Silver Rights

News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.

Friday, November 28, 2003  

Reading: Life over the Border

I've been spending some time in Borderland. My discovery of the fantasy series created by Terri Windling was pure kismet. I've been a reader of Jonathan Carroll for a while and she was mentioned by him from time to time. Then, I happened across a story set in Bordertown in a best of fantasy writing anthology. The next stop was Emma Bull's bittersweet book about star-crossed young people, Finder: A Novel of the Borderlands . I followed it up with her coup de grace, War for the Oaks. Then, serendipity led me to Bull's equally talented spouse, Will Shetterly's Nevernever. (Yes, he's the same fellow who wrote the wonderful civil rights fantasy novel, Dogland.) Currently, I'm reading Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter.

If you want to visit Bordertown, I suggest you take a less roundabout route. A good place to start is The Essential Bordertown: A Traveller's Guide to the Edge of Faerie, edited by Windling and Delia Sherman. The collection provides the groundwork and rules for the Borderland series and contains stories that will whet your apettite for more.

But, why should you want to cross the Border? Not just because it is there. These stories and novels provide excellent insights into human nature and societal interactions. Most of the inhabitants of the place between the world as we know it and Faerie are humans, elves and half-breeds. (However, a spell can change an individual at the wave of a hand. Just ask Wolf Boy.) In Bordertown proper, both science and magic are equally available and equally unreliable. Its denizens must merge the two to survive. The most typical form of transportation, the motorcyle, relies on both its engine and a spell box to take over when it hits spots where technology fails.

The merger that makes things go doesn't work as smoothly with the people of Bordertown, though. The average young resident belongs to a gang: Bloods if he is elven, the Pack if he is human, and the Rune Lords if he is mixed, though there are others that focus on ethnicity or interests. The fighting among the gangs is deadly. The saving grace is that humans, elves and halfies do form allegiances, often as they move past the dangerous adolescent years. The process is helped along by gang-free zones such as God Mom's Restaurant. In them, all races are welcome, but must behave civilly. When interracial relationships are successful it is often because the strengths of the individuals involved are emphasized. In Finder, a human boy with a propensity for locating lost objects and an elven girl who can fix any mechanical item merge their talents and become best friends. Love sometimes triumphs, resulting in a growing population of mixed-race Borderlanders.

My favorite stories from The Essential Bordertown include:

  • "Half-Life" by Donnard Sturgis. When Tangie, a halfie of mixed ethnicity, is threatened from all sides because of his refusal to join a gang, he needs a way out. Sorcery that combines the Vodun he has learned from his mother's side of the family and the elven magic of his father's saves his life.

  • "Hot Water" by Ellen Kushner. Two humans, both of them intimidated by the glamour that attends elves, discover an earthbound magic of their own.

  • "How Shannaro Tolkinson Lost and Found His Heart" by Felicity Savage. Shannaro, a conservative elf, quests into Bordertown to find his bethrothed, who has been enspelled by a draug and kidnapped. He is not at all charmed by the mixed milieu across the Border from his beloved Faerie. The story is a bracing antidote to the spell Bordertown weaves over its inhabitants and readers.

  • Not all of the Borderland novels and stories are set there per se. Faerie and the real world can co-exist. So, come on over. In a way, you are already there.

    posted by J. | 11:52 AM

    Monday, November 24, 2003  

    The eye, the ear and discrimination

    When we think about racial discrimination we usually associate it with one of our senses -- sight. A sees X, classifies X as black, Hispanic, Asian or Indian, and treats him in an unpleasantly discriminatory way. However, discrimination can involve some of the other senses, too. Ziba Kashef, writing at ColorLines, has been thinking about how the ear can become the source of racial discrimination.

    Choosing a name for my future son has turned out to be much more complicated than I thought when I started searching online for possibilities.

    . . .My own name, Ziba (zee-bah), has mainly evoked expressions of admiration (How unusual!) and curiosity (How do you spell that?). But on occasion, the revelation that it is Persian, as is my father, has been met with awkward silence or stares. A Middle Eastern name is not particularly welcome in the U.S., especially in the current anti-Muslim/Arab/Middle East political environment.

    So as I contemplate my son's name, I'm torn between the desire to emphasize his ethnicity and the desire to minimize the potential for profiling and discrimination against him. While racial discrimination has been understood historically as a practice based on an individual's skin color, recent research is showing that it is also often based on a person's name or speech, with the same destructive effects.

    Earlier this year, the existence of name discrimination was confirmed by researchers at the Chicago Graduate School of Business and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . Persons submitting resumes bearing 'black-sounding' names are much less likely to even be interviewed for job openings.

    Besides changing their names, there appears to be little black applicants can do to level the playing field. As part of the study, researchers created two sets of resumes - high quality and low quality - to reflect the actual pool of job seekers looking for work in fields ranging from sales, administrative support, clerical services, and customer services. But even having a higher quality resume with such credentials as volunteer experience, computer skills, and special honors failed to improve the black applicants' chances of getting their foot in the door.

    Kashef observes that a similar kind of bias is behind airline discrimination against people with Arabic or 'Muslim sounding' surnames.

    . . .In the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) "Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans: The Post-September 11 Backlash," the authors noted that among the dozens of instances of discrimination by airlines that occurred between September 2001 and October 2002, "the passenger's name or perceived ethnicity" alone was often sufficient cause for unprovoked removal from a flight. Discrimination often took place whether or not the passenger was actually Arab or Muslim, resulting in many South Asians and others falling victim to the ignorance of the pilot or another passenger.

    There is now research revealing that how a person sounds on the telephone may determine whether he will be denied housing opportunities sight unseen.

    Names aren't the only potential cues to a person's racial identity: speech may also reveal - or conceal - ethnicity. While searching for housing in the predominantly white neighborhood of Palo Alto, California, in the mid-1990s, John Baugh made appointment after appointment over the phone only to be turned away at the landlord's door.

    "I was told that there was nothing available," says the Stanford University professor of education and linguistics, who happens to be African American. It didn't take long for him to realize that prospective owners were mistaking his phone voice for that of a white person and inviting him to view apartments. When he showed up for the appointments, he was repeatedly told that there had been some misunderstanding.

    This personal affront piqued Baugh's professional curiosity. While its established that landlords have long discriminated against prospective tenants on the basis of skin color, Baugh decided to test whether they did so on the basis of brief telephone conversations. Using three distinct dialects he learned while growing up in Los Angeles - African American Vernacular English, Chicano, English and Standard American English - he placed calls in response to ads for apartments in five Northern California neighborhoods. During those calls, he used various pseudonyms, such as Juan Ramirez for the Chicano English dialect. What emerged was clear proof of bias against the black and Chicano dialects in predominantly white locales.

    "[The] research demonstrates that voice is a surrogate for race in many instances when people choose to discriminate over the telephone or use the telephone as the means of discrimination," he explains. Two University of Pennsylvania sociologists uncovered similar results in a separate study of rental housing discrimination.

    Baugh also offers the disturbing news that children who 'sound black or Mexican' are being tracked into less challenging reading classes. In the legal sphere, linguistic discrimination arises when witnesses are allowed to testify that someone unseen 'sounded black'.

    Underlying discrimination by sound is a belief that there is something wrong with being a person of color. White people with accents or who speak dialects are not treated as if that is evidence of inferiority. A Henry Kissinger or an Arnold Schwarzenegger is not believed to be stupid because he 'doesn't talk right.' However, the double standard notwithstanding, this is a pretext for discrimination that people of color can do something about. I believe learning standard English, not because it is superior, but because it is the language of business, is justified for persons who must seek their livelihood in the public sphere. We can also not engage in linguistic discrimination ourselves. Hear the person who says 'you know' too often or 'acks' for 'ask' out. Behind the speech may be a good mind.

    Discrimination via resume or phone is more of a connundrum. It is the kind of difficult problem employment discrimination law has yet to address.

    posted by J. | 6:20 PM