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“Voluntary”

Can we talk about the word voluntary?  and, unusually, I don’t mean it like helping out at the food pantry down the street or building an irrigation system in Uganda.  I’m talking about structural violence, and when privilege allows us to declare things as voluntary when they really aren’t. Reading Nick Kristof’s article and accompanying blog post brought me back to a conversation I had with my roommates a few weeks ago about prostitution.  There tends to be, especially in the United States, this sentiment that the women choose to live this life, and really why can’t you just get a job at McDonald’s? Well, as Kristof’s blog post points out: “Skeptics will note that there is also voluntary prostitution. Of course there is. There was also voluntary work on cotton plantations. But my point is that some of what appears voluntary is in fact coerced, and that should be a higher law enforcement priority. “ If you’re not okay with the master-slave relationship, you shouldn’t be okay with the pimp-prostitute relationship.  Are there significant differences?  Yes.  But is the woman, who foten enters the trade at a young, impressionable age, really empowered to fight back? No.  And that’s due in part to the fact that in America, she is a criminal, not a victim.   Can a woman who needs to prostitute herself really just get a job at McDonald’s?  Not if she’s a runaway with doesn’t have her birth certificate and social security card, or is too young to work formally in the US.  Not if she’s a single-income mother, who can’t afford childcare on minimum wage (because the minimum...

Learning the Language Matters

I’m sick of reading posts by bloggers who assure you it’s okay, they had a magical and revelatory experience in a foreign country wherein they knew basically none of the language.  Good for you.  Do you know how we treat people in America who don’t learn the language?  Like dirt.  Even if someone knows the language but has a little trouble, or a bit of an accent, we give them a hard time.  We insinuate that they’re clueless or stupid, and make jokes about their lack of credentials.  We say, “It’s AMERICA, learn ENGLISH!” Do people even understand the phrase doesn’t work that way? At least, “We’re in England, learn English,” works rhetorically, but the America one just makes you sound ignorant.    Every time someone goes abroad and doesn’t even have to try the language, they’re demonstrating a tiny bit of why people hate America.  We get whatever we want, and no, we’re not working hard for it.  We just collectively have so much money and pull, and other countries have so little, that they have to accept our 2.5 gpa English-only students.  Don’t pat yourself on the back for getting by with gestures.  Try moving away from the backpacker code or the study abroad rut and learn something real about the place you’re going to.  Something that doesn’t involve alcohol, hooking up or a beach.  Maybe it will involve a local meal for more than just the one token time, which inevitably will become a blog post or oft-repeated story.  Or try spending time with people who are not also fellow travelers, people who are not expats...

The Nature of Being White

This is not as polished of a piece as I would like, but that’s because it’s not an argument or a research paper; this is a collection of thoughts and unanswered questions.  Feel free to leave your thoughts, answers and musings at the bottom as well.  As always, this is a safe place, and I won’t tolerate bad citizenship. We are really weird about race, and often in our own special way.  We’re some of the only people on earth who think darker skin is more desirable.  Unless, of course, it gets too dark.  In my travels I’ve really enjoyed seeing how other cultures deal with the legacy of the slave trade.  Many are far more frank, using highly-descriptive adjectives quite bluntly. What about Arabs?  The stereotype is a dark-skinned man with a big nose, mustache or beard and a turban.  Yet, on the US Census they are counted as white.  Nevermind that they lobbied for that classification, because at the time the options were white or black, and nobody was hoping to be treated the way blacks in America were being treated at the time.  Also, my favorite tidbit: being anti-semitic doesn’t specifically mean anti-Jew: Arabs are semites as well. What about light-skinned Lebanese?  Standing next to some tan neighbors across the Mediterranean like Italians or Greeks, they look downright pasty.  But they’re Arab.  So does that automatically make them brown? I think we need to come to terms with the fact that we don’t just come in white and black, and that maybe adjectives are just a physical description, not an ethnic, political or social distinction.  Why...

The Meritocracy Myth

I love the idea of meritocracy, don’t get me wrong; everyone gets what they earn, no more and no less.  I just wish we lived in one.  And I wish we didn’t have such a flawed, fanatical sense of what it means to live in a meritocracy.  I would even posit that we hold the meritocracy–the sense of getting what you deserve and deserving what you get–closer to our collective American heart than the democracy. Meritocracy leads to False Entitlement The problem with the idea of a meritocracy is that we act as though EVERYTHING is given based on merit.  If someone wins the lottery, falls in love, gets a good job or is thin and attractive, they say, “What did I do to deserve this?”  Most people eventually determine that they “must have done something right.” This ignores luck, familial ties, social/institutional advantages, gender, race, geography and genetics.  This then leads to thinking that if you have something, and it’s because you deserve it, then those who don’t have something must be lacking because they don’t deserve it.  Inevitably, this leads to major judgments (often of the moral variety) of those who are overweight, single, homeless, unemployed, less educated, poor, you name it.  Of course, for most Americans, this whole thought process takes place in less than a minute.  We’re Not Really a Meritocracy A meritocracy is great, but unfortunately we don’t really live in one.  Age, height, attractiveness, gender and race all have significantly more to do with your successes or failures than your actual hard work (or the other guy’s).  I think the people who don’t...

Estados ¿Unidos?

Welcome to the United Snakes: Land of the Thief, Home of the Slave” -Brother Ali What unites Americans? Certainly not politics, religion or even language.  Music?  Forget it.  It’s really only certain events.  Even the Olympics can’t unite us as much as they do other countries.  We are united by tabloid stories, like balloon boy and Save Coco.  Events like 9/11–but even now that has faded and changed.   There is far more loyalty to city, state or region than to pais or country.  You’re not American, you’re a New Yorker, or a California Girl. There is a distinct attitude to being American, one that’s hard to see form the inside.  The individualist, capitalist attitude.  Who we blame for misfortune, and our attitudes about work, success, entitlement and what we deserve are particularly American.  In Cuba, we saw it with food, with what I came to call Capitalist Breakfast.  We had one egg per person on hard-boiled egg days, and that was it.  17 people, 17 eggs.  But that’s not how it shook out.  Some people didn’t want theirs (supply) and others were still hungry every morning (demand).  Some were bough with kindness, but most with cunning.  Well, cunning is the nice, American way of putting it. Maria, who made our breakfast, saw everything that happened.  She couldn’t believe the way some people would take or hide eggs beyond what was given to them.  It was so American and so repulsive to her. “Don’t they know that everyone is hungry?  Why do they think they should have more eggs than everyone else?” Well, in the American ethos, if I want...
Is this African Enough?

Is this African Enough?

When I was in Egypt, we often joked that we were in Fake Africa.  When asked if I had ever been to Africa before Benin, I would say yes and explain Egypt, which elicited much doubt.  I was told, in one way or another, that Egypt didn’t count, or wasn’t really Africa because it was: too rich too Arab not black enough too developed too wealthy filled with too many people who were fully clothed not hungry enough not in civil strife not “native” enough too educated If that’s not offensive to all parties, I’m not sure what would be.  Often our stereotypes, both positive and negative, get in the way of our ability to just appreciate a place for what it is.  When in the markets of Benin, many of the girls looked for “something really African,” such as wooden, hand-carved jewelry.  Wooden, hand-carved statues.  Or wooden, hand-carved anything.  Many were frustrated that we only saw cheap plastic and metal jewelry from China in plastic wrap.  But that’s what the women around us wore.  Not hand-carved elephants or oblong faces on a string of wooden beads. Instead of trapping Africa in the CNN version of it (hungry, desolate, war-torn and filled with safari animals and naked people) why don’t we just let Africa reveal itself to us?  Sometimes Africa is t-shirts, while other times it’s vivid-patterned cloth from China, and still others it’s an abaya.  We are the observers–not the creators–of Africa, and like any destination, we should try not to let our own imagination hold us back from the amazing world unfolding right in front of us. Share...

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