22 June, 2015

Apolitical Intellectuals

There are a few poems or pieces in which I think to share via blogpost, but this is certainly an exceptional one. "Apolitical Intellectuals" by Otto Rene Castillo sheds light on societal complacency and how we must push ourselves toward the greater good and become a better version of ourselves. "Apolitical Intellectuals" questions the inertia of supposed leaders in times where critical analysis and corresponding action are needed most. The poem sets the scene in a time where social change is needed while leaders remain inactive, even in their impending demise. That time is now.

Otto Rene Castillo is a renowned Guatemalan poet and revolutionary who was born in 1936, and was forced into exile following a Guatemalan coup in 1954.  Upon return to Guatemala, he became an active member of the Guatemala Workers Party while also founding a theater group.   Castillo was later assassinated by the Guatemalan military in 1967.

"Apolitical Intellectuals"
by Otto Rene Castillo

One day
the apolitical
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest 
of our people. 

They will be asked 
what they did 
when their nation died out 
like a sweet fire 
small and alone. 

No one will ask them 
about their dress, 
their long siestas 
after lunch, 
no one will want to know 
about their sterile combats 
with "the idea 
of the nothing" 
no one will care about 
their higher financial learning. 

They won't be questioned 
on Greek mythology, 
or regarding their self-disgust 
when someone within them 
begins to die 
the coward's death. 

They'll be asked nothing 
about their absurd 
born in the shadow 
of the total lie. 

On that day 
the simple men will come. 

Those who had no place 
in the books and poems 
of the apolitical intellectuals, 
but daily delivered 
their bread and milk, 
their tortillas and eggs, 
those who drove their cars, 
who cared for their dogs and gardens 
and worked for them, 
and they'll ask: 

"What did you do when the poor 
suffered, when tenderness 
and life 
burned out of them?" 

Apolitical intellectuals 
of my sweet country, 
you will not be able to answer. 

A vulture of silence 
will eat your gut. 

Your own misery 
will pick at your soul. 

And you will be mute in your shame.

19 June, 2015

Homegirl, Interrupted: No Country for Sociopaths

Over the past week, coverage of race and identity have been a hot combination of a topic.  However, there are few articles available that are describing insidious traits and behavior that surpass mere appearance.

Contemplate recent events depicted in mainstream media involving race and consider the following:

Can you think of anyone who has the following traits?

  • Exaggerated self-appraisal
  • Unreasonable personal standards created to see project oneself as exceptional
  • Inability to identify with the feelings and needs of others, and only attuned to those feelings if it is relevant to boosting one's own self-image
  • Relationships, personal or professional, that only exist to serve self-esteem regulation
  • Feelings of grandiosity, overt or covert, condescending behaviors and belief that one is "special"
  • Attention and admiration-seeking behavior
  • All above traits exist over long periods of time and consistent in varying situations, not normative for a specific development milestone, and are not the result of substance use or a medical condition.

Sound familiar?  Well, if it does remind you of people like Rachel Dolezal, you would be correct in what some mental health professionals are thinking but not saying loud enough.

The list you've just read above is an abridged version of the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), an Axis II diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition - and in spite of all the hilarious memes on social media of Dolezal, this is an issue that should be setting off more alarm bells than we're seeing in mainstream media.

According to psychologist Martha Stout in her book The Sociopath Next Door,  4% of the population in the US fall into the NPD category are sociopaths who lack basic emotions of empathy or conscience as we know it.  Unlike psychopaths who may experience joy or empowerment through inflicting physical pain, sociopaths are highly interested in attention and pity.

4% might sound like an insignificant figure, but that roughly equates to 12 million Americans who lack a moral compass and are dangerous when left to their own devices in positions of authority (political, corporate, organizational prestige and status, etc) or power (e.g. weapons, the ability to humiliate and destroy with minimal or no repercussions and accountability).

Because sociopaths lack empathy or sympathy, they are dangerous in the fact that they will cause damage or harm, physically or indirectly, in order to achieve personal pleasure or profit.  They are great at putting on airs, pretending that they feel compassion or relating to others, but only as a means to a selfish, disturbing end.

In Dolezal's case, there appears to be issues of self-worth that is fiercely masked through an aggressive sense of entitlement.  People like Dolezal often demand special treatment, even if it means hijacking an identity completely different from the self in effort to achieve personal goals, no matter how odd or eccentric.  Such traits listed above include a blatant disregard and disrespect of the people around them, including those they may claim to represent.

NPD or Sociopaths have their mind on the prizes of fame, power, and prestige - no matter the cost.   These fantasies and ideations of grandeur are so intense that they may appear to lose touch with reality.   They may display arrogant and unapologetic behaviors, and exploitation and devastation of others is not of any serious concern to them.

If one chooses to "out" a sociopath, one may be met with not only condescension, but an outright negation of any accountability regarding the damaging effects of their own behavior.   Such negation can include projection, lying, and distorting events for pity.  Such confrontations can also result in shame that leads to anger, in which they will have no trouble inflicting harm or humiliation upon others as the damage to their fragile egos cannot be tolerated.

Prestige and appearance of power is very important to sociopaths.  Anything that leads to camera time or admiration is their catnip.  They often will easily vacillate between admiration and contempt for others as their own self-judgement is just as unstable. In spite of any apparent conceited behavior, sociopaths are often emotionally bankrupt and hold no real feelings of self-worth. Instead of responding through symptoms of depression or anxiety, sociopaths turn to manipulation, exploitation and attention-seeking behavior.

Sociopaths can be discovered through a keen, clinically trained lens, but often in close, intimate relationships, we can easily overlook red flags alerting us to potential danger.  It can be quite difficult to identify who these people are unless we are trained to do so.

If we're going to talk about mental health with regard to people like Rachel Dolezal (indirect, institutionalized violence), are we going to have a serious, nuanced discussion about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and other Axis II diagnoses any time soon? This diagnosis is not to be used as an excuse to persist in negative and damaging behaviors; this population, if the severity fits, merits inpatient psychiatric treatment.  And to have any meaningful discussion on sociopaths means we need to discuss this part of the population in terms of mental health intervention, treatment, and policy.

In the meantime, so long as we turn a blind eye to the criteria above, we will see a continued rise of sociopaths in politics, social justice organizations, law enforcement, community members, and even within the realms of our own personal lives.

30 May, 2015

North by Northwest in Prague: How Being Mistaken As a Roma Woman Shaped My Views on Colonialism

My fall semester roomie on the left and yours truly on the right 
@ Dobrá čajovna in Prague, CZ
I spent a lot of time alone when I studied abroad in Prague, Czech Republic from summer 2006 - summer 2007.  There was a reason I didn’t go out as often as other Anglo-Saxon American students while studying Czech in Prague, even when I had extra money to spare. My Los Angeleno roommate in the fall 2006 semester at Charles University loved to eat out and on occasion when we’d go together, the dining experience wouldn’t be as pleasant as it was before she met me.

Staroměstské náměstí - Old Town Square in Prague
To put it simply, Prague natives are tolerant of visitors, almost apathetic. If you’re of European descent, you’ll be treated marginally well for the most part, but if you fall into an outside category – i.e. East Asian, Middle Eastern, Latin American, Roma (aka Gypsy), or any other ethnicity – you were a suspect. Although, there was an exception to this rule, if you were African-American you were superficially associated with hip-hop culture and corresponding cool, which many young Czechs seem to adore, so you’re likely to be treated without contempt at a restaurant, and far better than anything you might experience in Southern states in the US.  In other words, you were still objectified as a novelty, but not profiled as a criminal.

Me? Well, I get it. I could pass for anything depending on the day, depending on my makeup and hair, but it was all the same. I was treated with suspicion and disdain by local law enforcement in Prague who likely viewed me as Roma or something else unknown but somehow threatening. Czech women on public transportation would clutch their bags when they saw me enter the tram or metro, and men would walk up to me and say perverse things to me and pass quickly as though they wanted to let me know how my ass, face, or body as a whole appealed to them; and restaurants just didn’t want me seated at their tables in general.

They didn't know many indigenous Pacific Islanders, I'm sure, and it turned out to be what I thought: a case of mistaken identity.  My ambiguous looks had earned me a seat in the Roma box, and it might as well have been a social coffin.  Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, I was pushed into a game of tag and I was - well, the ethnic minority version of - "it".  Being an ethnic minority and a woman in the US, this game was not exactly news to me, but old colonial hat.

Throughout my time in the Czech Republic, the subject of “gypsies” came up quite frequently among the younger American students who were apparently judging and joining the bandwagon of racial stereotyping. I asked Zdeněk, a Czech study abroad staff member how the Roma were typically regarded in various parts of the Czech Republic and what his personal views were.

“It’s a very sad situation, you see. They come from a long line of misunderstanding that turned into many forms of prejudice,” Zdeněk started.

Bury Me Standing by Isabel Fonseca
Every day in Prague, I was watching this brand of discrimination and inquired about Roma rights and news, observing a palpable racial tension in Prague. One of my professors at Charles University recommended the book, “Bury Me Standing,” one of the few books that cover Roma history and a long history of institutionalized and culturally ingrained racism. It was a consequence I had to deal with on a daily basis and it was unavoidable, but relatable to what I was going through in my own country as an indigenous woman, and now a combat veteran.

Although I had nothing to do with Roma culture ethnically, I felt responsible to say something, anything, I could about it as I would hope for anyone not to forget us either. There was nothing in it for me personally to promote awareness of their history and erasure in society, but I knew how it felt all too well.

As the midterm mark of fall semester passed and one of my bigger papers was due next, I finally had to buckle down on a paper for my Czech and Eastern European Politics class. Above all topics I could’ve selected, I went with writing on the Roma population Zdeněk and I were discussing at length. When first considering the provisions for writing on this particular subject, it was not merely chosen for the sake of fulfilling a class requirement. One must take into account various biopsychosocial aspects of racial persecution as it is a controversial subject in any country, and this was a trigger of mine that induced flashbacks of personal trauma.  If nothing else, this was an attempt at sublimation at least, and a step toward an answer to healing generational trauma at best.

However, with the focus being on state discrimination in the Czech Republic towards the Roma minority, and being a minority myself, experience proves to be an even greater ally in the search for possible solutions to such a long-standing problem. As personal biases themselves can prove to be obstructions as well, I chose to hone in on the statistics: homelessness, suicide rates, educational achievement, and a host of other categories and their trends akin to any conquered peoples. Throughout my conversation with Zdeněk, bear in mind that this observation is coming from my own limited experience in the Czech Republic, but an extensive personal history with colonialism.

The Roma themselves as a minority community simply cannot recover from centuries of discrimination by the state’s assistance alone and if their active participation is absent from the changes to be made, all progress towards eliminating racial stereotypes will falter, Zdeněk explained. It would behoove any state to be proactive in mending broken communities through the formalization of language and the education system, enforcing anti-discrimination policies, implementation of equal opportunity, and general public awareness of the complex issues and the impact it has on every community.

While the Roma are unfortunately looked upon as the degenerates of society, mostly as petty thieves, the psychological effects of ethnic history and a lack of common formal language are not to be overlooked in the shadow of state discrimination. Although society may be aware of one’s own culture ranging from the arts, literature, and recorded history, the psychological nuances impact society in ways that are often overlooked. However, the Roma are deeply lacking in all those departments, elements that create culture which stem from history, language, and ultimately ethnic identity.

Europe is home to 10-12 million Roma, but their identity is often a subject that is filled with inaccuracies and distortion. Roma history begins over 1,000 years ago and tells a story of diversity, creativity and survival. The inaccuracy of Roma history itself is still carried out today as I, a then newcomer to the Czech Republic, have heard these stories firsthand. Stories involving the Roma being "punished" for being the descendants of those who had created the nails that were driven into Jesus Christ during his crucifixion and that their penance involved roaming from place to place begging as though it were a personal atonement for their ancestors’ sins. From being the blacksmiths of death to being described as fringe from an ancient Egyptian society, such falsehoods are still spoken of today in spite of historical publications, which are unfortunately limited.

Reportedly, Czech or Slovak Roma origins extend much further than Christ’s death, dating their departure from India around the 8th century. Their migration carried them through the terrain of central Asia, then 12th-15th century Mesopotamia and Turkey, and by the end of the 15th century they were dispersed across Europe as far as Scandinavia and the British Isles. Not only does this prove the term “Gypsy” to be a misnomer, but it also further distorts an ethnicity’s actual roots while elucidating the current language dilemma.

Communication breakdown appears to be a chief problem in Roma community integration and takes priority before any other racial equality measure is to succeed. The lack of a common Romani language dialect and the deficiency of the appropriate acquisition of the Czech language are two problems that must be remedied before the next generation will have to deal with the same difficulties. The varied travels of the Roma are evident in their languages and very little has been done to organize the assorted dialects through any careful, academic documentation.

Even within Czech borders, the lack of linguistic organization has left the communication gap wide open. Communication on the side of the Roma with the Czech language is also a grave issue and leaves them with little room for advancement as they are the minority, but this situation has been passively addressed by placing young Roma in schools for the mentally disabled and special needs. Not only does this slow the progress of integration into Czech society where they could function as contributing citizens, but this unnecessary and racially insulting move has therefore hurt progress by educating Roma children that they are not normally functioning citizens. This approach of avoiding the restoration of intercultural communication is a prime example of state and institutional racism.

State discrimination of the Roma certainly takes root in the excuses for inhumane treatment derived from historical distortion and communication negligence. Whether or not some Roma choose to fulfill their state-sponsored prophecies of stereotypes, there is no excuse for concentration camps, eugenics, discrimination in employment and housing, and educational deprivation. While 95% of Czech Roma were murdered in the concentration camps of Lety and Hodonin in WWII,  It would also be a shame not to mention the fact that while most European concentration camps appear to be preserved in some way for sensitive historical purposes, Lety, a Romani concentration camp site during WWII is now, and still is, a pig farm.  Slovakian Roma migrated west into Czech lands after 1945, making up the vast majority of today’s Roma demographic in the Czech Republic.

Although we are now in the 21st century, we are still seeing residual problems which have simply been accumulating like cancer cells without a cure. Shadow reports such as those given by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) or the League of Human Rights highlights many obscured facts about state discrimination against the Roma such as education segregation, limitations in employment and housing opportunities, and forced sterilization.

While I have touched up on the issue of education, the looming problem of unequal housing and employment opportunities remains. The state’s responsibility is to implement such conditions for all of the nation’s citizens and incidents such as the recent mass eviction of the Roma by the town mayor of Vsetin is a major oversight by the Czech government, whether by intent or plain ignorance.

Back to forced sterilization, of all the abominable state discriminatory issues that come to mind in terms of contemporary Roma issues is the sterilization of Roma women.  If that makes you cringe, read about how the US government did it to Native American and other minority women too.  In 1971, a “coupon” of sorts was introduced to Roma women by social workers of the former Czechoslovak government. Mostly illiterate and unable to comprehend the parameters of the alleged coupon, Roma women were subjected to tubal ligation, an irreversible sterilization technique which involves the cauterization of the fallopian tubes. If the women refused to undergo the procedure, they faced the possibility of having their children taken away or simply being declared as psychologically incompetent and forced into a psychiatric ward. Purportedly, the most recent incident of involuntary or coerced sterilization was documented in 2004. This is another unfortunate example of the not only state discrimination, but the depraved practice of eugenics as well.

Prior to my own arrival, I had already been informed to be aware of “Gypsies” and this was further enforced by locals of Prague. While the Roma are still inaccurately called “Gypsies” to this day, the statistical data of 60% or higher of Roma unemployment versus the Czech 10% to the common image of them as mere petty criminals is no excuse to treat any human being as less than. While there are many socio-economic problems surrounding the Roma community in the Czech Republic, the steps towards solving these problems has to involve addressing the imperial sabotage of an ethnic minority - a familiar story, once again.

While there are 200 non-government organizations in the Czech Republic aimed at assisting the Roma, the nature in which the state continues to persecute the Roma as well as the Roma community’s lack of cultural mobilization is still a plague on the social order of the country.

While I was new to the issues involving Roma Rights in 2006 in this chat with Zdeněk, discrimination on any level from institutional to interpersonal is a symptom of a sick society, and that was nothing new in my eyes. In the United States, we have our own problems in current discrimination and it would be presumptuous throw stones from a glass house by solely criticizing Czech society. How Native Americans are treated, how indigenous Pacific Islanders are treated, and how any marginalized group in the US undergoes varying forms of discrimination by the dominant ethnic group in power are very similar to the Roma population here in Europe. Additionally, the problems and fallout are mirrored in this brand of persecution.  While our migration and journeys have been different and distinct in their own way, the societal ills are startlingly similar.

Yet as someone who has experienced racial discrimination on an institutional and interpersonal level, from slurs to direct aggression, even by American students in this same nauseatingly entitled study abroad group, remaining objective in reaching a viable solution is critical as the answers exist.

Having a critical eye on the insidious nature of imperialism is imperative in any society that has become completely complacent and/or ignorant to the immoral acts against any targeted minority group. As we have taken into account by history, turning a deaf ear to blind hatred can lead to even more extreme acts of persecution.

Achieving a goal in an objective manner of reason, such issues can start to be overcome after years of subjective and intentional neutrality, complacency, hatred, and discrimination on all levels.  As Zdeněk and I continued to discuss these issues, the more I began to realize that not only was I being mistaken for being Roma in Prague, I was also in a Roma position back in my home country, an undesirable.  An indigenous female combat veteran who was now dealing with service-connected disabilities - and I was being toyed with by the VA health care system who apparently did not want to acknowledge my service or injuries.

Instead of continuing the repetitious game of blame-tag, actively taking steps in order to further integrate minority groups after centuries of social and institutional ostracism would aid in the progressive destruction of state discrimination. Steps such as language formalization, governmental intervention for racial equality, promotion of Roma arts, and public awareness of Roma issues will indeed help repair the damage that has already been done over a millennia.  But state solutions won't solve everything.

While Romani languages may sound complicated, the similarities in root words in addition to many foreign add-on words could in fact be incorporated into a standard form. As various dialects of languages such as Spanish or Arabic have a wide range of dialects, standardization has already taken place. From Machu Picchu to Madrid or Rabat to Riyadh, standardization of a common language has proven to be effective in overcoming communication problems. Having the Roma first-language taught at home formalized will aid the process in not only understanding Roma, but learning Czech more efficiently as it will be easier to educate possible teachers in a modern standard form of Romani. Even though formalizing Romani across Europe will be a daunting task, starting it at a country's level and associated needs is much more pertinent to contemporary social afflictions. This should also, in effect, begin to instill a greater sense of ethnic identity.

As passivity or complacency make for poor excuses, they are even bigger mistakes made by a governmental body as they have an extensive responsibility towards its citizens - regardless of whether we're looking at the US or the Czech Republic.. The only aversion that should be made here is the avoidance of discrimination. Publicizing racial equality and rights across the board in national issues is one way to begin a trend of the promotion of tolerance rather than letting skinheads run amok.

Clear and concise guidelines and provisions for equal opportunity need to be placed in plain view of all citizens when wither applying for a job or buying a home. If such guidelines are violated by real estate agents or potential employers, clear ramifications for fostering discriminatory behavior should be punished in accordance with any alleged offense. The public education system would also do well to desegregate school and not shove Roma children into an institution for the mentally handicapped in order to create contributors to society as well as people who believe they will be allowed to contribute.

Promotion and recognition of Roma music, art, literature, and history is an important aspect in addition to language formalization to creating a stronger sense of ethnic identity. While being able to become integrated into Czech society, maintaining a sense of community belonging and self is crucial to an individual’s progress. As seen in various ethnic communities in the United States, community pressure which stems from ethnic identity is a cause for further motivation to succeed, depending on that community’s given ideals. Promoting the Roma arts would not only instill a stronger sense of self and community, it would also help other Czechs to become more educated in Roma culture past the negative stereotypes and into a more positive image, conducive to forming bridges across cross-cultural gaps.

Media attention shedding more light on Roma issues is vital to the aforementioned steps toward progress. The showing and distribution of Roma human rights reports and an opening of racial dialogue would certainly be a responsible step for the Czech media to take. Racial dialogue, and not simply pointing fingers, would do well to ease the tension of such relations and bring some deep-seated racial anxiety to the surface.

As we can see in our respective nations, there’s always more work that needs to be done regarding the issue of defeating discrimination. Being proactive and objective regardless of personal bias, working toward the greater good of a society, and integrating minority groups are all unquestionably possible. Taking the steps of formalizing language and the education system, implementation of equal opportunity by the government, and general public awareness of culture are just the beginning of this lifelong process.

Language, art, music, literature, cuisine, and more are what makes a culture, and when you take that away from any ethnic group, it is a form of psychological amputation, if not death.  You can't expect any group to get on their feet when they've been amputated at the knees for simply being other than the dominant race and/or religion.

Following through on all such suggested aspects, are in my view, ways to actively take control of the state discrimination issue and subdue it. The responsibility doesn’t lie with one particular group. The state, Roma community, media, and the general public all have this responsibility to uphold if any of them have an opinion on the Roma community, positive or negative. If the repair of past assaults against the Roma community is to take place, objective observation in measuring outcomes and effective social justice program implementation must happen.

By taking responsibility and doing our part, minuscule or great, treating the any minority community as an integral part of society as they deserve in the most basic of human rights is something we can replicate successfully and would only improve upon our progress as a so-called civilization., By simply validating that we may be different from one another, but we are all human and deserve the same level respect and right to justice, we may begin to see the end of a terribly vampiric imperial cycle of institutional and direct violence that has plagued human history.

There should be no reason to bury anyone standing, rather, we could be evolving as a species by taking the colonial boots off of the necks of our neighbors, and extending a hand that says, "We are equal, let's start behaving that way."

Resources on Roma Rights: