Wednesday, July 14, 2010

"Si" and "Am" wreaking havoc

The following was written by Nell Fleming - Racial Justice Coordinator at the YWCA of Charleston.

As Racial Justice Coordinator at the YWCA of Charleston, people increasingly come to me with questions about what is or isn’t considered racist. I was recently asked the following question:

“I was [viewing the scene from Lady and the Tramp with the havoc-wreaking Siamese cats] on YouTube and saw in the comments that some people think this is racist. Having had Siamese cats all my life, I see it as more of a depiction of a typical Siamese personality. Does it strike you as negative towards Asians?”

I admit the question surprised me because the person asking it is someone whom I usually go to for advice. The piece seems so obviously negative to me that it gave me pause. I wondered, if a trusted friend did not recognize the racist elements of the scene, where do we stand as a society in our education about what is racist, especially outside of our binary paradigm of black and white?

I knew why it felt racist to me, but in order to analyze the piece fully, I took a look at the opposing comments referred to in conjunction with the song clip the YouTube video. The comments had very little substance, but made general claims that the piece was racist or the piece was not racist. The main claim to prove the piece was not racist was that Siamese cats “really do act like that.” And so I watched the clip again to see what exactly Siamese cats do and don’t do in real life as opposed to cartoon life.

Here is what I found. If you watch the video without the sound, indeed you see two Siamese cats ("Si" and "Am") wreaking havoc in a house, though to the extreme and in slap-stick fashion – much like two cats might do given enough time and opportunity. As a cat lover, I remember not so fondly being afraid of a friend’s Siamese Cat, who used to sneak up on me when I arrived, and grab my arm when I would walk by. I have no trouble suspending disbelief that Siamese cats would have ulterior motives when it comes to humans or dogs.

However, the two things that you can “see” that are not realistic to Siamese cats are the eye shape and the tooth shape. The exaggerated slanted eyes and the buck teeth are not drawn on the cats as a cat caricature, but as a personification of Asian persons – in this case, Siamese (Thai). It is a stereotypical representation that is extremely negative in origin. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows the history of Disney and racist content, which has improved moderately over the years, but in small degrees at a time. (Aladdin came under fire for the depiction of Jasmine and Aladdin as “white middle class persons” whereas the villains and the commoners otherwise were very ethnically Middle Eastern in their appearance and talked with significant Arabic accents, among other things.)

When you listen to the song without watching the clip, however, this is what you hear: Siamese cats talking not like the Lady and the Tramp are talking in white middle- or lower-class English, but with accents of Asians speaking broken English that is obviously their second language. The fact that these cats are considered the “evil element” in the story makes it clear that being foreign, or Asian, or an immigrant is being compared with the characteristics of being dishonest, conniving and most definitely not trustworthy. When you put the images and the song lyrics together with the animation, you get two things: 1) A clever, fun, rhyming song that is fun to sing (for some) with two entertaining characters who resemble the cats we love to love or love to hate, and, 2) One of the most horrible representations of racism in children’s entertainment in the twentieth century.

For further analysis of Disney and racism, visit:

Some definitions of racism:

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Murder of UVA lacrosse student intimate partner violence, not “quarrel gone bad”

The following is an op-ed written by Ellen Allen, the Director of the YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program in Charleston, W.Va. If you are a victim of intimate partner or dating violence, please call the local 24-hour domestic violence crisis line for Kanawha, Clay and Boone counties 1-800-681-8663 or the national domestic violence hotline 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

He came from generations of wealth, educated at an exclusive boys school. He was all-everything: an all-American lacrosse player and the starting quarterback at his high school. She was the daughter of an investor, educated at a private girls prep school. She was a math nerd who volunteered at a soup kitchen and counseled kids from housing projects at a summer camp. They both ended up at the University of Virginia, playing on champion lacrosse teams in a league that gave its players the respect and deference typically reserved for final four basketball teams.

Yet during the early morning hours of Monday, May 3, the privilege of class and wealth no longer served as Yeardley Love’s protector. George Huguely V kicked down her bedroom door and, according to his account, grabbed her and shook her head, slamming it repeatedly into the wall. He then seized her computer, where it is believed she read his threatening and angry e-mails. Police found her dead, face down on her pillow in a pool of her own blood.

This wasn’t his first episode of violence against a woman. In November 2008, he received a suspended sentence after a drunken scuffle with a Virginia patrolwoman. Officer R.L. Moff recounted his use of racial and sexual slurs and other vulgar terms. He also threatened to kill her or anyone attempting to take him to jail.

What I find most troubling about media reports of this incident are the diluted tones of the headlines. The Washington Post referred to it as the “Virginia lacrosse tragedy.” A local paper’s headline read: “Students’ quarrel turned violent, then deadly.” Some media outlets reported the story as a sports feature, and individuals like myself who don’t give the sports page a second glance would have easily missed it. It was not widely reported as a case of dating violence and stalking – a violent attack against a woman, where the perpetrator was asserting power and control over his victim.

We know domestic violence, stalking, intimate partner violence, and violence against women is not relegated to the projects and neighborhoods replete with subsidized housing. It crosses all socio-economic strata. One may wonder, however, if this type of incident had occurred at a state university in an impoverished region of the country between an African American football player and a white softball player, would it have ended up on the sports page, the front page? Or no page at all?

What the reports often fail to mention is this: According to Justice Department figures, three women are murdered every day in the U.S. by their intimate partners. Eighty-five percent of intimate partner violence is perpetrated against women (overwhelmingly against women ages 20 - 24). Four out of five stalking victims are women, and 50% of the victims are between the ages of 18 and 27.

While the details of this incident make it the story seem atypical – a varsity lacrosse player at a prestigious school allegedly killed by her lacrosse player ex-boyfriend – statistically, it fits the fateful pattern. Violent and controlling behavior often begins early on in teen dating relationships, where one in three teens report having a friend who has been hit, kicked, slapped, or punched by a dating partner. However 81% of parents believe teen dating violence is not an issue – an equally shocking statistic.

This incident was not a “deadly quarrel.” It was not an “altercation.” This verbiage only minimizes the life of the victim and the violence she endured. It was a case of stalking by a jilted partner that could not accept that she no longer wanted to see him. It was much more than an anger issue – it was about power and control.

Let’s call it what it is and hold it up for others to see in full light. Intimate partner violence and stalking are not “quarrels gone bad.” They are violent acts of often learned behavior perpetrated to assert power and control over one’s partner. The use of such insubstantial language in crucial life-or-death matters such as this denies the victim the justice she or he deserves. When will we, as a society, demand complete and appropriate attention to this gravely prevalent issue? I say we start today.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Taking a Stand

The following is a guest blog post written by Robin Holstein, President of Robin's Desktop, LLC and the coordinator of a local Stand Against Racism event in Rand, WV last Friday.

When I was the young bride of a soldier in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, I felt the stares and noticed the whispers when I went out with other soldiers’ wives. They were African-American. I am not.

Some years ago after running into a local police officer I knew, an ex-husband cursed me and “ordered” me to never hug a black man again. Recently, family members have argued and struggled with their own insecurities because a biracial child was going to be born into our family. Many still struggle, two years later.

At my age, I have seen many acts of intimidation. I’ve been shouted at, cursed, and punched. I’ve had people go behind my back and spread untrue stories. I’ve had people disclose very painful, personal events in an attempt to embarrass and upset me. Nothing has made me stop and shake my head as what I saw the morning of April 25, 2010.

Eggs, splattered against the front fender of my truck overnight. Eggs that were thrown in a childish, passive-aggressive attempt at intimidation. The act intended to send some message of disapproval, done in the cover of darkness, by someone who dared not speak to me in person.

The sun was not quite up when I left, so by the time I noticed the goo on my truck, I had already driven 25 miles. I did not need Jack Bauer to tell me, I knew what prompted the vandal. I was hosting a Stand Against Racism event. The only question was what would do more good? Do I draw attention to it or do I let it go as if nothing happened?

Less than twenty-four hours before someone lobbed eggs at my truck, I placed physical posters up in my community. Nothing happened when I posted the event on popular social networking Internet sites. Nothing happened following the article published in a local weekly paper. It was not until there was an actual, physical poster up that someone decided to “say” something to me.

After discussing the incident with the Racial Justice Coordinator at the YWCA and Deputy Attorney General Civil Rights Division, I decided to contact my local Sheriff. A Deputy was dispatched to my home. We discussed the situation, my support and sponsorship of the Stand, and the reality of trying to find the culprit.

The Deputy explained that, since there was no damage to my truck, there was nothing on which to file a formal complaint. I really could not prove the act was related to my upcoming event. His visit to my home was on record. If there were any incidents the night of my Stand, the vandalism would be included in the investigation.

Everyone handles these things differently. When people try to stop me from doing something I believe is necessary, I generally become more determined. I do not back down easily, or often.

I became involved with the Stand because of my grandniece. She is a beautiful and bright child. She has no preconceived ideas about race or sex. Before she was born people making racial comments or slurs upset me. I would tell them that I did not appreciate the comments. Now, it is different. The comments and slurs are no longer against “people” they are against family.

The Stand Against Racism event I hosted was held as planned. There were no incidents. No more eggs have been wasted on my vehicles.

I explained to the attendees at my event that we have come a long way in race relations over the many decades. Yet, there is still so much more to do. While this was just eggs, it seems someone out there felt as though they could attempt to intimidate me because I took a public stand.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

2010 YWCA Women of Achievement Empowerment Award Winner: Star Hogan

Meet Star Hogan - our 2010 YWCA Women of Achievement BrickStreet Empowerment Award winner and the last in our 4-week series of blog posts leading up to this inspirational event on February 18. The BrickStreet Empowerment Award recognizes and rewards a YWCA program participant who, through great perseverance and with the help of the YWCA, overcomes obstacles and transforms her life.This year marks the 14th annual YWCA Women of Achievement Awards Luncheon, honoring the outstanding women in our community whose personal and professional achievements inspire and empower other women to strive for their highest goals.

STAR HOGAN has dreamt big all her life. Even while growing up in a Charleston housing project, she aspired to be the first in her family to graduate college, become a professional, raise a family, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, Star’s life hasn’t always been a fairy tale. During her sophomore year in college, she met the man she believed to be her “prince charming.” However, after being diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease and suspending her education indefinitely to undergo chemotherapy, Star became completely dependent on her significant other for daily support.
For the next 15 years, she withstood a relationship that was physically, emotionally, psychologically and financially abusive. In 2004, she filed a domestic violence petition and was introduced to a legal advocate from the YWCA Resolve Family Abuse Program during a child support and custody hearing. With the information and legal representation she received from the program and the encouragement and support from her friends and family, Star finally found the courage to leave her abuser once and for all. She returned to school and obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mountain State University, which opened new career opportunities.
Today she works as a benefits administrator at a large financial institution and lives in a new home with her two children. She also teaches the YWCA Resolve Program’s Keys to Financial Freedom financial literacy course, which enables domestic violence survivors to fully understand their financial circumstances and helps them engage in short-term and long-term financial planning to accomplish their personal goals.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cultural values: Do they define me?

The following post was written by YWCA Racial Justice Program Coordinator Nell Fleming. As we celebrate Black History Month, Nell's insights lend to the larger cultural and racial dialogue the YWCA of Charleston wishes to promote this and every month as part of our mission to eliminate racism and empower women.

One of the reasons my parents cited in their argument against my marriage to a black man, was that we were from two different cultural backgrounds (which they pointed out would make marriage harder). They gave me statistical evidence that persons who marry someone who lives within a mile of where the other person grew up have an astronomically higher rate of staying together. I must admit, my husband and I did grow up 380 miles apart – he in an urban all black setting, and I in a rural mostly white setting. We do have very different cultural backgrounds in that respect. However, when I traveled to Japan in 1990 and experienced the shock of some of my friends’ parents upon seeing a photo of me and my fiancĂ©, I calmly explained that we were both American and that we had the same culture and values. This was something of a revelation in such a homogeneous country where people view culture and language to be synonymous with ancestry and ethnicity. They accepted it to the extent that I was allowed to continue having tea and be in their homes; how they really felt will forever be a mystery.

Although my husband and I do have distinctly different communication styles and have had our share of challenges in the past 22 years, the bigger challenge for me has always been with other people who who look more like me – white women, who were my teachers and colleagues over the years. I have been picked on endlessly for not smiling enough, looking too serious, being too serious and even accused of being stuck up. My facial expressions were such a thorn in my side, I took to reading books on communication styles and looking in the mirror to practice appropriate faces so that I could be viewed as a friendlier person. I took a Dale Carnegie course and won an award for “most improved.” However, no matter how much I’ve learned, grown, adapted and practiced, my natural state of being is to show the true emotions on my face. If I am concentrating or tired, I look severe and, to my dismay, almost angry.

Imagine my surprise when another parent who was from Eastern Europe befriended, saying: “You are one of the few Americans who don’t smile all the time. You show what you are really feeling.” She went on to say: “In my country, when Americans visit, they are always smiling and people say ‘Why do those Americans smile all the time those fake smiles? I wish they would show how what they are really feeling.’” It is no surprise that my mother’s family roots are Eastern European and that the women in my family are the dominant sex with regards to communication. It is nice to know that my way of being is not a flaw in me but a cultural difference that I can explain if given the opportunity.

What is unfortunate is that when we talk about cultural differences in groups, we assume that to be different, one has to have a different skin color. In the same manner, we assume that if persons have a different skin color, they must be culturally different. It is a root of the angst many Asian Americans feel when people ask them “Where are you from originally?” or “What other languages do you speak?”

Perhaps for Black History Month, we should challenge ourselves to think about what we as peoples of many races and colors have in common. Remember that being “white” or “black” isn’t a thing that can be defined by one set of rules or cultural attributes, but is unique to each region, each time in history, and each individual. Part of learning about other cultures is also learning about yourself. If you understand who you are and where you came from, it will be easier to understand others and what impact the past and present has on who they are.

In closing, what would you like people to know about you and your cultural values? Is there anything about your culture that you wish you knew more about?

Photo: Nell Fleming pictured with her daughter, Ronnell.