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

@CortezGeovanny. “Kids are getting softer and softer with each generation.” Twitter, 9 Apr 2021, 9:20 p.m., twitter.com/CortezGeovanny/status/1380692134659940352.

@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.

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The Power of Presentation and Representation throughout History

by Nora Rivera-Larkin, April 20, 2021

History is often subjective, with the primary voice being given to the winners. Accounts of historical events are often biased, and while there is much they can tell us about the people who delivered them, such as the driving force behind their actions and what rhetorical strategies and methods were crucial to their success and failure, objective accounts of history should also be brought to the foreground of discussion and show other perspectives on history, giving voice to people of marginalized communities. Some writers utilize the power of media and genre to enhance their message and to give it the larger platform it needs, like Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and the Munsee petition to former President Zachary Taylor. More recent works, such as the 1619 Project, look back on historical events, giving voice to those who were previously silenced. Written and oral transcriptions of historical events serve the purpose of convincing the reader of an argument, and giving an objective look at the past of this country.

Fredrick Douglass’ speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” demonstrates the power of public forum and the emotional weight of spoken word. Douglass connects the experiences of the revolutionaries that led to the Fourth of July holiday the people celebrate now, to the struggles of the enslaved and oppressed black people. He says, “Feeling themselves harshly and unjustly treated by the home government, your fathers, like men of honesty, and men of spirit, earnestly sought redress,” (Douglass). Douglass intertwines pathos and logos within his speech, playing on the pride of the nation, the citizens who still believe so much in the revolution and their young country, and slowly unveils the similarities between their experiences and those of the oppressed. The very presence of his speech, his articulation, and his ability to stand in front of a crowd, humble but firm, only adds to the message he is trying to convey and only further supports the idea of equality by representing his intelligence.

In addition to the oppression of black people in America, the manipulation of information throughout history is also crucial to the Native Americans exploitation by the American government. This was demonstrated with the Munsee petition, which reminded the president, Zachary Taylor, and the government of the United States of America of the history between the founders of America and the Native American tribes. They wrote, “The Commissioner’s name was Capt. Bullen, who acted on the part of the government of the United States, in making the said important Covenant of peace. He told our people to commit to Memory in their feeble way of entering into Record, such important national matters,” (Williams). The writers of the petition call out the commissioner and the government of the United States, illustrating how they played on a Munsee tradition of Wampum Records which eventually held no value or pertinence to the government. It was a ploy used to manufacture a friendship that would then be abused by the United States government. This is an example of how information can be manipulated and twisted by one side to get their way. The government, encouraging a Wampum Record while knowing it would have no meaning to them in the future served as empty promises in the wake of potential growth and benefit that the government officials wanted at the time.

Though many accounts of history only provide the pieces of information that the winners wanted to emphasize, more recent works provide a more accurate and objective view of the history of this country. The 1619 Project allowed voices often suppressed to be heard, and for history to finally be shown through the lens of those it had oppressed. It identified the hypocrisy in this nation’s birth, saying, “The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst,” (Hannah-Jones). A nation built on the backs of those it enslaved and denied rights to for hundreds of years often ignores the voices of those who try to speak up about the truth of America’s founding. Projects and collections such as these challenge the pure idea of the American memory and call it into question. They are the ones who are providing a truly objective view of American history by allowing all sides of history to be properly voiced and considered.

Writing and transcription are very powerful forces in shaping history and shaping perspective. Both written accounts and oral accounts can serve as a complication to the objective view of events, but they can also hold power in analyzing history and in providing cohesive messages of change to societies. The purpose of all of these works is to convince the reader of the side presented, to justify their actions and their side of history, whether it be for colonization or change in society, but cultivating multiple perspectives of historical events is the only way to maintain true objectivity.


Works Cited

Douglass, Frederick. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”.” Teaching American History, teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july

“Gideon Williams Letter to Zachary Taylor – Transcription.” Scalar: Login, dsp.domains.trincoll.edu/HL/hidden-literacies/gideon-williams-letter-to-zachary-taylor—transcription-uncorrected?path=andrew-newman.

“The 1619 Project.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Aug. 2019, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html?mtrref=blackboard.stonybrook.edu.

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.

An analysis of racial paradigms and ethnic projects in America

by Sanjana Sankaran, April 14, 2021 

Vilna Bashi-Treitler, The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions

Bashi-Treitler begins chapter three by answering the question, “How are ethnic groups racialized in the United States?” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 44). She begins by discussing the three major racial paradigms that came about, starting in Europe and later in North America. The first racial paradigm started in England with the Irish. The first English colonization occurred in Ireland. The English despised their pastoral culture, viewed them as heathens, and instilled several discriminatory laws such as marriage bans, and enslavement. This racialized thinking was built on preexisting ideas of hierarchy and classism based on the feudal system of medieval times (Bashi-Treitler 2013). After the English began settlements in America, the second racial paradigm was developed: Native Americans. The odious views of the Irish were then reflected onto Native Americans. What started as Native Americans helping English settlers survive eventually led to the ill-treatment of indigenous people, stealing of lands, and genocide by the English due to racialized thinking. After the development of colonies, African Americans became the third racial paradigm (Bashi-Treitler 2013). 

Up until this point, race was a mere social experiment, but it was only when American colonists brought African American slaves to the New World did this experiment transform into a reality. African Americans now became the new basis, and still are to this day, of the racial hierarchy. Bashi-Trietler states that slaves were not slaves because they were black, but rather they became black after they became slaves. Elite white colonizers used racialized thinking to rationalize their desire for land, riches, and cheap labor. In the late 1600s to 1700s elite whites colonizers, in an attempt to subdue claims to power and land from Native Americans, ethnic whites such as Italians and Irish were now considered white in the racial hierarchy. With their status changed, the Irish and Italians would no longer try to protest against British colonizers with natives. While these groups may have still been discriminated against, in the context of the racial hierarchy, being closer to the top is always better than being on the bottom.  In the past, religious conversions could move ethnic people up in the hierarchy, but this could no longer be used to stop racial inequality and the mechanisms of racial politiculture (Bashi-Treitler 2013). From now on, one was either born white or was considered not white at all. Bashi-Treitlet then states that “When ‘white’ is fully formed as the category at the hierarchy’s topmost position, race is systematic, paradigmatic, and unmistakably North American” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 52). 

At this point, Bashi-Treitler has established that Race and the rules that come with this construct are completely fictional, but they are still able to persist. She states the reason for this is due to the “systematic and societal support for the structure (or paradigm) of racial/racist thought” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 59). One of the roots for the persistence of racism was internalized shame for those who accepted their higher status and shame associated with those who went against this racial thinking. There were not enough white allies who chose to stand up against this racial hegemony. As other ethnic groups began to assimilate into white culture, they still faced racial slurs and racial bias. She ends by saying that systemic racism persists not only because of the white group, but also due to the competition amongst all groups in this racial hierarchy. Any BIPOC group aims to stay away from the bottom of the racial hierarchy and be higher than other groups. In order to do this, groups that are not literally white have to find methods to assimilate such as ignoring key cultural aspects of their lives and adopting aspects of white culture, thus acknowledging white dominance. Bashi-Treitler states that all ethnic groups have feelings of superiority, differences from other groups, privilege, and fear of loss of their position in the hierarchy (Bashi-Treitler 2013). If this is recognized amongst all groups the problems of systemic racism can begin to get addressed.   

Many parts of this reading stood out to me, for instance, when Bashi-Treitler states that blackness was developed as a result of slavery. In my history classes, I have always been taught that that Americans and Western Europeans brought African Americans as slaves due to their black skin. However, we had never discussed the true motivations for slavery and how that brand of slavery evolved into anti-black rhetoric. At first, I found it a bit confusing due to my preexisting knowledge of slavery, but now I agree with Bashi-Treitler and understand that blackness was an idea that was created for labor and land. The racialized thinking of how we view blacks now came from the idea that we view them as the bottom of the hierarchy, expendable, and unworthy. 

Another aspect that I found interesting is when Bashi-Treitler states that all groups take part in the racialized hierarchy and each group vyes to be at the top. Before taking Racism and Ethnic Relations, I had naively believed that only white people can be racist and that the problems of systemic racism are rooted in the racialized mindset of white lawmakers. I now see that it is much larger than that. Not only can anyone have racist thinking, but anyone can feel this way to avoid the severe discrimination and societal disapproval that people at the bottom of the hierarchy face. When thinking about my own life, I know several Indians who are pro-Trump and anti-BLM because they feel that the social standing of black people is black people’s fault, In the process, Indians fall prey to the ideas of racial hegemony to avoid discrimination. However, what they do not realize is that Bashi-Treitler was right when she said that “Whiteness is a club you cannot marry into or join through naturalization; whiteness can only be bestowed. In the racialized United States of America, whiteness is the only attribute that really counts” (Bashi-Treitler 2013: 54). 

When trying to understand the racist ideologies of white supremacists and those of other cultures, I can now understand what Bashi-Treitler meant when she stated that whiteness is kept up because of shame. Whenever we hear the arguments of Trump supporters, for instance, they always say that society has become too politically correct. These people grew up believing that associating with BIPOC people and believing in ideas of equality brought about shame to them and their community. They may have also felt internalized shame because a majority of the population are not white supremacists. When Trump rose to power, this man, normalized open acts of racism, exposing the racialized mindset that was already present. 

Cover Page (Bashi-Treitler 2013)

References

Bashi, Treitler, Vilna. The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fiction into Ethnic Factions, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/sunysb-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1324242.

Reshelved: Can Children’s Classics Be Modernized?

by Joan Antony, March 15 2021

(Erin McCracken/Evansville Courier & Press via AP, File)

Moby Dick, The Cat in The Hat, Huckleberry Finn... and a number of other titles are the face of American children’s books, even in the 21st century. The public opinion on these books, and others, have not changed in the past few years. Despite modernizing trends that have swept through America, such as the “Cancel Culture” movement and the creation of “Banned Books Week,” many beloved classics remain on shelves across the country; a testament to their timeless messages and cherished meanings.

However, this may not be the case for all classics.

Sometimes, even industry giants in Children’s Books, such as Dr. Seuss Enterprises feel the need to evaluate the messages they sent to children. In the first quarter of 2021, the company collectively decided to take down a number of lesser known books from their collection; And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street as well as a few other titles (Gross, The New York Times). After his death in 1991, Dr. Seuss’ reputation as a beloved storyteller has been measured against modernist standards for children’s literature. The man, who is hailed as one of the greatest children’s books writers in American history, has come under fire posthumously for anti-Semitic and racist stereotypes depicted in his books. With the recent decisions made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to discontinue If I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool and others, discourse has begun on the morality of allowing these particular children’s books to be shelved. The future of a child’s education in relation to the views and opinions they form from the media they consume, is an important conversation that has only just begun to be discussed. The author’s position should be discussed in academic settings, not hidden away in a new animated Grinch movie or saturated in merchandise. America should have an honest discourse on the impact Seuss’ works have had on children of different demographics throughout the decades. A children’s literature expert, Michelle H. Martins states:

“Seuss was not thinking about Black kids and Asian kids when he was writing these books. He was writing for white kids.”

(All Things Considered, NPR)

And it’s not only in America that this revival is in the works. In France, a beloved comic book series Lucky Luke, is adding to its own cast of characters. A Black man is featured in A Cowboy in High Cotton, standing alongside the main character Luke, with an equal and important role in progressing the story (Onishi, The New York Times). The hero, Luke, is usually defeating the bad guys and bringing peace to the countryside all on his own. This time, he is joined by a fellow sheriff, an employee of the plantation he owns. The moral of the story is not only to satisfy his own goals, but to win the trust of his employees, a task he commits to with gusto. This is definitely progressive, in terms of European standards for children’s books, where change has been deemed necessary. Even now, Tintin in The Congo continues to be published internationally without much change to the stereotypes within the covers (The New York Times).

(Mantovani for The New York Times)

While it may seem very sudden, the dismantling of children’s literature is not a new phenomenon. Recently, authors are more likely to receive feedback and criticism on their books’ in terms of appealing to political correctness and the general mood of society (Limbong, NPR). Plenty of authors have faced immense backlash from their audience, on social media platforms such as Twitter, a platform in which retweets and direct tweets can go viral in minutes. With the ease of finding authors, their viewpoints on topics are much more accessible. Long gone are the days when the only way to reach an author was to mail them a long list of complaints. In that case, readers could never be sure their frustrations were being heard or even acted upon. With social media, it’s become easier than ever to wage a personal attack, and cite specific instances of wrong-doing. While in some cases the attacks have gone too far, most times the ‘face-to-face’ interaction between readers and writers is more effective for improving the selection of children’s books available in the genre. Or, at least some are taken off the shelf.

Imagine writing a generation defining series about a youth uprisal that defeats a tyrannical monster motivated by the preservation of “pure blood” and looking at THIS time in the world and going “hmm…yep. I’m gonna invalidate trans people.” (@halsey, Twitter)

Of course, criticism from the opposite side is to be expected, opinions will clash on whether making these significant changes in the realm of children’s classics is necessary or progressive (Alter and Harris, The New York Times). Will the washing out of these depictions actually harm children’s learning? Without markers of how it ‘used to be,’ will children be able to correctly point out how it ‘should be’? Is there an alternative to erasing these harmful descriptions, without losing the meaningful story in the process?

A good example of the latter would be the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, a beloved classic worldwide. Lewis has been heavily criticized for his imagery of the Calormenes, a city of people and culture that seems to ‘blend’ and typecast different cultures from the Middle-East, in addition to the sexist wording and imagery present throughout the series; as well as one incorrigible scene of cultural appropriation (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb). The scene is one where three of the main characters in the last addition of the series, Last Battle, must get past the enemy Calormene’s soldiers. In order to so, they resort to rubbing oil over their faces, to ‘blend’ in with the soldiers, as well as donning ‘turbans’ as a disguise (Lewis, Last Battle). The scene is not further explained, and it is moved past quickly as a necessity in war time. For all these right reasons, the series falls on the spectrum of books that can be banned for one terrible scene alone. However in 2005, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe directed by Andrew Adamson, was a roaring success, topping the box office and inspiring little kids around the world to pick up the books for the first time. How so? For one, the director made sure to piece together all the scenes from the book with a warm remembrance of how it was when he was a child. His memory veiled the terrible descriptions into altered scenes, or left them out entirely (Glumpuddle, NarniaWeb).

“When I set out to do this, I said very early on that I don’t want to make the book so much, as I want to make my memory of the book. […][C.S. Lewis] planted seeds and let them grow in your imagination.”

NarniaWeb, Director Andrew Adamson circa 2005

From this telling line, it may be easier to decide the final say on books by one important factor: the children themselves. The kids who read these books are the kids who will grow up with these books. Children’s literature is a revered genre because of its versatility, for its importance of ‘growing’ with the child, as they mature and learn important values and connotations for real life.

Keeping this in mind, it is apt to conclude that there is no set right or wrong way to decide on ‘reshelving’ every book; it is a choice based on every individual classic, on the background of the author, and most importantly, how the primary audience will react to the appearance or disappearance of this particular book. Is it worth banning? Or does it just need a different adaption to help derive the meaning better?


Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra, and Elizabeth A. Harris. “Dr. Seuss Books Are Pulled, and a ‘Cancel Culture’ Controversy Erupts.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/04/books/dr-seuss-books.html.

“Are The Chronicles of Narnia Sexist and Racist?” NarniaWeb, 20 July 2009, http://www.narniaweb.com/resources-links/are-the-chronicles-of-narnia-sexist-and-racist/.

“Dr Seuss going? No, just old stereotypes.” Age [Melbourne, Australia], 5 Mar. 2021, p. 31. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653763351/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=6cf46853. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Glumpuddle. “Andrew Adamson Went From Shrek to Narnia.” NarniaWeb, 9 Feb. 2020, http://www.narniaweb.com/2020/02/andrew-adamson-went-from-shrek-to-narnia/.

Gross, Jenny. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will No Longer Be Published Over Offensive Images.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/02/books/dr-seuss-mulberry-street.html.

“Imagine Writing a Generation Defining Series about a Youth Uprisal That Defeats a Tyrannical Monster Motivated by the Preservation of ‘Pure Blood’ and Looking at THIS Time in the World and Going ‘Hmm…yep. I’m Gonna Invalidate Trans People.”.” Twitter, Twitter, 7 June 2020, twitter.com/halsey/status/1269436246759112704.

Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2014.

Limbong, Andrew. “Why Author J.K. Rowling Is Facing Backlash From LGBTQ Activists.” NPR, NPR, 20 Dec. 2019, http://www.npr.org/2019/12/20/790319846/why-author-j-k-rowling-is-facing-backlash-from-lgbtq-activists.

“Looking Again At A Doctor’s Old Rhymes, Seuss Works Haven’t Kept Up With The Times.” All Things Considered, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653816567/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=fa6d8174. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

Onishi, Norimitsu. “Lucky Luke, the Comic Book Cowboy, Discovers Race, Belatedly.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Feb. 2021, http://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/22/world/europe/lucky-luke-comic-france.html.

Pratt, Mark. “6 Dr. Seuss Books Will Stop Being Published Because of Racist Imagery.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 2 Mar. 2021, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/6-dr-seuss-books-will-stop-being-published-because-of-racist-imagery.

Telford, Taylor. “Some Dr. Seuss books with racist imagery will go out of print.” Washington Post, 2 Mar. 2021. Gale In Context: Opposing Viewpoints, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A653519393/OVIC?u=sunysb&sid=OVIC&xid=5710bddc. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.

The New York Times. “A Tintin Controversy.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 July 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/18/arts/18arts-ATINTINCONTR_BRF.html.

Androids as Allegories: Analysing Asian/American and African/American Embodiment in Speculative Media

by Anonymous, February 15, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

This essay was written in 2018, before the HBO’s Watchmen and Lovecraft County aired. Both narratives are worth looking into for representations of Black bodies in the nexus of history, science fiction, and modernity.

Recent years have seen increased diversity in the American population. However,  entwined with its shining tradition of immigration, our country has a much murkier history of  oppression and outgroup aggression. From slavery to Manifest Destiny, immigration bans to  racial violence, the repeated and systematic dehumanization of large swathes of the population  has sparked countless campaigns for liberty and equality that continue into the present day. The  media has proven an excellent tool for and against different agendas, with media portrayals of  different populations shaping public opinion of the people that comprise those groups. This essay  looks at two different subgenres of speculative fiction (Techno-Orientalism and Afrofuturism)  that emerged in the twentieth century and their connection to real-world histories of oppression  through the lens of two recent productions, the 2015 film Ex Machina and the Metropolis concept album series.

I. History of Un/humanity

Throughout American history, people of color have been posited as less than human.  From the Three-Fourths Compromise in 1787 and immigration bans in 1882 and 1917, to modern stereotyping, the American legal system has worked in tandem with socioeconomic anxieties to portray people of color as unhuman “Others.” This has been accomplished by relegating the bodies of Black and Asian people to the “uncanny valley.”

Figure 1. Graph depicting the uncanny valley (Mori).

Coined by Masahiro Mori in 1970, the uncanny valley describes semi/sentient technological simulacra that are vaguely familiar, but at the same time discomfiting in their distinct inhumanness (Chu; Roh 78). Mori believed that people respond positively to simulacra (i.e. effigies, superficial or unreal representations of humanity), when they are less than 85% similar to actual humans (Mori 2012). The strength of the positive response then increases proportionally, albeit slowly, as the percentage similarity increases. Those that fall near the graphical valley at 85% are characterized by an existence in the liminal space between humanity and the mere simulation of it (Figure 1).

This percentage is determined by a combination of the simulacra’s vocalizations, physical embodiment, and responses to human engagement.  Considering the negative connotations associated with African American Vernacular English, black skin, epicanthic folds and “foreign” customs, representations of people in media can often  be examined through the idea of the uncanny valley. Though rather than having the ambiguous  “human” category as the baseline, much of contemporary American respectability and assimilation politics uses the unmarked category of “whiteness” as the baseline against which all other speech patterns, bodies, and behaviors are compared and evaluated for  familiarity/humanity. 

With this context, we can begin to consider how the characterizations of people of color  in media and contemporary fiction force them into this uncanny liminal space, an existence allegorized by the speculative fiction staple – the android. Exploring different manifestations of the android as allegory enables us to disentangle the heterogeneity and distinctions within the minority monolith, as well as providing us with a deeper understanding of the relevance of  speculative representations of marginalized groups.

II. Techno-Orientalism

In a 1902 campaign to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act, Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that Chinese laborers were capable of sustaining deprivations in safety and  sustenance that those of European descent could not (Gompers). The paper was termed “Meat vs. Rice, American Manhood vs. Asian Cooleism”. Its very title suggests that Asian Americans are something other than hu/man, some differential species known as “Coolie”. Despite their crucial role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and as laborers in the American West, the extent of Asian American humanity was routinely called into question. They were construed as literal machines, “cogs of hyperproduction”,  arriving overseas in bulk for use in constructing industrial modernity (Roh 5).

Techno-Orientalism is a direct byproduct of this paradigm shift. It is defined by Danielle  Wong as “A discourse that imagines Asia and Asians in hypo- or hyper-technological terms in  order to secure the West’s dominance as architects of the future” (Wong 35).

Lacking a distinct cultural history, America seeks to compensate by imagining a distinct  cultural future, in the form of future-societies. A staple in speculative fiction, future-societies  have their roots in the industrial revolution, when increasing mechanization led to novels and  speculation on the integration of synthetic technology with organic humanity. In the wake of the  technological and arms dominance that emerged in the nineteenth century, the United States  constructed its identity on the basis of modernity. Its status as a relatively young nation and a  global superpower to boot fed into this ideal of futurism, where Western society, America in  particular, was seen as the embodiment of modernism. “If it was the West that created  modernity, it was also modernity that created the imaginary space and identity described as  Western” (Morley 153). 

Beginning in the 1980s, however, Asia has seen tremendous economic and technological  growth, outpacing the nations typically thought to constitute the West. As a result, the focus of American anxieties shifted to “fears of being colonized [and] mechanized…in its pursuit of  technological dominance” (Roh 4). Disoriented by the shift in technological innovation, the  Western society developed insecurities about European and American modernity, Watching  Asian nations outpace them in terms of GDP growth and technological innovation forces  Western society to recenter the locus of modernity, forcing them to recenter the very core of their  identities (CIA). This leads to further othering of Asian/American populations by white in order to retain their sense of identity, which is so inextricably entwined with the notion of  technological superiority.

This led to the rise of cyberpunk. Envisioning future-societies dominated by masculinized  white protagonists, cyberpunk allowed creators to reproduce the militarized, white, “rugged  masculinity” that they believed to be their birthright. White men cast in the “lone wolf”  archetype are shown as taking a stand against faceless corporations that are trying to elide  humanity in favor of impersonal, unfeeling mechanization. Defining pieces in the genre include  Blade Runner (1982) and Neuromancer (1984), both of which center on a lone white man in an  Orientalized environment, which despite being populated by Asian/Americans, rarely gives them  scope to be active subjects. Limited in their characterization, the presence of Asian/American  bodies is used as sentient set dressing, with the sentience often called into question.

III. Ex Machina’s Inheritance

The distinction between sentience and thought originated in eighteenth century  philosophy and has been historically connected to dehumanization and the justification for  oppression towards the racial and ethnic Other. Sentient beings are considered capable of  subjective interpretation, also known as emotions. Thinking beings, in contrast, are simply able  to rationalize; take objective data and spit out information, no more human than a computer  CPU. Thus, denying Asian/American characters of a full range of emotional expression  effectively reduces them to androids; unhuman mechanized bodies whose sole purpose for  existing is manual labor. By removing Asian/American subjectivity from Asian-coded  environments, the narratives deny them personhood. 

This phenomenon is observed in the 2015 film Ex Machina. Despite its rather hackneyed  deployment of racialized tropes, Ex Machina is lauded as a speculative milestone for its inclusion of bodies of color in a future-society. However, said bodies are routinely denied  subjectivity. 

Humans interpret a subject’s emotion through two methods; voice modulation and facial  expression. It is thus telling that both Asian androids in the film, Jade and Kyoko, have static  visual affect displays. Throughout the 150-minute film, we see no variation in either of their expressions.  Furthermore, their sole expression is neutral, suggesting that they lack any capacity for  subjective, emotional response. In this sense, the film constructs the Asian face as “too artificial,  too inorganic to pass for human” (Wong 40). The stereotype of the unfeeling, coldly logical  Asian is depicted in full force here. This is driven to a visual extreme in the case of Jade, who is  shown tearing herself apart in an effort to escape confinement. Her desperation literally destroys  her. She does not show sentience, repeating the phrase “let me out” in a monotonous tone as her  body breaks down. 

It is also necessary to consider historical precedent in the case of Kyoko, who has been  effectively muted by Nathan, the androids’ creator. Unable to utter a single sound, or to move in  ways contrary to his explicit commands, she is denied any means of self-expression, any way of  conveying the thoughts and feelings that would mark her as sentient.  

Even Kyoko’s sexuality is almost mechanical in its eerie semblance to a computer  responding only to user input. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film occurs when Caleb is  looking for Nathan. Approaching Kyoko, he repeatedly asks her for Nathan’s location. As she  remains mute, staring at him with her unchanging expression, Caleb shouts the profanity “F**k”  as an expression of his growing frustration. It is this word that triggers Kyoko’s first action in  this interaction, namely, to begin unbuttoning her shirt. Unable to respond outside the parameters  and commands which Nathan has programmed nor express sentience, Kyoko is a trite character, 

in the tradition of cyberpunk’s “use of the passive techno-Orientalized female body” (Roh 159).  Kyoko is nothing more than sexual, sexualized technology. 

Contrast this to Ava, the white female android. Not only does her tone vary throughout  the film, depending on the emotions she experiences, we can also see changes in her facial  expression. Viewers are called to question Ava’s humanity based on whether they perceive her  expressions and voice modulations as either genuine expressions of feeling or calculated actions  with the aim of liberation. In either case, Ava is at least offered the option of humanity, her white  face allowing her to “pass’ in a way neither Asian android can.  

What is more telling is director Alex Garland’s response to questions of racial bias. The  director stated in an interview:

“the only embedded point that I knew I was making in regards to race centered around  the tropes of Kyoko [Sonoya Mizuno], a mute, very complicit Asian robot, or Asian appearing robot, because of course, she, as a robot, isn’t Asian.”

(Garland)

This statement is fundamentally flawed in its interpretation of race. Race is not a biological  reality so much as a social construct, with the body “a kind of mediation of the processes by  which race becomes attached to physiology…racialization is neither a biological nor a cultural  descriptor” so much as one created to divide society on a system of baseless difference. Skin  color, like so many other identities that have been historically rendered objects, exists on a  spectrum, and the sheer arbitrariness can be seen in codification attempts such as the “one-drop  rule”, which has no biological substance. There is a historical tradition of configuring posthuman  subjects as white, and the lack of subjective action given to the non-white androids renders them  unhuman, rather than posthuman. 

While the movie features multiple female bodies of color, they are not complex  characters. Even Kyoko’s demonstrations of her inorganic nature are oddly fetishized; a naked Asian woman is literally peeling away her flesh in order to show a white man the extent to which  she is an “Other”. Had Garland limited the removal to her face, it might have proven less overtly  voyeuristic. Even in the supposedly “feminist” scene, where Kyoko stabs Nathan, it is important  to note that her transgression results in her immediate death via dismemberment. It is the white  gynoid who delivers the final thrusts, who escapes into the wider world, whose transgressions  result in her salvation, as opposed to her destruction. 

Bound by the “visions” of both Nathan as  their fictional creator, and Garland as their real creator, Jade and Kyoko exist as little more  “technological tools for the personal exploration” of white women and men, rather than active  subjects in their own right (Roh 161). In interrogating the portrayal of said bodies, it is possible  to understand the premise of multiculturalism and its contributions to the same dehumanization it  purports to counter, by arguing that mere inclusion of bodies of color does not inherently confer  subjectivity to said bodies.

IV. Similarities – Comparing Histories

It is also important to consider the portrayal of the black body in Ex Machina as another embodiment of this concept. “The disconnection of black body parts from black subjectivity in  the name of scientific progress” (Wong 41) is a common motif in cyberpunk, as well as real world history. There is a rich American tradition of scientific experimentation on black slaves,  which is paralleled by Jasmine’s lack of face and brain. This literal absence of signifiers of  thought, feeling, and sentience disturbingly parallels the deplorable treatment of black women’s  bodies by white men in the name of “scientific inquiry”.  

The case of Saartjie Baartman stands as a grim example. One of the Khoikoi people of  southwestern Africa, Saartjie was taken to England by a Dutch trader, who then sold her to an  exhibitionist who displayed her in a literal menagerie for public viewings. In a gross parody of empiricism, scientists and anatomists would come to poke and prod the poor woman, all in the  name of “research”. Even death was not to provide a release from these indignities, as her body was autopsied for “definitive evidence of her low-level status on the scale of civilization”  (Farrell 76). Her labia were preserved in a jar of formaldehyde in a Paris museum until the  1970s, when activists managed to force the items to be removed from display. But it was only in  2002 that her remains were repatriated to South Africa and given a formal burial. 

Saartjie’s experiences were part and parcel of nineteenth century western philosophy that  used bastardized biological precepts to justify the dehumanization of black and brown bodies.  These pseudoscientific armchair anthropologists wrote about Asians, Africans and Native  Americans as less evolved, then – in a staggering display of egoism and lack of integrity – used  their own writings as “evidence” to justify oppression, colonization, imperialism, and slavery  (Farrell 60). Such blatantly unscientific paradigms undergirded centuries of unethical  experimentation on Black bodies, beliefs that Black people are “less sensitive to pain”  (Washington; Hoffman et al). 

It is very difficult to divest Jasmine’s denuded, defaced form from such a sordid history.  It is also difficult to read the film’s cinematography as anything more than an underdeveloped,  cursory nod to this history. It is a glancing acknowledgement, not a remotely clever  interrogation. The film’s creators seem to fail to realize that the simple reproduction of a cliché  or visual injustice is not necessarily a critique of it. 

Afrofuturism seeks to counter this objectifying trend. While Techno-Orientalism is based  on restructuring future temporalities as “colorblind” or white-by-default, Afrofuturism  restructures past and present temporalities to acknowledge the existence and active subjectivity  of black bodies (Van Veen 11). A subset of Ethnofuturism, it contains the largest body of work compared to other ethnofuturistic lenses, such as Asian-futurism and chicano-futurism, which  focus on Asian and Latinx representations in speculative fiction, respectively. When considering  the android as allegory for the conditions of racial “Others’ in America, it is important to  consider “the nonequivalent co-construction of anti-Asian and antiblack racism” (Roh 183). 

In both cases, however, a problem arises in the indirectness of the android as allegory.  Using the struggles of mechanized simulacra as representations of real-world dehumanization  transfers experiences that remain, in reality, and unhuman condition” to a level of literary  abstraction. By representing the struggle of these androids, most of which are typically either  indistinct or rife with racial caricaturing, as representative of real-world human struggle, it  separates the viewer from the reality, the visceral suffering of flesh and blood humans. They can  construct these struggles as being unreal, existing only in fictional allegory and post-apocalyptic  or long past temporalities. It removes the immediacy. 

V. Afrofuturism as the Future

African/Americans face a similar struggle for nuanced representation in speculative  fiction. A study conducted as recently as 2008 found that Black people in America are routinely considered subhuman, represented in media as “ape-like” and more “primitive” (Goss et al.).  Unlike Asian/Americans, though, their unhumaness is tied to their lack of technology. Whether considering technologies of the flesh (intelligence), or disembodied technologies (access to the Internet, computer systems, smart devices), African/Americans have been portrayed as  possessing “less”. This construction of blackness as antithetical to technology-and therefore  limited in sociocultural-advancement is reinforced by “the digital divide…limited broadband in  inner-city communities, and the lack of computers in urban schools…racial surveillance and  profiling” (Womack 47).

Unlike Asian/Americans, contemporary dehumanization of black skin is posited on the  notion that they are “less evolved”, more closely resembling the prehuman apes as opposed to  posthuman androids. In this sense, depicting African/Americans as active technology-enhanced  subjects in speculative literature, rather than contributing to a history of caricatured oppression,  can serve as a counter to “militarist and masculinist white visions of 20th century antiseptic  science fictional futures” (Van Veen 20). By portraying black as integral to the narrative fabric  of posthuman future-societies, they subvert the white default in media, and reconstruct narratives  to provide less glamourized contexts for the reality of their condition. 

As a movement, Afrofuturism can be defined as aiming to “Fuse the shiny tomorrowland  of extraterrestrial beings, experimental technoculture and cybertronic robots with the self-esteem  politics of ‘black is beautiful’” (Nama 142). By generating narratives that examine the  African/American social condition while simultaneously imagining unconventional  African/American embodiments beyond those imposed through a history of white hegemony and  colonial trauma.

VII. ArchAndroid

The condition of robot laborers bears striking similarity to that of African/American  slaves. Both are constructed as unhuman, their commodification and enslavement justified by  questioning their capacity for sentience. In fact, the term “robot” comes from the novel  “Rossum’s Universal Robots”. The author, Capek, takes the term directly from the Czech word  for “forced labor”, a descriptor evocative of slavery. In most depictions of androids as allegory  for this group,

“The figure of the excluded and racialized other had nonetheless been insidiously  included: the other had just been sanitized as metallic robota, ‘their’ troublesome  attributes of consciousness and demand for ‘human rights’ quietly erased through deferential reprogramming.”

(Van Veen 20)

This entire allegory is explored in Janelle Monáe’s Metropolis concept album series. Chronicling  the narrative of a messianic female android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s work also uses a  working android as an allegory for the experience of individuals of color, but unlike the  voyeuristic distance of Ex Machina, Monáe’s Metropolis is populated by black androids, and  humans of different ethnicities. What is telling is that the android bodies, made and marked for  commodification, are those of black women. However, unlike the sustained male gaze present in  the creation of other cyberpunk and speculative fiction properties, e.g. Ex Machina, the album  series presents Cindi as a subject rather than object. Her face is hyper-expressive, switching  between expressions in a rapid, fully humanized manner, while her body is never denuded,  except for the album art in The Metropolis Suite. However, it is unskinned and unadorned,  explicitly showing wiring and cords spilling out of her, suggesting disassembly and un/making than a voyeuristic intrusion. Her unfinished body is tellingly depicted in a stark white metallic  shade, to convey how the embodiment of “blackness” as a race is purely social, with no natural  basis. The color of our skin is literally that of the elements we were created with, and not a  reflection of us as individuals.

Unlike Ex Machina, Metropolis is also consciously aware of the history it inherits, and  the rampant objectification of bodies of color in mainstream speculative fiction. A tongue-in cheek adaptation of Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic film, it uses a female android as a catalyst for  societal change. While Lang’s film posited the gynoid Maria as an evil entity, whose  hypersexualized performances were responsible for fomenting what was essentially a communist  uprising that resulted in societal collapse and destruction, Monáe’s series posits Cindi  Mayweather as an androgynous, messianic entity whose performances encourage individual self expression and love. Rather than being coded as a mechanical Eve, responsible for the downfall of man, Mayweather relies on “the concept of prophecy, or speaking about hope to create a vision  of the future.” (Womack 41). Monáe also uses the concept of love as a measure of humanity, with viewer sympathy for Cindi stemming from her initial attraction to a human. But it is telling that her character is not marked solely by her actions in relation to men. While her attractions and affections catalyze her development as a messianic performer, it is her use of prophecy and calls to liberty that fully renders her a subject. In this case, the android is a beautiful allegory for enslavement, using music as a means of communication to call her people to freedom from an oppressive society that sees them as little more than objects. In fact, the use of the term ArchAndroid to describe Mayweather is reminiscent of the term “archangel”, suggesting that she  holds the key to all sentient salvation.

“Her inversion of Maria, the female android who is constructed to seduce and trick the  proletarian workers of Metropolis. In Monáe’s version, “slave cybergirl” #57821  becomes the ArchAndroid, the revolutionary mediator between the proles and the elites,  just as her Africanist embodiment reverses Maria’s whiteness to the ArchAndroid  blackness.”

(Van Veen 13)

Her frenzied audiences are also predominantly women of color, with men of color outnumbering white men. This defies the male gaze that is so pervasive in speculative fiction, increasing  Mayweather’s subjectivity, as opposed to objectification in the eyes of a male audience with  greater social power than herself. It makes it explicitly clear who her message is for, consciously aware that the messages of empowerment and control that manifest in depictions of future-societies are typically centered on white men. For Mayweather’s audience, self-worth and love for others in a future-society parallels that in contemporary society, acting as revolutionary forces that can counter a societal dynamic of dehumanization and objectification. Metropolis’s Cindi  Mayweather thus subverts the android trope in its entirety, offering a possible archetypal “happy ending”, rather than having the android punished for her subversiveness, as with Kyoko in Ex Machina

Monáe’s use of Egyptian motifs is also telling, hearkening back to a time when dark skinned cultures were heralded as advanced societies, producing technological knowledge that  shaped the world. They were the crux of technoscientific development, and as such were the loci of modernity. Rather than relying on trite, tired racialized imagery based solely on  dehumanization in the post-colonial context, the symbols employed by Monáe connote possibilities of power.

IX. Conclusion

It is important to understand that these issues are not restricted to the past and paper. The  insidious specters of systemic dehumanization continue to make their presence felt current  political rhetoric surrounding African and Asian societies. The distinction between Ex Machina and Monáe’s work is rooted in the use of an objectifying lens versus a subjective one. This  distinction serves to “complicate [the] assumption…that inclusion would remediate racism”.  While Ex Machina used racist cliches, it did nothing to dismantle the stereotypes or xenophobia that initially created them. Contrast this with Metropolis, which uses lyrics such as “I’m a slave  cybergirl without a face a heart or a mind / (a product of man, I’m a product of the man)” to  cleverly subvert the notion that women of color are incapable of subjectivity and/or sentience.  The use of the first-person pronoun immediately acknowledges the speaker’s subjectivity and  self, even as the literal words imply that her nature is to be objectified. Unlike Ex Machina’s  brutalization of the literally brainless and faceless black female body (shockingly sensational, but  hardly original), Metropolis immediately follows this lyric with a chorus that drives home the  nature of that dehumanization. Cultures of inequity, just like robots, are products created by  (mostly) men, for the system of institutions and ideologies that privileges them over “Others.” Mayweather the android, her body and programming created by a man and commodified in the  future-society. is thus a parallel to the contemporary woman of color, whose gender and race are  the products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalist society that profits and has profited on the  commodification of their bodies.

As seen through the deconstruction of Ex Machina and Janelle Monáe’s use of colored  bodies, however, it is evident that inclusion itself does not progressive humanization make.  Rather, it is the complex context in which the human or androids act and react that truly makes  for positive representations. It is not enough to have the bodies without considering what they are  meant and made to embody. Afrofuturism offers a direct response to histories of inequity that  Techno-Orientalism only serves to reinforce.


Citations

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Should We Embrace Race in the Workplace and School?

by Ean Tam, January 16, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

As a student of the New York City public education system, I have always been in a diverse environment. For instance, my elementary and middle schools had an annual Multicultural Day Fair. The younger students performed traditional dances from different cultures, while the older students set up tents around the campus and presented research they had done on specific countries or an influential person. I enjoyed the Multicultural Day Fair, but I never thought of it as anything particularly special. It was just an event that I had always participated in since kindergarten. A few years into high school is when I realized that not all schools in America are as diverse as mine and how diversity can be a privilege. What diversity has taught me in terms of social interactions with people of other backgrounds is not a lesson that every person in America has the opportunity of receiving. However, in today’s world, where companies and firms can draw in employees from all across America and the world, employees may find themselves in workplaces where a majority of their coworkers are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Schools are another part of society in which people may experience culture shocks or accidentally stumble into a cultural clash. Employers and school administrations may try to mediate these differences by encouraging either of the two strategies: color blindness or multiculturalism. The colorblind strategy advocates for people to be oblivious of race, whereas the multicultural strategy embraces race. Having been accustomed to the multicultural mindset all my life, I want to explore how the colorblind strategy compares. How successful is the colorblind strategy not only in leading people to ignore race, but also in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? 

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump introduced her father, Donald Trump, and claimed, “He recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it. He is colorblind and gender neutral.” Evidently, she has linked color blindness as a means of seeing a person’s true worth—what he or she can bring to the table is more important than his or her race. This very same idea is highlighted in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The notion that our personal attributes solely define who we are is very attractive. So, it is not hard to see why a colorblind strategy would be implemented in a company or school. But how successful is the colorblind implementation when it comes to people looking beyond a person’s race? Research suggests grim potential for the colorblind strategy. In a study conducted at Dartmouth College, researchers Dr. Jennifer A. Richeson and Dr. Richard J. Nussbaum found that participants who had been told the colorblind strategy was most ideal in a diverse setting were more likely to show signs of racial bias versus the participants who had been told the multicultural strategy was better (419-421). The research  participants were presented with names and were asked to categorize them as “White” or “Black” names, and they were presented with pleasant and unpleasant stimuli and were asked to categorize them as “Good” or “Bad.” Richeson and Nussbaum observed students of the colorblind group took longer to categorize negative stimuli as either “Black” or “Bad,” but were faster to categorize positive stimuli as either “White” or “Good.” They interpreted this discrepancy as a sign of the students’ racial bias. This categorizing system may seem like unconvincing evidence of bias. However, this system, called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), is well known and utilized by researchers to find the true attitudes people do not want to admit (“Implicit Association Test”). Richeson and Nussbaum’s research suggests that even the very idea of the colorblind strategy being successful was enough to create a considerable amount of racial bias within the students. The participants in this study were participating on their own free will without any personal repercussions (Richeson and Nussbaum 419-421). So this makes me wonder, what would be the effects on workers who have to keep a colorblind mindset since their paycheck depends on it? 

Dr. Michael I. Norton et al. of Harvard Business School demonstrate how color blindness affects work productivity and interactions between black and white coworkers. Norton et al. concluded that white workers were more productive with other white workers and communicated more in order to complete the task at hand (950). This ease of communication was facilitated because the white worker was more willing to use specific terms such as “black” and “African-American” when doing a categorizing activity. However, when the white workers were put in the same situation but with a black coworker, white coworkers no longer had the confidence to use those specific terms regarding race. Norton et al. explain that interactions between the black and white coworkers went further downhill as the white coworkers’ “… attempts to appear color-blind—by avoiding race—are accompanied by additional costs: less friendly nonverbal behaviors” (950). I found the results of this article interesting because it presents the colorblind strategy unintentionally becoming a form of extra-baggage in someone’s head. Instead of focusing and being able to communicate freely, a person who is attempting to be colorblind is carefully watching every one of his or her words. Now, I do not interpret (and I am sure the researchers do not imply it either) that being able to “communicate freely” means being able to mention race as comfortably as one likes. Not at all. “Communicate freely” is just everyday conversation that we should all be able to engage in. The colorblind strategy makes the everyday conversation subject to paranoia and increased self-restraint. Much like how a germaphobe is too afraid to venture outside because germs may or may not be on the next door handle, coworkers may be skeptical of those from other backgrounds because an accidental racial offense may or may not be lingering in the next conversation. As a result, coworker interactions are limited, brief, and uncordial. 

It is important to note that the workers described in the above study were not committing any kind of discrimination by limiting their interactions with black coworkers. They just did not want to be put out of their comfort zone, and that in itself should be convincing enough that the colorblind strategy is flawed. However, there is more research contributing to a narrative that the colorblind strategy separates people more than it brings them together. While the research mentioned so far has been focused on coworker-to-coworker interactions and not so much coworker-to-employer interactions, the research concerning education policy is just about equally focused on teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions. This should give some insight into how the colorblind strategy affects authority and how such effects trickle down. 

Ideally, a successful educational system is one that makes every student feel welcome and comfortable to learn the material. In 2017, the United States Department of Education published a report stating, “Achieving a diverse student population in a given school building is a major accomplishment, but additional efforts are important to avoid the replication of inequities and disparities in achievement and access within a school that has a diverse student population” (18). This report takes the stance that a diverse student body will not automatically find its own way of including every student on the same path to success. Surprisingly, the twenty page report makes no specific reference to multicultural or colorblind strategies (it does not even use any form of the word “multicultural”). Although the US Department of Education report does not stress a particular strategy, it does advise school districts to consult legal experts if the school districts wish to recognize students’ race and cultural background (5). The report also emphasizes the importance of funding if a school wants to increase diversity because proper funding is necessary to enroll students from outside of their own districts (5). The US Department of Education report has made it seem that recognizing race, cultural backgrounds, and increasing diversity is quite the hassle: legal consulting, examining state and local laws, and allocating the proper funds. It may be possible that the colorblind strategy is an easier strategy to apply in schools than the multicultural strategy. A colorblind strategy ignores race, thus relieving any obligation a school administration may feel to increase the diversity of the student body. Not only does the colorblind strategy have an idealistic “I recognize people for their worth” mentality, but it can also be more practical and convenient. As mentioned earlier, this US Department of Education report was published in 2017, but the colorblind strategy and diversity in schools have been issues long before then. What is the historical basis for the colorblind strategy? 

Dr. Subini Ancy Annamma and co-researchers of the Stanford Graduate School of Education argue the persistence of the colorblind mindset in education is a result of the misinterpretation of a dissenting opinion from the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case (147). The lone dissent in the case by Justice John Marshall Harlan stated, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law” (559). Annamma et al. see these two lines of Harlan’s dissent to be the root of colorblind policies not only in schools, but also in society in general. Annamma says it is important to understand that just because Harlan says all the laws of the land are colorblind does not equate to Harlan believing race is irrelevant in all matters (Annamma et al. 147). However, it would appear that Harlan’s dissent has indeed been taken as an advocacy for the colorblind strategy for an all-purpose use. In the years following Plessy v. Ferguson, “[a]ccording to the liberal discourse that has developed in the post-Jim Crow era, a good citizen is colorblind” (Choi 56). So, color blindness has become a methodology of progressives to combat the idea of “separate but equal.” While well-intentioned as a means to combat discrimination, the colorblind strategy in contemporary times has actually been shown to encourage discrimination and discourage inclusiveness in schools. 

In a 2016 article published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Yale University researchers Aragón, Dovidio, and Graham defined inclusiveness as a means “to increase retention and enhance the achievements of people of color and women in STEM education, research, academic, and public sector careers” (201). Aragón et al. focused on the attendance of teachers to the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Science Education, which  aims to promote inclusive teaching methods in schools. According to the post-attendance data, teachers who endorsed the colorblind strategy were less likely to implement inclusive teaching methods and activities and were more easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea. The teachers who endorsed the multicultural strategy had the exact opposite results—they supported inclusive teaching and were not easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea (210). Based on the results of Aragón et al., I interpret the colorblind strategy as a mindset that minimizes the needs of different groups. Schools may inadvertently leave some students behind because recognizing the students’ differences would disrupt the schools’ commitment to the colorblind strategy. 

While I am alarmed that teachers of the colorblind mindset would so easily dismiss inclusive programs, I am not surprised that teachers of the multicultural mindset were open to more inclusive teaching practices. Relating back to my own personal experience, I see now the efforts my elementary and middle school teachers made in order for every student to feel included. For example, whenever a cultural holiday would be approaching, our teachers would ask students of that culture to explain the importance of the holidays and traditions involved. It was not awkward or a forced one-off moment in class. The teachers would try to incorporate the holiday into the day’s lesson. In hindsight, I see how important such activities were to making us feel that we all had an equal opportunity to contribute to the class. We were not just students listening to the teacher—we had something to offer. Applying the evidence provided by Aragón et al., I can presume that if my school had embraced the colorblind strategy, no such activities would have taken place. We would have lost out on a chance to build a personal connection to our teacher and class. 

Inclusiveness may not be a priority for teachers of the colorblind mindset, but the reduction of discrimination in schools is a common goal for both the colorblind and multicultural strategies. In spite of that, the colorblind strategy has been found to decrease students’ ability to recognize discrimination when they see it. In a study of elementary grade students, Dr. Evan Apfelbaum et al. of Northwestern University investigated how the colorblind and multicultural mindsets affected the students’ responses to various scenarios (1587). In one scenario, a white classmate physically harmed a black classmate and then justified his actions by stating the black classmate would play rough too since he is black. Only 50% of the colorblind group of students said the black student had been discriminated against. In the multicultural “value-diversity mind-set” group, 77% of those students reported discrimination (1589-1590). Based on this data, I cannot trust any pro-colorblind school administration that touts a decreased rate of discrimination or bullying on the basis of race. I have no way of knowing whether the colorblind strategy actually decreased acts of discrimination or merely decreased the rate of reporting of such acts. 

On the other hand, if a school following the multicultural strategy reported a decrease in discrimination, there is data suggesting the multicultural mindset was actually responsible. In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, Dr. Frances E. Aboud and Dr. Anne Beth Doyle assessed the attitudes and interactions of high- and low-prejudiced students. After discussing race with low-prejudiced students, the high-prejudiced students “became significantly less prejudiced in their evaluation” of others, especially if the low-prejudice students expanded on the similarities among people of different racial backgrounds (161). Aboud and Doyle’s advice: allow students to talk about race and start the conversation early on. If left unattended, students with prejudices and racial biases can grow up and allow these negative ideas to manifest and grow stronger. An open dialogue of race is essential to ridding students of any prejudices they may have. A colorblind school would frown upon discussions of race, and the students are deprived of an opportunity to learn how their prejudices were misguided. This not only affects a student’s behavior (whether or not he or she will discriminate), but also how he or she will interpret other’s behavior (deciding whether or not another student’s discrimination is wrong). 

Of course, it is not to be implied that colorblind students are prejudiced and that is why they do not report discrimination. Dr. Janet W. Schofield of the University of Pittsburg offers insight into the minds of the students who are aware of discrimination but decide not to report it. Schofield studied middle schools that insisted their student body were colorblind. Her data is especially valuable because Schofield did not impose the conditions on the students. The behavior she observed was the result of a long term institution of the colorblind strategy (268). To put in perspective of how long the colorblind strategy had been imposed on these students, one student was bewildered when Schofield told him Martin Luther King Jr. was African-American (280). In one school, Schofield noticed students had a harder time reporting any kind of problems—not necessarily problems of discrimination, just basic classroom complaints—because the students did not want to use race as a description. Schofield acknowledges that students in this particular middle school “[w]ere well aware that making references to race displeased many of their teachers and might also offend peers” (273). As a result, students, fearful of retaliation for identifying others by race, were hesitant to come forward when real problems arose. The students were clearly aware of their teachers’ colorblind expectations and—given the teacher-student relationship—conformed without question. The colorblind mindset does not solve the issue of discrimination in schools; rather, it merely shoves it under the rug and forces students to turn a blind eye. 

We can now see the parallelism between the workplace and the school setting. Schofield showed us that in colorblind situations, students will be mindful of their every word when reporting to teachers because they fear their teachers’ discipline. Recall Norton’s et al. study in which white coworkers became less friendly and communicative in order to appear colorblind; they too were filtering their words of any suggestions of race. Although differing in age and circumstance, students and workers manifest similar behavior when in colorblind situations. Both inhibit their everyday behavior in order to spare themselves an unpleasant reprimand from the authorities who implemented the colorblind policy. Given this parallelism, we can now return to previous studies and make a few assumptions. Apfelbaum et al. found students of the colorblind mindset to be oblivious of clear cases of discrimination; thus, workers will also be incognizant of racial injustices in the workplace. Aragón et al. exhibited colorblind-endorsing teachers to be opposed to inclusive teaching strategies; thus, colorblind-endorsing employers will also show distaste for programs to coalesce diverse workplaces. 

My personal experience convinced me that the multicultural strategy is effective in creating a cooperative and supportive environment. Examining the evidence, it is difficult to say the same for the colorblind strategy. Schools and businesses may find the colorblind strategy attractive due to its convenience and historical context, but they should consider the actual ramifications of imposing it. Is the colorblind strategy successful in making people oblivious of another’s race? No. The colorblind strategy encourages internal racial bias in coworkers. Given the similarities between worker and student behavior in colorblind situations, it is reasonable to believe that students would just as likely develop internal racial biases in school. Is the colorblind strategy successful in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? Being that the colorblind strategy deters everyday conversation and work productivity, synergy may be hard to find. How does the multicultural strategy fare, provided the research and not just my personal experience? From the same studies, multiculturalism does what the colorblind strategy cannot. Inclusiveness is prioritized, and discrimination is recognized and—most importantly—reported. Multiculturalism does not mean students or coworkers have to address ethnicity in every conversation, but at least multiculturalism allows for that conversation to happen. Multiculturalism can disprove prejudices and improve our understanding of those who are culturally and racially different from ourselves. Acknowledging the research, the colorblind strategy would be an ill-advised imposition in both schools and workplaces.


Works Cited

Aboud, Frances E., and Anne B. Doyle. “Does Talk of Race Foster Prejudice or Tolerance in Children?” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, vol. 28, no. 3, 1996, pp. 161-170. EBSCOhost, doi.org/10.1037/0008-400X.28.3.161

Annamma, Subini A., Darrell D. Jackson, and Deb Morrison. “Conceptualizing Color-Evasiveness: Using Dis/ Ability Critical Race Theory to Expand a Color-Blind Racial Ideology in Education and Society.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-162. Taylor & Francis Journals, doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016. 1248837

Apfelbaum, Evan P., Kristin Pauker, Samuel R. Sommers and Nalini Ambady. “In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality?” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1587-1592. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41062417

Aragón, Oriana R., John F. Dovidio, and Mark J. Graham. “Colorblind and Multicultural Ideologies Are Associated With Faculty Adoption of Inclusive Teaching Practices.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, vol. 10, no. 3, 2016, pp. 201-215. PsycARTICLES, doi:10.1037/dhe0000026

Choi, Jung-ah. “Unlearning Colorblind Ideologies in Education Class.” Educational Foundations, vol. 22, no. 3-4, 2008, pp. 53-71. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ857639&site=ehost-live&scope=site

“Implicit Association Test.” Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/odcc /implicit_association_test.html.

Norton, Michael I., Samuel R. Summers, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Natassia Pura, and Dan Ariely. “Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction: Playing the Political Correctness Game.” Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 11, 2006, pp. 949-953. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=17176425&site=ehost-live &scope=site

Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Supreme Court of the United States, supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/163/537/

Richeson, Jennifer A., and Richard J. Nussbaum. “The Impact of Multiculturalism Versus Color-Blindness on Racial Bias.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 40, no. 3, 2004, pp. 417-423. Science Direct, doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.09.002

Schofield, Janet W. “The Colorblind Perspective in School: Causes and Consequences.” Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Eds. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. 5th ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005, pp. 265-281. 

Trump, Ivanka. Republican National Convention, 21 July 2016, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Introductory Speech. Time, time.com/4417579/republican-convention -ivanka-trump-transcript/

United States, Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Improving Outcomes for All Students: Strategies and Considerations to Increase Student Diversity.” Diversity & Opportunity, 19 January 2017, ed.gov/diversity-opportunity.

Rated E for Education, Graded F for Failure

by Zarya Shaikh, January 12, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

In 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Pre-K for All to encourage “free, full-day, high-quality pre-K.”1 The program increased enrollment in Pre-K among different communities, especially within low-income families. Its success led to the creation of 3-K for All1 and yielded similar outcomes: “[o]f the 52,741 children enrolled in pre-K, 37 percent were Hispanic, 30 percent [B]lack” with no ethnic majority.2 One would expect that a student body with multiple ethnicities represented would have access to a teaching curriculum tailored to different backgrounds. The Pre-K for All handbook’s page 21 includes a list of “ emotionally responsive books about being safe” which says otherwise.1 Of the three books presented, all are written by white authors. This booklist is not an anomaly; authors of color are missing from the handbook and the curriculum itself. An analysis of the Pre-K For All curriculum reveals that “there are 0 Black authors, 0 Native authors, 0 Middle Eastern authors, 1 Latinx author, 1 Asian author, and 40 white authors” of the 42 total texts available.3 The number of white authors to authors of colors writing for younger ages is grossly disproportionate. It exemplifies the concept of a dominant culture – a “relatively small social group that has a disproportionate amount of power” – represented by the 17% of white students enrolled in the program.4 Some may argue that this is not an issue since there are Black characters in some texts. It is important to consider that “20 of the 22 books that center Black characters are written by white authors”3 who have not genuinely experienced life from the standpoint they’re writing from. The author may thoroughly research what would be their character’s background beyond the book and consult individuals who identify with the character’s community. Regardless, they may still inadvertently overlook or dismiss important details about the culture or traditions associated with their character’s identity.

The Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies textbook defines institutions as forms of stratification among individuals by “gender, class, race, ability, and sexuality”.5 The Pre-K for All curriculum is, unfortunately, another example of an institution prioritizing white students over students of color. As coordinator Natasha Capers of the Coalition for Educational Justice phrases it – how can students of color “create a world view” from the books they read “[i]f they never see themselves in it”?4 Teaching students of color with textbooks and educational sources that do not reflect the perspective and struggles associated with their ethnic background is unfair and demeaning. Returning to the idea of the curriculum as one aspect of an institution, the common thread is neglecting authors of color and perspectives of BIPOC by BIPOC in favor of instilling at a young age that the normal “thought and behavior” is to exclude, misrepresent, and misunderstand BIPOC.5 Although the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional in 1954, racial discrimination continues well into the 21st century since we are still “teach[ing] these expectations . . . to younger generations” with alarming confidence in the school system to change course.5 BIPOC students should have the opportunity to see themselves represented in the education system as their white classmates do. That liberty should extend beyond elementary school as well. 

Education as a service to the LGBT community fails to deliver similarly in the reading curriculum. In the Ready NY CCLS and EL Education middle school curriculums, “there are no main characters that identify as LGBTQ+.”3 It would be beneficial to increase the representation of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities as written by individuals who identify with either or both within school curriculums. 


References

[1] NYC Department of Education. (n.d.). 3-K for All & Pre-K for All Handbook for District Schools and Pre-K Centers. New York, New York: NYC Department of Education. 

[2] Potter, H. (2016, September 20). Diversity in New York City’s Universal Pre-K Classrooms. Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://tcf.org/content/report/diversity-new-york-citys-universal-pre-k-classrooms/?session=1

[3] Education Justice Research and Organizing Collaborative. (n.d.). Diverse City, White Curriculum: The Exclusion of People of Color from English Language Arts in NYC Schools. New York, New York: NYC Coalition for Educational Justice. Retrieved October 02, 2020, from https://www.nyccej.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Diverse-City-White-Curriculum-3.pdf 

[4] Elsen-Rooney, M. (2019, December 09). More than 80% of books in NYC schools’ curriculum for pre-K to eighth grade written by white authors: Report. Retrieved October 03, 2020, from https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/education/ny-school-curriculum-diversity-20191204-b mpmgjusevgtxnofdalchpq6ti-story.html 

[5] Kang, M., Lessard, D., Heston, L., Nordmarken and Kang, S., & M. (2017). Introduction to Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. 

[6] Sergent, J., & Bravo, V. (2019, June 14). 7 maps show the mess LGBT laws are in the USA. Retrieved October 01, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/06/14/lgbt-laws-hate-crimes-religious-exemptions-a doption-differ/1432848001/

Now and Then: An Analysis of Forced Sterilizations in the U.S.

by Sanjana Sankaran, October 18, 2020

In early September, news broke out about a whistleblower, Dawn Wooten, who alleged ‘medical neglect’ of ICE detainees and shined a light on the occurrence of unwanted mass hysterectomies. Wooten was a nurse who worked at one of the detention centers in Georgia.  She claimed that the care received was improper and unsafe which likely caused the spread of the novel coronavirus. According to the news reports and her statements, approximately seventeen to twenty women have confirmed that they were forcibly sterilized—that is, either their uterus or fallopian tubes were removed.  Wooten called this doctor, who was later identified as Dr. Mahendra Amin, a “uterus collector” (Miroff). Dr. Amin is a member of the Irwin County Hospital and has a private clinic close to the detention center.  Since the allegations have come out, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) wrote a letter that was signed by one hundred and seventy-three other representatives to launch an investigation into the medical practitioners employed by ICE, with a focus on Dr. Amin specifically (Miroff).

While the investigation is still ongoing, we know one thing for certain: we’ve been here before.  The U.S. has a historical precedence of conducting mass unwarranted and unwanted hysterectomies, causing many to worry that these allegations are true.

The development of the gynecological sciences itself is rooted in a history of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse toward Black, Latinx, and indigenous women.  In the 19th century, Dr. J. Marion Sims, who is now considered the father of modern gynecology, forcefully performed a number of experiments on enslaved Black women without the use of anesthesia.  Despite his strategically inhumane testing, Dr. Sims has been lauded for his discoveries and has statues erected in his honor across the country (Lennard). 

We don’t have to look that far in the past to see neglect and abuse in our healthcare system.  In the last century alone, thousands of women were forcibly sterilized across the nation.  At the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement started gaining more traction.  Perverting Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” many eugenicists believed it was natural and justified to facilitate the death of those with “unfavorable” genes.  This became shorthand for BIPOC lives, specifically the poor and the disabled.  This widespread scientific belief had shocking sociological implications. In the late 20th century, thirty-two states in the U.S. had federally funded eugenics programs involving sterilizing women who possessed “undesirable” genes (Lennard).   In the 1960s and 1970s, the Indian Health Service, which is the federal healthcare service provider for indigenous peoples, conducted hysterectomies at such a wide scale that the impact is still being felt now even generations later.  Around one in four women, and in some communities, as many as one in two women, were forcibly sterilized (Blakemore).

Figure 1 below provides a timeline of reproductive rights (Chuen).

Figure 1. A History of Racism, Sterilization Abuse, and Reproductive Rights (1919 – 1977).

To better understand the role ICE plays in perpetuating medical neglect and abuse, we must acknowledge the history of malicious activities within this organization.  The immigrant detention centers have been linked with racism and medical malpractice. In 1914, the United States Public Health Service partnered with the eugenics movement and worked together to prevent further immigration. They specifically targeted BIPOC’s, poor people, and the disabled implying they were the ones most likely to be criminals. This false view that BIPOC, especially those who are low income and living with disabilities, are more likely to commit crime than well-off able-bodied white people, still shapes our society today, most notably reforming our criminal justice policy (Ordaz).  Prior to President Trump’s election to office in 2016, ICE had an imperative to detain immigrants with criminal records.  Given the negative stereotyping and implicit bias that police officers have against BIPOC, this was already an unfair policy.  The current administration has since expanded this policy to apply to all immigrants who enter the country without documentation, removing the requirement of criminality.  Many federal investigations conducted over the past four years that have raised serious concerns about the state of ICE detention centers.  Specifically, the centers provide inhumane, unsanitary, and unhygienic conditions for detainees. When Dawn Wooten, the whistleblower, spoke out on the conditions of the ICE camps she stated, “I began to ask questions about why the detainees not be tested — symptomatic or non-symptomatic” (Alvarez).  Operationally, the centers already violate standard protocol and indicate clear negligence and devolution of human life (United States, Dept of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General).

During the Trump era beliefs of white supremacy, xenophobia and misogyny have only increased. His beliefs that all Mexicans are “bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists” emboldened the racist’s in the U.S. further dividing an already divided world. It is astounding that the administration that is so clearly pro-life, allows sterilization to take place, it is an oxymoron. This lack of action is because this administration is not pro-life. If the administration were actually pro-life, they would have had a national mask mandate, done shelter in place in February, stop denying the virus’s fatality rate, and keep the Affordable Care Act, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. 

The allegations of mass hysterectomies in ICE right now must be met with the utmost seriousness.  The doctors who have participated in these events or were bystanders should be met with some kind of consequence. The mass hysterectomies are a direct attack against women and are the result of a long upheld belief that not only do BIPOC women not have value but that women should not be in control of their own bodies. Whether it was one or twenty or a thousand, forced hysterectomies are acts of absolute moral malfeasance. 

Below are other resources to learn more about the history of forced sterilization. 

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/09/trump-ice/565772/

https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/mass-hysterectomies-ice-happened-trump-s-watch-they-re-america-ncna1240238

https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/16/us/ice-hysterectomy-forced-sterilization-history/index.html


Works Cited

Alvarez, Priscilla. “Whistleblower Alleges High Rate of Hysterectomies and Medical Neglect at ICE Facility.” CNN, Cable News Network, 16 Sept. 2020, http://www.cnn.com/2020/09/15/politics/immigration-customs-enforcement-medical-care-detainees/index.html. 

Blakemore, Erin. “The Little-Known History of the Forced Sterilization of Native American Women.” Daily JSTOR, JSTOR, 25 Aug. 2016, daily.jstor.org/the-little-known-history-of-the-forced-sterilization-of-native-american-women/. 

Chuen, Lorraine. “A Visualized History of Racism and Reproductive Rights in America.” Intersectional Analyst, Intersectional Analyst, 5 Feb. 2016, http://www.intersectionalanalyst.com/intersectional-analyst/2016/2/4/racismreproductiverights.

Lennard, Natasha. “The Long, Disgraceful History of American Attacks on Brown and Black Women’s Reproductive Systems.” The Intercept, 17 Sept. 2020, theintercept.com/2020/09/17/forced-sterilization-ice-us-history/.

Miroff, Nick. “Hospital Where Activists Say ICE Detainees Were Subjected to Hysterectomies Says Just Two Were Performed There.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/ice-detainee-hysterectomies-hospital/2020/09/22/aaf2ca7e-fcfd-11ea-830c-a160b331ca62_story.html.

Minna, Alexandra. “Forced Sterilization Policies in the US Targeted Minorities and Those with Disabilities – and Lasted into the 21st Century.” The Conversation, 5 Oct. 2020, theconversation.com/forced-sterilization-policies-in-the-us-targeted-minorities-and-those-with-disabilities-and-lasted-into-the-21st-century-143144. 

Ordaz, Jessica. “Perspective | Migrant Detention Centers Have a Long History of Medical Neglect and Abuse.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Sept. 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/18/migrant-detention-centers-have-long-history-medical-neglect-abuse/.

United States, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Inspector General. “Concerns about ICE Detainee Treatment and Care at Four Detention Facilities.” Washington: DHS, 2019. Web. 9 Oct. 2020.


Breathing in Discrimination: Asthma and Vulnerable Populations in the United States

by Sophia Garbarino, October 14, 2020

Asthma is a quite common diagnosis in children, and cases have risen significantly in the past few decades. From 1980 to 1996, “the number of individuals with asthma in the United States grew to 73.9%,” roughly equivalent to 14.6 million (Brown et al. 125). Scientific evidence has found correlation between asthma and air pollution, while sociological evidence has linked the condition to socioeconomic status (SES) and racial minorities (Brown et al.). Furthermore, SES influences not only who is diagnosed with asthma, but also who has a better health outcome.

According to “The Health Politics of Asthma: Environmental Justice and Collective Illness Experience in the United States,” a 2003 article co-authored by several sociologists and published in Social Science & Medicine, “asthma has become, for many poor and minority neighborhoods, one of the most visible and pressing problems” (Brown et al. 128). These neighborhoods are most commonly urban, with the past three U.S. Censuses revealing that “well over half of America’s largest cities are now majority non-white” (Frey). The increase in asthma has been attributed to the rise in air pollution, which is typically worst in cities. Public transportation, such as diesel buses, has been criticized for discriminatory budgeting in states including Massachusetts, where the Alternatives for Communities and Environment group (ACE) “successfully framed an issue of transit spending priorities into one of health, justice, and racism” in 2000 (Brown et al. 131). At the time, over half of Boston’s population was non-white, and the folks who relied on the buses to get to work and school were forced to use “dirty” buses that “trigger asthma attacks” on a daily basis (Jimenez; Brown et al. 132-133).

In addition to living in the most polluted and asthma-vulnerable areas, minority populations typically have lower SES than their White counterparts. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the average household income on non-Hispanic Whites was $45,904, while the averages for Hispanics and Blacks were roughly 30% lower at “$33,447 and $30,439, respectively” (Denavas-Walt et al.). Not only do minorities have higher asthma rates, but they are also less likely to be able to afford quality health care. With limited access to quality education and everyday treatments such as albuterol inhalers, “frequent trips to the emergency room are the norm for impoverished families seeking asthma treatment, resulting in both poor management and the loss of control” (Brown et al. 135). Thus, the cycle of poor health continues.

As medical sociologist Irving Kenneth Zola wrote in his 1972 article “Medicine as an Institution of Social Control,” “man’s power over Nature is really the power of some men over other men, with Nature as their instrument” (Zola 599). Asthma is just one example of how SES and race interact, and we have yet to consider other factors such as gender, ability, and ethnicity. Our social structures perpetuate each other and are certainly reflected in our health care system.


Works Cited

Brown, Phil, et al. “The Health Politics of Asthma: Environmental Justice and Collective Illness Experience in the United States.” The Sociology of Health & Illness, edited by Peter Conrad and Valerie Leiter, SAGE Publications, 2019, pp. 125-138.

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