Month: December 2017

Review: New webseries “Giving Me Life: In the Land of the Deadass” will give you proper “Living Single” feels (SPOILERS)

I love Living Single. I’ve watched every episode, and I know the characters inside out. Even though we might get a reboot soon, I’ve longed for another show to give me that same comfortable vibe of friends who have each other’s backs while calling each other out on their mistakes. If you’re like me, wishing and hoping for a show to follow Living Single‘s leave, give Dafina Roberts’ Giving Me Life a watch.

Giving Me Life, a Kickstarter Creator-in-Residence project and a 2017 New York Television Festival Official Selection, focuses on a core group of friends–Nala (Lori Liang), an artivist who has to reconcile her idealism with the stark realities of making money; Leah (Natalie Jacobs), a career-driven Type A investment banker whose studying for the GMATs and only dates up; Travis (Marshall star Mark St. Cyr), a highly spiritual, charismatic guy who thought he’d found the right spiritual partner; Cam (Sly Maldonado), a lovable party boy who is actually looking for the right woman to settle down with; Jess (Nathaly Lopez), a middle school counselor who uses her counseling skills to be the listening ear for all of her friends–even though she has problems making room for a girlfriend in her life; and Gil (Jarvis Tomdio), Nala’s crush, a people pleaser and “the epitome of geek-chic.”

These friends are trying their best to make it in New York and achieve their dreams while not losing their minds in the process. Thankfully, these guys have each other, and regardless of whatever problems they have, they all have each other’s back. The camaraderie is what makes the show so easy and enjoyable to watch. So far there are only four episodes, but once you finish, you’ll wish there were more.

Honestly, the show has left me wondering why this hasn’t been snapped up for TV pilot season. I think this show is good enough to rival series like InsecureDear White People and Master of None. It definitely gives viewers everything they’re asking for in these representation-focused times. We have tons of diversity, but more than that, we have inclusion; we’re told stories that reflect the lives of real people from the perspectives of people of color. The characters are never cookie-cutter; they are dynamic, fresh, well-rounded and behave like people we’ve come in contact with before (for some of us, we might be those characters). Their different socio-economic, ethnic, and sexual spaces these characters reside drive the storylines in an organic way, and there’s never an episode that feels like it’s a “very special episode.”

Natalie Jacobs as Leah. (Giving Me Life/Facebook)

What might be the most refreshing thing about Giving Me Life is that it gives its LGBT characters room to be imperfect people. I think one failing some shows on TV have when it comes to representing LGBT characters is that there’s a tendency to make the characters the poster children for the LGBT community. There’s a compulsion to try to make them perfect or edgy in some way. The characters in Giving Me Life, however, aren’t treated like stereotypes. Their needs and wants are just as fleshed out as their straight counterparts, and they are allowed to make mistakes.

For instance, Travis believes he’s found his soulmate with his boyfriend, but realizes that his boyfriend might want more than Travis can give him. After a bad experience with swinging (something the deeply religious Travis didn’t want to do in the first place), Travis breaks up with his boyfriend, but later wonders if he made a wrong choice. Leah, on the other hand, meets and falls in love with a man who also seems like the perfect match–they’re both climbing the ladder to financial success, they enjoy a certain level of luxury, they’re both bisexual, and they both feel the strain from stereotypes placed on bisexual people. But the catch is that Leah doesn’t even know her guy’s name. Not knowing his name makes her feel thotish, and one thing Leah won’t let herself be is a thot.

Travis (Mark St. Cyr, left), with his boyfriend Clarence (Mijon Zulu) before they break up. (Giving Me Life/Twitter)

Overall, Giving Me Lifwill, in fact, give you life. You’ll feel like you’ve found a new set of friends, and it’ll leave you with the hope that more episodes come very soon.

Follow Giving Me Life via its website as well as on social media–Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and Instagram.

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The messy reality of religious liberty in America

The wedding cake on display at Masterpiece Cakeshop.
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

David Mislin, Temple University

On Tuesday, Dec. 5, a visibly divided U.S. Supreme Court tackled the contentious issue of religious freedom when it heard oral arguments in “Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.” The arguments appeared to evenly split the four conservative justices from the four liberals. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is often a swing vote, seemed to side with the baker.

The case involves a Denver bakery owner who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, citing his religious belief that marriage can be between only a man and woman. The couple sued, and a lower court ruled the baker violated Colorado’s public accommodations law. The statute forbids discrimination by businesses serving the public, including on the basis of sexual orientation.

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, the bakery’s lawyers have emphasized free speech issues by presenting the baker as an artist who has a right to choose how he expresses himself. But religious freedom remains central to the case. A key question is whether a business owner must provide services that conflict with his or her religious beliefs.

This divisive case highlights the vast difference between the reality and the rhetoric of religious freedom, which is often considered to be the ideal that promotes harmony and equality. But, history suggests that it does lead to more conflict.

The rhetoric: Equality and goodwill

It is true that throughout U.S. history, Americans have idealized religious freedom and imagined that it brings harmony.

Text of the First Amendment.
Jack Mayer, CC BY-NC-SA

The First Amendment’s clauses guaranteeing religious free exercise and preventing establishment of an official church seemed to promise less discord to the Founding Fathers. In an 1802 letter, Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.” As the nation’s third president, he argued that a “wall of separation between Church & State” would give all people equally the right to free conscience.

Later presidents echoed the view that religious freedom brings equality and unity by preventing government from favoring particular faiths.

Before his election in 1960, John F. Kennedy tried to ease fears about his Catholicism by affirming religious liberty. Kennedy believed this freedom kept one group from oppressing another. It formed the basis of a society, he declared, where people would “refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.”

In the early 1990s, George H.W. Bush identified religious liberty as the basis for other rights. He credited it as a major reason for the vibrancy of American society.

The reality: Conflict and debate

But, the promised harmony has proved elusive. Scholars such as Steven K. Green and Tisa Wenger have documented arguments about religious freedom throughout U.S. history.

Minority communities, ranging from Catholics to Mormons, have fought to have their traditions and customs recognized as religious. As I show in my work on pluralism, Americans have debated what constitutes a religious expression rather than a cultural practice. People have also argued whether religious expression can extend into political, social and business interactions.

These debates have required the intervention of the courts and have often ended at the Supreme Court. Thus, a right intended to free Americans from government has instead necessitated frequent involvement of a major government institution.

Further complicating matters, the Supreme Court has changed its position over time. Its evolving interpretations show how religious freedom debates create shifting categories of winners and losers.

To the courts

Like Masterpiece Cakeshop, one of the Supreme Court’s first religious liberty cases involved marriage. In 1878, a Mormon resident of the Utah territory sued the federal government after he was charged with bigamy. He argued that the law violated his religious liberty by criminalizing his polygamous marriage. The Supreme Court disagreed. In Reynolds v. United States, the court ruled that the First Amendment guaranteed only freedom of belief, not freedom of practice.

In the 20th century, the Supreme Court showed greater sympathy to religious liberty claims. In several cases – including one brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses challenging a statute requiring a permit for public evangelizing and another by an Amish community that objected to Wisconsin’s compulsory public school law – justices sided with those who claimed their freedom was violated.

That changed in 1990. The court ruled against two men who lost their jobs after using peyote, the cactus, which has hallucinogenic properties and has long been used in Native American religious practices. Because they were fired for drug use, the men were denied unemployment benefits. They claimed that as members of a Native American church, they used the drug for religious purposes.

United States Supreme Court.
Josh, CC BY-NC-ND

Moving away from earlier decisions, justices ruled that religious belief was not a ground for refusing to obey laws “prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.”

New century, new conflicts

The peyote case set the stage for Masterpiece Cakeshop. It was in response to the case that Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993. It required that laws restricting religious expression must show that they serve a compelling need.

RFRA was central in the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. That contentious split ruling allowed small, closely held companies the right to deny contraceptive benefits mandated by the Affordable Care Act on the grounds of protecting their owners’ religious liberty.

Similarly, in October 2017, the Trump administration invoked freedom of religion when it allowed all employers a religious exemption to the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act.

Critics saw that policy change as an attack on women’s rights. Reaction to it on both sides again showed that government involvement in debates about religious freedom invariably produces winners and losers.

Given our polarized society and the division among the Supreme Court justices today, this pattern will continue, whatever the verdict is.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article first published on Nov. 28, 2017.

David Mislin, Assistant Professor, Intellectual Heritage Program, Temple University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

For Native Americans, a river is more than a ‘person,’ it is also a sacred place

Colorado River.
AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File

Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana

The environmental group Deep Green Resistance recently filed a first-of-its-kind legal suit against the state of Colorado asking for personhood rights for the Colorado River.

If successful, it would mean lawsuits can brought on behalf of the river for any harm done to it, as if it were a person.

In the past, several environmental groups in India, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and New Zealand have successfully sought protection for rivers and landscapes based on this argument. As a Native American scholar of environment and religion, I seek to understand the relationship between people and the natural world.

Native Americans view nature through their belief systems. A river or water does not only sustain life – it is sacred.

Why is water sacred to Native Americans?

In the past year, the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is life,” became a new national protest anthem.

It was chanted by 5,000 marchers at the Native Nations March in Washington, D.C. this spring, and during protests last year as the anthem of the struggle to stop the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline under the Missouri River in North Dakota.

There was a reason: For long years, the Lakota, the Blackfeet and the other Native American tribes understood how to live with nature. And it was based on the knowledge of how to live within the restrictions of the limited water supply of the “Great American desert” of North America.

Water as sacred place

Native Americans learned both through observation and experiment, arguably a process quite similar to what we might call science today. They also learned from their religious ideas, passed on from generation to generation in the form of stories.

I learned from my grandparents, both members of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, about the sacredness of water. They shared that the Blackfeet believed in three separate realms of existence – the Earth, sky and water. The Blackfeet believed that humans, or “Niitsitapi,” and Earth beings, or “Ksahkomitapi,” lived in one realm; sky beings, or “Spomitapi,” lived in another realm; and underwater beings, or “Soyiitapi,” lived in yet another. The Blackfeet viewed all three worlds as sacred because within them lived the divine.

The water world, in particular, was held in special regard. The Blackfeet believed that in addition to the divine beings, about which they learned from their stories, there were divine animals. The divine beaver, who could talk to humans, taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony. The Blackfeet needed this ceremony to reaffirm their relationships with the three separate realms of reality.

The Soyiitapi, divine water beings, also instructed the Blackfeet to protect their home, the water world. The Blackfeet could not kill or eat anything living in water; they also could not disturb or pollute water.

The Blackfeet viewed water as a distinct place – a sacred place. It was the home of divine beings and divine animals who taught the Blackfeet religious rituals and moral restrictions on human behavior. It can, in fact, be compared to Mount Sinai of the Old Testament, which was viewed as “holy ground” and where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

Water as life

Native American tribes on the Great Plains knew something else about the relationship between themselves, the beaver and water. They learned through observation that beavers helped create an ecological oasis within a dry and arid landscape.

As Canadian anthropologist R. Grace Morgan hypothesized in her dissertation “Beaver Ecology/Beaver Mythology,” the Blackfeet sanctified the beaver because they understood the natural science and ecology of beaver behavior.

Morgan believed that the Blackfeet did not harm the beaver because beavers built dams on creeks and rivers. Such dams could produce enough of a diversion to create a pond of fresh clean water that allowed an oasis of plant life to grow and wildlife to flourish.

Beaver ponds provided the Blackfeet with water for daily life. The ponds also attracted animals, which meant the Blackfeet did not have to travel long distances to hunt. The Blackfeet did not need to travel for plants used for medicine or food, either.

Beavers were part of what ecologists call a trophic cascade, or a reciprocal relationship. Beaver ponds were a win-win for all concerned in “the Great American desert” that modern ecologists and conservationists are beginning to study only now.

For the Blackfeet, Lakota and other tribes of the Great Plains, water was “life.” They understood what it meant to live in a dry arid place, which they expressed through their religion and within their ecological knowledge.

Rights of rivers

Indigenous people from around the world share these beliefs about the sacredness of water.

The government of New Zealand recently recognized the ancestral connection of the Maori people to their water. This past spring, the government passed the “Te Awa Tupua Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill,” which provides “personhood” status to the Whanganui River, one of the largest rivers on the North Island of New Zealand. This river has come to be recognized as having “all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities of a legal person” – something the Maori believed all along.

The United States does not have such laws. This new lawsuit hopes to change that and give the Colorado River “personhood” status. Indigenous people would add, a river is more than a “person” – it is also a sacred place.

The ConversationThis is an updated version of an article originally published on March 21, 2017.

Rosalyn R. LaPier, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, The University of Montana

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Colleges need affirmative action – but it can be expanded

Race-neutral affirmative action can help identify first-generation students like Blanca Diaz and LaQuintah Garrett.
AP Photo/Amy Anthony

Eboni Nelson, University of South Carolina

In 2003, Justice Antonin Scalia predicted that the Supreme Court’s sanctioning of race-conscious affirmative action in higher education would spark future litigation for years to come. And right he was. From defeated claims of discrimination against the University of Texas at Austin to an ongoing lawsuit against Harvard, colleges continue to come under attack for considering race as a factor in admissions decisions.

The recent report of the Department of Justice’s possible investigation of “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” demonstrates that the assaults aren’t likely to end anytime soon.

As a professor of law and scholar dedicated to ensuring equal educational opportunities for students of color, I believe now is an important time to earnestly consider other methods for diversifying student bodies. Race-neutral alternatives could effectively consider such factors as socioeconomic status and educational background, while supplementing more traditional affirmative action.

Lawyer Bert Rein and his client, Abigail Fisher, failed in their discrimination case against UT Austin’s affirmative action policies.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

‘Race-based’ vs. ‘race-conscious’

When thinking about affirmative action, it’s important to first define (and debunk) a few key terms, starting with “race-based” and “race-conscious” affirmative action.

“Race-based affirmative action” is a misnomer often used to describe some college admissions policies. “Race-based” implies that an admissions decision is made solely because of or based upon an applicant’s race or ethnicity, which could not be farther from the truth. A university’s decision to admit, deny or waitlist an applicant is based upon myriad criteria, ranging from standardized test scores to state of residency. Race is just one of many admissions factors a university may consider.

This approach is more appropriately termed “race-conscious.”

Schools that employ race-conscious admissions policies do so in order to achieve the educational, social and democratic benefits of a diverse student body.

As the Supreme Court held in Gratz v. Bollinger, race is not and cannot be the determining factor under a constitutional race-conscious plan. Therefore, when people claim that an African-American or Hispanic student was admitted because of race, they’re often not only inaccurate but also dismissive of the student’s other numerous attributes that played a role in the university’s decision.

Race-neutral alternatives

Opponents of race-conscious affirmative action often assert that such policies are racist or disproportionately benefit privileged minority students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which asserted that schools must consider ‘workable race-neutral alternatives.’
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

For its part, the Supreme Court is also skeptical of using racial classifications in governmental decision-making. As a result, it has held that institutions of higher education must afford serious consideration to “workable race-neutral alternatives” before implementing a race-conscious policy.

Importantly, the court’s use of the term “race-neutral” does not mean “race-blind.” That is, universities are permitted to think about how alternative admissions criteria could help them achieve their diversity goals. Race-neutral criteria could include socioeconomic background, high school or undergraduate institution, or class rank. In other words, these are factors that may contribute to a school’s racial diversity, but applicants themselves are not considered based on race.

In some cases, it’s proven difficult for race-neutral admissions policies to achieve the same levels of racial diversity as those achieved through direct consideration of race. However, such measures have been useful in helping to diversify student bodies when used in conjunction with or in lieu of race-conscious affirmative action.

The viability of race-neutral alternatives

When coupled with the stark racial disparities that continue to plague some professions, the uncertain future of race-conscious affirmative action calls for a renewed focus on alternatives that look beyond race alone.

TV isn’t the only place where the legal profession remains one of the whitest.
USA Network

My co-researchers, Dr. Ronald Pitner and Professor Carla D. Pratt, and I recently took a look at one particular aspect of higher education diversity: law school admissions.

Law schools play a unique role in training our country’s next generation of leaders. It is, in fact, vital to the future of our democracy that we continue to provide students from historically underrepresented racial groups with access to legal education. And yet, the legal profession was recently determined to be “one of the least racially diverse professions in the nation.”

To help law schools improve their diversity, we examined the relationship between race and race-neutral identity factors in law school admissions. The project, which was funded in part by a grant from AccessLex Institute, surveyed over a thousand first-year law students at schools throughout the country and asked about various aspects of their identity, such as socioeconomic status and educational background.

Our findings indicated that African-American and Hispanic students were significantly more likely than both white and Asian/Pacific Islander students to have qualified for free or reduced lunch programs in elementary or secondary school, had a parent or guardian who received public assistance when the student was a dependent minor, and received a Pell Grant during their undergraduate studies – all of which are race-neutral factors that schools could consider in admissions decisions.

Race-neutral affirmative action can help identify first-generation students and students from low-income families.
AP Photo/Pat Sullivan

How admissions could change

Based on the sample of participants in our study, it’s clear that privilege did not catapult all students of color to law school. Many of them had to overcome the structural inequalities of poverty, race and public education to embark on a legal career. Expanding opportunities for these and other minority students will benefit not only legal education and the legal profession, but also society more broadly.

Race-neutral admissions policies could help identify and create opportunities for these students.

To be clear, I do not advocate for the wholesale substitution of traditional race-conscious admissions measures with the factors we studied. Race-conscious policies continue to be the most effective means by which to create diverse student bodies.

However, we encourage law schools and other institutions of higher education to utilize these and other race-neutral admissions factors as a means of complying with the Supreme Court’s affirmative action mandates and testing the viability of policies that take such factors into account.

The ConversationDoing so will help ensure that traditionally underrepresented students of color will continue to have access to colleges and universities that serve as gateways to career, financial and life opportunities.

Eboni Nelson, Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s with Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Columbian drug lord Griselda Blanco?

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, you might have seen the high-budget trailer for Lifetime’s Griselda Blanco biopic, Cocaine Godmother. If not, here you go:

If you’re astute to representation issues, you probably know what I’m going to point out as the problem. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a Welsh woman, is playing Blanco, a Colombian woman. Why is she, though?

There are plenty Latina actresses who could have played this role, and in fact, there is one who has been lobbying for this role for a very long time–Jennifer Lopez. Lopez has been jonesing to play Blanco for years, and has created a deal with HBO to bring her TV movie to life (as to when that movie is coming remains to be seen).

Surprisingly, it’s also not the first time Zeta-Jones has been tapped to play Blanco; she was initially supposed to play the Queen of Cocaine in a biopic called The Godmother. According to W Magazine, Zeta-Jones won the role over…Jennifer Lopez. According to a source to The Sunday Times in 2016, despite Lopez’s hard lobbying for the role, she didn’t win out because “she doesn’t have the acting quality to pull it off.”

Today, neither woman are in the role–it now belongs to Oscar-nominated actress Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace). But both women are gunning to have the last word on Blanco’s life. Right now, we’re seeing Zeta-Jones’ vanity project in the lead.

This gets back to the main point of this article–why is a non-Latina actress playing a Latina figure? From where I’m sitting, it seems like another case of Hollywood (and maybe even Zeta-Jones herself) believing in casting white actors in non-white roles because they have an ethnic “look.” It’s another, subtler kind of whitewashing.

There’s a reason Zeta-Jones has been able to play Latina on more than one occasion–she played a Latina character in The Mask of Zorro opposite Antonio Banderas–and that’s because she’s a white woman who has ethnically-ambiguous looks. Casting-wise, Zeta-Jones fits the model Hollywood looks for when casting a stereotypical non-black “Latina” role; she’s, as Hollywood would describe her, “exotic” thanks to her olive skin and curvy features. But casting her also comes with the added bonus of whiteness, which adds “credibility,” and “name recognition” to the role. In this way, Zeta-Jones can play both sides, having her cake and eating it, too.

But in the stills and trailer for Cocaine Godmother, you can still see Zeta-Jones exaggerating her already ethnically-ambiguous features to the point where it starts becoming character makeup. Her naturally olive skin is bronzed even further to get it closer to Blanco’s, making her skin look like it has an unnatural tan. Her nose is somehow contoured and highlighted to look even more bulbous in an effort to match Blanco’s nose in real life. The overall look is meant to make her look less like a Welsh-English woman and more like a woman of color–the makeup treatment doesn’t want you to equate Zeta-Jones’ performance with brownface, but let’s face it; it’s brownface.

This is also not the first time a white actress has used ethnic ambiguity to their advantage. Shirley Maclaine, who has naturally hooded eyes, was able to do it in the 1962 film that’s basically posits a white woman stealing a role from a Japanese woman as a comedy, My Geisha, and in 1966’s Gambit, in which she plays opposite Michael Caine as “exotic Eurasian showgirl” Nicole Chang. Most recently, Floriana Lima, an Italian-American actress, was able to use her looks to play Latina Supergirl character Maggie Sawyer. Many more examples exist beyond these two.

Zeta-Jones is looking to have her cake and eat it too again with Cocaine Godmother. But this time, there’s a little bit of pushback.

The noise around this film is only going to grow the closer we get to the film’s 2018 TV premiere. We’ll see how the film handles the impending whitewashing discussion it’ll inevitably come up against.

Al-Jazeera English’s Malika M. Bilal on the importance of the Ibtihaj Muhammad Barbie

In November, United States Olympian fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim woman to win an Olympic medal for the U.S., was immortalized as a Barbie. The doll was revealed by Muhammad herself at the Glamour Woman of the Year Summit. The doll is part of Barbie’s ongoing “Shero” collection, which honors women who break through glass ceilings and inspire girls around the world.

The Shero collection already has some heavy hitters in its collection–dolls representing director Ava DuVernay, U.S. Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, plus size model Ashley Graham, and Misty Copeland have highlighted Barbie’s renewed focus on uplifting and inspiring girls to reach for their dreams. Muhammad’s doll follows in those footsteps.

“Through playing with Barbie, I was able to imagine and dream about who I could become,” said Ibtihaj Muhammad to Barbie.com. “I love that my relationship with Barbie has come full circle, and now I have my own doll wearing a hijab that the next generation of girls can use to play out their own dreams.”

“Barbie is celebrating Ibtihaj not only for her accolades as an Olympian, but for embracing what makes her stand out,” said Sejal Shah Miller, Vice President of Global Marketing for Barbie. “Ibtihaj is an inspiration to countless girls who never saw themselves represented, and by honoring her story, we hope this doll reminds them that they can be and do anything.”

Glamour Editor-in-Chief Cindi Leive also said how Muhammad has defied stereotypes to become a history-making Olympian.

“Ibtihaj Muhammad has challenged every stereotype—which to me is the definition of a modern American woman,” she said. “Last year, she was the first athlete from the U.S to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab, and today we are thrilled to celebrate Ibtihaj as the first hijab-wearing Barbie. She will play a tremendous role in ensuring that girls of the future see themselves represented fully and beautifully in our culture.”

That role isn’t lost on host of Al Jazeera English‘s Emmy-nominated news talk show The Stream, Malika M. Bilal, who wrote on The Undefeated what the meaning of Muhammad in Barbie form means to black Muslim women and girls, including herself and her niece.

“Her announcement comes at a time in which the erasure of African-American Muslims seems particularly pronounced. A time in which a major black women’s lifestyle magazine released a list of ‘100 Woke Women’ and yet couldn’t seem to find one woke African-American Muslim woman to include among them,” she wrote, adding that the erasure “reinforces the idea that Muslim equals Arab, South Asian, immigrant, anyone other than an athletic, Olympic medal-winning black woman from New Jersey — one with a modest clothing line, hundreds of thousands of social media followers and now a Barbie in her likeness.”

“The introduction of this doll lends support to the reality that a black Muslim woman can be both authentically American and authentically Muslim,” she wrote. ” A notion driven home by statistics that estimate a significant percentage of the enslaved Africans brought to this country were Muslim.”

“It’s not just young girls who are representation-starved. Grown women like myself, and the many who’ve retweeted, reposted and reblogged the Barbie announcement, are just as excited, not just for the next generation of girls but also for ourselves,” she wrote. “…[W]hen the Ibtihaj Muhammad Shero Barbie goes on sale in 2018, I’ll be ordering one to add to my niece’s collection. But I’m not ashamed to admit that another one just might find a home in my house as well.”

Are you going to order yourself an Ibtihaj Barbie? Talk about it in the comments!

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Liu Yifei stuns in new “Mulan” promo shots

Disney’s Mulan is headed in the right direction finally, at least with casting its main star. Say hello to our Mulan–Liu Yifei, star of international films The Forbidden Kingdom, Outcast, and The Chinese Widow.

Liu, otherwise known as Crystal Liu in the States, has gotten the royal treatment from Disney, including a Mulan-themed photo shoot to celebrate the casting news. The photos, which Liu posted to her Instagram page, give a tease as to what Liu might look as a cinematic Mulan–of course, she’s wearing high fashion in these photos, but you can see she definitely knows how to work a camera and pose with a sword (she is a model and ambassador for fashion houses like Dior).

Mulan is expected to come to theaters in 2019. Hopefully we’ll know if we have a bisexual Li Shang by that point, if we even have Shang at all–at last check, the film is planning on totally rewriting the role into a new character, which is not only annoying, but a missed opportunity for some LGBT representation. But for now, let’s bask in the cool photos; I’ll save that axe to grind at a later date.

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Want to change federal policies? Here’s how

Protesters carry signs during a march for science Saturday, April 22, 2017, in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Mary Fisher, University of Washington; Natalie Lowell, University of Washington; Ryan Kelly, University of Washington, and Samuel May, University of Washington

What can those armed with facts – like scientists, professionals and knowledgeable citizens – do to shape policy?

In April, scientists and their supporters took to the streets. The March for Science was a public defense of science as an invaluable part of society and policy. We, as academic scientists, were among them. When everyone returned to their labs and offices, we saw our fellow marchers search for ways to build on the momentum.

One of the most accessible options to do so is the federal public comment process.

What is public comment?

Public comment subjects federal policies to peer review. Scientists and other professionals can use public comment to ensure that policy is based on the best available evidence, vetting the science behind regulations.

When Congress passes a law, it provides a framework for federal agencies on how to implement it. Figuring out the details of implementation is usually up to the agency by making rules and regulations. Since 1946, the Administrative Procedures Act has required that each new rule be subject to public comment, giving citizens the chance to comment on and change the proposed rule before it becomes legally enforceable. Proposed and final rules are all published in the Federal Register, a publicly accessible online government database.

The act also ensures that agencies cannot ignore these comments by requiring the agency to respond to all “material” comments. This qualifier is critical. For an agency to respond to the comment, it must be unique and fact-based, such that it could “require a change in [the] proposed rule.”

Snapshot of the number of federal documents open for public comment on Oct. 7, 2017. Only a subset of federal agencies are shown. Data taken from Federal Register API v2.0.
Public Comments Project

You may have already encountered a public comment if anyone has asked you to submit a prewritten letter regarding a proposed rule. These “form letters” are written by organizations – often nonprofits – and then a copy is signed and submitted by a large number of people. While agencies may note the impressive response a proposed regulation triggers, these form letters are legally considered a single material comment.

Yet form letters often make up a large percentage of comments received. For example, in 2004, the EPA was in the process of making a rule that would reduce emissions of mercury from coal-fired utility units. The majority of comments on this proposed rule submitted through MoveOn.org were duplicates of the same two-sentence form letter or slight variants of a broad claim about the inadequacy of the proposed rule. This meant that the EPA received little real information to which it had to respond.

Form letters are popular because they are easier than writing a unique, fact-based comment. But scientists and other professionals often have the knowledge required to do so. They are trained to read and summarize evidence from a variety of sources. They are also familiar with the general principles of subject fields like ecology, economics or nutrition, which are recurring themes across many regulations.

Federal agencies need the expert information that scientists and professionals can provide. An analysis by the U.S. Forest Service found that the majority of public input was value-based. While these comments provided agency employees with critical information on public opinion, value-based comments were not as helpful to the planning staff as detailed comments that provided technical feedback. Only 9 percent of the comments sampled were classified as having a high level of detail.

Why should scientists engage?

Public comment allows for flexibility. With an online submission portal, it doesn’t require participants to be in a certain place to have input. Its consistency across federal agencies avoids the need to reacquaint oneself with agency-specific processes. Perhaps most importantly, it allows for public participation, opening the process to scientists and professionals across sectors and career stages without a personal contact or advisory position at the agency.

This isn’t to say that there are no barriers. For example, proposed regulations are often filled with jargon and organized in unclear ways. But there are sources designed to coach you through the process, including Regulations.gov. Material specifically oriented toward helping scientists and other professionals is available through the Public Comment Project, a website that we created with other colleagues and maintain. It includes how-to guides and helps you find rules of interest that are open for comment.

Has it made a difference?

Changes to rules as a result of public comment happen often. For example, in a 2016 proposed rule by the Centers for Medicare Medicaid Services, the agencies expanded the definition of “patient” in the final rule. The expansion was in response to comments by the Midwest Health Initiative and the American Hospital Association, among others. This effectively changed the scope of data that could be extracted for providers, suppliers, hospital associations and medical societies.

Or, take a National Marine Fisheries Service proposed rule to designate critical habitat for a marine snail, the black abalone. A comment written by one of us expanded the critical habitat designation so that all life stages of the species would be covered.

A formal analysis on a 1992 Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule on certain cancer-causing pesticides found that the agency was was more likely to bar the use of a particular cancer-causing pesticide when faced with evidence of high risk to human health or the environment. Public comment by environmental advocacy groups increased the probability of cancellation.

Why comment now?

Experts, from scientists to professionals, have an increasingly important role to quality-check the research that makes its way into policy – see, for example, this statement by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the world’s largest scientific societies. Although the devaluation of science in public policy is a long-term issue, it has recently escalated rapidly. A few of the most recent examples include the removal of climate change-related data and research from government websites, proposed reduction in federal budgets for science including the complete removal of certain programs like NOAA’s Sea Grant, and the request of agencies for scientists to censor their language.

The ConversationResponding to a call for public comment is one way to check the facts that make up public policy. We call all scientists, professionals and knowledgeable members of the public to apply their specific expertise to this process.

Mary Fisher, M.S. Student, Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington; Natalie Lowell, Ph.D. Candidate in Fisheries Science, University of Washington; Ryan Kelly, Assistant Professor, Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, and Samuel May, Graduate Student in Fisheries Science, University of Washington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.