playing bricklayers

For more about the lucrative business of having well-meaning Western young adults volunteer in 3rd world countries, also known as voluntourismhere is a piece that talks, among other things, about what happens when non-professionals get to play bricklayers. And, here is one that (possibly coins, but at least) brilliantly explains the concept of voluntourism. Both of these stories were sent to me by students, themselves smack in middle of the target group for organizations that offer ‘volunteering’ experiences.

american whiteness


Here is a fun read that came to me through Facebook: The Four Cutest Ways To Photograph Yourself Hugging Third-World Children. Number 3: While wearing traditional native garb, is my personal favorite. Angelina Jolie comes to mind, obviously. You can see her moving in on a little girl above.

I’m sure lots of people would disagree with me, but I do think white women’s tendency to wear traditional garb when traveling has to do with white people’s need to be somebody. In a society that takes whiteness for granted, white people often feel invisible. As if they were the only ones without culture, they have to seek out the cultures of others to get some sense of belonging.

All of this is backwards, of course, since whiteness in itself is a ticket to the ultimate belonging, the comfort that comes with being seen as ‘normal’. But, the first sign of privilege is that you are blind to it when you have it.

Some years ago I had a student, a white young man at the predominantly white Catholic campus where I teach. His name wasn’t Patrick O’Brien, but it could have been. In one discussion he told the class that, “Had I been Mexican, my life would have been easier.” The difficulty he experienced in his life was exactly what I talk about above. He felt that he didn’t know who he was.

Maybe at this point I should repeat the basic facts: A white young man, native speaker of American English, in college on a predominantly white campus founded on the religious principles shared by his own family, had a feeling of not knowing who he was in the world. He imagined that if instead he had been Hector Gonzalez, and his skin had been brown, his speech accented, he would have known his own identity.

Culture belongs to ‘the other’. Identity belongs to the brown, the gay, maybe to the women.

Another white young man wrote in an essay last quarter something along the lines of “seeing your own life played out in the media over and over again is addicting”. He was talking about a baseball movie he had seen as a child, that had featured kids that could have been any one of his friends, or himself.

Understanding that hegemony is addicting is a huge step forward from thinking that you don’t have an identity when you are white. Maybe there is hope, after all.

the bechdel test

I don’t think the second season of Orange is the New Black is as good as the first one. I’ve only seen an episode and a half, though, so maybe things will improve.

One series that is really good is Call the Midwife, from the BBC. It has popped up as a suggestion on my Netflix for a long time, but when I finally gave in to the algorithm I had to admit they were right. (Key words, I’m sure: British, strong female lead, costumes.)

Set in London’s East End in 1957-58 it shows up close how poverty and the absence of birth control made life hard for women. The series makes a strong argument for national health care. It also gives great insight into nursing, and the importance of compassion.

It’s absolutely refreshing to see fiction where almost every scene passes the Bechdel test. To pass the Bechdel test a movie has to have at least one scene where two (named) women have a conversation about something else than a man. The list of movies that fail the test is, of course, endless. Among a list of movies that surprisingly fail the Bechdel test are Run Lola Run, and Avatar.

I think Netflix should incorporate the Bechdel test into their algorithm. Or maybe they already did.

the magical negro

Here is a good piece for anyone interested in hegemonic media representation: a blog post about ‘Girlfriend Intervention’, a new Magical Negro show. The show will feature sassy black women helping white women with style choices, much like the help that gay men provide for straight men in ‘Queer Eye For the Straight Guy‘.

The expression ‘Magical Negro’ was coined by Spike Lee, and refers to a black character who guides a white character in TV or movies. The black character holds wisdom and power that sometimes, at least in my mind, sits awfully close to plain common sense. Here is a list of ‘Magical Negro’ characters in recent movie and TV.

One addition to the list could be the nurse Chantelle in Passion Fish, John Sayles’s film from 1992. Chantelle takes care of a self-destructive white woman after an accident. One scene from Passion Fish spurred a comment from a black student ten years ago that I still quote to all my classes: “I’m tired of seeing my people as magical healers.”

so there’s an idea

Instead of doing the things I needed to do today I first had to have the Karmann Ghia towed, and completely unrelated I’m now waiting for the plumber to call and say that he’s on his way. On the upside: the bathroom floor is very clean, and the old car has a new fuel pump.

When I was at the car place this morning (they work on classic VWs almost exclusively) I was drawn to an old silver Porsche in perfect condition. I said something about it to one of the guys working there, and he surprised me by telling me the car was a fake. What I saw was a very real-looking plastic porsche-shell on top of a VW engine. According to the website they start at a little over $17 000.