Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Picking your battles

New class, new students, new issues. Classes started for me last Monday, and as always the beginning of a class is a period of feeling everyone out - I begin to get an idea of individual student mindsets, opinions, and personalities, and they try to figure out what kind of a teacher I am.

Sometimes I am deluged by so much from a student that I don't know where to begin. For example, this opinion that a student expressed in a reaction paper about minorities in his community (paraphrased, of course):

"My community received a lot of African American refugees from Katrina and now white people are a minority group (or they will be at the next census). There is a lot of racism against white people because black people can go into the welfare office and get food stamps even if they have $500 phones, and white families can't get food stamps even if they are struggling."


There are three issues in this short paragraph:

1) Unclear on what the term "minority" means
2) Racist perception of how welfare, etc, is determined and distributed
3) Earnest stress and unhappiness about change in his community.

Which do I tackle?

Although personally I find #2 to be the most problematic, this is the one I don't respond to. At least, not in this arena. Instead, I focus here on #1 and #3.

1) Unclear on what the term minority means

Two sub-issues here:
  • Minority is a confusing word
  • The definition of minority and distinction of who "counts" as a minority requires acceptance of an assumption that many students just can't do.
I'm not crazy about the word minority, because it is confusing. One can be without being in the minority without being a minority. Students often have trouble with this. If white people are in the minority in their community, why aren't white people a minority group? I've decided to continue using this term anyway, because the other term suggested their text is "subordinate group", and many students were uncomfortable and insulted at the idea that non-whites (or non-males, etc) are "subordinate" to anyone. Again, a conflict between what the words mean in general language use, and what they mean to a sociologist or social scientist.

Even if our definitions are the same (and we have gotten over all the weird exceptions, like Amish as a minority group even though they are white because they are a ethnic minority due to their religion and lifestyle - someone always brings up the Amish), many students balk at the definition of minority.

In order to accept the term "minority", you have to realize that the definition hinges on the assumption that some groups are disadvantaged in our society. That is a huge hurdle for many students, who believe that there is no more racism. We've begun to tentatively discuss the ways that non-whites are oppressed, and I can feel the challenge building. Sometime this week, I predict that one or more students will openly challenge the idea that racism still exists.

3) Earnest stress and unhappiness about change in the community

Students often complain about major race-related changes in their community (especially the influx of large numbers of Hispanics), often beginning this sentence with a hesitant "I'm-not-racist-but..."

Is it racist to be unhappy about racial change in your community? Well, the unease here certainly stems from racists beliefs and attitudes, perhaps held at a deeply subconscious level. But the expression of this unhappiness is natural, understandable, and very human.

Who wouldn't be at least a little uneasy if their beloved (or at least familiar) community began to dramatically change into something unfamiliar? New people, strangers, who behave in different ways, speak different languages, and cause things to change. Both large-scale (Spanish on street signs) and small-scale (new Mexican section in grocery store means I can't find the items I usually buy). Change is always difficult, and change on this scale leaves the individual feeling like they have no control over their lives and overwhelmed by the newness around them.

When coupled with the racist opinions of the society at large (Mexicans don't keep their yards clean, they don't care about learning English, they don't really like America, they're just here to send money home), it's no wonder that this unease and unhappiness often erupts in a racial way. At some level we are programmed to dislike change and distrust outsiders. It's easy to use race or ethnicity as a target to dispel some of these negative feelings.

Furthermore, there is no appropriate outlet to discuss these issues. My students often don't even like to mention them, and when they do they qualify them ("I'm-not-racist-but"), because they've been taught that race is something we don't talk about. You're a bad person for even noticing cultural differences.

How can someone not notice large-scale cultural differences like those between majority-WASP communities and majority-Hispanic communities? You would have to be completely oblivious. But this is what we expect ourselves to be. It's natural to have feelings of unhappiness over change, and it's necessary to talk about these feelings.

So I never excoriate students for feeling unhappy that their communities are changing; instead I sympathize with them, reminding them that change is very hard. I want them to talk about their unease. I want them to explore its roots and causes. And ultimately, I want them to realize that their ideas about this new and strange culture are mostly based on false stereotypes, and I want to encourage them to reach out to their new neighbors. But I'm not magic, and this takes time.

So those are the battles that I pick. For now, I ignore #2.

Why do I ignore #2? Why is that the battle that I leave alone?

Because it will come up in our discussion later this week. It does every single time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Love My Students

Classes started again yesterday.

This morning a student sends me an email:

"This assignment was hard but I suppressed on."*

*All student quotes paraphrased to protect privacy and dignity

Monday, August 23, 2010


From the always-hilarious Doctor Grumpy in the House, who got it from 'The Body Odd' on MSNBC, original by Randy Dotinka:

Beer Goggles Fog Up Sexual Signals:

If you're looking for a hook-up, a few drinks can suddenly make other people seem more attractive -- and receptive -- than they actually are, according to two new studies that help explain the "beer goggle" effect.

First, a suds-soaked fog diminishes a guy’s ability to detect facial symmetry, a crucial component of what we think of as human beauty. When this sense is dulled, an average-looking face may seem like it belongs to a hottie, suggests research on drunk college kids in the journal Alcohol.

To make matters even worse, another study shows liquor makes guys more likely to misinterpret a friendly female glance as a bold come-on.

"The average guy tends to perceive more women as being sexually interested after a few drinks and be more likely to make mistakes about what a woman feels," says study co-author Teresa Treat, an associate professor at the University of Iowa whose finding appears in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

On the other hand, Treat found that alcohol does not affect a man's ability to differentiate between modest clothing (jeans and a sweatshirt) and come-hither attire (a short skirt and tight top).

The researchers came to their conclusions after doing their best to approximate boy-meets-girl-over-drinks scenarios without actually going to a bar.

In the experiment, 59 young men looked at photos of young women. (Ah, the sweet life of a research subject.) Previously, men and women had deemed the photo subjects to be sexually interested or just friendly and more provocatively dressed or less provocatively dressed.

The male subjects looked at the photos while sober and then after they'd downed vodka cocktails and gotten a bit shy of legally wasted. While the study design didn't allow researchers to come up with specific statistics, it's fair to say that the drinks moderately disrupted the men's ability to interpret sexual signals, Treat explains.

This matters because misinterpreting a woman's signals "could be associated with men making an advance that's not reciprocated," Treat says. That could lead to damaged egos or worse, like date rape, she says.

What's going on? When people drink, they struggle to interpret things that are subtle and demand more thinking, says Robert F. Leeman, an associate research scientist at Yale University. It appears that sexual signals -- confusing in the best of times -- fit into those categories.

What to do? Women who want to just have a good time -- and not go home with a guy -- would be smart to dress conservatively, says University of Texas psychology professor Kim Fromme. "That's the more obvious cue."

In other words: Make sure you send signals that can be picked up even through a boozy blur.

(Emphasis mine)

Blistering, blinding, blame-the-victim hell, MSNBC and Randy Dotinga. Maybe men who drink could just NOT RAPE ANYONE.

ETA: As I've been rightly reminded, I can't really blame an author for quoting something someone else said - it's not Dotinga's statements that are so ridiculous. So Teresa Treat and Kim Fromme, care to explain yourselves?

Although, Dotinga, you do reinforce the message in the last sentence, which you wrote, right?

Perspectives of Time

I just watched this video about how time perspective affects our behavior:

(via Sociological Images)

I know you can't see the whole thing, that's because I basically suck at the internet and if you click on it, it'll take you to YouTube where you can watch it all. It's 10 whole minutes long (I KNOW), but the animations are great and the narrator, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, brings up some fascinating ideas.

We have a particular perspective of time in mainstream American culture. We like to be busy - or at least, we ARE always busy. The country is at base a Protestant* culture, which Zimbardo describes as having a good work ethic, but also having what he calls a "future orientation". Basically, this culture looks ahead to the future and works today to gain tomorrow. Because we want to gain money and success, that is what we work for.

But not all cultures have this future orientation. Some are present or past oriented. The past orientations spend a lot of time thinking about the past, either reminiscing over good times or regretting past failures. Present orientations are either hedonists who just do whatever they feel like or they are convinced that their life is fated - fated by religion, by their poor social circumstance, or whatever. Present and past orientations do not lend themselves to behavior that will lead to accumulation of wealth and success in the future.

Ok. But then Zimbardo begins to link this attitude to specific cultures and I began to squirm a little bit. I have heard students echoing this idea of a Culture of Poverty - that is, that the poor are poor because they are lazy and don't plan ahead. I actually think a women dropped one of my classes after I scolded her a little bit for espousing this idea. You've probably heard it - "Black people / Hispanics / whatever just don't like to work hard."

Let me be CRYSTAL clear about this: Zimbardo isn't making these connections, I am.

Zimbardo explains how they can actually link this time-based perspective to national income. So if past or present orientation is a part of culture, what does that say about the culture? Is it fair to apply this idea of a cultural mindset, or is that just stereotyping?

I don't know.

Ironically, my husband comes from a Catholic family, Catholics being supposedly one of these past and present oriented cultures, and he is the most work-now-play-later person I have ever met. Annoyingly so, actually.

I get twitchy when I hear about reasons for poverty and the cultural mindset. Not because it's impossible for those reasons to exist, but because of how those ideas have been and continue to be twisted in order to justify cuts in social programs meant to benefit the poor. Or decisions to hire one employee over another. Or the decision a teacher makes to devote more time to one student over another. Etc.

But on the other hand - what metric are we using to judge this success? It's a very white metric, I think. By that I mean we measure success based on the standards of that same Protestant American culture that was doing so well by planning for the future. Success to us is money in the bank, promotions at work, a house in the suburbs, nice vacations in the summer, leisure time, and so on. The exact definitions of it might change (you might want a loft in New York City rather than that house), but the end picture ends up about the same.

What if my success isn't that same Protestant picture of money in the bank? What if my success is paying tribute to my culture, making my children happy, doing more volunteer work, or anything else that isn't related to money? It's all related to money, of course, because when you have money everything else gets a little easier, but for some people the end isn't just the money itself.

I often think about people who are disgustingly rich and who are actively working to get richer, and I think, why? Once you have enough, what's the point? I look at businesses who have a steady, happy customer base but who are driven to continue expanding and think, why? Why not focus on making the best product possible rather than opening new stores?

So when we judge people based on this success, whose definition are we using? How is it fair to measure someone else by a standard they don't care to meet? What if those Protestants who save, save, save for the future keel over and die of a heart attack today?

Sorry about the random incoherences, just a string of thoughts from the video. Anyone get anything more structured from it?

*I use the word Protestant a lot in this entry. I'm certainly not bashing the religion, I'm using it in the way the video did as a descriptor of American culture.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Noble, Wholesome, Pure, Ice Cream Eating Savage

I have more excuses! Lots of excuses! You see, in between the last post and this one, we moved. To another state. So in between the packing and unpacking and buying things at Target (because although we have too much stuff already, it is clearly not the right assemblage of stuff), and driving to the DMV and then driving back to the DMV with the proper documents, and so on, I have not had time to put together anything coherent.

But this post from Sociological Images reminded me of something I've been meaning to write about.

The post discusses the romanticization of other cultures, specifically China, and was spurred by this advertisement from HSBC Bank, a major bank in Britain that has some locations in the US as well:

(In other news, I figured out how to embed videos! I am so clever.)

As Lisa from Sociological Images so rightly states:

"[This is] an excellent example of the way that non-white and non-Western people are often portrayed as more deeply cultural, connected to the past, and closer to nature than their white, Western counterparts. [...] The music, the boats, their clothing and hats, and their fishing methods all suggest that the Chinese are more connected to their own long-standing (ancient?) cultural traditions, ones that offered them an intimate and cooperative relationship to nature. Simultaneously, it erases Chinese modernity, fixing China somewhere back in time."

This specific commercial is also a great example of the Noble Savage archetype. When first the idea and then the phrase Noble Savage appeared in European discourse in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, it contrasted the pure, wholesome, naturally good savage with the brutal, greedy, warmongering European. It was a response to the bloody and violent conflicts that raged across Europe at that time, like the Thirty Years War or the religious battles between French Catholics and Protestants.

The idea of the Noble Savage put non-civilized humans on a pedestal, claiming that in a natural state humans were essentially innocent and good. It carries connotations of naivety, of a child-like approach to living that jaded and over-cultured Europeans were no longer able to attain.

We still carry this association around with us today. We've just altered our perspective to encompass health and diet.

It's very fashionable right now to be obsessed with health and diet in a way that privileges the idea of simple, natural, unadulterated foods. And there's nothing wrong with that per se - I'd rather eat a peach from a farmer's market than one that traveled 500 miles to get to the grocery store.

We are in a sense reacting to what our industrialized food system has become, an unwieldy behemoth that is able to dodge any real kind of FDA control. Our food products are, from beginning to end, a part of a mechanized process that stresses uniformity. The entire process is watched over by a literal handful of huge corporations - four or five majors in each section of the industry that control a majority of the operations. The result is a sterile, factory-produced food that bears little relation to our romanticized conception of who produces food and how.*

As the system gets more - well - systematic, consumers clamor for simplicity. And advertisers oblige:

But where to get this notion of simplicity from? Obviously not from the actuality of how food is produced in America. So let's throw in some brown people! Most farmers in America can no longer meet our stereotypes of what a farmer should be, but companies can draw on the idea of the Noble Savage to instead present us with an exoticized vision of food producers in other (unnamed) countries.

Kashi is a particular offender. Unfortunately I couldn't find a great example, but God bless the internet because apparently someone videotapes the commercials shown during Little House on the Prairie and posts them to YouTube. Don't ask me why. Let's move past the weirdness - the Kashi commercial begins around 42 seconds in:

Karen Moyer is evidently a real, live person who works for Kashi, and who was unaware of the presence of vanilla and cinnamon before the commercial was filmed (Ben Radford discusses this rather hilariously on his blog here).

The idea of a company embarking on a worldwide quest for exotic flavors plays right into what consumers want - authenticity. The same people who smugly display Asian-inspired home furnishings purchased at Pier 1 will go nuts over the idea that someone from Haagen Dazs traveled the globe to find vanilla, presumably on the shelf right next to inner peace. It's natural, right? It's wholesome and pure and probably organic too, completely in opposition to our modern, mechanized, sterile, and white-identified food system.

My students are often confused by the idea that a positive stereotype can be just as destructive as a negative stereotype. When confronted with the concept of the "model minority", many are unable to articulate why it's bad to have such a stereotype.

Stereotypes are bad not for the specific "information" they impart, but because they reduce the stereotyped group to an incomplete and one-dimensional caricature. In the case of the Noble Savage, the group is romanticized and infantilized, not to mention left out of the modern world. Those Indian women throwing grain in the Kashi commercial, those brown people walking on the beach with bananas in the Haagen Dazs commercial, they aren't modern people and they don't fit in with our idea of the modern world. We feel lucky - so lucky! - to have found these people that time forgot. And now we will exploit them for their pure and wholesome vanilla.

Because often, when Western corporations begin to use labor from Non-Western people, exploitation is what occurs. I find it particularly ironic that Haagen Dazs used bananas in their commercial, considering the havoc wreaked by companies like Chiquita in banana-producing companies throughout South America (the so-called Banana Republics). Just to give one example.

And non-western farmers are modernized! In our era of organics and the natural fad, we forget why we switched to these modern methods in the first place. To get larger, better yields and feed more people. Duh. We use pesticides, genetically engineer our crops to be bug resistant, and mechanize our processes in the interests of producing more food. I'm not saying that our current methods are the best way (boy, I am really not saying that), but that we've come down this path for a reason. When non-western farmers are shown the benefits of, say, chemically-enhanced fertilizer, they are all over it. In fact, many non-western countries don't have the same laws controlling environmental hazards like pesticides that the western world has grudgingly adopted, meaning that the human and non-human parts of the non-western world are in danger from these modern methods.

Take China, for example.**

All three of these commercials - and there are legions more - are examples of how we have some ideas that are so entrenched in our collective social mind that we don't even realize when these ideas are being manipulated. And, just for the record, using happy, nameless brown people as visual metaphors for wholesome non-mechanized food production...

is racist.

*For more information about our modern food system, I recommend the documentary Food Inc, "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, "Fast Food Nation" by Eric Schlosser, and "The Compassionate Carnivore" by Catherine Friend.

**Giving a negative example of how the Noble Savage stereotype is flawed reminds me of when my students try to countermand the positive stereotypes, they often fall back on the bad things that the particular group is associated with. For example, they'll say that Model Minority is not an accurate stereotype for Asians because there are also Asian gangs. (So close guys! So close I need another drink.)