Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"You have a right to be scared... but they have a right to live"

It must have been two and a half weeks ago that I read this very interesting article by Britney Wilson about how members of minority groups are sometimes guilty of practicing racial profiling when dealing with members of the same ethnicity. Wilson was writing specifically about the negative stereotypes that some black people have about young, black men. Her conclusion was a powerful one:

People are people. We cannot stigmatize and judge them on one hand, while campaigning against it on the other. As we work to get society to stop stereotyping, judging, and fearing our sons, we cannot continue to perpetuate these attitudes ourselves.
I thought it was a wonderful piece of writing. You see, I believe that, in order to make a genuine difference in society, we have to admit to our own culpability as individuals and as communities. It is easy to talk about the racial or ethnic biases of others, but much more challenging to talk about our own biases towards others and towards our own. "Real talk," some of my friends would say in agreement.

But then, I went on to read the comments that came after the article. There, I encountered the opinions of readers, presumably black, who did not quite agree with Britney Wilson. For your convenience, here are a few of their remarks:

"Profiling the members of ‘our community’ becomes second nature when you face a lot of intraracial street harassment."

"Amen. I racial profile and I don’t make any apologies about it. A Black man is more likely to rob, rape, steal from me than any white man. I see one that looks stereotypical not only am I reaching for my purse but I’m walking in the opposite direction."

"Exactyly. From the time I hit puberty “our sons” made it clear that just because I shared the same skin color didn’t mean that I’d be given any respect."

These comments are, of course, problematic. One would be quick, and correct, to point out that any white person speaking similar words would be accused of racism. So how is one to wrap his or her mind around the fact that these words were written by black women who have, undoubtedly, been victims of racial profiling or stereotyping? Are they actually saying that profiling is justified, knowing full well that it would be used to victimize them and their own?

The simple answer is yes. So the circumstances that would make these women adopt that position must be gruesome. They are essentially arguing that they and other women would be justified in profiling black men: their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers. No sane black woman would make that argument lightly. So it is safe to assume that there is a story behind it.

The key to understanding where these women might be coming from lies in articles such as the ones listed below. Note that these articles are graphic and emotionally wrenching. If in-depth discussions of sexual assault and harassment make you uncomfortable, you may be better off setting them aside:
1. Street Meet: Black Women, Black Men, & Everyday Sexual Harassment.
2. Sexual Assault, Sexual Harassment & Weight Gain: Facing Facts (make sure to also read the comments that follow this article).

At this point, I want to emphasize that intra-communal violence is not unusual in communities that have historically been subjected to systemic violence. If black communities are characterized by the disproportionately high prevalence of gendered violence, then the same is true for First Nations and Australian Aboriginal communities. These communities' experiences of historical violence have resulted in the normalization of the said violence. Over the years, this and other forms of dysfunction have become accepted forms of behavior among a significant number within the communities. Unfortunately, those who bear the brunt of such violence are often the communities' most vulnerable members: children, women and the elderly.

Many have written or spoken about intracommunal violence, and even given it such labels as "black-on-black violence."  Often, the underlying assumption held by those who speak out against it is that it is unusual for people to visit violence upon members of their own community. But I have to wonder about that. The notion that racial or ethnic solidarity would confer immunity from violence upon members of a community strikes me as a naive one. Many, perhaps most, violent crimes are visited by criminals upon people that they know and communities that they are familiar with. The same is also true of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. They are all often perpetrated by people known to the victims.

When people survive such crimes or violence they, understandably, become hypervigilant. They are likely to be suspicious or scared of people who remind them of their aggressors. When that happens, and they respond to that fear by avoiding the said people, are they simply trying to protect themselves, or are they showing unjustifiable bias? This is the question addressed by many of the comments that follow Britney Wilson's article.

I think that some of the women who responded to the article recognized the complexity of the situation. They wrote nuanced responses, acknowledging what was at stake for women who had previously been victimized. At the same time, they recognized the inherent dangers that came with profiling. Their perspectives were nuanced and balanced. One of these comments follows below. The italics are mine:

"What we think, how we feel are all justified and no one should have to apologize for it. What is wrong is when anyone (including law enforcement) kill someone unnecessarily. Law enforcement have policies and guidelines by which they are ‘supposed’ to follow. The problem is that people are deciding to be judge, juror, and executioner instead of concerned citizen. "

Another woman, writing from the UK, spoke more specifically about her context and her own tendency to profile young white men. She also had a nuanced approach to the subject, and one that I ultimately sympathized with. So I will bring this piece to a close with her words:

"Im a black woman that lives in a predominately white town. I profile young white men who aren't wearing polo shirts and cargo shorts. I hold my bag closer when I come accorss a group of “chavs.” The signs of drug abuse can be visiable on someone’s face so I am careful as I approach someone that looks like they may abuse drugs.

"HOWEVER, (and I cant emphasize this enough) I have no legal right to harm or kill due to my suspcion alone. Its a red herring to even discuss whether we should or should be afraid of young black men. If you feel fear, you are entitled to your fear. You may even be justified. You arent, however, justified in depriving them of their life because of your fear. You have a right to be scared if you want but they have a right to live."
Thoughtful words, indeed. But I think it's important to point out that there are more subtle ways in which profiling can cause harm or damage. Even as we argue that a woman is entitled to feel fear if she thinks she is unsafe, it is crucial to acknowledge that seeing that fear on her face has a psychological impact on the young, black man whose intentions she might have misinterpreted.

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Of political partisanship and tantrum-throwing three-year-olds

Imagine a situation where two groups of construction workers are ostensibly working together to build one house, but insist on following entirely different blueprints. They spend the whole day working on the site, with their interactions frequently exploding into arguments over which plan is better. And, whenever they can, they sabotage each other’s previous efforts. It would be laughable to imagine that, together, these two groups would actually be able to put up a stable structure. And yet that is what polarized partisan politics is all about.


In case you're wondering what brought these thoughts to my mind, I am following Darrell Issa’s latest crusade, which seems to be geared at humiliating Eric Holder into resigning. For the record, I think the "Fast and Furious" probe is absolutely necessary. The operation was deeply flawed, and the onus is on any responsible government to find out what went wrong and why. In my opinion, however, the direction in which Darrell Issa is steering the questioning is unlikely to shed light on the factors that led to the "Fast and Furious" debacle. 

I think that fixating solely on the actions of the Department of Justice after the crisis conveniently allows one to ignore the fact that the operation was launched during a Republican administration. Clearly, Republicans and Democrats alike have made missteps. In an ideal world, any well-meaning, civic-minded legislator would be inclined to set aside the labels "Republican" or "Democrat" and to look into the actual non-partisan facts on the ground. He or she would cast a larger net and call a larger number of people to testify. He or she would certainly make sure to question all of those who were involved in implementing the minute and not-so-minute aspects of the operation. He or she would also be inclined to look into the problem of gun-control, and its implications for gun-walking.

The "Fast and Furious" probe is not the only thing on my mind. I am also pondering on the inauguration night meeting at which top Republican lawmakers made the commitment to challenge Obama’s attempts to govern by raising roadblocks in the path of his administration and of Democratic legislators whenever possible. Essentially, this was a conscious decision by mature, intelligent, highly-educated, and privileged adults to oppose, oppose, oppose everything their political opponents said or did, even when doing so would violate their own ideals and contradict their previous policy positions. Their aim: to make a Democratic presidency so dysfunctional that it would become untenable in the minds of American voters. Strategically, it has been an effective plan: It is bound to succeed. If we were talking about a chess game, I would say it was an ingenious strategy. But we are talking about a nation here. At what cost will this potential political victory come?


Unfortunately, the destructive my-way-or-the-highway approach to politics has been so normalized over time that people think it’s the natural way to do things. And yet it is not. Such a polarized approach to life is consistent with the behavior of a 3-year old throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle. It may succeed in getting the child a candy bar or a toy car, but turns a simple shopping trip into a nightmare for everybody else.

The thing about tantrum-throwing three year olds is that they are infuriating, but they are children: innocent children. We keep our anger in check as we deal with them because they are wired to believe they are the center of the world, and too young to know better. But as they grow and learn, we start to expect more of them. What about politicians? Do we expect more of them, or do we simply give them free rein to play Machiavellian games?


It may seem like I am talking about a uniquely American situation, but I am not. Partisanship seems to be the bread-and-butter of many politicians globally. It has certainly found a home in Kenyan politics, and I am sure other people can point to parallels in their respective nations.

I can’t help reflecting on the historical turns taken by Kenyan politics over the decades, beginning with Kenya’s 1963 independence from the United Kingdom. Almost from the moment of its birth, independent Kenya has been divided along ethnopolitical lines. Today, the ethnic and political alliances and rivalries of old remain intact to a significant extent.


Kenya is a polarized nation. It is also a poor nation. However much people point to economic growth figures and improved GDPs, that wealth is simply not trickling down to the average person. So we remain poor. Despite our poverty and our great need for collaborative interventions by our legislators, they still manage to find joy in partisanship. And, like fools, we dance to the tunes they play. Sometimes I wonder about this. Are we marionettes being manipulated by cynical politicians, or are we part of the problem? Do our politicians simply represent everything that we are deep down inside?

I remember many Kenyan journalists remarking cynically some years ago that the only thing our parliamentarians had ever voted unanimously on was the decision to increase their incomes and the benefits that came with their jobs. It’s still a running joke today, and makes good fodder for political cartoons and satire. Only, the average Kenyan is not laughing.

Thanks to the perks that come with their jobs, Kenyan Members of Parliament are insulated from the most basic problems that come with daily life in the nation. So they really have no incentive to work together on substantive issues. The average citizen, however, cannot escape the neglected infrastructure, the ill-equipped hospitals, the land tenure issues, the escalating prices of food and fuel, the depressed job market, and the ill-regulated financial sector.

Is America there yet? I leave it to you to answer this question, my dear reader.

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

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

When "beauty" is a scam


Thanks to "Victoria's Secret Models, Runway Walking and Booty Paint," an article by Erika Nicole Kendall, I got the opportunity to discover a December 2009 article by Leah Chernikoff that touches on some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on in the fashion industry.

Apparently, "countless hours" go "into making the most beautiful women in the world look so ethereally sexy." Pay close attention to the words of Selita Ebanks in "Victoria's Secret Angels strut runway in $3 million bras, 100 pounds of glitter," the second article. Ebanks, one of the models in the Victoria Secret Angels show, shared an open fashion secret: "People don't realize that there are about 20 layers of makeup on my butt alone."

The article goes on to describe the labor-intensive processes that go into making that perfect shot:

In addition to body makeup, which Ebanks estimates takes well over an hour to apply, the Angels prep in hair and makeup for three to five hours before hitting the runway, with an average of five people - hair stylists, makeup artists and manicurists, working on each of the 38 models.

That's three to five hours, people. With five professionals working on one woman's skin and hair. And please don't forget the chuckleworthy 20 layers of booty makeup. Does any ordinary woman honestly think she can reproduce those conditions during her morning makeup routine? Does anybody actually want to reproduce those conditions?

I cannot lie. The article in its entirety cracked me up. I just find the lengths to which the media and the fasion industry will go to preserve the illusion of perfect bodies ridiculous. When you really think about it, it is nutty. None of us would hesitate to label a woman neurotic if she applied 20 layers of makeup to her lower body before stepping out in her swimsuit. But, somehow, it is okay when the fashion industry does it. Maybe we have managed to convince ourselves that the fashion industry is doing it to achieve artistic ends. However, we should be honest with ourselves. This "art" is being created for a receptive audience: us.

So what is this madness? Why do we allow the media to sell us such unrealistic images of female beauty? And why do we subsequently give ourselves the impossible task of living up to the associated standards? The answer is not that we are too naive to realize that the images are unrealistic. Every single woman looking at those images recognizes, at some level, that "alterations" have been made. The photos may have been edited, or makeup may have been lavishly smothered on the women's skin. Whatever the case, we know that those women do not actually look like that.

I'm one of those people who happens to think that audiences are not passive bystanders. We actually make choices about what forms of media to be exposed to. So we consciously choose to buy the fashion and style magazines, and we choose to watch those runway shows. I think that it is too easy to speak of the nuttiness of the fashion industry when we know only too well that their actions meet a neurotic need on our part.

What is to stop us from being more judicious in our choice of reading materials? What is to stop us from being more selective about the TV channels we watch? The answer is simple, but sad: Many women do not want to see images of "flawed" bodies on their TVs or in their magazines. They want to see "perfect" bodies. Any female celebrity who makes the "abominable" mistake of being caught on camera after venturing out without makeup or putting on a few pounds learns this very quickly.

It is apt that one of the commenters on Erika Nicole Kendall's article makes this precise observation (in comment number 1.1). The commenter, Mac, points out that "when someone actually posts a picture of a woman with flaws, the other women in the crowd usually pick her apart every way possible. Someone posts a lady in a swimsuit and all you hear is, 'what’s that on her forehead,' 'her stomach doesn’t look right,' 'her arms need a little bit more work, she needs to go back to the gym,' and it goes on and on no matter how beautiful the woman is or what the commenters look like."

Mac hits the nail on the head. But it wouldn't be honest to claim that all women were guilty of responding negatively to portrayals of "real" bodies. Plenty of women see beauty and character in idiosyncracies. Freckles, moles, and birthmarks are among the so-called imperfections that make faces more interesting, and people more memorable. Excessive makeup and airbrushing tend to have the effect of making all models look alike. They all have the same look, the same bodily proportions, the same hair textures and styles. Frankly speaking, they become boring to look at, part of the monotonous background that we peer at as we flip through magazines, suppressing the urge to yawn.

Personally, I prefer to see images of "real" women because they are more interesting. I think that there is beauty in our idiosyncracies (which photo editors and makeup artists would likely call flaws) and in our diversity. It is truly sad that we allow people with limited imaginations to set the limits for the images we are allowed to see on screen and in print.

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

Thursday, June 7, 2012

On "Schrodinger's rapist" and the construction of healthy boundaries


An online search for the term "Schrodinger's rapist" led me to some very interesting articles, including the two listed below:

1. Schrodinger's rapist: or a guy's guide to approaching women without being maced
2. Schrodinger's rapist and Schrodinger's racist

I strongly recommend that you read these articles, because they bring into focus the all-important issue of setting boundaries and respecting them. Both articles address, to some extent, interactions between a man and a woman who are relative strangers to each other. They point out the degree to which the average woman has to be extra cautious when interacting with a man, because she has no way of knowing whether or not he poses a threat to her. He might turn out to be a rapist; he might turn out not to be one. But because rapists don't wear neon signs on their foreheads declaring that they are rapists, and because they do not have horns growing out of their heads or visibly forked tongues, she simply has to be cautious.

Now the thing is that there are many well-intentioned men in the world. They bear no ill-will towards women. When they set out to interact with a woman, perhaps they are just being friendly: Maybe they're trying to help a woman in a bad situation. But then the woman responds to their friendliness with coldness, suspicion or fear. The immediate response of many of these men is to take offense at the very idea that they could be thought of as potential rapists or thugs. It is a perfectly natural response and one that I understand. I imagine that I might be similarly miffed if, in a parallel situation, somebody misunderstood my intentions.


It is what happens next that is particularly interesting to me: The man could realize that, for whatever reason, the woman feels threatened by his attention. He could then adopt a less threatening stance and step back, ultimately leaving her alone. Alternatively, he could choose to give her a piece of his mind and express his displeasure or anger at her assumptions. Now I suspect that some may think that the latter approach is the way to go. But the two articles are adamant that it is not, and I am bound to agree with them. It is better to recognize that the other person has set boundaries and that, whether or not one likes them, one must respect them. When a man is unwilling to recognize that a woman's previous experiences are shaping her perceptions of his actions, and when he refuses to acknowledge that he might, in fact, be intruding in her space, and that she has the right to determine for herself what situation she is uncomfortable with, he is trying to intimidate her into 'trusting' or 'liking' him. That is bullying, plain and simple.

Now, I recognize that the situation described thus far is gender-specific, but this analysis could be more broadly applied to other contexts. I'm sure we can all think of gender-neutral instances where relatives, friends, coreligionists, workmates, etc. have taken offense when an individual has expressed discomfort with a situation, subsequently claimed that this person's assertion has offended them and tried to intimidate the individual into going along with their agenda

I am familiar with one particular situation because of my interest in HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. One of the things that has long been evident to me is that many people in sexual relationships have a hard time discussing sexual health and protection frankly with their partners. Ideally, this is something that needs to be discussed before they became sexually intimate and then revisited afterwards. But their partners often shut down the discussion by invoking "trust." Any inquiry about the partner's history of STD infection or any request that they should use condoms is almost invariably met with the response, "Don't you trust me?" even when the offended party knows that he or she is being unfaithful or has previously been infected. Thus, the individual's attempts to take reasonable precautions and to draw boundaries within which he or she will feel comfortable are turned into a personal attack on his or her partner's trustworthiness. Not surprisingly, many are essentially bullied into having unprotected sex, into infection with HIV/AIDS or other STDs and, in the case of some women, into unwanted pregnancies.

Yet another situation involves the man or woman who decides to leave the religion within which he or she was raised. Perhaps something about the religion violates his or her conscience. Perhaps he or she has never really believed and is tired of keeping up the facade. Thus, he or she decides to set up new boundaries by no longer worshiping, attending services, or reading the scriptures of that religion. Perhaps he or she chooses an alternative religion, one that sits better with his or her personal moral code. The coreligionists who respond to such a decision by framing it as a rejection of them and fight against it on that basis are essentially refusing to recognize his or her individuality and freedom of conscience.

The above situations illustrate the problems that can follow when people are unable to appreciate and respect the fact that an individual holds a different viewpoint. When the appearance of consensus is prioritized above all else, the truth ends up being sacrificed. People feel pressured to suffer their discomfort, or fear in silence, because they have been led to believe that expressing what they actually feel will hurt others' feelings. The process by which the other person's feelings end up being prioritized over their own emotional well-being is hardly examined. It just proceeds smoothly, taken for granted as the normal course of events.

This subject is one that I have thought long and hard about because I have come to recognize that this kind of coerced consensus is maintained, not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the communal level. The community can bully an individual into agreeing with the status quo, or it could stand by in silent approval while an individual does the bullying. This is an ethical problem of immense proportions. It whittles away at one's individuality and crushes his or her will. Furthermore, it creates an environment where abuse can thrive unchallenged for years. Ironically, this is the status quo in many communities that claim to hold free will, honesty, and integrity as ideals, most notably, intensely devout religious communities.


The question is, "What is the best way to address this problem?" Returning to the original example, is it incumbent on the man who is perceived as "Schrodinger's rapist" to respect the boundaries set by the woman, or is it incumbent on the woman to hold on to continue to assert herself, even in the face of resistance or intimidation by the man? The obvious solution is that both approaches are necessary. But I have a special interest in asserting the importance of the would-be victim's actions in this situation. I think it is especially empowering for individuals to gain the tools that allow them to set up and maintain their boundaries even when being pressured to give in by others.

The beginnings of victory lie in recognizing the moment when one's self-assertion is made to seem like an attack on the other person's feelings and resisting that interpretation of events.

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