There’s been a couple of pieces in the Telegraph blogs section that has come to my attention recently. If you didn’t already know, the Telegraph blogs section in particular is chock full of prejudice and bigotry. The actual paper isn’t quite as bad (although I have seen some vomit-inducing front pages). People tend to focus on the Daily Mail, which comes out with something extremely ethically dubious pretty much every day, but we mustn’t forget the bigoted broadsheets.
The first piece I’ve seen this week is actually by a Labour MP (Tom Harris) - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/10477858/Object-to-mass-immigration-from-the-EU-Join-the-Romaphobe-club.html. Which gives support to the view I’ve taken to recently - that the Labour party is, both in rhetoric and in the views and character of the people within and representing the party, not particularly different to the Conservatives. Just as bad, pretty much.
Tom Harris’ piece is an incredibly xenophobic and cold-hearted objection to immigration from Romania and Bulgaria. He starts with the classic trope of the bigot - complaining about how it’s “taboo” to talk negatively about large-scale immigration. If it’s so taboo, how is he writing a piece for a major national newspaper? If it’s so taboo, why do I constantly hear about it from every arsehole I meet? It gets worse. He assumes that these immigrants will be anti-social, rowdy, street harassers. He says his constituents are getting angrier and resentful. Even if this were the case, why should we prioritise our lives over theirs? If they have “filthy and overcrowded living arrangements” and are “rifling through domestic wheelie bins”, shouldn’t we see it as a good thing that they can come over here, where hopefully they will have better opportunities and a better standard of living? This is the thing that no politician dares to say. Some (although not many) will make the point that immigrants actually enhance our society, our economy and British culture, something which is completely true. However, even if some British people were made worse off, why should that matter more than the immigrants whose lives are being made better? We’re all human, aren’t we?
Secondly, I personally find it disgusting that he invokes the resentment of his constituents as validation for his prejudice. In 1964 Peter Griffiths won his Smethwick seat with the slogan “if you want a n****r for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour”. He preyed on the racism of the electorate to win the election. There is still a lot of racism and xenophobia today, and this is something that increases when people are living with poverty and poor education. People are scared of immigration not only because of bad education and economic hardship which makes immigrants a handy scapegoat, but also because of the propaganda put about by the media (Tom Harris included) that serves to scare people and heighten racial tensions. Tom Harris’ piece was, in this sense, incredibly irresponsible.
The fact that this got published, and that Tom Harris is a Labour MP… it’s incredibly depressing.
The next thing that caught my attention was another Telegraph blog post on paternity leave… More of that to come.
Frequently, when I try to explain to a (white) friend/acquaintance that racism is still alive and well in the UK, illustrating my point with personal anecdotes, these people flat out refuse to accept that these things happened or they challenge my interpretation of events. When I wrote this piece for the Guardian on racism in Oxford (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/feb/28/oxford-cambridge-universities-race-issues) which mentioned coming across students in yellowface, I got people in the comments essentially accusing me of making things up.
While of course white people can contribute to discussions of racism, there is something problematic about denying the experiences of prejudice and discrimination that minorities have. Firstly, the experiences of minorities/people of colour have been historically discounted and neglected. Even today, in countries like the UK and US, minorities are not well represented in government and are being systematically disenfranchised - their voices are being marginalised on a societal level. This is the historical and social context in which even casual discussions take place.
Secondly, I strongly believe that the ability to understand that others have different experiences to your own is vitally important to being a decent functioning person in society. It required empathy and humility to realise that hey, maybe you don’t know everything about everything - maybe there really are things going on under your nose that you didn’t know were happening and maybe other people are better qualified to talk about it than you - empathy and humility that a lot of people seem to lack. It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that a white person might not have a perfect grip on everyday racism, a man might not understand everything about the sexism that women face, a rich person might not understand the realities of a life in poverty, and so on. Yet, this is where the denial comes from - the majority/powerful refusing to accept things might be different for the minority/oppressed than they are for them.
This isn’t confined to bigots - this happens to everyone. I have a recent example in the form of something I saw on Twitter a few days ago - a so-called intersectional feminist refusing to accept that there might be students with disabilities for whom missing a single class would be severely detrimental to their studies, because that was not her (able-bodied) experience. It is crucial, as an intersectional feminist, to recognise diversity of experience and to listen with genuine openness.
Without empathy, humility and compassion, we cannot hope to make meaningful steps towards a more equal society.
P.S. Just a reminder that I tweet at @ohheybiology if feminism/social justice activism/science geekery is your thang
DJ Grothe, the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and the guy who runs TAM, just posted this lovely Facebook status: https://www.facebook.com/djgrothe/posts/10152021454425856
In case it gets taken down, here’s the screencap:
Just another lovely reminder of the prejudice that is so prevalent throughout the leaders of the atheist community.
Not only is it transphobic, but it is incredibly cruel on an individual level - picking on one person and broadcasting something so nasty and personal to his 1063 followers. Ugh.
So, I came across this picture on Pinterest:
Apparently it’s for a “gender reveal party”, which I didn’t even know was a thing. The idea is that expecting parents find out the “gender” of the baby and announce it while having a big party, or something.
Obviously, this idea is so dumb for so many reasons. It’s impossible to know the gender of a foetus. A foetus does not have a gender. Gender is a social construct. I guess what they’re referring to is sex, although sex is not purely biological, but is also informed by social and cultural norms.
The second weird thing is - why is everyone so interested? As a society, we have such an obsession with gender - constantly gendering things that really don’t require gendering in any way, and working super hard to uphold the gender binary. Gender reveal parties are a symptom of people’s obsession with gender as a primary, defining characteristic of someone, as well as the well-established gender roles that come with assigning people one gender or another. Finding out the “gender” of a foetus means that relatives and friends “know” whether to buy blue cars or pink dolls, t shirts or dresses - ensuring the future person will know the gender they’ve been assigned by society before they were even born, and exactly how they’re supposed to look and act based on that assignment.
There’s one more fishy thing about this picture - the chalkboard sign itself. That’s actually what made me stop and look at the picture in the first place. It reads “almost time to see, which will it be? A bouncing little he or a pretty little she?” (emphasis mine). Once again, we see the reinforcement of traditional gender roles - men as active doers and women as passive objects to be looked at.
This stuff starts from before a baby is even born and is reinforced over and over again.
I love Hallowe’en. It’s my favourite holiday of the year. Scary stuff, fancy dress, trick or treating - I love it all. Unfortunately, Hallowe’en and racism go hand in hand. Last year at a party I attended, someone came dressed as a “rich Arab”. Yup, there’s pretty much no way that can not be racist. He was wearing a sheet and a teatowel. This was actually not the most depressing thing about the whole scenario, though - whenever I tried recounting this story (actually a story about my partner in which the racist guy was incidental), people would stop me and argue that the costume was not, in fact, racist.
So, I just wanted to say a few words on why racist costumes are racist (something which I really really wish wasn’t necessary). The classic objection that all racists make is “but it wouldn’t be racist to dress up as [X Western Culture], would it? So why is it racist the other way around?”, sometimes throwing in “Isn’t it more racist to have this double standard?”
Case in point: Vice recently ran a piece on an Australian woman who held an “Africa” themed birthday party. I mean, this is just racist straight off the bat, before we’ve even seen the costumes - and it gets worse. If you want to see the full horror - http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/someone-thought-a-blackface-birthday-party-was-a-good-idea. Everyone is in blackface, wearing really racist costumes - there’s even someone in a KKK outfit for literally no reason except RACISM. Even for internet commenters, who usually love to construct some convoluted way that really racist things aren’t racist, this was indefensible. Yet, the hostess in question tried to defend it, saying “"I am 100% sure that parties would be held that would be ‘Australian themed’ or American themed or even countries of the world, and in that instance I don’t believe anyone would be offended. People wear oktoberfest cotumes [sic] to parties and no one cracks it that they are not German?".
Okay. What’s wrong with this line of reasoning? The premise is true - it is fine to dress up as an American or German or French person. Even whiteface, which people often bring up as a rhetorical device to argue for the acceptability of blackface but which I’ve never actually seen anyone attempt, would be pretty much fine.
Firstly, let’s disabuse anyone of the notion that racism is a two-way street. Racism isn’t just saying or doing something related to someone’s race. Racism sits within a historical and political and social context. Let’s take the example of blackface. Blackface has clear cultural baggage - it has been used as a way of demeaning, degrading and mocking black people since the 19th century, and stretching well into the 20th. Aside from the clear pejorative connotations, it exoticises, it others. And that’s what it still signifies today. Whiteface, on the other hand, has no such baggage. White people are not mocked for how they look or act - they are the norm, the standard.
This can be applied to wider examples of racist costuming, and isn’t constrained to the past. Cultural appropriation, stereotyping, caricaturing - all of these feed into the way minorities are treated in society today. Dressing as a “sexy Native American woman” (http://bit.ly/16GFRWc) is awful not just because of the historical context of hypersexualisation of Native American women, but also because 1 in 3 Native American women have been raped and 86% of these rapes are carried out by non-Native men (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/sep/08/sexual-violence-native-american-communities). There are no such attitudes towards German women. There are no such statistics.
And finally, I’d just like to remind everyone that - this is not about offence. Even if everyone there was totally fine with it all, it was just a “bit of fun”, and besides, one of your best friends is black and they promised they were totally cool with it… It’s still racist. It’s not just offensive, it’s racist. Racist costumes are racist because they perpetuate stereotypes and ultimately negative attitudes about minorities. They affect the way people see and treat eachother. They contribute to deep-rooted societal problems. They reinforce oppression.
And if anyone’s still living in the illusion that we live in a post-racial society? Search #stopblackgirls2013 on Twitter. It will quickly disabuse you of that notion.
Dressed as a white character for Halloween and I didn’t even have to white up!
1. direct, open involvement with the KKK
2. poc saying something about white people
3. literally nothing else
Even very pro-choice people often have a deeply negative gut reaction to the idea of sex-selective abortion. On the one hand, women should have the right to decide what happens to their body; on the other hand - surely there’s something wrong about aborting female foetuses just for being female?
To understand exactly why we have the reaction that we do, I think we need to separate out the variables and isolate what part of sex-selective abortion is bugging us. Let’s take an example of a family, living in the UK. They have 3 boys already and they really want a girl. There are many reasons why people might want children of both genders - perhaps the mother had a very strong bond with her mother and wants to be able to share that experience with a child of her own. They get pregnant again - this time it’s a boy. Is it bad to decide to have an abortion on that basis?
My instinct is to say that it’s not at all bad. If you’re pro-choice to begin with (whether abortion is a good or bad thing in general is a whole other debate), I think you’ll probably agree with me. This is, technically, sex-selective abortion. Yet, it’s completely fine. Why?
When the phrase “sex-selective abortion” is uttered, it comes with context, with cultural baggage. We automatically think of the abortion of female foetuses rather than male ones, in places such as India or China. The geography is relevant here because these abortions are not happening in a cultural vacuum - it’s not a personal decision that each parent makes. These parents live in societies where having a female child is a burden - because society has deemed them to be. In many situations they may not be allowed to work, they may have to married off at expense to the family, they are simply valued less than a male child. The problem is this discrimination. It is the patriarchal structure which causes women to be valued less, which results in sex-selective abortions.
It is because sex-selective abortion is a symptom, not a cause, that a blanket ban does not get anywhere near addressing the root of the problem. Furthermore, in a society where backstreet abortions are not hard to obtain, and where women do not have control over their own bodies, banning them could lead to worse consequences. The only way to address the problem of sex-selective abortion in places like China and India is to uproot the patriarchy - emancipate and empower women. I think we are already seeing this in places like Delhi - women are rising up and fighting back, as we feminists in the West look on in admiration.
The Telegraph has run an exposé uncovering sex-selective abortions being undertaken in the UK. The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) has said that they have enough material to move forward with a criminal prosecution, but have elected not to do so, instead leaving it to the GMC to discipline the doctors. The reason they have given is that it’s not in the public interest.
Jeremy Hunt, the (Conservative) Health Secretary, has waded in - accusing the CPS of failing to uphold the law and essentially pushing for a prosecution.
What Hunt hasn’t considered is what will be gained by prosecuting these individuals. Yes, they’ve done something wrong and yes, they’ll probably be struck off, but dragging these doctors through the criminal courts isn’t going to solve anything. It means that these women will be most likely to be forced into unsafe backstreet abortions - nothing will change about the value of women in these communities.
If we are really serious about this problem, if we really want to fix it - we need better education, better information, more outreach. We need better resources for immigrant women to access - informing them of their legal rights, social support networks. We need better education (sex and relationships education, and all-round education) - we need girls to grow up knowing they are as valued as the boys.
I’m sure that’s not what Jeremy Hunt wants to hear.
Yesterday I went on a lovely day out with my partner around central London, seeing quite a few exhibitions etc. I thought I’d share a few observations.
Firstly, I’d like to recommend the Museum of London (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/). Despite living in London for almost all of my life, I’d never even heard of it before my partner’s parents suggested it. Situated near St Paul’s, it’s a museum of London history that goes right from anthropological finds of Neanderthal settlements to the current day, in a series of fascinating and well-curated exhibits. It’s extensive and informative, and though we only spent a couple hours there, you could easily spend a whole day or more. Also, completely free!
The thing that especially impressed me about it was its politics. Museum exhibits aren’t pure objective facts laid out in a dispassionate manner - they are narratives told from the perspective of the people putting them together.
From the Roman exhibit put together by a group of young Londoners that linked their diverse backgrounds to the diverse languages and attitudes in Roman London, to the stress on the central role of the freed slaves in the abolition of the slave trade (a refreshing counter to the whitewashing of the narrative we almost always see), to the inspirational suffragette movement, to the documentation of the homophobia rampant in public life in the 20th century, I wouldn’t be surprised if the curators were card-carrying intersectional feminists. I really can’t recommend this place enough.
Now onto something I really can’t recommend…
I was really keen to see the Mexico: A Revolution in Art (1910 - 1940) at the Royal Academy of Arts, because I love Frida Kahlo and am pretty interested in Diego Rivera. I wasn’t expecting much Kahlo, but from the adverts I had the impression that Rivera would feature bigtime. From what I know about Mexico at that time (which is not very much) this was a period of flux and change that had a big impact on the art, and I was really interested to see that exhibited.
I was severely disappointed. The captions were uninformative, the curation was uninspired, and the whole thing was whitewashed. While there were interesting pieces, the whole exhibition was peppered with (maybe even dominated by?) artists who were not Mexican, nor had spent a significant part of their life in Mexico. I lost count of the number of captions that went something like, “X spent one year/month/etc in Mexico and never returned”. These were mostly European/American artists. Not only is this all-too-familiar whitewashing, but it simply wasn’t interesting. Their art wasn’t informed by the Mexican tradition, it wasn’t capturing anything that was happening at the time. It just seemed out of place in an exhibition supposedly documenting the fierce nationalism then blooming in Mexican art.
Also in promotional material Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are featured prominently, but be warned - there is a little bit of Rivera with not much explanation about his life and prominence, and there is one small Kahlo portrait with again, little said of her.
(This is the portrait. It’s seriously tiny.)
My partner and I sort of felt like it was a wasted trip, but I guess if I hadn’t seen what a failure it was I would have been wondering.
To end on a positive note, the Museum of Contemporary African Art (an installation by Meshac Gaba at the Tate Modern) is absolutely fantastic. It’s irreligious, anti-capitalist, and a lot of fun. It closes next month so hurry down!
(Chess board and pieces - one set covered in dollar bills and the other in euros)
The Royal Society here in London has its annual Summer Science Exhibition on this week (running til Sunday).
It’s basically a bunch of stalls with different research groups all explaining their work. All the stalls are really well laid out, there’s lots of interactive stuff, and the research is communicated really well by eager scientists.
The highlights for me were the “Biology Builders” - people who are using 3D printers to print scaffolds made of polymers that they put stem cells on and regrow tissues! Also really awesome was the Dark Matter stall with a neat 5 minute 3D film explaining what dark matter is.
I would highly recommend popping in and having a look - it’s free, you get free booklets/pencils/totebags and all that fun stuff, and you’ll learn stuff!
The Royal Society also has a series of events on this week as part of the whole Summer Science thing. I went to a panel discussion on Tuesday about the wonders of life and taxonomy and conserving biodiversity and all that coolness with my homeboy (= ex-lecturer) Peter Holland. It was really, unexpectedly, good. Sometimes public outreach type things can be pretty dumbed down to the point where they’re not even that interesting to a layperson, but this one was really well-pitched. It kept both me (someone who’s doing a Masters with the word “biodiversity” in the title) and my friend (someone who hasn’t done Biology since GCSE) interested.
And finally, here is a photo of my friend with ALBERT EINSTEIN: