Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why I keep Disney out of my home (for now)

Okay, I'll admit it. I am not a fan of Disney and so far, I have chosen not to bring any Disney items into my home or my child's life. Now he is a toddler. When he's older, however, and the "nag factor" becomes something to reckon with, he will likely ask for some of Disney's products or "experiences". We'll figure out how to deal with that when we get to that point.

While I choose to keep Disney out for now, I do acknowledge Walt Disney to be a powerful force among today's "culture shapers." (Why, there is a whole school of thought called Disney Studies, dedicated to the study of Disney's influence on society.) I have thought about that quite a bit lately in light of the recent buzz regarding Disney announcing its production of The Frog Princess, the first animated film by the company featuring a black princess. Though I am well aware of the significance of this diversification effort and the need for more multicultural characters in mainstream children's entertainment, I am skeptical.

Given Disney's trademark tendency to sanitize and simplify the complexities of life in the world of its characters, I doubt this film will be groundbreaking in dealing with any social issues. In fact, it will probably not go there at all. The truth is, as Times Online reports, Disney "lags behind other children's brands in its conversion to multiculturalism." Some of the press is already saying that Disney is making this movie to ward off accusations of racism. Plus, another motivation is clearly that a character of color will expand Disney's marketability and profits.

Though Disney is committed to "to producing unparalleled entertainment experiences based on its rich legacy of quality creative content and exceptional storytelling," and promises to "turn the ordinary into the extraordinary" as well as "make dreams come true," the company's mission is first and foremost to "maximize earnings and cash flow, and to allocate capital profitability toward growth initiatives that will drive long-term shareholder value."

And that's what the Frog Princess is all about. If in the process of raking in the dough for Disney, Maddy saves the day by magically erasing Disney's record of racist portrayals of characters of color, as some are already hoping she will, yipee. I'm sorry to put it so blatantly, but it seems to me that Disney, with the help of the press, is out there already pimping poor Maddy, who may very well fit the bill of the role of female "Magic Negro," there to assuage white guilt and any notion that racism is alive and well (at Disney and elsewhere in the society).

What's more, given Disney's huge presence in the cultural & consumerist landscape worldwide, as well as its pattern of whitewashing history, I worry that Disney may be trying to play a part in wiping out any lingering post-Katrina racism-related “beef” and promoting instead the idea that New Orleans, where Princess Frog will be set, is back to its original Jazz Age splendor. It's already touting that image. The shareholders' meeting was held in New Orleans and I can imagine the hype for the movie, replete with all the products, will begin well before the movie's release. Many will say that any effort to help the area still recovering from Katrina is good. And Disney has, as Orlando Sentinel reports,
"more than $3 million to Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, including $1 million to rebuild 16 Boys & Girls Clubs that were destroyed." However, I am concerned that Disney's powerful, sugar-coated voice will drown out the voices (such as these or these) still asking the tough questions and pressing for racial justice in light of Katrina.

But I'm not just skeptical of Disney's latest. I'm wary of Disney on the whole. I feel that Disney movies and products inhibit children's imagination and steer children away from challenging reading, storytelling, unstructured drawing, and the other more old-fashioned ways of entertainment and learning.

Also, Disney esthetics just don't sit well with me. I find them nauseating. From the schmaltzy music to the look of the animated characters. The esthetic Disney represents to is kitsch, which I would define in trite, sentimental, commercially produced stuff in bad taste.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera, in his book The Unbearable Lightness of Being provides an interesting way of thinking about kitsch. He defines it as "the absolute denial of shit" and argues that kitsch functions by excluding from view everything that humans find difficult to come to terms with, offering instead a sanitised view of the world in which "all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions."

That is exactly what I feel Disney movies and characters do. Kundera further links kitsch with totalitarianism in that its nature is to paper over the complexities and contraditions of real life. To further borrow wording from wikipedia, in a healthy democracy, diverse interest groups compete and negotiate with one another to produce a generally acceptable consensus; by contrast, "everything that infringes on kitsch," including individualism, doubt, and irony, "must be banished for life" in order for kitsch to survive. Therefore, Kundera wrote, "Whenever a single political movement corners power we find ourselves in the realm of totalitarian kitsch."

I think that is a brilliant analysis. And if we agree that Disney fits the definition of kitsch, we can see how it then inhibits imagination by crowding out any diversion from the esthetics it dictates.

Then there is the whole whitewashing aspect of history I mentioned earlier, as well as Disney's shadowy (anti-Semitic, anti-communist, and possibly pro-Nazi) side, which I have a hard time disassociating with the company and its products.

Well, that's my two cents on Disney so far. I'm sure I will return to this topic at some point.

Monday, March 26, 2007

lovely and fabulous

Just returned from New York City, where I reveled in seeing my son interact joyfully with friends, relatives, and strangers of all different skin colors and ethnicities. My 19-month old is still pure and unaffected by racism. Everyone in the world is a potential friend. It just may be enough to wave and smile and the other person will wave and smile back. What a lovely thing.

Also, I got to meet Carmen Van Kerckhove, the founder of New Demographics and editor of,, and, some of my favorite blogs. She and I had coffee in Manhattan and she is, of course, fabulous. Should have gotten her autograph. But at least that gives me another reason to go back to the Big Apple.

By the way, Carmen invited me to be a columnist on antiracistparent. I am honored, but intimidated too. I will let you know when my first post is up.

Monday, March 19, 2007

these, too, are my people

When I think about who "my people" are, you know, the communities I identify with, the first group I'll usually list is Czechs. I am a Czech by birth and nationality. (My son is also Czech; he actually has dual citizenship.) I lived in the Czech Republic until I was fourteen. I still have close family and friends there, I'm fluent in the language, and go back frequently. So I feel close affinity with Czech people. But it troubles me deeply to know how racist my people are.

Earlier this month in Geneva, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) reviewed the Czech Republic's compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The findings are devastating, yet no surprise to those of us who've been following the developments in the country's minority/majority race relations.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in the Czech Republic, whites make up about 97% of the population. The Roma (also known by the derogatory term Gypsies) are the largest group of color, who make up somewhere between 1 and 2% of the total population. The Roma people have suffered persecution for centuries. During World War II, more than 90% of Czech Roma died in Nazi concentration camps.

Today the discrimination continues. According to CERD, these are the manifestations of (institutionalized) racism against the Roma in the Czech Republic today:

- Racial segregation in education. Approximately 70% of Roma children are being categorized as mentally handicapped, and therefore receiving a substandard level of education.

- Vulnerability to evictions and segregation in housing.

- Coercive sterilizations of Romani women. Under communism, the Czech Government sterilised Romani women programmatically, as part of policies aimed at reducing the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of Romani women. These practices are still being perpetrated today.

- Racial prejudice against the Roma people. According to a recent opinion poll, 76% of the white Czech population describe persons of Romani origin as "very unlikable."

- Police brutality. Roma are common targets of violence by the police.

These are findings reported in 2007! The report inevitably concludes that "the measures taken on behalf of the Czech Government to combat racial prejudices and discrimination against Roma people currently remain insufficient."

Based on the above findings, Prague Daily Monitor reports, CERD made the demand that:

The government [must] report back to the Committee within one year – instead of the usual five - on four key areas: adoption of the Anti-Discrimination Act, reparations to victims of coercive sterilization, ending segregated education, and establishing an “institution…to receive complaints of racial discrimination.”

The full text of CERD's recommendations can be viewed here

When I think about all this discrimination taking place in my country of birth, I feel sad, angry, sick to my stomach, and sometimes very alone. Racism is so ingrained in most white Czechs that embedding in their consciousness even the idea that the Roma are people too seems farfetched.

I remember an incident that shook me to the core once. I was back in the Czech Rebublic during one summer while in college. A university professor that I had assumed was quite progressive and open-minded, told a racist joke in a group of white Czechs and my American boyfriend. I challenged the professor. He looked me square in the eyes, and in everyone's presence proclaimed: "Yeah, I am a racist. So what?"

All I could do was stare at him wide-eyed with nothing left to say for a moment. I walked away and cried, realizing people like him, too, are my people. Aware of their own racism, but indifferent to it and to the people their attitudes hurt.

What heartens me is the work of young Roma journalists and activists who are fighting to educate, organize, and reverse the discriminatory history of the country. I have met a couple of them. Jarmila Balážová, for example. You can read her bio as well as an interview about her perception of the relationship between the whites and the Roma here.

Unfortunately, I don't know many whites fighting the fight. They are out there, but I haven't met them yet. I only know of one white Czech woman, Milena Hübschmannová, who fought for and with the Roma. According to The Guardian, "She was a professor of Romany studies at Prague's Charles University, and one of the leading experts of her generation, if not of all time, on Roma culture and language." Dzeno Association, an organization serving to promote Roma human rights and an end to discrimination and racism, said of Hübschmannová: "She was well loved for her modesty and her willingness to help among Roma both in the Czech Republic and abroad. We knew her as a loving, good-hearted woman and we will remember her as such." She is one of my heroes. She died in 2005.

If I ever move back, which my family may very likely do for some time, I want to work alongside the Roma activists as a white ally. I hope I am not one of these "pseudo-humaniarian people" that Jarmila in her interview says "feel something for the Roma - even if it's compassion, admiration, or even love - as if a single mass." She says these people "love the Roma, just as foolishly as [those who] hate them." I constantly question my motives with all this anti-racist work that I want to do. I don't want to do it for the wrong reasons. But this wasn't supposed to be about me. Back to Jarmila, whom I admire because though she sometimes feels that "certain powerlessness, when you can't budge that boulder that slightest bit you'd like to," she keeps on plugging away. Bold and unstoppable, against the current of hatred spouted by people who are white and Czech like me.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

my many colored days

I'm disappointed. I took my son to a thrift store today and bought a few toys, including a pink stroller and a black doll, and books. He was getting a bit antsy, so I only skimmed the books before I bought them.

When we got home, I read one of them, My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, with my son. The illustrations are beautiful paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher. And my son and I usually enjoy Dr. Seuss books, but this one... oy vey!

The "narrator" of the book is a yellow-orange gingerbreadman-like figure who talks about the different ways s/he feels on different days. The feelings are all based on colors. The pages dealing with colors that don't usually describe skin colors are fine: "Gray Day... Everything is gray. I watch. But nothing moves today." or "Then all of a sudden I'm a circus seal! On my Orange Days that's how I feel." Okay, fine. Those are generally happy or neutral, inoculous feelings and pictures.

But when we get to colors that are typically used to describe skin color or race, take a look at this:

"Some days, of course, feel sort of Brown. Then I feel slow and low, low down."

"Then come my Black Days. Mad. And loud. I howl. I growl at every cloud." This page, of course, has some sort of a wild boar or dog with big teeth and a mean expression, growling at the sky. Scary!

How about our "multiracial page" with gingerbread people of all different colors? "Then comes a Mixed-Up Day. And Wham! I don't know who or what I am!"

Of course, there is also the yellow page. I really hope that no one describes Asians as yellow anymore, but I have to quote here: "Then comes a Yellow Day. I am a busy, buzzy bee." Where the other pages had just one animal each, this one has a swarm of bees with indistinguishable features, all flying in the same direction.

Finally, after going through all the colors, including the confusing multi-color page, the narrator concludes: "But it all turns out all right, you see. And I go back to being . . . me." Phew! So relieved our gingerbreadman with green eyes doesn't have to feel black, brown, or all mixed up from too many colors confusing his days.

Well, I could go into a detailed explanation of what racial stereotypes each of those skin color pages reinforce, but I'll just leave it that. So much for a book linking certain colors with certain feelings or characteristics. Very disappointing, to say the least.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

take the gum wrapper and run

Today my son “Jay” and I were at the park, running from swing set to slide to merry-go-round, our usual routine, when a city park employee truck pulled in. The man in the truck said hello to Jay, we greeted him back. He proceeded to pick up and dispose of garbage laying around the park with those cool giant tongs and a bucket in hand. Since one of my son’s greatest obsessions in life is garbage (“gaba” was one of his first words), I pointed at the man in the distance and narrated the man’s activity for Jay: “Yes, the man is picking up garbage that he will throw away.” Jay, of course, got excited. He began picking up garbage himself and yelling about it enthusiastically.

At first I said, “fuj”, the Czech word for yuck, trying to deter him from touching the trash, but then I realized that the gum wrapper he picked up off the grass was probably no more germ-ridden than the rock or stick he had just played with. It occurred to me that it may be confusing to insist he not pick up and throw away a piece of paper in the park, but to expect him to participate in cleaning up at home. Also, it felt funny to be telling my son not to help the Latino man cleaning up the park in which we, the two white people, were the only visitors leisurely taking in the sunshine. My 18-month-old son doesn’t yet make the distinctions between our garbage and someone else’s garbage; my job, your job, or his job… The two voices inside me debated: Do I suspend the rules that we don’t ever touch trash outside the house? Do I indulge my son just this time and sacrifice a little bit of my germ phobia for his s sense of satisfaction from cooperation and a job well-done?

Instead of squashing his joy and sending a message I did not want to send - that we must squelch our desire to help, or that we are too good to pick up trash, or that garbage is for “the brown people” to deal with - I decided to just go with the flow. Why not encourage Jay in helping the man? It really is a lovely thing that he wants so badly to be useful. We’ll resume with our germ theory lessons next time (idea as I write this: maybe with two sticks as our make-shift tongs), I thought. So, I said: “That’s right. Let’s help the man pick up the trash.”

Jay carried his gum wrapper all the way across the park and handed it to the man. “Thank you,” said the man as he threw the wrapper in his bucket. Mission accomplished. One wrapper and the toddler, with his one-minute attention span was on to the next thing.

Maybe I was way overanalyzing the situation, but what I know is that though my son is little now, he remembers a lot. And what I wanted him to remember at the end of the day was not sitting on the sidelines passively in disappointment or fear of yucky things, but the feeling of joy and satisfaction that comes with being helpful.

how could I have missed this podcast episode?

I just finally listened to an excellent Addicted to Race podcast episode, which features white bloggers and anti-racist activists vegankid and Rachel. This episode is a must for any white person hoping to begin challenging racism and white supremacy personally or publicly.

Vegankid, for example, discussed the various spheres of influence in which we work when wanting to affect change. First, change happens within us (of course, internal work continues as we move out into larger circles), then in our circle of friends and family, next the community, the country, and the world. This was helpful to hear, because as vegankid said, many people fear taking any action at all since they feel they'd have to jump right into the public sphere. Not so. There are so many small steps we can take. And we don't all have to drop everything and become completely and solely dedicated to racial justice. As Rachel said, if every white person just did some introspection, and coupled it with learning about race and racism, the world would be so much better off!

The other part of the discussion I found interesting was about white guilt. White guilt is such a widespread phenomenon, and is in a way indication of awareness of white privilege and white supremacy. But it can be a paralyzing emotion. As vegankid pointed out, guilt diminishes when we take action. I can say I'm experiencing that right now, though I am just beginning to discuss race and racism out in the open. What I do feel very strongly is fear, pretty much any time I post or initiate discussion on these topics. Though this fear is real, it is crucial to act inspite of it, I feel. I will probably say and do stupid stuff, but I can only do so much learning in isolation. And it's only fair that I take up some of this responsibility instead of leaving it to others or hoping racism will go away if I don't think about it.