Ethno-Sensationalism and Awkwafina

Written for PolicyMic.

The late David Rakoff left us with this insight: “There are some questions in life, the very speaking of which are their own undoing. Am I fired? Is this a date? Are you breaking up with me? Yes. No. Yes.” One of these questions could be seen headlining an article in New York Magazine early this week: Can an Asian woman be taken seriously in rap?

Beginning from this premise, one need not get past the third paragraph of the short profile before Awkwafina (a rapper alter ego for Nora Lum) is compared to the literary heavyweight Haruki Murakami. Don’t be alarmed — the comparison is not made from race, but rather finds that both speak with the same “awe.” The writer really dodged a bullet with that one. Or maybe a throwing star.

To ask whether Lum can be taken seriously builds a frame for considering the rapper already. It precludes serious consideration by asking if a serious consideration can take place. Compare this to asking whether Awkwafina will be taken seriously — that construction has a decidedly different connotation. It presupposes that the rapper is already worthy of serious consideration, and that it is the task of everyone else to catch up to this realization. Alternatively, you could ask should she be taken seriously. That question poses a still more neutral frame; it actually sounds like a real question.

Still more doubting is the use of “Asian” in the question’s frame. That women can be taken seriously as rappers is not asked much, if at all, anymore. The question has lost its novelty to the the likes of Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, MIA, Azaelia Banks, Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, and until fairly recently, Nicki Minaj. It’s telling that we have to ask whether an Asian woman rapper can be taken seriously. What it tells is that there are still some salient expectations and stereotypes governing what can pass as normal in the game. The question therefore becomes self-defeating in its redundancy —translated, it asks: Can a stereotyped archetype be judged free of the stereotyped archetype in the rap game?

Unpacking one’s knapsack aside, there’s another reason this question is its own undoing — it is currently unanswerable. A reasonable definition for “taking something seriously” might include the option of finding the subject bad. But Nora Lum may not yet exist on the plane of good-or-bad. At the risk of sounding uncompromising, this argument will be made by analogy from the following clip by Hari Kondabolu:

In other words, the path taken by many to Awkwafina’s emergence on the scene is to celebrate her ability to emerge on the scene. When enough Asian female rappers join her such that we stop primarily identifying them as Asian female rappers, then it might be appropriate to judge them.

That sounds contradictory, hypocritical even. Why is it okay to celebrate a female Asian rapper for her Asian-femaleness when it’s not okay to judge her based on her Asian-femaleness? Because race and ethnicity are complicated. But more so because positive and negative judgments hold differing consequences. To pose negatively the judgment by linking it to the randomized qualities of Asian-femaleness perpetuates the social context that makes it weird for Asian women to be rappers. To celebrate Awkwafina’s Asian-femaleness doesn’t judge her as a rapper either — but as a judgment, it’s difficult to argue this is as deflating.

If you have to ask whether Asian women can be taken seriously as rappers, they aren’t, and won’t be. If you celebrate them as Asian women who rap — or better, as just rappers — that builds an emerging social context for more to come onto the scene.

If the asking of some questions are their own undoing, perhaps it is better to just do. Here is Awkwafina, on her own terms:

5 Things to Do When You’re Rejected From Your Dream School

Written for PolicyMic.

If you’re startled awake to the harsh reality of not getting into your dream college, how do you move forward? To those who have been through college, that appears in hindsight to be an amateurish concern, a parting manifestation of adolescent theatrics and teen drama. But it does matter. Having been there, the emotional memory I can most readily recall is the sense of starting the rest of my life on the wrong foot. I definitely didn’t, and at least part of that comes from receiving great advice and taking some intentional steps after the season of envelopes thick and thin ended. Here’s the best of that:

1. Get to Calm

Before anything else, take a nap. Sleep it off. Go to dinner with a group of friends. There’s disappointment in getting rejected, but you needn’t to deal with it all at once after the initial shock of a short email or thin envelope. Taking a little time to process the event will serve you well — when you think and act in the moments following a dramatic event, you’re not exercising much agency. You’re reacting. In order to take the best path forward, give yourself enough time to get to a place where you’re distant enough from the initial shock that you can act.

2. Reverse Engineer the Dream School

When you’re ready to move on and move forward, meditate on the qualities of your dream school. What about the school made it perfect for you? What kinds of classes were you likely to take, experiences likely to have, programs you wanted to get involved with, people you wanted to count amongst your peer group? It’s a good idea to put these qualities to paper, in a list so that you can see them in a form more tangible than your thoughts and feelings. It’s an ever better idea to enumerate these points as specifically as possible. You may find that your dream school doesn’t have quite has much on paper as you thought. Perhaps you’ll see that some of what you found to be dreamlike about your dream college was precisely that — ethereal in its articulation. The point of this exercise isn’t to undercut the allure of your dream school (though that may soften the blow). The point is to demonstrate that few of these qualities cannot be replicated elsewhere.

3. Decide how to deal with your dream school

Now that you’ve distanced yourself a bit from the rejection and thought a little about the nature of your pull to the dream school, there are four paths you can take with regards to the immediate decision. First, if you still feel you have to go to this school, you might consider writing a letter of appeal. This is a way to show your continued interest in the school, while at the same time adding to your profile some attributes that weren’t seen on the original application. Should you go this route, don’t do it alone. Seek the advice of your counselor or a teacher, and not only because it’s helpful to include a recommendation letter in your appeal packet. Your appeal should not ruminate on the undying bond you’ve forged with the college, nor how utterly amazing they are. Instead, work to craft a very precise and careful argument that incorporates your continuing desire to gain admission, your particular interests in the college (the previous step may help here), your reason for appealing, and what you’ve been doing since the original application.

Maybe an immediate appeal isn’t the strongest tactic for you to take. If you need some more time and space to develop an appealing application for admission, you might consider transferring. Do you due diligence to determine whether and how many transfers are taken by your dream college, as well as their requirements for transfer. Some education bodies, like the University of California, have a great system for transferring from California Community Colleges. Private universities, as you might guess, tend to be more restrictive in this area. Don’t be afraid to call the Office of Admissions to ask this question directly.

Let’s say you want to try your hand again at the dream college, but don’t think more classes and better grades are going to help. You may consider taking a gap year. New York Timescolumnist Nicholas Kristof is a big proponent, and as he points out, this is not an uncommon practice in other parts of the globe.

The final path you could take is to just accept admission to a different college. An intermediary step to this path is to take your list of qualities that make the dream school so and compare them to the opportunities of your given admissions. Depending on your feel of the school, the closeness of the alternate choice to the dream might be a good way to move forward without forgoing any of the college experience you might with transferring or taking a gap year. However, this is not to say you should attend another school pretending it is the substitute or next-best-thing to your dream college. Rather,

4. Make Your College Choice Your Dream College

This is accomplished by seeking out the analogous opportunities of the dreamy college in the chosen college, understanding that the chosen college has much to offer on its own terms, and really preparing yourself for the best college experience possible.

Let’s say that you adored your dream college because it offered a small classroom environment to pursue your studies — maybe it was a liberal arts college. Even at a large state school, it is possible to craft that kind of experience if you’re intentional about that need. Most schools offer honors programs with smaller class sizes, for example. And by forming early on a small group of classmates and frequently going to office hours, you can absolutely shrink even the largest classes.

But also prepare yourself to receive what the college has to offer. This means two things: First, you want to be open to drinking the Kool-Aid. If you’re going to be there for four years, you might as well be an evangelist for the school. This will make you happier in the long run and receptive to the deluge of opportunities every college affords. Perhaps more important, there’s a lot you can do to prepare yourself for the journey. Sure, it seems like this was the purpose of high school, but it’s worth asking yourself between now and August whether you actually know how to study, whether your grasp of fields is good enough to hit the ground running, rather than good enough to pass an AP test. The best time to learn how to be a better college student is when you’re supposed to be inflicted with Senioritis.

A dream college isn’t this castle in the sky that will shower upon your passive self amazing experiences and unparalleled opportunities. It is as much welcoming space as it is a product of your agency.

5. Write the Dream College a Rejection

If after all this you still need a hand coping with rejection, you could try writing a letter (that you’ll never send) to your rejecting college. Just don’t be a jerk about it. The following process is a modified version of what is called cognitive reappraisal. Start by writing a handwritten letter to the dream college, articulating everything you wish you could say to them, in every cringing detail. Sign this letter with your signature. Then, write a letter back to you from the perspective of the dream college. In this letter, write out everything you want to hear from them in an apology. Write the letter that, if you received it, would make you feel better. Sign this one too. (For added fun, you get to invent a signature for whole college.) Before going to bed — you may do this for a week, or however long it takes — read this latter letter back to yourself. Even though this plays a trick on your mind, you’ll feel better for it. And after doing this, you’ll have learned a valuable process for letting go of grudges.

Monsanto Protection Act: Is the Seed Giant Playing Mind Games With Congress?

Written for PolicyMic

Monsanto gets a bad rap, and for good reason.

Just last week this rap sheet got another line added as critics assailed the passage of what has become known as the Monsanto Protection Act through Congress. To give you a sense, let me quote public health lawyer Michelle Simon, who posted an articletitled “Monsanto Teams Up With Congress to Shred the Constitution” to the Huffington Post:

So the biotech industry, unable to make its case to a judge, figured why not just rewrite the Constitution instead, with the help of a Democratic Senate led by Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Then there are folks like Anthony Gicciardi of Alex Jones’ Infowars.com, who penned an article titled “Senate Passes Monsanto Protection Act Granting Monsanto Power Over U.S. Govt.” You get the point.

How exactly does the Monsanto Protection Act abolish checks and balances, rain fire and brimstone on the Constitution, and usher in an era of plutocracy? It doesn’t. Don’t get me wrong — Monsanto deserves all the skepticism and suspicion levied against it. But the criticism that follows shouldn’t then serve the company by way of self-defeating advocacy.

The Monsanto Protection Act is better labeled a rider — an inserted provision to a much larger piece of legislation meant to “ride” along with the political momentum driving the larger bill. In this case, the rider was attached to the bill that ends the sequester and funds the government another six months. Here the important takeaway is that the rider will also only be active for six months, until the bill expires on September 30, 2013.

In terms of what the rider actually does, Bloomberg gives a reasonably precise interpretation, explaining that the “provision allows farmers to plant products developed by the world’s biggest seed seller while their approval is being challenged in federal court.” The products in question are genetically modified seeds whose environmental impact is currently unknown. It’s also important to note that this is something the USDA was allowing before the agency itself was sued for overreaching its purview. Even after the rider’s passage, the USDA is uncertain whether it can enforce the rule.

For the criticism against a rider to be so fierce relative to its impact is symbolism in service of an established narrative — because Monsanto is deemed evil, it’s important to oppose what they do. To oppose what they do, each action they take must be treated with the same or greater level of scandal. This paradigm appears to miss the nuances of Monsanto’s tact.

Let’s consider that puzzle for a moment: Why would Monsanto go out of its way to author a temporary rider that draws so much heat when it was seeking a more permanent bill?

The first and most obvious reason is the pursuit of profit. Under the guise of giving small farmers some semblance of expected profits for their yield, Monsanto is likely to gain millions even from a six-month extension. But it’s not just time delimited profit for some operations, something greater is at stake here.

It’s possible that something greater is an attempt by Monsanto to work some set some psychological traps for voting on future legislation. Studies show that prior decision-making isdifficult to break from when making a current decision in a leadership capacity. To avoid the unpleasant self-doubt of cognitive dissonance, we prefer to remain steadfast in our consistency. It may therefore be the case that it’s easier to get a politician to vote for something they’ve already voted for in the past. You’re shifting the frame from vote-for-this to continue-to-support this. For success stories in this genre of legislation, look no further than the Bush tax cuts. Or the farm bill. This logic works on another level, too. By voting for a rider that benefits a constituent group, failing to renew or extend or make permanent that rider takes away the benefit, which looks more like inflicting a harm. For the legislator, there is an incentive, and perhaps even a psychological sleight of hand to force a consistent vote in favor of Monsanto.

So the rider is not a takeover of the U.S. Federal Government, and it doesn’t shred the constitution. But there is much ado about something here, and it’s worth stating precisely the stakes of our political process so we can make apparent subversive legislative strategy. To attack shadows on the wall doesn’t serve the food justice movement so much as it provides get-the-facts-straight fodder for companies like Monsanto. A better advocacy strategy wouldn’t amplify this story as the latest and therefore most egregious example of Monsanto’s ways, but instead link it to the most egregious examples of Monsanto’s operation. Just some food for thought.

97% Of Restaurant Meals Fail This Health Standard

Written for PolicyMic.

If 97% of restaurants failed their health inspection, you might never eat out again. And yet, there’s a sense in which exactly that happened just last week.

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released a study that examined 3,500 kid’s meal choices at the top 50 restaurant chains in the country. They tested the nutritional content of these kids meals against criteria that allowed up to 430 calories per meal. Of the 430 calories, no more than 10% could come from saturated or trans fats, and nor can more than 35% come from fat. Other criteria considered the amount of added sugars and sodium. At 19 of the 50 chains studied, not a single combination of meal items could meet the CSPI criteria.

97% of the 3,498 meal combinations reviewed by CSPI did not meet experts’ health guidelines for children.

What’s the big deal if restaurants offer bad food — don’t we expect them to do just that?

First, that the environment of available consumer food choices has offered solely unhealthy foods is among the reasons we have an epidemic of childhood obesity in the first place. According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has increased two fold and adolescent obesity threefold in the last 30 years. One-third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, and are thus at risk for developing Type 2 Diabetes, among other medical, socioeconomic and psychological challenges later in life. Research has indicated that many of the “excess” calories can be attributed to eating outside the home. When it’s revealed that most food choices outside the home are not exactly pro-health, the writing is on the wall.

Second, recognize that menu choices condition children (and probably adults, too). They condition children for what food norms are outside the home, which determines what they can demand inside the home. The conditioning also tells them what they can reasonably expect from restaurant chains. It’s not until many restaurants offer affordable and healthy menu choices that affordable and healthy foods will become an expected component of our food environment.

To those who groan that groups like CSPI are making much ado about nothing, consider that the National Restaurant Association (the other NRA), the largest body representing the interests of the restaurant industry, itself has a criteria for healthy kids meals: Kids LiveWell. In many ways, this criteria mirrors that of CSPI, but allows more calories per meal. Even under the NRA’s own criteria, 91% of restaurants fail to meet their standards for kids meals.

If gallows humor has a place in this story, it should be noted that restaurants have actually performed better on this survey since 2008, when only 1% offered kids meals that met the nutritional criteria. But we shouldn’t be celebrating that. For restaurants to move so slowly when studies indicate that healthy foods draw a profit borders on alarming negligence. We should expect better.

Evolving Views: A New and Improved Flip-Flopping

Wrote this for PolicyMic and The Huffington Post in homage to Mr. Geoff Nunberg.

Former Senator John Kerry’s fateful pronouncement that he voted for supplemental funds to Iraq and Afghan military operations before he voted against them gave him the damming and unshakeable label of flip-flopper. To frame him that way against a candidate who openly called himself the Decider proved to dim Mr. Kerry’s chances for victory. Despite the effectiveness of that attack, it appears less fashionable to call a politician a flip-flopper today.

This is not to say we lack deserving persons. While Governor Mitt Romney proved himself to be worthy of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of Politicians (you cannot determine both his position and his direction at a given moment), the monicker of flip-flopper didn’t stick as a salient attack against his candidacy. So too is it the case that former Speaker Newt Gingrich changed a number of his views, going so far as to make a website during campaign season to justify each shift.

Until recently, you might have said that a number of high-profile politicians have flip-flopped on the issue of gay marriage. The most famous of this group, of course, is President Obama. Well ahead of the election and more recent Supreme Court challenge, the President appealed in metaphor to interactions with his daughter to detail how his views “evolved” on gay marriage. After the GOP took a battering in November, some Republicans have followed suit. Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman both found their positions on gay marriage to evolve. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is now describing her own views on the topic as “evolving.”

If we can take evolving views at face value as a mechanism to change one’s position, it seems evolving is the new flip-flopping. Whether or not that’s a regrettable turn is less important than the meaning of this shift in language. Why is it the case that it’s easier to accept a politician whose views is evolving than a politician who flip-flops?

To understand this, it is perhaps best to start with why flip-flopping elicits the tarring and feathering that it does. The criticism piled on flip-floppers speaks to the very public loss of an ethereal, but sought-after quality in elected officials—authenticity. In other words, it is difficult to be sure that a politician is ever actually authentic (whatever this means). But through missteps like flip-flopping, it can be readily determined that a politician is not authentic. This reflected our expectation that a public servant ought hold some consistency in her views. The switch to our preference for evolving positions may reflect a shift in our expectation of authenticity (whatever this means) itself. As the public view on gay marriage is evolving, so too do we decide it is appropriate to afford our elected officials the ability to evolve their views.

But that doesn’t explain the drive behind the word-choice of evolving. After all, the above reasoning could be tailored to fit changing views or shifting views or reconsidering views or what have you. It is significant that both we and politicians employ evolution.

To say a politician has flip-flopped ties the politician to his changing position. Flip-flopping is an intentional action, an opportunistic one. Evolving evokes a metaphor external to the agency of a politician. When your views are evolving, you are not evolving them—that would be silly. We don’t evolve things, things evolve. Under the frame of evolving views, our imagination wanders to this space where many ideas are vying for survival in the natural selection of paradigms. Whichever position is ultimately taken has survived as the fittest. The evolved view is not chosen, but adapted to as a matter of what is best.

Watch for the growing use of evolving views—its popularity reflects an intentional and strategic method of tapping into a deeply understood metaphor for change. Whether the place of “evolving views” in our political discourse is here to stay is yet undetermined. You could say it’s a matter of natural selection.

13 Most Important Things to Consider When Choosing a College in 2013

Wrote this for the good folks at PolicyMic.

Admissions letters are coming in and you’re excited, but anxious. The high of getting into schools is coming down and you need to make a choice — without a whole bunch of time to give due diligence. So what makes your choice, do you go with your favorite school colors or whichever school got the farthest in your March Madness bracket? The school with the fewest vowels in its name or the one with the highest deer-to-student ratio? Which alma mater on your future license plate will cause other drivers to judge you? (Pro tip: Any and all.)

Having just graduated from college last June, I have some distance and perspective to this milestone. Perhaps most ironic, I didn’t actually choose between any two or three or fifteen colleges — I only got into one. To this day I feel lucky for that (see Consideration #12). But my own experience with college admissions requires I note up front that the ability to choose a college is itself a great privilege, one for which you ought pat yourself on the back and thank others in your life for helping you achieve.

That said, it helps to have some decision-making calculus, if only so you can deal with the tons of collegiate propaganda being sent your way by email and snail mail. Without further delay, here are 13 things to consider when choosing where to spend the next four years of your life.

What you’ve probably already considered:

1. Talk to people who go to the colleges you’re eying. It’s difficult to figure out what college is like if you both have never been a student at that college and you don’t know what it’s like to be a college student at all. In this way, some of the advice given to you by current students will be unintelligible. That’s okay. What you’re looking for in their responses is a kind of vibe, which itself will vary from student to student and day to day. Just don’t ask the student(s) a question as hopelessly broad as “What’s it like to go to X?” It’s, uh, okay I guess.

2. Visit the colleges you’re choosing between. Take the tour and drink the Kool-Aid, but also take some time afterward to just walk around yourself. Pretend to be a student and sit in on a class, have lunch on campus, go to an event. While you’re doing this, take note of what you like and don’t like about each. Then compare.

3. Determine how you actually deal with class size. The notion that smaller class sizes are always better has entered into the zeitgeist without much nuance. Smaller class sizes are better for individual attention, but if you like to be left alone until you decide to seek a professor out in office hours, a larger school is probably better. Smaller classes really do tend to weave a closer knit community, but large classes bring with them diversity and a larger set of niche opportunities. Also recognize that class size can differ within college. The psychology program at a liberal arts college might very well be larger than the religious studies program at the largest public university in the country.

4. Rankings matter, BUT: National rankings tend not to make a huge difference unless you’re dealing with the tails of the distribution and the school has a well-acknowledged brand. Where rankings do matter is in some individual measures. It is worth looking into meaningful records like graduation rate, or employment within six months of graduation, or freshman retention rate. Some niche rankings and related notions of reputation also matter for particular kinds of programs. If you’re dead set on getting a business, banking or consulting opportunity, many large firms restrict their recruitment efforts to a handful of colleges.

5. Tuition matters a lot, but take the long view. Speaking of rankings, check out the average student indebtedness. If the cost of the school is high, seek out information on concurrent student scholarships and student employment opportunities, or money you can earn while you’re there. If it’s expensive, try to map out what tangible services you’re getting for the cost. Conversely, if the tuition is low try to find out if the tuition is expected to rise, and what you’re not getting for the lower cost.

What you’ve considered considering:

6. Weather matters a lot … for some people. It seems safe to say too that weather only matters if it’s especially bad. There’s not much to say here other than make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.

7. Be aware of differing academic calendars. Do your target schools vary between semester, quarter and block systems? There are trade-offs to each. A semester gives the most time to a given class, so it’s possible you’ll get into deeper topics and have more time to prepare for exams and papers. A quarter system will put the semester system on steroids, but you get to take more courses over the year. In a quarter system, the courses themselves are shorter, so the pain of a not-great course selection is less. There are only a handful of colleges with the block system. If you applied to one of them, you probably know all about that.

8. Balance what’s in the college with what’s outside the college. Many students, from prospective freshman to alumni, for some reason think about the community only in terms of how fun or safe it is. Those factors are important, but the surrounding community of a college is important in at least two other respects. Consider how the community relates to the campus: Is the campus enmeshed in the wider community, opening itself to events and getting involved in community affairs, or is it something of an island? Does campus culture reflect the community, or do they each provide a fresh break from each other? Last, consider what the surrounding community can promise by way of opportunities — can you intern downtown, find a job there perhaps?

What you haven’t thought to consider, but really should:

9. Map out potential activities and classes for your first year. This seems onerous, but a good way to determine the tangible differences between a school — get beyond the “feel” of a campus — is to crack open the course guide and events calendar from the previous year and map out a potential first year. It’s sobering and exciting all at once to see a real example of how your year could go. Once you have these plans in front of you, it’ll be possible to make comparisons between opportunities available at one campus and the opportunity costs of another.

10. Figure out before you need to how flexible a campus is … How easy is it it to change your major? How much long does it take to apply for study abroad? Is getting involved in research possible? You’re going to change your mind in college, probably more than a couple times. This is a good thing. After all, the alternative is to be a slave to your high school self’s conceptions for your future. To investigate these questions, you might consider cold-calling the relevant campus department, posing as a current student.

11. Try as you might, you won’t be able to fully comprehend the experience a college has to offer.

College life is too multivariate. I spent the best four years of my life at UC Davis and I don’t know what it’s like to go there. I know what it was like for me to go there. What you ought to consider as you’re looking through brochures and meeting students and going on tours and simulating the college experience is that, at best, you’re only ever seeing any given college from one perspective at a time. This leads to a crucial point, namely …

12. No matter where you’ll choose, you’ll be fine. I could cite psychological studies here to show you that even after experiencing ostensibly positive or negative life shifts (think: winning the lottery or becoming a double-amputee), psychological baselines return to normal levels after six months. Or I could just say that it’s human nature to adapt to your environment, however great or awful you find it to be at first. Last, I could say that while choosing a college is surely a large part of determining the college experience, a significant component of your experience will be determined by you.

13. Consider that you bring a lot to a given college, too. Folks tend not to think of college in terms of what they can give, seeing only what they can get. And I get it, you’re going to pay and perhaps go into debt attending college — so why should you care about contributing to the campus? For one thing, it’ll make you happier. And doing so will likely improve both your grades and your resume of experiences. So when choosing a college, consider yourself and ask what can you contribute. Different colleges may offer different kinds of opportunities for your skill set and interests in this respect. Does the school have a great program for mentoring STEM high school students in the surrounding community you can support? Can your background in camp programs position you for a future in resident advising? Does your college offer a program that allows you to teach a subject you’re passionate about to your peers? What you give back might come to define your time there.