Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I had a very angry title to this but dan says to put 'teddybears and ice cream' instead.

I wrote an opinion piece for the campus newspaper, but then some kid took out a hundred words without asking so the published version I don't like so much.

Anyway. The backstory here is that students at the exclusive school where I teach celebrated someone's birthday by having a 'South of the Border' theme party, dressing up janitors and gang members. Here is my response, unabridged:

I’ll be honest. I think it is unbelievably disrespectful to dress up as janitors and pregnant teenagers to represent Mexicans. But it’s not hard to see where those images come from. Just watch half an hour of Comedy Central.

There is a difference, though, between using stereotypes to create comedic cultural commentary (like Carlos Mencia and Dave Chappelle), and using them in real life. Real life people will be affected in ways a TV audience will not.

In real life stereotypes hurt because they are simplistic and negative. My people, the Swedes, are either depicted as quiet and boring, or blonde and sex crazed. When I hear others laugh at a Swedish joke, I want to leave. I have no interest in getting to know anyone who jokes like that about my people.

And I think that is the real danger: Disrespect breeds indifference. And indifference makes for voluntary segregation.

People have wonderful abilities to get along with those different from themselves. But it doesn’t happen by itself, and it sure won’t happen if additional distance is created by off-putting jokes.

I have taught ethnic studies courses in the Department of Communication for seven years. One memorable class started out divided and hostile. The right side of the room was white, while the left side of the room was brown. There was a lot of glaring, and very little listening.

The class was diverse in every sense of the word. It was 50% non-white, included members from seven athletic teams, and leaders from the MCC and Gala. It had a total of four African American students, which is way above the Santa Clara average.

One intense discussion concerned the word ‘exotic’. To a white woman that word is a compliment. To a woman of color it is not. To her, ‘exotic’ stresses that she is different, and that white is normal. To her, that is not a compliment. So should the Latina just get over it and agree that if the intent was to give her a compliment she should be happy?

It really comes down to the same issue that has been raised by the theme party. In my classes, I teach that ‘intent’ is beside the point. Just because you intend something to be a compliment, or a harmless joke, doesn’t make it so. Once the word, or action, is out there, the meaning will be created by whoever hears it. Their interpretation is as real to them, as your intent was to you. To accept diversity is to accept the fact that there is more than one truth.

History and experience shape our interpretations. Words and actions mean different things to different people. In this world, we have to take that into account.

At the end of the quarter a young man in the class I mentioned was attacked because he was gay. His classmates, all of them, fiercely rallied around him. Not everybody accepted homosexuality, but everybody had learned enough about his life to be emotionally affected by what was happening to him, and to understand the bigger picture of oppression.

It’s not a question of whether people can do it. The question is whether they want to. Disrespectful jokes push people away. Respectful listening draws them in. It’s as easy as that.

¿happy birthday? ¿noel?

Dear Noel,
Manuel says that March 1 is your birthday, but I think it's on Saturday. o3-o3? Right? Isn't it?

I'd rather be early than sorry, though, so here is a tulip for you! (But if I am right you'll get another flower...!) Happy day! Hope you get lots of good presents and good cake. And say hi to Mom and Dad for me!

end of black history month

We watched Spike Lee's Malcolm X last night. That's a good movie.

Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were both killed the year they would turn 40. I wonder what the world would have been like, had they lived.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

what do you want to be, cool or effective?

I think it's good if Al Gore can make people think about the environment. I find Bono irritating, but I think it's great if he can make people want to do something about AIDS in Africa. It may be cooler to be ahead of the masses, but it's when the masses move that things can really change.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

and that's about it

Dan just told me that my knowledge of rutabaga reminds him of Forrest Gump's friend's knowledge about shrimp. To jog your memory, let me just mention the 'coconut shrimp'.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

there are chocolate and almond ones too but I never get those

And passover is just around the corner so Safeway has stocked up on Jewish food. I like to buy coconut macaroons because they are similar to the first cookie every Swedish child learns to make, kokostoppar. They come in a round container and they are kosher and they taste like what I remember from being 6 years old.

good stuff

If you buy parsnips and rutabaga chances are your local Safeway check out person will start frantically leafing through the lists that are taped to the cash out register and grab for the phone, if you don't help him out. That's sad because both are really good. They can be diced and fried and mixed with meat. And they can be cut into bigger pieces and baked in the oven. And then there is the mashed rutabaga. That's good stuff. Mash it with some potato for texture and a carrot for color. Salt, pepper, butter, maybe some stock. Yum.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

not the kind of attention you want

So I have been trying to decide what to make of the fact that the school where I am teaching right now is making headlines in all the wrong ways. Today we even had 15 minutes of CNN fame, including one of those shouting matches/mini discussions that never really lead anywhere.

There is racism everywhere. Nothing new there. It's not getting any better. But I am not sure if it's getting any worse either.

So what happened this time was that some white college students dressed up as janitors and pregnant teenagers for a Mexican theme party. Someone I talked to today said that his Mexican-American students, sons and daughters of migrant workers, were appalled by the disrespect and the stereotyping. But, when asked, they didn't think anything could be done to achieve change. They didn't think people can be educated, or that people can learn. That's very sad. Of course people can change. They only need a good reason. In this case they need to want to care about others.

Sometimes racism looks a lot like indifference. And sometimes indifference is really racism.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

das leben der anderen

On Friday I interviewed an 80-year-old German immigrant lady who told me, amongst other things, about being young during the second world war in Germany. She said that when you have had grenades hit everywhere around you and bombs hit the house nextdoor, and when you have had your father and your 15-year-old brother be prisoners of war, then you don't take war lightly. She also said that it hurts to hold your arm up in a ten minute Hitler salute.
Then tonight I saw the German movie The Lives of Others. It tells the story of intellectuals and artists in East Germany under surveillance by the Stasi in the 1980's. It's very moving and funny. Great film.

So all in all I have brushed up on my German, and all in all I have learned a lot.

Friday, February 16, 2007

everybody says education is the key

Read this article, and read all (or as many as you can stomach) of the racist comments underneath. Then tell me how to be a teacher for those kids.

(Here is what The San Jose Mercury News had to say about the issue.)

(Actually, the story also made The International Herald Tribune and about a hundred other papers through the Associated Press.)

Thursday, February 15, 2007

fake cinnamon

When I first came to the US I didn't know how to drive a car. But I learned in six weeks, and got a 94/100 on the driving test. (Three of those points got deducted because I tried to stay within the speed limit going downhill. I was told this was California and we didn't have all time in the world.)

During my driving lessons for those six weeks I chewed cinnamon flavored gum like a crazy person. (I also had to have the window cracked just so, and I had to wear my Stan Smith tennis shoes.)

After a while my mouth started blistering and my lips got swollen. I figured I had a reaction to either the intense red food coloring, or the fake cinnamon. But I kept chewing because I really wanted that license and I had gotten myself addicted.

But when I had the license in my hand, no more fake cinnamon, and no more blisters.

Until now. I now know that a certain brand of toothpaste, with a faint red stripe in addition to a lot of white and a little bit of blue, has guess what fake cinnamon hidden in that stripe.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Someone gave me a sticker today, with this symbol on it. It is the symbol for equality that The Human Rights Campaign uses. That is an organization working for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights. Support them.

why I watch 'real housewives of orange county'

"Do you speak Canadian?"
Real housewife of Orange County, to her son's Canadian friend.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

and yes, a mexican american gathering comes with pan dulce

On Saturday I randomly found myself in an all day training session with a group of Latino community activists. It was interesting. I learned that if you want to change the world, you need to make very concrete plans, and you need to be able to break those down into manageable tasks. Maybe most importantly, you need to make sure you have stocked up on toilet paper for all the volunteers who will carry out the tasks.

People who think about practicalities are worth listening to. That kind of knowledge only comes with experience.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

yes, you will pay

If you think it's a shame to throw out milk that is going only a little bit bad you get a tummy ache.

that's an a for creativity

One of my white 20-year-old students wrote a paper where he suggested taking the money that goes to the war and use it for reparation for slavery. Better the neighborhoods where black people live, scholarships, level the playing field in different ways. See there's an idea.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

speed city

Today I got a grand tour of the Speed City exhibit in San Jose with the curator. I am definitely going to write something about it. The more I listen to people of color talking about race and racism in America the more I realize how much work there is to be done still. Nothing ended with the sixties, as some of my white students think. When people say that we have "come far" they usually fail to mention where the US started. We may have moved away from slavery, but that doesn't mean we have equality, or even a basic understanding of differences.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Saturday, February 03, 2007

the re-departed

Martin Scorsese's The Departed has been nominated for five Oscars so it's playing again. And we went to see it again. It's a really great movie.

el automóvil gris

Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, based in Mexico City, came to the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose this week.
Following a Japanese tradition they act out a narration for the classic Mexican silent movie The Grey Automobil using a pianist (in traditional silent movie mode), multilingual actors and dancers, and multilingual subtitles. The end result is completely unpredictable, and fabulous.