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Monday, 22 February 2016

A black partner is neither a fetish nor a political statement

Vintage shopping in Stockholm, February 2016


Recently, I have been adopting a slightly Americanised attitude to describing my background and where I’m from: nationality over ethnic background. I’m a Londoner through and through, not defined by my ancestry. The important thing is that being from metropolitan, cosmopolitan London includes an acknowledgement of multi-culturalism and diversity that is lacking from some other places. I believe that cultural diversity should be championed, and that a truly tolerant person should try to look to the individual before making judgements formed by assumptions relating to gender, age – and race. Agency, then, over structure.


 Part of this is my tendency in conversation to omit details of racial background unless it actually pertains to the topic. So if, for instance, if someone needs a guitar teacher, mentions their fondness for Jamaican patties, or love of 1970s paisley shirts, I might mention my boy-friend. Unless it becomes relevant to the conversation, I probably won’t mention his colour. But if I do, I am often – though not always – met with a slight rebuff; a raised eyebrow, a smarmy nod of the head. “Oh, so you like black guys...” Generally these comments are made to me by men, and it’s obvious that they are dwelling on sexual stereotypes. In fact, I used to have a colleague who decided to nickname my half-Jamaican ex-boyfriend ‘The Big Black Cock’, and referred to him by this instead of using his actual name. At the time I succumbed to the pressure of ‘fitting in’ amongst colleagues’ ‘banter’; but I’m no longer inclined to be so tolerant of casual racism. Unfortunately, when you call people up on it, they tend to accuse you of political correctness, being a spoilsport, being boring/no fun/taking things too seriously. Really, this is merely a defensive re-attack on you since they are perfectly aware that they are being deliberately offensive and provocative, and that they should know better.



 However, this kind of casual racism is still prevalent amongst subtler comments which make a point of your apparent preference for people of a certain ethnicity. No one would say to a white girl, ‘Oh, so you like white guys, huh?!’ It becomes clear that miscegenation – the mixing of racial groups – is still a concept that is both feared and misunderstood in many dominantly-Caucasian countries. This basic lack of understanding is despite, and crucially, within, discourses of multiculturalism, tolerance, and open-mindedness. To be told, ‘Oh, you like black guys!’ or ‘He’s into Asian women!’ exoticises the ethnic minority partner, presenting them as an object and effectively de-humanising them. It also gives you the status of a fetishist, and assumes that you share the reductionist attitude of the speaker of not being able to look beyond race.



 Rather than saying ‘Oh, so you like black guys?!’ can’t these people use a bit more imagination and think that perhaps I like not “black guys” but guys who are not dickheads? I’m in a two+ year relationship with a man who has mixed African and Caribbean heritage because I’m drawn to him as a person. Drawing attention to race in this way has the function of putting people in different boxes, when equality and civil rights is about recognising our similarities.



 On the reverse side of the coin are well-meaning people who have in the past congratulated me for being in a mixed-race relationship. Actually, I myself am a bi-racial person – a fact that tends to be overlooked by non-Asian people, who can never see me as half-white. Unless I was going out with another half-Chinese, half-Northern European person, all relationships are mixed-race. My relationship with a black man isn’t a political statement; it isn’t something I’m actively forming in order to make progress; but yes, de-stigmatising mixed-race relationships is a marker of progress. My worldview is not to draw boundaries due to race; but to celebrate differences.


 Having compared our experiences in life, my partner has definitely faced more racism as a black man in the UK than I have as a Eurasian woman; and so he was unsurprised. He has frequently encouraged me to be more tolerant of people’s ignorance. But for the first 23 years of my life, I have been fairly tolerant and accepting of the dominant discourse of white ethnocentrism, and the stereotypical [mis]representations of ethnic minorities in the public sphere. I can’t be bothered to put up with it any more, and micro-level experiences, such as the ones documented in this blog post, in my opinion form evidence of the macro-level ideologies plaguing so-called tolerant and multi-cultural societies such as the UK and Sweden.




What's your opinion on this?


Do you think I'm taking throwaway comments too seriously, or am I justified in calling them 'casual racism'?


Have you had any similar experiences?





Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Stockholm, guys, and Friday nights

 Selfie with HF on the Stockholm metro, that runs all night on Fridays and Saturdays.

There’s definitely something about being in a new city that allows you to behave differently to how you would do at home. Certainly at first, the lack of connections that you have both with the place and its other inhabitants frees you. Whether or not you try, you stand apart: foreigner, outsider, different on all sorts of levels. How you dress, walk, speak, and conduct yourself; the differences are often very subtle, but enough to be picked up upon.

In the UK, I don’t get hit on. Guys do not try to pick me up. People are often surprised to hear this, but it’s a fact; as a friend once said to me, I have excellent ‘Fuck Off!’ vibes. I also tend to avoid the kinds of places notorious for straight singles: aside from the London pubs I frequent, I’ve always preferred the LGBTQ scene, where it’s acceptable as a person to have a good time with your friends without being prowled on by predatory horny men. Whilst I did frequently socialise with my partner in London, I’m drawing on 7 years experience of going out around the UK in various venues, towns and states of relationship whereby I’ve effectively communicated through body language that I’m neither looking for love, nor out to have a one-night stand.

Things have been different since I’ve been in Stockholm. I don’t seem to be able to go out in the evenings at all without incurring the attentions of men, both Swedish and from the international student/expat community. It seems that my disinterested body-language communication is ineffective here. These signals, like most other things, have turned out to be completely culture-bound. Whilst I’m very happy to meet new people, and indeed am longing to make new friends, I don’t seem to be able to make it clear that I have no interest in listening to men’s various monologues about their lives/opinions/experiences when their intention is clearly to coerce me into running into bed with them. During a recent evening, when some guy literally pulled me into a quiet corner in order to impress me with his worldliness (he actually knew one black person! OMG! And they DIDN'T speak with an African accent! How cultured and open-minded he must be!) (Wanker.) I actually had to do the thing where you pretend that someone across the room is calling your name, in order to get away from him.

On another occasion, a guy actually decided to intercept my conversation with my housemate and his friend (two men) to sit at our table and talk to me. Kind of surprising, especially for the infamously-reserved Swedish; but he was easy on the eye and I was happy to have some attention. Or so I thought. He kept on breaking away in the middle of the conversation in order to return to the game of ping-pong going on in the bar (it’s a Swedish thing…); he also didn’t bother to offer me a drink. (I mean, he was drinking champagne, I wouldn’t have said no…) This happened several times, then my companion suddenly had a lightbulb moment: this guy had read The Game! He was doing the technique of a Pick Up Artist! That accounted for his strange behaviour!

It was pretty hilarious; the more my companion spoke of it, the more obvious it became that this guy was following some kind of 10-step guide to hooking a one-night stand. It was kind of puzzling that he should feel the need to do this since he was good-looking and had an interesting-sounding job (unless that was all part of it). By all accounts, normal conversation and being generally charming should suffice. But I guess that’s not the point. Well, as soon as I realised that he was trying to play mind-games with me, I of course started playing mind-games back, and basically ignored him. He wasn’t to know that I wasn’t going to go home with him, so I thought I might have some fun with it. He seemed to run out of technique at this point. Despite continuing to try to get my attention for the next 45 minutes, by walking past me but throwing backward glances over his shoulder (rather like a child at school with a crush that no one can know about), nothing happened, and we left before he could adjust his technique and make a different move.

Conclusion? Women alone in Stockholm, beware! There are toads everywhere.


Has this ever happened to you?

What's your opinion on the PUA technique?

And finally, some hilarious suggestions for warding off PUAs courtesy of Jezebel.


 
Disclaimer! The photo at the top of this post of my friend and I has nothing to do with the contents of this post aside from illustrating using public transport on a night out!  He is not a PUA! Nor am I! 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Sweden’s Pioneering Women of Design

Exhibition: Kvinnliga pionjärer (Female Pioneers) at Nationalmuseum Design, floor 4 in Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, Sergels Torg, Stockholm.


Centaur with child - decorative relief by Anna Petrus, 1928


Chess set, with pregnant queen chesspiece; by Marie-Louise Idestam-Blomberg, 1927

Water pitchers of electroplated silver; by Sylvia Stave, 1934

Today I attended a curator’s tour of the exhibition Female Pioneers: Swedish Design In-Between the Wars. This intriguing exhibition presents over 150 objects by women who have previously been excluded from Swedish design history, yet who produced a range of striking, iconic pieces in the modernist tradition.

The exhibition is arranged by type: furniture, ceramics, glassware, metal work, and some pieces in the earliest plastic. Glass cases mounted on plywood storage boxes create a wide aisle to walk through, whilst by the gallery windows, banners featuring biographies of some of the women reveal glimpses into their characters. The background of the exhibition is through the windows, the 1950s modernist glass buildings of the city centre.


Two rows of displays with a wide aisle form the exhibition design

Marta Af Ekenstam's biography is represented by an image of a table she designed, since a portrait of her (and several others) could not be found.

Modernist architecture forms the backdrop to the exhibition

The designs are bold, and often feature surprising details: the strong, tall, muscular bodies of women on a neo-classical frieze; the female centaur with her child; a pregnant queen on the wooden chess set. The curator, Maria Perers, gave surprising anecdotes about the designers and their work; Maria also revealed key facts in Swedish history, underlining the women’s working practices and private lives. Most of the women featured in the exhibition were employed by companies as designers or artistic directors at a young age – around 23-25, after completing education – and their careers were short, due to the common practice of leaving work for marriage and childrearing. Moreover, she informed us how difficult it was to research the women designers; in the biographies mounted on the wall, some of them are represented by their work, as their portraits could not be found. They had been forgotten about.

 Maria also mentioned how most of the collection on display was acquired by the museum only recently. During the 1930s until recently, the museum was keen to uphold an image of good taste; so omitted popular styles from the collections, including the colourful ceramics which were made from earthenware rather than porcelain, and were thus cheaper; but were also hand-painted, employing the skill of many women in the factories. Even designs such as the now-classic dinner service ‘Swedish Grace’ by Louise Adelborg were not acquired in their contemporary period. 'Swedish Grace' was first only produced in white – shockingly austere at the time, when the only environment that white plates would be found was in mental asylums.


These ceramics by Ilse Claeson (1930-1935) were only acquired in 2015, as the museum previously did not see them fit for inclusion in the collection.

A fancy dinner setting with personal cigarettes and ashtray (!), glassware by Gerda Strömberg, includes 'Swedish Grace' plates by Louise Adelborg (1920s)


Typically Swedish - 'functionalism' which still epitomises how the country's design ethos is viewed. A serving dish can be a storage container. Electroplated silver, by Silvia Stave, 1934.



The acknowledgement of a museum’s loaded role in shaping, even creating, our idea of history was welcome; and it was wonderful to see this striking selection of modernist classics. The neglect of textile and fashion designs were apparently due to practical restraints; although the curator did tell me that they didn’t want to include textiles as ‘that’s what people always think that women do’. Personally, I query this assumption (so many fashion designers are men!), and moreover disagree with the typical negativity associated with textiles and garments. Nonetheless, I can see the curator’s point, and it is important to celebrate the achievements of this group of female designers in their male-dominated design world; and to give them their rightful place in the design history books.

This exhibition is free, and on until 14 February.
Click here for more information.