Saturday, June 28, 2014

Life on the Plaza

            We end our year in Europe where we began, in Madrid. As I say good-bye to Madrid, I feel like I am saying good-bye to life on the plaza, a central feature of most European cities, but the lifeblood of Madrid:  those bustling public spaces where the full spectrum of human social activity and cultural ingenuity is on display. Often times these plazas are breathtaking, framed by the dramatic façade of a cathedral or a majestic fountain, but just as often, especially in Madrid, they are simply spaces between buildings, where a few café tables and chairs are pulled together for friends to gather and an open space becomes welcome ground for a game of football (soccer). In the cities I’ve lived in and visited this year—Madrid and Copenhagen, and cities in Italy, Portugal, France and Sweden—I’ve spent some time observing what makes these spaces thrive and wondering how they impact the lives of the people who inhabit them. While I’ve always enjoyed spending time in plazas when visiting European cities in the past, this time they took on special meaning because of their importance to the people I worked with: immigrant youth and women. So the reflections I offer here are not those of a tourist, but some ethnographic observations of public space with an eye for their implications for democratic life in diverse societies.

The variety of activity that takes place in the plaza is stunning, but all plazas here have some central features in common: they are safe, they are inter-generational, and, with the exception of a few highly touristed plazas in major European cities, they are socioeconomically mixed, attracting equally people of means and people of no means. And while generalization is risky, these features invite comparison with American cities for what is so often missing there.  The fact of their safety would be unremarkable if I were not coming from the vantage point of American cities where safe urban public space is usually lacking. Plazas in Madrid and many other European cities are free from crime at virtually all hours (again with the exception of pickpockets in highly touristed areas) and also safe for pedestrians. Often the plazas are flanked by pedestrian streets—streets closed to traffic for all or part of the time—and the plazas themselves are free from cars, dominated by pedestrians (and bikes in Copenhagen). If you have grown up in cities of the Americas with high rates of crime and violence, the experience of being able to walk and sit in public space without fear of crime or cars is revolutionary. The safety of plazas is interrelated to their liveliness and inter-generational aspect. Plazas are hangouts for teenagers, families, the elderly, and everyone in between. When do youth share space with the elderly in the United States? And finally, they are not dominated by any single social class, but are truly mixed spaces where people from all walks of life rub shoulders. Of course, these spaces are also contested and not without police intervention and clashes, and I will return to that shortly. But I want to highlight what makes these places collectively distinct: they are not abandoned, relegated to the poor and downtrodden, nor are they exclusive, like San Salvador’s Gran Via, a high-rent shopping promenade patrolled by armed security guards. European plazas are open, desirable, vibrant spaces. La vida en la calle for Madrileños is a source of pride, akin to ‘the life of the party,’ or ‘where it’s at’. “Life on the street” in English, by contrast, has clearly negative connotations, referencing the homeless and destitute, gangs, or other abandoned groups. In much of the Americas, “the streets” are a place of violence and neglect, something to avoid or escape from. But in European cities, “the street” is life. I think this indexes significant value differences around public and private space in Europe and America.

What activities take place in desirable public space? I place them into five categories: eating and drinking, play, political and civic activism, the arts, and grassroots commerce. I observed all of these activities in major plazas of many European cities, but here I will focus my comments on Madrid.  Eating and drinking on the street, at a terraza, is a cherished pastime in Madrid, whether for a leisurely lunch (2-5pm), dinner (10pm-1am) or tapas, drinks or coffee at any hour. When you sit at a table it is expected that you will stay there a long time, even if you only order cañas (beers). So plazas are full of people eating and drinking, smoking, and talking at all hours. Madrileños have mastered the art of convivencia, living together and enjoying each other’s company. Play goes along with this because while parents are eating and talking, their children are playing in the plaza: racing on scooters or playing in one of the many children’s play areas the city provides. Madrid has more playgrounds per capita than any city I know, and our favorite plazas (Plaza Dos de Mayo and Plaza Santa Ana) have multiple playgrounds next to terrazas. My daughter, who turned six this year, has played her little heart out. As I contemplate returning to the U.S., where schools are eliminating recess and first-graders are expected to sit still for long periods of time doing math and reading, I am grateful that she had this time here, a full year of sanctioned, unstructured play, both in school and out. (Schooldays in both Madrid and Copenhagen are short, ending at 1:00 or 2:00, leaving plenty of time for play). Play also means socializing and meeting new friends, and the plaza provides the space for both. Recently as we rounded the corner into Plaza Santa Ana after not having been there for a while, my daughter exclaimed, “This is where I make the best friends!” Then she added, “But Plaza Dos de Mayo is where I see my friends,” referring to her friends from school. While our neighborhood plazas were places to run into her friends from school and neighborhood, Plaza Santa Ana and Plaza de Oriente were larger public spaces where she met friends visiting from other countries and other parts of Madrid. The neighborhood plaza affirms one’s place in a community, while the larger city plazas expose children to the wider world, to new and different people from those in daily life.

Plazas are also sites of organized play and recreation. The neighborhood center where we worked with youth after school was a tiny two-room facility just off the Plaza Dos de Mayo. Since the building was clearly inadequate to serve the 17 teenagers and 30-some kids enrolled in the program, the staff made use of the plaza for their activities almost daily. Football, other organized games, art activities, photography, and festivities for special events and celebrations all took place on the plaza. We would often run into the youth on the plaza outside of program hours, even though another plaza was their preferred hangout. Public space thus compensates for the lack of recreational space in central Madrid, appropriated by neighborhood associations for both recreation and civic activism.

Children and youth who socialize in Madrid’s plazas are exposed to a wide range of political and civic activities, especially in la Puerta del Sol, the site of the indignados in 2011-2012 and home to a different protest nearly every day. My daughter has seen so many protests that when we saw a parade for Carnival in the university town of Lund, Sweden, she asked, “What are they protesting about?” During our time in Madrid we have come upon or participated in protests for public education (in the face of massive budget cuts and privatization), for reproductive rights in light of sweeping restrictions to abortion proposed by the PP Justice Minister, for healthcare, rights for workers and senior citizens, justice for the victims of Franquismo, and more. We have also seen meetings of 15-M chapters (the name for the social movement the indignados started), neighborhood associations and alternative political parties, all taking place in the plaza. Many of these protests, like life on the plaza in general, are intergenerational and culturally diverse, and offer participants yet another way to claim public space and express their citizenship. While U.S. cities have also been home to vibrant traditions of protest, the existence of well-used public space in everyday life in Madrid facilitates protests and places them squarely in the middle of pedestrian traffic, ensuring maximum visibility whether the media covers it or not.

Madrid’s plazas, like in other European cities, are also places of flourishing artistic expression. There you will find street musicians of all kinds, from soloists to trios to bands, playing all genres of music from all over the world, as well as staged concerts and choirs. Street musicians might wander from place to place, stopping beside crowded café tables and passing the hat around afterwards, or stay in a prominent place beside a fountain or statue for as long as they are able (street musicians without a license cannot legally perform in public and sometimes get harassed by the police). On festive occasions there will be marching bands and other concerts that are officially sanctioned. In addition to musicians are various street performers of all acts: jugglers, break dancers, mime actors, human statues, disembodied heads, clowns, men dressed as babies, and countless other feats intended to draw laughs from children and coins from parents. There are also artisans selling their craft: handmade jewelry, paintings, ceramics, and more, which leads to the final category of activity in the plaza: grassroots commerce.

Plazas are the site of numerous markets, both sanctioned and not. There are farmers’ markets, flea markets, artisan markets, and of course, the black market. By the black market I don’t mean drugs (such crowded spaces are inhospitable to illicit activity), but the variety of immigrant vendors selling goods and services in the informal economy. Different immigrant groups have their own niche: African immigrants sell knock-off Gucci and Prada handbags, laid out on tarps which can be whisked into a bundle at a moment’s notice if the police appear (it is illegal to sell these knock-off bags in Madrid). The sight of groups of these immigrant vendors running from the police with their bundles of merchandise over their shoulders is a prominent feature in the major plazas, and illustrates the contested nature of public space. Plazas are key spaces for immigrant vendors to make a living, but their presence is not officially tolerated. Other immigrant markets have been the target of police raids. And it is not only immigrants who are harassed by the police. At the beginning of the school year, after the Ministry of Education announced major cuts to the assistance funds for buying textbooks, groups of Spanish parents organized informally to exchange used books in the plaza. This would allow families who needed school books to get them from families who no longer needed them, and avoid paying the steep price of new textbooks. Unfortunately, the police raided and disbanded the book fair, telling parents they could not conduct this activity in public space. On this occasion as others, the police chose to be guardians of private enterprise rather than public space.

It is the constellation of all these activities that gives plazas their creative character, and makes them sites of vibrant public life. When I shared some of these observations with American travelers, they remarked that we have all these activities in city parks in the U.S. It is true that many of these activities take place in American city parks, and I am a fervent defender of urban green spaces. But parks do not serve the same purpose in daily life as plazas. Parks are places you go to escape the bustle and crowds of the city, while plazas are places you go to embrace the bustle, to be part of it. Plazas are meeting places whose function is first and foremost to allow people to be with others, to convivir. They are an affirmation that life together with others is better than life with only your own; that public space is a public good.

As I contemplate returning to the land of private backyard swing sets and private backyard barbeques, where increasingly anything public—public schools, transportation or parks—is seen as only for those who can’t afford better, I know I’ll miss these moments on the plaza, where the physical and social architecture express a faith in shared humanity and in the creative potential of human density. And I’ll remember wistfully when our Spanish friends asked us, after dinner in our apartment in Malasaña, “¿Nos vamos a la calle?” Are we going out? And after that the only question was, To what plaza?

Monday, May 26, 2014

Never underestimate the openness of the human heart

In my career as a researcher of immigrant communities, I have too many occasions to observe the ways that discrimination, hatred, and fear transcend national borders, marking the lives of those seen as different, policing the boundaries between insiders and outsiders. But I don’t often enough get to write about a different, revolutionary truth that is also glimpsed by moving abroad: that human goodness also knows no borders. I am leaving Denmark in a few days, and last night my family and I had dinner in the home of a Danish family that we did not even know. That is, my husband met the mother on the street one afternoon when he was asking for information about bikes on the Metro. She asked where he was from and what he was doing here, and before you know it, they invited us over for dinner. “We really want to get to know you,” she said. When we arrived in their beautiful sun-drenched apartment just across the canal from our own, they greeted us like old friends, genuinely happy to see us. “You must think it’s strange that these people you don’t even know invited you over,” she said to me. “But I have learned that the only regrets we have in life are of opportunities not taken.” It was the first of many profound truths shared over the next four hours of lively conversation over food and wine. We learned that they have traveled and lived in many different countries, and have an insatiable hunger for knowledge and new experiences. They were critical of what they saw as arrogant Danish closed-mindedness and conformity, just as we are critical of American hypocrisy and well, many things. But it was not their critique that most inspired me, but their genuine enthusiasm for the goodness of others. By the end of the evening, we had new friends. As we were saying good-bye, she shared another reason why traveling and getting to know other people is so important: “The more you learn about people, the more you love, and forgive.” Isn’t that the truth? In every country and corner of the globe I have lived in—Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe—I have found people who embraced me and others against all logic. These people have taught me to never underestimate the miraculous potential of the human heart. 

Friday, May 2, 2014

Talking about race in America…in Europe

If I hear one more European make a disparaging comment about ethnic communities in the United States, I am going to lose my s**t. Believe me, I never in a million years thought that I would ever be defensive about American race relations, or—gasp—proud of American society when it comes to issues of race and cultural politics. But after 10 months of living in Europe and looking back at U.S. racial politics through a European lens, I find myself protective of our fierce racial debate and more appreciative than ever of our messy diversity. Watching Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video from a European vantage point actually brought tears to my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I have not lost my critique of racial inequality or racial violence in America. In fact, just the opposite: it is the robust critique of inequality that people of color in my country have cultivated over the past two centuries, but especially since the 1960s, that I miss on this side of the Atlantic. It is that critique, so essential to the struggle for social change, that I find so misunderstood in Europe. In six months in Spain and the past four months in Denmark, I have come to realize a few things about how many Europeans view race in America (these views are not shared by all, obviously, but I have heard them expressed enough times by different people in enough different contexts to learn that they are commonly held views).
1)      They think that we have a race problem (we do, but at least we know it);
2)      that our “political correctness” prevents us from being honest and natural, and that their “political incorrectness” entitles them to say whatever comes to their minds about people of color in the United States or anywhere;
3)      that the American obsession with ethnic identity and identity politics is an unfortunate pathology that holds us back from real progress; and
4)      Related to the above, that ethnic neighborhoods (barrios, or “ghettos”), are the scourge of decent society, and any kind of ethnic association is unnecessary or suspect.

I seem to be a magnet for unsolicited opinions of American race relations, due to the subject of my research on immigrant communities and cultural diversity. Whenever people engage me about my research or ask me about what is different here (in Spain or Denmark) from the United States, I can’t escape issues of ethnic identity. And whether these conversations are informal chats or during Q&A after a formal presentation of my research, they always seem to provoke overt or insinuated expressions of disapproval of how we do race in America. Why should this bother me, when I have spent most of my career critiquing how we do race in America? I would not want to be in the position of defending racial segregation, for example, or the increasingly apartheid nature of American schooling. But it is not these things, nor racial disparities in health, housing, higher education, or any other indicator of institutionalized racism, that my conversational partners mention when they talk about race in America. No, the comments I hear bother me because they attack the very thing I miss about the American racial landscape: the continued salience of racial and ethnic identity for people of color as a basis for meaningful association and political mobilization. When my Spanish and Danish counterparts condemn ethnic communities or the behavior of minority groups in America, they are condemning the presence of active and empowered ethnic identity groups who keep a vigorous critique of racial inequality at the forefront of public debate;  a social movement that calls white supremacy on the carpet every single day.  It is this racial vigilance that keeps the pressure for change on in the U.S., that has been dismissed by many on both sides of the Atlantic as “political correctness.”

During a recent dinner conversation with a senior educational administrator here, for example, the conversation eventually got around to my research and the differences between the experience of ethnic diversity in Spain and the U.S.  He declared, “The worst case scenario is African-Americans in the U.S. Where you have a totally blaming culture, blaming the government and society for everything they don’t have.” He immediately added, “I know you Americans are politically correct and don’t say things like this, but we Danes are not very politically correct.” The assertion was wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, it was telling that he brought up African-Americans when I had been talking about immigrant groups in Spain and in the United States. Since African-Americans are not immigrants, to suggest they are presumptuous for making demands on the state is even more inappropriate than it would be if they were immigrants. However, as I proceeded to tell him, immigrants in the U.S. today owe a great debt to African-Americans, as well as to Chicanos, for the Civil Rights Movement, a debt which I felt most acutely while doing research in Spain, where there has not been a Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps this is what I miss the most in Europe: the legacy of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the rights consciousness it won for minority groups. Some activists in the U.S. say they miss the Civil Rights Movement over there, too, since there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a comparable social movement on the scene now. But from where I sit in Denmark, I can see that the Civil Rights Movement is still alive in the U.S. today. Because once people are aware of this thing called rights, they don’t shut up until those rights are respected. What my Danish colleague called the “blaming culture” of African-Americans—while I can’t be entirely sure what he was referring to—I would re-label “critique.” African-Americans have a critique of the government and social institutions, for obvious historical reasons. And this active critique, while surely a nuisance for people who like American society as it is, is the most indispensable ingredient of a movement for social change. Have I said that enough times?

Then there’s the troubling question of why any European would think it is acceptable to criticize an entire American ethnic group to me, an American citizen. Do they think that I will agree with them because I am racially white? Do they presume to know more about my country than I do? Or are they intentionally trying to school me on political correctness? Well, at the end of the day I’m grateful, because it’s given me a chance to reflect on just how much we know about race in the United States. We have a long history of fighting about it. And here’s what I have to say to Mr. Politically Incorrect Dane: What you call “political correctness” I call “political consciousness,” which means an awareness of how power relations shape our relationships with others, and how the “others” we speak about might react to our speech. Not all Americans have this awareness, of course, but everyone who holds their tongue before making an ignorant generalization about another ethnic group has at least the seeds of this awareness, and that’s a good start. As for the troublesome people of color who can’t stop “blaming” U.S. society or institutions: call it blaming or call it holding them accountable. Whatever you call it, bring it on.

(You can see a previous post about my experience with these issues at my daughter's public school in Madrid here.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Selectively Global

In many ways, Copenhagen is a welcoming city to the English-speaking migrant, because English is virtually the second official language. In four months living here I have yet to come across a Dane who does not speak perfect or near-perfect English (although this may be different outside the Capital). Danish schoolchildren begin studying English in the third grade, and with a new education reform, they will now start English in first grade. Although the city offers free Danish classes to any registered foreign resident who wants to learn, it also markets itself as a place of English-speaking business and attracts foreign workers from across the English-speaking world. At my daughter’s English-language international school, many of her classmates’ parents from all over the world work in English workplaces in Copenhagen. One mother from India who works at Carlsberg Brewing Company, one of the world’s largest breweries based in Denmark, told me that employees on her floor are instructed to speak English only. When I asked if this rule also applied to the Danish employees, she said, “Yes, because we are a global company!” Her husband, also from India, works at Danske Bank in another English-speaking workplace. Another friend, an immigrant from Spain, speaks English at her work in a science research unit at the University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen is also home to Maersk Oil, one of the largest oil and shipping companies in the world, whose operations are conducted almost entirely in English.

The city appears to be effortlessly bilingual. And yet, as a registered foreign national, I receive all my official correspondence in Danish. This includes letters from the immigration department and the Copenhagen Municipality about my residence status, about my daughter’s childcare, and letters about my taxes and tax benefits.  The first time my daughter was offered a spot in the publicly-run after-school program near her school, we missed the deadline to enroll her because we did not understand the instructions in Danish that came in the letter and did not reply quickly enough. When a letter came from the tax authority, too long and too technical to translate with Google, I brought it to the accountant at my employer, who kindly translated and gave me the happy news that the Danish government had decided to award me a child subsidy. I marveled at how easy it would have been for me to miss that important piece of news. Then came a more cryptic letter, addressed to me in regards to my daughter, from the Copenhagen Municipality. It had only one line, which Google translated as: "Please call within 14 days because you failed to appear on time." Huh? Aside from being completely baffled about the mysterious appointment, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for failing to do something I was supposed to do. Calls to the phone number on the letter didn’t help; they were answered by a recording in Danish. I was, as Aihwa Ong has written drawing on Foucault, the immigrant subject being “disciplined” by the state. In that moment, not knowing Danish was the same as not knowing. And that’s when I started thinking about the limits of Copenhagen’s global image. Most government services websites are likewise only in Danish. It seems clear that English is the language of business, but not social services. I know better than to expect that a state would communicate with foreign residents in any language other than its own. Except that I also know how easily this one could. All of the civil servants who write those letters in Danish could just as easily write them in English. English would be understandable not only to foreign residents from the West, but to the vast numbers of workers arriving from South Asia and English-speaking Africa. In choosing not to conduct business in English, the Danish state sends a strong message to these workers that their English is valued in the workplace, but will not grant them access to Danish society. ‘You can work here, but you cannot belong.’

Of course, Denmark sends this message in much stronger ways to my Arabic, Turkish, and Urdu-speaking Muslim counterparts. While Danes often express the opinion that Denmark is “more refined” in its treatment of Muslims than the United States, recent events prove otherwise. In the past few months, the Dansk Folkeparti, Denmark’s third largest party, voted against a biannual citizenship law that would grant Danish citizenship to 1,600 individuals because there were too many Muslim names on the list. A few weeks later, senior members of the Dansk Folkeparti expressed the opinion that “there are too many Muslims in Denmark and border controls should be established to stop more from entering the country.” The headline in the Copenhagen Post read: “No more Muslims, say DF Leaders.” (January 27, 2014). In such ways, Denmark and the city of Copenhagen practice selective globalization. Carlsberg Brewing Company boasts 150 markets around the world and employs more than 40,000 people to conduct business in English, the global language, but its employees in Denmark still get their tax letters in Danish, and most work on year-to-year contracts. Danish national identity refuses to budge.  This shouldn’t surprise us. Denmark, like any other state, seeks to position itself competitively in the global economy and use English strategically to maximize productivity, while minimizing the cultural impact of foreign workers on the country. But unlike many other states, Denmark still grants benefits to the families of foreign workers (for which I am grateful) and prides itself on being a beacon of liberal tolerance. The gap between self-image and reality is yawning. And until there is a social movement of immigrants here to challenge Danish national identity, that seems unlikely to change.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

“I’m from Somalia but I live in Denmark”

In the past two months, as I have moved with my family from Spain to Denmark, my life and work have placed me in several different international communities. Within these communities, little capsules of globalization, expectations are defied as cultural borders are crossed and blurred with dizzying speed. I am teaching at the Danish Institute for Study Abroad (DIS), whose 1,000 students come from primarily U.S. colleges and universities to study abroad in Denmark, but whose diversity, like American college students overall, mirrors the globe. I have met students from Hong Kong, Pakistan, Kenya, and, Ghana, already “international students” in the U.S., now studying abroad again. “My parents didn’t really understand it,” a young woman from Pakistan told me about her decision to come to Denmark, after already being settled in a prestigious private college in Massachusetts. “I said, ‘Why not? It’s another experience. I want to learn all I can before I go back to Pakistan and try to improve education there.” More on her later.

At my daughter’s international school across town, a small English-speaking school that attracts families who are either turned off by or excluded from the pricier Copenhagen International School, her classmates are from Zimbabwe, Italy, Greece, the U.S., India, Pakistan and Nepal. Perhaps because of this diversity, and the fact that all the children are outsiders to Denmark, she felt at home there from day one. A new form of community based on difference and un-belonging was born. That might be the subject of another blog post.

But yesterday I visited yet another international community within Copenhagen: a Muslim independent school founded by Pakistani Muslims 25 years ago. There are some 20 Muslim independent schools in Denmark, private schools subsidized by the state. I went on this school visit with a group of students from DIS studying child diversity and development and our Iraqi-Danish host. Fortunately, the student from Pakistan, who I’ll call Sara, was on this visit. As we walked to the school from the train station, Sara asked if the school, Iqbal International School, was named after Allama Iqbal, the famous Pakistani poet. Our host did not know, but once at the school, we confirmed that it was. Delighted, Sara explained to us that Iqbal was a Pakistani hero because he had dreamed of independence when Pakistan was still part of British India, and worked closely with Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This crucial piece of the school’s history would have remained unknown to me had it not been for Sara. Sara, twice removed from her country, found a piece of her home in global space, and ushered us in.

What does global space look like here? It is a class of 5th grade boys wearing Nike and Adidas athletic gear, introducing themselves to us one by one as, “I am from Somalia, but I live in Denmark.” And girls, less numerous and seated at the front of the room, wearing colorful headscarves and tunics. Although the school was founded by Pakistani Muslims, in recent years its Pakistani population has declined while the Somali population exploded. I do not yet know this history. In this global space, their English teacher was the daughter of Moroccan immigrants, born and raised and educated in Copenhagen. She told us that although parents choose the school because they believe it follows the Islamic educational tradition, it is not at all like a school in Somalia. Last December she taught the students about Danish Christmas and received a flurry of parent complaints. “But I think they need to learn about Christmas and the Christian religion,” she told us, “that’s why they are here.” Her colleague, the Arabic teacher, told us the vision of the school has always been to “teach our religion and our mother tongue.” That means that in addition to Danish and English, the school offers instruction in Arabic, Somali, and Urdu. Clearly there are as many different ways of being Muslim as there are histories of people in the school, and none of these are frozen in time. The headmaster himself is a Danish Muslim, one of an estimated 2-5,000 Danish converts.

While many voices in the Danish media criticize the formation of Muslim schools as separatist, saying, “They come to live in their own world, which creates rifts between them and the Danish society and its values,” this perspective clearly fails to capture the dynamic reality of the Muslim independent school and the global space it represents. The space is neither Denmark nor Somalia or Pakistan, but a new space of evolving Muslim self-determination, where things remain by changing and change to remain. Allama Iqbal, I later read online, had justified the foundation of a Muslim state in a letter to Jinnah, the founding father of Pakistan, in 1937 by asking, “Why should not the Muslims of North-West India and Bengal be considered as nations entitled to self-determination just as other nations in India and outside India are?” The school bearing his name in Copenhagen now asks, What does Muslim self-determination mean in the global era? The answer is still being debated, but it is clear it does not conform to what extremists on either side imagine. A Moroccan-Danish English teacher may teach students about Danish Christmas, while Sara, a Pakistani U.S. college student walking the streets in Copenhagen, tells me that her favorite time of the year is Ramadan, because it is at Ramadan that she feels most strongly a part of her community. I can’t help but think that she would make Allama Iqbal proud.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What’s in a Song? On representations of cultural diversity

In early December my daughter came home from school singing a song, “Soy un Chino Capuchino Mandarín.” She said it was a Christmas song her class was preparing for the end of school Christmas party, and they would all dress up as Chinese people. In the song, the Chinese are on the road to Bethlehem and are approached by the Magi asking them for directions, but they can’t help because they don’t understand Spanish. Just hearing her sing the line, “Como Chino Capuchino no entender,” aroused such anger in me. Here they go, portraying Asians as inescapably foreign and alien, even stupid.  I immediately pointed out to my daughter that her friend Han Han, who is Chinese, speaks Spanish perfectly. “Mami, es una canción!” (“It’s just a song!”) she replied. But the worst was to come. For their Chinese costumes, the teacher sent home garbage bags to be decorated at home with black adhesive tape in order to look like Chinese robes.  Garbage bags? Really? As if the song and the idea of dressing up like Chinese people weren’t offensive enough. But once again my effort to challenge distortion with reality (“Chinese people don’t wear garbage bags,” I pointed out) was rejected by my 5-year-old. “Mami, the teacher said.” And hence the insidious crime of this activity, invested with all the authority of the school, taught to 5-year-olds who are still learning how to see the world and shaping their perceptions of cultural difference.

So began two weeks of painful deliberation by my husband and I about how to respond to this and whether to let her participate. Our response to this incident is shaped by our training as anthropologists of education who focus on issues of cultural diversity in schools, as well as our personal identities and experiences of cultural diversity in the United States. This training and experience has attuned us to the role of ethnic and racial stereotyping in relations of inequality. We are new to Spain, but in the few months we have been here, we have learned that the Chinese are one of the most marginalized, if not the most marginalized immigrant minority group. They have the highest school dropout rate, and in some recent studies of the second generation (children of immigrants born in Spain), the Chinese are the least likely of any ethnic group to identify as Spanish or to have friendships outside their ethnic group.

In Madrid, the face of the Chinese are the small merchants who operate the numerous ‘bazaars’ selling cheap imported goods. Madrid is home to the largest Chinese distribution center in Europe. Chinese merchants have been the target of protests by Spanish shoe merchants (one in 2004 ending in the burning of a Chinese shoe warehouse) and in the central city neighborhood of Lavapies in 2005, they were the target of a ‘cleansing’ campaign by municipal authorities and Spanish merchants who associated the Chinese with ‘suciedad’ (dirtiness), contamination, and illegality. That’s right, the Chinese were associated with garbage. Fast forward to 2013, and a central city public school assigns its kindergarten class to dress up as Chinese by wearing garbage bags. This, very briefly, is the social and historical context within which we interpret the meaning of this activity, as outsiders to the school but specialists in cultural diversity.

Insiders to the school interpret the activity from different lenses, of course. In the past two weeks we have spoken to parents, the teacher, the principal and the academic director, about our concerns. No one we have spoken to can see anything wrong with the activity. In each case, their first response has been to assure us of the absence of any racial intent. No problem, as Americans we’re used to the “I didn’t mean to be racist therefore I’m not” argument. We assure them that we are not accusing anyone of racist intent, or any harmful intent whatsover, but that we are concerned about the implications and consequences of this activity for children in the school, especially children of Asian descent. They explain that the song comes from a traditional and popular villancico sung by the famous “Payasos de la Tele” (clowns of the television) in the 1970s.  One mother told me, “most of us parents in the school grew up with that song, and that’s why you won’t find anyone who sees anything wrong with it.” The Chinese immigrant parents, of course, did not grow up with that song, but it hadn’t occurred to anyone we talked to to ask what Chinese parents would think.  When we raised this question, we got some thoughtful “Hmm”s. The school staff admitted that they had some thinking to do, and agreed to make some modifications to the activity, for example, removing some of the hand gestures that had children pulling their eyes to make slanty-eyes (yes, that had initially been part of the song). But the overall sense I got from these conversations was that they (Spanish parents and educators) believe that we (Americans) have a ‘race problem’ which causes us to be overly sensitive and therefore unable to see the harmonious and agreeable nature of social relations in this school and Spain in general (people said as much in many different ways). So which view is right?

The real difference here is not between a Spanish and an American version of race relations. Many Americans would agree with the Spaniards that my husband and I were overreacting and that “political correctness” (the term actually used by one Spanish father to describe our reaction) was stifling harmless and spontaneous creative expression. The real difference, instead, lies between a critical view and an uncritical view of cultural representations; between a view that considers the role of historical context and power inequalities in cultural representation and asks who has the power to represent whom, and a view that does not. While the uncritical view uses historical referents to justify dominant representations of minority cultures (the TV Clowns sang the song in the ‘70s, so it’s okay), the critical view uses historical context to question dominant representations (Chinese merchants have been the target of ‘cleansing’ campaigns in the recent past, so is it really a good idea to have children dress up as Chinese people by wearing garbage bags?). And as to the absence of racial intent, can any cultural image ever be innocent in the context of racial inequality?

On the question of what is the best way to parent a child in these circumstances, I remain uncertain. While I see mostly negative outcomes of allowing my daughter to participate in racially offensive stereotyping, I also see negative outcomes of forbidding her to participate and separating her from her classmates. It is a difficult situation, and I don’t claim to know what is best. On one thing I am clear, however. Between the critical and uncritical view, I will always choose the critical. To be uncritical is to be allow yourself to be swept by currents that have resulted in mass inequality and to disown your own capacity for independent thought, not to mention your responsibility to make change. I agree with Freire: to develop critical consciousness is our vocation as human beings. And yes, it is painful.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

It takes a village

The hard thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that you always have a childcare problem. The great thing about doing fieldwork in a foreign country with a child is that the childcare problem becomes, inadvertently, a way into community; a passage into relationships of trust and reciprocity that would otherwise be closed to you. Away from home without your networks of friends and babysitters, any after school-hours activity can present a major headache. We have had a particularly challenging time because we work with two after-school programs, so all of our research activities with youth are, well, after school. To survive we have taken advantage of our own transnational networks—for a few weeks the niece of our good friends back home, who was studying abroad in Madrid for the semester, babysat our daughter during one of our weekly sessions, until her travel schedule and her far-too-soon return home prevented it; and when friends from Connecticut visited us, we recruited them into babysitting, as well. But we have also relied on the kindness of new friends and neighbors, and it is here where the childcare problem becomes a blessing, forcing us into a new community. Last week, just when our babysitter was no longer available to us, we added a second youth group to our schedule, giving us two evening focus groups a week. Trying to figure out childcare arrangements became nearly as complicated as the research itself. Our daughter’s regular ballet class in the neighborhood provided half a solution: she was covered for the first hour of our two-hour session. Midway through the first session, I ran out to pick her up from ballet and brought her back to the youth center, fortunately just a couple of blocks away.

If you have to take your kid to work, a youth center in Madrid is not a bad place to do it. I could write a whole separate blog post on the warm welcome my kiddo has received from the staff and teenagers at both youth centers where we have worked, and how I believe I owe whatever ethnographic access I have obtained to her. If she is not with me, the staff and teenagers always ask about her, and watching them interact with her so lovingly allows me to glimpse a side of them I would not otherwise see. But here I want to simply comment on the grace of finding others to take care of your child, because let’s face it, however child-friendly the work environment, sometimes you just need your kid to not be there so you can work, and sometimes the desperation to find childcare is so great that you would practically fall on your knees to beg someone to take her. And in a new country with new relationships, that humbling act of ‘I need help, can you help me’ can bring a surprising grace. I am lucky enough to live in the same community as the teenagers with whom I work, and the younger sister of one of my 17-year-old students, who I’ll call Carol, is in the same ballet class as my daughter. We often see Carol, and other students of ours on the street in the neighborhood, and they always greet our daughter with a big bear hug or a high five. Carol’s little sister and my kiddo have become good friends, walking together on the way to or from school and at ballet twice a week. So once I decided that running out to pick up the kiddo halfway through a focus group was not going to happen again, I thought of Carol. I called her up and asked if she could take both kids home after ballet for an hour while we finished our focus group. She said sure. Tonight after our session finished, I walked the few blocks to Carol’s apartment, where I was invited inside to a scene of childhood bliss. The girls wanted to keep playing. I chatted for a while with her mother and cooed over her baby brother. I knew that the family had moved here a few years ago from Brazil. And I thanked Carol and her mother profusely for helping me out. “It’s nothing,” Carol’s mother said genuinely, almost embarrassed that I should thank her. I had offered to pay Carol, but they wouldn’t accept any money. That brief encounter inside their home changed the way I saw Carol and her mother, as my asking them to take care of my daughter probably changed the way they saw me. Instead of the teacher from America who’s always asking weird questions, I became the recipient of their kindness.

There have been so many other occasions here when new friends have amazed me with their generosity, dispatching nieces or offering themselves to take care of the kiddo so that I could work, give a talk at a conference, or just go shopping. So to all of you who have been part of my village here in Madrid: thank you. Your kindness has made me conscious of community, and of the need to pay it forward, to invest in the ties that make this transnational migrant life possible.