On Passports and Privilege

I sent in my application for a new passport today. Passport, passport card, expedited service fee, certified mail…$240 in all. Knowing that in a few weeks I’ll have a shiny new passport with 52 pages, valid for another ten years, with no greater hassle involved than some paperwork and a trip to the post office…priceless.

I’ve just read the courageous article by Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist, in which he reveals for the first time his status as an undocumented immigrant, and how that has affected his life. His story shows that, contrary to popular diatribe, undocumented immigrants to the US do, in fact, contribute in many positive ways to the country. He has a career in journalism of which I am in fact quite envious, has obtained a highly prestigious writing prize (shared with his co-authors who helped cover the Virginia Tech shootings), and has to all accounts lived that fabled story of the American Dream.

But he can’t get a passport.

The paperwork that I find simply annoying is to him insurmountable. The routine paperwork check at the beginning of each new job that for me is just an irritating step on the way to a paycheck is to him a source of constant anxiety. But he, an immigrant who has spent the bulk of his life inside the US, been educated here, worked here, paid into social security, supported the economy…he is in no way less deserving of a job or documentation here in the US than I am.

I am lucky. To have been born in the country in which I was born, permitting me to live and work here, obtain a passport, and have virtually no barriers to international travel. I did absolutely nothing to deserve such luck—it was simply an accident of birth. As is the situation of Vargas.

In the current set of debates about immigration, the greatest amount of vitriol seems to be bandied about by people who are demographically similar to me. White people born into middle-class backgrounds in conservative states within the US. The thing that most of these people don’t seem to think about, when prating about how immigrants are bad for the country, is that they themselves are the descendants of immigrants. Is it really so easy to forget?

My family came to this country a little over a hundred years ago, on boats hailing from Ireland and Italy. They joined the ranks of countless other immigrants at the time, some of whom came over on regular passports, many of whom did not. Every single new group to come over faced hostility: my Irish ancestors were faced with “no Irish need apply” signs at pretty much every business establishment that was hiring, and actually pretended to be English just so that they could get jobs. My entrepreneurial Italian grandfather named his business Modern Pharmacy, because the Piantanida Family Pharmacy just sounded too damn Italian. He also thought that immigrants were destroying the country and stealing honest peoples’ jobs, and by “immigrants” he meant everyone except for Northern Italians like him.

We haven’t made much progress, as a society. At this point, the distinctions between Irish and Italian are largely forgotten, despite being quite vehemently defended in the 1920s, when each European ethnicity was seen as being an almost-separate race, and Eastern and Southern Europeans were considered undesirable. Now that the descendants of most of the various European ethnicities have all been here for a while and inter-married, this kind of discrimination seems preposterous. At this point, we talk about “American” as though it were a unilateral identity…but the common dialogue still seems to see it as a white identity. It is not.

How do we define what it means to be American? Vargas is attempting to change the dialogue with his organization Define American. He’s talking to people, collecting stories. Trying to get people to think about what “American” really means.

America is a country of immigrants, regardless of how long ago those immigrants may have arrived. “American” is my college roommate, born in the US to Mexican immigrants, now working on her PhD in engineering. “American” is my Muslim friend from Tanzania, currently teaching at a university in Florida. “American” is my Filipino fencing coach, my African-American professor of social policy, my Ukrainian-born professor of Russian language and literature. I could go on. Every single one of these people is just as much an American as I am. Some have regular American passports, some have green cards. Some may be undocumented, I don’t know and feel no need to ask. All have a right to be in this country. All have a right to try to live the American Dream.

 

 

 

 

 

False Identities, Allies, and Legitimacy

This week, two prominent lesbian internet figures were revealed to be American men.  Amina Arraf, the supposed Syrian blogger, was revealed to be Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old heterosexual American man studying in Edinburgh. A day later, the editor of  the American lesbian news site Lez Get Real, was revealed to be a 58-year-old man named Bill Graber using his wife’s name as a pseudonym.

Wow.

There have been other similar cases of people writing under assumed identities to talk about certain issues. Fake memoirs are nothing new, and it shouldn’t surprise us that in the age of the internet, fake memoirs have turned into fake blogs. Motivations vary, I’m sure. At least in the case of the two blogs in question, both authors swear that they had the best intentions at heart, that they wanted to draw attention to an issue that they felt was really important, and felt that they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they didn’t write from within the community.

MacMaster says that “While the narrative voice may have been fictional, the facts on thıs blog are true and not mısleading as to the situation on the ground…I do not believe that I have harmed anyone — I feel that I have created an important voice for issues that I feel strongly about.”

Similarly, Graber says that “I didn’t start this with my name because… I thought people wouldn’t take it seriously, me being a straight man.”

In a great satirical article, one white male blogger responds by pointing out that “If you really have something unique and important to report on, your white male-ness will not get in the way of your being heard. In most cases, it will be an advantage, as bylines and television appearances testify every day.”

Seriously, people. Let’s get real. When you write as someone else, and pass it off as your own life experience, that’s a form of fraud, and it actually damages the cause that you’re writing about for several  reasons.

The first reason is that when a supposed figurehead of a particular group is outed as not being a member of that group, it calls into question the legitimacy and authenticity of everyone else who is writing from within that group. If Blogger  A is False, then why shouldn’t Bloggers B, C, D, and E also be False? Those remaining bloggers then have to work twice as hard to prove that they are who they say they are, and readers are left wondering if, since one public identity was fabricated, some or all of the information written by that person was also untrue.  And while both MacMaster and Graber seemed to think that they were nobly “giving voice to the voiceless,” they were not.  It is both dangerous and presumptive to think that people belonging to geographically or culturally distant minority groups are voiceless. They do have voices. Odds are they’re speaking. Are you listening and paying attention?

The real LGBTQ activists in the Middle East are now in danger as a result of the hoax being revealed. Several of them took risks to identify themselves in an effort to save their supposed lost compatriot. Daniel Nassar, a Syrian gay activist, says that “I used to use my real name as a handle and a picture of my face as an avatar. Now, I’ve been forced back into the closet online. Amina’s arrest may have been made up, but now the threat feels all too real.”

Another Syrian gay activist, Sami Hamwi, fears that this high-publicity hoax could cause Syrian authorities to crack down on gay activists. “I think they will not wait until the blogger is famous or well-read to seek them out,” he said. “[And] arrests in Syria means actual disappearing.… No one can hear or know about the arrested people, sometimes for decades.”

Both of the aforementioned activists use pseudonyms, but they are otherwise who they say they are. They don’t use their real names, because they don’t want to be arrested or killed. Salma, a writer for the Queer Arab magazine Bekshoos, was in touch with “Amina” prior to the hoax being revealed. She says that “I understood what anonymity meant to her and I know what it means to us. I expected a fake picture and even a fake name; I did not expect a fake personality all together.” She continues:

“Sadly Mr. MacMaster with his hoax delegitimized the voice of so many Arab, specifically Syrian, bloggers. He spoke on our behalf without having the right or legitimacy of doing so, while delegitimizing our voice in the process. So I would like to thank you for stepping on our feet, experimenting with our lives, opening the eyes of an oppressive system to our existence, and most of all thank you for lying to us and tricking us into believing you.”

 

Delegitimizing people who are actually on the ground is a very big problem. But there is also another reason why assumed identities are damaging. Both MacMaster and Graber said that they cared deeply about the issues they were blogging about, and wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in order to be taken seriously, they had to try to write from the inside of those issues. Functionally, they were saying that it’s not actually alright to be vocal about an issue unless it actually affects you directly as a marginalized person. That being indirectly affected by your observations of marginalization from the outside is not valid. That being an ally is unacceptable, and doesn’t count.

In other words, even though they claimed to be trying to publicize issues of lesbianism, in the US and in Syria, both through their actions indicate that no one should actually be interested in lesbians and/or Syria unless they were actually lesbian and/or Syrian. Taken to its logical conclusion, this same train of thought tells us that no one who is male should care about women or vice versa, that no one who belongs to any one racial or ethnic group should worry about what’s happening to members of another ethnic or racial group, and no one in any given country should give a damn about any other country.

That’s dangerous. That’s a problem.

Historically, gaining allies in the dominant group has been a very important step for minority groups to gain their rights. Part of the success of the women’s movement came from men telling other men, “hey, I’ve heard what the women are saying about the limited opportunities they face, and they’re right. We should try to help them.” Part of the success of the Civil Rights movement came from white people in America saying, “hey, racial discrimination is real, and it’s wrong. Let’s see what we can do to help.” Part of the success of the current gay rights movement in the US comes from straight people saying, “wow, it doesn’t make sense for gay people not to have the same rights that we do. We should try to change that.”

Allies have a role. Their role is to create more allies. Their role is to increase the number of people who care about a particular issue towards a critical mass, so that social change can actually take place. So if you care about gay rights and you’re not gay, that’s great. If you care about racial equality and you’re white, that’s awesome. If you care about any issue that directly affects someone from a different demographic, but doesn’t directly affect you, congratulations. You recognize that injustice exists, and that it affects people, and you want to change it. That’s good. But don’t try to create the change by pretending to be something or someone that you’re not. Be honest about who you are, and why the issue is important for you. Talk to the people who are directly affected, and help their voices reach a wider audience. Claim your status as an ally, and recognize that it is an important one, and that it is legitimate. Because when you deny that you’re an ally and try to speak for someone else, it doesn’t just delegitimize the people you’re impersonating. It delegitimizes you.

 

 

 

Making Jewelry in Cambridge (or, Crafts as Leisure in the Developed World)

This evening I took a jewelry making class at Boston Bead Works in Cambridge.  The shop, on a side street in Harvard Square, is a great local secret for bead and jewelry aficionados, and contains a wide selection of glass beads, cloisonne, and semi-precious stones. Though I’ve dabbled in jewelry making off and on (mostly off) for many years, I’d never taken a class before, and was pleasantly surprised. The class was small, the instructor was attentive, and at the end of the evening, I had a shiny set of earrings made with a wire-wrapping technique I’d never before seen, stringing amethyst beads inside a silver hoop to resemble an abacus.

 

Abacus Earrings

The photo quality here isn’t great because I took the picture with my ipod. But you get the idea.

 

Though I could leave the post here, as a “this is a cool thing to do if you’re in Boston,” I prefer to take a moment to think about why activities of this kind are available specifically here. Bead shops like this one exist in cities all over the US, and I’ve seen them in Western Europe as well. In the developing world, though, art supply shops with classes on how to make things are pretty much non-existent. In China, when I was buying seed pearls, the saleslady was aghast that I wanted to leave my strung pearls as-is, rather than having them made up into a necklace or earrings right away (I relented and allowed her to turn a few strands into jewelry there at the shop–the necklace and earrings that she put together are quite lovely). Point being, though, that the idea that I would want to go home, take the strands apart, and make something by myself was pretty much unheard of.

There’s a particular mentality in the West, and in the US in particular, that basic art techniques can and should be accessible to everyone, if only on the simplest levels. Shops like this one offering beginning jewelry making, paper embossing, paint-your-own pottery, etc. are exceedingly common. The do-it-yourself mentality is strong, and structured art projects give people a sense of fun and accomplishment.

From what I’ve seen in the developing world, things are very different. Crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as professions, rather than leisure activities for the middle class. Though I did have a friend in Morocco who made pottery for fun, she was very much in the minority. And the fact that she worked closely with American Peace Corps volunteers may have something to do with her view of art as a potential leisure activity.

What makes this difference, between craft as profession and craft as leisure? In some ways, it may come from how consumer goods are produced in a given society. In a society like Morocco, where until very recently most peoples’ plates and cups came directly from the potter’s wheel and had damned well better be usable, making pottery was not something to be tinkered with. Likewise, if you wanted jewelry, it was going to be handmade by a craftsperson, and the supplies needed would generally only be available to the professionals. In a society like the US, where most of our plates, cups, jewelry, and pretty much every material object is manufactured, rather than made, crafts like pottery and jewelry making are seen as quaint activities and throwbacks to an earlier time. If you make your own bowl and it breaks, you might be sad, but you can still buy another bowl at Target. If you make your own earrings and mow through a foot of silver wire trying to bend it into the right shape, it’s okay, you can still buy earrings at the mall. Your efforts aren’t materially affecting your well-being, nor are they taking away from anyone else’s profession. So you’re free to explore, and free to screw up, and you spend an enjoyable afternoon. I’ll be curious to see, as manufactured goods spread to more societies, and as leisure time among the middle classes increases, whether the phenomenon of do-it-yourself craftwork catches on in the developing world.

A Muslim Wedding in New York

This weekend, I traveled to New York City for the wedding of my dear friend D from high school. The ceremony was held at a mosque in Queens, with a  reception at a nearby Halal restaurant. Though I’ve been to innumerable Catholic, Protestant, Unitarian, and Jewish weddings, this was my first Muslim wedding ceremony, and it was beautiful. D wore a purple caftan hand-tailored in Pakistan, and her hands and feet were covered with intricate Moroccan designs in henna. Her new husband wore a suit and smiled from ear to ear. The imam, a friend of the couple, spoke about love and responsibility in marriage, and how each of them should bring out the best in the other.  Then the couple read vows that they had written themselves and exchanged rings.

Before the ceremony, and later at the reception, I had the privilege of meeting several of D’s friends and colleagues–men and women of all races, from at least three continents, representing different nationalities, religions, and sexual orientations. In this microcosm, we talked about everything from travel to linguistic jokes, to women’s colleges to whitewater rafting. And the fact that we were all able to talk and laugh together, despite many of us only having met for the first time that day, gave me such a sense of hope. A union of this kind, between an American woman and an Egyptian man, with the love and support of both families in the midst of such a diverse and accepting crowd, could happen in very few places in the world. New York City is one of those places. And despite the bitter diatribes that have arisen in the city over the so-called “ground zero mosque” and the social fault lines that often arise over lines of color, ethnicity, and creed, beautiful moments of unity like this one still occur. It reminds me that for all its faults, the United States is still a place where people of different backgrounds can come together.  It’s a reminder of the best that the country of my birth can be.