Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Deviant Hair

During the year my family spent in England, I often found myself the object of stares as I walked down the street. People pointed and laughed, and called out a derogatory name with a much more infamous anagram. I was called “ginger.” I had been teased as a child for my red hair, but never as an adult had I experienced such treatment, such derision, from complete strangers.

The strangest incident took place in the ruins of the old Coventry Cathedral, when I was approached by two youths in black leather who offered me twenty pounds to drop my trousers and show them my “ginger pubes.”

None of my experiences of “gingerism” turned violent, but incidents of violence against gingers in England are not uncommon. For example, in June 2007, as I was preparing to return home from England, there was news of the Chapman family in Newcastle-on-Tyne, who had been forced to move because of attacks on the family’s three red-haired children. Their house had been repeatedly vandalized with anti-ginger graffiti. Windows had been smashed. The oldest child, an eleven-year old boy, had been attacked by a gang, punched, kicked, and thrown over a hedge.

The attack on eleven-year old Kevin Chapman was not an isolated incident. In Birmingham, a red-haired man was attacked in a pizza shop and suffered a broken jaw. In Hampshire, another red-haired man was attacked. In Yorkshire, a red-haired man was stabbed.

Do such attacks qualify as hate crimes? Opinions differ, even among redheads themselves. Nelson Jones, writing in New Statesman, argues that “such attacks would meet most natural definitions of hate crimes.” He continues:

Redheads are a minority, indeed a very visible minority, who are in no way responsible for the fact that some other people display an irrational aversion to their (our) hair colour.  Like members other groups, such as ethnic or religious minorities, gingers make a convenient target for the innate human desire to single out and ridicule people who are “different.”  In this particular case, the prejudice is both widespread and, apparently, deep seated.

Another redhead, Ally Fogg, writes in The Guardian that the prejudice against gingers, while real, doesn’t rise to the level of the systematic discrimination and abuse experienced by other minority groups, particularly racial and sexual minorities. Or, as redheaded Daniel Davies put it in The Guardian: “There is no sense in which the white man is keeping the even whiter man down.”

I thought about the strange phenomenon of “gingerism,” and more broadly about hair as a stigma and marker of difference, as I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah.

At the beginning of the novel, as she prepares to return to Nigeria after fifteen years in the United States, Ifemelu takes the train from Princeton to Trenton to have her hair braided at an African hair braiding salon. In the first 450 pages of the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between America, England, and Nigeria, and between Ifemelu’s past and present, but it continues to circle back to the hair salon in Trenton and Ifemelu’s conversation with Aisha, the Senegalese braider.

Hair becomes central to Ifemelu’s experience of race in America. Soon after her arrival in America, Ifemelu is told that for a successful job interview she needs to relax her hair.  She eventually becomes a successful independent blogger, but her first experience of an online community is when she goes online to find natural hair care advice and support. Much later, when she’s become more attuned to the politics of race in America, she imagines how powerful it would be if Michelle Obama were to start appearing with natural hair.  

Hair is a marker of race, but unlike skin color, hair is not immutable. It can be relaxed and straightened. Its color can be changed. It can be forced a little closer to the cultural norm.

In a 1987 study of the “sociology of hair,” sociologist Anthony Synnott remarks on the evolution of African-American hairstyles in the 1950s and 1960s, as the straightened hair style known as the “conk” was abandoned for more natural hair as a symbol of resistance to white cultural norms. Synnott concludes that hair is a social phenomenon that facilitates the expression of  social distinctions, including the ideological distinction between what he calls “centre” (the cultural norm) and “deviant.” 

For African-Americans in the 1960s, natural hair, which had been stigmatized as “deviant,” became a source of pride and identity. When members of an oppressed or marginalized group embrace a characteristic that was a source of stigmatization, and make it a positive source of personal and group identity, a sociologist might refer to them as “tertiary deviants.” "Deviant" here is a non-judgmental term used in sociology ("labeling theory") to describe deviance from a cultural norm.

As an African-American child growing up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama, Angela Davis resented her natural hair. “I pleaded with my mother to let me get it straightened, like my friends,” she wrote in her autobiography. Like most children, she felt a powerful urge to conform, to minimize difference, to be like her friends. But as an adult in the late 1960s, her natural hair became a symbol of pride and resistance. “My natural hair style, in those days still a rarity,” she wrote, “identified me as a sympathizer with the Black Power Movement.”

In a 1997 study of redheads, sociologists from Ithaca College and Syracuse University concluded that red hair was also stigmatized as a kind of deviance. As children, redheads are more likely to become the targets of bullying, which often results in increased self-consciousness and lower self-esteem, and in a general feeling of being different from their peers. But as redheads become adults, the researchers found, they “typically transform a negative experience into a positive one by learning to appreciate their hair color and how it has shaped their sense of self.”  In other words, they conclude, redheads become “tertiary deviants.”

Works Consulted

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. Americanah: A Novel. New York: Anchor Books, 2014.

Davies, Daniel. Seeing red. The Guardian. 6 November 2006.

Davis, Angela Y. An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1974.

Fogg, Ally. Gingerism is real, but not all prejudices are equal to one another. The Guardian. 15 January 2013.

Hargro, Brina, “Hair Matters: African American Women and the Natural Hair Aesthetic.” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2011.

Heckert, Druann M. and Amy Best. “Ugly Duckling to Swan: Labeling Theory and the Stigmatization of Red Hair.” Symbolic Interaction 20 (1997), 365-384.

Jones, Nelson. Should ginger-bashing be considered a hate crime? New Statesman. 10 January 2013.

Synnott, Anthony. “Shame and Glory: A Sociology of Hair.” British Journal of Sociology 38 (1987), 381-413.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Skateboard Coalition Video

Why should Northfielders support a skatepark? In this new video from the Skateboard Coalition, local skaters and other youth, adult community members, local business owners, and the Northfield Chief of Police all give their compelling answers to that question. Please take ten minutes to watch the video, share it, and encourage others to show their support and make a financial contribution.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: "Changers"

T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers. Book One: Drew. Akashic Books 2014.

One of my favorite experiences as a Latin major in college was reading the Metamorphoses, Ovid’s epic poem about changes. In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas/corpora... With the first words of the poem, Ovid announces his intention to tell stories of “outward appearances changed into new bodies.” Outward appearances (formas) are changed, but essentials remain unchanged: Niobe remains a grieving mother even when she’s changed into a rock formation; Arachne as a spider still spins and weaves; Narcissus as a flower still bends his head to see his reflection in the water.

Some of Ovid’s most intriguing stories are about a change of gender. Tiresias lives as both a man and as a woman, and gains significant insight from the experience of crossing between genders. Hemaphroditus bathes in the pool of the nymph Salmacis and their bodies are merged—hermaphroditic, both male and female. And then there is the story of Iphis and Ianthe.  To escape being exposed and left to die (a common fate of female infants in antiquity), Iphis is raised by her mother as a boy, and finds herself betrothed to Ianthe, the beautiful girl next door. On the eve of the wedding, Iphis’s mother prays to the goddess Isis to resolve this dilemma. Isis answers the mother's prayer by changing Iphis into a young man.

Ovid is fascinated with the ambiguities and fluidity of both identities and gender. He says of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus after their bodies are merged: neutrumque et utrumque videntur, “they seem neither and both.” And before her metamorphosis, Iphis sees herself as a monstrum—a monster—which in Latin also implies something hybrid and in between, something neither and both.

I immediately thought of these Ovidian stories as I started reading the first book in the new YA series Changers, by the husband-wife team of T. Cooper and Allison Glock-Cooper. Changers offers Ovid with a modern twist. It suggests that perhaps the experience of being “neither and both,” of becoming the Other, of being in between, of shuffling through different identities makes us not more monstrous, but more human.

Ethan’s family has recently moved from New York City to Tennessee, where he begins his story on the night before his first day of high school. He knows that big changes are ahead: a new school, new friends, new challenges, and new possibilities. But he goes to bed not realizing just how big those changes are going to be. Because when he wakes up in the morning, on the first day of high school, he’s no longer Ethan. He’s a girl.

Her name is Drew, and she soon discovers that she’s one of “an ancient race of humans” known as Changers who live each year of high school as a different person. After graduation, each Changer has to choose a stable identity, a Mono, from the four identities he or she has inhabited over the previous four years.

It’s not clear how an ancient race of humans could organize its existence around high school, an institution that, at least in the United States, dates back to the early nineteenth century. But no matter—it’s a contrivance that works remarkably well, allowing the authors to explore the real and meaningful issues of identity and gender. In the course of her freshman year, Drew has her first period, joins the cheerleading squad, and finds herself attracted to both a boy and a girl. She discovers that being a hot cheerleader doesn’t guarantee popularity, let alone happiness. She experiences objectification, the threat of sexual violence, and complicated feelings she’s never had to deal with before. In other words, she’s introduced to “all new levels of suck.” But as she learns what it’s like to be a girl, and as someone else’s experience becomes her own, she develops a powerful empathy that makes her truly special. Gradually she stops thinking of herself as “a freaking mutant”—a monstrum, neutrumque et utrumque—and starts thinking of herself as herself.

In one particularly lovely moment, Drew reflects on her Nana’s arthritic hands, which Ethan used to find fascinating for their cool horror movie special effect deformity. “Now I think about her hands differently,” she says. “I wonder if they cause her much pain, how she buttons a blouse, what happens when she needs to pick up something tiny, like a toothpick.” Is this because girls see things differently, or because we can all see things differently if we make the effort to place ourselves imaginatively into the lives of others?

One of the things that hooked me into Changers was the obvious debt to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On the night before the first day of high school, Ethan goes to bed wearing a Slayer t-shirt—as in, the thrash metal band Slayer. When he gets up the next morning, he walks past the mirror in his room and sees this hot blonde girl wearing a Slayer t-shirt. Suddenly, everything shifts. He discovers he’s been “chosen.” He has a Watcher—that is, a Touchstone, a Changer who has gone through her four changes and has chosen her Mono. Drew’s Touchstone, Tracy, has a lot in common with the early Wesley Wyndham-Pryce. Tracy is a representative of the Council, an underground group of New Age authoritarians who regulate the lives of the Changers and protect them from the Abiders, the fascist thugs who insist that everyone should have the one stable identity they were born with. Like vampires, Abiders form “nests” where abducted Changers are tortured. 

This is a lot of derivative infrastructure to build a story upon, and I have to admit that I found the Changers Council just as irritating and irrelevant as the Watchers Council. But in some ways that’s the point. The Changers Council wants to protect the Changers, but in doing so it enforces a kind of conformity that hampers its own stated mission of changing the world. Changers have to “pass.” The Council instructs them to lie about their true nature even to their closest friends.  The closeted suits on the Council seem to have reduced whatever their changes have taught them about empathy into the mantra “In the many, we are one”—a fine motto, but one that becomes meaningless if it isn’t lived out in the open and with real conviction. How can they change the world if they’re afraid to come out and demand their own acceptance?

There’s a lot going on here, but it rarely distracts from the main attraction, which is Drew herself and her gradual process of becoming comfortable in her own skin—whatever skin that might happen to be. Drew feels like a real person. She tells her own story with candor, humor, and compassion. She’s someone I would have wanted as a friend. She’s someone I would have wanted to be. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Spring Wildflowers at Big Woods State Park

Blooming on Sunday, May 11, 2014
Wood anemone
Rue Anemone
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria). Past peak.
Hepatica. Past peak.
Trout Lily (Erythronium)
Marsh Marigold (Ranunculus)
Bellwort (Uvularia)
Spring Beauty (Claytonia)
Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)
Toothwort (Dentaria)
Wild Ginger

Blue cohosh

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Walking News: Creativity and Connectivity

The New York Times reports on a study conducted by researchers at Stanford University that links walking with a boost in creativity. 

Mike Simons, a photojournalist for the Tulsa World, is slowly making his way on foot down the 16-mile length of Peoria Avenue, which runs "from one end of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to the other, traversing the city’s richest and poorest neighborhoods along the way, the most rural to the densest." He's walking a mile at a time, each side of the street, chronicling the life of the community he passes through. 

Some of what he finds can also be found in Northfield: sidewalks that abruptly end, and residents from a poor neighborhood forced to walk along a narrow highway bridge with no sidewalk. 

Residents of the poorer neighborhoods of North Tulsa often have to walk because they don't have reliable access to other modes of transportation, but the city currently has a poor pedestrian infrastructure. Fortunately, in the case of the highway bridge without sidewalks, the state DOT has stepped in with a $1.7 million plan to install sidewalks on both sides of the bridge. (See the story from the Tulsa World here.) Meanwhile, here in Northfield, we continue to bicker over the TIGER Trail, which is intended to address just such a situation. 

Sometimes we have to get out of our cars and hit the sidewalks to be able to see the injustice built into the structure of our cities. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

My Visit to the Shooting Range

The Morristown Gun Club is a ten-minute drive along Highway 60 west of Faribault, Minnesota, in the southwestern corner of Rice County. The scenic highway passes Cannon Lake just west of Faribault, and continues on across numerous wetlands past Sakatah Lake and into LeSueur County. The Sakatah-Singing Hills State Trail, a 41-mile paved bicycle trail along the former route of the Chicago Great Western Railroad, runs parallel to the highway until Madison Lake, 20 miles to the west.

Herons fly languidly over the highway as I drive out to Morristown on a Sunday afternoon in early May. With numerous wetlands and lakes, large and small, this must be a paradise for waterfowl—and for waterfowl hunters. 

At the edge of Morristown (population 984), a bright yellow billboard (“5,000 GUNS”) points the way to the gun club, another two miles or so across the rolling fields. At the end of a gravel road, a large cannon marks the entrance to Ahlman’s gun shop and the gun club. A yellow sign on the base of the cannon quotes selectively from the Second Amendment, leaving out the clause about a “well-regulated militia.”

At its May 12 meeting, the Northfield School Board will vote on a proposal from the Activities Committee to adopt clay target shooting as a varsity sport. The sport will be open to middle school and high school students, and to both boys and girls, and will meet and compete on Sunday afternoons at the Morristown Gun Club.

When the proposal was first presented to the Board on April 28, there was naturally serious concern about the school district sanctioning an activity that involves firearms. This concern was intensified by the school shooting at Newtown in 2012, and brought even closer to home last week when authorities in Waseca, Minnesota, discovered a seventeen-year old high school student stockpiling firearms and explosives in a plot to massacre his classmates. Waseca is only about 15 miles south of the Morristown Gun Club, and the threat of gun violence was very much on my mind as I drove past the massive cannon at the entrance to the club.

As Danny Franklin pointed out in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, 20 states have passed less restrictive gun laws. Most recently, the governor of Georgia passed a law that allows guns to be carried virtually everywhere in the state, including schools, churches, bars, and airports. Clearly the constitutional right expressed on the base of the gun club’s cannon—that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”—is regarded by many people as an absolute right that admits of no exceptions, even to prevent unimaginable tragedies such as Sandy Hook. Meanwhile, in the sixteen months since Sandy Hook, there have been over seventy shootings at schools and colleges in the United States. Waseca had the potential to be the deadliest.

As I stopped the car, silencing the radio in the middle of a Mozart symphony, I could hear the sound of shotguns being fired. I got out of the car and walked toward the sound. At the shooting range, I was greeted by a coach who fitted me out with earplugs and eye protection and took me to watch the team in action.

There are stations for three squads on the range, with five shooters on each squad. The shooters take turns loading and firing, so that on each squad only one gun is loaded at a time. At all other times, the guns are unloaded, and carried with the muzzles up. In the photograph below you can see how the squad is arranged, and in the brief video you can see—and hear—a squad in action, as each shooter in turn calls out “pull,” the clay pigeon is released, and the shooter fires.

The teams in the clay target league are co-educational, and several girls participate on Northfield’s team (which is currently a community education and recreation program, not a varsity sport). It was interesting to watch a large, broad-shouldered football player shooting next to a slim, pony-tailed girl in a Science Olympiad letter jacket. The girl happened to be having a rough day, but there is nothing inherent in the sport that gives boys a competitive edge over girls. Boys and girls compete by exactly the same rules. There are currently 16 participants in the sport statewide who have hit 50 consecutive clay pigeons in competition. Two of those athletes are girls, which only reflects the fact that fewer girls choose to participate in the sport. All of the team members I spoke to valued the fact that clay target shooting demands discipline and concentration rather than size, strength, agility and speed.

I have to admit that I arrived at the gun club feeling a little nervous about being around so many teenagers with firearms, but what I found on the target range immediately put me at ease. I found a carefully controlled and well-supervised environment in which safety was the highest priority. I found competent and attentive coaches who wanted to bring out the best in each member of the team. I found young people who were learning safety, discipline, and responsibility, and enjoying themselves in the process.

As one eighth-grade girl on the team told me: “Trapshooting is not a violent sport and doesn’t encourage violence in any form. Quite the opposite: it teaches safety and responsibility.”

Of course, my visit to the target range didn’t ease my deep-seated concerns about gun violence. Guns are inherently dangerous, and amplify the dangerous and unpredictable tendencies of human beings. I still left thinking about the seventeen-year old in Waseca whose plot to commit murder surprised so many of his classmates who considered him a friend.

But if guns are going to be in the hands of young people for legitimate sporting purposes, participating on the clay target team is the kind of experience I would want them to have. I would want them to be part of a supportive community that emphasizes safety, responsibility, and personal growth.


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Support the Northfield Skateboard Coalition

photo courtesy of Shay Canning
In the right sidebar of this blog, you’ll see a widget that allows you to make a secure online donation to the Northfield Skateboard Coalition through its fiscal agent, the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative. All donations will go toward designing and building a permanent skateboard park in Old Memorial Park in Northfield.

In 1986, Northfield passed an ordinance that prohibited skateboarding within “the central business district.” Three years later, the late Bev Finholt, then a member of the Northfield City Council, questioned the skateboard prohibition, and the mayor, Jerry Anderson, brought up the possibility building a city skateboard park.

That was in 1989.

Fast forward to 2006. A group of young skateboarders, mostly sixteen- and seventeen-year olds, formed the Northfield Skateboard Coalition. Their mission was to raise money to build a permanent skateboard park in Northfield. Within a year, the Skateboard Coalition had secured and matched a $10,000 grant from the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative, and hoped to move forward with construction of a skateboard park in Old Memorial Park near the municipal outdoor swimming pool.

Fast forward again to 2014. Fast forward, but keep in mind that for the youth involved, the process over the past eight years has moved in agonizing slow motion. The youth who founded the Skateboard Coalition in 2006 have all grown up—with college degrees, and jobs, and some with children of their own—and another generation of skateboarders has inherited their effort to create a skateboard park. After several years of inaction, the Northfield City Council in December 2012 approved Old Memorial Park as the site of the skateboard park, and allocated $60,000 toward the design and construction of the park. Now there's another $50,000 to be raised.

Though I've never skateboarded, I became involved with the Skateboard Coalition in early 2012. Amy Merritt, then the executive director of The Key (Northfield’s youth center), knew she would soon be moving on to other opportunities, and wanted to make sure there was another adult working with the Coalition. At the time, the Coalition was under the capable and dynamic leadership of Frank Meyer, a high school senior and non-skateboarder who was instrumental in securing a site for the skateboard park. In April 2013, Frank and the other youth members of the Skateboard Coalition were awarded the Making a Difference Award from the Northfield Healthy Community Initiative for their efforts on behalf of youth in the Northfield community. Throughout the years, the skateboarders have been models of civility and public engagement, attending numerous city meetings, respectfully advocating for their cause, and earning the respect of City officials and staff, neighbors, and members of the community at large.

Members of the Skateboard Coalition receiving the Northfield HCI Making a Difference Award in 2013

Skateboarding provides young people with opportunities to participate in a demanding and rewarding physical activity, encourages healthy behaviors, and provides a sense of place and of belonging to a community. A skateboard park will provide a public place for skateboarders to practice their skills that is safer and less disruptive than streets and sidewalks. A skateboard park will serve the recreational needs of a population of youth not currently served by the City’s recreational facilities. Finally, a skateboard park will be a valuable investment in Northfield’s youth, and a recognition of the involvement of youth in the process of building and strengthening our community.

It’s been twenty-five years since the possibility of creating a skateboard park in Northfield was first raised. Temporary skateboard parks have come and gone, but the city is still without a permanent park, despite years of hard work on the part of local skateboarders and their supporters. We’re closer than we’ve ever come to getting a skateboard park. You can help finally make that dream a reality. I hope you’ll join me in supporting the Northfield Skateboard Coalition.

For more information on the skateboard park, check out our blog.