Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Deride Actions, Not the Group

Originally published in The Centre Daily Times, Sept 30, 2010
My family and I recently spent a difficult summer in India, dealing with the unexpected passing away of my father. Relatives, friends and strangers offered us incredible support during this long stay.
A few of them were curious about Americans, who they “knew” from Hollywood movies, TV shows and news media. They asked us about the “lack of family values” and “materialistic attitudes” among Americans.
We offered them counterexamples of Americans invested in families, of the sandwich generation creatively caring for children and parents and of those volunteering locally and globally.
Our anecdotes were received appreciatively with comments such as, “There is good and bad in all cultures, isn’t there?”
On coming back here, I found stereotypes thriving amid a turbulent global landscape dotted with fault lines at the intersections of different groups and sensitivities. The ground zero mosque controversy provided a fertile ground for creating anti-Muslim and anti-American sentiments.
I believe varied role models could provide anecdotal antidotes to negative perceptions and rebuild our post Sept. 11, 2001, empathy.
To those who want to destructively target Americans, I offer the counterexample of Greg Mortenson, of “Three Cups of Tea” fame. Mortenson, a U.S. veteran, discovered the lack of schools in remote areas of Pakistan after a 1993 climbing expedition to K2, the world’s second highest mountain peak.
He has since built 131 schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Bill Clinton said Mortenson “is effective in an area where Americans are not popular, because he relates to people as human beings.”
Mortenson’s work may persuade others to treat Americans as individual human beings too.
To those who hate either Americans or Muslims, I suggest the work of Muslim American Fazlur Rahman Khan, considered the “father of the modern skyscraper.”
Khan was born in British India and educated in India and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He immigrated to the U.S. in 1952 and earned a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
He was the structural engineer who built the John Hancock Tower and the Sears Tower by innovatively conceiving of the skyscraper as a hollow three-dimensional tube. He made the outer wall of this tube with closely spaced interconnected columns to provide support for the whole structure.
This concept, first executed in 1964, used less material and cost substantially less. It was used in all modern skyscrapers, including the World Trade Center and the tallest building, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Consider these realities.
A Muslim American’s idea was used to build the World Trade Center, which later was destroyed by Muslim terrorists.
An American builds schools in Islamic countries, while some Americans attack U.S. mosques.
Obviously, there are Muslims and Americans who are creative, hard working and compassionate, just as there are some who commit acts of violence or intolerance.
Acknowledging diverse role models in peaceful times can prevent blind hatred during a crisis and allow us to reach solutions through dialogue.
We Americans, with our incredible diversity, can take the lead in acknowledging that stereotyping is a losing proposition. We can stand against specific actions without hating a whole group.
Fazlur Khan versus the Sept. 11 terrorists is a great way to counter the negative stereotyping of Muslims. And with Khan and Mortenson as examples, the world may stop stereotyping Americans, too.

Read more: http://www.centredaily.com/2010/09/30/2241359/deride-actions-not-the-group.html#ixzz11UjIDRr2

Legacy Honors All Contributions

Originally Published on March 30, 2010, in The Centre Daily Times.
The intriguing and ambitious theme for this year's Women's History Month is "Writing Women Back into History." Commemorating this theme could mean different things to different people.
To some, it will mean highlighting women who have succeeded in the public arena by honoring pioneers in politics, sports, science, medicine, arts, literature, public service, government and other domains in the world outside the home. Most people would not contest the place of these eminent women in the recorded annals of history.
To others, celebrating this theme will mean recording the contributions of women in both the public and private spheres. They will write women back into history by accepting the notion that our history is more than the history of conquests or the governing of countries and includes human experience in the public and private realms.
In addition to honoring women in nontraditional roles, they will honor women’s contributions in traditional historic roles as midwives and healers, mothers, farmers, inventors, philosophers, weavers, storytellers, environmentalists, religious leaders, elders, warriors, nurturers, caretakers, wives and daughters. They will recognize women’s pivotal role in nurturing humankind and sustaining traditions that have ensured the survival of our species to this day.
Of course, who gets written back into history depends on the point of view of specific historians and what they consider significant enough to be recorded as history.
Consider the recent example of a video “A Brief History of Pretty Much Everything” that went viral on You Tube a few months ago, with 2.2 million views. Created by Jamie Bell, from the U.K., it illustrates the history of our planet from creation to modern times and chronicles the rise and fall of species and civilizations.
His well-made, entertaining video is a testimony to his hard work and creativity, and earned him an A grade. Yet this17-year-old did not include a single woman in his brief history of pretty much everything. Even more troubling is that this omission of more than half the world’s population is lost on many of the video’s admirers.
The absence of women in Bell’s video is not surprising because including women is still an afterthought in many scenarios around the globe.
For me, writing women back into history requires the same mind-set of respect and sensitivity that made it possible for women to finally, in February, serve on U.S. submarines or to pass the 1990 law requiring women to be included in all federally funded medical research and clinical trials or to start blind auditions for musicians in the 1970s.
Writing women back into history will also mean honoring the contributions of women in our personal histories. For me, it means valuing the role of my homemaker grandmothers as much as the role of my grandfathers, who are identified and valued for the jobs they did outside the home.
It means acknowledging the work my grandmothers did in raising large families and their skills as counselors, financial planners, businesswomen, healers and keepers of history.
We all need to be active witnesses to the myriad ways in which women contribute in today’s world both inside and outside the home, even as we continue the work needed to allow every woman the right to self determination, to live a life free from violence, be head of a household, vote, drive or ride a bicycle.
Writing women back into history allows us the expanding opportunity of recognizing women’s history as part of our collective history and of accepting women’s issues as human issues.
It could also foster recognition of the importance of what is traditionally considered “women’s work” and expand it to be “men’s work” too in today’s world.
If men and women view women’s work and history as our collective legacy, it would be a phenomenal return on the minimal investment of one month focused on almost 50 percent of the population.

On the road to becoming simply Americans

Originally published on January 31, 2010, in Centre Daily Times.
“I forgot Obama was black tonight for an hour,” commented MSNBC’s Chris Matthews last week after the State of the Union address by President Barack Obama.
Apparently for Matthews, this was an indication of how far the country had traveled on race and how post-racial we have become. And he gave credit to Obama’s election and leadership for making him forget such a monumental thing as the president’s race for an hour.
This statement had me contemplating how much further we have to go on race, and how we unnecessarily distort our impressions of people with meaningless adjectives.
Matthews’ statement reflects the newness and uniqueness of having a “biracial” president, and the common practice of tagging adjectives onto others, when they are not the “norm,” such as a “black” senator, a “Hispanic” judge, a “female” CEO, an “American Indian” congressman, and so on.
But we do not use adjectives for the “norm,” which in the U.S. public arena is the white male.
And this “norm” is assumed to have leadership qualities. But if someone from a group other than the norm appears on the public arena, their otherness stands out as a qualifying adjective.
We might describe that someone as a “female astronaut,” “African American doctor,” or “Indian senator,” instead of simply using astronaut, doctor or senator.
Of course, descriptors of otherness are used globally. The labels could vary from words like “foreign” to religious ones like “Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Jew” to ethnic-, tribal-, language-and politics-based ones.
Labeling others is a common human activity, but we can control what we do after we label someone.
And my fellow Americans and I, with origins from all around the world, have a unique opportunity to engage in an exercise of remembering and forgetting such things, not just for an hour, but forever.
We need to acknowledge the accomplishments of those from “minority” groups, by remembering, registering and then forgetting.
When we remember and register, we expand our idea of the possibilities for different groups of people. But then we need to forget, and forget not momentarily, but forever.
When someone enters a room, I wish we could both remember and forget their ethnic origins.
When we meet someone, I wish we could both remember and forget our religions.
When we succeed or fail, I wish we could both remember and forget our gender.
And so on, till we register just the unique individual before us.
I wish we would acknowledge that our physical realities and backgrounds may or may not have any bearing on our thoughts, acts and performance, depending on the context.
In such a world, where we both remember and forget, we would view Obama’s successes and failures as simply the journey of an American politician, who happens to be biracial, and has strengths and failings like the rest of us.
In such a world, Matthews would have remembered and then forgotten Obama’s biracial heritage forever, not just for an hour, and restricted himself to comments on the quality of the president’s State of the Union address.
Just like we remember and forget Matthews’ race.