Monday, March 31, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Melting, Mixing, and Patching American Dreams

When I was a little kid, I was told that America was the "melting pot." I learned this during discussions of "diversity" in elementary school, discussions made somewhat abstract by the lack of racial, religious, and even most socioeconomic diversity in my own tiny, rural Midwestern hometown. 

The idea sounded so appealing to me as a kid, though. Look at America, bringing together so many different types of people and blending them into something strong and beautiful. I pictured molten metal being poured into molds.

Later, in college, I would hear discussions of how the "melting pot" metaphor for American identity was inadequate. We weren't actually all blended together into a homogenous, glowing mixture. We maintained our unique cultural identities but were stitched to one another into a brightly colored, multi-faceted whole. America, I was told, is a patchwork quilt.

By this point in my personal experiences, I had been pushed out of the homogeneity of my hometown both physically and mentally. As an English major, I was taking classes in African American literature and reading Chicano and Native American works. I was learning about feminist theories and generally recognizing that the world was much more diverse and much less at harmony than I had previously thought. The melting pot metaphor certainly didn't fit. We don't all blend together into one harmonious substance and, furthermore, we shouldn't try! My liberal arts education had me embracing the expressions of a wide array of cultural experiences, and the patchwork quilt metaphor captures that spirit. It is the brightness and uniqueness of our own cultural heritages that make the quilt of American culture complete. 

That metaphor, too, has fallen flat as time has gone on. The melting pot metaphor and the patchwork quilt metaphor each represent extreme views for cultural diversity. 

Melting Pot= Assimilation

On the one hand, the melting pot metaphor suggests complete assimilation. We see the less friendly-sounding outputs of its core values in "English only" language movements, those who aim to remove minority literature classes from course catalogs, and a general insistence that the right way to be "American" is by taking on the attributes of the white, middle class hegemony. (It might, for instance, manifests itself as a group of online bigots outraged that a Mexican-American boy sang the national anthem at a televised sporting event or in policies that remove Native American children from their families.)

It's easy to see why the melting pot metaphor is problematic. Even though it sounded great to me as a child (why shouldn't we all want to become one, great, strong substance working together?), the realities of political power mean that we must all become the standard, and the standard is entrenched in privilege and prejudice. The racism, classism, sexism, ableism, and virtually every other type of -ism wrapped up in the melting pot essentially means that those with less power "melt" under the pressure of the norms around them, vanishing from the fabric of American identity. In the case of the English-only movement or the removal of minority literature courses, they are literally silenced. The melting pot aims to remove the markers of diversity and in doing so aims to erase the experiences of the people who represent it. 

Patchwork Quilt= Blind Idealism 

So the patchwork quilt is the answer, right? If the melting pot ignores diversity, then the patchwork quilt is the way to embrace it. By recognizing that we all inhabit our own little squares of identity, we ensure that diversity is not erased. We are each able to contribute our own experiences and voices to the mix, and those experiences are seen as equally important and valid to the overall American identity. 

This notion has been the driving force behind movements to preserve cultural heritage. It's why we have things like Black History Month and Native American Heritage Month. Driven by the urge to recognize, validate, and then disseminate the accomplishments and contributions of groups that are traditionally marginalized, we are pointing to the patches on the quilt. America is a diverse country built upon the sacrifice of many minority groups, often at the violent hands of those driven by the melting pot ideology.  

Jesse Jackson invoked the patchwork quilt metaphor in his 1984 address to the Democratic National Convention, explaining: 
America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay and the disabled make up the American quilt. 
The problem with the patchwork quilt analogy is two-fold. In the first place, the patches of a quilt are not integrated. Each exists in its own separate space, connected to the others only by the stitches that bind the quilt as a whole. There are many people who inhabit multiple spheres of identity. Using Jackson's examples, what happens if you are a young, gay businessman? What happens if you are an old, lesbian Latina? We do not stay neatly in the boxes placed before us, and attempting to corral people into a single box of identity is damaging to their personal sense of self and to their ability to connect with others and thrive. The patchwork quilt metaphor fails to take into account that we do, in fact, blend. 

Secondly, the patchwork quilt metaphor does not address the need to mix and the responsibilities we have to one another beyond our own square of cloth. Celebrating Native American Heritage Month but refusing to address the problems facing the Native American community on a daily basis (or even removing an offensive, derogatory mascot) does little to actually address diversity; it merely pays lip service to it. 

A Compromise: The Salad Bowl

From this tension, we can find a third metaphor for American identity: the salad bowl. In a salad, the different ingredients are distinct and bring their own unique flavor and contribution to the whole. They are, however, coexisting. The flavors of one will impact the flavor of another. They work together or, sometimes, fail to meld in an effective way. 

It would seem that the salad bowl metaphor addresses many of the issues that come out of the patchwork quilt analogy, but there is still something missing.

Returning to the Melting Pot

The melting pot is obviously a troubling metaphor. It ignores the diversity in American history and present American demographics. It is rife with bigotry, privilege, and cruelly-wielded power. But it gets something right that both the patchwork quilt and the salad ignore: violence. 

There is violence in American identity. It is a troubling, tension-filled thing to find a way to belong in a heterogeneous society. To ignore that is to ignore the very real struggles that people undergo every day as they work to find a sense of self. 

I was prompted to think about these metaphors when I was reading Victor Villanueva's Bootstraps, a book in which he explores his own attempts to assimilate to white expectations as a Hispanic American. Despite his efforts to embrace the melting pot, he eventually recognizes that his identity will always be that of a minority, especially in his role as a university professor. He is seen as the go-to person for "minority" issues, and his work is always read through the lens of a the "minority perspective."

Out of these experiences, Villanueva suggests a new metaphor for American cultural identity: a stew.

 Villanueva explains that the stew metaphor “maintains the violence of the melting-pot metaphor while suggesting some of the ingredients do not lose all of their original identity, though altered, taking in the juices from the other ingredients of the pot, adding to the juices; all of us this one thing, Americans, and all of us some things else" (20).

While imagining American identity as a patchwork quilt or a salad might be appealing because it suggests a sense of harmony and tolerance, it ignores the very real power structures at play when we craft our sense of self.

We can't craft it alone. We are pushed and pulled by those around us as we develop a sense of self. We are melted, melded, and combined. We do not stay neatly in any one box, and we may lose some of our flavor to an overpowering majority. The stew metaphor captures these nuances in a way that the salad metaphor misses. When we're all cooked together, there is a violence to the stewing that cannot be ignored, and the impact that violence has on the way identities are shaped must be part of the conversation about diversity. 

Photo: Graela, josiequilts, Slice of Chic, Offbeat Photography

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Good, the Bad, and the Curious (Links!)

I know I've been neglecting my blogging duties, but I'm in the final throes of completing my doctoral exams. I promise I'll be back soon!

In the meantime, here's a quick recap of some of the things I've been reading in the rare moments of study breaks that made me smile (The Good), cry (The Bad), and think (The Curious).

The Good

Have you seen this awesome body paint/parrot picture?

Check out Danielle Vermeer's new Etsy shop for upcycled vintage clothes.

The Bad

In my city (St. Louis, MO), it appears that the police tried to intimidate and threaten a man on probation if he didn't help them plant a gun on someone.

The "No Judgments" gym (Planet Fitness) proves once again that they are all about judging.

This study that says obese women get only an hour of exercise a year? For real?

The Curious 

Some more thoughts (this time from The Chronicle) on why the language of customer service does harm to the function of education:
Education is created, not consumed, but we cannot expect students to believe that when every message from academe itself tells them that they can just buy it.
Have you seen the picture about the "new math" that's being used to show why Common Core doesn't make any sense? Well, this Patheos piece explains why taking a single picture out of context doesn't really tell us much about the pedagogical theory behind it.

The Atlantic has a nice piece on my favorite track from the Beyonce album: "Jealous."

It doesn't take much (just some eyelashes and slightly curlier hair) to turn Disney's leading men into leading women.

I try not to let the ever-changing food trends mean too much (because I will go insane), but I did think this study showing that full-fat milk may make people leaner was an interesting challenge to our conventional beliefs about food and body size. 

That's what I've been reading. How about you?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Guest Post: You Have to Start Somewhere

Today's guest post comes from Emma Klues, who was also kind enough to contribute this poem a while back as part of the Identity in Balance series. Today, she shares some very kind words about blogging and helps me remember why I got started in blogging to begin with and just how important the community I built has been to me professionally, academically, and personally. 

Also, Emma runs some laughter yoga sessions! Check out her blog Laughter in the Lou to learn more about it and other reasons to laugh. 


Hello there! This is Emma, writing a guest post to you as a female human who took some sociology and psychology classes in college. My training in the issues of feminism is largely from reading Balancing Jane and other such blogs and news sources, informal discussions with friends, and general observations. I don't mean to downplay those as legitimate ways to explore a topic, but simply to give you some context to the ramblings that follow. Ahem.

The Internet is huge. I mean large, expansive, seemingly infinite. My friends like to joke about days when they binge browse or read as that afternoon when they "finished the Internet". And while that rings true for many, I am fascinated by how the world wide web can really provide a springboard for richer and more meaningful conversations in person, personal introspection, and self-education. While I'm sure people used to go to the library and pick a Dewey Decimal section they knew nothing about to discover new topics (did they?), I truly value blogs as springboards to explore big, complex and intimidating topics. Allow me to illustrate an example:

Although I have always considered myself a feminist and supporter of equal rights for all, I barely explored the topic until I got to the life stage where everyone was getting engaged and married. But particularly, once I started following a wedding blog called A Practical Wedding, I began to really think through social constructs on a regular basis. For those of you who have ever browsed any corner of the internet on the topic of weddings, you've found some very frightening places. This is one of the rare exceptions. Here, thousands of women (and some men) discuss legitimate issues surrounding weddings and marriage, engagements and elopements, family and friends. Here, I have found a community where I can explore big, important issues that matter with a group of rational and sane people who respect each other, good writing, and differing opinions. This post is not an endorsement of the site (well, it is also that), but it's meant to say that until I found a place to have those conversations and to get appropriate resources for my level of knowledge on the subject, it wasn't as natural to explore them when I had 20 minutes of free time here or there.


Even today, I don't visit 10 different blogs each morning or keep up with 5 different sites exploring feminist issues, nor do I dive into academic research for fun. I visit approximately 3-4 blogs every few days (this one included), and then use those as springboards to explore conversations, content, other sites that interest me. I find it exhausting to think about trying to know what's going on with all feminist issues all the time. Even if I did naturally think, "I should catch up on the state of women in this country in my spare 20 minutes", where do you even begin? How could I ever even know if I was finding a good article to read, or if that person was incredibly biased, or what to do about it?

Link roundups and other people's assessments allow me to explore at my own pace, form my own opinions, and discuss as I feel comfortable. But they also arm me to have meaningful conversations with my family and friends, co-workers, or, let's face it, anyone. Being able to tune in to someone who I know IS scouring the interwebs and finding all the articles and curating them into, say, the good, bad and curious, is not only comforting to a research hound like myself, taking the pressure off me to find all the things, but gives me a tangible (though not physical) place to go and explore these topics. I am continually grateful that when I see something interesting in my newsfeed on Facebook but don't know what to make of it because I don't have all of the tools, context or wherewithal at my disposal to process it, I can send it to Michelle. Maybe we have a brief conversation, maybe I see it pop up in her next post, or maybe I share it myself in a comment. I have a place to take it, I have a contact or community who shares those values and is willing to explore it with me, and I can trust people other than myself to help me make sense of it.

I certainly don't think bloggers have all the answers or that they are the one-stop shop to figuring out a giant field of study or solving a larger societal issue. But you have to start somewhere.

Photo: JunCTionS

Monday, March 3, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: In Defense of Facebook Braggarts and Faking it Until you Make It

Do you have a "friend" (or maybe even a genuine friend) on Facebook whose life looks perfect and makes you feel a little tinge (or a shooting bolt) of jealousy?

They're posting pictures of homemade oatmeal with "I Love You" spelled out in syrup while you're running out the door with a cold Pop Tart in one hand and your toddler's forgotten show and tell toy in the other, pantyhose ripped and hair a mess. They're talking about long walks in the park on Saturday evening while you're fighting with your kid to finish his homework and trying to figure out if laundry or dishes are the more important chore. They're posting selfies with their hair in perfect, face-framing curls and flawlessly applied mascara while you're wondering how you can manage to have acne on your chin and dry patches flaking on your forehead. They're posting finish line pics from their fifth 10k of the year with a smile pasted across their post-workout-glow-but-not-drenched-in-sweat face while you're mentally trying to justify carrying in the groceries as your workout for the day because you still have to cook dinner, make tomorrow's lesson plans, and answer twelve emails before you can go to sleep.

Breakfast of champions.

It's just not fair.

It's also, as many people have pointed out (most notably this Mamamia post about lying by omission on Facebook), probably not true.

Let's unpack that a little. We're not saying that the person is fabricating these events. We're not saying that there isn't homemade oatmeal, 10k runs, or that they aren't really as beautiful as their selfies suggest. We're just saying that they curated those moments specifically for their perfection and left a bunch of not-so-great moments on the cutting room floor. We didn't get to see their chin acne. No one posts a picture of the 10k they didn't run because they were too busy giving the dog a bath and getting the oil changed in the car. We call this Facebook story a "lie" because it's not the whole truth.

But nothing you ever know about anyone is the whole truth. Ever.

We've started holding up these curated versions of our lives as representatives of our selves and pitting them against one another. Evidence--anecdotal and empirical--is mounting that social media, once a promise for a more connected future, often operates to make us feel more isolated and envious.

The perhaps darker flip side of this is using someone's curated Facebook life as a proxy for which to make ourselves feel better when theirs goes horribly wrong.

Certainly, these concerns about what this online voyeurism does to our individual psyches and our collective cultural understanding of empathy and expectations are worth exploring, but I want to take a moment to defend Facebook braggarts and "liars."

One of the texts I'm reading for my doctoral exams is Castiglione's Book of the Courtier. In this book, Castiglione explores what qualities make one a courtier, or man of the court. In many ways, this is a How to Win Friends and Influence People for the Renaissance era. As upward mobility was becoming more of a reality than it had been in the past, the appearance of respectability was key. 

This appearance is captured by the term sprezzatura which is roughly translated as "nonchalance, effortlessness, and ease." In other words, sprezzatura is the quality of being able to appear to have mastered something that you actually have not mastered. 

"Oh this thing? Totally just bought it this morning."
There is an element of deception to sprezzatura. The ideal courtier conceals his efforts so that all appears effortless, and that--much like our criticism of Facebook curating--is not the whole truth. It certainly is disheartening to those of us who have to struggle to get our hair to lay flat or to make a breakfast or to get to the gym.

But sprezzatura is not just about dishonesty. It can be summed up as "fake it until you make it," but we have to remember the second half of that axiom. There's something to be said about the "make it" part. Without the faking it, we often would never make it there.

That's a key component of body language expert Amy Cuddy's TED Talk about how we can fake qualities through our body language until they actually shape our perceptions.

She explains that "we smile when we feel happy, but also, when we're forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth . . . it makes us feel happy." Therefore, "it's also possible that when you pretend to be powerful, you are more likely to actually feel powerful." The studies she and her team conducted supported this hypothesis. Pretending to be powerful actually made you act more powerful. 

Like at least some of you reading this right now, some people reacted to this with horror. "I don't want to be an impostor!" To this, Cuddy tells a moving story of how a car accident and subsequent head injury stripped her of her core identity as a smart person, leaving others to tell her that college was no longer a choice for her. She was convinced that she was an impostor in graduate school, someone who didn't belong. When an advisor told her to "fake it," she did. She forced herself to go through the motions of giving talks and sounding smart, and--over time--she wasn't faking it anymore. She became it. 

I empathize with Cuddy's story. There was a time when I was a very pessimistic person. I looked at the worst possible outcome of every single thing, from the mundane to the drastic. I was miserable, and that misery was a self-fulfilling prophesy. The misery seemed like an assurance that I was right to be so pessimistic. Surely, if things were going right, I'd feel happier, so I must be correct in assuming that everything is awful because I certainly feel awful. 

One day, I decided to fake it. I faked a happiness that I wasn't really feeling. I faked looking at the world through a more positive lens. Inside, I was still thinking incredibly negative things, but I didn't give them voice. I didn't share them anymore. Over time, I stopped faking it. I had become it. I know that sounds like some new-agey brainwashing (The Secret, anyone?) but I don't think there's really anything all that mystical about it. 

We shape our perception of the world around it through our interactions with it. If we craft those interactions in an intentional way, we can force a different perception. 

And this is where Facebook braggarts come back into the picture. Another of my PhD exam books is Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. A large part of this book is dedicated to the way that our realities are dependent upon the witness of other people. Arendt explains "whatever lacks this appearance [to other people] comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality."

It is the assurance of others' experiences that lets us know the reality of the perception we have. Every "like" on that 10k photo, every "how sweet!" comment on that bowl of oatmeal is an assurance that this moment--this perfect, happy moment--is real. As Arendt puts it, interaction with others "assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men." 

Perhaps we should stop framing these omissions of the negative in our curated Facebook reality as "lies" and start seeing them as sprezzatura, putting on the effortless appearance of a reality we haven't quite captured but hope to soon. 

Facebook braggarts aren't asking for your envy; they're asking for your help, and maybe the'd be willing to give theirs in return. 

Photo: JeepersMedia, opencontent