Thursday, February 14, 2008

Banal, Inconspicuous Racism...

What is it you see in this picture? Pick your choice:
A). A bunch of Chinese
B). A bunch of Asians
C). A bunch of people

If you answered A or B, you have a problem. A banal, inconspicuous problem. You see race before people. You take race to be something that defines people. Which, in a banal and inconspicuous manner, does make you a racist.

The other day, I was reading this blog post about dealing with racist stereotypes and prejudices within your own social network. Should one react to them? Should you confront your friends and acquaintances? Should you just avoid the discussion and pretend you didn't get the racism? I even left a comment on the blog, feeling like one who has been there and found the balance...

Well, I was wrong (and I hate to admit it). There is no balance. I've forgotten how difficult it is to live in a world where people judge other people based on their skin color or shape of the eyes. And how difficult it might be to react, out of many reasons (age, social status, social ties and so on). I simply left the room as soon as I could with that bitter feeling that change is next to impossible, to say the least.

The discussion started innocently, as most racist discussions do, with a story about a trip by bus.

Oh, there are so many Chinese taking the bus... Yes, many indeed, but if you think this is many, then go to Vancouver... There are almost only Chinese there... So many you (the White voice, my note) feel like a minority there... Yes, they are everywhere... And they go everywhere... They'll soon be everywhere...

I confess I didn't react. The people involved in the conversation are intellectuals, with a rich cultural experience, who traveled the world and back. The people involved in this conversation know exactly how I would react, or where I stand on this type of inconspicuously disguised racism. I know I should have reacted.

The same people are however enraged when they themselves are placed into groups and homogenized. They take offence when they are stereotyped and labeled and when they experience the status of being a minority (hard status for a white person!). Yet the logic doesn't seem to be the same when encountering other people. People are almost always perceived through what is taken to be the sign of difference: the skin, the physical traits, the ethnicity, the nationality.

I remember a girl once saying "I will never date a Russian". Why, I asked naively. "Because he would be Russian", came the self-explanatory answer.
In his 1995 book entitled Banal Nationalism, Michael Billig discusses the concept arguing that we recreate daily and in a banal manner the ideas that the world is naturally divided into nations defined by particular ethno-cultural-psychological traits and that individuals are primarily defined by their belonging to their nation. The argument is pliable to racism as well. Yes, some of us might live in places proclaiming themselves to be multicultural and tolerant, but it is the daily recreation of racism, nationalism, homophobia and intolerance that needs to be seen, investigated and addressed.

Photo Credits: ernoldino

Friday, February 8, 2008

Journalism quizz

Which paragraph has been published? Test your journalistic knowledge by selecting the one you think made the news:

News title: Fairy Tale Couple Bowled Over
Topic: the break-up of one of the most loved couples in one of the countries in the world.

Version A:
The young lovers - both Christian - were feted as a fairy tale couple when it emerged in 2005 that they had started a relationship after meeting in Middle East where she was working as a teacher.

Version B:
The young lovers - both Muslim - were feted as a fairy tale couple when it emerged in 2005 that they had started a relationship after meeting in Middle East where she was working as a teacher.

Version C:
The young lovers - both Buddhist - were feted as a fairy tale couple when it emerged in 2005 that they had started a relationship after meeting in Middle East where she was working as a teacher.

Version D:
The young lovers - both atheists - were feted as a fairy tale couple when it emerged in 2005 that they had started a relationship after meeting in Middle East where she was working as a teacher.

Hint questions:
  • Which religion have you seen most often mentioned in news articles?
  • If religion is not the topic of the article, how relevant it is to know it?
  • When you know the religion, what type of information does it provide you with for understanding the plot of the story or the character of the people involved in it?
The right answer is B. The story, about a Pakistani/ Indian couple, was published in a local newspaper in North America and I couldn't find it online. However, after researching more about the story, I found out a lot of other online sources (see for instance BBC). The mentioning of religion has no relevance for the break-up story, at least in the case of the local newspaper.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Who defines the transsexual and for what purpose?

I recently read an article about an Iranian policy which encourages sex change operations for transsexuals. While homosexuality is banned, sex changing is supported by the state, with some 10 sex change surgeons (according to the news source) in Iran. Interestingly, sex changing is considered to fit with the patriarchal social relations, because in the end it all comes down to having the appearance of a heterosexual life.

A comment on one of the previous posts argued that in fact transsexuals are confirming the binary male/female. Transsexuals often confess to being - for instance - a woman trapped in a male body, and they try to do those things which are associated with being a woman in that particular society.

Now, my knowledge of the subject is limited. I've read very little accounts of transsexual narratives, but if anyone knows of any, please let me know. The idea that transsexuals are in fact confirming the binary is appealing indeed. Judith Butler, one of the leading voices in gender/queer studies, has argued that
neither sex, nor gender are 'natural' categories that we are observing. Rather, both are always and inescapably interpreted through our social frames:
"There is no recourse to a body that has not already been interpreted by cultural meanings, hence sex could not qualify as a prediscursive anatomical facility" (Butler, 1990, Gender Trouble, p. 8).

Yet, transsexuals seem to contradict precisely Butler's argument. Or do they?
According to Alsop, Fitzsimons and Lennon, transsexuals experience a tension between the biological sex and the gender identity, which contradicts the whole idea that biological sex and gender should be one and the same.
Or, in other words, that biological sex dictates male/female identity. But it also contradicts the idea that there is such a thing as a clear-cut biological sex which is either male or female.Yet, as the authors write,
"However the widespread desire for bodily modification which is a marker of transsexual experience appears at odds with performative accounts of gender, frequently because such a desire is often expressed as a search for a real or coherent gender identity" (2002: 166)

A transsexual identity, including the vision of a what it means to be a woman, cannot be thought of in the absence of a discourse about femininity and masculinity, and the 'proper' relations between men and women (but not anything else). Even after changing their sex, male-to-female trans are not being accepted as 'true' women. There is a constant need for proving one's womaness.
I guess Iranian authorities see transsexuality in the same way: as a confirmation of heterosexuality. But one has to wonder how transsexuality is constructed by the different parties: as a confirmation of patriarchy, or as a contestation of it. The fight here is that of defining an existential mode within two pre-existing categories, of fitting transsexuality in either man/woman binary, or within the queer discourse.

News stories:
The Guardian - Sex Change Funding Undermines No Gay Claims (September 2007)
BBC News - Iran's Sex-Change Operations (January 2005)

Photo credits: Jay Khemani

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Don't know much about Mexico, but...

I have to confess I do not know much about Mexico. But as I recently enjoyed the sun and the palm trees in a very touristic resort, I could not help but wonder about the difference I saw around me. It's the kind of difference that is meant to be invisible in a touristic resort - after all, nothing should remind you of the poverty outside the gates of your luxurious, all-inclusive resort. Not that you, yourself, live in luxury on a daily basis, but that is the concept of holiday being sold - go to an 'exotic' place by Western standards, and be treated like a queen/king.

The resort offers everything; there's little reason to go out, and if you do go out, there's always the organized tour to yet another touristic point of interest. But the difference between this artificial paradise and the everyday rhythm of local life is there, in your face, waiting to be grasped. I wondered why almost all of the staff had darker skin while the managers and owners where white. I wondered why most of the waiters and chefs were men, while all the room cleaners were women. I wondered why our resort had big fences, and why, given that beaches are public, these fences became man-built dams. I wondered why the staff that looked so cheerful and professional in their uniforms in the resort looked so poor and tired when leaving by public transportation, in the same uniforms. I wondered why everything was so green in our resort and why the palm trees were so rich, when they looked so dry outside it.
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