Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everyday Stereotypes. Instinctual or Shameful?

These past few weeks have made many of us revisit stereotypes. I too, juggled anger and sadness as I mourned the loss of another police office, stereotyped and killed. I watched the funeral procession for Officer Omar Edwards and as the limousine carrying Officer Edwards' wife and son stopped in front of me I saw the heartbreak in her face. In that moment, it was undeniable that stereotypes are harmful generalizations that destroy families and divide communities. I then quickly passed my own judgment of Andrew Dunton, the officer who shot him. Typical White officer who will grieve for a little while and then over time will put it behind him and live his life without another thought of the event. Maybe this is true, but probably not. Probably just another stereotype. Perhaps in reality Officer Dunton will be living a sort of continuous nightmare to be replayed in his mind over and over again.

This reminds me of a scene from the movie Crash. Sandra Bullock stereotypes two young Black men as they pass her, by clutching her purse, which has them get pissed off about White people stereotyping them. Then suddenly they pull a gun on her and carry out their planned carjacking.

So what does this tell us about stereotypes? That they are harmful? In the case of Officer Edwards, no doubt. But in this fictional, but reality-based movie scene, perhaps not. This made me ponder my own experiences being stereotyped and stereotyping others.

I found a good example of my own experience with this subject just a few days ago. I bought a 'top of the line' breast pump from a seller on Craigslist. Now I consider myself a full-fledged Craigslist-er. If I need it, I go there first. Good for my wallet and the environment. Actually, I have a whole set of judgments about people who are opposed to used items. I am constantly shaking my head when I see people buy expensive baby items, refusing used items and then struggling to pay the rent and buy food. I was appalled to see a toddler Cadillac Escalade ON SALE in a Toys-R-Us catalog for JUST $329. But I am sure that some struggling parent in the hood will forego rent to jump on this "deal" for their 3-year-old. Some call it being a loving parent. I call it misplaced priorities. So anyway, I went to pick up this breast pump, which was listed as new (for health reasons I only wanted this particular item new). The seller did not look the way I pictured her. From her name, I pictured her to be a 30-something, middle-income, Black woman with locks, which I have to admit made me feel good about this purchase. A natural, conscious, intelligent woman. Actually, she appeared to be no more than 25, was Latina and a bit ghetto-fied. Her building was nice from the outside but from her speaking the building was no paradise and it was apparent that its residents were low-income. She was selling this pump because she got it as a gift and didn't use it. My inner voice said "this is not an item HER friend or family member would buy new." Why? You have to really know about breastfeeding and breast pumps to buy an expensive model (which run almost $300). In my experience working with young, low-income mothers, very few breastfeed and most come from generations of women who also did not breastfeed. It's not that I didn't think her family or friends could afford such an item. I just didn't think they would use the money to buy THIS item. Perhaps a new stroller, crib, or designer clothing. Another stereotype, yes, but again based on experience. I immediatly scolded myself for making such an assessment. How awful of me to have such a thought. I didn't know this woman. To another person, I may not have looked so much different than her. In fact, although I am approaching 30 and married, I have often felt that burning stare from older women, shaking their heads at what they assume to be another young, unwed mother.

Recently at a prenatal appointment, I had a doctor tell me my preliminary tests showed signs of what was probably an STD and asked if I had questions about any of my partners, with an S. After I explained I was happily married and had no questions, he nodded and again told me I probably had contracted an STD. Luckily for my husband, I am not the 'fly into a jealous rage' type, so he was in no danger. I imagine though that other fathers-to-be were not so lucky after their partners went to visit this doctor. Helpful hint to doctors... don't tell a pregnant woman she has probably contracted an STD before you have the test results, unless you want to see them on the evening news. To no surprise, the final test results showed only normal levels of elevated whatevers. Not an STD. I spoke about my upset with my husband and he asked me, "do you think if you were an Orthodox Jewish woman the doctor would have made that prediction?" Hmmm. Actually, no.

So, back to the breast pump again. I had scolded myself for stereotyping this young woman and with doubts still in my mind about the legitimacy of this item, I went with my impartial, politically correct self and bought it. Later, as the inner me crept back into the picture, I needed more reassurance that this item had never been used. I contacted her for more information and after several emails I found out that, in fact it wasn't new. She got it as a gift from someone who got it cheap at a random mom-and-pop store. My assessments had been correct. She did not know anything about breast pumps nor did the woman who bought it cheap. Would I have been wrong to go with my initial, stereotypical judgment? Now, sitting with an item I am not happy with, I would say no.

Where does this leave us? Where is the line between harmful stereotypes and simple intuitions? When are we correct in following our instincts or dismissing our stereotypes? Officer Dunton was terribly wrong in acting on his assessment, as I am sure he will never forget. The doctor who confidently told me without proof that I had an STD was also wrong. And I was correct in my judgment, but dismissed it. Now, just like Officer Dunton I wish I could go back and do it over (although on a scale of importance my experience is obviously inconsequential). Should we only entertain stereotypes when the stakes are low and have only small potential consequences? What about when a parent's instincts tell them their child is near a possible sexual predator? Should they ignore their feeling because they may be making an inaccurate assumption? As a parent, I say no. So maybe there is middle ground. Maybe before we jump to a conclusion, we can pause for a moment to ascertain whether it is our gut or our learned prejudices in control. We can be caucious but not fearful and ask questions until we can make an intelligent decision. This is by no means a black and white discussion, but perhaps by giving others the benefit of the doubt while still using a moment of caution we can minimize unwanted outcomes while diminishing harmful stereotypes.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Abortion vs. Death Penalty as Justifiable Murder. Who is Right?

How many times has this been debated? Isn't it enough? Apparently not. This issue is a hot topic, once again, as pro-choice and pro-life communities find themselves in swapped positions. With our president on the pro-choice bandwagon, pro-choicers can breathe a sigh of relief and gloat for the first time in 8 years.

Let me first say about this blog's title that I do not consider abortion murder. It just fit the title.

As I watched the news report of Obama's speech at Notre Dame University and the pro-lifers protesting outside I began to yell at the TV  that these "protect all life" people probably didn't attend anti-death penalty rallies while Bush was in office. This is a contradiction that has rattled my mind for years. How can you oppose abortion and be pro-death penalty? Why is it not okay to "kill" a fetus and okay to kill a grown human being? I have yet to hear an intelligent justification. Of course I think these people are completely backwards because I support abortion and am against the dealth penalty. Now granted, there are people who oppose both abortion and the death penalty and those who support both. I am purposely omitting them from this discussion.

So as I continued to debate with no one in particular about how right I am and how wrong they are, I sudddenly saw an opportunity for a blog. This was not so black and white. What made me so right? They are against one type of "murder" and for another type, and so am I.  Well, this is impossible. I am not like THEM, I thought.  There is a justification to my beliefs and I intended to prove it to myself. Fast. I spent nearly an hour examining all of the beliefs I have about these two issues. Some are moral, some are spiritual, and some just seem logical.

Let's start with abortion. Morally, this can be argued indefinitely. I don't feel the need to argue with a pro-lifer whether or not life begins at fertilization.  Although I could probably rattle a few brains by taking it a step further and arguing that life begins at swimming sperm, more than 99 percent of which are killed by the woman's protective body. For every one pregnancy, 40 million sperm must die in the race. That's like a sperm holocaust.  But we don't mourn after every intercourse. Not to mention sex with condoms and spermicide. To sperm, that is biochemical warfare.  It is pointless to argue over spiritual beliefs as well because, let's face it, none of us has any personal experiences with "the other side" to back up our claims. And if you do, good luck using that as a debate clencher.

So what's left? The logical argument. I have grown to accept differing views. However, what we do know from history is that just like alcohol and marijuana, whether it is legal or not, women will find ways to have abortions. By limiting access to safe and sterile abortion facilities, women will turn to other, harmful, measures. Tragically, prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973 as many as 5,000 women died annually from unsafe abortions (http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/book/companion.asp?id=20&compID=100). If the pro-life argument is about treasuring life, let's treasure the lives of women by not having them resort to life-threatening conditions.

The death penalty. Where to begin? Perhaps this would be more of a black and white subject if we lived in an absolute world where everything was as it seemed. Where McDonalds' salads were actually healthy, burgers looked the way they do in commercials, celebrities really did have flawless skin and radiant hair (I was shocked and relieved to recently learn that J-Lo wears wigs), and our cell phone bills were actually the advertised monthly price. Unfortunately, illusions fill our day-to-day experiences and yet, everyday we continue to believe them. We believe our government tells us the truth (though we may be breaking through on this one), tabloids don't manipulate photos, and we believe that every person charged with a crime is guilty. You may be disagreeing with me on this right now, but put aside the legally correct jargon "innocent until proven guilty" and what's left is headline news that we all believe at first and maybe question later.  Then people just like us are called in to decide the suspect's fate. Would I like to know that the Hannibal Lecters of the world would cease to exist? Of course. But in this judicial system how do we really know we are only killing those people? According to the Death Penalty Information Center (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty) since 1973, 132 innocent people have been released from death row with evidence of their innocence.  Various sources cite that between 15-24 people in the United States were found to be innocent after their execution this century. These are only the proven cases. There are hundreds of other executed people who, based on death row statistics and mounting evidence, were possibly innocent. How can this be acceptable? I wouldn't want one of my loved ones to be considered collateral damage for any system, as I am sure most of you would agree, so it is shameful that we would allow this to happen to someone else. Even further, killing innocent people in the name of justice is not only unjust, it is morally, socially, and politically repugnant.  I mean, if someone bumps into me on the train and I'm not sure who did it, I wouldn't just punch the closest person to me in the face.  Most people today laugh and shake their heads about how ridiculous the Salem Witch Trials were. But is what we are doing so much different? It's human roulette at it's worst.

I assume that the same moral and spiritual codes that have people advocate for the rights of fetuses would also need to apply to innocent people sentenced to death. After all, it is when we exit the birth canal that we actually get a social security number and all of the so-called rights that come with it. I can agree to disagree on the reasons for which we are for or against abortion and the death penalty. But there are some absolutes in this smoke screen of a society and two of them are that women will get abortions by any means necessary and innocent people are sentenced to death.

In closing, I am of the opinion that legal abortion needs to be supported and the death penalty needs to "get the boot." Pro-lifers often say those who support abortion are pro-death.  Well, I support women's rights to make choices about their bodies that will not result in their own deaths and I support innocent people not being executed. I would say that makes ME pro-life. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obesity as a Fad or Obesity as Neglect?

Let me start by saying that I have never had to battle with my weight. I have an athletic body type which I embraced by playing sports almost everyday from 10-22 years old.  I considered my reward to be being able to eat what I wanted without a second thought. A girl's gotta get something for going to 6am practices and spending the school day unattractively covered in dry sweat. Do you think cute hair styles were in my daily teen routine? Anyway, so just know that this post comes from an outsider to the obesity world, looking in.

A few weeks ago, United Airlines announced that it would begin charging overweight passengers for a second seat on their flights. Recently, The Daily News wrote of Leanne Salt, an obese, British mother of triplets, who began feeding her babies McDonalds at 6 months old (A longer article can be found at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1174210/30-stone-mother-feeds-baby-triplets-junk-food-diet--admits-McDonalds-just-months.html). She says she plans to teach her kids that big is beautiful (does she plan to include the risks associated with this level of beauty?). So what is my connection between the two? That we, the public, are being pulled in two directions in the obesity debate. Pity their disadvantages or embrace their beauty? Well, I am certainly not disagreeing that there is beauty in all body shapes and sizes. Past and present civilizations throughout the world have tagged extra body weight as the desired standard. But in this quickly changing modern world what is the cost of being overweight and where does personal responsibility weigh in (pun intended)?

I'll address the first news bulletin first. As an airline passenger, I'll admit I was not opposed to this new policy by United Airlines. I have been on flights where the person occupying the next seat was well into my seat. On the subway, I can choose to simply stand if the seat becomes too crowded, but this is just not an option on a flight. If I only have half a seat, should I get a partial refund? My mind raced back and forth, looking for any suspicion of anger toward overweight people. Then I thought that maybe my anger should be at airlines for making seats so narrow (I have not dismissed this one). After a long dialogue with myself I decided that wouldn't solve the problem either. How much bigger would seats need to be? Big enough for a 300 lb. person or 500 lb. person? Do weight limits for water slides need to be decreased to allow underweight people to ride? Someone will always be left out. In today's society, there is always a person too large and too small to accommodate. So what's a good, fair solution?

Given I said before I am an outsider on this issue, this is what I see. There are cases where medical conditions make it difficult for individuals to stay within healthy weight parameters. But even for these people, some simple lifestyle changes will do wonders. This is why the show The Biggest Loser has become so popular. I don't have an opinion about weight as it pertains to attractiveness, but I am quite conscious of today's obstacles to staying healthy and able, regardless of weight, and I can't imagine it is desirable for anyone to increase these risks by increasing their body weight. So back to this airline policy. I can fully appreciate that if I were overweight, I would oppose it. Who has double airline money laying around? However, I then thought, perhaps part of the obesity rise we are seeing is because we continue to accommodate larger sizes. Bigger clothing, bigger meals, bigger cars. I am not for the discrimination of any people, but this all seems to be about as helpful as a midwife encouraging a scheduled c-section. A person I know who once struggled with weight loss once said to me "when I went into a clothing store and saw that there were now plus sizes into the 20s, that scared the mess out of me.  There was less motivation for me to lose weight because society had begun to adjust to my growing."  So I think to myself, albeit unfair, perhaps airline fees will encourage people to lose weight?

Now to address Leanne Salt. Aside from being completely impressed and happy that she gave birth to triplets at the weight of 420 lbs. without serious health risks to her or the babies, I was disappointed to read that she is feeding her babies fast food.  I have read what I can about her personal struggle with weight and I can begin to guess her children's.  Her reasoning is that she doesn't have the time to make home-cooked meals and I wonder if she is aware of any options in between home-cooked meals and fast food.  There are gray areas in between. I don't assume everyone knows as much about healthy food options as I do (don't hold me to being an expert though) just as I know very little about many other subjects, but my instincts tell me that at 420 lbs. perhaps there is an indication that your children are also at risk for following this path. And if this is the case, and if Ms. Salt is happy being this size, I have a hard time opposing her having to pay for an extra seat on an airplane. 

And, I have another question burning in my mind. If parents are proud of being unhealthily overweight, at what point are they responsible for their children's health problems. I am not relinquishing our fast food nation's responsibility for destroying our food and our health. 
But that is a separate battle. One that we cannot win tomorrow. But we can change our own lives whenever we choose. Back to my point, in our society, social services will take children from their parents if they are malnourished (even well intended malnourishment, such as a poorly balanced vegan diet), however a 200 lb. toddler who is fed three times the daily recommended everything goes unchecked.  As our children are younger and increasingly diagnosed with asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and frequent seasonal illnesses brought on by weak immune systems (see http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/obesity/index.htm), where does personal responsibility meet societal responsibility? Do we not intervene in the health of anorexic children? So why ignore the much larger group of at-risk children (no pun intended this time) who are suffering, both physically and emotionally. 

As a parent, I have to believe my maternal instincts that protect my child's well-being.  We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel now, as our society takes steps to bring healthy eating back into our homes. It is now less excusable to say we didn't know. WIC programs provide raw fruits and vegetables and promote breast feeding, lung cancer survivors come to us through commercials to discourage smoking, the dentist tells us sugar will rot our teeth, and we know exercise is great. There is enough information out there to make a first attempt at regaining and maintaining our health and our children's health. It is our responsibility as individuals and parents to not condemn ourselves and our children to shortened, sickly lives. It is our responsibility as members of a society not to accept this detrimental pattern in the name of convenience or political or social correctness but to support those who want to live longer and healthier and those who are too young yet to know. If each person said goodbye to their obesity and gained 20 years on their lives all to avoid an extra $300 to get from New York to California, wouldn't that be worth it?