Category Archives: Current Issues

We Are All Africans

An impressively interdisciplinary team of geneticists, biological anthropologists, archaeologists, and geologists has just published an article detailing the genetic makeup of a man who lived in Ethiopia some 4,500 years ago. Why is this relevant today? The analysis shows close genetic ties between some contemporary Sardinian farmers, German farmers from 7,000 years ago, and contemporary people living in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. That’s big news in these days of far too many complaints about “too many immigrants,” and far too much discussion about “race” as if it were a simple category with immutable boundaries.

But the larger story embedded in this research packs an even bigger punch. We humans have been on the move for a good 70,000 years, and our connections across Africa, the Middle East, and Europe have been actively maintained, with criss-crossed migrations and gene sharing ever since. Leaders of today’s far-right parties claim that ethnic and racial mixing is unnatural, and that migration goes against our nature. Donald Trump, Scott Walker, and Marine Le Pen need to study their history.

Racist Anti-Immigration Poster Racist, anti-immigration poster of the English Defence League, a far-right street protest group dedicated to opposing Muslims living in the UK

Anthropology and the MidEast Crisis

There’s surely something to offend every political sensibility in a provocative essay, “Let the Palestinians Have Their State,” just published by Liel Leibovitz in The Tablet.  But for that reason, it’s worth reading.  Equal-opportunity-offender essays are bold enough to propose solutions that–dare I say?–might just be viable, if all those who are offended actually considered their proposals.

Anthropology teaches us that we remain comfortable in our preconceived assumptions and prejudices at our peril.  Why not imply the insight to the mess that is the MidEast?
Examine Your Assumptions

As Usual, The Devil’s in the Details; or, Why Ethnography Matters for Everything

A new study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Tennessee fail to achieve any long-term gains. Republican lawmakers are already seizing on the news as evidence that pre-K programs don’t work in general, and should no longer be funded.

By contrast, the same study reports that pre-kindergarten programs in Boston are achieving significant long-term gains. Democratic lawmakers will no doubt seize on the news as evidence that pre-K programs do work in general, and should be further funded.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.

The Tennessee program emphasizes passive classroom strategies that are dull even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children sit and listen while a teacher talks.

Students Sleep in Lecture
The Boston program emphasizes active learning strategies that are tried-and-true even for college students, let alone three-year-olds: children learn to measure distance by measuring the shadows their bodies cast on the ground, and brainstorm about making their city a better place by using skills they learn in reading, math, art and science to present a proposal to City Hall.

Boy Measures Own Shadow
My conclusions:

1. Conclusions are only as good as the data they draw from.

2. “Think global, study local” should be the official Congressional mantra.

3. Everything is better with ethnography.

Donald Trump vs. Blood Magic

Donald Trump has revived old stereotypes in claiming that Fox News commentator/Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly was ruled by her hormones (“bleeding from her wherever”) when she critiqued his multiple sexist statements and stances.  Explaining away women’s anger by reference to the menstrual cycle is an old habit of those who wish to exclude women from decision-making positions.  Let’s see if I become a new target of Donald Trump after being quoted in this NPR blog post by Susan Brink . . .

PMS 5 Beware of PMS

Meanwhile, I’m honored that an essay I wrote about Beng menstrual beliefs and practices was just quoted in an article by Candida Moss, “Weak Men Like Trump Have Always Feared Menstruation,” in The Daily Beast.

Fabulous Art from Abandoned Flip-flops

Cleaning up beach waste in the form of abandoned rubber flip-flops . . . recycling landfill-able castoffs . . . training low-income men and women in job skills and providing them with living wages in Nairobi . . . creating beautiful art . . . saving fish, dolphins and baby turtles from choking on rubber detritus . . . educating local residents in recycling options . . . so much goodness in one small company!Dolphin Sculpture from FlipflopsThis small effort may not solve the world’s pollution and poverty problems, but it does highlight one local success story.

The Ocean Sole Company that makes sculptures from flip-flops funnels 5% of its profits into its educational foundation.  That’s not a huge percent, but it’s something.  Its website says: “The Ocean Sole Foundation works with communities, scientists, conservationists, artists, governments, industries and other not-for-profit organisations that are raising awareness and actively involved in marine conservation. We support actions that recycle, reduce and reuse marine and waterway debris.”

Contrast this encouraging account of garbage-to-art with the typical gloom-and-doom story about sub-Saharan Africa that lands in the Western press.  If more journalists published reports like this, instead of yet another lament about ebola, civil war, corruption, or AIDS, what might white people’s images be of the land from which their long-ago ancestors came?

I’m not advocating that Africa’s considerable challenges be ignored.  But how about a bit more journalistic balance?

Otherwise, there’s always the stereotype-reinforcing strategy that Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana offers, instructing would-be authors how (not) to write about Africa:

Binyavanga Wainaina

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”

 

P.S.  Check out the awesome “open letter” recently addressed to the producer of the popular CBS news show, “60 Minutes,” about the unacceptable biases in the show’s (rare) coverage of Africa.  Dare we hope this passionately and intelligently argued plea, signed by dozens of prominent scholars and other thoughtful people, might produce some positive changes in the show?

Social Change: One Petition at a Time?

As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.

Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential.  But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.Sign the Petition! Clipboard

One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California.  Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.

In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70).  Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.

green-grapes

In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers.  Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.

Take the case of Amazon.  A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.

Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.  But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere.  And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.

At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive.  Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.  Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”

At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line.  In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year.  They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.

And they do matter.  While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).

mega-man-pram-manly-baby-stroller-3-1

Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense.  If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another.  And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.

You can sign the Amazon petition here.

(How) Do Anthropologists Celebrate Valentine’s Day?

As an anthropologist, the first thought that comes to mind as we approach an upcoming holiday is typically, How do they celebrate this holiday in X?X being a faraway land where the celebration is likely to look quite different from how it looks in my hometown. The next thought that typically follows: Is this holiday even celebrated universally? And, if not, why not?

Cultural relativity may have taken a bashing at the hands of assorted theoreticians, but it remains a pernicious habit of mind for cultural anthropologists who’ve spent months or years living in places far from home. Once you’ve become used to eating new foods in a new way (say, using the first three fingers to delicately cup a small chunk of cooked yams pounded into a beautifully rounded, elasticky ball, then dip it into a delectable peanut sauce cooked by your West African hostess),

Foutou & Peanut Sauce

or walking down the street a different way (say, bowing your head gently to every stranger you pass on the sidewalk of Addis Ababa, to acknowledge your shared humanity), it’s hard to forget that no matter what folks around you are doing and saying, they might be doing and saying those things differently, if only they had been born elsewhere.

Take the small matter of love. This Valentine’s Day, while relishing the sentimental clichés we may, against all odds, enjoy reading in the greeting cards that come our way, and scanning delectable rows of fancy chocolates in the local gourmet food shop (some of which I have already enjoyed as gifts from my thoughtful husband), I can’t help but think about how love has looked (and felt) in other times and places.

valentines-day-gift-ideas-choclate-hearts

As a freshman in college, I felt shocked to discover that the medieval French love poems assigned by my French Literature professor all addressed adulterous lovers urged to leave the castle before dawn–and before the castle’s mistress, or master, awoke. In medieval Europe, romantic love was alive and well, but rarely within the scope of marriage.

Terry, Lays of Courtly Love

Among the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire, romantic love is an ideal state for a married couple to attain–but, in this society organized partly around marriages arranged by elders, romantic love is more often seen not as the catalyst for marriage, but as the result of several years of marriage and becoming closer through sharing the joys and challenges of child-rearing.

In any case, by no means does allying romantic love with marriage create happiness. The U.S. divorce rate of ~50% testifies spectacularly to the frequent failure of that effort.

As a new ideal, romantic love in some places may contribute to women demanding rights they previously lacked, as the anthropologist Janneke Verheijen says happens with Guatemalan women when they watch telenovelas. But a new ideology of romantic love may also ally with old problems. In Belize, anthropologist Joan van Wijn describes how local Afro-Caribbean men who romance white tourist women perpetuate all the racism of the British colonial color hierarchy.

In this century, romantic love continues to encounter an almost unthinkable and sometimes brutal array of challenges. In southwest China, anthropologist Shanshan Du has documented how, since the 1950s, unrequited Lahu lovers forbidden by their community to divorce the spouses they did not love all too often made a joint suicide pact while singing tragic love songs at a public gathering . . . producing the world’s highest suicide rate by far.

Elsewhere, ruthless anti-love laws continue to be enforced. In Uganda, gay couples still risk spending their lives in prison if government agents discover their sexual orientation, and marriage remains an elusive hope for many of the world’s gay couples.

Ugandan Anti-Gay Law Protester-Rainbow Mask
In the U.S., interracial couples were forbidden to marry in 16 states until 1967. Thankfully those odious laws no longer govern marriage, but while interracial couples now constitute some 7% of all marriages in the U.S., they still risk having their houses polluted with liquid mercury or their car windows shattered.

Even in such trying circumstances, the very possibility of love remains a luxury not all people can even imagine elsewhere. Do the thousands of teenage girls trafficked every year from Nigeria to Italy, to be forced into sex work, ever have a chance even to conceive of romantic love?

Next fall, I will include a section about sexual slavery when I teach my Women’s Bodies, Women’s Lives course.

Why Not “Je Suis Lassana”?

Much of the Western world has expressed solidarity with the right to publish offensive cartoons by identifying with the cartoonists at the iconoclastic weekly, Charlie Hebdo, who were killed by Islamicist fundamentalists.

To date, the Je Suis Charlie Facebook page has garnered some 315,000 “Likes.”

Multilingual “I am Charlie” mottos abound.

I am Charlie-Multilingual

“I am Charlie” bumper stickers and buttons flood the global online market.

I am Charlie Bumper Stickers

I am Charlie Buttons

Meanwhile, another living Parisian hero has received far less attention.

Two days after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo journalists, a young immigrant named Lassana Bathily saved the lives of fifteen people trapped inside a Kosher supermarket, Hyper Cacher, after another armed Islamicist militant, Amedy Coulibaly, invaded the shop in which Lassana worked.

A practicing Muslim from an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, a teenage Lassana had left Mali in 2006 to join his father in Paris. Completing high school and qualifying as a trained tile worker, Lassina had overstayed his tourist visa to live as a working but undocumented immigrant until 2011, when he finally received working papers, but not citizenship.

Lassana Bathily

After gunfire rang out while he was working in the supermarket, Lassana immediately led five adults and a three-year-old down to a walk-in freezer in the basement. Lassana turned off the lights and raised the temperature. Cold and scared, the group nevertheless remained safe from the gunman (who had already killed four other customers).

Then, while the supermarket’s attacker remained at large inside the store, Lassana fearlessly used his knowledge of the building to exit (at high risk) through an elevator shaft and a fire escape, the goal being to help police free those still captive inside.

As soon as Lassana emerged onto the street, police immediately held, handcuffed, and questioned him for an hour-and-a-half under the mistaken impression that he was another attacker. (Dare we allege unconscious racism?)

Finally convincing them that he was, instead, a supermarket employee trying to help save the lives of his customers, Lassana effectively sketched the layout of the supermarket and gave the police a door key.

With the building design and key supplied by Lassana, the police were able to surreptitiously enter the supermarket (rather than storming the edifice, which would have alerted the attacker to their presence and further endangered the lives of the hostages). This quiet entry allowed the police to kill the gunman and free every one of the 15 live customers who had remained as terrified hostages.

Supermarket Hostages Released

In a television interview, Lassana later explained, “Yes, I helped Jews get out. We’re brothers. It’s not a question of being Jews or Christians or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat. You have to help each other to get through this crisis.”

In his home country of Mali, Lassana was recently welcomed by the nation’s president, foreign minister, and population at large as a national hero.

Lassana Bathily Arives in Mali
And in France, after having had several previous petitions for citizenship rejected (most recently in 2011), Lassana has finally received French citizenship.

Lassana Bathily with French Passport

Two lessons to take away from Lassana Bathily’s acts of courage:

1. Labeling someone a “Muslim” says nothing about the likelihood that s/he will kill–or save–a non-Muslim.

2. In an “othering”-crazy world enamored by the tendency to bifurcate everything and everyone into simple good/evil dualities, it’s still possible to raise human beings to transcend stereotypes and see the common humanity in species-mates.

And two questions:

1. Currently, immigrants in France wait an average of 14 years to be naturalized. Will all future undocumented migrants living peacefully in France, and contributing productively to the nation’s economy, have to undertake similar life-and-death acts of heroism to attain French citizenship in under 14 years?

2. As a small group of scholars who specialize in the study of Mali and surrounding populations have recently suggested in an online conversation, instead of “Je Suis Charlie,” why hasn’t the global meme been “Je Suis Lassana”?

 

P.S.  On March 24, 2015, Lassana Bathily was awarded a Medal of Valor from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an “international Jewish human rights organization that fights anti-Semitism worldwide.”   If only this micro Jewish-Muslim collaboration could serve as a model for the Mid-East . . .

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