Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Suburb Mentality

A suburb is an upgraded village: a spatially bounded space where people live under the illusion of knowing each other, of feeling protected by their belonging to the community, of fulfilling the middle-class (North-American) dream. You know the dream: a Stepford wife, a little box made out of ticky tacky (hope there are no hurricanes in your area!) in the middle of nowhere (preferably in a gated community, God forbids the coyotes or the immigrants come anywhere near us!), a Bimbo box (can't help but love Neal Stephenson's nickname for the SUV) where the Stepford wife can safely anchor the car-seats of the children (at least two, cause a). it's our Christian duty to reproduce ourselves, b). we 'all know' that the only-child comes with permanent psychological damage...).

One cannot understand the suburb and its mentality until one lives in North America. The suburb is a white, sanitized and monotonous place where everyone
has to look the same, feel the same, behave the same. "We are in the Burbs, where it is better to take a thousand clicks off the lifespan of your Goodyears by invariably grinding them up against curbs than to risk social ostracism and outbreaks of mass hysteria by parking several inches away, out in the middle of the street (That's okay Mom, I can walk to the curb from here), a menace to the traffic, a deadly obstacle to uncertain young bicyclists." (Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash, 1992).

A true middle-class individual (and hey, everyone is middle-class in North America, except those who aren't, but even they are middle-class!) dreams of setting down, finding the Stepford wife (partner, to be politically correct) and buy that cardboard house with 5 bedrooms (guest rooms required!) for which they'll pay 10 times the actual price and probably 10 times what they can truly afford. A slave to the bank, a slave to the cardboard house, a slave to the bimbo box, the individual becomes a slave to the suburb mentality. The long commute downtown sucks. So many cars! The downtown sucks too: thank God we have a doorman at work, otherwise we would end up with the homeless begging right at the door of our office on the 100th floor of the prison - oops, meant office - tower. The lunch time rush to the unavoidable franchises sucks too: there are simply too many people, this city can't take any more foreigner, immigrants, minorities! We're already over-crowded!

The suburb is the place where mass hysteria grows out of conformism. Out of sanitized - yet worthless - environments, whose only value derives from the quantification of our middle-class desire: we're willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for an ugly cardboard box that is worth shit just to live in a 'good community', where your neighbors have been selected by banks based on how intensely they desire to throw out of the window the money they don't have. The suburb hysteria comes in the forms of gates, of speed bumps and 30km/h speed signs. It comes in the form of community churches with stupid signs (Jesus loves you!), strip malls along the highway and yellow school buses. And it calms down at the sight of our trusted police buying their coffee at Starbucks; their mere presence, a token of suburb conformity itself, reassures us: they're here, we're protected from the awful unknown outside the suburb.

The suburb mentality is a dangerous one. It is an essentially anti-modern mentality, based on fear and born out of our capitalist desire to segregate ourselves from those who don't have the same earning-potential (under the false belief that earning potential makes us all the same). It's the belief of the capitalist slave, colonized by capitalism so that s/he no longer feels it as an ideological yoke, but as a free choice based on hard work (work hard, and you'll reach the stars; visualize, and you'll succeed).

The suburb mentality breeds fear, ignorance and intolerance. It breeds fascism. It prepares the mind for the radical populist-nationalist politicians who will shamelessly capitalize on the suburb hysteria to propel themselves to power. It makes people afraid, but more importantly, it makes them unable to cope with an urban environment, where good and bad co-exist, where people step on each others toes and parade their difference on a daily basis.

Photo credits: ulybug

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The (Ideological) Dupes

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a statement racist. Is it the statement that is racist, the individual making the statement or the individual decoding that sentence? From a theoretical perspective, each of these three possibilities is tied to a particular understanding of the world:

  • a statement is racist --> words carry the meaning, people are simple filters through which these words circulate. Who carries the responsibility for being a racist here?
  • the individual making the statement is racist --> the words we use reflect who we are on the inside. The 'racist' is a clear-cut identity inside us that is expressed through these words. In such cases, the individual carries the responsibility of being racist.
  • the individual decoding/ interpreting the sentence is racist --> in this case, the individual interprets everything said through a racist lens. Everything makes sense to h/ir only through the racist perspective s/he espouses. Again, the locus of responsibility is within the individual.

Of course, there are always other options than these three. In fact, the mere fact that I only list three options here betrays a worldview: an understanding of communication as a message that moves from the source to the audience.

During these past few days, I was reminded of how complex the questions of 'what counts as racism' and 'where is racism located' are. Part of me, the politically engaged part, cannot escape the feeling that some of these experiences were clearly tokens of racism. But pinpointing exactly what made them so and how were they racist became increasingly difficult. I know that for some, things are easy to interpret: if it smacks of racism, then it is racism. But I'm a theorist, and nothing is simple for me.

I was reading a long and heated thread on Feministe. The topic - parenting - elicits everyone's opinion. Parents and nonparents alike, we all believe there's an objective 'proper way' to raise kids and integrate them in the pre-existing social setting. During this chaotic online conversation, someone qualified their statement as being true regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. In itself, this may be a reasonable statement: "I believe kids can misbehave, regardless of their or their parents' race, gender or ethnicity". As a performance, this kind of statement seeks to counter any accusation of racism, sexism or nationalism. The speaker seeks to reassure the audience that the statement is not uttered through the racial, gender or ethnic lens.

But the audience rejects this assurance. In fact, the audience is quick to point out that the statement itself is racist. Is anyone so deluded to think that normative statements about behavior can be uttered in a space devoid of race, class, ethnicity or gender? No, the mere fact that such a sentence is uttered only reinforces the audience's belief that it is actually racist, classist, sexist etc. No one who has been subjected to racism or to class-based discrimination would ever believe that such a sentence can be 'neutral' (if I may even use this qualifier) . It is uttered from a particular racial, ethnic, gender, class perspective - meaning, the person who utters it is probably white, middle-class.

By extension, all members of the audience who read that utterance and find it non-racist, non-sexist, etc. are themselves racist, sexist, classist etc. because they fail to recognize that the possibility of uttering such a statement is only opened for their class/ race/ ethnicity/ gender.

The other case is of a quite different nature, but it ends up pretty much in the same place. I see this person on a quite regular basis, without being friends or even acquaintances. We live in the same neighborhood and in time, we started saying "hello" to each other. One day, I saw a person that looked just like her, but yet a bit different. My friend confirmed the similarity. We didn't know if it's her or not; being confused, we focused on identifying her instead of being polite and missed the chance of greeting her - whether she was our neighbor or not.

The next time we ran into our neighbor, we told her the story and offered a variant to "save face": maybe it was her sister or a relative? No, she said. It's probably the fact that "all Asians look the same" she said, and then added: "But even my brother was convinced he ran into me once, and it wasn't me". She had offered us another "save face" variant, but one that didn't sit well with us because of its implications: we were white, and as the stereotype goes, "all Asians look the same" to white people. We protested the implied racial framing in a quite clumsy manner. But were we reading too much into it? Could it be that we were actually hearing what she said from a racial perspective? Could it be that the source of our confusion was a racialized vision in the first place? Did she mean it in a racist way or was she simply trying to be nice by offering a possible explanation? Would she have offered the same explanation if we were not white?

* * *

I do not sit well with the idea that we are always first and foremost making a statement from a racial, gender, ethnic, class position. While that's partly true and needs to be recognized and interrogated, it is not the whole truth. If we can think only "as whites", "as women", "as Americans", then we find ourselves in an impossible world, born into these pre-established categories and unable to truly understand each other. These being said, it is only a few of us that have the privilege (or maybe the burden?) of affording to question these things.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

On Snow Peas and Normality

As I child, I learned that peas were to be unshelled, boiled and then eaten as a side dish. Nobody cared about the shells; we simply discarded them. The real prize was the small, green and round pea. Nobody would think of eating them raw.

And so I grew up thinking I know what peas are and how you should eat them. Of course, there were variations in terms of the recipes one used to cook them. But the basics stayed the same: unshell and boil.

Little surprise that when I first saw someone eating a raw pea pod, I was taken aback: how could they do it? It contradicted everything I knew about peas. More than that, it contradicted a shared norm of eating and cooking peas. How could they eat a raw pea pod when everyone knew peas had to be boiled and the shells had to be discarded? Eating them raw was simply 'abnormal'.

Curiosity aside, my stomach also decided to make a stand. As it grumbled at the thought of putting a raw pea pod in my mouth, it reinforced
my decision on eating raw peas: abnormal. It just wasn't right and my stomach simply knew it!

Normality was thus born as a seemingly biological thing: eating raw peas is not good for you, and that was the end of the story. The fact that so many other people did not seem to buy into this normality wasn't disconcerting. After all, the world is full of exotic and eccentric people! I knew what was 'normal' and I was gonna stick to it because that was the right thing to do!

We often fail to see that 'normality' is contextual: it becomes 'normality' by virtue of being accepted and enforced by those around us. Confronted with difference, we become rigid and loose our curiosity, hanging on to that false sense of self-reinforcement that 'normality' brings along. What counts as 'normal' when it comes to food is even trickier, as I wrote a long time ago, mostly because growing accustomed to a type of food becomes intertwined with our sensations and biological reactions. Even today, when I know that snow peas can be eaten raw, my stomach still protests to the idea, making it quite easy to forget that this reaction is part of a long process of socialization, that shaped my taste buds but also my sense of 'good food'.

Photo credits: Snow peas by little blue hen

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Letter to my radio station: Good bye, au revoir, arrivederci.

Dear radio station,

I am leaving you. I know you don't really care, because you probably have hundreds and thousands of fans. But I'm sick and tired of your constant repetitions and redundancies. How about you give me some 'diversity'? It's not that I don't like Beyonce. But listening to her latest song (which incidentally, was produced by the same owner that owns you, my dear radio station) 30 times a day feels a bit like brainwashing. Maybe it wouldn't hurt you, dear radio station, to tap a bit into the wealth of music that's being created out there, outside the studios of your owner. Maybe, just maybe, you'll find that there's actually rhythm and emotions that do not need to be in English - or whatever your 'official' language is.

I'm dreaming, I know. Who on earth wants to hear Stromae when Adam Lambert is playing on American Idol? And why would you ever trade the daring Lady Gaga for Manu Chao (yeah, yeah, I know, it's distracting that he keeps on switching from one language to another)... Hey, it make more sense to hum "my hump, my hump, my hump" than "we no speak americano"...

So, my dear radio station, I'm leaving you. I'll come visit you once in a while, mostly in the morning when you pretend to give me the 'news'. But for the rest of the day, I'm switching over to my own list of songs. It's still Anglophone, I know. But I'm working on it every day, collecting more of the sounds that make me wanna dance. I'm kind of sick of all the crap you throw at me. Good bye, au revoir, arrivederci...

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Are we becoming more conservative?

It's nice that we can write blogs and tell everyone who cares to read what we stand for. Or analyze the latest trends, crazes and ideas. It's nice that we can express ourselves and find other people who care to comment. Or not. But in the end, does it really matter? I mean I'm most likely to read the bits and pieces that already fit my values and worldviews. What I read adds to what I already think, but it doesn't change it.

If I am against abortion, I probably won't be reading Feministe (unless I want to trash them). And, it turns out, more and more young women are against abortion. I'm speechless. I simply cannot understand how a woman can be against abortion - unless she's brainwashed by religious beliefs. After all the fight that previous generations had to put up to get to the point where a woman could claim her right to her own body, some still fail to understand the importance of this right. And the price some people had to pay for it. Fighting for the right to abortion does not mean that all women get pregnant and have an abortion. It's like saying 'we are against condoms, because they encourage promiscuity'.

And if I am against abortion, it's most likely that I believe in the sanctity of my cause. Each year, some students in an university in a conservative city put up billboards on campus that equate abortion with genocide. The images are graphic, the students are believers. I'm speechless again. How can it be that students, who used to represent the revolutionary wave, have become the prophets of intolerance, blind faith and conservatism? Their 1968 French fellows must be really disappointed... Students used to represent the commitment to critical thinking and reason (I know, a heavy concept, but maybe it's time to reclaim it). Not anymore. Not since the university has become the labor-processing plant, serving the needs of governments and industry. Critical thinking is a dying breed - nobody needs it anymore.

Photo credits: Liverpool Street Station by victoriapeckham

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What's wrong with day care?

I was once told that you should keep your child at home rather than send her to day care.

I do not fully understand the day care system, but I wonder why some people see day care as such a bad thing for their kids.

I'm pretty sure the idea that a woman has to be a mother first and foremost, and therefore tend to her kids is still strong. Although many women feel this to be something biological, it is not. It has to do with social factors, with being taught from an early age that a girl cares about the babies, that a woman has to be a mother, and so on.

But beyond the gender discourse, I think this fear of day care also has a lot to do with the day care/ kindergarten system in North America. As said, a system I still don't fully understand: what's the difference between them? Are these institutions public or private? Are people working there educated and licensed? Why some institutions are affiliated with churches? How come day cares are in private homes? Who decides on the curricula?

I mean, I do understand the historical circumstances and the institutional dimension, but I think it's simply wrong. And if you really espouse gender equality, you need to ensure that there is a reliable, secular education system where kids can develop intellectually and emotionally.

I grew up in a different part of the world and went to kindergarten. Our kindergarten was a huge brick building, with a big backyard and a wonderfully huge swing. Oh yes, small kids were allowed to use the swing... That was back in the time when kids were supposed to fall and hurt themselves. I did fall, and I did hurt myself but I survived and not really cared about it.

Our kindergarten had nice and not-so-nice teachers. Mostly women, it is true. But they were all educated and they all made sure our day was neatly divided into play time, learn time, eating time and nap time. I really really hated the afternoon naps.

Each morning, we would have breakfast there. That's when I met my friend M, who always skimmed the milk for me. Yes, that was during the time when milk came with all the natural fat and formed a disgusting creamy skin on top when warmed up.

We then went to our different classrooms and played. I had to learn that one doesn't always get what one wants. And that playing involves taking other kids into consideration. I also learned that I'm not very good at fighting for my toys, but that if you annoy me, I'll make sure I get what I want from you.

We also drew a lot of pictures and sang songs and learned funny things that make kids happy. A very important gift that I got in kindergarten was an extensive range of those annoying diseases kids get. They are to be experienced when you're young enough not to remember them.

My mom picked me up at 4.30 pm. Some days she was late, and I was crying my heart out fearing she has abandoned me. I survived, and I wasn't permanently damaged by my tears.

he point is: the kindergarten was a place that parents trusted. The stay-at-home mom was rare and usually frowned-upon: why was she at home instead of working? They never gave us junk to eat. They insisted on our morning milk and our afternoon veggies. We did NOT watch TV. We played with toys and with each other. We played outside almost every day, summer and winter. Yes, kids cried in the morning because they wanted to stay at home. But hey, it was a great lesson in growing up. And I made a friend for life there. So I guess in the end, it was actually good for me.

Photo credits: Seattle Municipal Archives

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Facebook Intolerance

Your friend's friend makes an intolerant comment on your friend's profile. It's highly offensive, almost bordering fascism from your point of view. But you are not sure what to do. It's not addressed to you, but it's in a cvasi-public space - a friend's wall. You do not know that person, but in a way it's just like being in a shop and witnessing a blatantly intolerant act. What do you? Do you comment? Or do you ignore it? Should you tell yourself it is just a private comment? Or should you rather respond to it, precisely because if a private comment in a public space remains unaddressed, it may look like everyone else endorses it?
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