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Can We Really Label Racist Teens as Racist?

A few days ago, online feminist magazine Jezebel decided to publish an article for their racism column that exposed all of the tweets sent by high-schoolers across the country that used the n-word after Obama’s re-election. Jezebel followed-up by contacting these teenagers’ high schools to determine whether they had a policy about hate speech, and decided to out these kids by publishing their full names online. So, done. We’ve got a black president, and we can move on knowing that racism is solved, right?

I know my peeps are with me when I say, ummm. NO.

Is this really how we have resorted to addressing racism in our country? By simplifying such a complex institution into the use of a single racial slur? By slandering the names of kids whose life experiences might not have given them the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions, or in this case, hashtags?

Of course I am not condoning the behavior of these students, but I’m going to keep it real here. We, as a culture, do not know how to talk about systems of oppression. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why, despite teaching some exceptionally bright and compassionate college students in my years of teaching, I have been surprised to find that many are pretty ill-equipped to discuss issues of race. Very few come into the classroom well-versed on the racial history of this country. They may know about Martin Luther King, but struggle to understand the larger Civil Rights movement for which he fought. When we discuss the racist implications of using cultural artifacts like feathers and headdresses as a guise for multi-culturalism, many grow defensive and protest that this is a form of cultural celebration. Yet, very few have ever been exposed to voices from these ethnic communities who make these protests.

Is this completely their fault?

It is true that Americans value the individual, but is it fair to imbue even young people with a foresight that is supposed to overcome their institutional limitations? Granted, I do think that some people are naturally a little more sensitive, a little more thoughtful, a little more critical and self-aware of their privilege than others. But I also know that one of my good friends, who is an exceptionally sensitive person and an advocate for human rights, grew up in a tiny, segregated, rural community where racial slurs were commonly spoken, and it wasn’t until he left his small town and interacted with different groups of people did he gain full awareness of just how much these words hurt.

I remember reading another post on Jez last year titled the “complete guide to hipster racism” that lambasted white kids for wearing ‘Indian headdresses.’ While I agreed with the sentiment, I had an issue with the paternalistic tone and the focus on individual behavior that seemed to imply that these ‘hipsters’ should know better because well, they’re hipsters, and that means they’re ahead of the curve, right? As I wrote in myrecent post on fashion’s problematic relationship with race:

“For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.”

When it comes to issues of oppression, we need to start shifting our focus, and subsequent criticism, from individuals to institutions. To the parents who fail to have these important conversations with their children (you’re a mom who grew up in the 70s and can’t talk to your kids about a movement that gave you rights? I’m sorry, but that’s one big struggle). To our educational system that fails to incorporate these important conversations in our mainstream history texts, instead relegating them to the dusty bookshelves that are only taken out during ‘African-American history’ and ‘Women’s history’ months. To our culture that celebrates Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, but focuses little on the suffering caused by European colonialism. To our neighborhoods that have become increasingly segregated thanks in part to ‘white-flight,’ making it almost impossible for so many American kids to go to school with and live near people of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. To the public policies that have increased the gap in wealth between middle-class white and black Americans, thanks in large part to the limiting of value property in these racially segregated neighborhoods. To our media institutions that marginalizes the voices of women and people of color in the newsroom on one end, while depicting them as looters and welfare queens on the other.

I believe that we as a society need to focus on these larger, more important issues of oppression, instead of a few ignorant tweets. And rather than pointing our fingers solely at these teenagers, it would serve us better to also address the societal problems and institutional policies that helped shape their behavior, and in which we are all implicated.

White Flight, defined.

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Political Apathy and why I’m SO not feeling it.

So I’ve had a few readers ask me why I haven’t really blogged about the election, and I think I need to clarify that I am absolutely NOT apathetic about politics. I follow the news, subscribe to the Economist, as stressful as that is (one issue a week is a bit of an overkill, just sayin’), and generally try to stay as informed as possible. I’m just not a political blogger. There are already a ton of policy wonks writing about politics and doing it way better than I ever could. My interest is in culture and media, and when I have written about politics on this blog, it’s always through a critical cultural-media lens. That is why when I interviewed a woman on development in Afghanistan a few weeks ago, I focused on media coverage and gender issues. And when I addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I didn’t really take a side on the issue but instead critiqued the erasure of such an important topic in our public space. And I did attempt to tackle an election debate by questioning the narrow scope of the corporate media’s coverage and arguing for why we need independent media and third-party candidates.

As I wrote in my first post,  I’m uncomfortable with the divisive nature of partisan politics, the Bill O’Reilly vs. Chris Matthews screaming matches that our news media has fostered, and the corporatization of our culture that is diminishing our public space. I agree with rapper Killer Mike that our country tends to think in ‘teams,’ and ultimately, I believe that change comes from the people. That’s one of the reasons why I was behind so much of what the Occupy movement did. It’s also why I absolutely loved this article on how a performance-poetry group who have cared for their children through extreme poverty are now working with the Occupy movement and other advocacy groups to teach people about poverty. It makes sense that poor people would actually have the best anti-poverty ideas. If only policy-makers and politicians would listen to the people more, and if only the news media would represent these groups instead of constantly interviewing elites with the same recycled opinions. It’s frustrating, and it needs to change.

But here’s the thing. I DO think elections matter, and very few things annoy me more than apathy. And this is where I’m going to abandon all of my Kumbaya inclinations of always wanting to bring people together by avoiding divisive talk, and I’m just going to BUST. Because I have come to the realization that people who make arguments like ‘the president is just a figurehead’ or “Obama did nothing these past four years, he’s no different than Bush,” are really annoying and need to be called out. Honestly, I don’t care who you vote for. But if you’re a liberal who is ‘disappointed’ with Obama’s presidency because he didn’t get as much done as they wanted, well…he ended up with a Republican Congress!! What did you expect him to do?? The government got gridlocked because of that. That’s the way politics works in this country people. Did you miss the massive health care bill he passed? Or how he ended torture? He bailed out the auto industry (I have friends and family who live in Ohio and Detroit who have seen real effects from this…ie, no economic meltdown). He protected women’s reproductive rights and passed the historic Lilly Ledbetter bill that protects women from discriminatory pay. He got rid of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and vouched his support for marriage equality. Oh, and he got us out of Iraq and caught Bin Laden. So people are pissed because he didn’t do every little thing he wanted to do. They wanted public health care. They’re mad that he cracked down so hard on immigrants. I get these concerns, but here’s the thing, change doesn’t happen overnight. I think a lot of people in my generation were raised on these ridiculous expectations a la Veruca Salt of “I want the world to change overnight NOW DADDY!” And that’s not how the world works. How many years did it take for women to achieve the right to vote? For the Civil Rights movement to win their demands?

I’m going to argue that Obama was effective in planting the progressive seeds that, if given the opportunity, he and other presidents afterwards will help shape. Whether you agree with those politics is neither here or there, but for everyone who says crap like ‘The president is just a figurehead…” PLEASE SPARE ME. Maybe you should check out this link from ‘On the Media’ that discusses Kennedy’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. You know, like how it was basically him against his cabinet. How he won out. How a president DOES shape policy.

I am done with apathy and cynicism. DONE. And I’ve never bought it. Your cynicism does not make you superior to me because I actually fucking care and am fighting to make this world a better place. It just means you aren’t informed. Yeah that’s right, I said it. You’re LAZY. You haven’t done your research. You’re using your holier-than-thou attitude as a guise for your ignorance. And your apathy insults me. Yes, this is what a Nadia bust looks like. I’m sorry, but as someone who has lived and voted in swing states for the last decade, who realizes the importance of every little vote, I am really losing patience for this kind of attitude.

Do I believe that change comes from the people? YES. Am I frustrated with the two-party system, with the gross amount of money that is pumped into political ads when there are so many people living in poverty? YES. But that doesn’t take away from my belief that politicians and elections matter. Don’t kid yourself by believing that your vote doesn’t make a difference. Do you really think a Bush presidency was identical to an Obama one?! Really?? If so, then maybe you should stay home and not vote. Yup, now I’m being rude. Again, I don’t care who you vote for, as long as you stay engaged and realize that your engagement matters. And there really is no excuse anymore to not stay engaged. I’m going to end with Saturday Night Live‘s brilliant parody on ‘the undecided voter.’ Because I’m done. I’ll be back tomorrow blogging about all things culture and engaging with peeps who actually give a damn and have some faith in the power of their voices.

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Post-Halloween musings: Fashion, Appropriation, and Cultural Identity

Note: An abridged version of this piece is now on the Huffington Post.

Hey everyone! So I’m sorry I’ve been a bit strugglin’ with my posts … I just got back from a conference on Fair Trade, which was pretty much the chillest thing ever (umm …. inspiring panels led by Colombian banana farmers + dark chocolate covered bananas + Tagua nut bracelets made by Ecuadorian Fair Trade farmers = Can we talk girlfriends? Can we?!) I absolutely can’t wait to blog about it in a few weeks, so stay tuned for an upcoming series on sustainability and Fair Trade! (I know it will be hard to sleep at night until then, but bear with me GFs, it will be worth it ;))

So here’s the thing. I actually wasn’t planning on writing about the issue of cultural appropriation during Halloween, mainly because there are so many bloggers doing amazing work on the subject. But I have to admit that I found it difficult to ignore these links of racist Halloween costumes, or these pictures of people dressed up as ‘sexy Natives.’ And one of the reasons why I struggle so much with this level of cultural flippancy is because I can understand to some extent, why it is difficult for some people to see ‘fashion statements’ as something that can hurt. But as I’ve written before on this blog, my relationship with fashion hasn’t exactly been a harmonious one. Being engaged and critical can often suck the fun out of an industry that is supposed to be fun and based in fantasy. I remember wearing my ‘feather earrings’ that I bought at a flea market years ago and people commenting on how I looked ‘Indian.’ I remember taking that as a compliment and thinking that was pretty cool, and I’m pretty sure I wore those bright red ‘not-so-Indian’ earrings all week. Because I am ethnically ambiguous, I can float somewhat easily in that ‘Latina/mixed/other’ spectrum, and while I believe this has afforded me empathy for different groups of people, I would argue that it is also easier for me to use fashion in a way that allows me to ‘try on’ different cultural identities.’ I abused that privilege years ago with those culturally insensitive earrings, and I sucked for that. I’m sorry.

The zigzags on this ‘Navajo’ hipster panty from Urban Outfitters actually represent lightning, and are worn by the Navajos as a symbol of protection, while the star designs are taken from the ‘four sacred mountains on each corner of the sacred Navajo homeland.’ – Navajo educator Ruth Roessel

So what is cultural appropriation? In its most simplistic definition, it is the seizing of another culture without their consent. It’s taking an otherwise complex culture and turning it into a caricature. It’s the ‘Navajo’ shirts that Urban Outfitters sells that essentializes the many different American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian people in the United States into one broad ‘Native’ tribe defined as Navajo. It’s the celebration of Columbus day as a day in which Columbus ‘discovered’ a country that had been inhabited by indigenous people for years, and the erasure of the imperialist raping and enslaving from our history. It’s the Victoria’s Secret ‘Geisha’ lingerie line that featured white models in Orientalist eye makeup and outfits, which in the words of blogger Nina Jacinto, only perpetuates the stereotype of Asian women as objects of sexual fantasy, trading in ‘real humanness for access to culture.’ It’s the Vogue dance-style that was attributed to Madonna when it really originated with gay urban men of color. It’s Gwen Stefani wearing cultural and spiritual objects such as bindis as fashion, and using Asian-American dancers as props, always claiming that she is celebrating their culture.

Turning slavery into a fashion statement, and on white models, nonetheless. (Photo courtesy of Vogue Italia)

It’s also the Dolce & Gabbana ‘black busts’ earrings that commodified black bodies and were defended on the grounds that they ‘represented’ Sicilian Blackmoore pottery, ignoring the legacy of race-based slavery which influenced this tradition. And while we’re on the subject of earrings, who can forget when Vogue Italia referenced large hoop earrings as ‘slave earrings’ in their fall 2011 issue, citing the ‘women of color’ who were ‘brought’ to the United States as their fashion inspiration? Brought, not sold. Brought, not enslaved. Cultural appropriation, done.

Victoria’s Secret ‘Sexy Geisha outfit’ was part of their Go East selection and promised an ‘exotic adventure.’ The line has since been removed due to protest (photo courtesy of fashionbombdaily.com)

Because cultural appropriation is so often found in fashion, it is not taken that seriously. Fashion is fun and fantasy, wrapped up in a bright pick Victoria’s Secret bag that can then be discarded when it no longer fits. Perhaps that’s why on Halloween, a one-night event where the whole purpose is to take on another identity, we witness so much unapologetic appropriation. After all, what you wear doesn’t define you, right? I mean, just because someone is wearing a headdress doesn’t actually mean they have internalized the racism that is responsible for the eradication of tribes and their cultural practices?

For me, the issue isn’t so black and white, in part because we have not allowed for an inclusion of American Indian voices into the dialogue about this issue until very recently, leaving many truly ignorant about why these supposedly ‘harmless’ statements are indeed very harmful. It is difficult for me to point fingers at teenagers who, dressed up as ‘Indians’ for  Thanksgiving when they were five by their parents and teachers, are now expected to understand the complex meanings behind the hipster headdress they choose to rock to signify their escape from the rigid conformity of suburbia.

Furthermore, the privileging in our culture of Western fashion that emphasizes ‘newness’ as a sign of progress and change tends to view American Indian tribes as examples of more traditional cultures who use clothing for utilitarian purposes. As Dakota artist and activist Bobby Wilson put it, we’re fixated on this idea that “native people are frozen in time.” Despite the efforts of minority students from the University of Ohio last year, many Americans still view American Indians, and other minority groups, as a costume, not a culture. And because fashion is seen as so frivolous and something that goes out of trend so quickly, many argue that the industry’s fascination with exoticizing certain cultures shouldn’t be taken seriously. In fact, many counter-arguments are made to cultural appropriation that on the contrary, minority groups should feel privileged by this representation of their culture by the mainstream.

On dressing up ‘cultural’ for Halloween…

So here’s the problem. The argument that you can ‘try on’ a cultural identity for a day and then discard it speaks to the ability of being able to return to your special place of privilege. You can take off your headdress and sleep at night, knowing that you don’t have to wake up the next morning to confront a history of colonialism and genocide that has left your community living in an impoverished reservation and having to deal with segregation, racism, and gross cultural misrepresentation in the form of  films, sports mascots, and holidays. As the ‘We’re a Culture, not a Costume’ Campaign put it, “You wear the costume for one night, we wear the stigma for life.”

Americans take pride in our ‘American-ness,’ our cultural traditions that bring us together and include Independence day, apple pie, and the Star Spangled banner. But let’s face it. There have always been some people who are considered more American than others. Just think about the term ‘All-American’ and what it implies: white, blond, attractive, athletic. Are people of color then ‘partial-American?’ Are they not American enough? Does that leave them in the position of having to defend the degree of their American-ness?

And this is why it is so dangerous to ‘dress-up’ as another culture, because a white person who dresses up as a ‘Mexican’ in Arizona doesn’t have to worry that his citizenship will be questioned. He can go to a ‘ghetto’ party and wear his hoodie up in an effort to look more ‘hood’ without fearing that he will get killed like Trayvon Martin. A white person who goes to a bar dressed in blackface doesn’t have to worry about being turned away like a recent Harvard student for no reason other than the color of his skin. He doesn’t have to face the reality that when there is a hurricane, he will be wrongly labeled as a looter and then identified as a ‘refugee,’ a misplaced citizen.

And yes, I realize that there are non-white people who have been guilty of dressing up in ‘Indian’ fashions, as the pictures from Fashion’s Night Out ‘Pow-Wow’ party demonstrates. The appropriation of American Indian culture is widespread and certainly not limited to white people, especially given the fashion industry’s rampant appropriation of Native cultural objects that are spit out for ‘hipster’ consumption. However, I think we need to ask why it is that ‘cultural’ costumes are far more common to wear on Halloween and at theme parties than dressing up as say, a young white male. While people can conceive an image of a ‘ghetto’ costume, a geisha, an Arab terrorist or a ‘Cherokee princess,’ do we actually have a singular vision of what a white male looks like?

Fashion is not frivolous. Clothes, and the way in which we wear them to express our identity and who we are, can have profound meaning. If you really want to honor a culture, why not do it in a more thoughtful manner that brings to light all of its complexities? By doing it through fashion, you run the risk of treating an entire group of people as a trend, something that is in vogue one minute and out the next, easy to dispose of and forget.

From Fashion Night’s Out, ‘Pow-Wow’ party (photo courtesy of Native Appropriations)

Check out this inspiring campaign by Native Appropriations’ Adrienne K, who received not just an official apology from Paul Frank Industries for their “Pow-Wow” party, but a promise that they would remove all Native inspired designs as well as collaborate with a Native artist for future designs!

Further Reading:

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Interview: An Inside Look at Development in Afghanistan – from a Woman’s Perspective

Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.

Overlooking Kabul

Overlooking Kabul (photo courtesy of Max Becherer, The New York Times)

Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?

A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.

There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.

Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?

A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.

On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?

Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …

A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.

Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.

A market in Kabul. Almost 90% of Afghanistan’s national budget is financed by foreign governments.

And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.

Q: What about security?

A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.

Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?

A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …

Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …

A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.

Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.

A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.

Safety is still a concern for many women in Afghanistan (photo courtesy of Mauricio Lima)

Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.

So my first question is, how can development initiatives move forward successfully if Afghanistan is currently considered one of the worst places for women’s rights in the world?

And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?

A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.

One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …

Students at Kabul University, 1970s.

Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!

A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.

A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:

Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?

A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.

Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.

I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’

A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.

Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.

But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.

Stealth Festival

An Afghan woman at a one-day “stealth festival” called Sound Central, in Kabul October 1, 2011. The first music festival the country has seen since the Taliban regime. (photo courtesy of REUTERS/Ahmad Masood)

Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.

Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)

The documentary film Control Film

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