Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Everyday Inconspicuous Discrimination

At the lab were I usually get my blood tests done, there is a person of the same nationality as me. We have never been 'properly introduced'. The first time I went to the lab, this person overheard me speaking the language and immediately jumped into the conversation. Like when you travel abroad, and someone overhears you speaking the same language and they immediately feel an imaginary (yet hardly real...) connection. They feel you share something, although you are complete strangers. They want to establish rapport, although given the same situation in your own country, they'd never approach you.

But how can you tell such persons you are really not interested in establishing rapport just because you happen to speak the same language... After all, you so happen to speak this language with some other 29 million people but you do not have a relationship with each and every one of them. Frankly, you probably don't even want that.

Yet, when someone tries to be nice, regardless of the reason, it's hard to be rude. Hard to tell them: You know what, I don't know you and frankly, I'm not really interested in knowing you just because we speak the same language, have the same skin color or drive the same car. How can you tell them that in fact, what drives them to approach you is annoying and offending, because it discriminates? Because it identifies you a priori with something you may not be, feel, share or want? Because it categorizes people, and you don't support that?

Funny thing is, every time this person realizes we speak the same language, they try to be extra kind, to serve us first, to bypass the lineup. All just because we happen to speak the same language. I know this seems insignificant, but let me assure you it is not. It is at the root of many discriminatory practices; and with time, such practices became institutionalized networks of influence and distribution of resources. Their discriminatory core becomes obscured; all it's left is the result: discrimination.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Techie Complaints...

While women sang, acted in dramas, and played music on radio, there were few women announcers in the early days of broadcasting. This was partly because so many stations were one-man bands where the announcer was also the engineer and manager, and partly because station owners thought men's deeper voices lent more authority to broadcasting (Nash, 2001, p. 45)

Jane Gray became one of the first female broadcasters in Canada. She began by reading poetry in 1924, but was discouraged by her husband, her priest and the radio station owner "who told her that women belonged at home, not on the air" (Nash, 2001, p. 45). By the 1920s- 1930s, she became the most prominent female broadcaster in Canada.

I like these reminders of how women and technology became separated throughout history. It helps me understand why, in spite of the gender equality awareness today, women still feel a world apart from technological processes. I know many women who love using gadgets, but could not be bothered with their inns and outs. Fair
enough, they don't care. As long as the tool works, as long as it serves its ends, everything's fine.

But it's not. A tool works in particular ways, for particular purposes, with particular methods. On a general level, not being interested - and not understanding these inns and outs - also means buying into what is already pre-established as a your role vis-a-vis that technology. And, if you choose not to use them (partly because you cannot buy into their pre-established purposes, routines and impositions upon you), you're out of the (social) loop.

Often times, what bothers me most is not being able to do stuff with my computer. I mean, real stuff. Of course, I use it. And I probably know a bit more than just writing a text or putting up a powerpoint presentation. But that's not the stuff I want to do: for instance, I'd really like to be able to write an avatar-creation soft that would allow us to customize avatars beyond gender stereotypes.

But just like early female radio voices, relegated to the status of melodic entertainment but not allowed to enter the serious arena of authoritative broadcasting (read news, politics... serious stuff...), with digital technologies women are often relegated to the status of users. Maybe producers of 'soft content' - blogs, social networking sites, uploading photos, sharing what the kid had for lunch with the extended network, checking the latest health news.

But when I think of software or hardware producers, all I can see in the back of my mind is a male-dominated world. I may be wrong. It may all be just a stereotype. But, just as the radio station owner who told Jane Gray that women belong at home and not on air expressed the prevailing reasoning of his time, my stereotypes feed from a world of imagery constructed by the social norms at play within my social environment. There may be lots of female soft/hardware developers out there, but we often do not think of them as legitimate players in the field. More likely, they're exceptions...Like Sandra Bullock in "The Net"...

Nash, K. (2001) The Swashbucklers. The Story of Canada's Battling Broadcasters. McClelland and Stuart Ltd.

Photo Credits
The US National Archives

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Consuming Diversity

One of things I like when visiting a metropolis is its diversity: you can have lunch in Chinatown and dinner in Little Italy. Everywhere you walk, diversity surrounds you. I qualify as a 'diversity-seeker', a person who actively looks for diversity.

But what exactly do I do with this diversity? And how does this inclination of seeking diversity translate in terms of social engagement, social practices and social ties?

Well, according to a recent study published in the
Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, diversity-seeking may translate into ... well, consumption of diversity. But from consumption to engagement with difference it's a big step, one that involves challenging your own routines and values, re-adjusting your own expectations and practices, and striving to open yourself up instead of closing yourself down to difference.

Blokland and van Eijk (2009) have studied the residents of a small neighborhood in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), asking some pre-determined questions on their attitude to and engagement with diversity. The neighborhood in question is an ethnically diverse one, recently transitioning from being perceived as a 'bad' neighborhood to being perceived as a 'cool' one, with small shops and fancy restaurants.

Although the study itself remains limited by the pre-determined set of questions that were asked of people (we do not know how people themselves made sense of their own position in those neighborhoods and their own relation to diversity), it is interesting to see that what diversity-seeking often translates into is consumption:

Diversity-seekers frequented restaurants, bars and shops more intensely than other residents, but did not show more (or less) social or political engagement with local neighbourhood affairs than other residents.

The article itself is responding to Richard Florida's now famous discussion of the rise of a new middle-class, the creative class, roughly defined by its involvement in creative industries. The creative class, Florida contends, is more inclined to be tolerant and to seek diversity in their residential locations. But exactly what does 'seeking diversity' means remains an open question: just because one eats Chinese food and drinks Greek ouzo doesn't necessarily make that person more willing to question hi/er belief system and daily practices. Blokland and van Eijk (2009) echo this when they conclude that

a taste for diversity means little to social network diversity. As far as diversity is brought into the practice of daily life, using cmmercial neighborhood facilities is all that diversity -seekers do more... even for those who, whether middle-class or not, come into a mixed neighborhood with openness to diversity, this openness does not translate in more diverse networks (p. 327).

As I said, there are limitations to this study. In fairness, it sheds little light on how people actually relate to diversity, beyond statistically correlating their demographic data with their answers to some pre-determined questions that the authors take as measuring diversity in our lives. In my building, there are at least three or four recognizable ethnic groups. I do not socialize with my neighbors simply because the way I come to make friends involves an intellectual rapprochement, and it's hard to have that interaction with one's neighbors out of various reasons (including the Western attitude towards sharing an urban space). Yet, the study does bring forward an interesting observation: that consumption of diversity does not equal living with diversity.

Photo credits


Blokland, Talja and van Eijk, Gwen(2009) 'Do People Who Like Diversity Practice Diversity in Neighbourhood Life? Neighbourhood Use and the Social Networks of 'Diversity-Seekers' in a Mixed Neighbourhood in the Netherlands', Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 36: 2, 313 — 332

Friday, November 13, 2009

The need to classify

We classify. Maybe because we want to master the world around us, by putting order into it. Maybe because our brains work with a tree-like structure, placing things into categories and drawing branch like relations between them. We classify, and in this process we buy into the order of things*: we accommodate things within a pre-determined system of beliefs and interests that underlies every classificatory order.

No classification is innocent.

- I'm going to a concert tonight. There's a famous piano-player from Canada playing.
- What's her name?
- Sarah Cheung.
- Oh, she's Asian then.
- She's quite famous in Canada.
- Yes, of Asian origins. Cheung does not sound ... well, how shall i put it, Canadian.
- It may not sound Western.
- Yeah, that's what I meant.

Canadian, Asian, Western... we need to put people in categories. It's not enough to say what a person does or where a person now lives. To properly place that person in our nicely fitting systems of categories, we need to find out "where is s/he coming from". As if, by ticking the little box of birth-place and/ or ethnic group, all of a sudden there's order. And we can breath out, relax and hear the rest of the conversation.

*The Order of Things is the title of one of Michel Foucault's books, dealing with the relation between power and knowledge.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Personal Globalization

Warning: The following notes smell like middle-class, I-have-it-all, I-can-afford-to-be-cosmopolitan bragging... not my intention, but the smell persists...
The other day, a friend from Romania asked her network on Facebook to vote for a band in Germany. She's dating one of the members of the band, who's also from Turkey. Funny things is, me and this friend met in Turkey... the Westernized, touristic part of Turkey where people go to forget their frustrations and enjoy life by the sea, sipping on a margarita. That part of Turkey where's water in abundance and where everything is white and neat, just like the tourists... What stayed most with me however was the overwhelming feeling I had stepping into the Istanbul bazaar... Istanbul

There was this person I knew from Istanbul whom I actually met in the subway in Budapest. I was talking to a friend of mine who happened to be from Greece, and just like in a comedy of errors, this guy thought we were talking about him. The friendship between a person from Athens and one from Istanbul, as unlikely as it sounds to some ears, was actually a natural... Friendship

So was the friendship between this person from Athens and a person f
rom Skopje. Hey, who would have every thought... There's nothing more powerful in destroying ethnic stereotypes and nationalisms than friendships. The three of us formed a trio, always together - also known as "The Triplets"... Triplets

Having triplets is no easy job, but for my friends it looks like a piece of cake. You'd think having three kids at once would transform the mom into a perpetual slave to diapers and baby food. Not this mom... She's just amazing, travelling almost every month to Strasbourg and Bruxelles. Hey, the European Union itself is asking for her! So she goes to beautiful Bruxelles, to mingle with all of those politicians and bureaucrats we only get to see on TV... When we visited Bruxelles, my mom told me: "Look, we are now running around in the backyard of Europe". Not quite a 'backyard', but still a huge, white (here comes whiteness again...) meeting place. A place where my former colleague, who so happens to be from Bulgaria, shops for fine chocolates and gateau aux abricots... Bulgaria

: I owe a huge debt to a person from Bulgaria, who once had faith in me and told me "you can do it". So did a person from Hungary and two from Norway: they gave me courage and skillfully guided me through the jungle of social theory. Theory and morality. Just and unjust wars. Social responsibility and peace. Peace

: Peace is exactly what my friend from Kenya hopes and lives for. But when you work in a conflict area, thousands of miles away from your own family, peace seems like a rich-people privilege... My friend tells surreal stories about kidnappings, gun-attacks and violence. And I can only listen, a world away, hoping somehow nothing will touch my friend and the world will get a better place.... Cheers to bourgeois ignorance... I once had a roommate from that area. I remember she had never seen snow in her life before we were in Norway. But then again, neither did my friend from Athens - though it so happens that after we saw snow in Budapest, Athens all of a sudden started getting snow... Blame it on the climate change. Climate change

Climate change
: My friend from Costa Rica keeps a calendar of the days left til the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change. It's a one-person fight: every day, he reminds all his friends of the summit and of climate change. Every day, he asks us to think about what each and every one of us could do to change things. It's like a daily mantra we came to expect: tell us something about climate change. And it works for us, his friends... Friends

: My friends are spread all over the world. And if I'm to add my acquiantances to my network of friends, I get to cover quite a lot... From Asia to Europe, from Australia to North America, from Africa to ... well, what's left? Hm, no friends from the two Poles, though I can still brag with some friends who live above the Polar Circle...

Monday, November 9, 2009

Be polite, or we'll know exactly which group you belong to...

I went to a see a play the other day. Though marketed as a comedy, the play was in fact quite heavy: troubled relationships, troubled lives and the past haunting the present, delivered to the audience in a funny wrapping. And the thirty-something people in the audience laughed here and there, whenever appropriate. Except one. One person laughed at the... er... wrong times?

You know the type: usually in the middle of the room, this person has obviously got it all wrong. They never laugh when everyone else is laughing; they laugh on their own, as loud as they can, enjoying themselves, oblivious to the annoyance they bring upon you...

What's wrong with them, why don't they get it?

But it's so easy to get annoyed with other people, to see the wrongs in them... If only they would follow the rules... the norms... the conventions...

Because, in the end, that's all it comes down to: rules, norms and conventions. Social rules around what is appropriate behavior during a play. Social cues to be read in the play, in the actors' behavior. Social conventions defining what counts as funny, appropriate, acceptable. And laughing on your own, finding your own relationship to a play and to its meaning, that's just not 'legitimate' with us: you have to laugh when the others are laughing, and you have to clap when the others are clapping...

Have you noticed that nobody - and I mean Nobody! - throws rotten tomatoes at actors anymore? Or that nobody shouts at them "You suck! Find another job!" (only Simon Cowell still has that privilege...)? Oh, that would be funny... I fantasized about that during quite a few performances... but I would never have the courage to break the social rules of legitimate behavior. I missed my chance with some hundred years... ah, the time when audiences chatted during a play (gosh, imagine the disorder!) or when they "hooted and jeered" (Gossett, p. 174).

The unwritten yet powerful rules of politeness and legitimate behavior. We can't do without them (really, don't start throwing rotten tomatoes at people you don't like, ok?). Yet they also hide away the real lines of separation under the veil of 'appropriate behavior'. Separation along class lines or majority/minority lines, when the you just 'know' from a person's reaction that s/he's not 'well-mannered' or 'from here'.

Norms, rules, conventions, symbols, words, ways of talking - all of these form for Pierre Bourdieu the 'symbolic capital' through which we communicate. The currency we use to obtain other people's endorsement, support or even love. They position us in the social hierarchy. Our use of them reveals us as 'insiders' or 'outsiders', as 'powerful' or 'power-hungry'.

"To speak is to appropriate one or other of the expressive styles already constituted in and through usage, and objectively marked by their position in a hierarchy of styles which expresses the hierarchy of corresponding social groups" (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 54)

And it is not only speech - the choice of words, the way you construct a sentence, a.s.o - but also gestures, postures, proximities; we rely on them to communicate with others. They position us in particular nodes of power structures; and we use them as guides in interpreting other people, in positioning them within the social hierarchy.

In fairness, this time I actually enjoyed this lonely audience member's laughter. But most of the times, I resent it. It's hard to move beyond the resentment: it's way easier to study the social norms and their power dimensions than it is to actually live with them. But I suspect the hardship comes from the rather rigid boundary social groups have constructed around them. Any tresspassing of the boundary, of the 'common sense' and 'social expectations' is troubling and distressing. And it's always easier to point to the "Other" as an "Other", than to be suspicious of your own labelling of people.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press
Gossett, P. (2006) Divas and Scholars: Perfoming Italian Opera. University of Chicago Press

Monday, November 2, 2009

Will you work for a chick?

I know someone who didn't get along with their boss. A female boss, I should add. So, when he was fired, he said "I will never work for a chick again". I have to confess this comment stayed with me; its derogatory labeling of women as 'chicks' kept bothering me. Women in power, that's even worse! Chicks in power sounds so much less threatening! Chicks are cute, chicks are innocent, chicks are brainless...

A recent TIME issue was devoted to the the state of women in America today. I didn't know there was no female FBI agent in the early 1970s, when TIME first covered this topic. From the 1970s up to now, there has been quite a change: a quantitative change, with more women taking on jobs as well as claiming decision-making positions, but also a qualitative change, with both men and women complexifying their definition of gender roles and expectations.

There is a gender-related change, no doubt about it. But there must also be a healthy dose of skepticism about the scope and depth of this change. There's little doubt in my mind that there's plenty of men out there, who consciously or not, truly believe there's no way they would 'work for a chick'. Yes, they do need a serious system upgrade; patches won't do. But they are also the fathers raising up the next generation of sons who 'won't work for chicks'. Of sons who won't read 'chick lit' or watch 'chick flicks'.

What on earth is a chick flick anyway? It turns out, the fathers and sons who won't work for 'chicks' also won't study the same 'chick' curriculum. I remember reading about this boys-only school where boys won't be made to read literature targeting girls (translation: anything that deals with nurturing, bonding, raising, problematizing, discussing). 'Cause boys cannot identify with that, they need to identify with trains and cars, with explosions and guns, with the real issues boys face in the real world (yeah, like trains and guns...). As the guy in charge of this school explained, most boys fails school because the curricula is 'girl-oriented'....

Chick flicks, chick lit, chick curricula, and, let's not forget, chicks-in-power. Some things do change, but exactly how deep is this change - and how the change itself is reinterpreted by some groups - remains open for debate. There should be enough reason to stay optimistic, but at the same time, there's plenty of reason to be very cautious.

One of the most important Marxist thinkers, Antonio Gramsci once argued that dominant ideologies - like patriarchy in our case - work through hegemonic processes: they seduce us into consenting to their worldviews as much as they force us. And, when change threatens the worldview that patriarchy proposes, there will always be an attempt to reincorporate that change back into the dominant ideology, by redefining its terms so that they are less threatening. Like calling women chicks. Like re-drawing strong gender lines, where real boys don't cry and definitely don't watch chick flicks. And where chicks themselves reclaim the label for themselves, rejoicing the (questionable and tricky) sexual power a chick has over a man, and calling only on their moms and girlfriends to go out and watch a chick movie (cause you know, my husband doesn't really like chick flicks...).

Photo credits: Dominic
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