Desirability Politics

It’s been a year of writing my dissertation and not updating my blog, but I think I might be able to get one in before the year (/decade?) ends. One of the things I’ve found most interesting my study of sidewalk interactions is a reflection of what the mechanism is, while I have my theoretical framework, that an interaction revolves around participant profile, bias, location and interaction type, I think fundamentally it’s about attraction. Do you want to spend more time with someone? Be closer to them? This is another way of asking whether or not you’re attracted to them. There are other reasons why you might want or need to talk to someone but I keep coming back to attraction because it’s in the word definition. If you feel are leading a fairly frictionless urban walk (you’re not in a rush and are free to go wherever you want,) who do you veer towards and who do you veer away from? There are reasons to talk to someone other than sexual attraction, but I think interest is a form of attraction. Whether you’re attracted to that type of interaction (you say hello and make eye-contact with everyone), that type of person (someone you see every day?).

I’ve been following a twitter discussion on desirability politics which I think is similar. In that cis, white, able-bodied, thin, conventionally attractive people get treated better in the US. Socio-economic status can often be inferred through clothes, accessories and other accoutrements. In my study aspects of desirability politics are noted as well as a measure of proximity. Neither leads to very strong conclusions but more interesting questions.


“They’re angry at you, all the time. After a while, it just grinds you down…
The applicants are angry because I can’t see how special they are. Their parents are angry because I let in some other kid with a lower SAT score. The alumni are angry because they got into Princeton, but their brilliant kid got denied. The faculty’s angry because we took the athlete, not the genius, but the football players know that its easier to get in if you throw the discus, and all the violinists and pianists are pretty sure you have an edge if you play something strange, like a tuba or the harpsichord. All the New Yorkers believe that everyone out there from South Dakota gets in automatically, but out there in South Dakota they think they don’t stand a chance at a place like Princeton. The working-class kids are convinced we’re selling admission to the highest bidder. Simone is angry at us because we’re elitist, but the elite know for sure that we’re giving their places away to every black or Hispanic kid who applies. Nonlegacy kids are pissed of because they read somewhere that legacy kids are twice as likely to be admitted. But I’ve watched my boss get up in front of a packed house at reunions and tell all those loyal alumni that two-thirds of their kids are going to be rejected. Let me tell you, they’re not thrilled about that. When I go out to visit schools, the kids are mad at me because they know I’m going to dangle this beautiful thing in front of them and encourage them to apply, and then reject their applications. The college counselors, the private ones who charge thousands of dollars, they’re furious at us, because we’re furious at them, and if we even smell them on an application it pisses us off, which makes it hard for them to sell their services to the parents, who are already angry at us and are now going to be angry at them, too.”

“Can i just say, as a mother of a prospective applicant…that it’s very frustrating. We’re all trying to figure out what you want. And it feels like every time we figure out the rules, you just change them. One year it’s ‘well-rounded students.’ The next it’s minorities who play the flute,’ then as if remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be about her, she rephrased her conclusion. “these kids want to be able to give you what you want.’

And therein, thought Portia…resided the problem…

‘We’re very much aware of that,’she told them. ‘we understand the frustration. And I don’t think there’s anyone in my field right now who isn’t worried about what this is doing to the kids. And I don’t just mean the competition, though that’s bad enough. I mean what the process is doing to them psychologically…We’ve got twenty-five percent of all college applications in this country going to one percent of the schools. And that one percent includes the only fifteen American colleges who accept less than twenty percent of their applicants. We know there are parents who are doing everything they can to game the system. They’re having their kids diagnosed ADHD or learning disabled so they can get extra time on the SAT. Now that ETS has stopped denoting which students have been given extra time, there’s no reason not to. But the message. To the kids. They’ve been tutored in everything, for years, whether they need it or not. So what they come to understand is: I’m not good enough to do it on my own. I need help to be successful…

And how can that not carry forward into their adult lives? I think it already impacts their experience as college students. We have students who freak out when they no longer have that support. They’re e-mailing their tutors and sending them their papers for review. They feel fraudulent…

I had a pretty scary conversation last year with one of my friend Rachel’s babysitters. She’s a senior at Princeton now. She told me a lot of her friends have a kind of disassociation. They’ve spent years assembling this perfect self to display to use — to people who are going to make these important decisions about htem. But sometimes they don’t feel they’re that person at all. They don’t feel smart or capable in the least, and of course when they get to Princeton they’re surrounded by their peers, who have done just as good a job of assembling this competent veneer, then they feel as if they’re the only fake in the bunch. This girl, Samantha was telling me there’s so much self-doubt. When I heard that, I suddenly felt as if I’ve been doing these kids a disservice.
They expect a lot from themselves.
Oh my God. So much. I honestly wonder if they’re not creating, or at least abetting, this surge of anxiety and depression in college-aged kids. And then there’s the other side of the coin. Which the babysitter also pointed out to me. Which is that some of them get to college and they just let all those balls they’ve been juggling for years fall out of their hands. They’ve worked themselves into the ground to get in. They feel like they missed out on slacking off. So now that they’re in, they’re going to have that lazy teenager thing they never had in high school. Seriously the whole system. I wonder about it sometimes. But this where we are. In a few years, it will probably look different.”

Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Late post with some quotes from Admission (pulpy novel the Tina Fey movie is based on) which I read earlier this summer while studying for the GREs. Illuminating a little of the complex many in my generation share. How did I get here? Why did I get here as opposed to someone else? How do I make the best of it? Not hugely different from other generations post-adolescent quandaries except in the magnitude of inequality.

To the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into the College of their Dreams
It’s different for grad school but my 2 cents is that I want to be somewhere that wants to have me, not someplace where I’m the last person they pick off the wait-list.

San Quentin Avon Walk

My mother is a nurse at San Quentin State Prison. She’s worked there for 4 years but for security reasons I’ve never had the opportunity to visit her there. This weekend a group of San Quentin inmates and staff partnered with Avon for a walk to end Breast Cancer in the San Quentin Yard. This is one of very few opportunities for inmates to interact with civilians. We didn’t really know what to expect going in.

First there were some ground rules: we weren’t allowed to take anything in except our IDs and car-keys. We weren’t to take anything out with us either. When interacting with the ‘men in blue’ the only physical interaction allowed was a handshake. We were also reminded never to run on grounds as the gunmen in the towers were instructed to shoot anyone running. When we walked in and the bars clanged behind us there was no doubt that we were in prison.

In the yard (which my mother can see from her office), men were lifting weights, playing tennis and basketball and generally enjoying what turned out to be a very nice day. It didn’t feel all that different from a very ghetto park, except with more barbed wire, and everyone had on blue (except the other walkers in pink shirts and the guards). As we sat in a back room we were told that there was a delay with the opening ceremony as we were waiting for prisoners to be let out of lockdown.

After meeting the inmates involved in SQ CARES, we took one silent lap around to remember those we’d lost to the cancer. We were told that 5 laps around the baseball field was 1 mile. While we wouldn’t be able to complete the 39 miles because we were only allowed on grounds for a few hours, the inmates would do just that over the 2-day weekend.

As we walked, men began to recognize my mother, their nurse. The first man who walked some laps with us had seen my mother for some back problems he’d been having. My mother told him we had waited for some guys to get let out of their cells, ‘Who was on lockdown?’ she asked. ‘Whites’ he answered. As he said this, I noticed how racialized the yard was. There were maybe a couple hundred men around, the vast majority of whom were African-American. There were a few whites, latinos and Asians but mostly black men socializing with other black men.

After a bit, a man about my age (mid-twenties) asked if he could walk with me. He told me about his favorite music (Tupac) and I tried to keep up with the conversation as he talked about Rap and Hip-Hop artists he liked. I noticed that some of the men in the yard had discmen with headphones in. He said they could borrow cds from the library and he had some friends who had lent him different albums. I noticed that most of the songs he mentioned were popular in the mid-ninties, making me wonder how long he had been incarcerated. But after a few laps I think he realized I was mostly a pretty boring nerd and wandered off to walk with someone else.

Most of the rest of the time I walked with a man named ‘Luke’ who initially asked me for a quote, he was on staff at the San Quentin Newspaper. He walked around with a handheld wordprocessor which he typed with one hand. I learned that had also played Hamlet in a recent play (recorded by KQED). I talked to him for for some time, he was very well versed on current events and had interesting things to say about Barack Obama, Governor Jerry Brown and the state of the American economy. When I told him I was in Computer Science he told be about a project he had been working on. Like any newspaper there were always some articles that were submitted but unpublished. He said he wanted to start a website to put up the articles that couldn’t get published in the newspaper, so that the people could feel like their words weren’t going to waste. I told him a little about HTML and that I would do what I could to help him, though this might not be very much, since I couldn’t exactly come in and get a flash drive from him.

The walk ended with a closing ceremony on a small stage in the middle of the field. There were announcements as we’d reached the $10,000 goal and some prisoners performed a rap they had written about walking to fight breast cancer. The experience was truly unique. I certainly had many moments of anxiety, but unlike my experience in the Afghan refugee camp, I was with my mother. She knew all the guards (who joked with her about her chronic tardiness, CPTime), all the inmates who knew her were happy to see her, and we kept the mood light, in intense environment.

When I got home to my computer, I realized that San Quentin News was already online at but Luke didn’t know because they didn’t have internet access on grounds. While I was online researching San Quentin News I started to look up what these people had done to end up in San Quentin, but I stopped myself. Remembering that the worst thing you do is not the truest thing about you, and that these moments we shared were as true as any others.

Afghanistan War

When people ask me why I’m interested in going to Afghanistan, I always have a hard time answering because my gut response is ‘Why aren’t YOU?’ On September 11th I was at boarding school in Putney, Vermont and I remember reading this Boondocks comic that seemed to express what I was thinking.


My reaction to September 11th was an introspective one, I asked myself ‘Why do people hate us so much?’ and ‘Why didn’t we know before?’, ‘What have we done?’ and ‘What can we do to make sure these people don’t attack us anymore?’

A few years after the attacks I was a Junior in high school and I had the opportunity to meet a group of women judges from Kabul. Just learning that there were women who had been judges in Afghanistan complicated my view of Afghanistan. Actually meeting and spending time with them made me more and more curious about the people there and what they were doing. If there were women there going to work every day there must have been at least two buildings standing, their homes, and their workplaces; all I saw on TV was burning rubble. I became really interested in the people and the culture, what was sharia law? What was really the situation there? (Here’s a great video/interview I just found about everyday life in Afghanistan if you’re as curious as I was.)

I studied Afghanistan in college as a Near Eastern Studies major at the University of Chicago. I learned Persian and Pashto. I decided to double major in Geography because I kept finding that the problems in Afghanistan had to do with ethnicities isolated by geography. The colonialist boundaries had put two very different ethnic tribes together in one country (along with many other tribes and ethnicities, Afghanistan is extremely diverse, many people thought I was an Iranian-African from the Bandar-Abbas region). I wrote my thesis on how the legal systems in Afghanistan were distributed geographically.

As you know, a few months ago I went to Kabul. In Kabul I heard 3 things with surprising consistency, the biggest problem or challenge in the country was lack of security, everyone thought the Pakistani government was to blame for many of the country’s problems (that the US should stop funding Pakistan) and everyone we asked wanted to keep US or international involvement in some respect. We talked mostly to middle-class urbanites in Kabul, but this was the anecdotal evidence we were able to gather. You can see the evidence of 30 years of war in and around Kabul, in every neighborhood our tour guide pointed out a building that had a suicide bomb attack, the palace and museum were destroyed, we went through check-points almost every day. But I can’t imagine what it’s like in the countryside.

We did have a couple different points of view to complicate this. One was on the second day at a refugee camp, which I talked about in an earlier post. The other was in the village of Istalif at a small traditional restaurant. We were served a dish called chainaki (lamb stew served in ‘china’ – tea kettles) as we sat on the rugs. A few different men came in and out of the restaurant and we were able to chat with them informally, one of the few times we weren’t on a scheduled meeting.

First we talked to the older man who we called Kaka meaning uncle, a term of respect and endearment. He talked about life in his village over the years. He and his family did pottery and leatherwork before the revolution, and the bazaars were much bigger. He lost his business after the revolution and the village of Istalif lost 75% of their population. Most of the money from Istalif went to Kabul, but there were a few families who came back and are doing agriculture again (wheat, fruit, figs, apricots, apples and cherries).

There was also a young man who was up for the weekend, he runs a camera shop in Kabul. We talked to him and his friend for a bit. He said some Afghans thought the Qur’an burning was done by Brits and not the US. He talked to us a little about what Islam meant to him, and how if everyone followed the Good Book we would have no problems. They brought up some issues about Afghans who can’t get Visas to the US. They said if the US is really an ally they should let Afghans travel to the US on business. If we stay in the country, we stay as an ally, but he warned, if we stay and try to start a war that history will teach us what happens to people who try to take over Afghanistan. Persians, Indians, British, Russians, no one has ever held Afghanistan.

The more research I did about Afghanistan the more confused I was about US involvement. I wrote a thesis, studied the geography, learned the culture and even went to Afghanistan. If I had to characterize the Afghan people, based on my experience, I would say they are generous, resilient and hugely diverse. I essentially came to the conclusion that I can’t figure out why Afghans bombed us because Afghans didn’t bomb us, some crazy terrorists did, they happened to live in Afghanistan (well, Pakistan). I recently heard this statistic about how Islamic people are more likely to be the victims of terrorist attacks than the perpetrators. Fear cannot be the driving force in this debate, we must come from a place of diplomacy and compassion, not imperialistic hubris. But I still can’t tell whether it’s right to stay in the country, helping people as well as killing people, or to leave, abandoning them altogether.

Social justice

In my constant struggle for moral clarity and social justice, I have lately been reminded of a troubling fact; justice is as much about lifting people up, as it is about putting (or pulling) people down. It’s not all about rising tides lifting all boats, and bringing people up to the tall bridge (Hanna Rosin’s version of the glass ceiling), it’s also about yanking people down from their pedestals and reminding them what it’s like to feel pain and to be hated just for being who they are.

Obviously you don’t need to be a minority to know what it feels like to be ostracized, we all went through middle school. In adolescence, it seems like everyone’s unbalanced, and sometimes the way you are unbalanced exacerbates someone else’s imbalances. But you can’t seem to help it. Life isn’t fair, and neither is divorce, or sexual harassment, or war, or poverty, or racism, or addiction, or psychosis. It’s not fair that some people are beautiful and others are ugly, that some are born rich, and talented, when the boy you like likes your best friend better, when you’re fired due to budget cuts, when you can’t seem to find the words to say what you want to say, and everyone seems to be speaking a different language altogether.

Everyone feels this, including white people including the beautiful and talented (like Joan Didion), including the 1%. Sometimes I think the occupy movement is mostly about revenge. As much as I crave revenge, there is a certain amount of injustice we just need to accept. And acceptance takes time and patience. And some pain will never go away.