Sunday, September 28, 2008

Racializing crime

I wanted to write about stay-at-home moms and patriarchal systems, but A very Public Sociologist posted an interesting anecdote about racializing crime. I have heard the story of particular ethnic or racial groups being seen as the criminal elements in particular areas over and over again.

The one I know most about is that of Roma in Eastern Europe, which are often being portrayed by the media as organized crime outside and above the law. As a child, I was often told to stay away from Roma, because they are thieves. My grandparents in the countryside hated Roma because poultry disappeared when they were around - and the causality was quite clear to them. And I vividly recall the day when one guy - whom I instantly identified as Roma - inappropriately touched my girlfriend on the street. I hit him with an umbrella, yelling and shouting after him, calling him racialized names that I won't repeat today. I hated 'them' too. I was afraid of 'them'.

Since then, I've heard the stories over and over again. "You don't know what they do to us", the refrain went, "they abuse us, they steal from us, they swear at us, they attack us". Without having a clue about race and racism at that time, these were powerful mechanisms of making sense of the world around me. Of drawing the lines of trust and the boundaries of the community to which I allegedly belonged. It took me a long process of learning and gradual understanding to be able - and most importantly, to be willing - to remove the racial lens I used in interpreting the world around me. While it is true that race relations do shape events and interactions, those are not determined by race.
These being said, I can see what a powerful meaning-making mechanism racism is - and I can also see why, when you are a victim, no amount of critical thinking would deal away with your feelings of loss and trauma.

As I learned more and more about the history of Roma people in Eastern Europe, as I came to think about how we stereotype and how we draw the boundaries of 'our group', I came to understand things differently. But it took me years to realize that I was seeing people first and foremost through their race/ ethnicity, without ever questioning that. It was as if race/ ethnicity defined them. And I knew nothing of their circumstances, I completely disregarded them. I assumed everyone had the same opportunities as I did; and that there's only one right set of values - mine, of course. Not that circumstances or different values might justify criminality, but criminality always signals something else: an inescapable circle of poverty and oppression; a corrupt rule-of-law system; a weak civil society, etc.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The price of love

I've recently watched a documentary I'd warmly recommend: The Great Happiness Space - Tale of an Osaka Love Thief. From a Western perspective, I've always found it interesting how the fashion magazine style has been so embraced - and to quite an extreme - by young people living in Japan. I noticed this first in Hawaii, where the young girls and boys on holiday seemed to have descended from the pages of Vogue or Cosmo. I was told many would sacrifice their own personal lives and bodies to earning enough to pay for the latest Channel jacket or Gucci bag. I was surprised to discover this in the documentary, along the intricate lines of love, social status and money.

And there was something else in this documentary that caught my eye: the question of power. When you'll see the movie, think of who's in control there, who actually has the power. You'll see things shift and maybe, like me, you'll wonder about the ways in which our own feelings of being in control make us - lacking better words - controllable.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Heritage, multiculturalism and religion

It so happens that I've just finished reading the impressive reader Representing the Nation: Histories, heritage and museums* when I came across an interesting article squeezed on the first page of the newspaper: "Heritage department takes aim at religious radicals". In a true stereotyped fashion, I thought to myself: I wonder if this is about Islam, once again. After all, as a Westerner, I have come to expect that any Western voice talking about religious radicals is talking about Islam - unless the person in question is a feminist, then my stereotype says s/he probably refers to anti-abortion extreme right Christians.

Lo and behold, I was right. Still pondering Broken Mystic's discussion of Rudy Giuliani's islamophobic remarks, I started reading the article in question: The Canadian federal government, in an attempt to make multiculturalism meet modern demands, has identified religious fundamentalism (especially among youth) as its main enemy.

To see how my brain works, the first thing I thought about was the series of articles on the trial of the alleged terrorist conspiracy by a bunch of youngsters in Toronto. The youngsters were identified as radical Muslism (somehow ignorant of their own religion and Westernized - they loved going to Tim Hortons - to the point that their radicalism was treated by the media as a bad joke).

I was not an ardent follower of the case, so I had to google it; but this says a lot about how our synapses work, fostered by our media consumption. Interestingly, the book I just finished makes the connection between the role of heritage in the nation-state and its intersections with media consumption and public education. Speaking about museums in India, Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge see heritage as sites where "spectacle, discipline, and state power become interlinked with questions of entertainment, education, and control" (p. 418). And that is exactly how I would interpret my own connections and reading of the article in question.

Six paragraphs later, the article - and the Heritage department - spells it out: "The slides point out that Islam is, by far, the greatest gorwing religion in Canada..." blah blah blah. I know the drill without reading the rest. But I continue, and true enough, it's about the 'clash of cultures' and how immigrants need to be integrated and religious extremism combated. No more mentioning of Islam, but scholars of critical discourse analysis have long learned that the implicit argument is equally - if not more - important.

"People are not merely legal citizens of a nation - writes Jessica Evans in the book mentioned above - in an important sense a nation is also a symbolic community which creates powerful - and often pathological - allegiance to a cultural ideal" (1991: 1)

Multiculturalism works as an ideal, a discourse of Canadian nationalism. But what is the particular image of what being Canadian means? In this case, we are reminded that immigrants can be Canadian, in a legal sense: they can become citizens, but do they become 'nationals'? The multiculturalism of Canadian society is a difference we love to state, to showcase. But when it comes to living with it, the Department of Heritages spells it out quite clearly: "shifting demographics mean the government must 'adjust multiculturalism programming' in order to 'advance core Canadian values'"

Stuart Hall argued that "The capacity to live with difference is, in my view, the coming question of the twenty-first century" (1991: 42). And I think he's absolutely right. Yet, so far, we lived with difference by asking it to become less threatening by Westernizing and commodifying itself. And we lived with difference by assuming culture is something of the soul, something metaphysical which marks us profoundly and inexorably. It's hard to think of difference in this paradigm.

Reference: Boswell, D., Evans, J. (1999) Representing the Nation: A Reader. Histories, Heritage and Museums. Routledge & The Open University
Photo credits: PhotoFusion

After the virgins, here come the Asians...

Serbian state secretary wants to 'import' some 100,000 Asian women because Serbian men don't have enough women to marry and have strong, little Serbs... Should I laugh or should I take it seriously, and dissect the intricate ways in which nationalism, colonialism and patriarchy work together? To think of Asia as a reservoir of vaginas - or rather a reservoir of submissive female workforce in the household plus a vagina that can be colonized and impregnated with the 'white' male seed - has been the latest colonial fashion at least in North America. I realize there's a lot of generalization here - and I apologize for seemingly putting everyone in the same basket. But my point is that such practices are not so unacceptable as they may seem or relegated to the 'uncivilized' parts of the world (see previous post).I guess the most scary thing is that such practices are still pervasive today, framing our ways of imagining the world and our relation to other human beings.

Photo credits: tanakawho

Friday, September 5, 2008

Feminists and bare-breasted virgins

I came across the story of the 'bare-breasted virgins' dancing for the Swaziland king's attention at a time when I was pondering the questions of agency and empowerment in everyday life. I guess the problem can be trivialized like this: are we, the common people, powerful in our everyday lives or not? Powerful here can be understood in many ways: can we change or affect the political structures in which we live; can we change or challenge labels such as gender, ethnicity, race; can we resist economic or political repression, and so on.

The story of the bare-breasted virgins (and apologies for perpetuating this stereotyped, Westernized vision) is a good case in point. Trivializing: young women present themselves to the king in the hope of being chosen as a wife. There's undoubtedly a very patriarchal picture here: here you have these thousands of young women who offer themselves to the king. But there's also the empowering picture: the young girl who takes control of her life and goes to present herself to the king because this is a way of taking care of herself, of making it into the world of the rich, who do not have to work anymore.

I guess feminists know the story all too well: first there was the 'liberation'. Then there was the painful realization that oppression is not so easy and that some women - oppressed from one point of view - were in fact supporting the oppressive system precisely because that was their way of gaining an advantage, of having access to power - of being in control if you want.

I realize my story is superficial - but I think my dilemma stands: how can we talk about power from a micro level? How can we talk about empowerment - or oppression - from the level of individual people? Some have chosen to get rid of the term 'empowerment' altogether and to acknowledge that our agency is always within the constraints of the social system in which we live. We do have the power to act, to choose for ourselves, to resist those things we feel are oppressive; but this does not mean that we influence the oppression. We cope with it - and this is where our empowerment.

Photo credits: lumkness

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On Being Cosmopolitan

I've always liked being a 'citizen of the world'. It simply made sense to me that one should be able to go wherever one pleases and call home wherever one chooses, and that this should be the end of it. I subscribed to ubi bene ibi patria.

I guess I felt strongly about this precisely because I was born in a place where one could not just pack and go wherever one wished. Experiences of humiliating lines at embassies and consulates, instances of realizing you are absolutely powerless in front of the bureaucrat behind the glass, moments of simply not understanding why you going somewhere else was such a big deal.

A recent article* by Craig Calhoun brought me back to thinking about feeling cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism - the discourse around cosmopolitan places, choices and lifestyles - is not as simple as it looks: it is not a matter of choice, but a matter of having that choice. As Calhoun puts it: "it obscures the issues of inequality that make ethnically unmarked national identities accessible mainly to elites, and make an easy sense of being a citizen of the world contingent on having the right passports, credit cards, and cultural credentials" (2008: 437).

As much as I like cosmopolitanism, I have to agree with Calhoun: it is not a matter of choice. It is a matter of passports, of the institutions regulating our lives and seting the parameters within which we are able to make our choices. It is wishful thinking more than lived reality. And that's why it stirs so much anger: it speaks of a world in which we are equal. But we know for a fact that we are not. We know that not all passports are equal, not to mention that not all people are equal. We know that we need money to go somewhere - and that for some, the cost of a train ticket (not to mention a plane ticket) is simply beyond one's possibilities.

So is cosmpolitanism something like white racism? Where you wonder why people still get bugged by racism, when you yourself are not (and hey, you are white by the way, and have never been part of the margins)? Is it a new form of mainstream dystopia (or myopia for that matter)? I confess I still like cosmpolitanism as an idea, even if I realize it is not a reality. I like the potential of imagining a world where identity and location are not intrinsically linked. But I doubt it is possible.

* Calhoun, C. (2008) "Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism,"
Nations and Nationalism 14(3): 427-448
Photo credits: Mishel Churkin
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