Friday, August 31, 2012

On the controversy surrounding the image of Michelle Obama

Those of you who are following the news online will notice that there's an debate raging about a picture that depicts a semi-nude Michelle Obama on the cover of a Spanish magazine. You can read about it on the Huffington Post.

As you will notice, there are two issues being addressed. One is the decision of the magazine editors to feature the portrait on the magazine cover. The second is the decision of the original artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, to create the image in the first place.

With respect to the former, I have no idea what the motivation of the magazine editors was in the first place or how the image is related to the featured articles of the issue. So I can't speak authoritatively about it.

With respect to the latter, it is indicated that the picture of Michelle Obama is part of Daniels' "Famous Nudes" series. Other personalities depicted in the series include Queen Elizabeth II, Michael Jackson, Eva Peron, Prince William, his wife Catherine, Che Guevara, and Princess Diana. You can take a look at all of these images on Daniels' FineArt America portfolio.

The thing that strikes me is the fact that many are rushing to label Karine Percheron Daniels a racist for depicting Michelle Obama in the nude. Many of the articles written in this vein mention, as an aside, that the image is part of a larger series of famous personalities in the nude. However, they conveniently avoid further discussion of that series.

Well, I don't want to avoid that series. I think that any genuine discussion of the original artist's intentions should address at length the fact that other powerful men and women of our era are depicted in the nude in her other paintings: and these men and women are not all black. Some of them are Latino/a and some are white.

If creating the image of Michelle Obama makes Daniels a racist, then what does it mean that she portrays Queen Elizabeth in the nude? Is that also a racist act? Perhaps a misogynistic act? What about the depiction of Prince William? It seems to me that fitting the image of Michelle Obama into a larger story about white racism requires one to ignore the context in which that image was produced.

I don't think there's only one legitimate way to respond to art. It is perfectly fine for people to hate a piece of art if it violates their ideals. But, along the same lines, just because this particular image offends a particular group of people, it does not follow that their opinions are the only legitimate ones.

It's actually unusual that I'm writing this piece. I'm not a fan of nude paintings: I've never been interested enough in them to even remember their titles or the identities of the artists who created them. I can certainly see why Americans and particularly African Americans are offended at the depiction of Michelle Obama. From their perspective, it fits into a history of dehumanizing depictions of black people. I can also see why the choices made by the artist in creating that single picture could be interpreted as racist. If I didn't know that the artist had depicted other personalities in the nude, I would probably have thought it was a racist image too. But (and this is what I want to emphasize) I would want to know what the context was before rushing to condemn the artist.

The reason why I sat down to write this piece is because I think there's too much of a tendency to jump to the worst possible interpretation of events in this day and age, even when there is clear evidence challenging our assumptions. I've watched as one controversy or another has made it into the headlines and people have expressed outrage and brushed aside any nuances. I've also read strongly worded opinion pieces that suggest that there's only one way to interpret certain events, and that anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is racist/ sexist/ unpatriotic/ a self-hating member of some ethnicity or another. Frankly, I am tired.

There's a part of me that's wondering how many people realize that their perspectives are not universal perspectives. For instance, even the idea of what constitutes nudity is not set in stone. What people may consider to be evil in one context or sexual in another is simply a fact of every day life in a third. Think about this: in some cultures it is considered immodest to leave one's hair uncovered; in others, it is perfectly decent to wear little more than a wrap and to breastfeed in public. In some contexts, wearing knee-length skirts can almost precipitate a national crisis. In other contexts, for instance in art or in anatomy classes, the human body or form is natural: nothing to blush about. There is something to be said about that diversity of views, whether or not we agree with every single one of them.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Turn the TV off

I’ve been thinking about the impact that the media has on our self-perception as women, minorities, etc, because it’s something that interests me. Much of what I’ve encountered is negative. For instance, the scarcity of positive black role models in the TV and print media leaves children feeling that there is not much for them to aspire to. As for black females, they take away from the media the idea that dark tones of skin and frizzy hair are to be detested, as are curvy figures.

This is heart-breaking, of course. But I also read something that got me wondering. It was an article about media consumption patterns among different racial and ethnic groups. According to the piece, black children spent significantly more time watching television programming than kids of any other ethnic group. That made me think about the roles we played as consumers, whether active or passive. And I did wonder whether there was something more we could be doing as individuals to make a difference in our children’s lives.

Are we all really as helpless as we make ourselves sound when we talk about the negative effects of the media on our kids? Do our kids have to be plugged in to Hollywood’s version of the world? What would it be like if we stopped being such avid consumers of empty, soulless programming and shallow magazine articles? What if we stopped feeding our children images of materialism, mediocrity and dysfunction?

I realize that many people turn to the TV and other forms of media to keep their kids occupied because they have limited options. Perhaps they’re working two or three jobs to put food on the table and can’t sit down to supervise their kids. Perhaps a sitter is beyond their budget. Perhaps having the kids go outside and play is not an option because the streets are unsafe. They likely recognize that plonking the kids in front of the TV is not the best option, but are trying to make do with what they have.

But is it really true that there are no options or alternatives? I would like to believe that people have some degree of agency, even in very difficult situations. Maybe they can’t reform the media, but they can certainly be more selective about their children’s consumption of it. Kids don’t have to watch or hear everything, even if it has been rated suitable for their age group. That applies to both TV and radio. Video games should also be included in this discussion. While some video games can be remarkably educational, others can be disturbingly realistic in their portrayal and glorification of violence and sexism.

Books are the most ideal form of information and entertainment that come to mind. When I was growing up, electronics and video games were out of reach. Our only consistent way to amuse ourselves, outside of playing or doing our chores, was to read. And that we did with gusto. All the kids I knew, whether poor, middle class, well-off, rural, or urban appreciated a good book. We made a habit of borrowing books from each other and buying second hand books. Brand new books would have been beyond our budgets, and functional libraries were like some rare species that you caught sight of once in a while.

That is why I wonder why it is easy for many Americans to identify books with elitism, and TV with the average guy’s experience. In my experience, books are actually cheaper to acquire in the first place, and to continue to use, while anything electrical or electronic is on the pricier side. Mind you, I’m not talking about heading to expensive bookstores or buying an e-reader. I’m talking about joining a local library, and getting access to thousands of books at no cost to yourself, or buying secondhand books. It amazes me that getting kids to appreciate books over cable TV, electronics, and video games can be a challenge in the American context. In an ideal world, books would be valued more highly, and literacy would have a higher priority than chest-thumping about being the greatest nation in the world.

It must be said, though, that even books have to be vetted. It’s not enough to grant one’s children access to books. One must also know what they are reading. Wherever possible, parents and guardians of impressionable kids have to play a more proactive role in determining what kinds of images they are being exposed to.
This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, August 3, 2012

On HIV/AIDS, religion, and public health

Over the years I have lost many to HIV/AIDS: family and friends. I can’t tell you how many, though. I stopped counting a while back. However, I can tell you that, because of the impact of HIV/AIDS on my life, I know what stigma is. I know what it is like to watch people sink into depression, lose hope and die because those who matter most to them have rejected them. 

HIV/AIDS as we have experienced it in the East African context has struck the family as a whole: men and women in their prime and young children have been the typical victims. Our AIDS story has had much to do with heterosexuality. So one can’t simply label HIV/ AIDS a “gay disease” as has tended to happen in the US. Our governments have had to address AIDS as a national crisis because it has stricken the mainstream.

In nations such as the US, where the tendency has been to associate the disease with sexual and ethnic minorities, I get the distinct sense that little mainstream urgency has been attached to the fight against AIDS. There are certainly men, women, and youth who have devoted their lives to fighting this apathy. But, unfortunately, there are also others who tend to view HIV/AIDS as a form of punishment for “breaking God’s laws” on sex and sexuality. Of course, this is not a uniquely American view. I have also encountered it among some people of faith in the East African context.

My interactions with those who have expressed these troubling views have led me to think about just how limited this particular religious approach to human problems is. I’m talking about a specific interpretation of the Christian teachings on sex and sexuality. The idea is that, if everybody limits themselves to following these teachings and only engages in sex within the context of heterosexual marriage then sexually transmitted infections (STIs) such as HIV/AIDS will cease to be a problem. In other words, the only way to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS is to be a “true” Christian.

That is all well and good, except that never in the history of humankind have all members of a given community adhered strictly to its religious teachings: A “true” Christian can get infected with HIV/AIDS even if he or she is firmly heterosexual, married, and faithful. For one, there is such a thing as a cheating spouse. Secondly, infection can be transmitted through rape. Yet another situation that facilitates the spread of infection is transfusion with infected blood and blood products. Yet another is the use of unsterilized medical equipment. The list goes on and on.

Those who persist in seeing HIV/AIDS as a form of divine punishment conveniently forget how closely interconnected we all are. As a result of these interconnections, HIV/AIDS does not discriminate. When you are exposed to the HIV virus, it does not ask whether you are “saved,” pray regularly, give alms to the poor, fast, or obey God’s law. If your defenses are weak, it penetrates them and infects your body whether you are rich or poor, young or old, “innocent” or not, devout or otherwise.

Keeping all of this in mind, how useful is it that a significant number of religious leaders have a simplistic approach to dealing with HIV/AIDS? How useful is it that they condemn it as a sinners’ disease, oppose the use of condoms under all circumstances, and oppose most forms of sex education? Simply put, their actions are not useful. In fact, to the extent that they influence public policy, they end up endangering everybody in the community.

Knowing this, I think that those of us living and working in communities stricken by HIV/AIDS should persist in emphasizing that it is treated by government and health organizations as a public health issue, not a moral issue. From a public health standpoint, we can speak about HIV/AIDS in its complexity. We can also talk about risks, prevention, and treatment. Importantly, we can make an effort to protect everybody.

What is the place of religion in all of this? Well, I honestly think people are entitled to believe whatever their religions teach them. However, I also think their beliefs should be directed towards governing their personal lives and setting moral standards for their religious communities. They should not be imposed on the broader national population as public health policy.

Further reading
"Education, honest dialogue key to halting spread of AIDS," by Chris Carlin and Debra Stanley, 1/17/07,
"HIV and AIDS stigma and discrimination," 
"Public health approach to combating HIV/AIDS,"
"HIV/AIDS stigma: an impediment to public health," by Ronald O. Valdiserri, MD, MPH, March 2002,

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.