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.