Saturday, June 28, 2008

Beyond THE FUTURE: Affirmative Action on the Chopping Block

Talk about timing. My previous post led me to later mention in my comments the trouble “color-blindness” regarding race can have on support for Affirmative Action. Today, the AP is running the article “Obama’s Success Fuels Affirmative Action’s Foes” by AP reporter Charles Babington.

I continue to disagree with the argument that widespread support for a person of color for president proves racism no longer exists in our country; the argument that widespread support of a women for president proves sexism no longer exists in our country is just as ludicrous.

As Babington notes: “Affirmative Action, a term coined in the early 1960s, is a loosely defined set of policies meant to help rectify discrimination based on race, religion, sex or national origin.” Why such policies should continue to be dismantled when so many Americans battle prejudice based on their race, religion, gender, and/or national origin on a daily basis baffles me.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Affirmative Action policies have been under attack, and it won’t be the last. Read Babington’s informative article for more details on that, and please consider these remarks by two people who believe in the dire need to address the underlying problems faced by people of color in our country long before they’re of age to benefit from Affirmative Action initiatives:

According to Babington, Abigail Thernstrom—a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—asserts that “disparities between blacks and whites in areas such as income, education achievement, health care and incarceration rates” are rooted “in complex, deep-seated factors that put many minority children behind their peers as early as kindergarten.”

Barack Obama agrees: “Affirmative action is an important tool, although a limited tool,” he told National Public Radio last year.

“I say limited simply because a large portion of our young people right now never even benefit from Affirmative Action because they’re not graduating from high school,” he said. “And unless we do a better job with early childhood education, fixing crumbling schools, investing to make sure that we've got an excellent teacher in front of every classroom, and then making college affordable, we’re not even going to reach the point where our children can benefit from Affirmative Action.”

While such statements remind us that Affirmative Action is generally regarded as benefiting people of color, please keep in mind the many women, immigrants, and other hard-working Americans who also continue to struggle for equal opportunity. Affirmative Action policies originally were intended to help many; I find it hard to understand why some believe these policies ought to be dismantled rather than enhanced.

Affirmative Action artwork from African American Policy Forum’s Focus on Affirmative Action series “13 Myths About Affirmative Action”

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beyond FACTS: “The Fallacy of Colorblind Post-Raciality” by Carmen Van Kerkhove

The Anderson Cooper 360˚ blog ran this post, “The Fallacy of Colorblind Post-Raciality” by Carmen Van Kerkhove yesterday.

I’ve read Carmen’s writings since she co-founded New Demographic, a consulting firm that addresses race and racism in the workplace in unique ways. Also known nationally as a speaker and commentator on the complex issues behind race and racism, Carmen regularly offers thoughtful, blunt opinions backed up with specifics. While I don’t always agree with her, I always find the discussions she instigates well worth my time and attention.

In this column, Carmen addresses the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that stated three in ten Americans admit to having at least some racially prejudiced feelings. “The other seven must be afflicted by ‘colorblindness,’” she writes, “that odd phenomenon that drives people to insist that they ‘just don’t notice race’ and claim that they don’t care whether people are ‘black, brown, green, or purple.’

“All of us,” she continues, “notice variations in skintone, facial features, hair texture, eye color, and the myriad of other phenotypic factors that cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.

“Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color? Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.

“But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.

“When people proclaim that they’re colorblind, what they’re really implying is that race no longer matters in America. [But] race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country.”

This is exactly the argument I make when I talk about my first book, One Sister’s Song. Racism impacts people of varied backgrounds, including those (like my husband and his sisters) of mixed-race heritage. I invite those who consider such assertions regarding racism exaggerated to read more about it through resources like the New Demographic newsletter, to consider the (highly!) intriguing viewpoints of the dozens of people who left comments about Carmen’s post on the AC 360˚ blog, to get to know a person of any race that differs from one’s own and take the time to note what he or she goes through on a daily basis. Race does still matter in this country, and turning any kind of blind eye to such an immense issue—especially during the current, historic election year—doesn’t do anyone any good.

Photo © Associated Press

Monday, June 23, 2008

Beyond FAREWELL: George Carlin: Another Icon Gone

While George Carlin’s colorful history is well-documented, I remain most impressed by his colorful language. Yes, his seven-dirty-words stint always cracked me up (my favorites, though, were his bits about driving, the one when he had no idea—until he stopped, got out for whatever reason, then got back in the car and turned on the ignition—how much STUFF he’d had cranked on; and the one about the guy with the blinker driving around the world to the left, that sort of thing; such original takes combined with his New York accent, his fast-paced gestures, his extreme facial expressions just killed me), but I was always most impressed by his use and obvious love of the language.

NPR’s Terry Gross rebroadcast excerpts from George Carlin interviews from 1990 and 2004 this morning. The stories he told of growing up in 1940s Harlem in an Irish neighborhood lodged between an academic community that included Columbia and various interdenominational churches and seminaries and the multicultural, mixed-race street-smart part of town revealed how he was first exposed to highly original uses of slang and off-color language, and how he appreciated the brilliance that fueled such creativity. He also spoke of his grandfather, who wrote out the entire works of Shakespeare in longhand during his lifetime simply for the joy of it. Of his mother, who encouraged her son not only to go to the dictionary to learn the meaning of words that were new to him, but to discuss with her the words’ origins, various meanings, and practical applications. A day after reading up on the word “peruse” with her, he brought in the paper to her and asked if she’d like to “peruse” it for a while. “Perhaps I’ll give it a cursory glance,” she replied, sending him right back to the dictionary.

So yes, George Carlin will always be remembered for his tough-guy attitude, his in-your-face comedy, his refusal to back down in the face of white-corporate male-dominated right-wing hypocrisy. But I’ll always remember him as a young boy growing up in the paradoxes of a Catholic Irish neighborhood full of kids in a wedge of Harlem, carrying with him a literary sensibility that would compel him not only to become a famous, award-winning comedian with a police record who inspired a controversial Supreme Court case that still leads to heated discussions of the First Amendment, but to a guy who relished experimenting with the way words work.

“There are an awful lot of taboos,” Carlin is quoted in another NPR piece. “I just enjoy squashing them and stepping on them and peeling them apart and trying to expose them to people. For some reason, it makes me happy.” Thanks to his immense, unique ability to power those tendencies with an evident love of language, his comical exposure of so many truths at their bare-bone levels made lots of others happy, too.

Photo from a 2007 wittyphantom post about a George Carlin essay that ends: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Beyond FUN: QUEEN OF THE ROAD by Doreen Orion

Doreen Orion, M.D., that is. A psychiatrist who finds herself bamboozled into spending a year on a customized bus with her beloved fellow-psychiatrist husband, two cats, and a standard (read: BIG) poodle, Doreen Orion delivers a bus-load of fun and introspection in her second book of non-fiction, the very aptly titled Queen of the Road.

A resident of Boulder, Doreen copes with multiple anxieties regarding the potential disasters of a year-long trek through 47 states (including Alaska but skipping Rhode Island, Kentucky, and—logically enough—Hawaii) as she takes her place as chief navigator beside her bus-enamored husband, who can’t imagine why she doesn’t want to drive. Not only does Doreen prefer a life of ease and near-solitude when she grudgingly sets out on this journey, she doesn’t hesitate to whine and whimper when her inner princess feels the least uneasy. And she REALLY lets everyone know how she feels when the Princess from the Island of Long (and yes, her East Coast Jewish humor shines through every smart-ass comment she makes!) is really, really upset.

Luckily, her patient and ever-kind husband, Tim (a.k.a. Project Nerd due to his preference for DIY projects) proves himself as her perfect match again and again before, during, and after their year on the road, despite Doreen’s over-arching concerns regarding shoes (she scooted behind the bus to retrieve a lost sandal while Tim was backing up the bus at home, practically giving him a heart attack and ending the whole trip before it had even begun; at least the shoe—an Anne Klein, after all—was saved), overpasses, deer or moose or anything else that might wander onto a highway, one-lane bridges, overhead electrical wires, and all the CAREENING she’s sure they’ll do over the next 22,000 miles.

Doreen hangs in there (or just hangs on) through a number of surprise developments along the way, ultimately graduating to Queen of the Road status, winning for herself not only her husband’s gratitude and appreciation, but her own. And her appreciation extends well beyond the personal growth she’s experienced: “When our living space was downsized,” she notes, “everything…was magnified because our horizons were endless.” But this kind of understanding is achieved only after some extreme phobias have been faced and reconciled during more than one unforeseen drama.

Queen of the Road is a memoir that reads like a personal travelogue, like a series of letters from a friend on the road who wants to point out every absurd, don’t-miss sight she’s had the pleasure to experience, every amazing restaurant and view—as well as each misdirected detour no one else should ever have to endure. While most are fun and many are silly and some are awe-inspiring, one of the stops Doreen and Tim made that I found most intriguing was to the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum in Memphis. Founded by sisters Joan Nelson and Elaine Turner, this museum features things like a “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster for Harriet Tubman, a whip next to a picture of “a slave’s ravaged back,” a “nine-foot burlap sack which had to be filled with cotton, then emptied, then repeated all over again several times each day.” As Doreen notes, however, “It was Joan’s sharing her own story of marching for civil rights in the 1960s with Martin Luther King, Jr., her arrest as a teenager, and her friendship with Emitt Till’s mother which gave it all a tragic continuity, an unbroken time line of hate and prejudice that, as unbelievable as it seemed when surrounded by those very artifacts of hate and prejudice, continues to today.

“Joan made us realize that there is such a thing as a grand obsession,” Doreen continues, “that there are some things worth developing a passion for and zealously pursuing.” By the end of Queen of the Road, Doreen reveals exactly what she’s come to realize no longer deserves her passion and zeal, and what most certainly does. As she quotes her thoughtful agent, Mollie Glick, “This isn’t a travel memoir, it’s a love story.” A love story to the wonders travel can reveal, to the loved ones who make our lives rich and rewarding, to the strength and fortitude each of us harbors. Plus, it’s a hell of a fun ride. Enjoy!

Photo of my two princesses with Doreen at the queen’s very fun book launch party.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Beyond THE FUTURE: Kristina Chew at Autism Vox

Thank goodness for RSS feeds because Kristina Chew at Autism Vox is one prolific blogger. Also a college professor and mom to 11-year-old Charlie—a charming, sushi-loving boy I enjoy cheering on every time I read about his many triumphs—Kristina provides ongoing, fascinating insights into her life with a dynamic child with severe autism.

In a Good Morning America feature that ran earlier this week, Kristina was interviewed regarding her “controversial” choice to accept Charlie as he is. Some parents, Kristina notes, do not believe vaccines cause autism and prefer to concentrate on helping their children and advocating for others rather than placing blame. While I enjoyed seeing Kristina in the interview, I was miffed at the GMA stance (voiced by Diane Sawyer at the end of the piece) that Kristina’s point of view may simply be an out-of-touch option for coping with heartbreak.

All of Kristina’s writings are very practical and her points are based on scientific studies rather than celebrity-fueled emotions, but the interview sections that were aired did not cover any of this. I have no trouble with the longer schedule of vaccinations in babies and young children proposed by those in the Green Vaccine movement, but I’m very fearful the simmering anti-vaccine frenzy is already resulting in a return of various awful diseases such as measles, diseases that children in this century just should not have to worry about or endure.

Rather than representing a “controversial” point of view in the face of calls for green vaccines and autism cures, Kristina presents a calm call to attention. What we need now, she asserts, are programs and services designed to help parents of children with special needs, help these children enjoy and reach their potential in school, and provide adults with autism and other special needs safe living arrangements with proper care as well as occupational opportunities that challenge their abilities and contribute to their overall well-being. That all makes perfect sense to me.

Kristina has been writing more lately about her concerns regarding Charlie’s future, when her boy has grown into an adult and she and Charlie’s dad are no longer able to care for him. I wish the folks at Good Morning America had opted to emphasize her overall message of the dire need for more attention and resources directed at the lack of services for adults with autism in most states as well as the lack of training in our schools for teachers and other caregivers. Kristina advocates for caregivers who are “properly trained and supervised,” for an emphasis on the proper use of “non-violent methods” to keep a child and those around him safe; for increased understanding of the need to understand why certain kids might get upset and to work with them “with dignity and compassion” so injuries to any child’s psyche or person can be completely avoided. I found this late 2007 Autism Vox post especially revealing:

“Teachers used a basket hold frequently when Charlie headbanged and they were trying to stop more headbanging—but their efforts often only made things worse. The teachers had been insufficiently trained in this sort of crisis management, and had little support from anyone with any expertise. There are simply better ways to help a child at such moments; best of all is to teach a child when he or she is not upset about dealing with feelings of anxiety and frustration.

“Strategies that Charlie’s teachers now use [include] teaching him to ask for breaks before he gets upset and knowing where there’s a mat in the classroom that he gets out on his own to lie down on when he needs to. The teachers themselves know Charlie and how he communicates [my emphasis; this is so, so important] very well from careful and thoughtful interactions. They can sense him getting upset, and accordingly change the pace of how they are teaching. They remind him that he can ask for a break (there is a flashcard on his desk that he can point to). These teaching methods communicate some important messages to Charlie: (1) We believe—we know—that he can learn ways to let us know how he feels; (2) We’re not afraid of him getting angry or mad or crying out; we know he knows how to help himself; (3) We can help him do this in ways that are minimally physical and maintain his dignity as much as possible.

“I’ve come to think that the basket hold and other restraint procedures are overused because of fear. There is fear that ‘I won’t be able to handle this large child;’ there are wishes that a child was a young toddler and something like regret gets communicated to the child that he or she has gotten bigger. To me, this is an unfortunate message: Of course our kids get bigger. Of course they grow up and become pre-adolescents, teenagers, and adults. I understand why people have their fears but I think these can lead to mistaken practices like physical restraints and to the overuse of physical restraints.

“Steady and patient teaching—…always with an emphasis on flexibility, on building an interpersonal relationship between Charlie and the therapist, and on the belief that he can learn—has taught Charlie to communicate his anxieties and worries more and more.”

“Acceptance, to me, is the beginning of hope,” Kristina is quoted as saying at the end of the GMA interview. Why acceptance, understanding, and compassion are considered controversial, I’ll never know. Maybe they simply aren’t trendy enough.

Photo of “Merrill’s Autism Service Dog, Hunter” © Tihea on Flickr

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Beyond FANTASTIC: ROAD MAP TO HOLLAND by Jennifer Graf Groneberg

The month of May zipped by for me not only because it was crazy busy but because it was FULL; full of spring weeding, spring cleaning, spring kid stuff as yet another school year wrapped up (yippee!), spring celebrations, spring rejuvenations. Not the spa-type of rejuvenations (though I’m way overdue), but the thinking type. Reading Road Map to Holland by fellow mom/writer/blogger Jennifer Graf Groneberg proved to be one of the highlights of my ongoing journey to rejuvenate not only my reading mind but my education regarding the myriad challenges faced by women of my generation. During this past month, reading Jennifer’s book also provided the gentle prodding I often need to keep from dwelling on what I’m doing wrong in my various roles and focus on the next steps that need to be taken to do everyday things well.

“Leaving without the babies feels like a failure.” This line socked me in the stomach; it captures bluntly what many women feel at different stages of their lives, whether or not they’re moms. Jennifer and her husband had a little boy at home when they discovered they were going to have twin baby boys. When the babies arrive early and have to stay in intensive care, Jennifer reveals this utter sense of failure when she realizes she’ll have to commute a long way every day to see her newborn sons after her own hospital stay has ended. To top it all off, she’s just been told one of the babies shows possible signs of Down syndrome and is going to be tested for the chromosomal anomaly.

The first few chapters reveal how raw and vulnerable Jennifer not only felt but knew herself to be immediately following Avery’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. “We have a little house on a hilltop near a pretty lake,” Jennifer repeats at times, as though reciting a mantra. Indeed this little house represents much more than a home for her and her growing family throughout her story of finally bringing her babies home and of teaching her older boy, Carter, how to best help...especially how to help Avery. Her references to beloved books I shared with my son so many years ago (Carter calls their closest town “Busy Town” and compares Avery to Clifford the Big Red Dog when Clifford was a baby and grew and grew because he was so loved; Jennifer also refers to Margaret Wise Brown’s The Big Red Barn, which I can still recite from memory, and probably always will) contributed to the impression that I was listening to a really good friend talk about struggling through a series of events that not only altered her life but dismantled it, leaving her to pick up the pieces and figure out how best to rearrange them.

The repetitions of those first few chapters provide layers of meaning and impact I’ve rarely noted in a work of nonfiction. I can only imagine Jennifer wrote to herself in her darkest days in such a way to remind herself of what really mattered; to keep herself on track through a series of reminders that wrapped around her like an overlapping shawl, the same way she swaddled her babies in so many layers of love despite the weight of her fears and doubts, her concerns, her guilt.

Regret, too, plays a role here, but I did not find this book depressing. Instead, the demands of caring for three young children and the steps Jennifer took to help herself and her family infuse every section of this story with inspiration and hope. Frank hang-ups about asking for assistance are overcome, acceptance coupled with wonder are celebrated. All while tough lessons are learned as a new parent of a child with special needs.

“I missed so much,” Jennifer confesses, “irreplaceable moments lost to sadness and worry. It didn’t have to be this way. I wish I had known better. I wish I had known that all I had to do was love him.” What a relief for a new parent of a child with Down syndrome to hear that, or to read: “He asks so little of me, really—all the rest of it I put upon myself.” Or: “I’m struck by the moment. That life goes on.” The overall message I took from Jennifer’s writing is an immense sense of wonder and acceptance. This is a story of a woman who discovers her greatest joy is not to improve or push her loved ones to excel, but to realize she’s giving the greatest gift simply by teaching those she loves how to love. Sometimes we all need a friendly reminder—or a dramatic one if we’re really hard-headed—that THIS is what really matters. Or at least what ought to matter. Thanks, Jennifer, for the wake-up call.