Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Reflection Paper #3: Looking Back; Looking In; Moving Forward

Career Choice & Mobility
My initial thoughts are that anyone can choose the work they do. Yes, we are all limited by our experience and education, but beyond that--we all choose whether we want to clean hotel rooms, fill grocery bags, answer phones, run around the stock market floor, do other people's taxes, write books, or run a company. As long as it falls within our abilities, of course.

Having read a bit of Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel and Dimed" (and having seen the play based on the book several years back while in college), it now seems apparent that while we can indeed choose our career track (or simply "job" if that's how you view it), sometimes that choice means not choosing between CEO and burger flipper, but rather choosing between sleeping in a bed under a roof between walls, or curling up in a downtown doorway after the majority of the middle- and upper-class have retired to their suburban homes and high rise flats for the night.

In order to choose one's labour more freely, one must already have a mailing address, a driver's license or other government-issued ID, several years of applicable experience already under one's belt, a college degree, and a somewhat attractive appearance. These qualifications have already eliminated a great portion of America's population, because there are many homeless people who would love to have a job to go to every day (or even every night), but they don't have a mailing address nor the funds to procure clothing acceptable for an interview, let alone going to work every day. The even sadder part is that many of these same people have masters degrees and have spent years or even decades working in their field, but one unfortunate shift of circumstances and they're stuck sleeping at shelters (if they're lucky) and begging at the freeway offramp for enough change to buy a 99-cent BigMac and a coffee for lunch.

What isn't working is the current system. I don't know the entire answer, because I'm not privy to the intricacies of the American government, but I firmly believe that funding (in our ridiculously indebted state) is not being prioritized well. We spend millions--nay, billions--of dollars trying to solve the world's problems when there are thousands of people in our own country who would gladly contribute to those efforts if we only created a way for them to make that happen.

Once you drop below middle class it is extremely difficult to find--or even work--your way back. You simply get further and further behind until there's absolutely no light visible at the end of your tunnel. When this happens, you cannot be on your own. You need help. And though there are many charitable organizations that work to make that assistance a reality, the government seems to make these efforts more and more difficult and therefore less and less effective. Restrictions on food service (to prevent lawsuits), taxes, expense of insurance, required documentation and procedures--all of these hinder organizations and their ability to help those who simply want to return to doing their part to support the economy and society--to their opportunity to thrive and enjoy a few things in life.

There are many ways that the lives of those who find themselves in lower or poverty classes could be vastly improved, but they all begin and end with the American government's priorities. And that is something that is so difficult to shift it seems--and sometimes is--impossible.

Visual Representation of Gender, Race, & Class in America
When I picture a visual that represents my view of gender, race, and class in America, this is what I envision:

A small group of white, middle-aged men in classy suits, expensive watches, and well-groomed haircuts (a few of them wearing wide-rimmed glasses) standing on a plank. This plank stretches from one side of a deep crevasse to the other. On one side of the crevasse is an upper-middle-class neighbourhood where the houses are all two-story and the lawns taken care of not by the residents but by paid landscapers. On the other side is an affluent gated community with a 24-hour gate attendant where the houses have a minimum of 15 rooms and the residents' children are raised by nannies and see their parents only while on first-class vacations to tropical locales every winter. Underneath this plank--supporting it and the weight of the men fully--are women, homeless people, Hispanics, blacks, immigrants, and children.

This image represents the way I see America functioning in its current state. Those who do the work to support the wealthy minority are those who suffer the most and are the most invisible to said wealthy. And they get nothing for it but the chance to toil to survive another day. Said wealthy begin with a notable advantage and significant funding, and simply use those in classes below them (actual or perceived) to make their way across the crevasse--without looking down--to even greater recognition, fortune, and perceived ease of life.

Racial Types in Media
I've mentioned the 90s American TV show "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air" a couple of times in class because I have very little experience with black television, limited to aforementioned show and "Cosby" (or "The Cosby Show"--I'm not sure which was which) and another show no one I know has ever heard of called "Amen."

I never realized that "Fresh Prince" was written and produced by white people while "Cosby" was written and directed--at least in heavy part--by Bill Cosby himself. This definitely affects the representation of characters in the shows.

In "Fresh Prince" I believe two of the three racial types discussed by Hall: Clown/Entertainer and Slave Figure. On the show, characters Carlton and Will alternate being the clown/entertainer. Will has a great sense of humour, is very street savvy, and shrugs off anything he does that may be perceived by someone around him as stupid. He has loads of self-confidence and is skilled at putting his foot in his mouth. He's also a talented musician and dancer. Carlton is highly intelligent to the point of being socially awkward, and as a result his sense of humour is often lost on others, and theirs on him. He also enjoys music and dance, but is much less "cool" than Will, causing his renditions of any kind of performance to become more laughable than impressive.

The Slave Figure comes in the form of Geoffrey, the butler of the Banks household. Perfectly calm and poised in any situation, "G" (as Will calls him) waits on the Banks family with dedication, loyalty, and professionalism. However, he also is known to roll his eyes or make ridiculous gestures when certain members of the household's backs are turned. He clearly has opinions on everything that happens around the house, but keeps them to himself out of professional duty. However, the audience is allowed to guess his opinions of certain family members by the way he presents himself when none of the other characters are watching.

Personal Experience with "The Other"
As I've mentioned in class several times, most of my experience with diverse communities and races, ethnicities, and nationalities other than my own has come in the last year and a half since I've moved to Michigan. Prior to living here, my exposure to people of different racial backgrounds was extremely limited due to the demographics of where I was raised and spent the early part of my adult life.

The Pacific Northwestern United States has diversity, but nothing like the midwest. Seattle has a plethora of Asians (mostly Japanese and Korean, I think), Portland/Vancouver has an influx of Russians, and the Mexicans are spread pretty thickly throughout the entire region, with pockets of Native Americans here and there. Blacks are pretty rare in the PNW, which I never thought much about while growing up. Before college I had met two black families; by the time I graduated from college that number had increased only because my involvement in music ensembles took me to Florida and Bermuda.

Every interaction we as humans have with someone or something unfamiliar is driven by stereotypes. If we don't really know what we're dealing with, we assume the stereotypes to be true and therefore applicable in the current situation. I am no exception to this.

A few years ago my husband and I were driving to meet his family at his grandmother's house. She livd on a Native American reservation in eastern Washington and the stereotypes for Native Americans--especially those living on the reservations--is never anything but negative. Grandma had her mailbox on a six-foot 4x4 driven deep into the ground and reinforced with concrete and rebar. Grandpa had gotten tired of replacing the box when bored high school kids took a joy-ride through the orchard land knocking over mailboxes and wreaking general havoc. Their windows had bars on them, the doors were only unlocked if we were outside, and we all knew the story of the couple that had been murdered in their home in the next house over when some Natives broke in to steal valuables.

Needless to say, when we took a wrong turn in town and found ourselves lost in unfamiliar territory at dusk, we were nervous. This was before cell phones were expected in every car, so we had to find a pay phone to call my in-laws for directions. As we stood in the dark, empty parking lot, I prayed fervently as I watched some young male Native Americans loitering behind the adjoining building. I feared for my safety based on stereotypes.

This is just one example, but there are many. I'm sure anyone you ask could come up with a time when stereotypes directed their behavior in a particular situation because they simply didn't know anything about the people they were with. I hope that, if nothing else, this class has taught me to rely on facts and getting to know a person, rather than stereotypes.

Bamboozling Stereotypes
I never really noticed or thought much about stereotypes in media until taking this class. This is likely because I'm white and really had no cause or inspiration to consider racial stereotypes in my early life.

Since taking this class, however, I have begun to notice, particularly in TV shows (since I watch them much more frequently than movies), a trend in stereotyping. For example, two shows I enjoy watching are "Psych" and "White Collar." Both are crime drama comedies, and neither are gory or graphic.

In one particular episode of "Psych," the victim is Chinese. This drags the main characters, Shawn and Gus, into the middle of a Chinese family feud featuring gang kingpins, martial arts, and shady double-dealing. All of these elements revolve around ancient Chinese artifacts and cultural expectations and traditions within families.

In an episode of "White Collar" which I just watched last night, the daughter of a rich white man is kidnapped by a well-respected (in their world) black criminal (think pinstripe suit, tie, gold chain, expensive shoes, shades) and his gang--who are all black and dressed like your typical media "thug." They use "gansta" hand gestures and body language, abbreviate words in "black speak" (e.g. "what'chu wan, girl?"), and generally come across as aggressive, greedy, violent killers.

I never really questioned stereotypes like this because the stereotype assigned to people like me in the media I consume is typically positive--well-off financially, virile and sexually desirable, intelligent, clever, successful, happy, personable. However, the more I watch since taking this class, the more I realize that a vast quantity of the media I consume is rife with broad (and often inaccurate) stereotypes that do nothing but harm to the people they represent.

Challenging the -isms
Everyone has a circle of influence. Some are larger than others, but that doesn't matter, because everyone in the world is in someone else's circle of influence. This means that everyone is reachable somehow, by someone.

What this means for me is that I have a responsibility. I have a duty to dispel stereotypes, fight injustice, call out inequality, and refuse to accept or allow others to use -isms to degrade, insult, or mistreat anyone.

In my own small way I've already begun to do this. My language has changed (and continues to do so) since the start of the semester--for example, I've been trying to avoid using terms such as "you guys" when talking to females or a group that contains females. I've started asking questions such as, "Is saying someone has been 'shanghaied' a racist thing to say?" I call out racism (or other -isms) and address them when I see them in my friends' feeds/comments on Facebook. I read news stories, comics, and other articles with new lenses. The way I want to raise my children hasn't changed, but has become a bit more clear due to the readings and conversations in this class.

I have the opportunity to address and affect the thoughts and perceptions of my friends, my family, and anyone I interact with in day-to-day life. And while I do not in any way consider myself an expert on any of the -isms, I do believe I've garnered quite a bit of knowledge and understanding of them in the past couple of months, and hope I continue to do so as I develop and perhaps shift my own worldview even as a woman over 30. Always learning, always growing.

(Age is also an -ism.)