Not all opinions are equal

I have always wanted to be for peace.

The peacemakers of today’s well-connected world cry, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion! Just scroll on past!”

And I find that I cannot be a peacemaker because all opinions are not created equal.

There are opinions about whether this or that candidate is better. There are opinions about how we should manage the city water problem. There are opinions about which health care or tax policy is best. And generally those opinions are all equal. I may disagree with one or more, but I am happy to listen and let live.

Hate is hate no matter its shape ableism meme.jpg

It’s when an opinion is hate against a person or group of people due to circumstances beyond their control that it is no longer an opinion, or at least no longer equal.

Many pundits blame social media for the angry divides of today’s society. And I can see why. Social media is where a lot of arguments happen.

But social media is designed to send us what we like. The algorithms of the various sites don’t send us everything available but rather place us in bubbles of mostly those who agree with us. We only encounter a fraction of the differing opinions out there.

Social media doesn’t set out to create conflict. Quite the opposite. But technology has become a great leveler.

I think it is more that relatively cheap and portable technology has given voices to everyone and blurred lines of geography. It makes the saying, “Injustice somewhere is injustice everywhere,” more palpable.

The fact is that the world was NOT less divided thirty years ago or a hundred years ago. It was more divided.

But privileged people didn’t know about most of it and those experiencing the most injustice had only each other to talk to about their exploitation. The world was more segregated and groups deemed unsightly either stayed out of sight or were put out of sight.

Today the world is not any more divided than it was, but we know about more divides than we used to. Opinions and the actions they engendered which harmed less privileged groups were not often challenged because the harmed groups had no voice and no access to the places where the privileged relaxed and talked.

Now that social media is that place and technology has allowed almost everyone in, we are confronted by those we have opinions about. And they talk back..

I grew up in remote, rural Eastern Oregon, an area that voted 70 percent for Trump in 2016 and which was almost entirely white when I was a child.

When my mom first arrived in the area to homestead with my father, she saw a black family at a gas station in the tiny town of Elgin. She went up to them gladly. Black people had taken her in when she had to leave home at seventeen and she was overjoyed to see their faces. But the father told her they were leaving because of the rampant racism and ostracism in the area.

They left and that was that. No more “divide” in the community.

When I heard racist jokes at school as a child, I didn’t call them out the way I do on Facebook. I kept my head down because as a kid with a disability, I got plenty of bullying as it was. It wasn’t a “divide” because I had no voice, no possibility of standing up, and People of Color were simply elsewhere.

Now we see a divide. Before we could pretend it didn’t exist because those who were vulnerable hid it to survive or were so far removed from us that we never saw or heard from them.

Opening up, people who were shut away walking out in public, the formerly silenced having a voice—these things are not divisive. It is not the “evil” of social media that creates the strife.

It is bigotry and judgementalism. It has always been there. Now it is being challenged.

I welcome differences of opinion when they are not about judging and mistreating others. It is really that simple. Not all opinions are equal. You are entitled to your opinion so long as it does not incite hatred or judgment against others for characteristics they did not choose… or even for things they did choose in so far as they have no bearing on anyone beyond themselves.

Ridiculing a person with a disability, accusing them of “faking” or declaring what you think they should not be allowed to do or have responsibility for is not an “opinion.” It’s an attack for the purpose of silencing and dismissing people.

I am fine with discussing health care policy and climate policy and immigration control and medical ethics with varied viewpoints. What is not open for discussion and what will get comments deleted without warning are those opinions which specifically judge and attack people for reasons that are innate to them.

People standing up to judgement, on the other hand, are welcome. Our voices only sound strident or hot-tempered because they are rusty from too much silence.

Fair warning.

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.

Race traitors and the white supremacist attack on women

I wish I could believe that the proliferation of hate-filled social media posts is all hot air and no substance. For several months before the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville I had been researching one particular facet of the Alt Right---a virulent hatred against women and most especially against white women who don't reject all non-white men.

But I didn't post my research because I promised my readers soothing virtual cups of tea, not bitter drafts brewed from the sludge of the internet.

Then after the attack that killed Heather Heyer my google searches turned up cached pages on many mainstream media outlets and blogs in which comments by white supremacists had been deleted. The deleted comments called Heather Heyer a "race traitor" and expressed gladness at her death. These were deleted and rightly so. But we should also know that they were written by someone's hand. I found a dozen but then stopped looking. I can't catalog the whole internet without a research team.

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

Creative Commons image by Tim Pierce

The fact is that some white supremacists consider Heather Heyer to be a race traitor. Why? Because she stood among demonstrators who opposed the KKK and neo-Nazis? Because she helped people of color and others who got the brunt of injustice in her legal work? Because she stood up for social justice? If she is considered a race traitor by those criteria, then there are a lot of us.

We don't know how many white supremacists wrote these comments or how many support them, but those who write these things are still well accepted in Alt Right circles and my research showing widespread attacks against women and accusations against "race traitors" is overdue.

It is my sorrow that I can't be more comforting to readers. In times of sickness, sometimes the tea must be brewed with bitter herbs to fight invading parasites and disease. This is one of those times. 

The self-proclaimed Islamic State, one of the most deadly terrorist organizations ever conceived, was primarily built through social media and hateful internet posts. Many a western intelligence agent is now employed trying to uncover and combat the online spread of ISIS ideology. People are pulled into these extremist movements by years of hateful on-line posts, echoing back and forth and building rage and belief in their own superiority. 

The American Alt Right, like ISIS, grew in the haven of on-line anonymity, where despicable things could be said, agreed upon and ricocheted around with impunity. Now ISIS is one of the greatest security threats on the globe with a stated goal of fostering fear and hatred between moderate Muslims and Europeans.

White nationalists and the Alt Right in the United States now threaten safety and democracy as well. With large arsenals of military weapons, they say they'll do much more violence if their threats are not heeded. They could write the dictionary definition of terrorism.

Both groups also share a rabid hatred of women as well some vehement female supporters. 

Most people called "race traitors" by today's white supremacists are white women who had mixed-race relationships. But the labeling of Heather Heyes shows that it is primarily the stand against racism that earns that epithet. 

The largest and best-known white supremacist website Stormfront.org, which at last known count in 2015 had 300,000 registered users, makes for sickening reading. Supposedly the N-word is banned on the site because the focus is not specifically hatred against people of color or any particular group. But the site is riddled with the terms "race traitor" and "mudshark."

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

Creative Commons by  Pedro Ribeiro Simões 

 "Would you help a race traitor if she was being beaten in front of you by her black partner?" one thread asks. The answers tell their own story.

User "Vigilante Bellator" writes: "I don't find race traitors to be white anymore. And as for non whites I really don't care what happens to them, being women or not. That woman is tainted and lost anyway, I might sound cruel but I wouldn't care."

User "CAPITOL Punisher" replies: "If it had to happen at a time when the rule of law has ceased to exist then I would shoot the kaffir (sic) and hang her by her neck in the nearest tree!"

User "Creationofadam" posts: "I wouldn't bat an eye or even bother to call the cops. They knew what they were getting into and they made the concious (sic) decision to turn their back on their race and flush millenias (sic) of evolution down the the toilet to become a race traitor."

When another on-line discussion mentioned Stormfront on an ign.com entertainment board a user called "Edgelord" logged in to defend the white supremacist cause. He alleged a "genocide" is in progress against the "white race," and used the claim of racially distinct genes to influence others, "Science shows that the races evolved independently and thus evolved different mental and physical features." He later specified what had become apparent to me on Stormfront, that the primary target of this propaganda is white women, "We don't have animosity for white men who racemix with Africans, just white women," Edgelord wrote.

On other forums the focus on women is even more evident. One discussion on the VNNForum, a site considered by some to be more extreme than Stormfront, discusses women as "the weakness of the white race." 

It begins with a post by a user tagged as "Devere" who complained that white men were not taking what is theirs: "Women are not equipped to lead, to protect the survival of their people. Men are. Women in positions of power and with independence from their men will make and have made and will continue to make White genocidal decisions... Generally, our women are the prize that goes to the victor. The non-white races are winning -- so they are taking our women. We are not even fighting back."

The posts get increasingly violent and graphic with experienced members "educating" newbies by recommending Mein Kampf and lamenting that they cannot kill people of color and white women who would have anything to do with people of color as a means of employment as Nazi guards once did in "those golden years," as well as predicting, "When will this end? When the race war starts and we ... hang every white woman that has ever screwed a non-white." Other threads discuss women in general as "sick little animals."

While this is not the public face most often seen in white supremacist marches of polished boots and uniform shirts, where smiling women often march together with a crowd of men, this is the ideological base and the on-line recruiting ground for such groups.

When public Alt Right figures ask us to be tolerant of white supremacists and to allow them to "express their views peacefully," it is worth remembering that this anti-women extremism is one (but far from the only) trait they share with terrorist groups like ISIS. If we cannot tolerate blatant hate speech by those who twist Islam to suit one fascist ideology, then we cannot tolerate the blatant hate speech of those who twist Christianity or racial identity for the same purpose.

"I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land." 

- Pete Seeger

"Virtue signalling" versus "This is my life"

I go pick up my six-year-old son from kindergarten and he says a big kid from another class chased him and hit him repeatedly on the playground. Then he says another kid is calling him a racial slur.

I delicately ask the teacher if there have been any issues, and she explodes at me. "I don't want to hear it! I know for a fact that if there is any conflict, then your son started it. I don't care what anyone saw or what he says. He did something first. I know that. It's the way he is. It's in his background." 

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

I should have known not to bring anything up with this teacher. The other teacher swears my son is no more rambunctious than any of the other boys. She says they're all difficult. But mine is the only one not considered "white" by the standards of the country where we live.

He hides behind the shelves in the kindergarten boot room, eyes wide and mouth trembling. That night we have the discussion I've been dreading. Sex? Are you kidding? Imagine being afraid of discussing the birds and the bees!

Parents of black boys in America know this discussion though and I wonder if they dread it as much as I have. It goes like this: "I know it isn't fair, but for your own protection, you must never ever hit back. They will judge you more harshly because of the color of your skin and eyes." 

Again. this is kindergarten.

After the kids are in bed, I get online. It's work but it also involves blogging and discussing issues with people around the world. One of those issues is the ban on people from seven majority Muslim countries entering the US. And someone throws the accusation of "virtue signalling" at me because I express support for refugees who are affected by the ban. 

Initially I didn't even know what the epithet meant, I've been out of the country so long. But I looked it up and the gist of it is that I'm white so there is no way I could really be against racism and Islamophobia. I just say I am in order to "signal" how "virtuous" I am in an attempt to avoid anti-white backlash. So goes the logic of smug white commentators.

The absurdity of the past two weeks is staggering. I pride myself on being able to engage "the other side" with compassion but, dear goddess, how do you communicate across this canyon? 

If I tried to explain my day to the "virtue signalling" slinger, I might as well be speaking Urdu. 

I don't claim to know what it is like to be Black or Muslim in America. But I do have this little window into the issue of race because of the fluke of weird Czech attitudes toward ethnicity. I get enough of a window to know that I'm not experiencing the full extent of it by far.

And here's what my week is like:  

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

Refugees - Creative Commons image by Steve Thompson 

A gay lawyer friend and I helped a disabled immigrant with housing and paperwork the other night. After all, he was one of only a handful of people who stayed on a tough job with us one time. Then I go downhill skiing and I steer primarily by the sound of skis scraping on either side of me. I miss the days when I had a guide for blind skiers.

Then I come home and my good friend born in Syria who I've known for fifteen years and who ten years ago married an American and moved there is worried about whether or not she'll ever see the rest of her family again. (Oh, and her family is Christian, as are more than 20 percent of Syrians). I wish I could hug her long distance. I wish I could do anything but feel helpless.

I plan to go for a weekend to the home of the transgender friend with kids who I didn't used to know is trans. I have a short and pleasant Facebook conversation with a colleague I once went through a war zone with, who is also a Muslim and a former refugee. I'm glad to know he and his family are safe and well. Then I go out in subzero temperatures to feed animals and water overwintering plants in the urban homesteading that keeps our carbon footprint low.

When I say I am against racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry and when I say I care about humanitarian and environmental issues, I'm only standing up for myself, my friends and my family just as you would if the storm troopers were at your door. 

Now I hear that there are protests in airports against the immigration ban for people from those seven countries which have lots of Muslims but oddly not nearly as many terrorists as the countries not banned. There are crowds of people standing on guard while Muslims pray in US airports.

I'm glad there is this outpouring of support for people who have had it rough for many years and who have generally suffered through it in silence and alone, trying to be nicer and less physical than everyone else, even while they were attacked, so that they wouldn't be labeled as "aggressive Muslims."  

I can't help but remember a trip back to the US five years ago. I was standing in an interminable security line with my kids--then no more than toddlers. I finally reached the point at which we were to enter the machines and checks and I noticed a family standing near by outside the line.

"We'll miss the flight," the woman said quietly but I heard. I am legally blind but I also made out the scarf around her head, wrapped in that way that I know usually means a Muslim. Her husband and two small children stood pressed near her, but he said nothing. All of their faces were a deep golden brown, likely with Middle Eastern or South Asian background.

I thought I understood. They had been held up and knew they didn't have time to stand in the line. Many other people would have begged to be allowed to cut in line, and with small children most would have been allowed. But they were too terrified to draw attention to themselves. 

I made a quick decision and stopped inching forward. Then I beckoned to them to join the line. The man's head jerked up and I thought he must be amazed, even though I couldn't see his expression well. The woman pushed him forward a little and the slid into the line in front of my kids. I heard a rumble behind me, coughs and someone pushed me roughly from behind. There were some coughs but nothing overt, yet.

My heart hammered in my throat. I am not a coward about most things but I have had plenty of reason to be afraid of public judgment and crowd disapproval. I whipped around, ready to defend myself and thrust my white cane, which I carry in confusing environments like airports, even though I can walk without it out to the side and demanded of the people behind me in line, "Have you got something to say?" 

The crowd stilled and I turned back around, the back of my neck and head burning as if their gaze could light me on fire. Still I felt a thrill inside. I had managed it. The Muslim family moved off quickly with only mumbled thanks. I gained no public approval or virtuous status that day. I did gain a bit more courage to act on my conscience, even when I may be publicly judged however.

This isn't "virtue signalling." This is my life. These are my people. You slander and malign them or you threaten to take away our basic rights, you ban people of another minority faith even if it isn't the exact same one as mine or you mock someone who shares a profession AND disability status with me, and you are much more likely to see my not-so-virtuous side. 

Smrak 3: Gender specific toys and media that promote either ditsy

When my daughter was a baby I thought it would be simple. I would scrimp and save and buy her the best and most beautiful dolls on the market--the big ones with all the accessories, the ones made of good quality materials and none of that cheap plastic that releases toxins. Then she would never want Barbies. End of problem.

Creative Commons image by Thomas Hawk

Creative Commons image by Thomas Hawk

Right…

Where I live cheap Barbie knock-offs are the most common gift given to children, after candy with artificial coloring. My daughter was given one by the organizers of a nature walk we joined. She has been given these horrid bits of soft, easily breakable, toxic plastic with extreme body-image issues, by relatives and visitors to our home on a regular basis. 

And of course, her friends have real Barbies, which are slightly less likely to fill the house with carcinogenic clutter, but are no better for girls to play with. And that’s usually all they play with. 

Why do I have such an issue with Barbies? You might ask. My daughter is incredibly slim with a perfect figure. She’s not one of the girls in most danger of poor-body-image problems. She’s the type others will envy after all. 

My issue is only partly to do with ridiculously long, skinny legs and waists that look like a pulled taffy. Those are problematic. But the feet permanently bent into the shape of shoes that are harmful to kids’ feet and require women to tiptoe through the world are worse. The focus on clothes, clothes, clothes, shoes, shoes, shoes, makeup, makeup, makeup, hair, hair, hair is simply nauseating. Girls should have other interests as well. 

I know the company has made some Barbie firefighter outfits and other less impractical garb, but these outfits are invariably extra baggy and ridiculous looking. Face it. Anything that actually fits on that doll well wouldn't allow for much freedom of movement in real life. Little girls don’t actually use the firefighter outfits and the focus remains on clothing that obviously allows for no activities beyond primping and attracting sexual interest.

That’s my problem. I have given in to everything being pink. What I can’t abide is the fact that the girl’s section of any toy store is entirely focused on appearance and primping, as if that is the only thing girls can be interested in. Some girls resist it. But my daughter doesn’t. She has a natural knack for these things and I want her to have fun learning to do her hair and dress up. Who doesn’t? It’s fun. 

Creative Commons image by Fortune Cookie of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Fortune Cookie of Flickr.com

But I also want her to sometimes do other things. 

On top of toy stores, there are the girl-oriented TV shows. Disney has done a relatively good job with some of their princess movies, despite the close resemblance between Disney princesses and Barbie dolls. At least some of them do things other than primp and they usually use fairly normal voices. 

But these are never the videos my daughter and her friends want to watch most. I made the terrible mistake of buying a Lego Friends DVD to take overseas with us because it claimed to support “diversity” and “friendship.”  The videos make me nauseous. The “friendship” promoted is only that within one’s own little clique and is not open to others. The girls in the video are constantly focused on primping and will often dash back home in the middle of an “adventure” to change clothes or make sure they look dazzling. This is all spelled out in detail and presents such an unhealthy message that as far from English-language videos as we are, I’ve had to disappear it.

The worst part of the video and many others I’ve seen are the little vocalizations that the girl characters emit. There are constant “Ooo!” and “Eeeeh!” noises as if someone is making fun of the women of the 1950s. Except that this is done in all seriousness and presented as girls being pretty and attractive. My daughter now imitates these noises for hours on end.  

Raising international boys: Peace soldiers not afraid to cry or care

He loves toy soldiers. He likes the swift, bracing feeling of their uniforms. He respects the steadfast pace of their tank tracks. He enjoys the tantalizing idea of their weapons.

He stands in bittersweet sorrow at the side of the road where a shrine marks the remembrance of a family for a soldier dead these seventy years--fled from an occupied homeland and lost on the eastern front. He vows that he will smite all those who harm children and invade small countries. 

Five years old and he asks me to remember to bring rubber gloves, so we can pick up litter on the way home from school. 

On the weekend we go to the grandparents and sit around the table in the kitchen where Nazi soldiers once stole the milk and left our grandfather hungry as a little boy. 

"Don't push me!" my little son sobs when his sister jabs an elbow into his middle while they wait for Grandma's soup. He clobbers her on the head with his spoon.

"Boys don't cry!" Grandpa bellows. 

The little boy stares at him with wide shocked eyes. It is possible--though unlikely--that this is actually the first time he has heard that old adage.

At our house, boys do cry and jabbing and hitting are the more serious offenses. Gritting my teeth, I handle the situation diplomatically. 

After dinner Grandma hands out gifts to the children, since we weren't here during the holidays--earrings for the girl, a nerf pistol for the boy. They are both very happy. Who am I to complain?

And yet I know that in this adopted country where we live (the Czech Republic) the chance that one's son will become a soldier and go off into a terrible war--where he may be killed or lose his sense of humanity--is minuscule. They don't understand that for American boys in families without wealth the stats are far different. He will not always be a boy here. He is a US citizen because of me and someday he will be a young man and a target for recruiters. 

I have two new teenage ESL students. More boys. They bring in an article from their English study magazine. It's about world peace. I ask open ended questions to get them using English grammar. Do you want peace? Yes. Do you think we should have a military? Well, only a very small one. If we have a small military, who will tackle an evil force such as Hitler when it comes again? The UN.

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I do understand their perspective, but one of them is headed to the US as an exchange student in a few months. I have a talk with him about it, explaining about how Americans who study only American history see these things differently, how such well-reasoned statements can be considered highly controversial. 

Later my five-year-old is still playing with his tank and toy soldiers. He loves the sound effects of war. But when we write down wishes for the next year to put into our special wish jar, he says, "I wish all soldiers would be careful not to hurt anyone." 

And when scolded, even gently he cries. And that is okay because boys will be boys. A hug will fix it.

How do I explain the world of violence to small children? Or do they know already? Sometimes they ask the most discerning questions. I could swear they know the score all too well.

"Mama, why do presidents get to make wars?"

Of Barbies and Guns: A mom in the crossfire of gender stereotypes

When my daughter was a baby, I swore we would have no pink. I never liked pink in the first place. It reminds me of overly sweet synthetic medicine and being sick as a child. 
And it promotes gender stereotypes. 

But then I was given baby clothes. My family lives on modest means and it’s against my religion to be wasteful. When you’re a new mother in a circle of friends at the lower end of the middle class, you're in the baby-clothes rotation system whether you like it or not. It’s silly to buy new when your friends are desperate to reclaim their closet space. 

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The problem was that mostly I was given pink. Some boy clothes turned up but mostly I had garbage sacks full of tiny pink dresses.

When I—on rare occasions—actually bought baby clothes, they were never pink. And my daughter wore the non-pink clothes we acquired to rags. Every day I told her she was strong and smart. (And she was.) She was also very pretty and I tried not to tell her that too often. 

I had the dream that my children would grow up without the limitations of sexism and gender stereotypes. When I was a child my parents were firmly anti-establishment and I never had pink dresses. I owned only one doll before the age of seven and I played swords with my brothers. I am convinced that this played a positive role in my development. 
But my daughter had other ideas. 

My daughter adored pink from the beginning. Before she could talk, she would watch me pick out her clothes and she would reach down under the pretty blue and green dresses to the pink ones hidden at the bottom of the drawer. She’d howl any day that I insisted she where something not pink. Pink was the first color she learned to name. 

Let’s be clear. I was a “good” mother. I listened to the American Pediatric Association. My child never saw a lighted screen before the age of two, except in passing at someone else’s house. We don’t own a TV. Our storybooks were about nature, boys and very non-princess-like girls.  She didn’t get this infatuation with pink from the media. 

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When I was growing up, “feminists” were people (like my parents) who insisted that men and women are exactly the same on the inside. I simply couldn’t believe that a little girl could be inherently drawn to the color pink by something encoded in her DNA. 

But as much as I am a feminist, I’m not a controlling parent with an ideology to force down my child’s throat. So, I relented and let her wear pink. I even started buying pink clothes. I even allowed a few princess books to sneak into the house, even though I still buy the anti-princess books too. 

You see. I have these troubling memories from my own childhood. Yes, I grew up out in the sticks with two wild brothers and no TV. Yes, I enjoyed playing swords and army and building forts and Legos and sled racing. 

But deep down inside, I longed for dolls and dresses. I loved my first doll and still own her, ragged and bleached by time as she is. And I notice that when we drew pictures as children, my brothers drew pictures of complex military battles and underground hide-outs. I drew ladies with amazing princess dresses and little high heels. 

Where in the world had I even SEEN high heels at that point? (Seriously. I not only didn't have a TV,  was also legally blind.)

I remember the day my daughter saw high heels for the first time. My adult niece was living with us then and she was dressing up to go to a traditional European winter ball. So, she pulled out a pair of bright red heels from a deep closet and put them on under her dress. 

My two-year-old’s mouth dropped open and her eyes literally went as round as quarters. She reached out her little hands and nearly fell over in a swoon of ecstasy. And that was the beginning of a true obsession.

It only took seeing them once and my little girl was hopelessly enthralled. For the past five years, not a day has gone by without my hearing about high heeled shoes, who has them, what color they are, what they sound like, "when when when when" she will be allowed to destroy her feet with them. 

I may have drawn pictures of high heeled shoes as a toddler, but I grew out of the interest long before I was a teenager. I have never even been tempted to wear them. As a young adult I simply thought they were ugly, stupid and a plot by patriarchal men to slow women down. Now I really and truly hate them, but I have to admit that I haven’t been able to find a man who likes them either.

Over the years, I have given in inch by inch, because I AM NOT one of those controlling parents who doesn’t accept their child for who he or she really is, now am I? (Written with gritted teeth.) 

My daughter now owns more princess dresses than will fit in the jumbo dress-up box. We’ve spent a small fortune trying to lure her away from high heels with sparkly pink, shiny black, frilly white, red-hot and every other imaginable type of princess slipper. She owns a dozen very pretty dolls (very multicultural, mind you), a play kitchen and boxes upon boxes of ignored puzzles, legos, blocks, train sets and books. She even owns pretend make-up, real nail polish and many tubes of organic lip balm (organic because she likes to eat it rather than just wear it).

I eventually simply gave up on trying to raise a non-stereotypical girl. My hope lay in my son. 
I couldn’t very well dress him in dresses in the conservative Eastern European country where we live. But I did everything short of that. He had dolls before he could crawl. He wore diverse colors, including pink. He got stories about strong women and kind men (along with all the stories read to my daughter). And the first time he saw fictional violence on TV during a visit to someone else’s house, he ran to me crying that someone was hurt. 

The truth is that my son is very kind and sensitive. At age five, he is still confused about why some kids at preschool insist that boys can’t wear pink when he and his best friend really like pink along with lots of other colors. But he likes camouflage more. A lot more. Sigh.

And his initial reaction to toy cars was very similar to my daughter’s reaction to high heels. His first word was not “Mama” or even “Papa,” but “backhoe.”

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Having kids will always make you rethink your beliefs one way or another. And for me, it has meant the grudging conclusion that at least some boys and some girls do have hardwired stereotypical tendencies. 

If there was ever an environment that would have promoted a more balanced division of clothing and toys between children it was ours. Being an immigrant and unable to drive, I spent most of my children’s toddlerhood isolated from society as well as TV media. I was very careful in my approach to the issue, neither pressing one way or the other, providing many different toys and books.

But the preferences of my children were clear from an early age and stated in no uncertain terms. 

Today, my son is a camo-crazed truck and soldier enthusiast with a heart of gold, who wants to rescue the vulnerable and chase away bad guys without actually hurting them. He’s a quick reader and loves to draw things with wheels. He hordes dolls and stuffed animals but doesn’t actually play with them. My daughter is Elsa-obsessed and yearns to watch make-up videos on YouTube. She’s also reasonably good with numbers and puzzles, extraordinarily strong-willed and the more violent of the two. 

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Parents, you can’t win.

There are things I draw the line at--primarily toy guns and Barbies. Sometimes unwise friends or relatives gift the children such objects. I quietly discourage the adult offenders and grit my teeth through a few days of domestic disgust until these objects are carelessly left lying around and then they are disappeared. I have talked to my kids about both issues, quite openly. I don’t like toy guns that don’t shoot projectiles because they promote unrealistic ideas about firearms and play into a violence obsession in our society that I find extremely harmful. Barbies are ugly, difficult to dress and promote ideals of women being anorexic, clumsy, appearance-focused and brainless. 

My son gets to have bows and arrows and swords because these are not quite as poorly used by the entertainment media, but it’s a fine line. He also gets to have toy soldiers and tanks because they can be used to talk about history and real warfare. Hiding from the hard things in life will do us no good. But Mama has to draw the line somewhere.

As for my daughter, beyond clothes, shoes and make-up, she is sometimes interested in drawing and music. I promote these interests with great gusto, as somewhat more wholesome gender stereotypes. She does get lots of pretty stuff and lots of dolls. Just not Barbies. She gets to watch Disney princess movies but not Barbie or Lego Friends and other things that portray girls as cliquish and ditsy. She’ll get to wear high heels when she’s reached her full height. 

These are my lines and my husband’s lines, where we have been able to draw them. Every situation is different. Would I outlaw all military toys and pretend make-up until age twelve if I could? Probably. I’m not judgmental of other parents who are trying to find balance in other ways.

It isn’t easy trying to bring up well-balanced children in a media-saturated, fashion-aware world. If you come up with any nifty secret strategies, please let me know.

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Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.