Public Health Wildfire
Ignoring an outbreak of infectious disease is like letting a fire rage unchecked.
That's the perspective of Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases (GSID) Executive Director Dr. Don Francis. Francis has been fighting to prevent and eradicate disease around the world since the late 1970's. He became a household name in the United States after the publication of Randy Shilts's And The Band Played On, one of the earliest books focused on the AIDS epidemic. In the HBO movie based on the film, Francis was portrayed by actor Matthew Modine. In both, Francis appeared as a CDC researcher pissed off, frankly, about the morass those fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic found themselves in during the Reagan administration.
The anger over that situation is still with him today.
'You don't have a fire department and then just let a fire go,' Francis said.
I've heard that comparison of disease outbreak to fire before.
In 2006, I interviewed Dr. Jacques Normand, Director of the AIDS Research Program at the National Institute of Drug Addiction, about the possible link between meth abuse and the spread of HIV.
'As soon as ... the prevalence level reaches a threshold in the population it’s gonna, it could spread like wildfire,' Normand said then.
Francis says fighting the spread of HIV in the early days was like fighting a wildfire without a fire department, 'or even a hose.' This even as there were public institutions, like the CDC, in place that could have made inroads in AIDS prevention if it had been made a national priority.
It wasn't, due in part to the most visible early victims being gay men and IV drug users.
Francis said he put together a 'modest' plan that would have cost 20-30 million dollars to help prevent the spread of HIV, but there was no political will to fund the fight.
'Conservatives just didn't want to give us money to do this,' Francis told students enrolled in my Sex and the News class April 14th. 'The epidemic was full of extremes.'
Francis was on Miami University's campus at the invitation of The Mallory-Wilson Center for Healthcare Education and the University Honors Program. My class was the first of many interactions Francis had with students. His visit culminated with a public talk which skipped over much of his work on AIDS.
'I know that's what you've come here to hear about,' he told a packed audience in Benton Hall, 'but I still feel a lot of anger over what happened and it's sometimes hard to talk about.'
His anger over his experience with the early AIDS epidemic hangs on, in part, what he calls the overall 'appalling' U.S. response to the outbreak.
'You can't deal with an epidemic slowly,' Francis told my students. But that's exactly what happened at the national level in the fight against AIDS.
Francis says local institutions had much more success in putting together educational and prevention efforts and so he asked to be sent 'back home' to California where he served as CDC liaison on the AIDS epidemic with the state government as well as an advisor to the mayor of San Francisco.
Francis would eventually leave the CDC, but he hasn't left the field of public health completely. He worked for some time on trying to develop an HIV vaccine and has also been involved in efforts to eradicate smallpox.
At the end of his public talk Francis urged the students in the audience to follow their passions while they can, telling them that 'there's not much profit to be had in public health, but I can't imagine doing anything else.'
I have tried, for months, to put into words my experience of Istanbul. I traveled there in December for a conference and spent a week crossing the Bosphorus, balancing tea on my knee as the ferry rocked back and forth, watching the city, and the seagulls, move past the boat's windows.
It has been a dream of mine to visit the city for as long as I can remember. A voracious reader as a child, I read stories of the Byzantines and the Ottomans and longed to see the city that spanned two continents. I devoured TV documentaries that told the story of the Hagia Sophia and the film Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul only made my hunger to see the city for myself stronger.
Istanbul is, in a word, overwhelming. How could it not be as it spans past and present; Europe and Asia; land and water?
There's an Orhan Pamuk quote I keep going back to as I think of the city: 'I came across humanity in Istanbul.'
People are everywhere. On the ferries. In the markets. On the sidewalks. They chat with friends over coffee or rush to catch a tram across town. There are women in headscarves and tight skirts; men in leather jackets and long black coats. There are children and old men and old women. Some nibble warm chestnuts as they slowly maneuver the city's streets while others stare straight ahead, walking with purpose. They rush to get home and they take time to feed gangs of the city's stray cats.
The city throbs and hums with people. I would find myself not knowing where to look or worried I wouldn't be able to see everything. The faces, the voices, the laughter; it was all so wonderful.
I did not have enough time there, but I wonder if you would ever have enough time in Istanbul? I ate simits and olive spread; tiny fish and baklava. I shopped in the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, and an open air market way out of the city center where Turks go to buy every day items. I heard the call to prayer in a shopping district, in Sultanahmet, and in the cafeteria of a university. I walked along the water and saw green parrots in a tree.
I was tired when I left, but sad, too. Sad I hadn't been able to see and experience more.
I don't know when I'll be able to go back, but go back I will. I just wonder how much Istanbul will change between then and now? Turkey is in the midst of political turmoil and things seem fraught and on the edge of change.
But change of what kind?
Istanbul has withstood onslaughts of Crusaders and colonizers. It is a city that survives and evolves in large part due to the love the people who live there have for the city. It is a city that begs you to return.
'If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.' -- Alphonse de Lamartine
It's not just Trump.
Has a Super Tuesday ever been more terrifying? Not that I can remember in my lifetime.
There are a lot of reasons to not like particular political candidates -- lack of experience, lack of understanding of world problems, holding opposing views to your own on things like education, welfare, or abortion.
Then there's bigotry. I know, someone somewhere is shouting 'PC Police' or 'Social Justice Warrior' and I do not care because I do not think believing in equality for all people, working to challenge prejudice and stereotype, or having empathy for people who are not like me is a bad thing.
Social justice warrior me all you want -- I do not care because having an honest discussion about bigotry, hatred, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and prejudice is sorely needed this election cycle.
But wait, you might say, aren't we talking about Donald Trump enough?
Sure, I'd say, but this is bigger than Donald Trump.
Trump's rhetoric of fear and hate, of xenophobia and of building walls, did not come to him from the ether. It did not emerge fully formed like Athena from the depths of his mind.
It is the product of years of fear being paraded about by politicians of all stripes as a battering ram. For instance, people considered both liberal or leftist and people considered the paragon of conservatism have spewn Islamophobic stories of the Middle East or of who Muslims are without anyone really challenging them. Or, without those doing the challenging being labeled ill-informed or simplistic.
From Muslims to refugees to African Americans to women we have allowed various discourses to circulate that build imaginary walls between people, discourses that frame all of the above as threats to something America is supposed to stand for, discourses that turn Muslims and African Americans and sometimes even women into beings to be feared.
As I watch the pundits and journalists on Morning Joe sputter over Donald Trump's political ascendency, as I listen to analysts on NPR talk about the anger his campaign has tapped into, as I look at photos of journalists and protestors being manhandled at Trump events all I can think is that this is on us.
Trump is on us.
It's on those of us who used the fear of everyday people as a tool to aid in our own grabs at power; it's on those of us who laughed as people we thought were fringe or extreme came to power; it's on those of us who chose apathy over action; it's on those of us who treated Trump like a joke.
It's on all of us. We are all complicit in the rise to power of a candidate who claims everyone loves him while saying terrible things about women and people of color and demeaning things about other candidates in the race.
So as you shout in frustration about Donald Trump's stumble over David Duke and the KKK (I will shout with you) don't lose sight of the fact that we all enabled this current political environment.
No one can save us from it but ourselves.
It's natural, when something terrible happens, to want to find something or somebody to blame. Most prejudices and hatreds are spurred by this urge to blame other people or other things for the problems we face. Increasingly, the other things we want to blame are new media technologies.
If there's anything Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus taught us, it was that the monsters we create are simply extensions of ourselves.
In Virginia a family is mourning the death of their 13-year-old daughter. A young woman who reportedly sought friendship and companionship online. Reporting seems to suggest that desire for connection may have ultimately lead to Nicole Lovell's death.
In reporting that frames Nicole as a young woman seeking a friend, the accused murderers are framed as 'stars' and 'bright students.' This is fairly typical framing in stories about violence against women and girls -- the victims are often framed by their desire to be loved or cared for while their abusers and murderers are framed as good kids/men/women gone wrong.
It shows up in the reporting on Nicole's death just as it showed up in the reporting on the Steubenville rape case. Also similar in the reporting on both cases was the way social media and new communication technologies have been framed.
My colleague (and friend) at Bridgewater State University Jessica Birthisel and I studied news coverage of the Steubenville case. We found reporting that blamed the victim for her attack and framed her rapists as promising kids who just made a bad choice that night.
In our study we also uncovered a framing of mobile communication technologies which seemed to blame them -- seemed to blame YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and text messaging -- for the assault. Rarely were the rapists blamed. The issue of rape culture was almost never addressed.
Something similar seems to be happening in the case of Nicole Lovell's death. A column in the Washington Post, which seemed to take a strange joy in portraying Nicole as a lost and lovelorn young woman, portrayed social media as the thing to be concerned with.
'Parents,' it seemed to scream, 'Don't let your kids use technology!'
'Parents,' it yelled, 'Be vigilant hawks and give your children no freedom!'
Here's the thing: Technology did not make the young men in the Steubenville case rape a 16-year-old woman. Technology did not make Nicole Lovell's murderers kill her.
Technology is not Nietzsche's abyss. It is not staring back at us.
You know what is staring back at us?
The problem lies not in the technology, but in our relation to it and our relation to each other. It lies in the way we produce and reproduce a culture in which women and young girls are told they are things; a culture which tells young men that to be masculine is to be a sexual beast; a culture that suggests this is the only normal and anything else is deviance.
To quote Mad Max: Fury Road -- We are not things.
We are not stories waiting to be written. Our insecurities are not waiting for a writer to come along to use them to paint a picture of how forlorn and lonely we must be.
We are not things.
Just as important: Technologies are not things that exist outside of us.
Rape culture is reproduced and remediated in new media. Unhealthy relationships that have existed as long as there have been people are reproduced and remediated in new media. Hatred, bigotry, misogyny are reproduced and remediated in new media.
Everything we are offline we are online. It all goes with us. The good and the bad.
There is nothing wrong with seeking companionship online. In my research I've found evidence that sometimes online spaces are incredibly important to individuals looking to create communities and to find spaces to feel themselves.
What is wrong is that people prey on those they imagine are weak online. But, again, that exists outside digital spaces.
The scary thing is that new media technologies make it much easier to see all the ugliness.
Bullying existed before Whisper or YikYak. Rape culture predates Facebook or Instagram.
They were just much easier to ignore before videos and texts and photos could go viral. (Did we learn nothing from The Burn Book in Mean Girls?)
Social media and other forms of new media technologies make it much more difficult to ignore the things we find ugly or troubling or problematic. When something horrible happens and we find ourselves staring into the abyss we get scared, we pretend it's the technology staring back from the depths when it's really ourselves.
If we don't recognize that and begin to address that, it won't matter how much we work to change technology or how many parental controls we put in place or how many restrictions because those unaddressed issues will just seep into other spaces, other dark corners. And there will be other Nicoles and other Steubenvilles and other paper tigers we'll find to blame.
The fault, dear Reader, is not in our media, but in ourselves.
Politics, Compassion, and Empathy
What does it take to rob someone of their humanity?
Violence, hate, and fear.
Last week a wave of violence washed through Baghdad, Beirut, and Paris. Attacks orchestrated by Daesh -- the so-called Islamic State -- left hundreds dead, hundreds more injured, and millions in mourning. This only the latest salvo from the group which is terrorizing populations in the Middle East and, increasingly, Afghanistan.
Immediately in the wake of the Paris attack I felt fear. Not fear of Muslims, but a fear of the blame that would be laid at the feet of a religion, fear at the way some would use the attacks, especially the attack on Paris, to proclaim how right they were to tell us that Muslims can't be 'Western' and can't be integrated into non-Muslim majority countries.
How right they were that the 'Muslim tide' washing ashore on Europe would eat the continent and all it stands for alive.
I felt fear for my friends and colleagues and the activists I follow, worried they would also become casualties of these most recent attacks.
Terrorism is defined as 'the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.' It is not simply about wreaking destruction or murdering innocent people -- terrorist acts are designed to sow fear and mistrust. They are designed not so much as a show of power as they are designed to fracture the society in which the terrorist acts take place.
Already, some European countries are planning to close their borders to the refugees who are fleeing Daesh and other violence in the Middle East and North Africa, the nations afraid more violence will come to Europe with the refugees. In the United States several states have told President Obama they will not accept Syrian refugees in light of the terrorist attack on Paris.
As borders begin closing, so too, do minds. Over the weekend a Canadian mosque was set on fire and a Sikh temple had stones thrown through its windows. A few days before the attack on Paris a Muslim woman in London was shoved in front of a train. Many individuals who are Muslim or who look as though they might be fear being out in public.
Twitter was full of hate speech directed at Muslims after the attack Friday, many calling for the 'eradication' of Muslim communities. Other users of the social media site called for Muslims to denounce the violence, apparently not seeing the countless tweets and messages not only denouncing the violence but also expressing support for the victims, their families, and the residents of Paris and citizens of France as well.
And of course there was Donald Trump's now infamous tweet and the response of the French ambassador to the United States.
The Paris attacks prompted a refocusing of the Democratic presidential debate the next day, with moderators weaving in questions focused on foreign policy when, originally, the debate was meant to focus on domestic issues.
I read an interesting article the day after the attacks, asking that we avoid the kind of blatant politicization of the tragedy that we are slowly beginning to see unfold (or not so slowly in the case of Trump or Ann Coulter's tweet asking how to say 'Dreamers' in French) not only on the right, but also on the left as well.
There are plenty on the soi-disant left also using the massacre as a pristine stage on which to exhibit their one-person morality plays. What if the attackers had been white; wouldn’t we all be talking about mental health? Don’t you know that non-Muslims commit atrocities too? Why do you care about this, and not about all the other tragedies going on elsewhere in the world? Can’t you see that all these bodies only exist to prove that I was right about everything all along?
I largely agree with the foundation of the article -- that tragedies should not become political footballs, that we should be focusing on the humanity of the victims. As author Sam Kriss writes, 'Insisting on the humanity of the victims is also a political act, and as tragedy is spun into civilizational conflict or an excuse to victimize those who are already victims, it’s a very necessary one. '
At the same time, there are people whose entire lives, their entire identities, have been politicized. People who are asked over and over and over again to condemn horrific acts committed in the name of their religion. People who, because they are Muslim or because their families recently immigrated or because they have Arabic names or beards or wear a turban or hijab, are not allowed to set aside politics because they are suspect.
They are always suspect.
What is it to live like that? What is it like to grow up Canadian or American or German or French, to watch football and go to school, to get into hiphop and to fall in love with Monty Python and yet be told over and over and over again it will never be enough? You will never be enough because of your name or your religion?
I agree we must avoid the politicization of the tragedy, but how do we do that when, already, those in power are calling for military action? How do we do that as France bombs Raqqa and Belgian and French authorities conduct raids rounding up individuals suspected of being terrorists? How do we do that when wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria have worked to hasten the destabilization of the region?
I don't know.
For seven years I've been part of a project working to counter the stereotyping of Muslims. For every moment when it feels as though things are changing something happens to show just how much further we have to go.
I think compassion and empathy are the keys. Compassion not only for the victims in Paris or Beirut or Baghdad but also compassion for all those who are suffering as victims of Daesh. Compassion for the refugees who are fleeing a reality where violence is an every day threat. Perhaps having wide open borders isn't the solution, but I would argue neither is sealing off borders completely.
At the root of everything, if we want to really create change, if we are committed to creating spaces of understanding, is empathy.
It is not enough to feel sorrow for the suffering we see, we must work to understand the lives of those suffering. We must cultivate the ability to see the world through the eyes of another, to not so blind ourselves with our own beliefs that there is no room for anything else.
That's what Daesh does, blinds itself so completely to the lives of others that they cease to be human.
If we follow suit, if we close ourselves off politically and emotionally to the suffering of others, then Daesh wins. Their desire is to fracture us, to make us see anyone who is different as an enemy. So even if they never again commit a terrorist attack on Western soil, if their actions help contribute to a politics of fear and suspicion and that politics becomes our default, they win.
Paul Krugman said it perfectly when he wrapped up the column 'Fearing Fear Itself':
Again, the goal of terrorists is to inspire terror, because that’s all they’re capable of. And the most important thing our societies can do in response is to refuse to give in to fear.
I refuse to give into fear.
I, instead, focus on the stories of compassion that came out of the violence last week. Stories of Parisians opening their homes to strangers who were stranded by the attacks. Stories of Parisians offering to travel with Muslims, or those who might be mistaken as Muslim, who feared traveling alone. Stories of rallies showing support for the Muslim community.
Or of imams leading the singing of 'La Marseillaise' near the Bataclan where so many died Friday night.
I will focus on how the hashtag #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists trended on Twitter, as both Muslims and non-Muslims worked to counter the narrative that the the violence seen in Paris and Beirut and Baghdad last week was the obvious result of someone's choosing to follow the teachings of Islam.
Compassion and empathy are how we move forward. Hopefully embracing those two concepts will help us craft a politics which allows tragedies to remain tragedies and which promotes understanding.
What a terrible tragedy if violence in the City of Love helps produce a hegemonic Politics of Hate.
If you Google the definition of the word 'migrant' the first entry has nothing to do with human beings. Instead, the Google result shows that definition 1, generally understood as the primary definition, is 'an animal that migrates.' Definition 2 is the adjective, 'tending to migrate or having migrated.'
The people who are immigrating to Europe are not animals, though Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orban might treat them as though they are.
The people who have been crossing the Mediterranean, the people who have drowned in the sea, those trapped in Hungary now that the nation refuses them transit, they are not threats. They are not enemies. They are not wild beasts to be feared though, again, Orban suggests that Hungarians and Europeans are afraid of them.
They are people who are seeking refuge from violence, war, conflict, and what seems to be unending sorrow and death.
They are human beings who have lost hope and who are looking for help.
Deutsche Welle, the German international broadcaster, has been running a live blog with updates on the situation in Europe. It's sometimes frustrating reading.
Mixed in with discussions of what every day Europeans are doing to help, announcements from officials on who will be allowed in, who will be allowed succor, and stories of refugees finding their way to Germany are stories of chaos at train stations, are stories of refugees blocked from boarding trains, and Hungary's Viktor Orban blaming Germany, and its openness to the refugees, for the crisis Europe faces.
The death of little Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has caught the attention of so many. News outlets in the United States are turning the tragedy of his drowning into the hook on which they hang their stories about the crisis in Europe.
The death of a toddler should not be the thing that makes us care. It should not be the thing that causes us to feel empathy for these refugees.
If you've been following news out of the Middle East, where so many of the refugees come from, you've seen images of cities destroyed, communities ripped apart, families shredded. You've consumed stories of such vast destruction it is, at times, almost incomprehensible.
We should have been feeling empathy for those suffering through such tragedy long ago.
I am frustrated. I am frustrated by what has felt like a lack of attention to this situation and the crisis that has been brewing for some time. I'm frustrated that the drowning of a toddler and the images of his body on the beach seem to have been the thing to make American media begin to see the refugees as human beings, not as some mass of unwashed bodies overtaking Europe's shores.
Still, there are headlines about 'squalid' camps going up in Budapest and about how this influx of immigrants might challenge European identity.
To use words like 'migrate' to describe the plight of these refugees is to suggest they had some sort of choice in the matter. It suggests that one day they woke up and thought, 'You know, Europe sure seems like a good place to be, let's go steal jobs and resources from Europeans.'
When your choices are possible starvation, likely injury and death on one hand and safety and refuge on the other, how is there even a choice? How do you not jump in a boat and pray you make it to land if it means you and your family might go to sleep at night not fearing your home, your village, your community, all you love might be gone when you wake the next morning?
I refuse to use the word 'migrant' in relation to what's happening in Europe because this is not a choice -- this is a last desperate act of traumatized people.
There is also the issue of the racist and colonialist connotations associated with the word migrant.
If you think that word doesn't have racist undertones (or overtones) I want you to think of the people who are classified as 'migrants' in media and in political discourse. Who gets branded a 'migrant' and who is allowed to move about the world and gets labeled as, simply, 'mobile?'
The people who are stuck in transit in Hungary, and those that are being given shelter in Germany and Iceland and other countries, are not a threat that has washed up unexpectedly upon Europe's southern shores.
These refugees are the very embodiment of humanitarian crisis.
They are human beings and I refuse to refer to them as or see them as anything other than that.
I have been a Turk in the shell.
So, a few things you should know upfront -- I do not drive nor do I have a state ID. My forms of ID include a Passport (insert cliche about academics here) and my university ID. This becomes important later.
Have you ever been broke? I ask as a once uberbroke graduate student.
Holidays can be stressful when you are broke. One winter I decided to become a Mechanical Turk worker to make some extra money. I thought it would be an easy way to pad out my savings account and have some pocket money for gifts.
I first learned about Mechanical Turk at a research talk. A scholar was talking about what it was and the labor issues that it might pose. I signed up for MTurk at first just to explore it and then starting turking because it seemed an easy way to make extra money.
If you are unfamiliar, Mechanical Turk is a "crowdsourcing" space where people can have individuals online do work for them. Work could be taking surveys, transcribing videos, or marking all the immoral things in a film.
It is work which can be mind-numbing and incredibly time consuming.
It is also work that you get paid next to nothing to do. You have to be quick on the draw if you want to get one of the jobs that pays a seemingly decent amount. During my time as a Turk I saw some jobs going for as much as $15, but most seem to be for pennies on the dollar. Because I was turking in order to add extra money to my bank account, not to live, I could be choosy about which jobs I accepted. I refused to do any job that paid less than a quarter. Jobs could take anywhere from a minute to 30 minutes; I think most of the jobs I choose took about fifteen minutes to complete.
I'd turk in the little downtime I had. While I had dinner in the oven or late at night when I could no longer focus well enough to work on my research but wasn't quite ready to go to bed. I sometimes did jobs with the TV on, although I did turn off all distracting media when the job required it.
In the two months I turked I made about $86 dollars.
That's after submitting 94 HITs -- a hit is a job in Mechanical Turk. None of my HITs were rejected -- the job poster can reject your work if they believe it's subpar quality -- or that number would be much less.
It's still sitting there, in my account. This is where the ID issue comes in because I don't have a driver's license linked to my banking account and, therefore, can't get the money deposited there. I could have that money transferred to an Amazon gift card, which I think I'm going to do now that I'm writing this, but when I ran into the money transfer issue I stopped turking. (The issue of sending pay to an Amazon gift card feels dodgy, especially if a turker doesn't have a bank account. Their only option is to spend the money they make in an Amazon platform in another Amazon platform.)
Honestly, though, that was just an convenient excuse. I was mentally spent after those two months. Looking for jobs was stressful. You could qualify for some really high paying tasks if you committed to going through extra training -- some of which could take hours and which you did not get paid for. I did not do any extra training.
During the research talk I attended about MTurk, scholar Bonnie Nardi pointed out that the space does attract people like me -- people who are looking to just make a little extra money, but that there are people who are trying to carve out a living from MTurk.
It can all feel very predatory. There is no MTurk without the labor, there is no MTurk without people who need the money they can make on the HITs. And, yet, they are treated as little more than cogs in a machine. The interface is stark. The space is impersonal. Staring at a computer screen, watching for a high paying hit can be stressful. Doing task after task can be mentally exhausting.
You are operating very much on your own, receiving little feedback although job posters can rate you, which helps you get better jobs.
It has been a useful tool for researchers seeking to create more generalizable populations for their studies, but I wonder how many researchers have tried MTurk as a worker? How many of them understand what it's like to be on the other side of the screen?
I'm glad I don't have to rely on turker pay to make ends meet, but there are a lot of people who do. I don't think MTurk is necessarily awful, but it can feel as though designers and researchers have forgotten that real, flesh and blood human beings are submitting all those HITs.
VIDEO: Turking for a Living
My Experience as an Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) Worker
Mechanical Turk Workers: Secret Cogs in the Internet Marketplace
Amazon's Mechanical Turk workers want to be treated like humans
My Brief and Curious Life as a Mechanical Turk
All I wanted, growing up, was to know where I belonged. I wanted to plant my flag in an identity, stand on a desk, let loose a barbaric yawp and cry, "Yes, this is who I am!"
I never really got that. Still, as an adult, I don't feel as though I have an identity I am fully grounded in. Well, except for Appalachian. But that's a regional and cultural identity -- as a child what I longed for was a clear racial or ethnic identity of my own. One that linked me to a group of people I could call my people; a group of people with whom I shared a history and a story.
I am a mixed race American. I am the "Changing Face of America" according to National Geographic.
I am lost. Or, at least, have felt that way.
My mother is white as white can be. A tiny woman with fluffy blonde hair, blue eyes, and freckles. My father is not. Though his father was of white and Native American background, his mother came from India -- her mother a black Spaniard and her father an Anglo-Indian.
If you throw a dart at a world map there is a fairly good chance you will land on a country from which some of my ancestors sprang. (My mother's parents were of Welsh-French and German-Irish backgrounds.)
Who am I? (Not Jean Valjean.)
I have never identified as white. I don't really understand what that necessarily means, but I don't feel white. Whenever we had to take standardized tests in school and the question of race came up I checked every box except Pacific Islander. In high school I started making my own box -- multiracial, I labeled it. When one teacher told me I had to fill in the race boxes that were there I told her I wouldn't because they didn't reflect who I am.
I have four brothers. I think all of them identify as white. (If I am wrong, brothers, please correct me.) I never really understood how they could plant their flags there so firmly. I know I look white. I know that I pass as white. I know that, for some, I am white.
But I'm not. I've always hated that I've passed.
Passing as white, people assuming I am white, completely erases half of who I am. It erases my father and his family. It reduces me to something I simply am not. It is frustrating and sometimes infuriating.
You can imagine my response when I read about the controversy surrounding Cameron Crowe's Aloha.
For those of you in the dark, Crowe decide to cast the talented, and white, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in the film. Ng is a character who is supposed to be 1/2 white, 1/4 Hawaiian, and 1/4 Chinese.
Stone meets half the requirements for the role.
Crowe apologized, basically saying he thought it was okay to cast Stone because the role was based on a real life woman who, like me, was frustrated by her ability to pass.
So, sure, the logical thing is to cast a white woman in that role. Why not embody the frustrations of multiracial individuals by casting a white actor to portray those frustrations on screen?
It's not like there are any actresses of mixed heritage who could have brought the character of Allison Ng to life. *ahem* Olivia Munn, Natassia Malthe, Berenice Malohe, Amber Midthunder, Kristin Keuk, Sandrine Holt, Chloe Bennet ... I could do this all day.
Maybe some people see this as a trite thing, a thing that doesn't really matter. "It's just a movie," they might say.
Sure. Sure, you can think that. But doing so ignores the systemic whitewashing Hollywood has perpetuated for years when it comes to the casting of characters of color in films. It ignores the erasure of the experiences of people of color from much of popular media. It ignores the flow of power and influence that perpetuates the marginalization of people of color and women in the entertainment industry.
This isn't just about politics.
Media representation matters. It helps us understand who we are and who we are not. It helps us anchor ourselves more fully in our world. Seeing ourselves reflected in popular media in a way that feels true to our lives helps us feel we belong where we are.
Casting a white actress to play someone of mixed race tells those of us who are multiracial that our experiences don't matter. That our lives don't matter. That our experiences can be whitewashed and that, maybe, we should be whitewashed, too.
Sorrow at the Parting
There are two huge ginkgo trees at the heart of the old part of Indiana University's campus. They're my favorite trees in all of Bloomington. I look forward to the brief period each fall when the trees blaze gold, the ground beneath them littered with the pretty fan-shaped leaves.
I walked under them today after I left the graduate school, in my hand copies of the signature pages I submitted as part of the finalization of my PhD.
Almost immediately I began to tear up.
I've been here for seven years -- two for my Masters degree; five for my PhD. The time has flown and crawled at the same time. When I started graduate school I was still in my twenties; now, I wake up each morning and consider the new strands of silver in my hair and the crow's feet that are beginning to form at the corners of my eyes.
Graduate school is no picnic, which is no secret. The thing is, though, that no one can really ever understand the toll it will take on you. Each of us shoulders our various burdens differently. We all juggle various priorities and, at times, find ourselves at the bottom of a mountain of commitments, promises, and deadlines we can never fathom summiting.
Some of us never do.
Those of us who finish the climb often find ourselves mentally, emotionally, and, yes, even physically exhausted by the process.
But we made it.
I walked in IU's graduate commencement recently. Even though it was hot and at times incredibly uncomfortable it was the happiest I've been in an exceedingly long time.
I made it.
Since then it's been a rush of grading final projects (I taught a section of a media ethics class this semester) and dissertation revisions. There's also the issue of getting my family's move from Bloomington back to Ohio in order. (I was born in Ohio and did my undergraduate work at Ohio University.)
I haven't had much time to ponder leaving here; to consider my actual removal from this place.
Walking under those gingkos this morning it hit me -- I won't see them go gold this fall. I won't find myself one morning, gazing up into the branches, lost in the yellow light.
Tears welled up. As I continued my walk down the red brick path and through Sample Gates I let the tears come.
I remember at one point, when I was in the midst of prepping for my qualifying exams, asking on Facebook if there was "crying in graduate school."
Yes, was the general consensus. Sometimes there was a lot of crying in graduate school.
Seven years I've been here. Seven years of stress and anxiety. Seven years of chasing funding and hoping to have cobbled enough work together for the year.
It's time to move on. And I am. In the fall I start a faculty position in Miami University's Department of Media, Journalism, and Film. I'm excited to start this chapter of my life; excited to meet my students and get to know my new colleagues.
But there is sorrow at the parting. Indiana University-Bloomington is a beautiful school. When I've been my most overwhelmed or taut I've found solace in the quiet, wooded spaces to be found all over campus. I've had the opportunity to work with world class researchers here who not only taught me skills and theory, but also helped me discover my own identity as a scholar.
Bloomington is also where my daughter has spent most of her childhood. She accompanied me to graduate classes when I was a student and then, later, served as an assistant in the classes I taught. She's seen me up late at night working on a project and she watched me walk across the stage and shake hands with the university president at commencement.
This university, this town, has been a place of growth for the both of us. We've chased squirrels through the woods, looked for fish in the "river," watched pumpkins get thrown out of windows in the name of science, and glimpsed the surface of the sun in the Kirkwood Observatory.
I'm ready to go. My tears were not out of nostalgia. Sadness, yes; who isn't a little saddened by the turning of time?
It would be a lie, though, to not admit that some of those tears were in relief. Relief that I, that my family, made it.
'So fill to me the parting glass; goodnight and joy be with you all.'
Do Not Tell Me TO Lean In
Maine is one of my favorite places. My best friend and I drove to Acadia National Park to celebrate turning 30 several years ago and when it came time to leave neither of us was really ready to pack up.
It had been a difficult few years leading up to our trip and it was the first time either of us had really stopped to breathe.
This summer I won't be driving to Maine, instead I'll be packing my things up to move to Ohio where I will begin teaching at Miami University in the fall. There will be no endless vistas for me, but there will be a leaning out not unlike that I experienced in Acadia.
My friends and I are calling this summer a number of different things: The Summer of Radical Self Care, The Summer of Leaning the F*ck Out, there was maybe something involving unicorns I don't remember.
It's a very necessary leaning out, for all of us. We've all been leaning in so hard and so long we probably should have portable flying buttresses to help keep us propped up at this point.
We are all, I should mention, women. Which is important if you've been following at all the conversation around this idea that women need to "lean in" to their careers to achieve much of anything.
What maybe some people don't understand, and what the author of the book Lean In seems to ignore, is that women already are leaning in -- we lean in to everything. Our jobs, our studies if we're students, our relationships, our children if we have them, our friendships, our communities.
Women lean into everything because we have always been expected to do so.
When it comes to careers that leaning in has been necessary, because for every mentor you have that is willing to help build you up you have scores of others chomping at your heels, trying to drag you down or looking to belittle your contributions.
I am emerging from graduate school. An endeavor that I have loved. I have always loved being in school and knew, when I was still working on my bachelor's degree what seems like a thousand years ago, that I was going to pursue a PhD at some point.
My experience during my studies has been largely one of support, fellowship, and a real feeling that I am engaged in the life of the mind. But there have certainly been moments when classmates have come after me not necessarily because of my contributions but because I am a women. There have been interactions with individuals that were at the very least disrespectful and at the worst unethical, due in part to my being a woman.
Graduate school, academia, is all about leaning in. Leaning so hard and so deep into your work that you get it done, you wipe the floor with the jerks, and you get out.
At the end, as you celebrate, you can't help feeling a little chewed up.
Those of us who get as far as I have and my mentors who are in ensconced in academia have done nothing but lean in our entire lives.
We don't have to be told to lean in. Or work harder. Or sacrifice. Or whatever else you might say to us as we pursue our careers and our lives.
We've been doing it before we knew it was a thing to do.
And things have suffered at times for it.
'For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.'
That opposite reaction this summer is to lean out as far as I can, as far as we can, so that when the new academic year rolls around we can plunge back into the thick of it with the enthusiasm and love of learning that pushed us down this path in the first place.
So, please, do not tell me to 'lean in' or anything like it. I will be leaning into something this summer that I have neglected for far too long.