Monthly Archives: February 2011

Learning to See Ourselves as Inferior

“I asked my teachers not to tell anyone that I was doing well in school because I was afraid I’d get beaten up.”

This quote comes from a young black man, freshly admitted to Brown University, who was telling a reporter about his struggle to get good grades at a high school where academic attempts were punished for “acting white.”      

Why would doing well in school take on a sense of “whiteness”? Or merit punishment?

It all goes back to something called “internalization,” which happens when society ends up embedded in our own minds.

When children are born they don’t know much of anything, and are faced with a seemingly chaotic world that lacks meaning. But we need to cope. So the mind unconsciously categorizes what it observes. And the vast majority of the following appear white: Presidents of the United States, Congress, scientists, doctors, CEOs, major historical figures, teachers, professors. On the other hand, majorities, or large numbers, of the following seem to be black: basketball players, football players, baseball players, rappers and entertainers. In movies, TV shows, music videos, and in the news criminals, gang members and the poor are often black.

Unconsciously fitting a complex world into simple categories, stereotypes arise. We all do it. After a while – somehow in the back of our minds – smart successful people too often come to be associated with whiteness, while sports stars, rappers, criminals and the poor can come to be connected to blackness. And early in life the mind doesn’t discern the history of discrimination that lies beneath the patterns.

We grow up hearing we shouldn’t stereotype, shouldn’t be racist, but the messages can linger unless we become conscious of them and work hard to rid them. We find evidence of this in psychological tests like Harvard’s Implicit Bias test, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. When people take this test, most learn that they’re more racist than they had thought. So much so that about half of the black test-takers also have a preference for whites.  

So consider young African Americans in school, having internalized these stereotypes. Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, a black sociologist and a black physician, wrote a piece called “Rumors of Inferiority” for The New Republic a few years back. The stereotype gnaws at the minds of young black kids, they said. And people tend to live up to – or down to – expectations.  

Howard and Hammond suggest that the children unconsciously fear competing academically for fear of failing, and proving the stereotype. They refuse to play on a field where they think they can’t win, rejecting the value of academics outright. And, they punish anyone who doesn’t go along. Instead, valor in areas like sports is praised. Unfortunately, academic achievement is a much surer route to success.

Interestingly, the threat of “acting white” arises primarily in integrated schools. Perhaps when children are competing in all-black communities they don’t fear doing worse than whites and proving the rumor of inferiority true. They may also have more black role models and a greater focus on the achievements of African-Americans, boosting the children’s faith in themselves.

The only way to overcome the loss of faith that accompanies the stereotype is to become aware of its existence and critique it. When prejudice plays on the unconscious mind, it doesn’t occur to us to rethink. But when we understand the history of discrimination that led to privilege for some and underprivilage for others, and when we see what many Black people have accomplished despite the obstacles, we understand that the stereotypes are not true. And faith can be restored.

Georgia Platts

February is Black History Month

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Why Do The “Isms” That Affect Men Seem More Important?

“You’re never going to have this revolution happen unless there’s also a sexual revolution.”

That’s Bill Maher’s verdict on the push for Democracy in Egypt as he discussed the matter on his show, Real Time with Bill Maher.

Pro-feminist, Tavis Smiley, agreed that women need to be treated better. Yet he inserted a different spin: “When we have these conversations about how they treat women, as if we treat women better in our country, it demonizes Muslim men.”

The most well-meaning among us, men like Smiley, work hard to respect other cultures. Yet sometimes we need to discern whether powerful elements of a society are harming less powerful targets. And really, is pointing out a need for improvement “demonization”?

Mr. Smiley is a-okay in my book, and I appreciate his aim here. Yet there is plenty of room for change in cultures that (depending upon the country or province) stone women for being victims of rape, beat women for leaving home without a male relative, keep girls out of school, forbid women from driving, make divorce difficult for women but easy for men, remove battered women from shelters, and cut women’s genitals – leaving them in pain, crippled, or dead.

It’s a sad turn of events when early Islam did so much to improve women’s rights in the world. The Koran gave women the right to work, inherit and own property. Female infanticide and slavery were abolished. Women were given the right to consent to marry. Protections against abuse became instituted.

Today Islamic scholars like Dr. Jamal Badawi work to support women’s rights. Meanwhile, large majorities favor legal, political and professional freedoms for women in North Africa and many countries in the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. In fact, the Islamic culture of West Sumatra, Indonesia is one of the most peace-loving, egalitarian places on the planet.

Islam isn’t the problem. Neither are Muslim men.

Still, problems abound. Yet Smiley seems more concerned with ethnocentrism than sexism, given his desire to cut off conversation. Why do the “isms” that affect men seem more important? And did women have equal power to create the cultures that oppress them?

When ethnocentrism and sexism are at odds, which worries should prevail? Cultural relativism – don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another – is a good guide most of the time. But what if someone is being harmed? When people are killed for reasons other than self-defense, when they are crippled physically, emotionally, intellectually or spiritually, those circumstances must trump all others.

Must we worry more about offending those who create cultures that harm women than freeing women who are harmed by them?

Meanwhile, Islamic feminists complain that Western women can be too fearful of offending ethnic sensitivities to back their feminist sisters.

Now, is lecture the best way to handle this? Dialogue is better. Other cultures have perspectives that can benefit us, too. Perhaps we can learn from each other.

Love Tavis. But he insists we cannot criticize until we perfect ourselves. We’ll never be perfect. Still, we must fight oppression wherever it is found, here and there, to whatever degree we find it. Tolerating intolerance is not progressive.

Georgia Platts

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Learning to Say No in 520 Languages

I’m Learning to Say No in 520 Languages


“How often do I hear my brain screaming NO as I smile and say yes? These random words are all “NO” in different languages. So I am learning to say no in 520 languages, most importantly mine, NO.”

Artist, Karen Gutfreund, works with unconventional materials: roof tar, bone, red food coloring, wax… Moving against standards and customs, is she saying NO even in the becoming and embodiment of her art?

She has good reason to go against the flow. We all do.

“Using hot political issues, I mix it up with text, pop culture images, stencils, and symbols to create works that are a combination of personal commentary, religious and moral teachings, political outrage and social observation,” she says. “Often the imagery and core meaning of the painting is very personal and emotionally gut-wrenching, so that not being able to discuss it verbally, I present it visually. Part humorous, part tragic.”

As she explains, the layering and mixed meanings echo and reveal the inner complexity of dreams, nightmares and emotions.

Her work strikes a chord with a piece I once read entitled, “Betrayed by the Angel”:

“I’m 25 years old. I’m alone in my apartment. I hear a knock. I open the door and see a face I don’t know. The man scares me, I don’t know why. My first impulse is to shut the door. But I stop myself: You can’t do something like that. It’s rude… He is inside. He slams the door shut himself and pushes me against the wall… Since he is being rude, it is okay for me to be rude back.”

Despite her revelation that rudeness can be good, it was too late. The young woman was raped.

Some feel queasy at self-defense seminars when told to gouge out an attacker’s eyes. “Could I do something less gruesome?” Advice from the expert: “He’s bigger than you. If you try something weaker he’ll overtake you and you’ll be raped or dead.”

I had it easier. But not really easy. He was a guy from church, and we were dating. At church we didn’t have double standards. Men and women were both told to stay pure. So inexperienced and naïve that when he touched me outside my clothes, but at “third base,” I froze in shock. Was he really doing that? I didn’t want to be rude. In guarding his feelings I paid a price, smacked with the label, “loose.”

Virginia Woolf speaks of the Angel in the House. Some scattered lines:

“You who come of a younger and happier generation may not have heard of her – you may not know what I mean by the Angel in the House… She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish… She sacrificed herself daily… She preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others…

“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me.”

This piece was originally shown at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of  California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Karen Gutfreund’s work go to her website.

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What Abusers and “Pro-Family” Conservatives Have in Common

Birth control sabotage has been revealed to be a common form of partner abuse. In a report released earlier this week by the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 25 percent of women callers to the hot line, who voluntarily answered questions about birth control and pressure to get pregnant in their relationships, reported some form of reproductive coercion.

The callers said their partners hid birth control pills or flushed them down the toilet. Some refused to wear condoms or poked holes in them. One woman’s partner became furious when she recently got her period.

The study’s authors state firmly that reproductive coercion is a form of abuse. Family Violence Prevention Fund president Esta Soler says, “While there is a cultural assumption that some women use pregnancy as a way to trap their partner in a relationship, this survey shows that men who are abusive will sabotage their partner’s birth control and pressure them to become pregnant as a way to trap or control their partner.”

And physical and emotional abuse go hand-in-hand with birth control sabotage: Another study on reproductive coercion found that one-third of women using reproductive health clinics (of five studied), whose partners were physically abusive, also said their partners had pressured or forced them into pregnancy, often hiding or destroying contraception.

This tactic should alarm feminists and anti-domestic-violence workers. It also suggests a revealing political analogy.

It seems these ostensibly “pro-family” men, who are busily destroying contraception in pursuit of children, have a lot in common with the “pro-family” (read: anti-reproductive rights) political agenda.

So why aren’t we willing to call the anti-choice agenda abusive, too?

The conservative political agenda is anti-women working outside the home, anti-abortion, anti-birth control, and once upon a time, anti-battered women’s shelters (the better to keep women inside the home and attached to intact nuclear families). Each of these stances, in some way, disempowers women.

It’s easy to see how restricting shelters keeps women under the thumb of abusive men: It’s a no brainer. If there’s no safe place to go, you’re trapped.

The same holds for denying women access to birth control or abortion. If you’re pregnant with this man’s child, you’re attached–you’re trapped, again, by an unwanted pregnancy.

And women who don’t work outside the home tend to have less say within it. Not to mention that a lack of income makes it hard to leave an abusive partner.

The “pro-family” political agenda may claim to uphold “traditional” American values, but for for many young men claiming to want “normal” nuclear families, pregnancy coercion is a form of abuse and control. What kind of “family values” are those?

Georgia Platts

This post originally appeared in the Ms. Magazine Blog, February 18, 2011

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The Constricting Bodice: Empowerment and Imprisonment?

Bodice

 “The bodice, the corset and the bra can be instruments of empowerment, or torture.”

 

                                     — Angela Fortain 

 

In her series “Overt Underthings” artist, Angela Fortain, considers a paradox: Distorting the body can both liberate and imprison, she says. Society dictates constraining fashions which, once dawned, create power over others.

Power over others?

By way of men’s desire, women’s envy.

The power to shape space as others turn in our direction.

Favors.

Lower status bowing to higher. Standing based on beauty – and what to make of that?

The power to gain love? Or sex? And must one undergo body-torture to attain either?

How might power become less available inside the constrained body?

Are the powers bestowed – or removed – substantive or superficial?

Finally, Fortain muses, “Separating the sensual object that once transformed the wearer into an object of sexuality allows us to examine the object, and our own desire.”

The power of objects… our own desire?

Fortain’s work provokes more questions than answers. As art should.

Georgia Platts

This piece was originally shown at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Angela Fortain’s work go to ARTslant.

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Men: More Homophobic Than Women?

There is plenty of bad news on the gay/lesbian front. Suicides, gay-bashing. Just a few months ago a gubernatorial candidate maintained that “homosexuality is not an equally valid option” but felt women having sex with horses was hot. Historically, men have been more homophobic than women. But why?

It’s common to think of gay men as woman-like. Some act feminine, feminine stereotypes abound, and gay men do often perform sexually like women.

The very idea that men might be like, or act like, women is pretty threatening to manly men. But even more so when manhood feels insecure.

Men acting anywhere in the realm of womanhood collapses the great divide between male and female. Seeming more the same, male dominance and status are at risk.

Further, if gays and lesbians couple together no one can be the male head of home. Another blockage to male dominance.

But in the last four years the level of homophobia among men has dropped drastically, according to a Gallup poll taken a few months ago. Today men are no more homophobic than women. What happened?

Importantly, women’s status has risen. If women and men are equal, then men acting like women isn’t the big threat it had once been.

But women and men haven’t achieved full equality yet. So what else is going on?

New York Times columnist, Charles Blow called a couple of experts to get insight into the change in men’s attitudes. He talked with sociologist, Michael Kimmel, who studies men, and Ritch Savin-Williams, Cornell’s Chair of Human Development and an expert on same-sex attraction.

Dr. Kimmel notes that, “Men have gotten increasingly comfortable with the relative equality of ‘the other.’ The dire predictions for diversity have not only not come true, they’ve been proved to be other way.”

Additionally, as gays and lesbians come out of the closet people come to see that they are like the rest of us: our fathers and mothers, our sisters and brothers, our friends and coworkers. Who knew they were real people?

Most interestingly, “virulent homophobes are increasingly being exposed for engaging in homosexuality,” as Blow put it. Evangelical Ted Haggard and George Rekers of the Family Research Council have both been outed. Not long ago, anti-gay megachurch pastor Eddie Long was accused of coercing young men into sex. Some are starting to see that spouting homophobia can be a front for the gay man inside. (Is homophobia acting to decrease claims of homophobia?)

Despite continued gay bashing, things are looking up.

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Passionate Love: Like a Drug, or Mental Illness

The passion of early love! Giddy, and intense. Heart thumping in the yearning breast. Can’t eat, can’t sleep. Can think of little else.

In fact, passionate love is like a drug. Or a mental illness.

Researchers asked volunteers to look at photos of their partners. Those in passionate love responded in ways similar to drug addiction, as captured in brain imaging. Lead researcher, Helen Fisher, commented, “When I first started looking at the properties of infatuation,” she said, “they had some of the same elements of a cocaine high: sleeplessness, loss of a sense of time, absolute focus on love to the detriment of all around you.”

According to Psychology Today, a brain chemical connected to falling in love rises with infatuation, heightening euphoria and excitement.

Meanwhile, brain areas that control impulses, fear and negativity become less active. Obsession and reckless behavior increase. As Dr. Fisher put it, “Infatuation can overtake the rational parts of your brain.” Passionate love resembling mental illness.

The turbulent times are marked by ecstasy and fulfillment when love is returned; but sadness and despair when it is not.

Over time passionate love settles a bit. Not a bad thing, really, for who can function drug-addicted and mentally ill?

Something is lost, but something may also be gained as greater intimacy and commitment join passionate affection, rounding out the three pillars of love, which psychologist, Robert Sternberg has identified in his “triangular theory of love.”

Sternberg calls love that is marked only by “intimacy,” but not passion or commitment, “liking love,” or good friends.

When love consists only of “commitment,” nothing but duty keeps a couple together. He calls this “empty love.”

But when intimacy and commitment meet passion, a couple moves into “consummate love,” the best of all worlds.

Few couples continually stay in a state of consuming love. And many will go through various loving styles as feelings rise, fall, and rise again.

Perhaps the trick is going with the flow and creating ways to enliven the relationship.

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“Protect Life Act” Promotes Death: Girls. Women. A Presidency.

The “Protect Life Act” is being considered right now in Congress. Paired with the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” these two bills claim to be “pro life” yet seem more geared toward death for desperate girls and women… and a presidency.

Under HR 358 hospitals receiving federal funds can refuse to perform abortions, even when a woman’s life is in danger.

HR 3 eliminates the tax deduction for employer-sponsored health plans covering the procedure. The real goal? Force employers to drop abortion coverage from their policies.

The actual aim of both bills is to chip away access to safe, legal abortion, making it so difficult to obtain or afford that it is effectively prohibited, if not legally banned.

Interestingly, a global study found that even when abortion was officially illegal, there was little affect on abortion rates. Instead, desperate women die when untrained providers lack knowledge and skill, or when women try to abort, themselves.

Back before Roe v. Wade, a young Air Force doctor named Robert Duemler walked into an emergency room where blood was splattered all over the walls, the floor, the gurney, the towels, and the emergency crew. Beneath them a woman lay bleeding from a sharp object that had been pushed up her vagina. She died, leaving behind a bewildered husband and five impoverished children.  

Scenes like these led many medical professionals to fight for a woman’s right to choose.

Personally, I don’t especially like abortion, and I wish that women never felt a need to get one. But restricting it has little effect. Instead, women and girls end up dying. 

If prohibiting abortion doesn’t actually stop it, what are the real goal of bills like HR 358 and HR 3?

Getting the GOP base enthused and out to vote in the next major election may be one aim.

Meanwhile, amid high unemployment the GOP turn their attention away from the economy, perhaps hoping continued bad economic news will eventually kill a presidency.

Georgia Platts

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Spoon Fed Barbie

Surface appearances can be deceiving, says artist, Yvonne Escalante.

Commenting on the pieces shown here, she reflects, 

Spoon Fed
Spoon Fed
“From the day we are born, our behavior and tastes are controlled by the social status quo. Little girls are fed an idealized image. Barbie has been deconstructed and reassembled for even easier consumption.”
Baby's Rattle

Baby's Rattle

Sucker
Sucker

As a first generation American,  Escalante’s father had stressed American identity over cultural ties. Today, her work explores the conflict she feels, caught in the kaleidoscope of identity, gender roles, and societal norms.

Her work can be viewed this month at an exhibit titled, “CONTROL” at New York’s Ceres Gallery.

Here’s what these pieces say to me.

Like most little girls, I grew up spoon fed on Barbie. But not just Barbie. She was an emblem of all that mass media, friends and schoolmates, told me to be. A good shopper. Paired with Ken. Skinny and curvy all at once. The emblem of perfect womanhood, where body defines us.

Oddly, all this spoon feeding can lead to a dearth of feeding of any sort. I’ve gone through phases of not eating like I should, hoping to look like what turn out to be phony photoshopped images that don’t even resemble the starving models who posed for the pics.

What did I know?

Of course, skinny isn’t enough. We must be buxom, too. Which leads to unnecessary, and sometimes life-threatening, surgeries in pursuit of Barbie breasts. At least that’s what happens when boobs define us, creating our worth. For too many women and men, surface is all.

When women are told they must acquire surreal measurements, and when obtaining them is the source of self-worth, the pursuit takes unending time and energy.

Obsessed with diet and exercise, women can become distracted from the rest of life; so much so that (as Naomi Wolf can tell you) advances of the women’s movement can quickly wane. Frantic pursuit of the perfect body removes agitation for power of greater substance.

Hence, the pacifier. Here, called “Sucker.”

Any wonder the exhibit’s theme is “CONTROL”?

This piece can be viewed at “CONTROL,” an exhibition of  California women artists presented by The Women’s Caucus for Art at New York’s  Ceres Gallery, February 1 – February 26th, 2011.

For more on Yvonne Escalante’s work go to ARTslant.

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Think You’re Not Racist?

Think you’re not racist?

Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/ to find out.

First you’ll fill out a survey asking how racist you are. You’ll probably think you aren’t. But a test of unconscious attitudes will likely suggest otherwise.

In the test you will be asked to quickly categorize whether a face that appears on screen is black or white. Next you will be asked to categorize whether a word is negative or positive. All this is very quick and easy. Then you will see a screen like the following:

     Black Person                                                      White Person

            or                                criminal                                or

         Bad                                                                             Good

Your job is to categorize words like “criminal” as belonging to either the left or right side of the screen. The categorization process must go very quickly in order to measure the unconscious mind and not our conscious efforts to deliberately act against our prejudices.

People quickly categorize negative words like “criminal” (or “harm” or “depraved”) as belonging on the left hand side. Positive words like “smart” are quickly assigned to the right.

But then the test switches so that “black person” is paired with “good,” while “white person” is paired with “bad.”

     Black Person                                                      White Person

            or                                criminal                                or

         Good                                                                            Bad

Suddenly, most people take more time to correctly place “criminal” on the right side of the screen. They also make more mistakes, assigning negative words like “violence” to the left.

When the test is done you will be placed into one of the following categories:

     Strong preference for whites                       Strong preference for blacks

     Moderate preference for whites                Moderate preference for blacks

     Slight preference for whites                       Slight preference for blacks

                                                            No preference

80% of people show pro-white associations – and that includes about half of the black test-takers, too. Yet few of us think we are racist.

People take the test over and over again, trying to change their score, but they usually end up in the same place every time.

If you show a preference for whites, are you a bad person? With 80% of the population, and about half of blacks, registering that preference, what it really tells you is that you live in a racist society filled with messages that whites are better.

Our minds unconsciously notice that presidents of the U.S. and large companies are usually white, that supermodels are usually white, and that doctors are usually white. So we unconsciously bring positive connotations to that color. Our minds also unconsciously notice that the poor and the disparaged are often black, creating negative associations.

Any hope for change?

Yes.

Some people end up categorized as “no preference” for either race. Others move around from, say, “moderate preference for whites” to “moderate preference for blacks,” suggesting they lack (much) bias. (I’m one of those who move around. Truth be told, I most often end up at “slight preference for whites,” suggesting some unconscious lasting residue of cultural prejudice. I still have work to do!)

People with little or no bias have generally made more conscious efforts to see the world in unbiased ways. They become aware of their unconscious prejudices and critique them.

Focusing on the accomplishments of great Black leaders, thinkers, poets, and scientists like Nelson Mandela, Sojourner Truth, Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, Alice Walker, George Washington Carver, and many more, can help people appreciate the talents and intellect of our brothers and sisters of African descent.

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