proactive in consuming media with the messages currently lacking in our society. While I do not think media alone changes our perceptions of others (we need to be living in more diverse communities, and learning about our history and current contextual realities), we cannot deny the role it plays in perpetuating stereotypes.

The film Miss Representation  highlights that women are underrepresented on screen and in the media, and that this is especially true for women of color. I should add that there is great lack of representation of positive images for men of color as well.  White male characters are often still the stars of mainstream films, television shows, and children’s cartoons. Unfortunately, this means that people of color are often depicted with stereotypes, given their limited representation (The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media provides some great statistics and analysis on issues surrounding gender, and interactions of race and gender, in the media)

 Right now, Doc McStuffins is an example of a show I want to support. Doc is a six-year old girl who wants to be a doctor, and serves as a doctor to her stuffed animals.  Her mom is a doctor, and she has a caring father; she is a good older sister to her younger brother.  She is friends with boys and girls.  She is an African-American girl who is the star, and not the sidekick.

I’d love to hear from readers on what you think are good films and/or television shows where racial diversity exists, and writers avoid relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.

 

 

 

The Social Construction and Comfort of Soul Food

Did you know that “gumbo” is “okra” in the Bantu dialect of the peoples in southern and central Africa? That’s just one of the tidbits I learned from this fascinating new documentary which I would encourage university libraries to carry and for faculty to use in the classroom. Soul Food Junkies chronicles the social history and contemporary experience of consuming foods originally created by African Americans from slavery through emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Era through today. It’s a fascinating journey for anyone who learns effectively through visual and experiential means, and it can be an effective tool to help students understand the way race works in the structures of our society both historically and in the present.

Use of food as a way to introduce cultural diversity is more difficult than it sounds. On the surface few would pass up the opportunity to explore new flavors, colorful plates, and unfamiliar ingredients. But the deceptive problem occurs when we leave the discussion of food and culture to our consumptive likes and dislikes. Instead, the use of food needs to be more instructional: what are the origins of these dishes? How is this cuisine tied to the history of the US? How are social structures and inequalities reflected and how are they relevant today?

Soul food is one example of what sociologists describe as material culture, the physical components of a group that signify values, norms, and social conditions of a group. An instructor can help students better understand the impact of migration, the context of reception of new people groups, and how those people groups adapt to their new surroundings. Okra for example was a vegetable common to many Africans who were brought to the US as chattel slaves. Obviously taking what food they could would be a source of comfort during the harrowing journey across the Atlantic and the brutal conditions of slavery in the American South. Through soul food, we can learn that the meals of most slaves consisted of the remainders of crops and the scraps of meat product like chitterlings, a word originating from the European Middle Ages to describe the less desirable parts of pigs consumed by peasants. Given the absence of education for the majority of slaves, it comes as no surprise that this term would eventually be called “chittlins”. More so, the fact of the low quality of the food given to chattel slaves speaks volumes to the value accorded to this people group. What is a source of sustenance for the oppressed is the afterthought of the oppressor.

With emancipation little changed in the dietary patterns of freed blacks due to institutionalized segregation. With little access to the resources of southern whites, southern blacks made do with the foods they were accustomed to prior to their liberation. After the Civil War, African Americans were politically equal to whites, but in the South, state laws, first called the Black Codes, and later the Jim Crow laws defined the social boundaries that ensured that federally protected equality would have no bearing on the day-to-day lives of whites and blacks. Clearly aware of this inequality and their very survival day to day, it should not be a surprise that soul food retained its comfort significance.

The Civil Rights Movement, whose crowning achievement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was recently gutted by the Supreme Court, augured new hope for African Americans. New hope called for celebration, and a new sense of empowerment and pride in one’s people. “Soul food” received its name around this time when various elements of African American culture suddenly had “soul” attached to it to distinguish itself from the spiritual emptiness of white-dominated mainstream society. But just as progress appeared in the political realm, the economy changed once again, and African American socioeconomic conditions fared no better than before the 1960s. Jobs that required little education were exported to developing nations and were replaced by service sector jobs which paid very little and demanded little physical exertion. The stress of not being able to make ends meet in addition to sedentary work increases the health risk put on by soul food consumption. Moreover as America remains highly segregated spatially, the availability of healthy food options grows scarce where poverty is concentrated. So even as the documentary showed the possibilities of healthier soul food, such potential may only be available to higher income African Americans.

Through the use of the Soul Food Junkies documentary, one can teach about the ways in which social structures in American society have a racial inflection that has had forward repercussions on African Americans today. The meaning of soul food is inextricably tied to the history of African Americans, and thus an important part in the education of all young Americans. With new visual education like Soul Food Junkies and mindful teachers everywhere, we can introduce new students (and not a few older ones too) to the social history of race in US society and what it means for us all today.

Hmong, Indian, What’s the Difference?

Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.” When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”

 

Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.

Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.

As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.

What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US. The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.

Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.

In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.

Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.


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