Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Context of Bathroom Stalls

I was thinking about Paul’s lecture on Wed, in which he summarized 3 different student views of racism/porn on the web.
1. it has always been around and always will be so the Internet in itself isn’t the greatest problem
2. kids think they’ll find authoritative view info (like writing a paper about Jews based on a certain site)
3. communities can more easily gather together

I’d like to add a fourth view to that, which counters the first point, in that one of the biggest problems with racism and porn on the web is that it takes it out of context, which makes it much harder for people to recognize or know how to process it properly.

My example is based on my upbringing in Southern California. My hometown, Santa Barbara, has a very large Mexican population, and my high school was about 40% Mexican students (and is now supposedly over 50%). Every single bathroom stall in the school had “white trash” and “brown trash” written all over it plus lots of other creative phrases. Since I was raised in Santa Barbara, I was accustomed to the racial tension in its various forms and thought little of the writings on the wall, aside from the fact that they made for great reading material when I went to the bathroom.
If a high school kid were to move from Kansas to Santa Barbara, he would be shocked at the racist writings on the bathroom wall. Through looking at his surroundings both in the high school and in the community, he would (probably) get quickly used to that just being how things were.
However, if a kid from Kansas went online to something like, he could more easily internalize what he was reading without having any context to put it in, and just assume that brown people are trash.
Furthermore, if he and his family have moved to Santa Barbara, he will likely go home after school and tell his parents about what he saw at school and they will (hopefully) explain what racial discrimination is.
If he sits on the computer in his bedroom in Kansas, he wouldn’t necessarily go ask his parents about the website he was surfing. They would want to know why he was surfing such a site and maybe threaten to monitor his surfing so he has little motivation to want to bring it up.

This subject of context touches on the “place” that Geoff described in his posting. He discussed the sacrosanctity of a place, which goes along with this notion of needing to understand the surroundings of a place to actually understand the place itself.


Blogger Joseph Lorenzo Hall said...

Just a quick note: I went to school from 2nd grade to my freshman year in high school in Midland, Texas... the birthplace and home of Georg W. Bush. We had integration programs where we'd get bussed from one school to the next year to year.

11:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Chan said...

A few of the threads have been very interesting, and I'd like to break out two different aspects of racist/pornographic material in the context of protecting the impressionable:

1) The "objective" existence of pornographic/racist material and its consequences

2) The "subjective" experience of racism/porn for people who encounter it

I realize that this categorization is open to criticism, but I present it as an operational distinction for the purposes of our discussion, not as a meaningful formal distinction.

The "objective" existence of pornographic/racist material and its consequences

Personally, I think that things like racism, the objectification of women, hate speech, etc... are just consequences of basic tribalistic tendencies in people. This is not to say it is acceptable, but rather that it is almost inevitable, and that it is foolish (in my opinion) to try to hide from it. The way to counter this is to establish a context in which to evaluate porn/racism/hate that neutralizes its potential negative consequences on the impressionable.
Obviously this is easier said than done. At the same time, I think we don't give enough credit to the supposed "innocents" we are trying to protect. Children are often more savvy than we give them credit for, and I wonder if we aren't often taking our own sense of outrage, and projecting it into a desire to protect "the innocents" (who may not be so innocent).
What are the consequences of exposure? As Sarita mentioned, exposure under the right circumstances may actually be beneficial, but takes a lot more effort.

The subjective experience of racism/porn for people who encounter it
Other, far more influential people than myself, have observed that racism is most painful when it is unexpected. Having lived in black and hispanic ghettos as an lonely asian kid, I was exposed to a good share of racism, directed at myself, and directed at other people. Even within my family and nominal ethnic group, there can be biases against those who are "not really Chinese". Asian-americans (if such a group truly exists) are an overeducated, literate group, and there is a lot of literature about the "Asian-American experience" for those who are curious. The point of this is not to establish some self-indulgent notion of my victimhood, but rather that (from my perspective), prejudice is pervasive, and is perpetuated by representatives of virtually all parties concerned.

But even when you have become intellectually aware that prejudice can come from any quarter, at any time and you believe yourself somewhat inured to it - emotionally it cuts deepest when it come unexpectedly. I can still remember walking home from campus one night as an undergrad, through one of the nicest neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, probably preoccupied with schoolwork, or girls or whatever. The air was clear and quiet, and the tree lined streets were familiar and safe. A car drove by and I was gifted with a drive by racist epithet - totally unexpected and out of context. The sense of rage was so intense, that I remember trembling in anger for the rest of the walk home.

I also remember driving my car, and seeing a cute little girl, probably no more than 4 years old, in the back seat of the car ahead of me. I smiled at her, and she smiled back, and then flipped me the bird, smiling angelically the entire time. I was speechless. When the seemingly innocent say or do nasty things, we are often upset because it violates our sense of their innocence.

In both of these instances, I would say that no objective harm was done, but the subjective experience was jarring, based on the context we carried into the situation. This goes to Geoff's notion of sacrosanctity of place. I would push it further and ask, do we project a certain notion of innocence onto others (as I did to the little girl) and hold this projected innocence to be sacrosanct?

Our motivations then become confused between protecting our sancrosanct notions of their innocence, versus giving them a broader (and less innocent) context for evaluation.

Do we want to protect the "innocent" because we treasure their innocence? And if so, is this really in their best interests? We may want to protect people from the emotional suffering of being the target of racism, but as painful as it may be, it is an important aspect of developing as a person and understanding how the world around you.

6:45 PM  

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