Category Archives: Multiculturalism

Why the CIA Struggles with Diversity

I recently wrote on this topic for Overtaction. org. You can find the complete post here.  Highlights below. (or at least I think so!)

The Central Intelligence Agency has a problem recruiting minorities and advancing them into senior leadership positions, CIA Director John Brennan admitted last month. “There have been impediments,” Brennan told reporters, “to minority officers being able to rise in the organization.”

As a Puerto Rican woman who spent 32 years at CIA and nine of those years as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service, you might think my experience revealed a few secrets for advancing as a minority at the Agency. But during my career, I was struck much more by the subtle (and not-so-subtle) barriers to entry and advancement that the Agency presented to people who did not come from a Western European background. Not all of the affected were members of officially recognized minority groups—you can be a different thinker regardless of your heritage or experiences. But the information CIA released on minority representation suggests ethnic and racial minorities have had the most difficulty adapting to existing cultural norms, both when they seek Agency employment and when they attempt to advance in the bureaucracy.

My hunch is that any effort to increase both minority presence and influence at CIA will falter as long as the subtle and not-so-subtle cultural barriers to entry and advancement exist. As the recently published Diversity Leadership Study concluded, the CIA does not consistently promote an inclusive culture. In my view, constructing a more inclusive culture requires the Agency to reset some of its cultural precepts, including some long-held, treasured beliefs.

One cultural precept at CIA I think harms diversity efforts is an American/northern European-centric view of the world. This perspective expressed itself in many ways, most of them quite subtle. For example, I often heard the phrase “American Exceptionalism” at CIA. Senior leaders would use it frequently, never imagining, I would think, how that might come across as patronizing to a sizeable percentage of the workforce. Even now, I feel compelled to add—lest my patriotism be challenged—that I am a proud American who believes the United States contributes in a positive way to the planet.

But I think that’s generally true of all cultures—they make positive and negative contributions to the world. It is perhaps inescapable that an American intelligence agency would default to the West as its model and icon of goodness. But Agency leadership could usefully audit their common phrases and mental shortcuts to remove ones that are egregiously Euro-centric.

Another example is a phrase I heard with some regularity from CIA officers that went something like this: “Everything in country X has fallen apart since the [pick your colonial power] left.” Although I shared my discomfort with friends, I’m ashamed to say I never pointed out directly to a colleague how such a remark might come across to members of a minority group – especially one from that particular nation.

It’s probably not obvious how such under- and overtones might relate to the lack of minority representation among CIA leaders. What I think happens is many officers struggle with being true to their own beliefs and cultural heritage even as they seek career success at the Agency. I know I did. The Diversity Leadership Study acknowledges the subtle ways in which this culture can impede the advancement of people who are different:

The Agency does not recognize the value of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, nor consistently promote an inclusive, “speak-up” culture where all opinions are heard, valued, and taken into account. Some officers disengage because when they share their thoughts and perspectives on mission or workforce issues they are not considered. [emphasis mine]

Read the rest of the post here.

My Puerto Rican Visitors

My great-aunt Laura and her husband Felix visited me in northern Virginia the last week in April. My great-aunt is 83 years old, Felix a few years younger, and they live in Puerto Rico. She was the youngest and now the only survivor of a robust line of siblings of my grandmother, Doña Yuya. (Abuela died at 96 1/2 years old in 2003.) Laura and my mother, who turns 80 this summer, grew up like sisters in the barrio of Santo Domingo in Caguas, Puerto Rico. When they get together, they like to talk about the chickens who lived with them. When the chickens became sick, Abuela would burn tires. Most of the chickens would die, but the ones that survived were declared cured.

Like he does every time we see him, Felix talked about his tough childhood in Puerto Rico and New York City. His schooling ended in the third grade as a result of his mother’s death. His father sent Felix off to stay with other relatives, who put him to work at a restaurant of sorts in Puerto Rico, where Felix says he might as well have been a slave. He only had one shirt and one pair of pants, he said, and didn’t attend school. He was saved by an Americano who would come to the restaurant and who eventually offered him a better job. Felix ended up in a cold water flat in New York City. He had no idea of how cold water could get until he took his first shower in the winter.

Felix was constantly on the phone, checking on his network of friends and family in Puerto Rico.Felix (It is unusual for Laura and Felix to travel anywhere now that they’ve retired.) Felix is the facilitator, the engineer of his social circle. His areas of expertise include car repairs, cell phone bills, and baseball, particularly the New York Mets. He also knows what most things should cost and was surprised that the Burger Kings in the US mainland charge more than the ones in Puerto Rico. He appeared to know to the penny what he should have been paying.

Labor Unions. Felix recounted his experience at his first job as an adult. He was working at a factoria in New York City and eventually ended up as the shop steward, even though he did not speak much English. (He still doesn’t.) During some kerfuffle he was fired and he filed a complaint with the New York Labor Commission. When they investigated, according to Felix, they discovered that the owner of the factoria was also the head of the labor union. Felix was always a union man; he believed companies always took advantage of Puerto Ricans and blacks.

Economics. Felix eventually became the treasurer of a social club in New Jersey, Amigos Unidos. He became frustrated by the endless hassle collecting annual membership dues, so he suggested to the club leadership that they drop the dues and rely on bar revenues for income. Most of his colleagues were dubious but, as Felix recounted, his plan worked. They made more profit from the bar than they ever made from membership dues. The club became so profitable that it eventually acquired its own building, which was an overstretch. They also ran afoul of the local liquor commission, which began to impose stricter conditions for a liquor license.

Cemeteries. Perhaps the highlight of Felix’ and Laura’s visit was when we visited Abuela’s and my father’s graves. Abuela is buried at a lovely cemetery in Arlington, Virginia. My mother grieves every time she visits but this time Laura was there to reassure her. Visiting AbuelaMy father is in Arlington National Cemetery, which always makes for an impressive visit. My mother is calmer when she visits my father. She only says the Our Father at his grave and omits the Hail Mary because he was a Protestant.

Felix loves to play cards and claims to be a successful gambler. One day I invited a friend who knew Abuela to come over and play cards with us. Abuela knew her as La Alta Flaca. We played Spanish cards–Briscas, and Felix was a good teacher of the game. He also won.

All in all, it was a good break for Felix and Laura. He left us with his favorite saying: Cuídense que de los buenos quedan pocos. (Take care, because there aren’t too many good ones left.)

When I Said “NO” to Multicultural Awareness Training

Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg have a piece in the New York Times this morning pointing out that:

New research suggests that if we’re not careful, making people aware of bias can backfire, leading them to discriminate more rather than less.

When people were told that women in the workplace suffer from stereotypes, these individuals continued to rate women as “significantly less career-oriented.”

Cue Time Machine!

My mind immediately went back to thirty years ago when I was seven or eight years into my career. In the 1980s, organizations were coming to grips with the “issues” of the multicultural workplace. Mandatory courses on cultural awareness were the order of the day.

These courses only really seemed to have an impact if among the attendees were representatives of minority populations who could speak truth. Through the stories of their personal experiences, they made more concrete the lessons of diversity training. The problem, however, was that many organizations in the 1980s lacked sufficient numbers of women and minorities in their workforce to attend all the courses. So I ended up taking the same course a second time just to ensure that the class had the right “diversity balance.”

And then they asked me to take the same course a third time.

“We need you in the course because you’ll speak up about your own experiences.”

Yup. That’s what I would do. I would tell my classmates about subtle and not so subtle indicators that my coworkers viewed me differently, apparently because of my ethnicity and gender. And when I did that, I felt increasingly uncomfortable. Drawing attention to myself as a Puerto Rican woman just seemed counterproductive. “Yup, there she is complaining rather than concerning herself with the mission”

And so I said no! I wasn’t going to keep making repeat appearances at these courses. Of course organizations desperately needed to foster a workplace that was fair to all, but not by creating circumstances that were unfair to me and many other women and minorities. In a weird way we were being asked to self-incriminate ourselves.

Based on the research that Grant and Sandberg document, I have a hunch that those diversity awareness courses 20 to 30 years ago may have done more harm than good. “If everyone else is biased, we don’t need to worry as much about censoring ourselves.”

Grant and Sandberg suggest one possible solution: leaders need to be explicit about their intolerance of direct and indirect discrimination.

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

Just Another Tale of Lost Luggage

Dateline: Berlin

Some of you who follow me on Twitter (@milouness) are aware of the recent adventures of two bags belonging to me and my mom. Actually the bags didn’t do that much adventuring, come to think of it. We were doing all the traveling, supposedly chasing our bags across four European cities while they remained snugly indifferent in London. This little adventure reminded me of some of the most interesting traits of the English and the Germans, well really of humans in general.

Warning: Stereotypes Ahead

1. The British are obsessively honest about their shortcomings. Wait till you get to Munich. The Germans are much better at this than we are. Said to me by a competent and honest British Airways gate agent for the BA flite to Manchester who tried to reassure us that our bags would eventually join us. Now our final destination was supposed to be Vienna so you may ask why we were going to Manchester, UK. To connect to a Lufthansa flight to Munich because that was the closest we were going to get to Vienna that day.

The trouble began when our American Airlines flight to Heathrow was about an hour late, due to thunderstorms at JFK. Apparently about half of the missed connections were to Vienna, making it impossible, on a busy travel Saturday, for most passengers to be rebooked on already packed flights.

My mom and I were the fortunate ones, or so we thought. We had lucked into the rare London to Manchester to Munich routing. I figured Munich was close enough to where we wanted to go so I cancelled one hotel and changed my car reservation. Everything was good to go but the bags.Luggage

2. People are too trusting of technology; suitcases only know to go where they are tagged. Throughout our amazing race day we were assured multiple times that our luggage was now tagged to follow us on the London-Manchester-Munich routing. We asked every human we could in London if our luggage was coming with us and they assured us it was. See, we scanned your luggage receipts into the system so your luggage is now linked with your new itinerary. It’s all set. I admit I was more trusting than my mother who warned: “Luggage doesn’t know anything about the computer. It only knows where it was tagged.”

3. People and technology can conspire to tell outright lies. Once in Manchester and with our luggage nowhere in sight, we went to chat with a competent Lufthansa agent. Right in front of us she called some Global Baggage Handling Command Center (that’s what it sounded like to me). No sooner had she mentioned the “Medina case” than the person on the other end seemed to recognize its complexities immediately. Your bags are being sent rush to Munich right now. They will probably be in Munich before you get there.

Given what actually happened, I am left to speculate that

a. She was actually putting on a show for our benefit, there was no person on the other line, and the Global Baggage Handling Command Center is a myth; or

b. The Global Baggage Handling Command Center was lying to her and they never did any of what they said they did; or

c. (and most likely) “Luggage doesn’t know anything about the computer. It only knows where it was tagged.”

4. The Germans know they are more competent than all the other Europeans (combined?) and are quietly cocky about it. Needless to say no bags showed up in Munich. (Eventually we drove to Vienna the next day to pick up the bags, who sure enough had always intended to go exactly to where they had been tagged.) So we approached the Lufthansa service agent, a magnificent woman of a certain age who anchored the lost luggage desk like an Athena. ticketsAs soon as she saw me clutching my wreath of tickets and boarding passes, she observed: I can tell already you have had a horrible day. Just start from the beginning and tell me everything that happened.

She allowed herself only the briefest moment of schadenfreude when I shared the British Airways personnel stated belief that Lufthansa would be able to fix the matter because of their superior skills. She telexed British who told her the bags would be arriving in Vienna the next morning on the same flight we had been booked on the day before. And so they did.

Now that I’m done with the luggage story, a few other observations.

5. The occurrence of Graffiti is a reliable indicator of political mood. The first thing I look for when I’m in a new city is the frequency and nature of graffiti. In Europe, for the last ten years or so, graffiti has been the worse in Spain, by far. No highway structures go untouched and graffiti often mars sides of buildings in quite nice neighborhoods. Germany, at least the part that was once Western, is largely graffiti-free. But as soon as you enter the former East Germany, you see it everywhere.

6. Berlin remains a construction Hot Spot. No matter which way you look on the horizon, you see cranes, never alone, at least pairs, triplets, even quintuplets. The beautiful Unter den Linden, which our hotel overlooks, is torn up for the installation of a new U-bahn stop.

7. Americans as a culture combine British cheekiness and German efficiency. These two heritages account for the largest percentage of the US population, by far. We have always been able to turn seeming contradictions into our national advantage.

Mormons Are Not The Borg

“Mormons are not The Borg.” That’s what Matthew Bowman answered (author of the new book The Mormon People) when I asked him a couple of weeks ago what was the most common misperception about Mormons. I was at a talk/signing for his new book at the plucky independent bookstore in Arlington/Falls Church: One More Page Books. (This book store in only one year has become the hub of all events literary in Northern Virginia in part because of the decline and fall of almost all the other bookstores in the region but also on account of the great attitude and hard work of the staff.)

I’ve been hesitant to write about my impressions of the book signing lest I come across as mean-spirited, snarky and/or somehow offend my Mormon friends and colleagues. But I keep thinking about the experience, largely because I do not understand the Mormon phenomena in America. (I think a lot about what I do not understand. Are there people who only think a lot about what they do understand?) Last night I was watching this excellent (but more than an hour-long) interview of Brian Dawson, an ex-Mormon who is star and producer of the Mr. Deity video podcast series. (If you haven’t seen these they are a real treat: funny and yet sophisticated inquiry into what the God stories really mean. It tackles all the questions you’ve always wanted to ask. I promise.)

Back to the greatest misperception about Mormons. (Now I consider this my favorite trick question–the one you ask when you really, really want to know the truth. So for example, if I’m interviewing someone for a job, I often use it when I want to really find out someone’s greatest weakness. If you ask someone that question in an interview, they’ll undoubtedly answer with a weakness that is invariably a strength: I work too hard is popular. But if you ask someone what the most common misperception is about them, they’ll often say something like: Well, that I’m not really a people person. BINGO!) Generally speaking, there is no such thing as a misperception.

So when I asked Dr. Bowman to volunteer the greatest misperception about Mormons first he said he didn’t know what to say because there were so many. But then he quickly offered that the Mormons were seen as The Borg. Which wasn’t at all the case.

The Borg

At that moment I looked around the rather small space of One More Page Books, which was filled with, by their count, 85 people–the largest turnout they’d ever had for a book talk/signing. I had arrived early that evening because Author Whisperer @TNebeker had told me they were expecting a large turnout. Nevertheless at about ten minutes till seven, there were maybe 4 people waiting for the talk, including the author. In the next 8 minutes, the other 81 appeared almost instantaneously, like…well…The Borg. The crowd represented all age groups, from teenagers to the author’s uncle but as best as I could tell I was the only non-Mormon in the room.

What struck me right away about the group, what has always struck me when I’m around Mormons, is how positive they are. I’m one of the I believe growing legion of non-practicing Catholics, and I can tell you from experience that when  Catholics are together in a large group they cannot exactly be described as positive and cheerful. (Bowman by the way thought the Mormon and Catholic religions had many similarities, more so than Mormons and Protestants.) But the Mormons were uniformly pleased one of their own had written this important book that was being seriously reviewed. Their questions reflected their pride in their religion and culture, and gentle in-jokes. Afterwards several of the Mormon missionaries (I could tell because they were wearing badges) approached me to ask if I wanted more information about the Mormon church or to further elaborate on answers to my other questions. (Q: Why do Mormons appear to be so prosperous? A: If that’s true, it’s because, unlike members of other religions Mormons become more religious as they become wealthier!!!) But when I told them that I wasn’t interested and wasn’t really a believer, they couldn’t have been kinder or more generous. (Unlike many other Christian evangelicals I’ve experienced who react to a demurral much like the Toro reacts to the Red Cape.)

So I left the event more puzzled than when I entered.  Many of the questions from Bowman’s Mormon audience reflected what appeared to be real inner spiritual experiences. (Did you feel the hand of the Divinity while you were writing?) I left the event with the same respect for the Mormons I’ve always had. Considerable.

And yet when I listened to the interview with Brian Dawson, the former Mormon now Atheist who speaks quite eloquently about his spiritual journey, I’m again confronted with what I consider to be the profound mysteries of the Mormon Church. The Book of Mormon ‘s purported historical accounts of the pre-Columbian civilizations and conditions of North America have now, to the satisfaction of many, been disproven. (Most recently, DNA tests show no trace of semitic-linked genes in indigenous North American populations.) The theology, which is complex and still developing, posits a pre-life and after-life that are significantly different from that of most other monotheistic religions. (In my admittedly brief scan of Mormon apologetics prior to writing this, I was struck by their argument that critics must remember Mormonism is still a young religion, less than 200 years old. After all, Islam certainly did not have its act together in the 8th century. The comparison was valid…and surprising.)

By the way, the Brian Dawson interview I’ve linked to is part of the Mormon Stories podcasts. These interviews feature prominent Mormons talking about their faith. From what I could tell all the others interviewed were true believers. I can’t imagine any other denomination that would allow a non-believer more than an hour of quality air-time to express his opinions. Mormons strike me always as very secure in what they believe.

My puzzlement over the Mormon religion also affects my views about Mitt Romney. (Bowman had heard that John Huntsman is actually a non-practicing Mormon,) Romney famously describes himself as a man of data. And yet he says he is proud of his Mormon faith, which implies he accepts the founding documents of the Church, which appear to me to be data-free. What can I conclude from this? Either he is not really the empiricist that he claims to be (i.e. he really believes) or he is in fact somewhat of a religious hypocrite.

Well, I’ve rambled enough. I’ve been thinking about the Mormon religion for almost 40 years now. (I went to high school in West Texas where we were always fending off their ministries.)

I’m afraid I have yet to achieve clarity.

Turkish Insights

Today is my 8th day in Turkey, a country I had not been to until now. (I’ve had the good fortune to visit much of the world, with the exception of Latin America and Asia, which are underrepresented in my travels.) I had no idea before the trip began that this journey would be such an eye-opener. Turkey is bursting with the new energy coursing through the planet. Unlike the US and the West, which at this moment appear overwhelmed by problems of their own making and undermined by an epic clash in values—particularly in the United States, Turkey strikes you as a country optimistically committed to its future. I know Turkey has problems—after all every society has, but they do not appear to be defeating the optimism of the Turkish people.

Some impressions I’ve made:

Turkey is pointed toward the East and has the opportunity this century to truly optimize its natural position as the connector between the East and the West. I suspect, however, that Turkish businessmen and the Government, if forced to choose, will declare “Go East, young man.” Flying around on Turkish airlines I’ve studied their route map. Today, they fly to 14 destinations in India, China, and the rest of Asia, compared to six destinations in the Americas, 4 in the US, 1 to Canada, and an intriguing connection between Istanbul and Sao Paolo, Brazil. True, Turkish Airlines has an impressive flight network in Europe, flying to nine German cities alone, but this is almost matched by its comprehensive coverage of the ‘stans, other former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.

Turkey is still traveling on the uphill slope of its potential curve. Turkey is edgy in a good way. Just a short walk on the streets of Istanbul reveals all the cracks and fissures in the society. For example, every possible perspective on the role of women is seen walking on the boulevards: the great majority of women dress Western but head scarves and veils are also common, particularly in Istanbul. But most people on the street seem to be happily exploring how all these different value structures can best fit together, rather than choosing to believe there is a problem. It is altogether common, for example, to see women eating together at a restaurant, dressed in the full range from Vogue magazine to village traditional. I’m not familiar enough with Turkish politics to know if this generosity of acceptance extends fully to their politicians. I suspect that it doesn’t, knowing that politics, at least in the modern era, seem to thrive more on dwelling on problems than on devising solutions. But I can’t imagine Turkish politics has yet sunk to the level of American politicians, who are now fashioning their campaign platforms around our differences.  I’ve asked our tour guides questions, for example, about Turkey’s attitude toward Greece. My questions are dismissed as silly; we’ve grown beyond that. If only the West could learn again how to grow past problems, rather than dwell on them.

Turkey, I think, is not so often discussed when we talk about Islam, politics, and the Muslim religion, but we need to focus on it (and Indonesia) more as we think about how Islam will contribute to the setting of new global norms in the 21st century. Turkey, at least, strikes me as a very positive example. On September 11th, between 8 and 9 am East Coast Time, our tour group was sitting in Suleyman’s mosque in Istanbul, listening to our guide explain Islam. About halfway through the talk, many members of our group made the connection between the date and our context, and I think many of us—but not all—were happier to be in a mosque than to be in the US at that very moment. Turkey’s Islamic identity produces some interesting nuances in its relations with China. The Turks consider the Uigers to be part of the ancestral Turkish nation; the two languages have many similarities. So when we think about how international politics will evolve in the decades to come, one mental model we need to discard is that all situations involving significant differences will involve the US. You can imagine, for example, tensions between a country such as Turkey and China developing over the question of how China treats its Muslim population.

I could list more impressions, at this point all positive. Social media seems to be everywhere, for example. But the bottom line for me and many in our tour group, including veteran financial advisers and investment types, is that Turkey is much more appropriate exemplar for the world today than the US. And that was an impression I had no expectation having when I arrived.

Ship, Sheep, Shit, Sheet

On Mother’s Day about a month ago I posted 5 facts about my mother, except they were seven.  So many people commented that I’ve been thinking they deserved a blog post. And since I’m just leaving San Antonio from visiting her, now seems the right time to write it.

Her mother, my grandmother, never married which made her life very difficult in 1930s/1940s Puerto Rico. I consider this a type of IQ test for my friends. I’ve actually had friends exclaim, upon hearing for the first time that mi Abuela never married. “How can that be???” (I know that’s unkind but it happens to be true.) Abuela, who died in 2003, was in my view a spectacular person. She never went beyond first grade in Spanish, so could barely read or write, but had a copy of the Catholic missal and would ask me to find the Sunday reading for her every week. (We were Catholic but really only liked to go to church on Palm Sundays, when you got the lucky fronds.) My mother’s father, my grandfather, whom I knew quite well, was an accountant (!) and much to my mother’s embarrassment, I guess, Abuela and he maintained a relationship for quite a long time. He was married twice and with his first wife had a daughter, Juana, my mother’s half-sister who was born 1 day earlier than my mom. (He was a man of considerable achievement.) I got to meet her once about ten years ago and they might as well have been twins. Juana noticed my reaction and said, “It’s frightening, isn’t it.”

Despite her limited English, Abuela had an unfailing grasp of the Bingo numbers, 1-75.

She never learned to ride a bycicle and regrets it to this day. So Abuela and my mother’s family hailed from Santo Domingo, a poor neighborhood of Caguas, Puerto Rico. Caguas supported two high schools, one was better than the other, and on my mother’s first day in high school, the teachers discovered that she and Juana, who were of course classmates, were half-siblings but worse, my mother was, gasp, illegitimate. So to avoid the embarrassment, the school administration forced my mom to go to the other, lesser high school, an affront she has not forgotten to this day. I think this is why when we travel we always book the very best hotels. I actually heard my mother tell a travel agent once that the hotel she was suggesting was not expensive enough.

In her 40s she went back to school while working full time and got her bachelor’s degree in accounting in five years. Mom has worked almost all her life. Abuela lived with us and took care of the kids. I understand there are studies now suggesting this is one of the healthiest ways for children to be brought up. Once she realized that she could not get the more senior positions as an accountant in the Department of the Army without a college degree, my mother resolved to fix that. My father, who had just retired from the Army, told her she’d never make it!! (My father had many talents but I don’t think he was cut out to be a student.) My mother even passed calculus, which never ceases to amaze me, whose math education NEVER went beyond high school geometry.

She got very upset during college history class when she discovered the British had burned Washington DC in War of 1812. My mother takes things very emotionally. (She’s a Cancer with a Pisces moon, so if you know anything about Astrology that’s like living in your own personal hurricane ALL THE TIME.) She’s lately taken to watching Fox News, which for her functions much like the warm Gulf waters.

She moved out on my father seven times but always went back to him. Three times in one year. I remember that well. My junior year in high school. It would hijack this post to get into too much detail about their relationship. When we visited our relatives in Puerto Rico, the women tended to sit together and try to one-up each other with stories about the sufferings they endured as the result of the actions of their men. I could tell going into these sessions that my mother always felt she was quite competitive, but truth be told she never could crack the Champion’s League.

As native Spanish speaker and accountant, caused her no end of problems that her pronounciation of shit and sheet are identical. Whenever some particular embarrassment occurred at work as a result of this issue, we invariably would sit around the dining room table practicing the difference between the two, which she just could never hear.  One “shit” was said in less than a second; the other “shit” lasted five seconds or longer, sometimes until she became short of breath. My mother really is a native Spanish speaker; I just pretend to be one. American idioms always were fun too. We spent another evening explaining to her what “screw you” meant.

Also her pronounciation of Ship and Sheep, but these are less likely to come up in tax conversations.

The Politics of Curls

I have very, very curly hair. It is naturally curly. I went through a brief period in my teenage years when I tried to straighten it, but through no particular wisdom and stemming more from general laziness and cheapness I soon abandoned those efforts. So I have kept it short and curly ever since.

Curly hair is an ideological position. Even if you don’t intend it as such, American society, in fact most Western societies, attach some type of value to curly hair, and it ain’t a positive one. (I think, I don’t know, that this may just stem from the fact curly hair is a minority occurrence in most parts of the world. See this excellent Wikipedia article on hair for more information as to its evolution.) As I ended up in more senior positions at the CIA, I realized the importance of looking neat and crisp, a condition I nevertheless rarely attained. There is something about your physical profile that projects authority to others. (I’m not happy about this, but it remains so. A wise friend of mine has noted that social conventions mean it’s easier in office settings for men to look crisp than women. Men wear a suit, a white shirt, a tie. Women wear a wide range of outfits, jewelry, shawls–i.e., not crisp.)

Curly hair looks neatest when it is shortest. So as I climbed up the corporate steps, I sat more often in my hair stylist’s chair. Now that I’m working again post-government retirement I’m getting my hair cut every 4-5 weeks. (25 years now Rita has cut my hair. I find curly-headed people are very particular and loyal about who cuts their hair.) I’m obviously not brave enough to let my hair go longer and look less organized. Less organized! I guess that’s what others see in people with curly hair–a messiness that they assume extends to other parts of curly heads’ lives, such as thinking. (Tangent: The climbing of the corporate ladder is quite an apt metaphor for what happens to individuals as they acquire status. As you climb a ladder, you must concentrate more and more on your position to remain safe and stop looking down lest you get distracted. In fact, smart climbers mostly look up. Isn’t this what happens to senior managers?)

I was discussing these ideas with a young woman at my new workplace who also has curly hair but who recently showed up with straight blonde hair, something she does every once in a while. She said people have actually told her she looked smarter, more competent with straight hair. Sigh!

So what’s my point? Well, first, do I really have to have one? I mean, having a point is just so, I don’t know, linear. But, second, it is to sensitize that there are many subtle, subconscious ways we categorize others as less important or less competent. And curly hair is one of them. (Grey hair is another, I think.)

Not having straight hair, not looking crisp are just more examples of the subtle barriers to entry that diminish our effectiveness as a species. Curly hair affects me but every person probably can tell a story about some characteristic they have. These subtle barriers to entry are legion. I’ve actually never been sure I wanted to enter and more importantly stay wherever it was others found so compelling, but I’ve always believed all of us have the right to discover that for ourselves, and not have others make that selection for you.

PS: I did a few google searches on the subject of curly hair. I recommend the following blog posts.

Everyday Life with Curly Hair

Hair Manifesto

Manifesto of a Former Self-Hater

When Mexico had an Illegal Immigration Problem

I’ve been meaning to post this picture for some time. Participating in a great Tweetchat last night #Latism reminded me to do it.

Here’s a picture of a historical placard located in the Alamo in San Antonio. (I’m there often because my mom has a home in the Hill Country of TX.)

History Placard at the Alamo

Zooming in on the text:

I have no huge point to make here other than note, as I’ve done before, that irony is the most powerful force in the universe. (Also I was reminded by the folks in #Latism last night that, as this text implies, the Mexican Government also had a problem with the settlers owning slaves.)  And perhaps this can serve as a small antidote to the self-righteous and smug tone of many (not all) in the immigration debate.

Paris, Vienna, Thanksgiving, Stereotypes

RecoveringFed (with her mom) is currently in Paris and Vienna for Thanksgiving Plus. Here’s an excerpt from my travelogue to friends. (Disclosure: I am not in the pay of any commercial brand mentioned below.)

All in Europe is progressing smoothly even if it is the coldest late fall experienced for many a year. My mother and I limit our city walks to the bright, sunshine hours of the day, which means in these northern climes that we’re out and about for almost 45 minutes. Our stay in Paris began with a really nice Thanksgiving dinner prepared Parisian style. The restaurant served the well-known Mayflower salad featuring corn and that other ingredient familiar to Indians and Pilgrims alike–avocado. But the turkey, all kidding aside, was among the best I’d ever had and the stuffing tasted like Stouffer’s. When in Paris for Thanksgiving there’s only one wine to have–Beaujolais Nouveau.

The French have banned smoking in restaurants and everyone seems to be adjusting nicely. We were a little taken aback, however, when during dinner the entire table of six next to us seemingly disappeared at once, their half-eaten Mayflower salads still moist upon their plates. It really seemed they had been sucked up by aliens. But then one of our dining companions noticed that the purses of the women were still there; we peeked out the front door and sure enough there were the six, grouped for warmth, smoking their intra-prandial cigarettes.

Another custom we observed at this restaurant for the first time was the waiter sprints. About halfway through our dinner, the waitress/host dashed out of the restaurant, easily reaching top speed as she burst through the front door. I was concerned, thinking maybe she was hoofing after someone who had skipped l’addition and also worried because she was only wearing a sleeveless (and essentially backless) bright red dress. (Although I guess if you are an attractive young woman and you’re going to be sprinting through the dark winter streets of Paris, red sleeveless, backless dress would be one of your better options.) But again our wiser dining companions reassured us that sprinting and dashing waiters are common sights in small Parisian restaurants. “You see it all the time. It usually means they’ve run out of bread and five minutes later they return with half-a-dozen baguettes tucked under their armpits.” This gave me a completely new appreciation for warm French baguettes. Our waitress returned with nothing, however, thus successfully retaining her air of mystery the entire evening.

Our hotel, Castille on Rue Cambon, is right next to the Chanel House in Paris. They had the cutest Chanel rag dolls as part of their Christmas window decorations.

One day, as I was tweeting on the hotel computer, I noticed that on the French computer one does not have to shift to use the exclamation point. I think that says something about the French.

On the Saturday we traveled to Normandie to visit the famous invasion beaches. I really recommend that but in retrospect I would pick a day other than the one following a recent snowfall.

And so now we’re in Vienna. A very merry Christmas town. We visited the Hofburg Palace this afternoon. If you’ve been, you walk through room after room of the Imperial Cutlery and Dinner Service. My mother caused quite a stir as, after each even more ostentatious display of wealth, she snorted violently and said, “I can’t believe this. With all the poor people in the world, the emperor spent all his money on dishes!!” I think she’s got a good point there. Less convincing was her observation that instead of displaying these plates, it would be best to send them all to Haiti. But as I anticipated, she was fascinated by the section of the museum devoted to the life of Empress Elizabeth.

The contrast between the French and the German/Austrians remains acute, despite Europe’s integration. When you’re in Paris and you come across something untidy, you think of it as charming and bohemian. If you run across the same thing in Austria, you think, oops, their standards are slipping.

Or maybe it’s our stereotypes that never change.