Tuesday, October 28, 2014

October 28th: Tricked for Treats

My mother spent most of my childhood complaining about the fact that there was no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Columbus Day or, my personal favorite, Casimir Pulaski Day. She used to say that it was ridiculous for us to spend those days “celebrating” these great men outside of school when we could be learning about them in school.

You see, holidays meant to commemorate special times and people should come with education. All too often, though, we skip right over explaining why we have the celebration, and move right on to the pomp and circumstance (I still have no idea who Casimir Pulaski really was, although I do love getting the extra sleep in March).

Well, it’s that time of year again! That time where there is equal clamor by those desperately searching for the Halloween costume that will get the most attention, and those telling cautionary tales of the potential dangers of picking an offensive character to represent.

The level of competition for Halloween costumes has grown ever more fierce, with people desperate to come up with something that will catch everyone’s eye. This year, the Jameis Winston couples costume (one dressed as the Florida State football player, another dressed as crab legs) is a clever one. Ebola is an easy stab at news-based costumes. Of course, you can always go with the tried and true, adding “sexy” before either a profession or animal to get an easy (if not trashy) way of getting attention without putting in any extra effort.

While some are looking for the perfect get-up, others are adding their voice of reason to the conversation. Costumes have grown ever more offensive as feeble attempts at comedy drive the public toward caricatures of racial groups or other potentially insulting options. E! Online offered us their 18 costumes to stay away from, including Ray Rice, a Malaysian Airlines Passenger, and Michael Brown. (Thank you, E!, for putting this in your “News” section…)

My personal favorite is the fear associated with cultural appropriation on Halloween. Dressing up as a rapper or Indian princess are devastating examples of racial intolerance in the form of frivolous costumes.  We can do irreparable harm to these cultures if we are unaware of the potential negative ramifications of belittling their identities with goofy dressing up and abuse of meaningful symbolism.

The problem is, that is exactly what Halloween is all about.

Halloween is the most famous example of cultural appropriation in American history (with maybe the exception being Christmas being on December 25th, although that’s a different blog post). You see, Halloween originates in a Celtic tradition, meant to commemorate the new year, which they believed to take place on November 1st. On October 31st, according to the Celts, the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin, allowing for prophecy and sacrifice to please their deities. For a full history of the holiday, see History.com’s detailed description.

Even the tradition of trick-or-treating has roots in the relationship between the living world and spirit world. Poor children went from door to door, asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the souls of a homeowner's dead relatives. Not exactly the same thing as a snack-sized Snickers bar.

Every year, we go out of our way to look for costumes, buy candy, and celebrate the holiday. Yet we have no real idea what we’re recognizing. This was the religious practice for an entire culture, their version of New Years Eve. It is the equivalent to turning Easter into a cave exploration holiday.

So while we are up-in-arms over what costumes some decide to wear, we all need to remember that, no matter how you decide to dress up, there is cultural appropriation going on.

Monday, October 20, 2014

October 20th: The Eye Test

Turn on the TV right now. Pick a channel, any channel. It will only take a few minutes to get to a commercial break. What you see might surprise you.

American society has been working to better the way women are treated. Campaigns for higher awareness for the income gap have been doing a very good job of trying to bring awareness to the issues of gender-based discrimination in the workplace. Feminism has taken to blogging and columning, with an almost constant critique and analysis of every possible situation, from media to politics.

She's about to sell a cheeseburger, I promise.
But now we’re watching TV, and the commercial break has just begun. Maybe you’ll see the newest Miller Lite ad. You know which one I’m talking about; the one where Miller Lite takes credit for inventing subliminal advertising, while flashing images naked women rolling around in hops. Not that one? Maybe you’ll see the Hardee’s commercial where a woman sitting on an airplane in a cleavage dominated dress asks the man sitting next to her if he wants to joining the Mile High club (who would guess that means a sandwich?)

These are just two of a long list of commercials that use sexuality to sell a product. We are seeing a lot of progress in what is being said by the American public. The problem is waiting for the shift in the way Americans think.

My favorite barometer for the way Americans think is in our consumer culture. Advertising agents, you see, don’t really care about racism or sexism. They don’t care about fairness or morals. They don’t care who has the power, really. All they care about is whether it will make people spend their money.

You see, American advertising will adopt feminism as soon as it becomes financially responsible to do so. They will chase the financial bottom line, and do what the market dictates is necessary to get people’s money. Right now, as much as we think we’re making good progress, we still allow products to use sexy women to sell products, because we continue to buy them.

Products that target men are continuing to use sexualized imagery to get their audience's attention, and they won’t stop until we stop giving them the attention.

Women can also be part of the problem. In fact, one of the best examples is Cosmopolitan Magazine. Have you ever read the cover of a Cosmo? Sex tips dominate, as well as ways to get attention through the use of sexuality and beauty products. Is that a problem? Maybe not. But it doesn’t match the language being shared by most of the feminist blogging community about looking for value in a woman’s identity beyond her physical attributes.

Here’s where it gets tricky. Cosmo also does a lot of empowering of women. Women can read Cosmo and feel better about themselves, feel like they’re not alone, and read about strong, confident women who are highly successful. That is incredibly important and positive. The scary part, though, is that it is foraging a deep relationship between sexuality and a woman’s identity. A strong woman must be sexy, must have good sex, must have a man who she knows how to please. Those are very dangerous things to be linking in the minds of women who are trying to come up with an understanding of their identity.

There is a constant struggle to find ways to make the world a better place for women. We know we’re not there yet, and that there is plenty of work left to do. We do, though, need to be far more conscious of what we do with our eyes and our money, because it can have a huge impact on how the cultural landscape shifts.

I hate when people blame the media for things. I think the public and the media feed one another. There is a balancing act. The media tells the public what to believe, while the public tells media producers, through their spending habits, what they want to see. We now have the chance to choose what we want the media to say, as long as we’re being thoughtful of what we’re being told to think.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

September 29th: Awesome and Full of Dread

“Let us proclaim the sacred power of this day; it is awesome and full of dread.”

These are the words that we read on Rosh Hashanah, marking the ten day period between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

We read a passage that describes God as the Judge and Arbiter, Counsel and Witness. The imagery describes a King, sitting upon a throne, determining “who shall live and who shall die.”

I find this writing both hauntingly beautiful and deeply troubling. There are equal parts safety and helplessness in the notion that God gets to decide our fates in the coming year.

On the one hand, we are taught that, through repentance and good deeds, we have the opportunity to be inscribed in the Book of Life. On another level, though, we are at the mercy of a God who gets to choose our fate, rather than having the chance to create our own way.

Throughout the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, we look at the power God has over our fate. We are confronted by the reality that we are but small pieces in a larger world, with little understanding of how we come to live the experiences we encounter every day. Sometimes this can be comforting, while other times it can lead to a sense of false security.

What I find most difficult, though, is the notion that our actions are pre-determined. Are we to believe that the loved ones we lose from one year to the next are the result of a failure to “make it into the Book”? How do we come to terms with a piece of our faith that is so unsettling?

The reality is that, at the time that this piece was written, we needed a God who would protect, provide, and judge. We believed in these lofty personifications for God, and they brought us comfort, knowing that our actions would lead to good judgement and, hopefully, a promise of another year of life. It also allowed us to rationalize those who we lost, knowing that, for whatever reason, they had been put on the “Who Shall Die” list, rather than the “Who Shall Live” one.

Now, though, we live in a time where faith needs to lead to accountability. We cannot hide behind the false comfort of a God who makes the decisions for us. We must hold ourselves accountable for our choices, and the results of them.

This is not a burden we must bear, but an opportunity to take control of who we are and what we do. We get to use the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to evaluate our behavior, to think of how we can do better in the coming year. But that betterment needs to be for our own benefit, not as an opportunity to get into the good graces of God.

What, then, is the value in a religious practice such as this that focuses so wholly on an area that we don’t find immediately meaningful?

There is hope to be found in the words from our liturgy. We read, in the Gates of Repentance, “Freely we choose, and what we have chose to become stands in judgement over what we may yet hope to be. In our choices we are not always free. But if only we make the effort to turn, every force of goodness, within and without, will help us, while we live, to escape that death of the heart which leads to sin.”

We have the unique opportunity, as Jews, to evaluate our choices, to make an attempt to be better. Judaism never calls for perfection. Rather, Judaism calls for the pursuit of being better. We want to be better people, find more meaning, seek more happiness. Through our observance of these ten sacred days, we are able to better come closer to the divine presence within each of us. We become just a little more Godly.

Shanah Tovah.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

September 21st: The Last Grain

I’ve been fairly quiet about the Ray Rice situation in the last several weeks. Part of the reason is that I was waiting to see how other people reacted. Part of it is that I had a sneaky feeling more would be coming than just what we had originally learned.

All I knew was that, when Ray Rice was given a 2 game suspension for domestic violence against his soon-to-be wife, that wouldn’t be the end of the story. The NFL’s fan base and ESPN’s commentators were in an uproar, demanding an answer as to why the punishment was so lenient. It wasn’t until the video footage from inside the elevator came out that the NFL and the Ravens decided to take more drastic action, suspending Rice indefinitely and releasing him from the team, respectively.

The aftermath in the realm of social change has been enormous. The National Organization for Women (NOW) has demanded that Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, resign his job to make up for the judgement flaws coming out of his office. In fact, the clamor for Goodell’s head has been loud and enthusiastic.

I, on the other hand, am not going to call out the Ravens, the NFL, or Roger Goodell. While each of them is at fault, at least to some extent, the root of the issue goes to a much larger problem: the United States justice system.

Roger Goodell, you see, has made a habit of waiting until the law determines a player or owner’s punishment before levying one of his own. Therefore, when the legal system let Ray off with just a slap on the wrist and a court-mandated anger management class, Goodell took that to mean things were going to be ok.

Yet the public has all but let this go unnoticed. Only a select few have acknowledged that the failure on the part of the legal system is what set this problem in motion, leading to this debacle. We do, of course, also need to acknowledge that blame falls unilaterally on Ray Rice. While many people, institutions, and organizations have muddied the waters, if Rice had had control over his behavior and reactions, we could have avoided this whole situation all-together.

All of that being said, the public has made one heinous error that will cause the Ray Rice situation to go down as the worst thing to ever happen to the NFL, rather than an incredible opportunity for mankind. The situation has been made about Ray Rice. Everything has been about this one situation, what went wrong, and how we can punish this one man. Because we feel bad about what we saw in the video footage, we have ran this man out of town, ruined his career, attempted to decide the strength of his relationship (His now-wife has stood by him every step of the way), and generally turned him into a villain. In fact, we only really seemed upset when we actually saw the video. It wasn’t enough for Ray to tell us what he did. It was only when we saw the violence that we believed it to be really what it was.

I’ve never met Ray Rice. I know people who have, and everyone who knew him swears by his positive attitude, his sincerity, and his desire to be a good person. By all accounts I can find, Ray Rice is a good man who made a terrible mistake. His high school football coach, a beloved member of his community, threatened to quit his job if the high school did not return Rice’s jersey to the school’s rafters. He was that supportive of this man.

Here is the other piece of the puzzle. NOW has claimed that there is a domestic abuse issue in the NFL. Upon further review, though, 20 men have been charged with domestic abuse in the NFL in the past 4 years. Out of the 1,700 players in the NFL, that makes up just over 1%. While I’m sure only a fraction of those who are abusers actually face charges, there still is evidence that football does not experience any higher a rate of domestic abuse than any other industry. In fact, I would be willing to bet that in any group of 1,700 men in any industry, at least 20 will be abusive. This isn’t a good thing. It is a scary number. But it is representative of a much larger issue, not within the NFL, but within all walks of humanity.

By making this example a Ray Rice issue, we are failing to make it about all of the men and women who face abusive relationships in their lives. We are failing to actually help those people who cannot stand up for themselves. Focusing exclusively on Ray Rice will not make the problem go away. In fact, it may even lead to more women who are afraid of turning in their husbands and boyfriends for fear that, by ruining every facet of a person’s life, they will turn even more violent.

We, as a society, have the opportunity to teach humanity in this moment. We can teach men and women what a healthy relationship looks like, and in some cases what it doesn’t. We can teach how to learn from bad decisions and how to become better people when we mess up. We can teach how to take a bad situation and turn it into an opportunity for growth and learning. We have a choice, and right now, we are making the wrong one.

This is the second in my series of posts about causes that I will be making a donation to. I will be making a donation to a charity supporting those who have experienced domestic abuse. Hopefully a combination of advocacy and support will bring about a serious change for the better.

Monday, September 8, 2014

September 8th: Not the Same Deal

If you’re looking for the good news in the wake of the Donald Sterling debacle, it may have come in something of a surprising form. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced today that he would be selling the team because of a racist email he sent in 2012.

At the first moment, all basketball fans’ hearts should sink. I don’t think the NBA could handle another owner causing a team that kind of distraction again. Upon further inspection, though, something very different was happening here.

In the email in question, Levenson sent a communication to his General Manager, Danny Ferry, in which he seemed to be giving something of a “state of affairs” in many important areas of the team’s operations. He began with commending parts of his organization, as well as giving some thoughtful remarks about how to move forward with issues such as food vendors and season tickets. In my reading of the email, I started to like the guy from the beginning of the email.

It was in the fourth section that the issue came up. In it, Levenson diagnoses one of the issues he is facing that most drastically affects his team’s bottom line: season ticket holders. He makes the comment that, more than at most stadiums, the Hawks draw a uniquely African American dominated crowd. He cites “eyeball statistics,” numbers he attempted to guess at based on observation, mentioning 70% African Americans in the crowd, predominantly black cheerleaders, and an overwhelming amount of hip-hop music in the stadium. He then goes on to say that the feeling of overwhelming African American culture in the building may be leading to low numbers of season ticket holders because most season ticket holders are affluent, and there are fewer affluent African Americans in Atlanta than whites.

This is the email that Levenson self-reported as racist and the reason he has no business owning an NBA team. Really, though, business is the reason he is owning an NBA team, and all of his comments were observations in the name of smart business. Upon deep inspection of the email, there is nothing that should have driven Levenson to step away.

Now, that isn’t to say stereotyping and over-generalization isn’t a big issue. These can be incredibly detrimental when assessed in society. The thing is, though, that business and society are very different, and sometimes something that is wrong in society is imperative to running a financially responsible organization.

This case, more than most, needs to call into light the importance of intent. In the case of Sterling, he was a racist who meant to say that blacks were inferior. In the case of Levenson, he even goes so far as to call other antics “racist garbage,” almost feeling bad for making his observations. He was attempting to answer a business question with something that, for all intents and purposes, were ball-parked observations. If he had done a census of fans at his games, he could have made the exact same statements with facts (plus or minus a few digits), rather than slightly skewed information that could be claimed as “opinion”.

You may be wondering where the “good” from the Sterling situation comes into this one. The good is that this is evidence that the NBA learned something. This is evidence that no level of racism will be acceptable. This is evidence that a seemingly good man who made a mistake will own up to it and take responsibility for his actions.

I don’t believe Levenson needs to sell his team. I think he made business-minded statements to a man in his organization to help make more money. I think it is pretty great, though, that he is willing to step down (step down for some big bucks, that is) to state how important it is that we be thoughtful of the way we treat each other and think about racism.

I have two blogs: a sports blog and a “life” blog. The reason this is on the “life” blog rather than the sports one is that racism is an issue that transcends sports. It’s also important that, in a time when issues in sports will bring to the forefront important societal issues, that the public knows about the conversations going on in sports and, in this case, the great moves forward that are being made.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

September 2nd: Numbers Never Lie...or Do They?

We, as people, like facts. We like the certainty of knowing that what we claim to be true is, in fact, the truth. We like the validation of knowing that the numbers are behind us, and that we are ineffable, because statistical proof is behind us.

The problem is, we aren’t getting data nearly as rock-solid as we think. As a matter of fact, most of the information we take in is skewed, portraying a picture with just enough of the puzzle missing to leave us profoundly lost.

Worst of all, we don’t even know it’s happening. Statistics are shared on a daily, even hourly basis that, without the proper framing, can lead to total catastrophe. The biggest challenge is that the numbers actually DO pan out. The Emory University football team is technically undefeated. That is a fact. The problem is, you aren’t going to necessarily have the information that they are also un-victorious (Emory, you see, doesn’t have a football team).

This is why it is so dangerous for all of the “news” information to be deciminated to an often ignorant public without some context.

Here is an example from this past week: A news article, found on the Washington Post website,shares a study conducted that looks at jogging information taken from the Runkeeper cycling app. The app takes the data from the running routes of users and sets them onto maps of 10 major US cities, as well as a few international selections, to look at where the most popular jogging routes are in major metropolitan areas. This data we can safely say is factual. These maps accurately reflect where people are jogging, according to the application's data.

The article, though, goes on to make a claim. The maps of popular jogging routes appears, according to the Washington Post, to correspond with generally more affluent neighborhoods. There is more tracking in areas where residents are wealthier. The article goes so far as to say “These results are to be expected. People who can afford to do so tend to prefer living near parks and rivers, where runners also like to run.”

The hip, contemporary news outlet Mic attempted to take this information and prove exactly why there is a link between jogging and a financial gap. Because of the lack of running in those areas, there must be a growing obesity problem in America, and it has to be based in the most financially unstable parts of our country. That is, after all, what the data suggests. Right?

Not exactly. What the data suggests is that, those who are using the app tend to run in more affluent areas. That doesn’t take into account that most (if not all) who suffer from financial hardship can’t afford apps on their non-existent smartphones. It doesn’t take into account that only those using this specific app are being taken into account. It doesn’t take into account that the poor could be obese or starving. There is plenty of information here that we simply don’t know.

Another example, also found in the Washington Post, looks at the number of African American friends white people have. The article looks at a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, which studied the average number of friends a person has based on racial identification. The findings were that white people tend to have 91% white friends and only 1% each of a  few other racial identification. African Americans, on the other hand, have, on average, 83% black friends, 8% white friends, and a small numbers of others to round out the other 9 percent. The article goes on to look at the fact that, because of this data, most racial conversations are done with homogeneous groups of people. What could be wrong with that?

Well, at first glance, nothing at all. On second inspection, though, the article fails to take into account that only about 14% of America is African American. Literally, there are fewer black people to know. This doesn’t inherently make the data unusable, it just gives a reader pause.

In each of these examples, the information isn’t wrong. In fact, there is statistical back-up for the claims. But, in reality, the data requires a reader to do some critical thinking and analysis as to how this can be used most accurately in a global context. This information is, of course, not just found in the Washington Post. News outlets everywhere are giving “facts” without all of the context or framing necessary to paint a clear picture.

Is poverty challenging our world? Certainly. Are there issues with obesity in impoverished areas? It is definitely possible. Are there differences in the ways African Americans and White Americans interact in social groups? Sure. But we can’t necessarily run to conclusions about what that really means without first taking a good hard look at how all of the pieces fit together.

People are attempting to diagnose what is wrong with our society. Are there challenges? Most definitely.  And there are some things that need our immediate attention. We can do more, do better if we are more accurate in our assessments of what is truly going on and, thus, what we can do to make things better.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24th: Our Biggest Problem

I feel like every blog I write starts with “I saw on Facebook.”

The truth is, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other forms of new media are the ways that people share what is important to them. It is an open forum that allows people to not only put out thoughts, opinions, and feelings, but gives their friends the chance to weigh in, to validate those experiences.

This week, it has been fascinating and downright upsetting to see how the world is falling apart. There are riots going on in Missouri, people being shot because someone was shot (yes, it makes sense for violence to lead to more violence). There are bombs being thrown every hour in the Middle East, with Israel defending itself from terrorist strikes. There are people dunking water on their heads, hoping to raise awareness and money for a disease that is ruining lives across the country and the world.

Yet, the story that most baffles me is the one that popped up less than 24 hours after Taylor Swift released her newest music video. People began to argue with Taylor. Yes, you read that right. With the world crashing down around us, there were those who insisted that Taylor Swift was one of the major global problems in need of immediate attention.

Here’s the background information. Taylor’s new video, “Shake It Off,” was released on Monday. The video shows the country-pop star singing as she attempts (rather unsuccessfully) to dance alongside many different kinds of dance. She is a ballerina in one shot, a modern dancer in another, and a hip-hop/rap star in another. The lyrics of the song, which talk about how she doesn’t let what people say about to her get to her, embody “shaking off” the bad things, and focusing on just being you.

Who could have a problem with a role model like Taylor singing about being one’s self, loving one’s self, and owning it with flare? A whole lot of people, apparently.

Within 24 hours, the internet was abuzz with people clamoring to call out Swift’s horrific example of cultural appropriation. She, in her wickedly offensive, and clearly hateful video, goes so far as to wear a flat brim hat, walk around in a letterman jacket with a hood, wear basketball shoes, and, get this, have a boom-box on her shoulder. She even allowed women to twerk! How dare she?!

Here’s the question, though. What could she have done that WOULDN’T have caused a stir? If she had put together this video, with cultural appropriation issues in mind, and left off the scenes with rap and hip hop themed outfits and dance moves, she would have been destroyed by the same people for not giving those genres fair attention, which clearly is an example of racism. Doing what she did, we clearly see she got accused of “perpetuating a black stereotype.”

Even twerking, which has been a major part of pop-culture, has a place in this video, especially in the fun and playful way Swift attempts to understand the dance craze. If she had ignored twerking, she would be accused of being a goody-two-shoes, too prude to understand the world she’s living in. As it is, she’s a raging racist who needs to be brought to justice.

Let’s be real, though. She isn’t perpetuating a black stereotype. She is perpetuating a hip-hop stereotype. Is hip-hop a predominantly black cultural piece? Sure. But is it a stereotype of all black people? Not even a little bit.

The most challenging part about this is the lunacy of the meaning of the song, in context with the criticism. One critic who has received a lot of attention for his comments is rapper Earl Sweatshirt (yes, that is his name). In his blast of Taylor’s video, he admits to NOT HAVING EVEN WATCHED IT. Seriously, Mr. Sweatshirt? Your quote: “haven't watched the taylor swift video and I don't need to watch it to tell you that it's inherently offensive and ultimately harmful.” The only thing inherently offensive and ultimately harmful about this situation is your desire to argue about something’s value without even educating yourself on the matter.

This video is about finding yourself, about dancing to whatever type of music is in your heart. It is about not taking yourself too seriously and not getting wrapped up in what other people say about you.

The world is a screwed up place right now. There are a lot of good causes, good fights to stand up for. This fight, though, is a petty argument, meant only to take advantage of a girl who is making the music she loves.

One of my favorite TV shows, the Newsroom, handles this best. When Will, the main character, is overwhelmed by the craziness in the world, he goes to bail one of his co-workers out of jail after his wrongful arrest for participating in a peaceful protest. Video here.

At the 1:49 mark, you see Will explode a little bit. He declares “So obviously, what I’m doing is dealing with the easiest one!”

People here are dealing with an easy thing. A young girl who doesn’t really have the ability to bite back. Our biggest problem isn't a music video. It is the world's refusal to learn how to pick our battles. Grow up, people, and learn to pick the right fight.

If you would like to argue about it, go watch the video. It’s posted above.