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The Chronicle Review

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i27/27b00501.htm

 

From the issue dated March 11, 2005
OBSERVER  

Charity Bracelets: Statements of Fashion, Not Commitment

By KARLA JAY

At the start of the spring semester, a cluster of students huddles in the frigid cold on the outdoor plaza in front of Pace University in New York City, for this is the nearest spot where smoking is permitted. As they raise their cigarettes to their bluish or glossy red lips or stretch out their gloved hands to offer friends a light, wristbands appear from under the cuffs of their North Face parkas.

Most of the bracelets are yellow with "LiveStrong" -- the motto of the Lance Armstrong Foundation -- engraved on them. A few arms sprout a rainbow of bands -- red for HIV or heart disease (take your pick), pink for breast cancer, blue for religious faith or cystic fibrosis, red and gray for multiple sclerosis. Green bracelets support organ donation or juvenile diabetes. There are purple "awareness bracelets" for lupus. Red, white, and blue or marbleized bands are being marketed for solidarity with the troops in Iraq. There are clear "courageous heart" bracelets for survivors of domestic abuse and a sterling silver one with crystals for "faith, hope, and love."

The number of diseases and causes has outstripped the rainbow, and the semiotics of accessorizing hasn't been this confusing since the 1970s, when some gay men wore colored Western bandanas in the rear pockets of their jeans to advertise sexual proclivities.

Despite a myriad of choices, the Lance Armstrong bracelet is still the most popular, followed by the pink one for breast cancer. Armstrong won an amazing six straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2004, but only three years before his first victory, he had battled and survived testicular cancer, which had metastasized to his lungs and brain. In 1997 Armstrong formed the foundation to educate survivors and their supporters. The sale of the bands is intended to raise $5-million for this purpose.

Armstrong's battle against cancer is legendary, and his efforts to raise money and educate the public are laudable. At only $1 per band, everyone can afford to support his foundation. But perhaps the price is too cheap, or perhaps the way students and others (though I see them primarily on adolescents and children) decorate themselves has cheapened their meaning.

How, for instance, do some college students reconcile wearing a yellow bracelet while smoking? By now most people, including employees of the tobacco companies, are aware that smoking or using smokeless tobacco is a leading cause of cancer and that secondary smoke is almost as harmful. As a cancer survivor myself, I resent those who claim to support cancer education while causing the very illness they pretend to fight against.

In truth, support for medical ailments has become a fashion statement among students on college campuses, and awareness is only wrist-deep. What could have been a meaningful gesture has been cheapened by everyone from serious medical foundations to commercial rip-offs and counterfeit copies. Any day now I expect to come upon black bands with white flecks to fight the stigma of dandruff, or flesh-colored bands with one red dot to represent the suffering incurred by a single pimple. Serious causes, personal commitments, political statements have all degenerated into a fatuous teenage fad.

I see no sign that my students or college students in general have educated themselves about cancer, or any other illness for that matter. I can identify with their blithe attitudes because when I was their age, I also thought I would stay young and healthy forever. Small cadres of students on many campuses march to raise money for breast-cancer research or multiple sclerosis, or they run dances to raise money for HIV research. However, they are totally unaware of other diseases unless a close family member has personally been struck. For instance, when my women's studies classes discuss the gender politics of illness, most students are astonished to learn of diseases like lupus, which affect black and Asian women more than any other group. Perhaps because safe-sex education has been shunned by many high schools as too controversial, only the lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and their supporters seem knowledgeable about sexually transmitted diseases other than AIDS.

Nor have students gained sensitivity to language and its painful impact on the courageous survivors they pretend to celebrate. The C-word is still widely used as a pejorative. Cancer is something bad people deserve. I have overheard students wishing cancer on professors who gave them low grades. Or they curse bad dates with a malignant future. They also sprinkle the word into essays by labeling villainous characters or historical figures as "cancers" or assigning the disease to concepts they disagree with. One of my yellow-banded students wrote a tirade against "consumerist cancer" -- whatever that is.

Of course, I support cancer research, which saved me from both cervical/uterine canal and skin cancers, but I worry about very rare ailments that receive limited financing. Unfortunately, I have one of those, too, something that no celebrity has brought to the public's attention -- yet. Mine is called Fuch's Spotsbleeding behind the retina -- and it is little understood. It has caused me to lose my near vision so that I'm print impaired. Current treatments try to prevent further damage but offer only a 1 percent chance of any improvement. There is no "cure." None of my friends or even nonspecialist physicians have even heard of it, and if a bracelet were issued, most of the afflicted couldn't see it anyway.

Instead of berating the latex fashionistas, I have become active in trying to get students involved in a more meaningful way. Pace is part of the Pericles Project, a consortium of 10 institutions of higher education that hope to challenge the indifference of college students to the community around them. As part of the project, I teach two community-outreach courses in women's studies. One focuses on women and children, and the other serves the queer communities.

About half of the students who take those courses continue volunteering after they have fulfilled the required hours. A few, admittedly, see that core requirement as an imposition on their time, but the apathetic might say the same about English, history, or math. Service learning isn't a panacea for widespread indifference, and volunteering can't compete with video games or illicit poker parties, but it is a step in the right direction. For some students, the experience of community outreach is life changing and almost addictive. They bond with and learn from survivors of all stripes instead of pitying or fearing them. In return, the students are empowered by their ability to cope with and manage difficult situations.

Working with AIDS patients, cancer survivors, the elderly, or the children of battered women is a stronger statement of support than wearing a big rubber band on one's wrist. When the accessorized joke about cancer or continue to smoke, they are trivializing and cheapening the pain, strength, courage, and endurance of most survivors. I'd like to see a lot less synthetic silicone displayed on campuses and more genuine commitment to societal change.

Karla Jay is a professor of English at Pace University.

http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 27, Page B5
 

Copyright 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Subscribe | About The Chronicle | Contact us | Terms of use | Privacy policy | Help
[an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] [an error occurred while processing this directive] The Chronicle of Higher Education
The Chronicle Review

http://chronicle.com/weekly/v51/i27/27b00501.htm

 

From the issue dated March 11, 2005
OBSERVER  

Charity Bracelets: Statements of Fashion, Not Commitment

By KARLA JAY

At the start of the spring semester, a cluster of students huddles in the frigid cold on the outdoor plaza in front of Pace University in New York City, for this is the nearest spot where smoking is permitted. As they raise their cigarettes to their bluish or glossy red lips or stretch out their gloved hands to offer friends a light, wristbands appear from under the cuffs of their North Face parkas.

Most of the bracelets are yellow with "LiveStrong" -- the motto of the Lance Armstrong Foundation -- engraved on them. A few arms sprout a rainbow of bands -- red for HIV or heart disease (take your pick), pink for breast cancer, blue for religious faith or cystic fibrosis, red and gray for multiple sclerosis. Green bracelets support organ donation or juvenile diabetes. There are purple "awareness bracelets" for lupus. Red, white, and blue or marbleized bands are being marketed for solidarity with the troops in Iraq. There are clear "courageous heart" bracelets for survivors of domestic abuse and a sterling silver one with crystals for "faith, hope, and love."

The number of diseases and causes has outstripped the rainbow, and the semiotics of accessorizing hasn't been this confusing since the 1970s, when some gay men wore colored Western bandanas in the rear pockets of their jeans to advertise sexual proclivities.

Despite a myriad of choices, the Lance Armstrong bracelet is still the most popular, followed by the pink one for breast cancer. Armstrong won an amazing six straight Tour de France titles from 1999 to 2004, but only three years before his first victory, he had battled and survived testicular cancer, which had metastasized to his lungs and brain. In 1997 Armstrong formed the foundation to educate survivors and their supporters. The sale of the bands is intended to raise $5-million for this purpose.

Armstrong's battle against cancer is legendary, and his efforts to raise money and educate the public are laudable. At only $1 per band, everyone can afford to support his foundation. But perhaps the price is too cheap, or perhaps the way students and others (though I see them primarily on adolescents and children) decorate themselves has cheapened their meaning.

How, for instance, do some college students reconcile wearing a yellow bracelet while smoking? By now most people, including employees of the tobacco companies, are aware that smoking or using smokeless tobacco is a leading cause of cancer and that secondary smoke is almost as harmful. As a cancer survivor myself, I resent those who claim to support cancer education while causing the very illness they pretend to fight against.

In truth, support for medical ailments has become a fashion statement among students on college campuses, and awareness is only wrist-deep. What could have been a meaningful gesture has been cheapened by everyone from serious medical foundations to commercial rip-offs and counterfeit copies. Any day now I expect to come upon black bands with white flecks to fight the stigma of dandruff, or flesh-colored bands with one red dot to represent the suffering incurred by a single pimple. Serious causes, personal commitments, political statements have all degenerated into a fatuous teenage fad.

I see no sign that my students or college students in general have educated themselves about cancer, or any other illness for that matter. I can identify with their blithe attitudes because when I was their age, I also thought I would stay young and healthy forever. Small cadres of students on many campuses march to raise money for breast-cancer research or multiple sclerosis, or they run dances to raise money for HIV research. However, they are totally unaware of other diseases unless a close family member has personally been struck. For instance, when my women's studies classes discuss the gender politics of illness, most students are astonished to learn of diseases like lupus, which affect black and Asian women more than any other group. Perhaps because safe-sex education has been shunned by many high schools as too controversial, only the lesbian, gay, and bisexual students and their supporters seem knowledgeable about sexually transmitted diseases other than AIDS.

Nor have students gained sensitivity to language and its painful impact on the courageous survivors they pretend to celebrate. The C-word is still widely used as a pejorative. Cancer is something bad people deserve. I have overheard students wishing cancer on professors who gave them low grades. Or they curse bad dates with a malignant future. They also sprinkle the word into essays by labeling villainous characters or historical figures as "cancers" or assigning the disease to concepts they disagree with. One of my yellow-banded students wrote a tirade against "consumerist cancer" -- whatever that is.

Of course, I support cancer research, which saved me from both cervical/uterine canal and skin cancers, but I worry about very rare ailments that receive limited financing. Unfortunately, I have one of those, too, something that no celebrity has brought to the public's attention -- yet. Mine is called Fuch's Spotsbleeding behind the retina -- and it is little understood. It has caused me to lose my near vision so that I'm print impaired. Current treatments try to prevent further damage but offer only a 1 percent chance of any improvement. There is no "cure." None of my friends or even nonspecialist physicians have even heard of it, and if a bracelet were issued, most of the afflicted couldn't see it anyway.

Instead of berating the latex fashionistas, I have become active in trying to get students involved in a more meaningful way. Pace is part of the Pericles Project, a consortium of 10 institutions of higher education that hope to challenge the indifference of college students to the community around them. As part of the project, I teach two community-outreach courses in women's studies. One focuses on women and children, and the other serves the queer communities.

About half of the students who take those courses continue volunteering after they have fulfilled the required hours. A few, admittedly, see that core requirement as an imposition on their time, but the apathetic might say the same about English, history, or math. Service learning isn't a panacea for widespread indifference, and volunteering can't compete with video games or illicit poker parties, but it is a step in the right direction. For some students, the experience of community outreach is life changing and almost addictive. They bond with and learn from survivors of all stripes instead of pitying or fearing them. In return, the students are empowered by their ability to cope with and manage difficult situations.

Working with AIDS patients, cancer survivors, the elderly, or the children of battered women is a stronger statement of support than wearing a big rubber band on one's wrist. When the accessorized joke about cancer or continue to smoke, they are trivializing and cheapening the pain, strength, courage, and endurance of most survivors. I'd like to see a lot less synthetic silicone displayed on campuses and more genuine commitment to societal change.

Karla Jay is a professor of English at Pace University.

http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 27, Page B5
 

Copyright 2006 by The Chronicle of Higher Education

Subscribe | About The Chronicle | Contact us | Terms of use | Privacy policy | Help