History Historical Badasses

Gertrude Stein, the queer feminist at the centre of the art movement

I first encountered Gertrude Stein through her avant-garde poetry in Tender Buttons, an evocative series of short poems that forced writing to its breaking point with sentences like: “Dirty is yellow. A sign of more is not mentioned.” I met her blindly, only through her words, yet I already fell for her eccentricity. I knew there was something wonderful behind the mind that put down on paper the bold tongue-in-cheek yet unbelievably serious statement, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. I just had to explore her art further. So I began scouring old journals and artist profiles to learn more about her. 

Little did I know that the radical art Stein created could almost be rivaled by the art that she nurtured in the artists around her. I found multiple sources that called her the ‘mother’ of modernism, but after getting to know more about her, I am sure that she would scoff at such a title. After all, she left the United States in 1903 to flee the pressures of gender norms. She was also bored with medical school and seeking an outlet to express her eccentric point of view, she settled down in Paris, where she intended to pursue a life free from heteronormativity. She opened a salon in her home for the world’s creative mind, including some of the world-renowned names such as Picasso, Matisse, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. She was the voice of this ‘Lost Generation, the group of American expatriates flocking to Paris– and even coined the term.

The way I see it, she brought together these esteemed artists and in many ways, elevated them through her no-nonsense critique of their work. I had always internalized that a woman inspiring other artists (typically male artists) was a muse. That term is loaded, as there were often sexualized or romanticized elements typically tied to a muse. Instead, what I admired about Stein was that she was a mentor to the ‘greats’. I see her as a woman that had an undeniable presence in her time, respected by those around her. 

Nothing about her was conventional and she embraced her own strangeness, something that drew me to her further. Stein deserves the title of a trailblazer of the modernist period and of queer identity at the time. Stein’s essay Miss Furr and Miss Skeene were among the first story to be published about homosexual revelation, containing the first noted use of the word “gay” in published works to refer to same-sex relationships. She also hosted one of the first avant-garde exhibitions in the United States, funding it with the money she collected from her art dealerships. I have no doubt that every piece of art in the period has her fingerprint.

And she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her accomplishments either. Stein didn’t believe that women must be modest, proudly proclaiming “I have been the creative literary mind of the century.” She never sold herself short, a habit I found myself doing as I presented my own poetry or other writing. I was still working with my own feelings of inferiority, belittling my stories as ‘just’ relevant to female-identifying communities. While she wrote about women and her partner, she didn’t restrict herself to writing women’s stories. I found it so refreshing to see her unabashed pride, as it reminded me to take hold of my own achievements and to be confident. No matter how unconventionally and ‘weirdly’ I experimented with my creativity, I learned that I could (and should) still demand to be taken seriously. 

Regardless of all this, I don’t think she should be idolized. I often like to give powerful women in difficult situations the benefit of the doubt, as do most of the historians and writers that grapple with creating a retrospective of Stein’s life. I witnessed a trend in the way that they wrote about her, that she was ensuring her safety as a Jew in Nazi-occupied France by making these questionable alliances with Nazi figures. As much as I respect her as a feminist and as the backbone of the Lost Generation of artists, I cannot excuse her political affiliations and ironic, confusing pro-Nazi expressions. 

At the end of it all, Stein didn’t strive to be accepted or allow herself to be molded by the society around her. She carved her own place into history and I believe it is important to commemorate it, lest she is lost in the shadows of her male counterparts. As a woman in the art world, looking at Stein as an example liberates me and allows me to embrace subversive expressions of creativity. 

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Gender & Identity Life

5 times that prove just how much men interrupt women

Simply put, there is a great term for the tendency of a man to interrupt a woman while she is talking.  It is called “manterruption.”

Essentially, when a woman is trying to talk about a topic or finish a sentence, her voice somehow gets lost in the midst of this manterruption.  She has to fight hard and stop being nice. I cannot count the number of times I have faced this in my own life. It happened to me most recently while giving a formal presentation that I did not get to finish because I was interrupted by the men in the room.

I eventually left the room feeling devalued.

Why does it happen and do men mean to do it? I am not sure about this one, and I am sure plenty of social psychologists may offer a better answer than I can. What I am sure of is that we have all seen some ugly instances of manterruption on live television.  Let’s take a look and analyze.

1. Lebanese presenter,  Rima Karaki, shutting down Muslim scholar Hani al-Seba’i on live television

Like me, if you watched this video a few years ago, you were cheering with excitement when Rima Karaki made it clear that she will not be spoken to with disrespect. If you watch the entire video, the scholar does everything to resist her very clear instructions: shut up and get to the point!

In his attempt to boost his own ego, he then proceeds to demean Ms. Karaki’s position as a woman and a news presenter.

He gets ugly, and I do not care what kind of scholar you are or how many people grovel at your feet on your daily basis. Nobody has to put up with that. The way she reminds him that this is her broadcast and that she will refuse to move forward if there is no mutual respect was GOALS for many women!

2. The 2016 US Presidential Election Debates

Whether you voted for Hillary Clinton or not is beside the point.

Watching Donald Trump never letting her finish on a national platform was embarrassing.  Maybe this is an indication of the child-like and reactionary antics of (gulp) the president himself, but everyone deserves his or her time to speak during a debate.

It sent a very clear message to young men in America: they are allowed to behave like this and can get away with it when called out.

3. Kanye and Taylor from the MTV Music Awards

Back in 2010, I watched an MTV Music Awards show after many years. Admittedly, I don’t think I have seen one since.

All I can remember is the way Kanye came up during Taylor Swift’s acceptance of an award to tell her that Beyonce had the “best video of all time.” Now, again, whether you like Taylor Swift or whether you thought this was a straight publicity stunt is not the point.

The point is it seems like common sense to let someone at least be able to begin their acceptance speech, and hey, maybe even finish it.

4. Indian politician Mahua Moitra trying to get her word in during Arnab Goswami’s rants

After spending what felt like an eternity saying “Please let me finish”  in this video, and having to get into a shouting match with Mr. Goswami, Ms. Moitra finally could make her point. Do not get me wrong, Arnab is like an Indian version of Bill O’Reilly, so perhaps this is not all that shocking.

Yet, one must wonder, if he will not let any woman speak, why bother inviting them on his show?

5. Male colleagues constantly interrupting Senator Kamala Harris when conducting testimony of Jeff Sessions

The interruptions began towards the last few minutes of the video. To provide context, Senator Harris employs cross-examination style of questioning commonly used in courtrooms. While Harris may have been grilling Sessions, it is not uncommon to do this in the chamber. Sessions was trying to make sure Harris’ time was running out, and being a difficult witness.

Instead of helping her out, other male senators stopped her and pretty much indirectly told her to “be nice.” Yet, when those same men employ these methods, they are playing by the rules of the chamber and doing their job.

You bet that Senator Harris made sure to call out her male colleagues out on it in the classiest way possible because this was not the first time this happened:

There you have it. Real-life, televised examples of manterruption.

The next time anyone wants to tell you that you imagined that situation at the meeting where yet another man interrupted you, refer to these examples. Also, try this cool new manterruption app!


Going to the National African American History and Culture Museum made me unlearn everything I thought I knew

I spent almost two years working in D.C. on and off. One of my favorite parts of the city was its free Smithsonian museums. It was easy to get lost for hours reading descriptions, watching different videos, and learning outside of institutionalized settings. Before I came back to D.C. a little over a year after leaving it, a close friend of mine sent me an email telling me that I had to take my husband to the African American History and Culture Museum. He made sure I did that before I even caught up with him. This meant he was not kidding.

My husband had not seen D.C. before and is originally from Australia. His frame of historical reference was the struggles of the Aboriginal people mirroring the Black Civil Rights Movement in America. When I presented the idea, he immediately said that he would only do one museum and do it right. This one was it. When I went back to my friend’s email, he mentioned that the tickets are free, but you have to secure timed-entry tickets in one of three ways: same-day online, walkups only on the weekdays, or advance online.

We personally chose the same-day online choice, even if it meant waking up at 6:30 a.m. EST.  After going to the museum, I realized the 6:30 a.m. wake-up time was well worth it and was the best since we did not have much time to plan beforehand. For those who may be living in D.C., or just happen to be there and with a flexible schedule, the second option might make sense. The advanced online sales only occur on the first Wednesday of the month, which can also be great if you have a planned trip to D.C. within the month. However, it is limited. Essentially, it all depends on the season you go. We were there in the summertime, which can be difficult as D.C. is full of interns and tourists. Hence, we woke up.

Now that you know how to get into the museum, the one bummer is the actual “timed entry” is only three hours. We had our passes on the last timing of the day, which meant we were there until closing. And when it closes, the security makes sure that you get out. I found myself loving the museum so much that I would sneak into another exhibit. I would then find a security guard telling me to leave. It was sad and hilarious at the same time. Why was I not wanting to leave?

Because there are so many exhibits and I made the mistake of trying to read absolutely everything. Doing that with the crowds was not so smart if I hoped to get through most of it.

The entire museum is a timeline. It starts from the origins of the slave trade and ending with African American contributions today. I eventually found myself rushing through exhibits after the Civil Rights movement (calling for another visit). The museum did not miss anything, including an explanation of the Black Feminist Movement in the ’70s, which had to face resistance from their own Black community. I knew nothing unbiased about the Black Panthers, except for the very negative images that sometimes came up in popular media, such as in Forrest Gump. I found myself thoroughly shocked when I saw the massive amounts of old media images and paraphernalia portraying Black people in subservient and extremely stereotypical ways (such as the Black Mammy). The juxtaposition of the exhbits and the many different angles were impressive. Nobody can walk into this museum thinking they already know everything.

I cannot say that I had a favorite exhibit. Each one was so comprehensive that I felt like everything I learned about Black history at school was too elementary. And more importantly, too sanitized. To have something on the national level like this finally validated years of untold and heavily biased history. The museum only opened two years ago, which means that it took this long to make Black history among the ranks of a Smithsonian museum, but I am glad it came.

Aside from the exhibits, seeing African Americans from all over the country bringing their children to a national place of reflection on their own history was endearing. It reminded me that beyond a designated month for Black history a rich national museum operates now. It is about time.

Gender & Identity Humor Life

6 truths every American-born Pakistani living in the motherland will understand

I live in my parents’ Pakistani motherland. My one remaining parent and sibling live in America, and it confuses everyone here. There are plenty of articles out there about second-generation immigrant children making brief visits to their parents’ home countries.

However, for those of us who have made the decision to leave the U.S. and to live in our parents’ countries for an indefinite or short period of time, the narrative varies.

1. You keep hoping your accent is less noticeable and your English to Urdu translations make sense when you say them aloud

jillian bell i cant do your stupid fucking accent GIF by Rough Night Movie
[Image Description: A gif of Jillian Bell saying, “I can’t do your stupid fucking accent.”] Via Giphy
I do not hear my American accent, and sometimes I wish someone could play it back to me in a recording. But a small part of me burns when someone giggles at the way my Urdu sounds and then immediately acts like I do not know the language. I studied it and actually know how to read and write too, darn it! In addition, at times when I am not sure how to express myself or my American sarcasm, I try to translate it. Most of the time, I see a blank look on the native Urdu listener’s face. Other times it is met with laughter, and I tell myself that I just might be starting a new slang trend in the Urdu language! Maybe I need to try watching more Pakistani dramas so I can keep listening to Urdu.

Never mind, I think I’ll pass on that.

2. Everyone asks you if you feel “adjusted” to Pakistan

awkward the lonely island GIF
[Image Description: A gif of awkward “Shy Ronnie” from Saturday Night Live. It is the actor Andy Samberg making a face and looking around.] Via Giphy
I risk sounding like a douche when I say that there are too many things I can never get used to here.

I will never get used to line jumping nor the gross amounts of open dumping and disregard for the environment. The churning in my stomach when my husband is not around me in certain settings that are dominated by men makes me feel like a weakling. Everything that reminds me to remember my place in Pakistan simply because I have a vagina makes me sick. In many other places in the world where I have traveled as a solo woman, I am ready to sing Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but I feel the difficulty magnified here too much to do so.

I try to ignore all of it for my own self-care and sanity, but that does not mean I accept it. And hey, I am driving now in this country by myself, so at least I can let Destiny’s Child blare through my speakers!

3. When people ask you how you deal with staring men in public, you realize there is no real answer

fan cricket GIF
[Image Description: A gif of a creepy, staring cricket fan from Bangladesh who is looking at the camera.] Via Giphy
In the beginning, the staring irked me. I never understood what there was to stare at. When people told me that I had to cover this and that part of my body or spread out my dupatta (scarf) further across my chest, I would listen to them. I would keep on scanning my body to wonder if something was prominent. Was I too colorful? Was there some weird symbol tattooed on my forehead? Despite trying to fix it all, forehead included, I continued to feel uncomfortable. I decided to give in to my armchair sociologist analysis and conclude that the patriarchy and intense gender segregation gave way to “eye fu*****.”

If I ever wanted to feel mobile and independent in this country I had to ignore it and let go of any shame of simply being a woman.

4. Some South Asian Americans who have not visited the motherland in over ten years, try to tell you what “desi culture” is all about

Aside from Pakistani dramas, Indian Bollywood movies, and some politics, few diaspora South Asians have any desire to live in the motherland. When I speak to people who have not visited in over ten years I am surprised by how frozen they are in the past with no context of what Pakistan (or even India) is like today. I can understand why most do not visit or give living here a try. But I do not understand how South Asian families back in my American home still expect their children to maintain this static culture. Living here has made me realize that I do not want to impose any of this cultural baggage on any kids I have.

The gaajar ka halwa (a sweet dish made of carrots) and beautiful Urdu poetry can stay though!

5. You stop feeling flattered when people tell you that your American accent will help you in basically everything.  

reasons gays GIF
[Image Description: A gif of Britney Spears on a talk show.] Via Giphy
I understand my privilege, but I do not like capitalizing on it. A weird sense of postcolonial discomfort began forming as I realized that the global dominance of English has an unfair advantage. Here is a prime example: I once sat through a group interview for a job with an internationally-funded donor. One of the candidates had to speak English when I knew he could better express himself in Urdu. This was a job in Pakistan and he was sitting with only Pakistani professionals that all understood Urdu. While my Urdu may be funny, I had no issues sitting through the interview in Urdu and understanding his points.

6. Even on days when negativity feels too easy in Pakistan, you are grateful for the character building.  

lisa simpson episode 10 GIF
[Image Description: Lisa from “The Simpsons” trying to ski.] Via Giphy
While  I ask myself what I am still doing in Pakistan, I remember all of the great friends I have made. While I thought it would be difficult to find my tribe of strong women, I developed it over time. I see positive shifts in this society regardless of how slow they may seem to others. I am proud of the thick skin I have developed to deal with situations that once seemed impossible, especially when I only visited.

Living in my parents’ home country has not been “going back to my roots” as one might imagine. It is living in a new place, but looking like the people around me, more than anything.

Free July 4 GIF
[Image Description: Gif of an American eagle cartoon doing a pelvic thrust.] Via giphy
I see my American-ness much more prominently in Pakistan than when I am back home.

Gender & Identity Life

I never saw my best friend’s true identity until I decided to photograph her – then everything changed

Often we think that art’s power comes only in its final form when it reaches an audience. But I’m here to tell you that the creation of art in itself can be a powerful conversation.

I discovered this when photographing my friend, Amena.

She and I were in an art gallery when I saw a set of photographs by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew that struck me. They were images depicting Indian and Native American people with titles that played on these words and stereotypes, like “American Indian” and “Indian American.”

I immediately pointed the photos out to Amena, and she stood stunned at the beautiful captures. We immediately came to the same conclusion that this was her, but with the titles “American African” and “African American.”

That’s when I knew I had to photograph her.

Amena is my best friend of twelve years. We had seen each other at our highest, lowest, and weirdest moments. And a lot of our lowest moments stemmed from conflict of identity.

Hers specifically was that she is Sudanese, which means she is black and Arab.

As she describes it, “I always have to give the whole history of what Afro-Arab means. It’s hard to identify as Afro-Arab with both Arabs and black Americans.

When I exist as both and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both groups. I can never comfortably label myself as one thing because either I’m uncomfortable with narrowing my complex identity or because they’re skeptical and feel like there’s more to the story that they are entitled to know.”

[bctt tweet=”When I exist as and belong to both groups, I feel isolated from both.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I had heard some of the comments she’d received.

A black girl told Amena that she wasn’t black because she didn’t “act black.” Yet she’d feel prominently black when Arabs would think it was cute to use the n word in front of her or when people would say that all black men look like her brother and father.

Amena had to wade through several questions, labels, and hurtful comments that I couldn’t fully grasp until we talked about them frankly, primarily over FaceTime conversations at 2 a.m.

Some of the most prominent moments of conversation came when producing these pictures.

Property of Talah Bakdash

I’d photographed Amena before, but she was always just a model for whatever assignment I had for my photography class. This was different.

This was a piece about her and dug directly into the hurt she had experienced the past couple of years and was finally overcoming. Because of this, I knew I couldn’t just be the artist in this situation. I had to let her take control of certain things. While I had an image of what I wanted to portray, it was her who had final say, because these were her stories, and it was my role to listen.

Property of Talah Bakdash

However, I’m not here to talk about her identity, how much I understand what it’s like to be in her position (I don’t), and the history of it all.

I’m here to talk about art. Specifically, the conversations held behind the making of this piece of art.

Property of Talah Bakdash

Photography takes meticulous effort and planning. We were inspired by Mathew’s use of stereotype to get her point across, and we thought we should utilize it, too. We had to talk through how a stereotypical black and stereotypical African person would dress and pose, what setting they would be in, etc. Throughout this process, I learned about the two cultures and Amena’s relationship to each.

One moment I remember clearly is sitting in the car, prepping to take the “American African” photos. She was removing her makeup while I was Googling images of Sudanese henna. She pulled a sharpie out of nowhere and immediately started drawing on her hand the henna design I found.

Then we ran into the field and she showed me typical Sudanese poses.

Property of Talah Bakdash

The actual photo shoot was a rush to catch the sunlight, so we didn’t think about the photos we were producing until after they had been produced. When we saw them, it was kind of shocking.

Neither of the two photographs we consulted looked like Amena. That was precisely the point.

[bctt tweet=”Neither of the two women photographed looked like Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]

We worked hard to exaggerate the stereotypical images of each identity, that we lost sight as to how fabricated they were.

Yet, as we took the photos, I could see parts of Amena in each of the identities. None of the images perfectly matched the stereotype, since she was the subject, and she herself did not fully match either stereotype.

Property of Talah Bakdash

With the “African American” photos, she dressed stereotypically black, but she was wearing a hijab. We don’t think of hijabs when we think of black Americans, but black Muslims exist, and Amena is one of them. To further push that point, she chose to wear a shirt with Muhammad Ali, an icon to both blacks and Muslims.

With the “American African” photos, she was clearly not in Sudan, but the closest thing you get to Sudan in Kansas. We don’t associate America’s heartland with Africans, but again, Sudanese Americans exist, and Amena is one of them.

[bctt tweet=”I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply I see her as Amena.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I often forget the boxes Amena is put in because I simply see her as Amena, my intelligent, obnoxious (sorry, Amena), genuine, and loud friend. This photo shoot demonstrated how real those boxes were in a way our FaceTime conversations couldn’t.

Property of Talah Bakdash

On her end, she agreed to the photo shoot because she has a hard time putting her identity into words, and this was the opportunity to visually express it with someone she trusted. She says that this was a reminder that she doesn’t fit perfectly into either mold and that she doesn’t have to, while still allowing herself to appreciate aspects of each.

I’m sure there are different reactions to these photographs based on what each viewer carries with them, and I encourage that.

But it’s important to remember that it isn’t just the conversations that result from finished art that is important, but also the ones that create art. Difficult ones. Ones inspired from other conversations. Ones that lead to images that might not even be that impressive, but may touch someone else in the world who needed to overhear it.

In creation, there is a conversation, which can help promote a mending of our humanity.

Gender & Identity Food & Drinks Life

My black American culture comes with a healthy helping of good food

Food, glorious food,

Hot sausage and mustard!

While we’re in the mood —

Cold jelly and custard!

My dad used to sing this song from Oliver! to my siblings and me when we were young. I don’t know why, and at the time, I didn’t have any idea where the song originated from. But it all seemed fitting because good food was something integral to my family and our culture.

It’s no surprise that when I asked for an Easy Bake Oven one Christmas, I instead unwrapped a wooden spoon and cookbook accompanied by my parents essentially saying, “Here, you have permission to use the real oven now.”

I needed to learn how to make good food, not brownies cooked under a light-bulb.

In my family of six, each person was always on the run. We had sports practices, part-time jobs, and after-school clubs to attend. My dad often worked nights, and my mom had a job and ran her business while simultaneously holding us all together. But there was one element of our family life that managed to get us all into the same room at once, and that was good food.

[bctt tweet=”I often Facetime my parents to get advice on how to salvage a culinary disaster.” username=”wearethetempest”]

We’re black Americans, so our diet was served up from a melting pot of cultures. Everything we ate had a twist of our family mixed in.

Each of my siblings and I watched our parents cook and learned skills that we carried into our adulthoods. I often Facetime my parents to get advice on how to execute a dish or salvage a culinary disaster.

Growing up, Mom made meatloaf, pork chops, and a dish called Chicken Broccoli Divan with rice. She baked Texas Sheet Cake for my siblings’ birthdays, spice cake for my dad’s birthday, and even created a homemade Oreo ice cream cake for one of mine.

Not to mention the mornings when she got up early and made muffins from scratch—the smell would bring us downstairs.

good food campbells chicken broccoli divan

Every recipe she hadn’t committed to memory came out of one of two handwritten books. The pages had food stains and were sometimes faded and hard to read, but for just about anything I wondered how to make, my mom had likely written down a recipe.

Now, my dad, he wasn’t one to follow instructions.

He eyed half cups and teaspoons and tasted his creation every few minutes to ensure it had the right flavor. He made his famous buffalo wings, grape leaves, junk pasta, and even the occasional batch of fried frog legs (I didn’t touch those). When he baked, he would come up with the most interesting combinations. I’d bite in with apprehension, but be met with delight—such as pancakes stuffed with cookie crumbles. And when I swore there was nothing in the house to eat, my dad would approach me with a full plate of food no less than 20 minutes later.

I pride myself on having become a vegetarian because I think I’ve only made him more creative.

good food buffalo wings

On those weeks when it seemed like everyone was in and out of the house, Sunday would arrive. Sunday meant a big breakfast, one where each dish competed for room to fit on our kitchen table. We’d rest and digest until dinnertime and then return to our assigned seats around the table. After prayer, there would be jokes and laughs, catching up, and storytelling from my dad. We would each rave over how good one of many elements of dinner was.

But whoever was responsible would simply shrug it off, as if it were no big deal to make.

It was in those moments that I would appreciate having such a rich family culture, one with love and good food sitting at the heads of the table.

Politics The World

I can’t support Betsy Devos, and it’s not because I’m a Democrat

I’ve been working with a seventh grader over the past few weeks: an extremely polite, blonde boy who laughs at all of my corny teacher jokes and (according to his mom) watches way too much Food Network. He dreams of being a chef one day. He smiles and rolls his eyes when I tell him he’s “awesome sauce.”

When this seventh grader (a public school kid, like most of my students) first came to our learning center, he was reading at a second grade level, with some skills even bordering on first grade. Diagnosed with ADHD, depression, and anxiety, and falling behind more and more in school every day, he would cry and experience panic attacks in his mom’s car on the way to school every single day, terrified of inevitable failure. Every afternoon, he would ask if he could please just be home schooled.

One day, he confessed to me that he had been thinking about killing himself. I later learned that he had also spoken to his guidance counselor about suicide, as well as his parents. This was something that was constantly on his mind. The worst part? This scenario isn’t uncommon. What I do at my job every day can be described as the “emergency room” for education – the place where students end up when nothing else is succeeding.

But there’s a problem. Our services cost money. Psychiatrists cost money. Therapy costs money. Medication costs money. Private tutoring costs money. This child’s parents are providing him with all of the above, and he’s doing really well now, but I worry for the children who cannot afford these things. There are countless kids just like him who already cannot afford what they need; are we really going to defund public schools and take away what little resources these children have access to?

Public schools are doing their best to meet children’s various needs. For example, serving breakfast ensures that students are able to learn, so although breakfast is not technically considered education, it is a huge part of it. But they need funding to do that. They need resources. They need support.

Public schools are simply not in any position to lose funding; they are already lacking enough in funding that places such that private, individualized tutoring/rehabilitation centers like mine need to exist. But what about people that can’t afford it? Do we let them just fall through the cracks? Do we let the financial situation of each child’s family determine the value of that child’s education throughout their entire life?

What is Betsy Devos’ stance on education?

Ms. Devos is a long-time open supporter of school vouchers and school choice, which has had mixed results in the past, and charter schools, specifically religious ones (separation of church and state, anyone?). Vouchers are publicly funded scholarships given to low-income families to help cover private-school tuition, which seems nice in theory, but not so much in application. Devos has publicly stated that she is open to defunding public schools and using that very money for privatization.

In other words, let’s make rich people schools better, and to do that, let’s make schools that are suffering, suffer more. Trump claims spreading school choice across the nation will “level the playing field” when it comes to education, but what it’s really going to do, and what it has thus far been proven to do, is make the gap between good schools and lacking schools much, much bigger, ultimately hurting more students than it benefits.

Devos actually did enact a voucher system in Arizona. So, what happened?

Reportedly, 76% of the money given in Arizona’s voucher program went to children already in private schools. And public schools were weakened in the process.

Why not just improve public schools so that everyone receives a great education, as opposed to providing alternate, better choices that cost money and are potentially discriminatory?

After all, it is only public school that must by law accept any student regardless of race, gender, religion, disability, potential to succeed academically, etc. Private schools are required to do no such thing. If we improve private institutions and let public education suffer, children who belong to marginalized communities and disabled children will suffer the most.

Public schools are also statistically far more diverse; diversity lends to a better education by virtue of the fact that it lets students learn from one another’s differences and develop empathy for people who look different from themselves.

For-profit schools generally succeed financially, but the students don’t always succeed. Even if students do benefit from these private educations, Devos is still essentially saying she is comfortable with taking baseline opportunities away from some children and turning them into better opportunities for others, leaving the first group to suffer in a worse place than where they started.

I am not against the privatization of schools necessarily (although the idea of turning education into more of a business than it already is terrifies me), but I have to communicate one condition: if schools will improve when privatized, every single public school kid better have access to those new and improved private schools, otherwise this is straight discriminatory.

If certain children cannot afford vouchers, or do not live in a district where vouchers are offered (probably because they can’t afford to live in that district), that is not okay. Receiving a good education is, and should be, a basic human right.

What else happens when public schools have less funding? Teachers are going to be paid less. Because of this, many teachers will be unable to continue teaching, as it will no longer be enough to support themselves financially. So many full-time teachers are already working 2-3 jobs. When teachers leave, the demand for teachers will increase, and standards for teachers will decrease in order to meet this new demand. Schools will take anybody who is willing to work. I know this because it is already happening in underfunded schools. This is the reason organizations like Teach for America, designed to place qualified individuals in low-income areas, exist.

Betsy Devos on accountability:

Ms. Devos publicly stated that she will not commit to holding all schools to the same standards, which means she will be unable to ensure that parents who are being given “options” through her voucher systems are receiving the education they are being promised for their child. All that is guaranteed, therefore, is that the school will make a profit – everything else is up in the air.

Betsy Devos on free college education:

Devos, a multi-billionaire, publicly stated she will not support free college for Americans (or even free lunch for students) because “nothing in life is free.” 

Of course you don’t support it – you and the people you know don’t need it. And no one else matters, right? There is NO good reason to let hungry children starve. I can’t believe I even have to say that.

Betsy Devos on public schools:

Devos has flip-flopped on the issue of public schools throughout her career, working to put an end to them for years, and only now claims she is not against them.

How am I to believe her new-found feelings toward public schools are genuine?

Betsy Devos’ experience with public schools:

Devos has briefly visited one public school. That’s literally it.

Here’s my issue with this – everyone thinks they can have an opinion on education, but education is one of the only fields that is treated this way. Education, unlike so many other “serious” fields, is apparently something we all feel qualified to speak on without any training or expertise or a degree. I completely disagree with this viewpoint, and believe that teachers deserve respect. We respect doctors, don’t we? We don’t think we are qualified to tell doctors what to do with their patients. We don’t perform surgeries simply because we once had surgery.

So why do people who have never taught or served on a board of education feel as though they know what is best? This is one of my pet peeves, and Betsy Devos just took it to the next level when she was appointed as Secretary of Education. There are quite literally billions of Americans who are more qualified than her to serve in such a position.

Now, for anyone that has little to no experience with public schools (here’s looking at you, Betsy!), I suggest listening to NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia to learn more about what exactly is happening in any given public school on any given day.

I share this because of one vital reason: it is imperative for everyone to learn that the sheer number and spectrum of responsibilities that public schools and, primarily, their teachers currently have is only increasing. Teachers do not just teach anymore. And it is imperative to note that while the number and spectrum of responsibilities public schools and their teachers are taking on is increasing, funding is not.

In fact, every full-time public school teacher I know goes above and beyond teaching; they stay after school for students (which they are not paid to do) and spend hours after school grading and lesson planning (time which they are not paid for) simply because they care. We simply cannot expect schools and teachers to be responsible for all of this while simultaneously defunding all forms of support for them and potentially decreasing pay.

Betsy Devos on Special Education: 

Ms. Devos refused to agree that all schools should, in accordance with federal law, be required to meet the requirements of IDEA.

This is probably one of the most disgusting things I have ever heard. How dare you claim to be an educator, or honestly even a human being, and not have the basic human empathy and compassion with which to prioritize and advocate for special needs children? Whatever my feelings were about Betsy Ross’ policies and views, this is where she completely lost me.

The crux of the ideology that is believed by Devos and her supporters seems to be this:

Some of us are better off than others and in a better position to receive educational opportunities, and that is because we are inherently better and we deserved it. Let’s do more for ourselves, because we deserve success.

Families who are in worse-off conditions obviously put themselves there, so let’s leave them hanging out to dry, it’s their own fault. If their kids suffer too, so be it. If those kids really deserve what we have, which they probably don’t, they’ll make it happen. It might be a million times harder for them because of the institutional barriers we’re putting into place, but whatever. At least we’re not poor. It doesn’t affect us. And if any of us have disabled children, we don’t need schools to offer services anyway, we’ll just pay for some private help.

Gender & Identity Life

I forgot my Arabic tongue, and lost my homeland in the process

I live in a town where there are few Arabs, let alone minorities. The demographics of my school are similar. I speak English at home, I speak English at school, and I even speak English at the mosque.

My mother and father speak Arabic fluently, but I do not. I wish there was more emphasis on speaking Arabic at home, but there isn’t. I can’t blame my parents because it also comes down to my siblings and me. We should have listened when years ago, my parents would encourage us to speak Arabic to one another. It seems like they slowly gave up and now conversations at the dinner table are almost entirely in English.

At school, it’s the same story. Though there are some other Arabs at my college, we greet each other in English and do not hold conversations with one another in Arabic. I feel like I’m slowly becoming more and more disconnected from my Arab roots.

I know that I could be making a greater effort to speak Arabic more and change the way things are currently. I have tried, but it is so difficult to speak Arabic consistently when I’m used to speaking English all the time.

It’s not just me; many other second-generation Americans are facing similar dilemmas. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that second-generation Americans are much more likely than their parents to speak English. When you parent’s homeland feels so distant, you embrace your American culture more.

It’s a difficult challenge trying to balance embracing your roots while simultaneously attempting to fit into the society you have grown up in. This struggle reminds me of the words of Ijeoma Umebinyuo, a Nigerian born poet and author. In one of her poems she eloquently wrote:

So, here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here.
Never enough for both.

Often I feel like I am too American to be Arab, but then sometimes I feel like I’m not American enough. I want to develop a stronger appreciation for the Arabic language, but it is difficult when there is little encouragement from the people around you.

Additionally, there are so many benefits to being bilingual. Speaking two languages has benefits like increasing mental development and helping with concentration and multitasking skills. Not only does being bilingual allow you to connect well with others, but it also puts you at an advantage in the job market.

Assimilation occurs in many ways, but I don’t believe anyone should compromise their language to fit in more. If you speak two or more languages well, never ever let go of that.

I wish I could have said this to my younger self before I started to let Arabic slip away from me.

Gender & Identity Life

Just because you’re an American immigrant doesn’t make you better than family back home

“Your wish,” my cousin in Pakistan said to me when I asked for her opinion.

I grew frustrated and told her that I didn’t ask her opinion just so that I could hear that it’s my choice.

I also mentally patted myself on the back for not correcting her English. I thought she meant “as you wish,” a phrase that we use in the United States.

Then another cousin in Pakistan said it: “Your wish.”

That’s when it occurred to me that “your wish” is an actual phrase in Pakistan. I thought to myself how funny it is that Pakistanis picked up an English phrase and turned it into their own version of “as you wish.” It was so cute. I figured they must have heard some English words in a movie and assembled the faulty phrase that way.

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The Daily Touch

Eventually, it hit me how patronizing I was being.

Why did I decide that my way was the “correct” way? Because I’m a second-generation American? The area that we call “Pakistan” today was actually exposed to English around the same time the land that we call the “United States” was. The language was even institutionalized in the subcontinent at one point.

[bctt tweet=”Pakistan was exposed to English around the same time the US was.” username=”wearethetempest”]

The English spoken in Pakistan doesn’t only have an accent by American standards because it’s rolling off Indo-European tongues. Initially, Pakistani’s English came from the same source as ours – British colonials. The source does affect the accent. Our accent evolved differently than that of South Asia, where it had to adapt to tongues that were already multilingual.

Still, second-generation children who have an American accent mock the accents of their roots. We even judge the way people “back home” type English words or use Roman Urdu.

Do we think we are somehow…better?

Face it. Deep down, we do think we are culturally superior.

In spite of being second generation Americans, children of immigrants, we think that everyone wants to be like us because we are American. This center-of-the-world mentality is built into us, Amreekans, or just native English speakers. We don’t even know it.

We defend our cultures from other Americans, only to turn around and mock our parents’ countries and languages, judging them based entirely on our Americanized standards. I didn’t even fully realize this until my mental tango with Pakistani English arose.

I don’t imagine Pakistanis look at Americans with disdain for writing “color” instead of “colour.” It seems they are too busy being multilingual by virtue of living in a nation where the average worker can speak to you in one language, and then turn and speak to a co-worker in another. Histories of multi-ethnic migrations and presence still show their marks in the languages that remain.

This happens in the United States too, where Spanish or Hindi-speaking workers might communicate with each other in their mother tongues. However, instead of seeing this as an extra mental ability, it is seen as a result of being an immigrant. The highlight of an immigrant not speaking English isn’t that this person is in a learning process or multilingual – the highlight is that they have not learned English yet, or they are not native English speakers, and that almost makes them incomplete.

End of story.

Even people who learn English from watching American television and shows at least give the language a try, which is more than I can say for people like myself- who believed that if English wasn’t being spoken the way I speak it, it was not right. I could excuse differences I detected in the British and Australian English I heard on TV because that’s their primary language.

[bctt tweet=”Still, second-generation children with American accents mock the accents of their roots.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Yet, somehow, all the other places that had been colonized weren’t excused, as if they didn’t have their own experience with an outside culture. I hadn’t even realized the pedestal I set my standards on by default of being an American writer and supposedly “well-spoken” in English.

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Head Over Feels

My cousin’s English was not used incorrectly, and I couldn’t presume that it was just because English is her second language. Her words were fine. My interpretations were wrong.

Race The World Inequality

The two worlds that make me whole are no longer safe

Politics is a trash fire and history is heartbreaking, but when your country disappoints you, most people can look across a border, across an ocean, and find some hope in a different place.

This year wasn’t like that for me. This year, both of my homelands let me down.

I’m talking about the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and the extrajudicial killings in the United States, although Americans don’t call them that.

I am half Filipina and half white resident of Texas, but to me the Philippines represents all my earliest memories: the foods that mean home, the language that means family, the relatives who give me their love. I often pass for white and cannot speak for those who experience the world differently because of the way they look.

This isn’t a story of personal dread. As one of those people whose heart belongs to more than one place, my story, and my horror, is its own.

Last May, Filipinos elected a president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has become the subject of international jawdropping at his apparent indifference to death.

With his explicit encouragement, thousands of alleged drug users and drug dealers have been shot dead by police and vigilantes and vigilantes who turn out to be police, usually masked and riding motorcycles in pairs. Pinoys fear for their lives. Those who are impoverished and whose crimes are low-level are the most vulnerable to the shootings. Bystanders die too. Some of them children:  Danica Mae Garcia  Althea Fhem Barbon, and Francis Mañosca.

Any Filipinos involved with drugs, even those with a history of drug use who have since quit, have been asked to surrender to officials and have their names added to a list. But doing so can be a death sentence. Many of them are still shot. Sometimes their bodies are marked with a sign: “Pusher.” Or “Addict.”

Sometimes the caskets are laid with plates of the favorite foods of the departed: Fried fish and rice; foods that mean home.

Human rights groups and Western leaders including President Obama, along with Filipino leaders such as Leila de Lima, have condemned the killings. The United States stopped an aid package in response to the killings. But–this was the hardest to comprehend–Duterte’s approval ratings at home remain high, even as his rhetoric edges into threats against the lives of his detractors, too.

People who believe he is doing the right thing are part of my life. Among his supporters at least at one point: A woman who taught me to dance, my uncle, a family friend who used to be my teacher, and my mother.

When I began to hear about the killings, at first I thought maybe the absence of outrage represented a gap between the Philippine culture where I passed a childhood and the culture I inhabit as an American.

However, when I talked to my mom about Duterte, she brought up without prompting the killings of black people by police in the United States. Her stance, sympathetic to law enforcement, was the same no matter the setting. I realized that she saw the Black Lives Matter movement and the Philippine extrajudicial killings as part of one larger conversation. And I wondered why I hadn’t.

Duterte himself justifies murder via comparisons with the West. “When you bomb a village you intend to kill the militants but you kill the children there,” he complained of the United States. “Why do you say it is collateral damage to the West and to us it is murder?” He spoke similarly about the devaluing of black lives on American turf. Out of his contradictions emerged this piece of truth.

While they happen in a distinct political and cultural landscape, the killings in the Philippines are not entirely separate from the killings of people of color in the United States, driven by  criminalizing blackness, which in turn has been aided by the War on Drugs.

In both countries, drug users have been scapegoated as the root of the nation’s worst problems, to be purged to save the rest of us. In both countries, children are shot down and their killers forgiven because the public cannot shake from their imagination the shadowy menace such acts are supposed to tackle.

Observers of the Duterte era must continue to speak against all human rights abuses, but in America we must do so knowing that we are not more humane just because we are the more “developed” nation.

If Western-dominated voices so easily reject extrajudicial killings when they happen across the Pacific, then Americans should reject the same scapegoating rationale in our own attitudes toward extrajudicial killings on our own soil. But we don’t because some lives don’t matter to us, either.

The election of Donald Trump starkly confirmed how many Americans—far too many—will double down in support of a vision truly dangerous to people of color. Should I be surprised that Trump reportedly endorsed Duterte’s drug war?

I don’t understand the ease with which death is waved off no matter which way I turn.

Tech Now + Beyond

Russian hackers might be the biggest threat to America now

If you’ve been following the election, you know that there have been a few hacks (including the big one against the Democratic National Committee) and some hints at Russian involvement. You may even remember last July when Donald Trump dared Russian hackers to try and break into Hillary Clinton’s private server. But you probably didn’t expect the U.S. government to publicly call out Russia (we know we didn’t).

After months of suspicious information leaks, this past Friday, the U.S. government accused Russia of cyber attacks intended to influence the election.

Russians Hacked Image

A statement released by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence very directly accuses Russia: “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities. These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”

In response, Russian officials have rejected claims that their government is at fault for these hacks. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov commented on his department’s website that: “This whipping up of emotions regarding ‘Russian hackers’ is used in the U.S. election campaign, and the current U.S. administration, taking part in this fight, is not averse to using dirty tricks.”

Data Breach/ Cyber Attack Image

If you’re asking yourself why the U.S. government is concerned enough about these hacks to publicly condone the Russian state, hang on, we’ll explain:

It’s a pretty big deal that a foreign nation might be trying to influence U.S. politics (I mean, that’s not good in anyone’s world). But it’s an even bigger deal, because U.S.-Russian relations haven’t been the greatest of late.

Another heated topic of conversation during presidential debates is, of course, Syria. Clinton and Trump disagreed over Syrian policy for many reasons (of course), but one of those central concerns was (unsurprisingly) Russia.

The U.S. and Russia have gone head-to-head over support of the Syrian state and its people over the last several months. Tensions rose this past month in particular as the U.S. and Russia agreed to a cease fire which ended abruptly with worsened attacks. To many, Syria has felt uncomfortably like a proxy war with Russia backing the Syrian state and the U.S. supporting Syrian rebels as the two sides fight out their political views over innocent civilians.

Syrian Attack Image

This past Friday, (as the U.S. released statements accusing Russia of cyber attacks) U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that Russian actions in the Syrian civil war “beg for” a war crimes investigation. That’s what we like to call a double whammy.

That’s not to mention the reports that Russia has moved short-range nuclear-capable missiles into Kaliningrad or the likelihood that Russia has supported WikiLeaks members in releasing more leaked emails from Clinton.

The announcement just formalized what many already knew: Cold War-era tensions are on the rise once again.

Race The World Inequality

Why does everyone question the validity of my ethnicity?

When I was eight, I told my third grade class that my mom was from England. They asked me why I didn’t have an accent, I explained, and that was the end of that. Fast forward five years, I’m thirteen. I tell my new, pre-pubescent middle school math classmates that my mom is British. This time, though, I sit through fifteen minutes of questioning of whether I’m “half-white” or “even a real Indian.” 

My peers are often under the impression that my mother’s British nationality makes my racial identity as an Indian woman less valid. Not that this makes sense at all; my mother’s British nationality has no influence over my Indian ethnicity (or hers, for that matter). The differentiation between nationality and ethnicity is a conversation that needs to be brought up in order to elucidate the idea that a specific race is not assigned to a particular geographic location. Girls who don’t fit into these predetermined correlations exist. And – hi, we matter.

There are just over 2 million Indian immigrants residing in the United States and 1.4 million in the United Kingdom. It’s detrimental for them and their posterity to grow up with the idea that their place of residence determines their ethnic validity. If any of these 3.4 million people chose to have children, would their children be viewed as “less Indian” than their peers whose parents were born and raised in India? With the influx of immigrants entering countries like the United States in recent years, it’s a question that needs to be addressed immediately. Immigrants, no matter where they hail from, represent an era of change, of growth, of progress. To invalidate the generations after them and use their nationalities against them contradicts everything that we supposedly stand for.

Growing up as an Indian-American girl in a predominantly Asian and South Asian community, I had always been very in touch with my roots. I knew where I was from, how hard my parents worked to get here, and the words to more Bollywood songs than almost anyone I knew. I never questioned the validity of my heritage, so why did everyone else? My mother is British, born and raised in Southeast London, and somehow that makes me less Indian in the eyes of my peers. In a sea of “You’re not even a real Indian” and other equally ignorant remarks, I started to believe them. At thirteen years old, I didn’t know enough to realize that there was no substance behind their argument. Maybe I was less Indian than they were.

In retrospect, I’m angry. I wish I would have stood up for myself, dropped some knowledge about nationality and ethnicity on their adolescent selves. But, as it turns out, that isn’t what I did. I took my mother’s British upbringing to mean that I wasn’t really allowed to identify with the narrative of an Indian woman. I clearly wasn’t white, though, so I spent most of my middle school years in a very awkward, confusing middle ground. Indian, but not quite enough to be a real one. People around me seemed to think that my mother’s nationality had diluted and invalidated my own ethnicity.

What I’m trying to say is that the two don’t need to match. One can exist independently of the other. If race and ethnicity influence almost all aspects of the American way of life, it’s important to distinguish between the two. Nationality refers to the state, province, or country that one resides in. It has to do with physical location rather than with history. Ethnicity, however, involves a particular racial or cultural group that one identifies with. This refers to ancestry and the original socially and linguistically distinct group of people that one is a part of. My ethnicity is Indian and my nationality is American. My mother’s British nationality is not something genetic that can be passed down to me; I am as American as she is British. Race, identity, religion, and nationality are all different things and do not need to match in order to be legitimate. In our increasingly multicultural world, it’s easy to get these muddled, but for the sake of respect and accuracy, let’s do our best to refrain from confusing them.

So no, my British mother did not play a part in my ethnicity. But it did, however, give me my appreciation for Earl Grey.