racial/ethnic chicago animation map
February 25, 2010, 2:58 pm
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if you click on the map it will animate the racial changes in neighborhood make up from 1910 to 2000. it blew my mind. talk about segregation!

saya woolfalk!
February 3, 2010, 1:16 am
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Tonight I went to see the lecture by Saya Woolfalk and it got me thinking about art, the fetishism of otherness, and white guilt.

Saya makes amazing work about utopia, or what she calls “no place”. She works with ideas of fables and stories as a place where people can try different realities and possibilities. Her work used to be very much about gender and race in an overt way. She used to include images of genitalia and tropes of blackness in her art but she found that instead of questioning issues of race or gender they reinforced them.

I am sure her process is much more complicated than this, but she then decided to create “no place”, a utopia of how the world could be, populated by beings that can fluctuate through gender and color. Saya is herself Japanese, Caucasian and African American, so the sense of having to think about identity and race seems very personal. I related very much to that, the sense of being other, of not fitting, of being part of identities that are societally disconnected.

What I started wondering about once I got out of the lecture has not much to do with Saya’s work per se, but the bigger questions of people that are identified as “other” somehow being successful within the art world.

I would even venture to say that there is a sense of otherness being exotic, and desirable. If a gallery/museum/ art institution is exhibition work from a white anglo dude, than boring boring boring. It’s all about finding the most other, the farthest away from the canon. Though it seems that there is a positive change in whose voices are heard, I can’t help to also feel ill at ease.

Are the “others” just being fetishised? Are “others” becoming some sort of collective superficial riddance of white guilt? I am always weary of being seen as an exotic other, and I am especially weary of space that seems to be given to me because of it.

I have not talked to other people who are not white, not American, or straight or whatever other deviance from normalcy about feeling fetishised, or feeling used , but I am very interested to know how “successful” artists feel about this, or if it’s something that they think about.

invasive and pervasive
May 9, 2009, 6:43 pm
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a couple of days ago i went to oona and florence’s 3rd grade music performance of “how does the garden grow?”, expecting some awkward cuteness and cheesy music, and instead got some not so subtle racist doctrine.

the story began with a song about a thriving flower garden, sang by  (white) girls dressed like flowers. then the weeds (all boys) took over, with their “rap” song about being tough, invasive, rough and less refined.  and how can then the gardener get rid of the rapping weeds? by singing a hoedown. for real. so they sang their hoedown, and the first time it did not work, but when they sang it again they finally got rid of the invasive weeds.

bloomington is a mostly white town in indiana, a state with a brutal history of racism, and i just can’t dismiss the fact that such a plot is only perpetuating a certain narrative, and specific stereotypes about blacks. most kids in this town have no african american friends, and get their sense of people of color mainly from the media. it saddens me that such prejudices are put forth by the school system too.

i am so sick of just letting things go, and believing nothing is a big deal, because this shit keeps on going on if it is mostly overlooked.

i wrote to their music teacher the following email:

Ms. Nesbitt,

I really appreciated your efforts in putting together the recital for
Ms.Krothe’s class and all the time spent practicing. However, being in
the audience tonight i could not help but to be deeply uncomfortable
about the dynamics of the story.

I felt that the story had a blatant racialization of characters, and
followed stereotypes about people of color, especially considering the
lack of diversity in Bloomington and at Templeton. The story tells of
a thriving garden that is taken over by weeds. The weeds happen to
rap, which is a traditional form of African American expression, and
sing about being tough, about taking over, and being invasive, which
has been historically an accusation made by whites about blacks.
Indiana has a long history of racism, segregation, and “sundown”
counties and towns, which were and are places where ethnic groups, and
especially African Americans, were driven out by violence or not
allowed to reside. The justification that whites made for such
violence was precisely that blacks were invasive, aggressive, and
“less than”.

In the story the rapping weeds are then driven out by a hoedown, which
is undeniably a very white form of expression. Again with the history
of Indiana, and the U.S., it is appalling to me that such references
are not recognized and discouraged. Yes, the kids are young and might
not be aware of the violent history of racism of this country, but it
does not help to perpetuate stereotypes that lead to more
discrimination, and definitely do not challenge the existing
misconceptions about people of different ethnic backgrounds.

her response?

“Interesting view.”

that is it. wow!

seeing in color
May 3, 2009, 11:58 pm
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i have been thinking about race and history almost non stop for the past month, and feeling increasingly frustrated and confused. i have been in the united states for 7 years now, and i am still at the beginning of understanding and learning about the history of race in the U.S., and its impact on contemporary society.

coming from a monocultural country, one that has been monocultural and mono racial for centuries, i came to an understanding of race slowly. In italy there is a clear sense of being at the bottom of the food chain, a feeling of inferiority and insecurity pervading society, and prompting many to claim of being from neighboring switzerland when traveling abroad. from a young age it became a game to spot other italians in foreign counties and to try not to look “italian”. when i was in England the first time, at age 12, i distinctly recall being very proud when a native failed to recognize me as “other”, and asked me for directions in the streets of London. i was brought up ashamed of my country, and bombarded with anglophile messages.

When i came to the U.S. as an exchange student everything was laid out on the continuum between black and white, in a way that i still cannot navigate.  i am an ethnic other, but still passing into whiteness at times. Here in Bloomington you don’t have to think about race. it’s a white town, where people display “bloomington values diversity” signs, even though it’s 80% white.  it’s easy to feel post-racial and integrated when “otherness” is absent..

the upcoming move to chicago has forced me to look at the face of american racial history, of thinking hard about where i want to position myself, or even if i have a choice in the matter at all. Everything in the city seems to be about race. how people talk about neighbourhoods, or schools, or safety. i found an animated map of the city detailing the racial changes from 1910 to 2000, and it blew my mind that chicago in 1910 was 90% white.

i have to come to terms with my own prejudice, and with the reality of growing up in a society where it was completely normal to distinguish between civilized and primitive,  or where non-western meant inferior, or at best exotic, without a doubt, or a dissenting voice. i can tell myself it did not affect me at all, that the people closest to me are not caucasian, or whatever other bullshit, but there is no way. there is no way that the ideas about people that i was given to understand the world as a child are not impacting me now.

i feel that the only way of creating a less divided and tense world is to stop being paralyzed by fear, of saying something fucked up, or misunderstanding someone’s thoughts and refuse to be segregated. to stay in a completely artificial color bubble.

i am reading “sundown towns”, a book about all the places, town, and neighborhoods where whiteness was enforced violently.  the author challenges every reader to explore the history of wherever they live, and to realize that if a town, or even neighborhood is mostly white it’s no accident, and more likely than not the product of a history of official and unofficial regulations to drive out non-whites. he argues that divisions are only worsening prejudice and stereotyping , as most people will only have a mythical, media induced sense of otherness, without being able to relate a lived experience to it, whatever it is.

still, i am struggling to figure out how to position myself, to come to terms with the privilege of a lighter shade of skin, or to truly understand my fellow humans, without being a cultural tourist, or intruding in someone else’s space…

the move – part two: a place to call home
April 7, 2009, 10:22 pm
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I spent the weekend in san Francisco, really trying to figure out if it could be a place to call home. I walked around for hours, spending time in different neighborhoods, trying to get clues about who the people inside each house could be, if they would be persons that I’d have any affinity with, what their beliefs and histories are, their aspirations. I had a somewhat inflated idea of San Francisco as a place where racial and class segregation were less pronounced than in other U.S. cities, but I was met by a different scene. Many of the neighborhoods where charter schools and “better” public schools are, are mostly white, obviously affluent, and a complete bubble. The middle class and working class neighborhoods are asian and latino. And that is that. Then there is the mission, which is just getting violently gentrified and feels tense and awkward. Obviously it’s impossible for me to get a sense of the city in a few days, but still it is disorienting. I want to be able to be around people that have a variety of histories, a variety of views on the world and cultural references. Otherwise how can anything change? If we are all scared of each other, understanding the world by stereotypes, and in the worst cases, being able to dehumanize people that don’t talk, look like, or act exactly like us. Fuck that. So I am pretty frustrated and also trying to answer the more fundamental question of what is a place to call home? Where do I feel like I can belong? Sometimes I wonder if the only place that feels like home is italy, but it doesn’t. it is familiar, and i can recognize myself in the shapes of faces, and skin tones, but it’s still very alienating to be in a constant ideological battle with a homophobic, racist, macho society. And it bums me out to believe that each of us is inexorably bound to where we were born, never able to create out own sense of home elsewhere. But it is very difficult to just chose where to move, hoping it will feel right, investing myself in it, leaving 7 yr old friendships behind, without any certainty in the outcome. I don’t want to drift forever. I am waiting for some enlightenment, a sign.

the move- part one: schools
March 20, 2009, 3:46 pm
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after many years of living in bloomington, sort of accidentally, i am likely moving in a way that feels more intentional, albeit random in its own merit.  a strong candidate for the move is san francisco, because i have been accepted at a school there.

however it’s not so much my school i am concerned with, as much as with oona and florence’s. after all it is where they spend 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, and a vital part of them feeling comfortable and happy with moving.

i have been researching schools and trying to get a sense of the elementary public schools in the city, with moderate success. i used the great schools website, which rates schools based on academic performance (often based on standardized testing), but also has a space for parent/student comments and rating. harvey milk civil rights elementary school

i was heartened to see that there seem to be many many schools that are “good”, at least on a superficial level, including the harvey milk civil rights elementary school, which is a welcomed change for the relentless homophobic/ gender policing messages they seem to be getting at school now, that have prompted oona to dress more girly because she does not want to be made fun of, or kicked out of the girls bathroom.

what was a bigger and unexpected revelation is another piece of information provided by the great schools database: ethnic and economic background of the students at each school. what appears is a color coded map of the city, that follows the shifting of neighbourhoods and wealth. white students are always a minority in any of the public schools i found, even though they make up 80% of students in private schools in the city. many schools had a strong majority of asian students, or hispanic students, but never african american students. it kind of blew my mind that is would be so stark, that within a city so small and dense there would be such a clear deliniation. it prompted me to reflect on my own sense of  otherness tied to ethnicity and identity.

growing up in a monocultural environment my sense of race was distant and mediated through pop culture, even though i was very aware that being italian was second class, something you tried to escape, or hide, or deprecate. i grew up with a clear sense that being not from italy was better, that being british or american was many steps higher,  a position to look up to, or to strive for.

now living in the U.S. i am pushed into ubiquotous whitewashing and still trying to figure out where the hell it is that i fit, and where oona and florence fit also ( though of course it will be up to them to figure that out). in bloomington they are part of a majority when it comes to the color of their skin, and a minority when it comes to their beliefs about tolerance, or religion, or cultural references. they are already stuck in the middle, having  a family living on the other side of the ocean. they have already moved across distances of culture and language, and i want the next move to be as easy for them as possible.

so i am struggling to read how the intensley racialized landscape of a city will affect their lives, the kids they spend their days with, that will be their friends. is it unfair to send them to a school where 78% of children speak cantonese at home? is it fucked up of me to even consider race as a factor in their schooling? i don’t want to make this any harder on them. i don’t want them to feel like outsiders because they are new in town, and because they speak a different language at home, and because the kids they are in class with have a completely different set of cultural, linguistic and ethnic references.  i want to believe that none of that matters, that people can easily transcend those diffrences and connect at a more deep rooted human level, but i have been the outsider too much to know that it is not so simple.