Friday, April 17, 2009

History class failed me

By the time, I finished reading Project South’s History & Popular Education: Critically Remembering Our Past, I wasn’t very proud to be an American citizen. I was shocked at some things I read; honestly, I had no idea that America had committed some of the atrocities against other countries and nations that were listed there, and I thought, “If these are true, then why haven’t I heard of them before?”

I took AP U.S. and AP European History in high school, so why are many of these events news to me? How could the exact details of my college textbooks be absent from the pages? My ignorance was perhaps what scared me the most, I didn’t know what to make of all these authentic news, and I’m still thinking about how to translate my thoughts into action.

One of the first events that struck me was the Reconstruction Act of 1867, which essentially divided the lower class of people into two groups – White and Black. This act was so strategic for those who were in power that they were able to conquer both groups by making one-half of the lower class think that they were better than the other half. It’s not as if the ‘divide-and-conquer’ method of oppression isn’t used anymore – it is most definitely still practiced and has done incredible harm to America and numerous other countries in terms of social injustice. The Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877 also caught my attention because it played a crucial part in the Jim Crow laws and Black codes of that era, which also added to the division of poor white and black people.

I was surprised to read that the Berlin Conference of 1884 was responsible for dividing of Africa into the war zones that it is today. I have several friends who are refugees that have fled Africa because of all the bloodshed and war - due to rival tribes being forced to coexist together. The fact that these lines of division still exist today and are still the cause of African conflict really is surprising, the extent of European colonization never ceases to amaze me. The British and Dutch control of South Africa, which led to legal discrimination and eventually the apartheid, is astonishing and the implications that in 1994, people were being racially discriminated against legally is so hard to believe – a thought that I realize is quite privileged.

Another interesting revelation was the fact that William Randolph Hearst, THE newspaper standard for journalists, actually had a part in the 1898 Spanish American War by contributing false sensational information as news to the American public. In the School of Journalism here at the University of Minnesota, I have never heard anything negative about Hearst. In fact, there are many awards, scholarships, grants, internship opportunities and libraries named after him. Even though I vaguely knew about topics such as yellow journalism and Citizen Kane, (the lead character of which that is loosely based off Hearst), I still don’t ever hear about his involvement with helping push America into a war.

One specific part of American history that actually isn’t too long ago, was the internment of Japanese-Americans during 1942. The very idea that the Department of Justice forced people of Japanese descent to be secluded is ironic – how can a department that is dedicated to justice commit such grave acts of human rights violation?

I finally learned how the term, “Third World” was formed when I read that in 1955, activists from countries trying to separate themselves from the Soviet and the US/European philosophy became the third way, or the Third World. Now, the term Third World means (in general terms) uneducated, uncivilized, not as sophisticated as “us,” them over there, Africa, India, nations where the people are brown-skinned, Mexico, and so many other negative connotations. Even in our class this specific term of thrown around so much, I get really frustrated with the nonchalant use of this term when really, many of these so-called “Third World countries” are actually not less sophisticated than we are because without them, America wouldn’t be half the country it is today. I also finally made the connection between the terms “Global South” and “Third World,” I hadn’t really been introduced to that term before, and upon further research I found W.E.B. Dubois’ famous quote, “As the South goes…so goes the Nation,” and it all clicked for me.

I also found it interesting that in 1976, the US Supreme Court ruled that corporations can give unlimited amounts to political campaigns. I know that campaign finance is an issue that many liberals are trying to change, and so I thought that the Supreme Court was reaching in their justification that private contributions equaled free speech. Campaign financing by large private corporations is unethical to some activists, and the fact that the government has been so lenient on corporations by allowing them to have power and rights, as a human individual is still true today.

I know I disapprove of (almost) everything President George W. Bush touches, but Project South really hit on a few sins and statistics that I hadn’t known before. For instance, 50.5% (Today’s Globazation, pg. 49) of the US budget is reserved for the military? No wonder we are in a recession and America has been in debt since 1994! What is wrong with the men who lead our country, and why do they continue to make the same mistakes that ultimately harm everyone? With 35.9 million Americans living in poverty (pg. 49) it is a mystery to me why the government will not make some much-needed change instead of scapegoating welfare and poor people for their stupid mistakes. I also was angry when I read that while 1 in 6 American children live in poverty, that the top 1% of Americans received a tax break averaging $78, 480 (pg. 49). Bush even pledged $15 billion to the AIDS pandemic and didn’t follow throw on it, I guess he decided to use that money to fuel his war. No wonder Americans are so apathetic, a majority of our votes didn’t even count in the 2004 presidential elections, and the fact that Bush won with only 30.8% of citizens voting for him (pg. 50), is ludicrous, especially considering that he stayed president even after the truth came out.

It’s so hard to not be depressed about our current political, economic and social climate, and it could be easy to be apathetic and shirk any kind of privilege I have to do something about the way things are – but I cannot do that. If I do, then I will just be relinquishing my power to those who will not think twice about speaking for me, but definitely not on my behalf. I know I’m not alone in my activism efforts and I realize that by fighting for a more socially just world I am acting out of some degree of self-interest (which I am okay with), because if my world is better, then your world is better, which means that our world is better...yes?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Radio show: The Keffiyeh

I wrote, interviewed, recorded, edited, scored and produced this radio show for my social justice class last semester.

Find the mp3 file, transcript, bibliography, and artistic statement here.

New York: A Cultural Experience



This video was made for my Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Class -- Feminist Media Making.

If the video is too small or doesn't work. Watch it on YouTube.

Reflections on the keffiyeh

“Not just an anti-war scarf”

Western media over the last several years has misappropriated the keffiyeh, resulting in the checkered “scarves” in all sorts of colors being spotted everywhere from New York Fashion Week to your local university campus. The newest hipsters are sporting a military-chic look that Urban Outfitters tried to capitalize on in Spring of 2007, by selling what they advertised as “anti-war scarves.”

How is it that this “thing” gets from off the face or head of a freedom fighter in Palestine and then make its way to the U.S. and onto the neck of the newest generation of trendy hipsters? And, is this process of appropriating another’s culture for fashion problematic because it further stirs up anti-Semitism or Islam-o-phobia?

Yes, the keffiyeh was a trendy in the 80’s for a bit, but the first place I remember seeing the keffiyeh making a comeback as a fashion trend was on the 2007 Balenciaga catwalk. Spanish fashion house Balenciaga exhibited several different styles of a scarf worn around the necks of his models, and all them harkened back to the checkered patterns of the Palestinian keffiyeh, and since then the keffiyeh has become so popular that one can find them on amazon.com, talibanana.com, and even urban outfitters before they pulled their “anti-war” scarf.

Meghan McCain, John and Cindy McCain’s daughter, even Lauren Bush, niece of President Bush, Ricky Martin and a host of other celebrities have been photographed wearing a proper keffiyeh , and all of this celebrity news just made me curious to how this piece of fabric has come to represent fashion, terrorism, anti-Semitism and Palestinian solidarity.

One important clarification to make with the keffiyeh and all the colors they are made in is that the black and white keffiyeh is associated with Fatah and the red and white with Hamas. The Hamas, which is the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a radical political party and organization which is notorious for its violence and is recognized as a terrorist organization by many countries, but not often recognized for the many social programs that the Hamas has created on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Alternatively, while the Fatah is not officially categorized as a terrorist organization by any government, there is a long history of political tension due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Fatah is the Palestinian National Liberal Movement and is the largest faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Yasir Arafat, president of the Palestinian National Authority, was one of the founding fathers of the Fatah movement that was formed in 1954, and supporters of Arafat and Palestinian nationalism and resistance identified themselves by wearing a black and white checkered keffiyeh.

After Balenciaga’s 2007 fashion show, the next time I saw the keffiyeh in the mainstream media was when Kanye West premiered his new music video, Homecoming, in which he wears a keffiyeh for nearly the entire video. After that, checkered scarves were seen on everyone everywhere. TV personalities wore the, celebrities wore them, activists dug out their old ones, Arab-American students bragged that their keffiyeh was actually from the Middle East and not from Urban Outfitters, and hipsters clung to their new fashion accessory in 90 degree weather so tightly that it caused a few raised eyebrows .

Dunkin Donuts pulled an ad in May that featured TV chef, Rachel Ray who was wearing a black and white checkered scarf. The ad apparently was scandalous to the conservative right wing media blogger, Michelle Malkin, called the scarf that Ray wore, “jihadi chic.” Malkin blogged that “the keffiyeh…is the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad.”

Amahl Bishara, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Chicago who specializes in media matters relating to the Middle East, said in an interview with MSNBC, that complaints about the scarf’s use in the ad demonstrate misunderstandings of Arab culture and the multiple meanings that symbols can take on depending on someone’s perspective.

Bishara says: “I think that a right-wing blogger making an association between a keffiyeh and terrorism is just an example of how so much of the complexity of Arab culture has been reduced to a very narrow vision of the Arab world on the part of some people in the U.S.”

In a Feb. 11th 2007 New York Times article, Where Some See Fashion, Others See Politics, journalist, Kibum Kim, wrote that older generation of Arabs still wear the keffiyeh as u-til-i-tarian headwear, but the younger generation in the Middle East may wear it expressly to show support of the Palestinian cause, and it is also used by militants to disguise their faces.

The stigma that the keffiyeh is linked to a violence or terrorism is “a result of how they have been portrayed in the mass media,” says University of Minnesota student Dan Garon, who identifies as a Zionist Jew.

Ricky Martin has been photographed wearing a red and white keffiyeh, and rumor has it that his scarf was embroidered with the words, “Jerusalem is ours.”

Garon says: “I don’t have anything against the garment itself, but if you are trying to wear something that symbolizes death to Israel, then I have a problem with that.”He said that “Jews don’t really care what you wear as long as you don’t have a bomb in it.”

Although Balshe recognizes that while some freedom fighters may wear a keffiyeh when they commit acts of violence, she does not wear it for that reason. “As a Palestinian, “Balshe says, “When I wear a keffiyeh it doesn’t mean that I want destruction to Israel, I wear it to honor my heritage.”

At times, the keffiyeh seems to be just another accessory in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, as an outsider, I’m not sure there is much I can say considering that I’m not there in Palestine or Israel fighting for my survival or beliefs, but rather, I am across the sea in my room and somewhat sheltered life, but I still recognize that this item is personal and very political for me because I am an Indian-American, Arab-American journalism student, and I have Jewish and Arab friends and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a big source of tension. I support Palestine, but am in no way anti-Israel. After doing all this research and talking with people I have decided that it’s not someone’s fault if she doesn’t know the history of the garment she has around her neck, but once she is educated, she should make the decision on whether or not she supports Palestine – and if she doesn’t, then she shouldn’t wear a keffiyeh.

In reflection, I understand that the keffiyeh symbolizes different ideals, emotions, hopes and fears to different people, and I guess I don’t see this scarf as symbol of terrorism. I mean, think about who says that it is a symbol of radical Islamic terrorists, and what it means that entire group of people gets branded with the label terrorist or another group - freedom fighter. Who really can say that one group is militant or rebel while the other is a soldier or peace keeper, not me, and probably not you.

When I began thinking about the keffiyeh, I tried to just focus on the keffiyeh has a thing, but in talking with Palestinians and Jews, I quickly realized that it would be impossible and unfair to separate this “thing” from its history – both in the creation of Israel and in the fight (literally) for a Palestinian state.

No matter who is dying, blood is being spilled for some reason or belief. The keffiyeh is part of a larger picture and we cannot forget that as it is on a fashion runway here in America, some are wearing it in Palestine as they fight for what they believe in…many of whom end up paying the ultimate price for their freedom – their lives.

MLK, Homosexuality and Race

“A Gay MLK?”

In his essay, “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” Allan Berube discusses a privilege that is often forgotten or ignored. Berube uses many examples of how within the GLBT community, Whiteness is heavily rewarded, while those who are “non-white” are severely punished. Berube used the term “gay whitening practices” to describe an incident he witnessed in San Francisco, where the gay club was requiring three forms of photo ids from men of color in efforts to limit their entrance. I just thought that the club example was such a good illustration of how within any given oppressed community, the privileged group feels like they have to or can oppress another.

Berube argues that within the gay community there is a disconnect between people of color (gay or straight) and gay white men; he used the example of gay white navy veteran who had said that activist David Mixner “could be our Martin Luther King…(p.245).” That quote was jarring for me, why couldn’t MLK be for everyone? Because he was black? Because he wasn’t gay? I am always so disappointed when a member of any given community doesn’t see how his or her liberation is tied to mine. The fight for justice is ultimately for all, and if people of color are over here doing their own thing and not worrying about women’s rights or gays, and then the white folks over here aren’t bringing up race because it’s not their thing, then of course we aren’t being productive in achieving social justice.

Bringing up race is such contemptuous subject it seems, and the formation of organizations, clubs, work places and structures by and for White folks makes it even harder for race to be talked about. Berube’s example of the all-White, HIV-negative group that struggled with the lack of men of color present was hard for me to sympathize with. How do they expect gay men of color to be comfortable enough to join a group that wasn’t started with the expectation that men of color would be crucial? I see this happening all over campus where a room full of white students and maybe one or two students of color, and the white students don’t know where the other students of color are. You can’t just throw open the door and expect people to just walk right in, it doesn’t work like that.

Berube writes about his isolation as a gay white male and how he questions his dedication to antiracism. He asks the question: “do gay white men as white men (including myself) have a lasting interest in fighting racism or will we sooner or later retreat to the safety of our gay white refuge (p. 258-9)?” This question was poignant to me and really gave me a lot of insight into the white antiracist activist. I know that it can’t be easy for any white person, regardless of sexual orientation, to struggle with the politics and feelings that antiracism brings up, but I hope that there are more people who are willing to be uncomfortable and do the work that must be done. In my own life, I see many of my gay white friends who think that they are so far removed from racism, and because they are gay, they are the new minority and that racism and gay rights are two different things. Is it really? I don’t think so, because ultimately, we all want justice.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Brief thoughts on history and Black Nationalism

I really enjoyed reading Kelley Robin’s essay, “ ‘When History Sleeps’: A Beginning (2002).” I felt very connected to her descriptive writing and imagery, and I loved Robin’s motto: “dream of a new world (p. 3).” I loved reading this essay because Robin made it personal and very relatable, and I respect her for reopening “a very old conversation about what kind of world we want to struggle for (p. 7),” and I’m glad that my time has come to take part in this important discussion.

When I first heard about Black Nationalism, it was in reference to Malcolm X and how “different” (read: Minnesota’s favorite passive aggressive way of saying ‘bad’) he was from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which led me to believe that Malcolm X was bad and was not the sort of role model one should follow, especially because he was willing to do what he had to and “by any means necessary.” Robin’s mentions Black Nationalism with such nostalgic hope, and I wish that I had not dismissed such a great leader and movement for a better part of my life because it somehow during my education Malcolm X and the Black Nationalist Movement got labeled has undesirable.

Education is power, and the elite who have full access to it often abuse their power - using their educational privilege as a tool to widen the dichotomy gap of power between the people and the elite. I agreed with Robin’s criticism of the “intellectual community” that thinks that they can save “them over there” or help those less unfortunate people, and I definitely see how education is a privilege that once obtained sometimes is used as an elitist tool with which to prop oneself up on. That’s a lot for me to think about as I am now a college-educated student of color who is essentially going to go out into the world and “save" it…or at least try.

Racism and gentrification in New York

“Oh, New York…”

In his essay, “New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy,” Neil Smith uses several examples of the rise and evolution of gentrification in New York that I found to be poignant.

Smith’s first example of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s $900 million “geobribe” to keep the New York Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan was completely shocking. Of all the people to benefit from $900 million, it should not be the investment bankers and traders on Wall Street. This example reminded me of Governor Patterson’s current campaign to give filmmakers huge tax credits to film in New York City; while these tax credits increase exponentially each year, it is true that only the biggest names in the show business get access to all of the benefits.

New York has such a diverse population, that at times it seems that international diplomacy must take place within each borough. Smith discusses how Giuliani threatened to tow illegally parked cars with diplomatic plates because they were parking without thought all over the city - to the dismay of citizens and police alike. This example resonated with me because I can remember thinking about how United Nations diplomats run all over the city doing whatever they want sometimes, they really do park anywhere they want to, even though they have access to some of the best parking in Manhattan. Patterson was even threatening that he would kick them out of their Upper East Side and Midtown parking spaces and deny them foreign aid if they didn’t pay their $18 million bill in parking tickets.

The effect gentrification has had on the formation of cities and how it affects commuting was astonishing in Smith’s example of the commuting time in Sao Paulo. I was reminded of how Manhattan as an island is not sustainable or self-sufficient, and of all the commuters, who without the subway would be putting so much more stress on our environment. The effect commuting has on our environment is already too much, and because people who can no longer afford to inhabit the city that they work in – they must commute and pollute our earth further.

Gentrification is taking over New York, from Harlem to Brooklyn, realtors are advertising urban housing as the trendy new hip scene. The problem? Now, like Soho and Tribeca, Washington Heights and just past High Street on the border of Brooklyn and Manhattan is the newest place long-time residences are slowly getting kicked out because they can no longer afford to live in their community.

I often thought about gentrification in New York when I passed by Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem, or saw the population of who is heading where in the subway trains change over the years. Smith wrote on p. 444 of how the rebuilding of European cities of World War II was impacted by gentrification on a much larger scale, this is true in New York.

The formation of Levittown, NY took place after WWII in efforts to help the G.I.’s who were returning to their civilian lives, one of the biggest problems is that the government legally redlined areas and discriminated against African-American G.I.’s so that they couldn’t move to Levittown, while White American soldiers got loans, cars and the housing they wanted.

Smith discusses what has happened after the period of “White flight,” which is when White families left the city, moving farther and farther out into the suburbs in efforts to not mix with the newly “urban” community. Now, there is “the appeal to bring people back into the city,” which is a “self interested appeal that the white middle and upper-middle classes retake control of the political and cultural economies as well as the geography of the largest cities (p. 445).” Now that the privileged are returning to the City – where will everyone else go? Where can they go? And, with all the new trendy Fair Trade coffee shops and organic Whole Foods Market’s popping up all over New York, where will the residents who cannot afford to life in their newly repossessed communities go? If everywhere in New York is rapidly being gentrified, where are all the “poor” people living?