Fa-Shun the Fashion Industry: Acknowledging Sexism in Fashion

by Sara Giarnieri, September 21, 2021

It’s no secret that the fashion industry controls a big part of our media consumption. We see it in movies, clothing websites, advertisements, and other platforms. However, fashion isn’t as beautiful as it seems in its deceiving haute couture shows and eye-catching magazines; it is a dark industry. The fashion industry is sexist because of the workplace ‘glass ceiling’, sexual objectification, and its influence on disordered eating, making it an industry of little mobility and a lot of exploitation.

The ‘glass ceiling’ of the fashion industry is a persisting problem. It is hard for women to obtain higher roles in the workplace. According to “Shattering the Glass Runway,” a 2018 report by Pamela Brown, Stacey Haas, Sophie Marchessou, and Cyrielle Villepelet, only “14 percent of major brands have a female executive in charge” (Brown et al.). This number is concerningly low considering that “70 percent of women aspire to become top executives, versus 60 percent of men” (Brown et al.). More women want to achieve those higher roles in the workplace than men, yet less than 15% of women actually have those roles in top fashion brands. According to the article, women are prevented from achieving these positions because of lack of advice from senior colleagues, lack of promotions, and childcare burdens at home, as women are expected to play a larger role in caretaking for their children (Brown et al.). Women should be able to provide insight on certain things that men may not know, such as size-inclusivity for clothing or wider shade ranges for undergarments, but they are stuck in less influential roles.  For an industry that is so heavily marketed towards women, there aren’t many women that represent the industry.

Another problem in the fashion industry is its sexual objectification of women, often to appease the male eye. According to  “Disordered Eating Behaviors and Sexual Objectification during New York Fashion Week: Implementation of Industry Policies and Legislation” (2020), female models experience sexual harassment and invasion of privacy: a study surveyed 76 models, 87 percent of them female, that participated in New York Fashion Week in the Fall of 2018 (Austin et al.). Of the 76 participants, 32 said that they “experienced invasive photography or lack of privacy while changing backstage” (Austin et al.). It is clear that the basic human need for privacy is not respected in the fashion industry. Sexual harassment in the fashion industry needs to be addressed. It is illegal, and it is morally wrong.

Objectification of women also stems from advertisements and campaigns. A 2019 article posted by FashionHarp called “Hyper Sexualization in the Fashion Industry” highlights the oversexualization of women in brands like Dolce & Gabbana and Vogue. They also emphasize the racism that black women experience through their portrayal as “wild, sexual beasts that just can’t seem to shed their animalistic spots” in many of their sexualized photos (“Hyper Sexualisation in the Fashion Industry”). This objectification of women is harmful to display for the public, as it insinuates that women should be treated as such, making the important progress of feminist movements backpedal.  The racist and sexual portrayal of black women as animals is also a huge issue that needs to be acknowledged. Equality has been growing for decades, shutting down prejudices and unfairness along the way. Why hasn’t the fashion industry done so as well? Presenting black women as “animalistic” is a negative stereotype that needs to be left behind in order to truly be inclusive. The industry, rather than simply focusing on fashion, finds a need to simultaneously objectify women in the process.

Lastly, the fashion industry pushes such unrealistic beauty standards that many women are pressured into developing eating disorders. Disordered eating can happen to anyone, but in the fashion industry, it is prominently something women must battle. Many female models are forced to stay “slim,” thus creating long term unhealthy relationships with food. Looking back on the 2018 New York Fashion Week study, it was reported that in order to lose weight during the event, participants were “skipping meals, exercising, using fasts/cleanses/nutritional detoxes, using weight‐loss supplements or diet pills, using stimulants such as Ritalin, using intravenous drips such as “banana bags,” self‐induced vomiting, or other methods” (Austin et al.). The pressure to lose weight in the fashion industry comes with dangerous consequences, as shown by the concerning behaviors reported in the survey. Another concerning statistic is that “20% reported that an industry professional had suggested that their weight/shape had prevented them from booking a job” (Austin et al.), which further shows how big a factor weight is in the fashion industry.

In addition, Vogue uploaded a video directed by Shaina Danziger in 2019 called “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image,” as a part of their docu-series The Models. Ali Michael, an American model, recalled a past experience and said, “I went to Paris, and after the first day of castings my agency told me that the response from my first day of castings foreshows us that I had gained too much weight and was unusable for the shows” (Danziger). The emphasis on weight is alarming, as it could cause self-confidence issues amongst models or even amongst women in the general public watching this unfold. A few comments such as this on the video also raise some points of concern: “I’m confused about why Vogue is interviewing them & posting this… when they’re a part of the problem” (I Can Relate). It certainly feels hypocritical that Vogue is giving models a platform to talk about their body image issues in the industry while simultaneously causing these issues. If Vogue’s intention is to make a change, they have to practice what they preach.

Now, the question is: how do we combat sexism in the fashion industry? Spreading awareness is a significant first step in combating sexism. According to “Shattering the Glass Runway,” “100% of the women surveyed see gender inequality as an issue in fashion, while less than 50% of men do” (Brown et al.). It is clear that many people don’t seem to be aware of gender inequality, especially males in CEO fashion industry positions that look to exploit women for the sake of fortune. It is likely because they are in a better position in the industry that makes it hard to imagine the other side’s difficulties. If more statistics, studies, and personal stories regarding females in the fashion industry were publicized, maybe the heteropatriarchal perspective on inequality will change. Sexual harassment in the industry needs to be further exposed. Women, as well as anyone else, deserve to be protected and respected. Consequences regarding disordered eating need to be spread, sharing the disturbing numbers of people who suffer from disordered eating and showing how it affects health. 

Though there is some effort to try and change the fashion industry, much more progress is needed. There are not enough resources out there to transform the fashion industry into something that promotes equality. A memo to the fashion industry: women are not objects, not toys, and not inferiors. Respect is something that everyone deserves. As people unveil the horrors you hide, more will start to change. Women will gain the respect that you fail to show.


Works Cited

Brown, Pamela, et al. “Shattering the Glass Runway.” McKinsey & Company, 19 Feb. 2019, http://www.mckinsey.com/industries/retail/our-insights/shattering-the-glass-runway#. 

Danziger, Shaina. “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image | The Models | Vogue.” YouTube, uploaded by Vogue, 23 Apr. 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKd38G338Qw. 

“Hyper Sexualisation in the Fashion Industry.” FashionHarp, 13 Feb. 2019, fashionharp.com/promotions/hyper-sexualisation-in-the-fashion-industry/. 

I Can Relate. Comment on “9 Models on the Pressure to Lose Weight and Body Image | The Models | Vogue.” Youtube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKd38G338Qw. 

Rodgers, Rachel, et al. “Disordered Eating Behaviors and Sexual Objectification during New York Fashion Week: Implementation of Industry Policies and Legislation.” International Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 54, no. 3, Mar. 2021, pp. 433–437. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1002/eat.23432.

You’re Never Truly Yours: How Love and Ownership Are Synonymous

by Marcela Muricy, May 30, 2021

“There is beauty in the idea of freedom, but it is an illusion. Every human heart is chained by love.”

Cassandra Clare

When we are born, we are all empty rooms — white, blank, utterly devoid of all life and personality. Our parents, then, are the only ones who may enter freely: they paint the walls, play their favorite hits on a record player, and maybe hang a cross over the door. They make a storage space of us, piling cardboard boxes in the corner and labeling each as “mannerisms,” “habits,” “beliefs,” or “obsession with the JFK assassination.” From the very beginning of our lives, we belong to them, absorbing their traits and letting them shape and define us. They are the primary decorators of our “room” until we inevitably age, maturing and reclaiming agency of ourselves and our identity, refurbishing this space to our own liking. Yet, as we rearrange it with age, do we truly have as much autonomy in the matter as we would like to believe?

When we are born, our rooms are quite put together, with most interests hand-picked and presented as essential, our parents projecting onto us what they’d always dreamed for themselves. Ballet classes at age 2, ice skating at 4, Catholic school at 5 — all the beauties of the New World, supposedly. When we grow, however, things begin to change. We wear mismatched outfits to school because I like it, even if Mom says we’ll get bullied. We rearrange and redecorate our “room” as we reach the age of puberty and change our sense of self. Our perception of the world becomes completely transformed, that “room” finally opens for us to edit — the space seemingly infinite. 

We can change our clothes, betray our schedules, or shed a religion that once meant everything. We can adopt new hobbies and become part of fictional worlds we wished were within reach, allowing the smell of the worn pages to sink into our memory forever. We can find our true passion, begin reciting knowledge of biology like a prayer, and become intrinsically entangled with the beauty and complexity of it all. We can begin to reconcile with the fact that our parents are flawed humans woven from the same cloth, struggling to grapple with lifelong dilemmas. We can shift our mentalities from theirs, tune our radios to a different station, and make that same inherited room completely unrecognizable.

Yet, while some things we may edit, others are inherently permanent, at least in part. As we age and mature, we can modify the way our parents have previously made us think or act, but some things will always remain regardless of our efforts. We can detach the cross from the wall, yet the mark it made would still remain. We can consciously coat the walls in a new shade, but the other will still shine brightly underneath. If we listen closely, our ears pressed gently against the walls, we will still hear the echo of our parents in the things we say. We will still listen to music that we’re well aware is a result of our dads’ incessant playing of the ’70s hits. We will think with realism and logic, yet still find hints of our mother’s act like a lady perspective in our mind. We still belong to our parents in these small, significant ways because of the remnant traits and interests they’ve left in us. Now, though, we’re also made up of everything else, all the other experiences we’ve had up until this point, and all the people and interests that have affected us during this time — everything else we belong to.

So, then, as we age, do we truly begin to experience sole belonging? In a world of supposed free will, we could say we belong to ourselves, but this declared autonomy doesn’t negate the reality in which we act based on others. These may no longer be our parents, but we mold our lives around new ideas, interests, significant others, friends, etc. — anything and everything we love. This raises the question of whether we truly gain ownership of ourselves, or if we simply pass it onto the hands of someone — or something — else. When we’re younger, our parents hold the master key to our “rooms,” and later on, we simply make copies and hand them out to everything we hold dear. Our friends can tiptoe inside and slip an idea or two while we barely bat an eye. Our occupations can be even more invasive, expanding in the space and barricading the door so that they have unilateral control. Our significant others can have the same effect, moving and rearranging furniture of their own accord, creating a more comfortable space or punching a hole through the wall. We grant ownership to those we love because we want them in our lives, and so we allow them to influence us in this way. Because of our parents, we can be raised as God’s, our school’s, our responsibilities’ — until we become more our music’s, our friends’, books’, intellectual interests’, hobbies’, and everything else we spend our time and thoughts on. Ultimately, we all decide what is best to give pieces of ourselves to, and — as this list inevitably grows over time — the key is to embrace it and balance the effect we let it have on us. The room is ours, after all; it is ours to care for, or be careless with. We must recognize the lack of choice in love, however, and only hope to love what’s best for us — and that the key to it not fall prey to vicious hands.


Works Cited

Clare, Cassandra. Lady Midnight. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Adolescent Peer Relationships and Mental Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Sophia Garbarino, Clare Beatty & Brady Nelson, May 25, 2021

See Sophia’s poster for the URECA 2021 Symposium here.

Abstract

In adolescence, females are more likely than males to experience an episode of depression (Hyde et al., 2008). Having a strong social network has been shown to protect against the development of depression and anxiety symptoms (Santini et al., 2015). In the U.S., adolescent social circles were largely disrupted during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it has been suggested that higher perceived social support protects against poorer mental health (Magson et al., 2021), few studies have examined the potential association between relationship quality and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a sample of 104 12 to 18 year-old girls, the present study examined peer relationship quality prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and changes in depression and anxiety symptoms during March to April 2020. Relationship quality was measured with the self-report Network of Relationships Inventory – Relationship Qualities Version (NRI-RQV). Depression was measured with the Child’s Depression Inventory (CDI), and anxiety was measured with the Screener for Child Anxiety Related Disorders (SCARED). Across the entire sample, there was an increase in both depression (t = -4.88, p < 0.001) and anxiety (t = -3.07, p = 0.003) symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, pre-COVID-19 perceived closeness of friendships predicted changes in depression and anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, greater same-sex (r = -0.29, p = 0.003) and opposite-sex (r = -0.21, p = 0.04) friendship closeness were inversely correlated with generalized anxiety symptoms. Opposite-sex friendship closeness was inversely correlated with depression symptoms (r = -0.26, p = 0.008). Parent-child relationships were also examined but were not associated with changes in mental health. Findings suggest that healthier peer friendships may serve as protective factors against depression and anxiety in adolescents. As vaccine distribution increases and social distancing policies become more relaxed, adolescents may be able to strengthen relationships that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, contributing to improved mental health.

Keywords: COVID-19, adolescents, relationships, friendships, depression, anxiety


Introduction

Background

Adolescence is a critical developmental period for the emergence of sex differences in depression. By ages 13 to 15 girls are approximately twice as likely as boys to experience an episode of depression (Hyde et al., 2008). Prior research has taken a particular interest in the psychological mechanisms responsible for this shift, focusing specifically on girls.

For both sexes, strong social support networks have been shown to protect against the development of depressive and anxiety symptoms (Santini et al., 2015). In early 2020, when the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic began, these social networks were largely disrupted, especially for children and teenagers. The daily routine of interacting with classmates and peers at school was abruptly interrupted due to the shift to remote learning. During this time, research suggests that females in particular experienced a notable increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms (Hawes et al., 2021).

While some studies suggest that higher perceived social support protects against poorer mental health (Magson et al., 2021), few studies have examined the potential association between relationship quality and mental health during COVID-19. The present study examined pre-pandemic peer relationship quality and its potential for predicting depressive and anxiety symptoms during the early COVID-19 pandemic.

Hypotheses

The present study tested two hypotheses: 1) Individuals would display an increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic as compared to pre-pandemic symptoms, and 2) Both parent and peer relationships would inversely correlate with depressive and anxiety symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic. In other words, healthier and closer relationships would be associated with fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19.

Methods

Participants

The sample consisted of 104 girls from an ongoing longitudinal study at Stony Brook University, the Impact of Puberty on Affect and Neural Development across Adolescence (iPANDA) project. This project is currently investigating the relationship between neural reward sensitivity and the development of depression. Eligibility included being assigned female at birth, aged 8 to 14, being literate in English, having no known medical or developmental disabilities, and living within 30 miles of Stony Brook University in Long Island, NY. One of the child’s biological parents also had to be willing to participate. The baseline sample consisted of 317 girls along with one of their biological parents. Baseline data collection was followed by two additional waves, each spaced approximately two years apart. The third wave was still in progress when the COVID-19 pandemic began in late March 2020, therefore not all of the participants had completed the data collection.

Measures

The iPANDA participants (N = 104) were included in the present study if they completed the included measures within the appropriate timeframes. One measure was completed prior to the pandemic (before March 18, 2020), and two measures were completed before and during (March 18, 2020 and after) the pandemic. The average time between the pre-COVID and during-COVID assessments was 55 weeks.

Network of Relationships Inventory – Relationship Quality Version (NRI-RQV)

The NRI-RQV questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ relationships with their 1) mother or mother figure, 2) father or father figure, 3) boyfriend or girlfriend, 4) sibling, 5) best same-sex friend, and 6) best opposite-sex friend. The questions had Likert-style responses (1 to 6: 1 = low occurrence, 5 = high occurrence, 6 = not applicable) and were presented in matrix format with each relationship type. Questions were classified into one of ten scales; the five positive scales measured companionship, intimate disclosure, emotional support, approval, and satisfaction, while the five negative scales measured conflict, criticism, pressure, dominance, and exclusion. Each scale contained three items and was scored by averaging the item responses (Furman & Buhrmester, 2010). The present study focused on the Closeness score, which is the mean of the five positive scale scores, for the mother, father, best same-sex friend, and best opposite-sex friend relationships. Participants completed the NRI-RQV assessment pre-COVID.

Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI)

The CDI questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ depressive symptoms (Kovacs, 1992). Scores were calculated by summing the item responses, which were Likert style (not often/doesn’t apply to me, sometimes/somewhat applies to me, very often/strongly applies to me). Participants completed the CDI assessment pre-COVID and during COVID.

Screen for Child Related Anxiety Disorders (SCARED)

The SCARED questionnaire is a self-report measure that assesses participants’ anxiety symptoms. Each item had Likert-style responses (0 to 2: 0 = not true, 2 = very true) and was categorized into one of five subscales: panic disorder or significant somatic symptoms, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and significant school avoidance. A total sum score of 25 or above (out of 82) indicated the possible presence of an anxiety disorder (Birmaher et al., 1997). The present study focused only on the GAD subscale, where a sum score over 9 indicated the possible presence of GAD. Participants completed the SCARED assessment pre-COVID and during COVID.

Data Analysis

Using IBM®️ SPSS®️ Statistics (v.27) software, we conducted two paired samples t-tests to examine whether depressive and anxiety symptoms increased during the pandemic as compared to pre-pandemic. Further, we conducted follow-up partial correlations (controlling for pre-pandemic symptoms) to investigate the relationship between relationship quality and depressive/anxiety symptoms during the pandemic.

Results & Discussion

Figure 1. Pre-COVID-19 vs. COVID-19 SCARED GAD Subscale t-test

t = -4.88, p < .001

Figure 2. Pre-COVID-19 vs. COVID-19 CDI Total t-test

t = -3.07, p < .01

Table 1. Correlations between SCARED GAD (COVID-19), CDI (COVID-19), and peer relationships

COVID-19 SCARED GAD SubscaleCOVID-19 CDI Total
NRI-RQV Best Same-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-0.287**-0.080
NRI-RQV Best Opposite-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-0.205*-0.259**
Controls: pre-COVID SCARED or pre-COVID CDI
p < .05*   p < .01**  p < .001***

Table 2. Friendship closeness vs. COVID-19 symptoms regressions

COVID-19 SCARED GAD Subscale (β)COVID-19 CDI Total (β)
NRI-RQV Best Same-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-.168**.074
NRI-RQV Best Opposite-Sex Friend Closeness (pre-COVID)-.018-.124****
Controls: pre-COVID-19 SCARED and CDI; COVID-19 SCARED or CDI
p < .05*   p < .01**  p < .001*** trending****

Results indicated support for the first hypothesis. Across the sample, participants had greater depressive (t = -4.88, p <.001) and anxiety (t = -3.07, p < .01)symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to pre-pandemic. However, results indicated only partial support for the second hypothesis. Pre-pandemic friendship closeness was associated with changes in anxiety and depressive symptoms; specifically, stronger pre-COVID same-sex friendship closeness uniquely correlated with smaller increases in anxiety symptoms during COVID (r = -.29, p < .01), while stronger pre-COVID opposite-sex friendship closeness uniquely correlated with smaller increases in depressive symptoms during COVID (r = -.26, p < .01). When controlling for pre-pandemic symptoms, pre-COVID same-sex friendship closeness still predicted changes in COVID anxiety symptoms (r = -.17, p < .01). Mother and father relationships were not found to be significantly predictive of changes in mental health during COVID.

Conclusion

Interpretations

It is possible that participants were more comfortable expressing worry to same-sex friends (girls), buffering against increased anxiety symptoms. Perhaps they shared feelings about missing friends or romantic interests at school. Findings also suggest that opposite-sex friends (boys) may have helped improve participants’ moods, buffering against increased depressive symptoms. The girls may have had a crush or two and were happier interacting with them, even if only virtually, while following stay-at-home orders.

Limitations

The sample was predominantly Caucasian and middle class, and from the Long Island, New York area. As such, the sample is certainly not representative of the entire United States, as the U.S. is much more racially and socioeconomically diverse. It is unclear whether or not these results would be similar for individuals of different backgrounds, since a variety of factors, including race, ethnicity, sex, and economic class, impact the degree to which people have been affected, either positively or negatively, by the pandemic (Center for Disease Control and Prevention). For example, Black and Indigenous Americans had the highest COVID-related death rates, while Asians and Whites had much lower rates (APM Research Lab Staff). According to the Pew Research Center, lower-income individuals were also more likely to report lost income and jobs due to the pandemic (Parker et al., 2020). As such, the present study’s sample may not have been affected by COVID-19 as much as other groups.

Further, all measures were self-reported, so participants may have been reluctant to share the full extent of their relationships and COVID-19 experiences. Another important consideration is that there was over a year, on average, between the pre-COVID and during-COVID assessments, meaning we could not account for potential significant life changes, such the death of a parent, losing touch with a friend, moving to a new place, and changes in relationship nature itself. Therefore, the present study’s results regarding pre-pandemic relationship quality may not be fully applicable to pandemic-era relationship health.

Future Directions

Overall, the results were largely what we hypothesized. Increased anxiety and depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic were evident across the sample and peer relationships predicted changes in mental health. Future studies should investigate these findings further and consider potential gender, race, and socioeconomic class differences that were not found in the present sample. Social factors like gender norms, double sex standards, race/ethnicity, and wealth may further influence the nature of adolescents’ social support networks and how they experienced the COVID-19 pandemic.


References

APM Research Lab Staff. (2021, March 5). The color of coronavirus: COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity in the U.S. APM Research Lab. https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race

Birmaher, B., Khetarpal, S., Brent, D., Cully, M., Balach, L., & Kaufman, J. (1997, April). The screen for child anxiety related emotional disorders (SCARED): Scale construction and psychometric characteristics. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 36: 545–553. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004583-199704000-00018

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April 19). Health equity considerations and racial and ethnic minority groups. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

Furman, W., & Buhrmester, D. (2010). Network of relationships questionnaire manual. Unpublished manuscript, University of Denver, Denver, CO, and the University of Texas at Dallas.

Hawes, M.T., Szenczy, A.K., Klein, D.N., Hajcak, G., & Nelson, B.D. (2021, January 13). Increases in depression and anxiety symptoms in adolescents and young adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychological Medicine, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0033291720005358

Hyde, J.H., Mezuklis, A.H., & Abramson, L.Y. (2008). The ABCs of depression: Integrating affective, biological and cognitive models to explain the emergence of the gender difference in depression. Psychological Review, 115, 291-313. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295x.115.2.291

Magson, N.R., Freeman, J.Y., Rapee, R.M, Richardson, C.E., Oar, E.L., & Fardouly, J. (2021). Risk and protective factors for prospective changes in adolescent mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 50, 44-57. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-020-01332-9

Kovacs, M. (1992). Children’s depression inventory. Multi-Health Systems, Inc.

Parker, K., Horowitz, J.M., & Brown, A. (2020, April 21). About half of lower-income Americans report household job or wage loss due to COVID-19. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/04/21/about-half-of-lower-income-americans-report-household-job-or-wage-loss-due-to-covid-19/

Santini, Z.I., Koyanagi, A., Tyrovolas, S., Mason, C., & Haro, J.M. (2015, April 1). The association between social relationships and depression: A systematic review. Journal of Affective Disorders, 175, 53–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2014.12.049

Following Our Digital Footsteps

by Ean Tam, May 19, 2021

On January 21st, 2020, the United States reported its first case of COVID-19 in Washington state. Over the course of a year, offices emptied, schools closed, and normal life disappeared. By April 2021, over 553,000 Americans had passed away due to the pandemic. Now, as vaccine shots continue to make their way into people’s arms, the hope of defeating the pandemic appears more attainable. The vaccine is our shot back to the workplace, the classroom, and, some would say, back to normal life.

While suppressing this respiratory disease itself may be possible, many people struggle to take a deep breath and relax. For more than a year, across the country Americans have been sheltering in their homes, taking in the world through screens and behind masks. They have been waiting to return to work, hoping to regain jobs they lost at no fault of their own. It will take time for people to regain a sense of control over their lives and examine the mental health effects of the pandemic.

Perhaps we can comprehend how the pandemic played into the worst sides of ourselves. How did transitioning to a life online affect us? What will be our ‘new normal’ post-pandemic? How do we want to discuss mental health? To answer these questions, we should examine the research into our social and online behavior, including new techniques in studying social media activity.

A Life Online

When isolation orders began, we observed the panic: not as frenzy crowds going berserk in the streets, but in the simplest of manners: lining up at the supermarket. Under the threat of prolonged lockdown, citizens translated their insecurities through their wallet. In the United States, where consumerism is a part of our culture, our spending behavior can exemplify our human instincts: “Cash, and the fantastic appeal of what money can buy… provide a way for humans to distance themselves from the disturbing realization that they are animals destined to die” (Arndt et al., 2004). Certainly, not everyone assumed COVID-19 was going to be the ultimate scourge of the human race, but the mindset was there. As a reflection of that mindset—that we as humans can have some control over our lives—we decided to wipe out the supermarket shelves before COVID could wipe us out.

Of course, the online world to which we were regulated put us face-to-face with another nuisance we had already been trying to grapple with: misinformation. Unfortunately for us, online misinformation has only become worse. In beginning of the pandemic, so little was known about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Once a rumor, half-truth, or plain lie made its way online, there was no way of knowing how far it could travel. But it is clear that unreliable sources induce panic and anxiety, stoking our fears of the current situation, encouraging us to prepare more (Usher et al., 2020; Johal, 2009).

When ventures outside of our homes are limited to stocking up on groceries, the possibilities for personal connections are lost. Small talk is hard to come by, especially when you are six feet apart, wearing a mask, and staring through the glare of plexiglass. Physical interaction has become impersonal. Even the relationships established before the pandemic have been hurt. The online connection has been unable to keep up with the loneliness. While we can turn on our cameras to see each other’s faces on screen, the interaction is not a proper substitute for in-person contact (Lippke et al., 2021). In a study of 212 Swiss undergraduate students, researchers found that the students, because of the pandemic, were increasingly working alone and not engaging in networking with their peers. Students’ depressive and anxiety symptoms also increased. The concerns about the students’ minds ranged from the “fears of missing out on social life to worries about health, family, friends, and their future” (Elmer et al., 2020). For mourners who require “restorative activities (e.g., travel, spending social time with friends),” those options vanished (Lee and Neimeyer, 2020). The emotional connections that would have helped no longer do, and the strength of the friendship has diminished. This faltering sense of belonging and attachments to others can manifest itself in our physical and mental health (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).

It is no secret that internet use and mental health are intertwined. More time spent on the internet affects our social interactions and increases the chances of cyberbullying. It appears the relationship between internet use and social interactions can go either way: problematic internet use (PIU) can be both the cause and the result of diminished social interactions. When internet use is the cause, social interactions suffer because of depression, neglect of offline obligations, and obsessive behaviors, all of which are linked to PIU. When PIU is the result of diminished social interactions, the internet is seen as a coping mechanism—a world to which people can escape (El Asam et al., 2019).

However, the world people enter is not always so agreeable. Excessive internet use has a profound impact on adolescents because they are not only victims of cyberbully, but also encouraged to take part in it. Online communities offer opportunities for validation. At times, participating in cyberbullying is a way for some adolescents to ‘fit in’ with their online counterparts. Moreover, an adolescent who engages in such internet behavior can be expected to develop PIU (Chao et al., 2020). It appears that most of the time, victims of cyberbully do not allow the abuse to end with them. They will have “a desire to respond, which may encourage others to join the fray leading to a potentially long and drawn-out series of increasingly abusive and antagonistic communications” (Chao et al., 2020).

Before lockdown, excessive users of the internet had the ability to separate themselves from their devices. However, once life went online, that opportunity disappeared. We all, in a way, became problematic internet users. A life online, while necessary for the past year, has shown to be harmful to our mental well-being.

Back to Normal?

When we eventually emerge from this pandemic, the cloud of lockdown will still hang over us. One of the lingering concerns will be the home as the petri dish. Throughout this pandemic, citizens have created their own fortresses, hoping to keep the COVID invader at bay. Every trip outside of the home was a potential for letting an intruder in. That is why we wiped down all our groceries and bathed ourselves in hand sanitizer after every door handle. The pressure to keep the home decontaminated has been especially hard on those living with vulnerable groups like the elderly.

Retreating to our homes for the past year has proven to us that some things are simply no longer worth going out: movies, restaurants, shopping. However, “even people who do not become housebound may become fastidious germaphobes, striving to avoid touching ‘contaminated’ surfaces or hugging people or shaking hands” (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020). Pandemic sanitation standards will persist, similar to how some American families maintained their parsimonious, self-sufficient lifestyles after the Great Depression (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020).

The stress of yourself being a carrier and potential hazard to those around you can be exacerbated when living conditions are tight. When living conditions are limited, tensions can flare. Unfortunately, some people find themselves trapped at home with COVID outside and an abuser inside, making their situation a possible source of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020).

For those who have contracted COVID-19, some have had to deal with guilt for possibly infecting others, embarrassment for having contracted the disease while others did not, and shame for not protecting oneself enough. Not even our healthcare workers have been exempted. In Italy, Daniela Trezzi, a 34-year-old nurse, took her own life in March of 2020 after she had tested positive for COVID-19. Trezzi’s colleagues reported that her suicide may have been the result of her concerns of having infected other people (Giuffrida and Tondo, 2020). As COVID-19 surged in New York City last April, Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER doctor at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, committed suicide. The virus had taken the lives of many of Dr. Breen’s patients. Despite the overachieving and dedicated passion to her job, Dr. Breen’s family believed she “was devastated by the notion that her professional history was permanently marred and mortified to have cried for help” (Knoll et al., 2020).

Plenty of people will be able to return to normal life post-pandemic, to go back on the street as if nothing has changed. But for many members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, this is an impossibility. A wildfire of misinformation spreads (and continues to spread) across the internet, pinning a substantial number of American citizens as walking embodiments of SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, for AAPIs, returning to a normal life post-pandemic does not mean traveling down the street as if nothing has changed. As the United States begins to open, we are already seeing increases in racist attacks against AAPIs. We have seen this before. In 2014, Ebola was blamed on Africans because it was deemed an “African problem” (Usher et al., 2020). The ease of scapegoating specific demographics is an example of maladaptive coping “where coping is emotion-focused rather than problem-focused” (Cho et al., 2021).

We would like to think there is a chance for a return to normal. However, for many people, this is an unlikely future. Quarantine and the pandemic experience have affected the mental health of citizens across the globe. The pandemic has left us lonely, guilty, and fearful. It has forced some people to channel their insecurities into counterproductive behaviors. Behaviors that prevent us from regaining a sense of camaraderie and interconnectedness—some things we all lost this past year in quarantine.

Putting Our Online Activity to Good Use

Although living our lives on the internet has strained everyone, there may be something to gain from our past year online. In recent years, mental health researchers have turned their eyes to social media. With every post, like, or share, there may be a hidden meaning waiting to be deciphered. A variety of social media websites have been utilized for possible insights into specific mental health issues. Twitter is a popular site for study. It has been used for learning about detecting signs of depression and suicide (De Choudhury et al., 2013; Tsugawa et al., 2015; Coppersmith et al., 2016). Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr have been used to study depression, suicide, and anorexia, respectfully (Reece and Danforth, 2017; Shing et al., 2018; Chancellor et al., 2016).

Taking advantage of machine-learning to comb over patients’ extensive social media activity, researchers have found indicators of mental health illnesses. For example, researchers classified tweets of suicidal individuals by their expressed emotions, emoji usage, and frequency of tweets. They found that tweets usually expressed sadness then anger after a suicide attempt, and that frequency of emotional tweets increases while emoji prevalence decreases (Coppersmith et al., 2016). The machine-learning systems allow for detecting these indicators with accuracy as high as 80 to 90 percent. This technique of combining computing power with psychiatric evaluation has led to the term “digital psychiatry” (Chancellor and De Choudhury, 2020). The focus on social media is particularly helpful in studying younger generations. Regardless of race or medical history, a younger age has been “the only significant predictor of blogging and social networking site participation” (Chou et al., 2009).

Northwell Health, New York state’s largest healthcare provider, has realized the importance of using social media for the purpose of engaging with patients as soon as possible. Since 2013, Northwell’s Early Treatment Program (ETP) has specialized in treating adolescents and young adults suffering from psychotic symptoms. Dr. Michael Birnbaum, Director and founding member of the ETP, studies the application of social media as an indicator for psychosis. I spoke with Dr. Birnbaum to learn more about his research with social media and its implications.

“This line of research was happening in the world of computer science, but not so much in psychiatry,” Dr. Birnbaum explained. “The idea sort of organically arose through reading the exciting literature on machine-learning and social media. Thinking about some of the major challenges and obstacles to delivering effective care, we came up with this solution.”

To perform his studies, Dr. Birnbaum and his colleagues retrieved social media archives donated by participants. These databases were downloaded straight from social media websites and then inputted into machine-learning systems provided by computer scientists from institutions like IBM, Cornell Tech, and Georgia Tech. The magnitude of data for these studies were immense. For instance, in one study, from just 223 research participants, Dr. Birnbaum and his team had collected 3,404,959 Facebook messages and 142,390 images. With this Facebook data alone, they found that the machine-learning system could identify research participants who had schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSD) and mood disorders (MD). In terms of posts and messages, those with SSD were more likely to use words of sensory perception, those with MD were more likely to make references to the body, and SSD and MD groups were both more likely to use curse words. When it came to Facebook photos—a more abstract source of analysis—Dr. Birnbaum and his research team found that those with SSD and MD were more likely to post smaller photos by dimension, and the hues of photos from MD participants were more blue and less yellow (Birnbaum et al., 2020).

Now, while the volume of information is essential to the experiment, the social media archives are not limited to just the research participants. Within these archives, you can find private messages sent by the research participant and messages sent from second parties whom the participant was communicating with.

“One of the other ethical issues is the fact that there are a ton of secondary subjects: all of the friends and connections to other users who don’t necessarily agree to have their data donated and analyzed, and so that’s something that, as a team, will need to sort of grapple with,” Dr. Birnbaum explained. To handle this ethical issue, Dr. Birnbaum’s studies had to eliminate the data from these secondary parties. So, while these secondary subjects may not have their private messages inputted into a machine-learning system, there is no denying that those messages are being stored somewhere at some point. It will be up to the patient to inform his or her friends that their conversations may eventually find their way into a stored database. Consent, conservation, and confidentiality of social media information are only some of the big hurdles of digital psychiatry (Wongkoblap et al., 2017). However, Dr. Birnbaum believes that with the correct system in place and an understanding from the public, the application of machine-learning can find success in psychiatry.

“This shouldn’t be about surveillance or taking the power away from the patient. It’s just the opposite. In my mind it’s creating a way for the patient to be able to learn more about themselves and also share it with their clinician. Just like when you go to see your doctor who orders a blood test or an X-ray, you donate your blood to inform because it’s going to improve your care. Though most people don’t like taking their blood, similarly, I imagine a situation where the benefits would be clear and patients would be willing and interested in donating their digital data to inform their care in a meaningful way.”

Furthermore, Dr. Birnbaum highlighted a key issue in psychiatry: the reliance on self-reported information. It has been shown that self-reported data can be unreliable and underestimate health issues (Wallihan et al., 1999; Newell et al., 1999). Dr. Birnbaum elaborated, “We just are notoriously bad at this—all of us—at describing our own behaviors. Most of us can’t remember what we ate for dinner a few days ago, and so I think that these things can be immortalized in digital data, and so we can accept it more readily and use it.”

And in terms of the depth and perception from which we can learn, social media information may be the closest thing psychiatrists can have to 24/7 observation of their patients. Retrospective analysis of a patient after they have been admitted into the hospital is not the best solution. Social media information may hold the key.

“A patient sees the doctor periodically, and they meet for a certain amount of time and then that’s it,” Dr. Birnbaum said. “You don’t really know what’s happening in between meetings beyond patient self-report. The [social media information] provides information about what was going on between sessions. So, you can learn a lot more about, or rather from a different source and a more objective source, about what people are doing, thinking, and feeling.”
Of course, social media information is no substitute for in-person meetings. For Dr. Birnbaum, “I imagine a situation where someone donates their digital data a day or two before they come to meet me in my office, and then we can discuss the findings and determine whether or not we need to change the treatment plan.”

Although Dr. Birnbaum explained earlier that routine treatment involves monthly meetings with patients, the timing of when a patient should donate their social media archives is not exactly clear: “That is something that has yet to be empirically explored. Maybe it’s once a month when they come see me, maybe not. I could imagine a situation where it is done at the beginning of care and maybe perhaps periodically after that. I think it depends on what information we’re after, what we’re looking for, and how each individual uses social media.”

In the end, social media activity would just be one component of digital psychiatry. The way Dr. Birnbaum sees it, “Social media is a piece of the puzzle. They’re also people looking at speech, facial movements, wearables, cell phone data. All of this stuff paints a picture. A more comprehensive picture.”

What’s the Point?

On April 9th, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “Loneliness, Anxiety and Loss: the Covid Pandemic’s Terrible Toll on Kids.” In it, the author, Andrea Peterson, details the faltering grades, confidence, and motivation of young students. One 13-year-old stated, “[I]t’s been a lot harder to make friends and talk to new people… I feel like a lot of us drifted apart… It has set in that I’m alone” (Peterson, 2021).

With vaccines getting administered around the world, our public health appears to be on the right track. For many of the students who spoke with Peterson, transitioning back to in-person social activities will be difficult, but nonetheless, they will finally be in-person. Hopefully, for all of us, returning to in-person work or school will be the remedy we need. But the final obstacle we will face is the way we confront mental health as a society.

When The Wall Street Journal shared Peterson’s article on its Twitter profile, many of the comments were supportive—a lot of teachers and students voicing their approval with the awareness raised by the article. Then, of course, there were comments like these:

https://twitter.com/HRHSherlock/status/1380646040714375170

https://twitter.com/eagles2sixers/status/1380923582268764164

It would be quick and easy to say kids these days are just soft. It would be quick and easy to say there are more pressing matters than this. But the people who choose these quick and easy solutions seem to forget that we are all wired differently. We process things differently. Just as physical abilities differ from person to person, our ways of handling strains of our mental health differs. And to those who say the deaths from COVID-19 are more important: yes, preventing deaths is the number one priority, but the pandemic will be over. Can we talk about mental health effects then? Or would we have forgotten about it already?

It is unfortunate to think that these attitudes can exist within families, preventing people from getting the help they need. Whether it be depression or psychotic disorders, stigma exists everywhere. The family unit is not always equipped to understand the needs of someone suffering from a mental illness.

“For the most part, it’s impossible to tease apart providing good care to a patient without involving their family,” Dr. Birnbaum told me while explaining the role of family at the ETP. “So, it’s critical that the family understands what’s happening and has a connection to the treatment team, is involved in the treatment decisions in some capacity, and knows how to be most helpful and supportive for their child.”

It is no secret that there is a clash of how we discuss mental illness. Some people, due to culture or age, like to keep it under the rug, while younger generations tend to be more open about mental health. Those who like to keep a tight lip about it find themselves being blamed for being a part of the problem. Well, to put it simply, they are. I would hope people do not see that as a political opinion. It is informed medical advice.

When asked about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and culture, Dr. Birnbaum explained, “I think that’s part of the work and that’s part of the advocacy. And part of the excitement of early intervention is sort of getting the message out that there are resources and tools and help available. The more we talk about it, the better.” He added, “Hopefully that’s something that we can do by changing society.”

Changing society will be no easy task. It will take time, just like waiting for this pandemic to be finally over. The ‘new normal’ waiting for us will ultimately be defined by us. If we decide to keep things the status quo, then that is what we should expect. As difficult as the past year has been, we ought to make the most of it. With the new advancements in machine-learning, we can learn from the online activity we amassed in quarantine. Work like Dr. Birnbaum’s shows that studying our online presence can improve the way we comprehend mental health. We can learn more about ourselves, mental health, and possibilities for early treatment for young people. When it comes to pandemic, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting brighter. While we cannot say the same for mental health, our digital footprints can help lead the way.


Work Cited

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@eagles2sixer. “I’m sorry the kids had to stay home on their phones for a year but please. Did the kids that worked in dangerous factories or lived during the blitzkrieg or black in the south in the early 1900s or during the depression or a million others not have it 1000X worse?” Twitter, 10 Apr 2021, 12:40 p.m., twitter.com/eagles2sixers/status/1380923582268764164.

@HRHSherlock. “Yes, this is all very sad, but over 560,000 Americans are dead.” Twitter, 9 April 2021, 6:17 p.m., twitter.com/HRHSherlock/status/1380646040714375170.

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The Insidious Rise of Automation

By Ali Ahmad, April 23, 2021

Next time you go to your favorite coffee shop or go the checkout aisle at Walmart, you won’t be met with the warm welcome of a person behind the counter. Instead, a computer will simply prompt you for payment. Automation is replacing jobs that were once held by people with cold efficient machines. This raises ethical issues of unemployment, wealth inequality, and how we interact with machines. Automation holds the potential to drastically upend the precious balance of labor that we have today.

Automation is the result of advancement made in artificial intelligence, robotics, and advanced computing systems. Customer service is especially vulnerable to automation takeover. Instead of a cashier behind a counter, customer check out is now equipped with automated touchscreen kiosks.  Businesses looking to improve customer satisfaction and reduce wait time in lines are resorting to these kiosks. Leading technology and business executives concluded during a Gartner Customer Service Summit that “nearly 85% of all customer transactions will be done with humans” by 2030 (Schneider, 2017).  Furthermore, people are turning to robots for brand information and outreach. Facebook, along with airline and tourism businesses, are employing thousands of chatbots to connect consumers with ads—in fact, messaging apps overtook social media since “individuals are increasingly using messaging apps to interact with brands” (Schneider, 2017).

Automation is also becoming increasingly involved in the kitchen.  In 2015, four MIT graduates founded Spyce, a fully robotic kitchen that “cooks food constantly by tumbling your food, thus providing a nice sear” (Andrews, 2019). These robotic culinary contraptions cook food in less time and reduce wait time. Businesses are eagerly turning to automation technology as operating costs and competition increase, but right now automation remains more of a “ helping hand” (Andrews, 2019).

Having automated machines in the workplace has generated heated ethical dilemmas in the workplace. With an increase in automation, there is a good chance that some jobs will be considered obsolete in a few years. Humans will no longer be “central and critical” to the workplace environment and productivity (Mayor, 2019). Advances in automation also highlight the growing wealth inequality in America and impact corporate greed has had on technological development. From 1987 to 2016, displacement due to automation was 16 percent but reinstatement was only 10 percent in factory positions (Dizikes, 2020). In other words, more people from lower paying jobs are being displaced than are being hired. Furthermore, by pushing low income groups out of the labor force and replacing them with automated machines, the need for skilled labor increases. This demand for scarce labor may push highly skilled income further above low skilled income, widening the already massive income gap (Dizikes, 2020).

Introducing automated machines into the workplace could also lead to heightened workplace anxiety. By having machines that do some of the tasks originally done by humans, workers might begin to fear losing their job. Since automated machines are quickly becoming more and more advanced, it is not unmanageable to foresee a future where machines perform work in an office environment, thus “causing panic and reducing morreale” (Gaskell, 2018). If automation is to have a much larger place within our society these pressing ethical dilemmas need to be addressed immediately.

Automation is here to stay, and we need to adapt to the ever-changing technological challenges that automation brings. As algorithms replace human workers, there is a chance of increased unemployment. In an automated society, many people will face the dilemma of “broken career ladders,” in which entry-level workers no longer have any opportunity to enter the workforce (Wong, 2015). Entry-level jobs in finance, banking, construction, and even waiting tables could become automated in the future. These jobs will greatly reduce career options for many young workers. The future of automation appears quite alarming.  Once a reservoir of creativity and hope, modern technological advancement is quickly becoming a nightmare with extensive ramifications for blue collar workers.


References

Andrews, R. (2019, August 28). How automation is changing the way restaurants do business. Eat. https://restaurant.eatapp.co/blog/automation-in-restaurant-industry

Dizikes, P. (2020, May 5). Study finds stronger links between automation and inequality. MIT News. https://news.mit.edu/2020/study-inks-automation-inequality-0506

Gaskell, A. (2018, April 18). Automation, ethics and accountability of AI systems. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2018/04/18/automation-ethics-and-accountability-of-ai-systems

Mayor, T. (2019, July 8). Ethics and automation: What to do when workers are displaced. MIT Sloan School of Management. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/ethics-and-automation-what-to-do-when-workers-are-displaced

McNeal, M. (2015, August 7). Rise of the machines: The future has lots of robots, few jobs for humans. Wired. https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/04/rise-machines-future-lots-robots-jobs-humans/

Schneider, C. (2019, October 28). 10 reasons why AI-powered, automated customer service is the future. Watson Blog. https://www.ibm.com/blogs/watson/2017/10/10-reasons-ai-powered-automated-customer-service-future/

Wong, J.C. (2015, January 18). How will automation affect society? World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/01/how-will-automation-affect-society/

Defying Labels: The Afro-Latinidad Complex

by Haasitha Korlipara, April 19, 2021

Think back to Shakira and J-Lo’s memorable, high-energy performance during the 2020 Super Bowl halftime show. The singers embraced various elements of Latin American culture, an example being the incorporation of two Afro-Colombian dance forms, Champeta and Mapalé, into Shakira’s choreography. What appeared to be a showcase of Latino pride, however, I likely would have never stopped to consider a form of appropriation had I not been sitting in Professor Cristina Khan’s seminar course on Afro-Latinidad in the Americas last February. It is important to note that this tribute to Afro-Colombian culture featured the lighter-skinned Shakira front and center, accompanied by Afro-Latina backup dancers. The performance offers a symbolic representation of the marginalization of Afro-Latinos, both within Latin America and upon migration to the United States. It is a result of this marginalization that Afro-Latinos must learn to navigate the complexities associated with their ambiguous identity.

Racism in a “Post-Racial” Region

Anti-Blackness is prevalent throughout Latin America. Yet ironically, nations in the region often deny the existence of racism. One popular argument used to support this denial focuses on mestizaje. As described by scholar Ariel Dulitsky in her essay featured in the 2005 book Neither Enemies nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos, “mestizo” translates to the idea that “we all have some indigenous or black blood in us” (Dulitsky). The concept, however, can be used to downplay racism through the perspective that “if we are all mestizos, then there are no racial distinctions and mere discussion of the racial issue is therefore viewed by many as a foreign or non-regional issue” (Dulitsky). The problem with embracing mestizaje is that it is rooted in a history of racist ideals. After all, it was “by encouraging miscegenation or marriage between non-whites and whites to make the population whiter” that ultimately gave rise to mixed race (Dulitsky).

Another form of denial is based on the idea that lack of official racist legislation translates to absence of racism in the region. Some claim that “since the segregationist laws and practices of the country to the north [United States] have not been applied in Latin America, there is no need to look at other forms of racial exclusion and alienation” (Dulitsky). While there may not have been bodies of laws sanctioning discrimination towards Blacks, the fact is that racism continues to penetrate various aspects of society in Latin America. Alexander Gonzalez and Jessica Bakeman, in a 2018 article for WLRN News, discuss an example of racism in the Cuban entertainment industry (Gonzalez). In Little Havana, the showing of the famous Spanish-language play “Tres Viudas en un Crucero” features a Blackface character who, during a particular scene, “would jump on stage, pounding her chest and opening her legs wide open, and say that ‘we’re going to drink, dance, and have fun like three gorillas’ ”(Gonzalez). The inclusion of this type of Blackface character is considered normal in many Cuban theater productions for comedic effect, although the clearly derogatory portrayal reinforces the stereotype of Black people as savage and animalistic. Racism can even be perpetuated within the family. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in his personal narrative featured in the 2010 book The Afro-Latin Reader: History and Culture in the United States, relates his experiences as a Black Puerto Rican. He recounts his childhood years, describing how “[He] heard all sorts of racist statements about Blacks from some of [his] aunts and even [his] own mother” (Bonilla-Silva). While the racial categories in Latin America may not be as distinct—or as Black and White—as in the United States, there is evidently a preference for lighter-skin over darker skin due to the prominence of colorism. The myth of a “racial democracy” in Latin America fails to account for the relegation of Blacks to a collective identity that falls outside the norm, more specifically defined as the category of the Other.

Migration to the United States: The Afro-Latinx Experience

Individuals of African descent, upon migration from Latin America to the United States, experience a more blatant variant of racial discrimination as Afro-Latinos. Within the Black-White binary racial system, Afro-Latinos receive the official designation of “Black” and therefore become victims to the oppression that accompanies the label. They must learn that they will likely get pulled aside by the police or denied a job offer solely based on the color of their skin. Of course, it is important to simultaneously recognize the ethnic discrimination that all Latinos, regardless of skin color, will face upon migration to the United States. These Spanish-speaking “foreigners” are often victims of injustice within the workplace and housing market, giving rise to Latinx movements. However, as Cristina Beltrán puts it in her 2010 book The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, the problem with the concept of Latinidad lies in the presumption that “Latinos as a group share a common collective consciousness” (Beltran, 5). This unifying term proves limiting in that it serves to mask the regional, ethnic, and most importantly, racial differences amongst them. Latinos don a variety of skin colors. Yet it is singer Jennifer Lopez who is deemed to represent the Latinx community while rapper Kid Cudi is assumed to be African American, his Latino background left unrecognized. Journalist Miguel Salazar, in a 2019 article for The Nation, highlights the Afro-Latino struggle with “what they see as an exclusionary identity fabricated by—and for the benefit of—white and mestizo elites…” (Salazar). As members of the Latinx community, Afro-Latinos must yield to the lighter-skinned Latinos holding power and further attempt to work alongside these individuals, who face an entirely different form of racial discrimination, towards a cause that does not necessarily correlate with their own. The root of the problem with the term Latinidad lies in its assumption of a shared experience for Latinos of all skin types, while in reality, there is a stark contrast between the way lighter-skinned Latinos and darker-skinned Latinos experience discrimination. In this sense, Afro-Latinos effectively become an Other within the Other. 

So how do Afro-Latinos approach their status as the Other? Oftentimes, Blacks in Latin America fail to recognize themselves as targets of Othering based on race. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva characterizes his own father as a victim of such ignorance. Upon recalling racial incidents, an example being when “a clerk in a shoe store treated him like dirt because he was Black,” Eduardo’s father would argue that these episodes were based on classism or individual prejudice rather than racism (Bonilla-Silva). This is largely owing to the persistent denial of racism throughout Latin America, as detailed earlier. Yet it is upon migration to the United States that Blacks from the Americas begin to develop a deeper racial awareness. The day-to-day discrimination they face based solely on skin color drives them to consider past experiences in their native land through a racial lens. It is within the biracial context of the United States that Afro-Latinos fully accept their Blackness. As a result, Afro-Latinos are unable to assimilate into the lighter-skin dominated Latinx community. Yet at the same time, they are rarely offered a space within the African-American community, which views them as “lesser Blacks” (Bonilla-Silva). And so Afro-Latinos take on a triple consciousness, navigating through life as a Black, a Latino, and an American, never fully belonging to one community. 

Conclusion

Afro-Latinos face the issue of marginalization, and that too, within two separate regional contexts. But new efforts are being made by Afro-descendants in Latin America as well as Afro-Latinos in the United States to combat racial discrimination. A 2018 World Bank report details how the Latin American region has gradually shifted from denying the existence of racism to acknowledging it, with countries such as Brazil and Colombia embracing affirmative action policies (Freire). This has further encouraged the rise of cohesive Afro-descendant movements, which focus largely on awareness-raising campaigns (Freire). Similarly, Blacks in the United States with Latin American origin have increasingly begun to reject the concept of Latinidad for their unique Afro-Latinx identity. Yet the discussion becomes more complex as we consider which individuals get to claim it. Are lighter-skinned Latinxs who identify as Afro-Latinx overstepping the boundaries of the term? Conversely, in setting these boundaries, do we risk imposing blackness as a monolithic ideal? Embracing Afro-Latinidad means navigating these important questions. But one thing is certain: Those who adopt the label must carefully tread the fine line between embracing their roots and commodifying a racial identity. 


References

Beltrán Cristina. “Introduction: Sleeping Giants and Demographic Floods: Latinos and the Politics of Emergence.” The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, by Beltrán Cristina, Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 3–19.

Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. “Reflections about Race by a Negrito Acomplejao.” The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, edited by Román Miriam Jiménez and Juan Flores, Duke University Press, 2010.

Dulitsky, Ariel E. “A Region in Denial: Racial Discrimination and Racism in Latin America.” Neither Enemies Nor Friends: Latinos, Blacks, Afro-Latinos, edited by Suzanne Oboler and Anani Dzidzienyo, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Freire, German, et al. “Afro-Descendants in Latin America: Toward a Framework of Inclusion.” Economic and Sector Work Studies, 2018. Open Knowledge Repository, World Bank Group.

Gonzalez, Alexander, and Jessica Bakeman. “How Racism Persists in Latin American Communities.” WLRN News, WLRN, 1 June 2018.

Salazar, Miguel. “The Problem with Latinidad.” The Nation, The Nation, 16 Sept. 2019.

The Hate We Give: A Defense of the Misguided

by Hassaan Qaiser, April 17, 2021

Trumps’ presidency has finally come to an end. As we look forward to the new policies Biden will introduce in 2021, it’s important to reflect on the state of the country as it is. Trump was very open during his term and never held back on his beliefs. Ever since the capital attack on January 6th, the hate for Trump supporters has only grown and enraged other liberal-leaning parties. However, it’s important to answer the question as to whether or not the hate some of these Trump supporters receive is justified?

In 2016, Trump had just under 63 million votes (“2016 Election Results”). While in 2020, he had increased his voter base to  over 74 million (Lindsay). Thirteen million more people had decided that Trump was worth their vote and should continue his presidency into a second term, but were these people always conservative? Conservative groups have been on the rise ever since 2016, and more people find themselves lost in conspiracy theories (Page). Groups such as QAnon continue to mislead countless Americans as to what liberals and the Democratic Party actually do.

There have been many stories about family members reading articles online, becoming infatuated with and lost in conspiracy theories. When they try to reach out to their family members, they are ultimately cast out, because what they believe is unrealistic. An uncle, a distant cousin, a grandmother can fall victim to many of these ideas and find themselves voting for Trump based on the “legitimate” articles they read. Ultimately, I believe that many Trump supporters are just unsatisfied with the position that their life is in. These conspiracy theory blogs and articles give hope to people struggling with their lives that they matter and they have a greater purpose. This is especially prevalent among Trump supporters because they are very passionate about their beliefs. Despite this, these people have only been inspired with false passion because they want to believe they can actually control something in their lives. It’s almost a form of acceptable brainwashing.

Asides from the shame and humility, the people exposed to these groups are in greater danger than they think. The first step to getting indoctrinated into these ideas is social media, but eventually they evolve into protests. It won’t be surprising if these misguided Americans get together to host another capital attack for the sake of another conspiracy posted online. The worst case for these supporters is when they encounter something they cannot get back from, as is the case of Rosanne Boyland, a Trump supporter in the capitol riots that was trampled to death. Many liberal-leaning parties are quick to make jokes about the sign “Don’t Tread On Me” she was carrying, while the conservatives hold her up as a martyr, but that’s not who she was (“Woman Trampled in Capitol Riots Had ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag”). Ms. Boyland was a wife, a sister in law, a daughter, and a sibling. Her family “begged her not to go”, but the conspiracy she found online was enough to grip her soul (Thanawala). What she thought was right, was merely misinformation: an idea that she needed to hear to make sense of the world. As the new generation of parents, teachers, and academics, we need to make sure people like Ms.Boyland are not alone, spending time with them, making sure they don’t find themselves looking for meaning on the dark corners of the internet. If we don’t, it’s only a matter of time before they fall even deeper into the sea of lies.


Works Cited

“2016 Election Results: President Live Map by State, Real-Time Voting Updates.” Election Hub, POLITICO, 13 Dec. 2016, 1:57 PM, www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/.

Lindsay, James M. “The 2020 Election by the Numbers.” Council on Foreign Relations, 15 Dec. 2020, 5:00 PM, www.cfr.org/blog/2020-election-numbers.

Page, Clarence. “Column: The Rise of QAnon Isn’t Surprising. Americans Have Long Been Sucked into Conspiracy Theories.” Chicago Tribune, 20 Oct. 2020, www.chicagotribune.com/columns/clarence-page/ct-column-qanon-trump-pizzagate-page-20201020-vsthh5uotfdyno2x44t5otvvgq-story.html.

Thanawala, Sudhin, et al. “Rosanne Boyland, Trump Supporter Who Died, Followed QAnon Conspiracy, Family Says.” USA Today, 13 Jan. 2021, www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/01/09/rosanne-boyland-trump-supporter-who-died-followed-qanon-family/6608289002/.

“Woman Trampled in Capitol Riots Had ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag.” Opera News, www.dailyadvent.com/news/08e870a26375c58cdebe405a58e917d5-Woman-trampled-in-Capitol-riots-had-dont-tread-on-me-flag.

Gentrification: A Call For Reform or a Negative Acceptance?

by Iqra Ishrat, April 9, 2021

According to experts from Brookings Institute, gentrification is “the process of neighborhood change that results in the replacement of lower income residents with higher income ones” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001), and has existed in United States urban centers since the 1970s (Fox, 2013). Since then, it has been changing communities, populations, developments, and professional opportunities in cities. According to statistics presented by population researcher Mark R. Montgomery, “During the period 2000-2024, the world’s total population is projected to grow by 1.76 billion persons, with some 86% of this growth expected to take place in the cities and towns…” (Montgomery, 2008). With populations increasing and more people moving into cities, some claim that gentrification can lead to health improvements, better education, lower crime rates, and more refined neighborhoods. However, it also leads to displacement of people, higher rent-prices, and animosity between inhabitants. These consequences and setbacks raise a question: do the benefits of gentrification outweigh the toll put onto original residents in the United States? Considering economic and political lenses along with perspectives of old residents, new wealthier inhabitants, researchers, and other community members in cities, gentrification is necessary for cities to develop and improve.

A major economic problem of gentrification is the cost of rent, which is increasing for former residents. Data from the US Census shows that in 1990, the median value of owner-occupied housing in central cities was 127,589 dollars and later in 2010 jumped to 184,839 dollars (Ellen, Horn, & Reed, 2017). That is a major price change of 57,250 dollars; many old residents are unable to pay for new, expensive housing, forcing them to leave. Along with increasing prices for housing in gentrifying cities, rent has also increased throughout the United States from 2000 to 2016. US Census data gathered by the Institute for Policy & Social Research shows that in states with many gentrifying cities like New York or Connecticut, the rent prices nearly doubled to over a thousand dollars per month (Institute for Policy & Social Research, 2018). Clearly, with such high changes in rent price, old residents do not have the wealth to afford increasing rent or house costs, forcing tenants to leave their cities.

Many old residents are angered with the inflating prices of housing. Since the prices keep increasing, people are being displaced from their communities. In other words, people are forced to move out to different neighborhoods since they cannot afford the current costs of living. Viewing the perspective of these old residents, they complain of the rent price rise due to gentrification. In an online newspaper entitled The Guardian, author Franseca Perry mentioned the opinion of a homeowner in Silicon Valley, “My entire family has left over the years to more affordable places for the working class… People are casually displaced every day and $1,000 a month rent hikes are not uncommon” (Perry, 2016). This view indicates that not all individuals can cope with economic changes occurring in gentrifying cities.

As the cost of living in cities is increasing, so are the cities’ tax revenues since homes have more value and wealthier inhabitants are moving in. Although this may promote displacement of the poor, it has many benefits that are necessary for cities. According to experts Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard (2001) from Brookings Institute, with the tax revenue increasing and more affluent individuals present, a city can spend more money to make itself vibrant, poverty rates can be decentralized, and commercial activity can be promoted. Thus, with more money, services can be added to revitalize the dull cities, and the old streets and broken-down residence cities can be cleaned and replaced with much needed improved housing. At the same time, new residents moving in can bring new customers to old businesses using their purchasing power and can also promote the development of new businesses, benefiting the economy. Overall, the better economy and increased number of wealthy occupants leads to decentralized poverty rates. According to the perspective of a community director in Cleveland, “I know it’s not politically correct, but with an average poverty rate of 42 percent, what my target neighborhoods need is a little gentrification” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). Although many old inhabitants in cities are displaced through gentrification, it will lead to much needed prosperity in neighborhoods and contribute to a more stabilized economy.

Additionally, while many residents have been displaced through the process of gentrification, studies found that the displacement may have been beneficial, to promote economics as mentioned previously, but also helpful to those that were forced to leave. In a large survey of five cities addressed by Professor of Economics Stephen Sheppard at Williams College, “displaced residents did not live in worse conditions following their moves. The majority of the displaced reported increased levels of satisfaction with their home and neighborhood and commute times were more likely to decrease after the move” (Sheppard, 2012). In other words, even though people couldn’t afford to live in their old neighborhoods, they are being moved to cities with better conditions where they can live their lives. Because of wealthier inhabitants, cities will have the benefit of a stronger economy; at the same time, old residents who cannot continue to afford the lifestyle get to live more comfortably when they move out to a new neighborhood.

Nevertheless, with changes occurring in cities through gentrification, animosity between residents is bound to occur. Specifically, the old residents are unhappy with the new wealthier individuals moving in. According to Elizabeth M. Kirkland who has a Juris Doctor degree and has focused on systemic racism at the Race Relations Institute of Fisk University, “the pre-gentrified neighborhood is inhabited mostly by African Americans or other people of color, and the in-movers are typically white” (Kirkland, 2008). Often, old residents of a certain ethnicity are unhappy with new groups moving in since they feel that their hometowns are being breached by people that will steal their city. Social Researchers Victoria F. Burns, Jean-Pierre Lavoie, and Damaris Rose interviewed elderly people in gentrifying cities on their thoughts of new individuals moving in. One interviewee, an 85-year-old woman, stated, “We ask ourselves where we are. I don’t like it. They are invading us…they are going to take everything from us… all the businesses; it’s them who are running them” (Burns, Lavoie, & Rose, 2012). Hence, it is important to note that community changes are not compensated within enlivening cities.

View of American poet Richard Blanco is similar to those unhappy with changes in the community due to gentrification. In his poem, “Looking for The Gulf Motel”, Blanco describes the changes that took place to his old neighborhood in Marco Island, Florida, and he wishes it was still the same as then:

“I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard, looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything that should still be, but isn’t. I want to blame the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want to turn the golf courses back into mangroves, I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.” (Blanco, 2012)

In his poem, Blanco does not appreciate how everything that once was is gone. All the old buildings, scenes, and history important to him in Marco Island are gone; resembling the theme of change that is present in gentrification. This shows that not all will appreciate the changes done through revitalization of a city, comparable to the woman quoted earlier believing her community was invaded.

However, gentrification can decrease integration, or, race-based segregation in schools. Overall, with different-raced inhabitants moving in, gentrification leads to more diverse populations in schools. Professor of Law and co-founder of Perception Institute which focuses on researching social problems and creating solutions based on the research, Rachel D. Godsil wrote a paper on segregation in schools and how gentrification can help. In her paper, she states, “Diversity has been shown to play a critical role in spurring innovation and rigorous thinking” (Godsil, 2019). Simply, gentrification leads to interaction between diverse peoples, which ultimately encourages stronger thoughts and better relationships in schools. Also, schools can provide better education since they will have better funding due to increased tax revenue from wealthier inhabitants. With this money, supplies such as student recourses and/or technology can be added to a school district. So, with gentrification of cities comes the benefit of a better education due to greater diversity and increased funding. While this may not solve the problem of preserving communities and their history, it can ease tensions and lead to a brighter and more cooperative neighborhood.

When cities are re-developed through gentrification, health norms can be increased. Health conditions are typically bad in pre-gentrified cities due to low city budgets not being able to afford adequate standards. As stated by researchers Joseph Gibbons, Michael Barton, and Elizabeth Brault from the Department of Sociology in San Diego State University (2018), low income communities lack healthy food options, quality healthcare, and park space. Additionally, due to poverty in the cities, there are environmental factors that weaken residents’ health; physical examples such as living in broken and cramped homes, and social examples being the witnessing of depressed, drunk individuals on the streets (Gibbons, Barton, & Brault, 2018). Therefore, when communities described as such go through gentrification, improved healthcare is available, along with the availability of leisurely activities like community parks, overall helping to improve the health standards.

Along with better health for a community, crime rate can also decrease. Specifically, personal and violent crime rates tend to decrease in gentrifying cities. The United States Bureau of Justice Statistics defines personal crimes as “Rape, sexual assault, personal robbery, assault, purse snatching, and pocket picking” (Bureau of Justice Statistics, n.d.). Basically, it is any crime that may harm an individual. In a large study done that analyzed fourteen gentrifying neighborhoods by researcher Scott C. McDonald, it was found that as new wealthier inhabitants were moving in while cities were being changed, personal crimes overall decreased (McDonald, 1986). Recent statistics provided by the US Census also highlight the same results as McDonalds’ research. According to the data, in 1988 there were 13.5 violent crimes occurring per 1,000 population; but later in 2008, dropped down to a mean of only 8.9 violent crimes in the same population (Ellen, Horn, & Reed, 2017). This indicates that crime is reduced overall through gentrification and cities in the United States become safer.

Unfortunately, the uncontrolled gentrification process may not be able to maintain cities the way older residents prefer, but many positive and necessary changes in health, economics, safety, education, and revitalization occur to improve cities. However, improvements can be made to the gentrification process so that it doesn’t harm old residents of the cities as much. Currently, methods are used to ease gentrification and to keep the number of people being displaced low. Some methods mentioned by Kennedy and Leonard are, “tax abatements, housing trust funds, job linkage efforts, linkage fee programs, rent control, and so on” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). These methods allow more individuals to cope with economic changes occurring and they increase the number of old residents able to remain in cities. The goal is to achieve “equitable development”, described by the United States Environmental Protection Agency as “an approach for meeting the needs of underserved communities… It is increasingly considered an effective place-based action for creating strong and livable communities” (United States Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.). In other words, it was an attempt to make things fairer to old residents in gentrifying cities and to mitigate the detriments in the gentrification process overall.

First, it would be necessary to strengthen the relationships of community members so that they can devise a plan together. Cooperation would be important between different groups and communities within a city. “Strategies can and should be supported, implemented and funded by regional, city, private sector, non-profit sector and philanthropic interests” (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001). All these different groups coming together would be important to a city because they can help directly influence the outcome of the gentrification process. Through the various studies Godsil analyzed in her paper, she claims, “Studies have found a link between the quality of the informal interactions with diverse peers and analytical problem-solving and complex thinking skills (Godsil, 2019). If there is unity, diversity, and problem solving, different groups sharing their ideas would be highly effective.

Second, it would be required that all groups taking part have a common goal and view in mind. All people would need to know exactly what the purpose is for the city and how it is planned to achieve that goal. According to Kennedy and Leonard, working towards a common goal is not only beneficial since it creates a sense of trust, but it also allows for securing of land and homes for people through the communication of public and private sector leaders (Kennedy & Leonard, 2001).

Finally, once there is a common goal, work needs to be done to implement the desirable changes. This means policies may need to adjust, home development plans must go into effect, negotiations between leaders should occur, and overall taxes must be used effectively. If the entire process of gentrification occurs in this way, there will be far less drawbacks to it. Through this entire process, the necessity of gentrification will be revealed since it may bring positive changes to neighborhoods, bringing far more benefits than drawbacks through a much-needed stronger economy, better health conditions, lower crime rates, improved education, and most importantly, a united community.


References

Blanco, R. (2012). Looking for the gulf motel. In R. Blanco (Author), Pitt Poetry Series: Looking for the Gulf Motel (pp. 1-3). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press. (Original work published 2012)

Burns, V. F., Lavoie, J. P., & Rose, D. (2011). Revisiting the role of neighbourhood change in social exclusion and inclusion of older people. Journal of aging research, 2012, https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/148287

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (n.d.). Terms & definitions: Crime type. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Bureau of Justice Statistics website: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tdtp&tid=3

Ellen, I. G., Horn, K. M., & Reed, D. (2017, March 1). Has falling crime invited gentrification? Retrieved from Social Science Research Network database. (Accession No. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2930242)

Fox, J. C. (2013). Urban Renewal. In K. L. Lerner, B. W. Lerner, & S. Benson (Eds.), Human Geography: People and the Environment (Vol. 2, pp. 653-656). Detroit, MI: Gale. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/CX2062300256/SUIC?u=nysl_li_valleysc&sid=SUIC&xid=a418b775

Gibbons, J., Barton, M., & Brault, E. (2018). Evaluating gentrification’s relation to neighborhood and city health. PLoS ONE, 13(11), 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207432

Godsil, R. D. (2019). Rigor and Relationships: The Positive Case for Integration in Schools and Neighborhoods. Cardozo Law Review, 40(3), 1287–1326. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=135181365&site=ehost-live

Institute for Policy & Social Research. (2018). Kansas statistical abstract 2017 (52nd ed.). Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/1808/27662

Kennedy, M., & Leonard, P. (2001). Dealing with neighborhood change: A primer on gentrification and policy choices. Brookings Institution, 5. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/research/dealing-with-neighborhood-change-a-primer-on-gentrification-and-policy-choices/

Kirkland, E. (2008). What’s race got to do with it? Looking for the racial dimensions of gentrification. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 32(2), 18+. Retrieved from http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A196534328/SUIC?u=nysl_li_valleysc&sid=SUIC&xid=0fa6f5b6

McDonald, S. (1986). Does Gentrification Affect Crime Rates? Crime and Justice, 8, 163-201. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1147427

Montgomery, M. R. (2008). The urban transformation of the developing world. Science, 319(5864), 761-764. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1153012

Perry, F. (2016, October 5). ‘We are building our way to hell’: Tales of gentrification around the world. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/oct/05/building-way-to-hell-readers-tales-gentrification-around-world

Sheppard, S. (2012). Why is gentrification a problem? [PDF]. Center for Creative Community Development. Retrieved from http://web.williams.edu/Economics/ArtsEcon/library/pdfs/WhyIsGentrificationAProbREFORM.pdf

United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Equitable development and environmental justice. Retrieved March 26, 2019, from United States Environmental Protection Agency website: https://www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice/equitable-development-and-environmental-justice

The Micronesian Suicide Epidemic

by Brandon Chavez, January 25, 2021

Brandon Chavez is a Class of 2024 undergraduate majoring in History. He enjoys learning about social and political issues in other countries & places around the world. He also enjoys learning about the challenges faced by indigenous populations.

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

”Suicide rates since 1960 in Micronesia (the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands) have undergone an epidemic-like increase. This phenomenon is focussed narrowly within the 15-24-year male age-group”

(Rubinstein, 1983).

Family plays a quite significant role in Micronesian society. An individual’s self-esteem is very dependent on the acceptance and support of the family, more so than any other contributing factor. A firm place and role in the family is a source of self-esteem for an individual. The significance of familial relations and approvals are shown with one of Hezel’s statistics in his data: “Over 70 percent of all the suicides since 1960 were precipitated by conflicts within the consanguineal family” (Hezel, 55).

This phenomenon of high suicide rates among the male youth in Micronesia was first noticed by Reverend Francis Hezel, a Jesuit who was the director of Xavier High School in the Chuuk islands for nearly 18 years. Reverend Hezel wrote a magazine article about this phenomenon in 1977. Dr. Rubinstein, a researcher at Honolulu’s East-West Center, and Reverend Hazel later decided to research the issue further in the following years where they collected many facts about the situation but unfortunately did not come up with any solutions at the time. A later publication by Hezel in 1989 described the magnitude of the situation in Micronesia in comparison with the suicide rates of the United States: “The general suicide rate for Truk is 40 per 100,000. The rate for Trukese males between 15 and 25 is a startling 250 per 100,000. This is 20 times the youth rate in the United States” (Hezel, 1989).

Hezel observed that these suicides can be linked to small disputes between a young man and an older family member, like an older sibling or parent. Two examples were cited by Hezel to show his observation of the trend: one 13 year old boy hung himself after being scolded by his mother and a 16 year old boy also hung himself after his father refused to give him $1.

Another trend Hezel recognized was that the suicides would be clustered in groups; the death of one young man would often lead to suicides of others in the area. 

When thinking about possible causes for these trends, Hezel initially thought that the process of modernization and its pressures clashing with traditional island societies was responsible for this phenomenon. Hezel and Rubinstein looked further into the issue and found that poor family relations were a common pattern with their research. 

Hezel also described another insight into the issue that he gathered from his research: 

“Rather than an impulsive act, we found the suicides were often the result of a longterm intolerable situation”

(Hezel, 1983).

Reverend Hezel’s insight reveals that these suicides in Micronesia are not impulsive, but that there is a cultural aspect to the situation, regarding a traditional island defense mechanism taken to an extreme. The word “amwunumwun” is used by the Chuukese to describe the behavior of young men using withdrawal to express shame or anger. Refusing to eat or being silent are examples of actions that these young men engage in when showing this behavior. 

Reverend Hezel and Dr. Rubinstein believed that the strategy of amwunumwun became violent in the 1960s and 1970s where suicide might be considered the most extreme form of this behavior of bringing harm to oneself to save a relationship. A Chuukese suicide victim thought that being dead would repair more to a damaged relationship than if they were alive.In a later publication Reverend Hezel shed new insight on the suicide epidemic in the Chuuk islands (Hezel, 1989).

Figure 1

Note. Hezel found that anger was the leading cause of suicide in several islands in Micronesia (Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae and Yap), the Marshall Islands and Palau (Hezel, 1989, p. 49).

Hezel also sought to find out the significance of the types of interpersonal and familial relationships that lead to suicide in Micronesia. Below is the table of his recorded data:

Figure 2

(Hezel, 1989, p. 51)

The table revealed that a relational disruption or conflict between a young man and his parents was often the most common cause of relational disruption that led to suicide. Hezel notes that in suicide cases that were led by disruptions in nonfamily relationships, the victim might break off familial ties because of the shame that might be bringing to their family and fear of what their family members’ reactions woud be. The victim was ashamed of actions that could offend their family and feared a consequential disruption in familial relations.

In 2007,  Dr. Mao-Sheng Ran, a professor at the University of Hong Kong, reviewed pre-existing data on the characteristics of suicide in Micronesia. 

Dr. Ran’s research found another phenomena that highlights the effect of mental health on suicide in Micronesia the effect of mental health on suicide in Micronesia compared with another country such as the United States.

Figure 3

(Ran, 2007, p. 83).

The bar graph above reveals an interesting and peculiar observation about the correlation between mental illness and suicide victims in Micronesia. Only 10% of suicide victims in Micronesia had psychiatric disorders, while 90% of suicide victims in the United States had mental illness. Dr. Ran states that: “Mental illness did not appear to be an important factor in Micronesian suicides. Most of the victims have had no serious delinquency problems, psychological abnormality, or psychosis” (Ran, 83).

Dr. Ran noted that intergenerational conflict was the most common cause that led to suicide and most suicides occured because of a conflict, misunderstanding or argument between a young victim and their parents or older relative. 

The definition of anger in Hezel’s research is further explored in Dr. Ran’s review. Hezel’s publication in 1989 cited three distinct patterns of suicides which included anger suicides, shame suicides and psychotic suicides. It was previously mentioned in Hezel’s publication that anger suicides were the most prominent in Micronesian suicide cases, but this definition of anger adds a new understanding to the situation. Ran established that:”The definition of ‘anger’ was similar to the way Americans describe depression”(Ran, 2007, pg. 84). This definition of anger shows a cultural difference in how anger is defined in Micronesian society and American society. 

The review also included several aspects and social changes that may be responsible for the high suicide rate in Micronesia. The first change is the expansion of a cash economy in Micronesia and the decreasing reliance on subsistence production. The production may be responsible for weakening the significance of clan and lineage activities. The decline in clan and lineage activities narrows social support for teenagers, increases reliance and dependence on parents, and increases  parental-adolescent conflicts.The second change is the acceptance of suicide which can be attributed to this increase in suicide rates. As suicide becomes common among the youth, it became more acceptable and even expected.

According to Hezel, western solutions such as suicide prevention hotlines and counseling would not fully solve the suicide epidemic witnessed in Micronesia as the issue is not only psychological but also cultural. Dr. Ran offered several suggestions for future research to combat the issue. Ran suggests that there should be more surveillance on suicidal behavior in Micronesia, independent research on preventive and risk factors, and a longitudinal study on social and economic shifts affecting the male youth. Since there is not many mental health professionals available, Ran suggests that more individuals should be trained to counter the issue of suicide. 

The Micronesian suicide epidemic is quite unique as the root of the issue is concerned more with the inter-generational conflict and socio-cultural elements found within Micronesian society rather than mental illness. Solutions to the issue and research on the topic cannot be treated in a western approach, as the act of suicide has shown to be woven into the youth culture of Micronesian society. Future studies, research, and clinical approaches must consider the socio-cultural elements of Micronesian society & family to make progress in combating the Micronesian suicide epidemic.


References

Hezel, F. (1989). Suicide and the Micronesian family. The Contemporary Pacific, 1(1/2), 43–74. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23701892 

Micronesia’s male suicide rate defies solution. (1983, March 06). The New York Times. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/1983/03/06/us/micronesia-s-male-suicide-rate-defies-solution. html 

Ran, Mao-Sheng. (2007). Suicide in Micronesia: A systematic review. Primary Psychiatry, 14(11), 80–87. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262882325_Suicide_in_Micronesia_A_Systematic_Review

Rubinstein, D. H. (1983). Epidemic suicide among Micronesian adolescents. Social Science & Medicine, 17(10), 657–665. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(83)90372-6

AI – A Casual Overview

by Jeffrey Huang, January 21, 2021

Jeffrey is pursuing a B.A. in Psychology at Stony Brook. He enjoys technology and is always keeping up with the latest hardware releases.

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

Technology. Such a simple concept of scientific application can have many implications for our lives, history, and the world. When people talk about the dangers of technology, popular media has us thinking about robots, and by extension, Artificial Intelligence (AI). Media like The Matrix franchise, Person of Interest, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (either novel or film) highlight the potential that AI has in terms of changing our world through apocalyptic means, a dystopic society, etc. Would you believe me if I told you we were already, in some respects, in such a society today? For example, think of any time where you might have been discussing something in the open with a friend, but then see advertisements the next time you browse the web? Such was most likely the work of AI, or more specifically, Machine Learning (ML) Algorithms. The overhead of employing many human listeners would usually be too much, so such work would be mostly delegated to automation[1]. This essay is a culmination of what I’ve learned from Professor Brennan’s PSY 369, Psychology in the Age of Intelligent Machines, and what I know as a computer enthusiast.

The AI singularity seems like a technological milestone that humanity may never reach. However, despite less than ideal implementations of such technology in areas like human language translation[2], we have progressed significantly over the course of computing history. In terms of literal definitions, automated systems can pass the Turing Test, as it was written in the 1950s. Nobody uses the Turing Test in the way it was originally written; it is more of a thematic test of achieving near-human systems. I would recommend VSauce’s video here for reference (Stevens, 2017). Some key examples of AI efforts include major companies you’ve probably heard of. Tesla is one among many automobile manufacturers developing autonomous driving (“Autopilot AI”, 2020). Google, being the technological juggernaut it is, has general AI research and development along with custom computer chips (“Google AI”, 2020). Even Boston Dynamics is using AI, with some autonomous functionalities built into the Spot lineup of robots (“Spot®”, 2020).

Most prominently, AI is in the social media we use every day, through feed recommendations and those all-important corporate advertisements that provide these services to you. Most of these efforts are not usually made with malicious intent, but their implications may be anything but benevolent. Despite me writing this essay, the majority of users will not really notice AI as it slowly creeps into our lives. It’s like the rising sun; minute by minute, you don’t notice the incoming light. But, over time, if you were to compare your first minute to your last minute; assuming the sun is up, you notice this marked change. It’s a similar concept here. Slowly, technology and AI integrates itself into our lives until we don’t see its marked change before. For reference, ask older individuals what life was like before the internet, or the proliferation of accessible personal computing. We’ve advanced from expensive IBM compatibles to Chromebooks.

The issue with AI is not so much the underlying technology, nor the idea behind it. Like many concepts, it is a good idea on paper. In practice, nobody adheres to what might make it great. In the interest of expediency and cost-effectiveness, companies push forth half-baked implementations where we see more negative consequences. AI/ML algorithms are simply algorithms. They attempt to predict, with less precision than the real world, an approximation of what should be. It’s like walking through your house blindfolded. You probably won’t fall or seriously injure yourself, but seeing with your eyes is much better than relying on memory reconstructions. It’s similar with AI. However, instead of stumbling blindly in a controlled, familiar environment, such systems are thrown into the real world. Instead of being blindfolded in your house, you’re blindfolded and randomly placed on a football field. Imagine the disorientation – you would have no idea of where you were relative to the rest of the layout of said field.

AI’s implementations in the current justice system and in job selection are akin to these blind analogies. While you might think that this is due to evil programmers, this is not usually intentional. AI algorithms are mysterious in that regard. Given current frameworks and paradigms, how it generates results is unknown. Oftentimes, this is to shocking effect with its eerily accurate predictions, sometimes from scant data – privacy violations notwithstanding. Despite this, it’s sometimes claimed as a great innovation. Finally one can get “objective” judgements and predictions.

The truth is, though, there’s no such a thing as an objective algorithm. AI is only as good as the data that it’s fed, and in some cases, the wrong data leads to a perpetuation of broken systems. For instance, recidivism algorithms[3] are biased towards disadvantaged populations like people of color.

recidivism – a tendency to relapse into a previous condition or mode of behavior, especially to relapse into criminal behavior

Merriam-Webster

In some cases, more privileged, Caucasian individuals are at an advantage given confounding lifestyle correlations tied to outcomes. For instance, an African-American who is considered high in recidivism risk will receive more scrutiny while on parole versus a Caucasian who is not. It’s ironic at times, as the end outcome can be that the African-American will obey the law and the Caucasian ends up back in prison. Despite these inconsistencies, such algorithms are pushed onto judges who don’t know any better, and innocent individuals can be caught in the crossfire (Angwin et al., 2016).

With that in mind, is there reason to panic, shout and protest? Yes and no. While it isn’t always great as I enumerated above, there are some benefits to these technologies, when used properly. An easy example of this duality is in nuclear technologies. It can be used to terrible effect, or used to generate power. AI has shown immense potential, as shown in various technology demos, or real-world implementations. For video games, AI can enable higher perceived visual fidelity with more realistic lighting or resolution upscaling, and such implementations are slowly being added to newer games and are present in next-generation consoles (“RTX. It’s On. Ultimate Ray Tracing and AI,” 2020; Battaglia, 2020). Outside of gaming, you have frame-interpolation for animations, where an algorithm attempts to make it smoother. Traditional animations like Pixar films may suffer visually from attempting this, as seen in this thread on Twitter:

For stop-motion, though, this changes the game completely. It’s much easier to just have an animation filmed at 15 fps than it is to use AI to enable a smoother, 30 fps final product (Boosting Stop-Motion to 60 fps using AI, 2020). And of course, there is the infinite comedic potential, especially with song generation or translations (The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, 2020). Outside of that, this has the capability to change the way we work literally. Imagine a richer world where AI assists in creative work, or the formulation of novel chemicals that could change lives (Conti, 2016; Hessler & Baringhaus, 2018). That’s also in the works, as well as the dystopic solutions above.

The key point of this essay is not so much to get you fired up one way or the other about AI, but to just be aware of these systems and changes in our society. Congress has tried, unsuccessfully, to consider it, and it’s our job as the greater public to be informed and act accordingly. Greater awareness can be detrimental, as seen with Brandolini’s Law[4]. However, given how unconscious these processes currently operate, it’s best to bring them to light.

Footnotes

[1] Additionally, you probably consented to such listening when agreeing to the arcane and long Terms of Service or End User License Agreement for things like Google services.

[2] As improved as translation services are like DeepL, it can still sound odd to native speakers, as I’ve learned in Chinese with my own family.

[3] Algorithms designed to predict re-offending inmates after being released on parole

[4] It takes more information and effort to correct misinformation, especially on the internet.


References

Angwin, J., Larson, J., Mattu, S., & Kirchner, L. (2016). Machine Bias. ProPublica. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.propublica.org/article/machine-bias-risk-assessments-in-criminal-sentencing

Autopilot AI. Tesla.com. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.tesla.com/autopilotAI

Battaglia, A. (2020). PlayStation 5: what to expect from next-gen console ray tracing. Eurogamer.net. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.eurogamer.net/articles/digitalfoundry-2020-playstation-5-ray-tracing-software-analysis

Boosting Stop-Motion to 60 fps using AI. (2020). [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sFN9dzw0qH8

Crimson Mayhem. 2020, October 6. “You want to know why converting animation that were specifically made in 24 frames per second to 60 FPS…”. Twitter. https://twitter.com/Crimson_Mayhem_/status/1313562730977255426

Google AI. Google. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://ai.google/.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Recidivism. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved January 11, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/recidivism

Spot®. BostonDynamics.com. (2020). Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.bostondynamics.com/spot

Stevens, Michael. (2017). Artificial Intelligence – Mind Field (Ep 4) [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZXpgf8N6hs

The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. (2020). Google Translate Songs with Halsey [Video]. Retrieved 31 December 2020, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRZ4zci_YUU