Saturday, April 16, 2011

art, exercise, and cancer

I saw my oncologist last week, and we were talking about exercise and weight. Cancer survivors need to exercise regularly.

Like most people I have a hard time fitting everything I want to do into the limited number of hours I have free everyday. I told my doctor I spend a lot of time on photography, and that it eats into my exercise time. She said it's great that I do photography: "It's good for you to be doing something that you really enjoy".

So there I was, with my cancer doctor. Who told me that to stay healthy, I should exercise. And do art.

Ironic, isn't it, that art, and physical education, are the two areas that public schools cut first when they need to cut somewhere.

If you want to create lifelong healthy habits, and healthy people, you need to let the kids learn how to enjoy art, and physical exercise. It won't matter if they know how to do math if they're dead.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

the IKEA embarrassment

I woke up this morning to Dan reading a story from The Los Angeles Times out aloud to me. It turns out that the mothership of Swedishness, IKEA, is in some trouble at its first US factory in Danville, Va. Workers are complaining of eliminated raises, a frenzied pace, and mandatory overtime. There are complaints about racial discrimination, and high turnover of workers. Here is a snippet from the story:

Some of the Virginia plant's 335 workers are trying to form a union. The International Assn. of Machinists and Aerospace Workers said a majority of eligible employees had signed cards expressing interest.
In response, the factory — part of Ikea's manufacturing subsidiary, Swedwood — hired the law firm Jackson Lewis, which has made its reputation keeping unions out of companies. Workers said Swedwood officials required employees to attend meetings at which management discouraged union membership.

IKEA has been known for relying on a certain "Swedishness" in employee benefits, offering generous packages compared to other companies in the US. The situation at the Virginia factory is embarrassing. Here is more:

Laborers in Swedwood plants in Sweden produce bookcases and tables similar to those manufactured in Danville. The big difference is that the Europeans enjoy a minimum wage of about $19 an hour and a government-mandated five weeks of paid vacation. Full-time employees in Danville start at $8 an hour with 12 vacation days — eight of them on dates determined by the company.
What's more, as many as one-third of the workers at the Danville plant have been drawn from local temporary-staffing agencies. These workers receive even lower wages and no benefits, employees said.

Believe that? Twelve days of vacation a year, eight of them on days the company chooses for you?

I go to IKEA regularly, because it is my only slice of home away from home. The yellow and blue signs, and the familiar names of the products, make me feel good. I know the employees in the stores have decent contracts. I wish the same was true for those making the furniture.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

is this image funny to you?

I've been involved in a discussion around this image the last couple of days. Someone posted it on her blog, to illustrate a blog post aimed at explaining to Swedish people how you go about getting your driver's license in California. She found the image funny, and added it to her informational post as a light hearted ending. She said "This is not what a California license looks like, but, who knows, maybe soon it will, given all the illegal immigrants here".

When I saw it, I was shocked. To me the image is deeply racist, and I think posting it without comment is to perpetuate prejudice and stereotypes. I wrote a comment to the writer because I didn't want Swedish people reading the blog to think that this kind of "humor" is OK.

The writer of the blog was upset by my comment. She thought I had attacked her. Other readers (Swedish immigrants in the US, or Swedes living in Sweden), all, except for one, thought I was the bad guy. They said I was overly sensitive, and that you have to be able to joke about things. They said you can't be politically correct all the time. They said that since the writer is not racist, she didn't mean any harm.

The writer herself said it was unfortunate the image was misinterpreted, and that you can't please everybody. She took the image off her blog. Other readers continued to comment, urging her to put the image back up, repeating that she hadn't done anything wrong, and that she had been unfairly attacked.

I don't think saying "everyone interprets differently" is a good excuse. There isn't anything funny about the image. All it does is pile old stereotypes on top of each other: The Mexican immigrant is portrayed as short, fat, over sexualized, he can't write his name, doesn't know his date of birth, is entitled to services, wears a sombrero, and wears ammunition across his chest like a member of a guerilla. His status will never change, and he is referred to by the words 'illegal', and 'alien'.

The woman who posted this image lives in Siskiyou County in Northern California. Siskiyou County is 80% white. That's extreme, even on a national level. Here is a comparison:

Percentage of white people
Siskiyou County        80
Santa Clara County   37 (this is where I live, in the San Francisco Bay Area)
California                   42
US                               65

source: US Census Bureau

It's possible that anyone living in a homogenous area actually does not know about the tension between different ethnicities in the US. It's also possible that people with no experience of their own take stereotypes present in news and other media stories for true. Because I am originally Swedish I have been especially saddened by what I perceive as ignorance among Swedes, and Swedish immigrants in the US. Here are a few facts that I think most of them don't know:

1. California's economy, such as it is, depends on the work of undocumented workers. Conservative writer Victor Davis Hansen has said something along the lines of "The difference between Michigan and California is that in Michigan people mow their own lawns." He is referring to the fact that middle class Californians in vast numbers employ undocumented workers to take care of their children, their yards, their pools, and their cleaning. And everyone in the state, and outside of it, enjoy cheap produce picked by underpaid farmworkers.

2. California became a state in 1850, after the Mexican-American war. Texas, to take another example, became a state in 1845. In both states there are people, families, who have lived there since before the land became part of the US. Being white does not grant you the right to determine or imply who belongs, and not. The face on the driver's license is that of an "illegal alien", but it looks just as much as the face of someone whose family may have been American citizens for six or seven generations.

3. President Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented workers in 1986. Over the past ten years when I have been teaching in California many of my students have been the children of parents who acquired residency through Reagan's amnesty.

4. The private university where I teach gives full scholarships to undocumented students, if they quality. (The same standards apply to them as to other applicants, obviously.)

5. Undocumented students, who have been brought to the US as children, are not entitled to loans, or any type of financial aid. If they aren't awarded scholarships to private universities they are on their own. Undocumented students can attend California State Universities and pay in-state tuition, but they have to pay all of it out of their own pockets. They work full-time, and save as much as they can to pay for school. They yearly costs for four-year California public universities range between $15 000 and $30 000.

6. When I see the image of the 'illegal immigrant' I see the face of some of my students, or the faces of some of my students' parents. I see hardworking immigrants, who do the best that they can for their children and their families. I see people who struggle against prejudice. I see people who work harder than I ever have in my life.