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(Personal) My Sister, One Year Later

Myth 150

One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.

I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.

I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.

Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.

It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.

Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.

Remember this story about two women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s?

Or this story about a black woman detained by police on the tarmac because the police were called on her for no reason?

Or this story about a black woman being mistreated at a Waffle House and the police receiving no repercussions?

What about the responses Kelis received when she detailed the abuse she received at the hands of Nas?

What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?

These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.

I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.

Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.

Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.

The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.

All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.

I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

Politics 150Ever since Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, MO I don’t think I’ve been able to reflect on our political situation without a mix of anger, horror or despair. It’s been tough to know what to do with these very difficult emotions even at the best of times; when the news cycle seems designed to draw them out of you multiple times every day, it can be almost impossible. Progressives in America have been emotionally and ideologically battered by the storm of Trumpism, and I think a lot of us have become unmoored from our principles and ability to cope with the constant thundering of awfulness. However, in order to effectively brace against the gusts of bigotry and hypocrisy, we have to be anchored to our core beliefs and values. It’s more important than ever to be considerate, deliberate, and careful in the ways we engage the big problems of the day.

Having compassion for the people we engage with, especially online, centers us in a place of empathy. There are so many corners of the Internet where perpetual outrage has become the norm, and we’re encouraged to think of the people who disagree with us as a faceless, perhaps inhuman ‘enemy’ undeserving of consideration. As we grow more estranged from folks with different perspectives, the criteria for being spared our wrath becomes smaller and smaller. Over time, we might find ourselves having knock-down, drag-out fights with close friends we’ve known for years over relatively small disagreements. We might cut ourselves off from people who might only need patience, understanding, and connection.

I notice these days that my temper is a lot shorter than it used to be, and I’m not saying there aren’t good reasons for that. It can be exhausting advocating for your right to equal protection and consideration, especially to people who refuse to acknowledge there’s inequality in the first place. There’s nothing wrong with being angry about this; anger is an indication that my sense of order in the world has been disrupted, that there’s an injustice that needs to be rectified.

It’s what we do with that anger that causes issues. Anger can be a great motivator for real change in the world. Protests and movements that have forced power to reckon with the abuses it has perpetuated gain momentum because of our anger, given direction and a purpose. But far too often our anger is simply expelled towards the closest targets, and far too often those closest targets are our friends. Even if our anger at something a friend says or does is justified, it’s worth holding that anger mindfully to consider how it can best be expressed.

Anger can be balanced with compassion for our fellow human beings. So many people we know have grown up in a racist society, unaware of their privilege or the fact that they benefit from it. It’s hard to see that for what it is, and harder still to reconcile that with the story we’ve told ourselves about our lives. Hardest of all is knowing exactly what to do about it; there are so many white progressives painfully aware of their privilege but with no idea how to make peace with it, or how to use it to erase the structures that have provided them with it. When we ask people with privilege to recognize it, we’re not just asking them to admit the existence of an institutional injustice. We’re asking them to admit their personal history is a lie; that they benefit from something they never asked for.

Dismantling our self-image is a process, and it’s different for everyone. It took me years to understand and accept transgender ideas, and longer still to come to terms with my privilege as a cisgender male. There are still issues that I need to deal with, still things that I get wrong all the time. To be honest, it’s frightening and exhausting wading into all of that; there’s so much to untangle, much of it a fundamental understanding of sex and gender expression, and the punishment for doing or saying the wrong thing is so high.

I think we all have our blind spots. Some of us are blissfully unaware of the immense amount of human suffering beyond the borders of our own country, while others struggle with recognizing the need for deeper consideration of our environment. Some of us are tone-deaf when it comes to racial justice; others don’t take into account how difficult it is to deal with poverty at an early age, or hidden disabilities, or even the difficulties of being a woman. Knowing our own difficulties in the journey towards undoing the damage of the bigotry we’ve been taught can help us understand how hard it is to do, and have greater empathy for those who may not be malicious — just ignorant.

That kind of consideration can also allow us to pick our battles. The Trump Administration and the forces that have given rise to his particularly odious brand of politics presents us with an overwhelming multi-front assault daily. Environmental regulations are being stripped; scientific expertise is being devalued; criminal justice issues are becoming worse as police forces are emboldened by the empty ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric coming from the Attorney General; people of color are being systematically targeted through countless initiatives; our privacy rights have been severely compromised; reproductive rights are being challenged at every level; cultural enrichment initiatives are being threatened and defunded; corruption, hypocrisy and sophist arguments have made reasonable debate about this in the public square all but impossible.

We now know that bad-faith actors online exploit our desires to try to bridge the gulf between ideologies, forcing us to provide evidence for minute details and batting them away when they’re delivered. We know that the thundering waterfall of awesomeness is designed to wear down our ability to resist. We know that the people who want to enable Trump’s agenda are counting on our eventual burn-out; once the heat dies down, they move forward after we’re too spent and discouraged.

We have to know our limits. We have to understand that our energy to resist is a finite resource, and that it’s important to give ourselves the space we need to recharge. If we’re incensed at every new scandal, or sound the alarm over every new development, we not only exhaust ourselves — we exhaust our allies and others who might come to our aid. Sometimes, taking a moment to understand what’s happening and what still needs to happen for terrible consequences to come due can help us prioritize the issues and decide where and how we fight. We’ve done an amazing job fighting so much bullshit from the administration, but there are three more years before removing them from office is a viable option. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We are ready for battle, but maybe we haven’t considered how to be ready for war.

It’s simply impossible to resist everything Trump is throwing at us. Sure, it’s awful that the President of the United States is getting into a Twitter war with athletes and rappers, entertainment figures and journalists, but we know that dignity is a foreign concept to him already. Will getting angry about it change anything? How much does that matter compared to, say, making sure that voting restriction laws aren’t rammed through various state legislatures or that our immigrant friends and neighbors have what they need to find a legal path to remaining here?

I don’t mean to advocate for letting important stuff fall off the radar. But it’s better to devote our limited time and energy to a few causes that are really important to us than try to do everything at once and extinguish the fire that keeps us going before we can see our actions produce results.

We have to be careful about our resistance. It’s great that so many of us have become so passionate about the direction of our country and committed ourselves to turning it around. But we must also be the changes we want to see in the world around us, and that can’t happen if we’re buffeted by the political currents day in and day out, unable to remain rooted to our principles and see things clearly. We sacrifice our mental health, our relationships, our ability to create true and lasting change by acting without thinking. We have to take a long look at our core values, what it means to live those values on a personal and societal level, and how we can take our communities from where we are to where we know they can be.

This can’t be done by the expression of anger or the rejection of the people who make us angry. Careful thought is needed, and planning, and eventual solutions to our biggest problems. How can we curb greenhouse gas emissions in this country before we incur the worst effects of climate change? How can we encourage big, multi-national corporations to keep their headquarters in the country while paying their fair share of taxes and their workers a living wage? What does a society that has dismantled the institutions of racism and bigotry within government and culture look like? What does justice look like for the corrupt, the racist, the hateful at all levels of society? Is there a way back for people like Chris Christie, or Louis CK, or that friend from high school who fell into the clutches of the alt-right? What does that path towards reconciliation look like?

I honestly don’t know how effective our resistance will be until we think about these questions and discuss the answers we come up with. I don’t think we can keep screaming at each other to make things better without thinking about how we can do that, all together. We have to be mindful with our anger, our calls for justice, ourselves, our friends and neighbors. Otherwise we’ll end up doing some of the very things we can’t abide seeing from the other side.

 
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Posted by on April 11, 2018 in Buddhism, mental-health, Politics

 

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(Buddhism) We’re All Mad Here

Buddhism 150I’ve been thinking a lot about anger over the past month and a half. Ever since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO way back in 2014 I’ve been increasingly political with my online presence — and the candidacy and ultimate inauguration of Donald Trump has pushed that side of my digital identity much more to the forefront. Politics, and the anger it generates, has crept into every aspect of my existence here. Largely, this has been due to social media and the breakneck speed with which outrageous news is being circulated there. There have been entire days spent tweeting and retweeting about the latest controversy in the furry fandom, in sci-fi and fantasy publishing, in Washington; agreeing with or challenging comments from folks about them; trying to find just the right point to make that might win hearts and minds. But now, four years later, I’ve hit outrage exhaustion: what’s left in its wake is a weary, frightened resignation. This can’t continue the way it has. We need to seriously think about how our current Internet culture is encouraging, even normalizing, constant and unreasoning anger.

First, let me say that we have a lot to be angry about. The police brutality we’ve seen through Brown and a parade of other victims hasn’t abated. The Trump Administration has been openly corrupt, incompetent, and vicious in its attacks on marginalized populations of just about every stripe — and it’s been largely aided by the Republican Party. Our ability to solve problems with even bipartisan support has become impossible. Meanwhile, authoritarianism, xenophobia, anti-social and anti-environment behavior has spread through the United States and the rest of the world in ways I wouldn’t have thought possible even back four years ago. There are far too many people who think we’re going in the right direction — or, at least, that there aren’t actually any problems with what’s going down right now.

This is an incredibly scary time, and it can be incredibly frustrating to see just how many things are going wrong and how few people care. In light of what’s happening to our country and the world, I think anger is a completely acceptable response. We’re right to be angry. But we’re not doing the right things with our anger, and that’s the problem.

One of the best things I learned from my group class for Anxiety Disorder is thinking about emotions like the lights on your dashboard. We don’t chastise our cars for telling us that our oil is low, that we need a new battery, or that we need gas. Those alerts are telling us that we need to attend to something in order to keep our cars running smoothly. Emotions are the same way; they’re our mind’s way of telling us that something within us needs attending to. In my case, the ‘anxiety’ dashboard light is way too sensitive but that’s another story. If we shift our thinking about our emotions to this framework, categorizing them as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ no longer makes sense. They’re simply calls for action.

Anger, in particular, can be a very difficult emotion to allow mostly because it’s so immediate and powerful. It drives us to do things at the moment we later regret, and I’m no different. Last year alone I can immediately think of three or four different occasions where my anger got the better of me and caused a difficult situation to become that much worse. When this happens again and again, we begin to mistrust that emotion. We see it as a problem, as something that we must ignore or excise in order to be healthy. But that’s just as damaging as flying off the handle.

It is important to allow yourself to be angry. It is important to understand that anger, like any other emotion, is a call to pay attention to something inside yourself. Exactly what that is might be different from person to person, but for me it’s a sign that one of my values has been offended or, as Tara Brach so wonderfully put it, a deep need is not being met. When we feel ourselves getting angry, if we sit with the feeling and follow it towards its source, we can learn surprising things about what we value and what we need. Once we’ve made that discovery, we can frame our reaction around that instead of making sure whoever angered us is ‘punished’. That impulse to punish is what happens when our desire to make the world a better place is carried through thoughtlessly.

I know that I have a problem with anger; it flares up fast but dies just as quickly. Over time, I’ve learned to wait out the emotion without taking action through it. Most of the time, whatever angered me won’t seem like such a big deal once I’ve calmed down. These past few years, though, I’ve been getting angry over things that are very much a big deal. These offenses to my values aren’t easy to get over, and when there are new offenses every day — sometimes multiple times in one day — it feels impossible to take a step back and calm down. Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr all seem to be designed for stoking that anger, keeping the coals hot, because we pay attention to the things that anger us. Algorithms designed to keep us on websites for longer have hijacked our focus and severely eroded our ability to deal with anger constructively.

It’s very important to take a beat when we find ourselves getting angry, if only to ask ourselves a few basic questions. Why does this make me so angry? Who benefits from my anger? What can I do to really address what’s causing this response? Tara Brach calls this “the u-turn”, a necessary and conscious choice to direct our attention inwards instead of outwards, to sit with our anger and learn what it’s asking us to attend to. Sometimes, before we can even do that, we have to forgive ourselves for being angry, or give ourselves permission, or just reckon with the unpleasant physical and mental sensations that come with it. Either way, none of that happens without taking a pause.

This can be very difficult on social media. Twitter moves so fast, and often taking a moment to consider our responses can mean that the conversation moves on without us. But this isn’t a bad thing; that can teach us that not every exchange or idea needs our input. Sometimes, it’s better for everyone involved to let the moment go.

Once we understand the mechanisms that trigger our anger, we can do better about expressing that anger in a way that fosters connection and collaboration. Tara Brach believes that anger, at its source, is about us — what we need, what we care about, how we express ourselves. I agree with that, but up to a point. While there are so many things in the world that should not be, we also have greater control over our personal experience than we think. Anger might be a completely justified response to an external stimulus, but how we handle our anger can be brought under our control. It’s not easy, and it’s not always possible to know the best way to express it, but with time, effort, practice and patience we can get better at it.

This has all been brought up through a few different things. One, Tara Brach’s wonderful talk on “Anger: Responding, Not Reacting“; two, an episode of the “Where There’s Smoke” podcast that explores how social media has become a Skinner box for impulsive, expressive rage. I highly encourage you to take a listen to both of these whenever you have a chance — and let me know what you think. How can we express our anger more productively? How can we change our behavior on social media to tackle the things we find most important without contributing to the ‘noise’ of outrage culture?

 

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(Fandom) Afrofuturism and Furry

Fandom 150Over the weekend I attended Further Confusion 2018 with over 3,400 other furries in San Jose, CA and let me tell you, it was a pretty great time. I got to catch up with a lot of friends from all over the country and meet a few new ones, including folks I’ve had an internet crush on for a good little while now. Nice seeing all of you, and I hope you folks come back next year!

The highlight of the convention for me was getting to run my very first “Afrofuturism and Furry” panel on Sunday. I had a good little group come in to listen to me jaw on about the Afrofuturist movement, its history and purpose, and why it actually makes a good fit for furry fiction. Whenever I talk about race in furry circles, I worry about the pushback — it can be a surprisingly touchy subject for those of us who pretend to be talking animals, especially in this political climate. Everyone was awesome, though, and I appreciate the openness and respect from the audience as they asked questions and related some of their hesitations about tackling things. When the panel was over, I promised the folks in attendance that I’d write up a follow-up here so they could grab additional resources if they wanted.

First, here are a few good places to go if you want to learn more about just what Afrofuturism is:

Now that you’ve got a primer, here are a couple of places you can go to sample Afrofuturist music:

If you’re interested in a few essential Afrofuturist stories, don’t worry man — I’ve got you covered:

And finally, a few furry-specific Afrofuturist stories:

  • Elephantmen! (Image Comics) – I included this here because of the many parallels between the titular genetically-engineered chimera and the historical experience of black Americans; brought to a strange country for a specific purpose that has now ended, with a history forged by the theft and ruination of black bodies and a present that alienates and disrespects them.
  • The Pack (Midas Monkee) – This is a comic about a pack of Egyptian werewolves, which is LIT AS FUCK
  • Yohance (Midas Monkee) – Space opera with a purely African aesthetic and absolutely amazing art.

Afrofuturism deals with the alienation of belonging to a group that has been historically segregated; the reclamation of an identity that was lost long ago; the water that both erased our cultural connection and serves as a fertile environment to uncover new life; and how being who you are disgusts or angers people who have nothing to do with you. It is longing and sorrow, hope and determination, anger and defiance, provocation and self-reflection. It asks us to know who we are, know how we work within a culture that is hostile but promising, what values we want to take with us into the future. It challenges us to question so many of the assumptions we’ve made about science-fiction and storytelling in general. There’s so much that can contribute to furry writing and deepen the themes we deal with in our fiction. I highly recommend checking out a few of the links above; there’s bound to be something for just about anyone!

 

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(Politics) What I Want From White People

Politics 150When I write about contentious subjects here at The Writing Desk, I try to make sure that I use a tone that comes across as collaborative and inclusive. I know what a minefield sociopolitical topics are — especially on the Internet — and you can find someone shouting another person down anywhere you can find a comments section. But in order to engage in an actual dialogue, where people actually listen to one another, you have to find a way to show there’s no need for defenses; things that are hard to talk about get easier when you’re talking about it with someone on your side.

It’s important to me to talk about the political situation we find ourselves in because it directly affects me. It’s important to me to be heard because my background and community are far too often ignored. I’m black, I’m gay, I’m Buddhist, and there are a lot of things I see from outside the dominant culture that needs to be talked about. It’s hard for me to speak up because I abhor conflict; but it’s necessary because I want to help make the world a better place and that won’t happen by staying silent.

Over the past year, I’ve had a number of contentious conversations with friends, acquaintances and strangers about all kinds of things — but mostly about race. I’ve learned a lot through those conversations, even though it’s been hard for me to absorb and apply those lessons. Race is still a hard thing for people to talk about, especially white people, because there’s a misunderstanding about the goals we ascribe to each other when we talk about it. I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — white people feel guilty when the subject comes up and you think that we want you to feel guilty. As a black man, I’d like to tell you now that’s just not the case.

So…what do people of color actually want when we bring up race in a conversation? I can’t speak for everyone, but I can tell you what I want when I bring up race. I’m hoping that this is a good starting point for a conversation about conversation. We need to step back and take a look at how we think about discourse so we can jump into the hard stuff secure that we’re trying to hash things out in good faith. I know that a good deal of my white friends are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake and having someone take offense, and I get that. The Internet be scary! But here are a few things that might help make sense of my perspective — and others’ as well.

A couple of caveats first: I’m speaking from my experience of a cis black gay man, but that doesn’t mean I speak for ALL cis black gay men. Black culture is not a monolith, and what I say here may not apply to every black guy you see. If you have friends of color, talk to them about what you read here if you have questions to get their perspective. It’ll likely be different, and that’s a good thing. Having a broader range of perspectives allows you to find what’s consistent and what’s different.

Just as I expect you to know that not all black people are the same, I also know that not all white people are the same. I’m going to use the term ‘white people’ here to categorize a small subset of the white people I’ve interacted with — I know not all white people think a certain way or do things as described here. But I’ve had enough experience with white people to feel pretty confident that most do. If this doesn’t describe you, consider this a pre-emptive acknowledgement alright? Don’t come into my comments with anecdotal counterexamples, because I’m just going to point you to this paragraph.

Cool? Cool.

One of the hardest things for white people to do is to simply admit that racism as an institution exists and it still affects the lives of people of color to this day. But guys, I’m going to need you to acknowledge this is reality. Here in the United States, racism has been a huge part of our social fabric since before the founding of the country. European settlers decimated the Native American population, took the land, and brought over my ancestors from Africa to till the soil and grow the crops that made the US rich in those early days. That history of exploited labor has touched just about every other ethnicity, too — Chinese immigrants worked to build infrastructure for trains to bring people and supplies to the West; Mexican and Latin American immigrants are an essential part of our food production right down to this day; people in Asia, South America, and Africa work on poverty wages to build our clothes, technology, and baubles.

Even though slavery has ended, institutions designed to disenfranchise black Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants have been in place ever since. In the south during Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era (and right now), barriers have been in place to make sure people of color either can’t vote or have an incredibly hard time doing so. The justice system targets people of color much more often for infractions and punishes them far more harshly when they’re convicted, and this has been the case for decades. Banks and businesses are far less likely to hire people of color — especially in positions of power — or give them loans that might help them build successful businesses. The historical redlining of America’s cities have segregated communities of color into the worst neighborhoods with the lowest property values, which means that children of color are forced into underfunded, overcrowded schools where they receive substandard education. It’s harder to learn the skills needed to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps; it’s harder to build successful businesses or influence industry; it’s harder to exert political will to actually change the policies that make this so.

Racism affects almost every aspect of civic life for black Americans. Harmful stereotypes are perpetuated by politicians and media; our attempts to correct these problems are dismissed and deflected; our increasing anger is used as justification to keep ignoring us. It’s not OK to be forced to present proof of our own oppression in a manner that white people find acceptable, especially when the goalposts keep moving.

So white people, the very first thing you can do for me is to just admit that racism isn’t over, it’s never been over, and a lot will need to change before it CAN be over. Trust me, I’d LOVE to stop talking about race and I’m pretty sure other black people would love it too. But we didn’t make everything about race in the first place; white people did, and still do, and won’t even acknowledge it happening so we can move on to dismantling racism.

One of the reasons white people have such a hard time even acknowledging racism is a lack of perspective. So many of the conversations I’ve had went nowhere because white friends have not been able to step outside themselves to see what the world looks like to someone who isn’t them. It can feel like you’re saying “I’m not racist, so therefore racism can’t be a problem” or perhaps “If it’s not a big deal to/for me, it really shouldn’t be a big deal to/for you”.

But racism, especially as an institution, actually has object permanence. It exists even when you can’t see it. Racism isn’t just a white person using slurs against a person of color in a hateful or demeaning way; it’s not just burning crosses or beating up or killing us. Racism is having a double standard for how white and black people behave; it’s taking aspects of different cultures while marginalizing the people in those cultures; it’s a complex network of attitudes and policies that keep us from being treated as equal even though those same policies were built in a framework supposed to promote equality.

Racism is bigger than any one person, and if you have never been exposed to its effects that doesn’t mean those effects aren’t there. It just means that your social position insulates you from them. White experience in America is a fundamentally different thing from black experience; it’s not an accusation, or a judgement, it’s a fact. That’s what we mean when we bring up the dreaded ‘white privilege’. The term doesn’t mean that white people get $100,000 a year automatically and their own team of servants; it means that the system we all live under gives you a different experience than it gives me.

If you’re white, you don’t have to be terrified of the police. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to watch talking heads on TV argue about whether ideology painting you as inherently inferior or sub-human should be allowed in the public square. I do. If you’re white, you don’t have to keep up with a list of code words and symbols that might mean you’re dealing with someone who subscribes to that ideology. I do. I could go on, but there are many MANY different aspects of the black experience that are virtually invisible to white people and are never thought of. That’s the privilege.

Understanding this means decentering yourself and trying to see the same situation from a different point of view. As hard as it can be to grasp, a lot of the problems we’re talking about are literally not about you. They’re about us, and what we go through, and why that is. So, unless I’m specifically referring to something you said or did, please try to check the impulse to defend your words and actions and heart. This isn’t about that.

So once you acknowledge that racism is still an active institution, and put aside your experience to engage with someone else’s, there’s one last thing I’d love to see: empathy. Note I didn’t say pity, or guilt, or even anger at the thing I’m angry about. I’m specifically stating that I would like white people to have more empathy for black people and the things they must go through.

Imagine getting up in the morning and having it reinforced — in so many ways large and small — that this culture doesn’t fully accept you because of your background. When you take a shower, shampoo and conditioner might work differently on your hair; if you’re a woman, finding makeup or skin care products for your skin tone is harder. On the news, the President talks about how crime is ‘out of control’ in the ‘inner cities’ and you know the image he’s conjuring — one of young black men in the streets of Chicago or Detroit or Atlanta shooting each other. The crowd cheers when he says he’s going to ‘take care of it’. Meanwhile, family in New Orleans or southeast Texas or Puerto Rico is still struggling to recover from hurricanes.

At work, you find out you make less than a colleague of another race and you have to wonder if it’s your skillset or your skin color that’s caused that. Throughout the day there are dozens of interactions — with coworkers, service folks, customers and strangers — that might have been peppered with racially-coded comments ranging from innocuous to offensive, but you’re not sure. Instead of talking about it, you decide to let it slide but it still rankles you and you can’t stop thinking about it. After work there’s more news and commentary about your race, mostly from people who are of a different one. The TV shows, movies, books and games you use to have fun or feel better mostly feature people who aren’t like you; on a forum for one of your favorite sci-fi universes, a debate rages on why there needs to be a reason to make a main character someone of your race or else it’s just political correctness being shoved down the collective throat of the community.

Despite all of this, you love your life and you feel lucky to have it. You’re in a stable relationship, you make enough money to live comfortably, you have great friends and so many things you’re excited about. You love the country you were born in, even though there are no authorities you can expect to be friendly or helpful, even though your race hasn’t been treated kindly — let alone equally — by your country in the entirety of its history, even though protests and successes by members of your race are almost always dismissed or rejected or destroyed. You love your country, but you wish your country loved you back, and that your friends understood it doesn’t, it never did, it likely won’t for a long time.

You have a good life, but it’s complicated and painful in ways that most don’t see. And it’s hard to know what to do with that — because illuminating it might just blow it all up. It makes your friends more distant and nervous; it invites hostile and ignorant demands from others; it just makes you feel more alienated, frustrated, sad.

Imagine being that person. Imagine what that’s like. Sit with that feeling; hold it, remember it. Access that feeling the next time a person of color talks to you about race, white people. Treat that person the way you would want to be treated if you felt that way. Can you do that? Because it’s really all I want. Not guilt, or shame, or even an apology; just acknowledgement, perspective, empathy. That’s it.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2018 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 7: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters? Happy New Year!

I’m pretty sure most of us (myself included) are spending the final day of Kwanzaa somewhat sleep-deprived and hungover, so I’ll speak quietly and wish you the tastiest of greasy breakfasts and a quick recovery so you can start 2018 getting your shit handled. No matter how you woke up today — groaning and regretful, or clear-eyed and ready — I have faith in you and your ability for greatness. You can do whatever you set your minds to!

Today’s principle is Imani, or Faith. Faith is a tricky concept to talk about because it’s so nebulous; it means something very specific to our religious fam, while it might mean something entirely different (or nothing at all) to the rest of us. If you’re Christian or Muslim, faith means belief in a higher power as well as the righteousness of the rules as they have been set down in holy texts. The rules are often a constant source of confusion and conflict for us, though — so many of us in the diaspora are excluded by them, and our personal experience might tie the worst memories to the way religion has been used to drive a wedge between us. If you’re like me, Christian faith is most likely one of the most destructive influences in your life.

It can be hard to reconcile our experience with the positive aspects of faith, especially when the actions of the faithful can be so hurtful. It can be hard to have faith when you’ve seen what it does to people. The idea of putting your faith in something larger than yourself can be tremendously scary, a fool’s errand that only leads to the worst outcomes.

But here’s the thing: faith is necessary to push our ideals forward. If you’re religious, putting your faith in God means putting your faith in Their creation. The people all around you are made in God’s own image, which means that divinity exists in each and every one of us. Recognizing and respecting that divinity is one of the most important ways we can act on our faith — every interaction we have with someone else is another opportunity to connect to the divine spark within our fellow human beings, and the work of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed pointed us to doing just that. It can be exceedingly difficult to find the divine righteousness in some people, but faith isn’t easy. Even with the understanding that God is present in all of us, having faith that we can connect to it in another is something that escapes us too often.

For me, personally, these past couple of years has largely destroyed my faith in humanity as essentially good. It’s hard to believe that we are basically kind and wise creatures when we seem so hell-bent on our own division and destruction. Over the past year, we’ve thrown away our standards for truth and compromise just so we can cater to our darkest impulses. We’ve begun to question ideas that were settled decades ago, and fostered an environment where knowledge and morality aren’t concrete, tangible things — they’re just details that can be swatted aside for something that feels better. Instead of admitting our ignorance and mistakes, we’ve become ruinously arrogant even in the face of direct contradiction. Our collective id has crowded out our sense of perspective; the only thing that matters is our personal gratification at this point.

It’s hard to see, especially when there are so many real problems that we refuse to face. We’re pushing our environment to the brink of collapse even though we’ve had more than fifty years to deal with climate change; we’re astonishingly willing to entertain fascist and totalitarian ideas in our political process, especially if it means a win for ‘our side’; we’ve stopped listening to one another for so long we can’t even understand each other any more; we don’t think of those less fortunate than us as anything but a drain on our society. At the precise time we should be shaking off the worst excesses of our civilization for the continued survival of our species, we seem to be choosing a bender of oblivion, drunk on fossil fuels and anti-social capitalism.

I’ve struggled to push through this year with any sense of purpose. What’s the point of anything if we’re so willing to destroy ourselves if it doesn’t mean making hard changes to our lifestyle and understanding? It’s been impossible to shake the feeling that we’re just doomed and that the world has effectively ended; we just don’t know when or how.

Faith helps so much to combat this narrative in my head. If I believe in anything, it’s the strength, resilience and ingenuity of my fellow human beings. We’ve had the chance to control the way things change in our future, but we’ve missed it for the most part. It’s up to us NOW to take quick and decisive action to make sure our future is the best we can make it; that’s going to require us to put our faith in each other and our own better natures.

As a Buddhist, this means putting my faith in the idea of enlightenment for all beings. We all have the capability of expressing our unique Buddha-nature for the benefit of all humanity. Your expression may be closely following the teachings and attitudes of Jesus Christ; or the wisdom of the prophet Muhammed; or the ancient, living Mosaic Law. It might be communing with the seasonal magic of the natural world, or following a humanist philosophy, or simply being who you are to the best of your ability. There is no one thing that means nirvana; our own paths take us to our innate epiphany.

My faith rests in the journey that all of us are taking to be better people. I have to believe that this journey will find us working together to take care of each other over time, and that we will come to celebrate and respect our differences while realizing we’re so much more similar than we thought. My faith means looking for the Buddha in every person I meet and finding ways to connect with them. It means hoping the best for everyone while not expecting everyone is at their best.

In order to make the most of the new year and to fully embrace the Nguzo Saba, I have to embrace the faith that we can turn this around. I must have faith in my ability to live up to my principles, no matter how hard it might be. I must trust in you. And I do.

Let’s make 2018 a great year. I have faith that it will be, because I’ll be trying every day to make it so.

 
 

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Kwanzaa, Day 6: Kuumba (Creativity)

Myth 150Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

Today is the last day of 2017, and to say it’s been an interesting year is a small understatement. But we’ve made it! We’re about to enter 2018, a year full of new possibilities and problems that will require us to be united, self-aware, diligent, cooperative, and purposeful to solve. The issues we face next year will be a lot of the same old stuff — but cloaked in different wrappers that might be hard to see through. I’m confident, though, that we’ll not only survive the next year, but thrive. We are strong, adaptable people. A big reason for this is my favorite principle of the Nguzo Saba — Kuumba, or Creativity.

Africa is a land rich in stories. From the folk tales handed down verbally through generations of families, to the poems, songs, novels and other stories presented through the kaleidoscope of the diaspora experience, we’ve contributed much to humanity’s creative expression. So many things that have become the bedrock of the American pop art culture find their roots within us, from jazz to dance to rock and roll to historical fiction to genre fiction to science. Our ingenuity and ability to thrive despite great difficulty and limitations is one of our best traits, and I’m excited to honor the work our ancestors put in to make creativity such a huge part of our cultural heritage.

As a writer, I come from a long line of African-Americans who have done amazing work providing a vital perspective on our cultural experience. James Baldwin seamlessly blended his thoughts on being a black man in America through both novels and essays, not only discussing issues of race, but of the complexities of being gay and bisexual; Langston Hughes was one of the foremost names in the Harlem Renaissance, along with Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman; Ralph Ellison spoke about how both external and internal cultural pressure can render a person invisible in Invisible Man; Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney opened the doors of science fiction and fantasy, and Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel Jose Older and Terrence Wiggins all keep up the work of carving out a space for black people there. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ava DuVernay, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Christopher Priest, Dwayne McDuffie, Evan Narcisse, and so, SO MANY others have all contributed outstanding work to the creative American canon. The list really is too long to name properly.

And that’s just talking about writing. The Black American contribution to popular music is even longer, going back to the old spirituals of the slavery-era South and coming through today with the dominance of rap and hip-hop on the charts today. We’ve made great art, sculptures, jewelry, dances, claimed new media and technology as forms of self-expression with Vine, Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms; we’ve put creative energy into protest as well, thinking of new ways to engage with the problems plaguing the black community. Black Twitter, which is one of my absolute favorite things ever, is a giant messy digital town square where we boost calls for help or action; talk about music, movies, TV and books; highlight issues of representation in media and entertainment; and clap back on folks messing with us and ours in hilarious ways.

Our vast cultural heritage of creativity is one of our best features. We can capture the complicated, difficult feeling of our experience in powerfully moving works through whatever medium we choose. We inspire hope and change through song and story; we make sure our collective struggle is remembered through the essays and personal writing of those who’ve lived through it. In our hearts, there is wit and passion and the unwavering strength of our birthright. As long as we tap into that, there’s always a way out of the thicket.

We’ve taken such great strides with entertainment over the past couple of years, and 2018 is looking to be even more amazing. Moonlight, a film about an inner-city black man struggling with his sexual orientation, won the Best Picture Oscar this year with a black director, screenwriter, and actors — it was based on a semi-autobiographical story from a gay black man. On TV, black men won Best Leading Actor Emmys in the Drama, Comedy AND Limited Series/Movie categories while Blackish, Queen Sugar, and Empire made sure a wide variety of black characters were seen on screen. Black people killed it in comics this year while the industry at large took a number of questionable choices through their summer events — but it didn’t stop Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Walker, Christopher Priest, Roxane Gay, and others from turning in amazing work. In 2018, Black Panther is set to hit the big time in the MCU while Miles Morales is headlining his own animated movie.

I don’t think there’s ever been a better time for black creativity. The Internet has given us an amazing platform to connect and amplify each other’s work, and so many formerly isolated pockets are learning to come back into the community with unique experiences and perspectives. Personally, learning about Afrofuturism has been a revelation and my own personal vehicle for coming back to my roots. Telling solarpunk, urban fantasy, and anthro-animal stories is a powerful way for me to make sense of my history, identity, and feelings about where we are as a culture, as a country, as human beings. I’m looking forward to using my voice and refining my craft next year, fully living the principle of Kuumba.

There are few places where black excellence is more evident than in our creative endeavors. If possible, I invite you to think about all of your favorite stories, movies, TV, songs, art, poetry and non-fiction; think about the people of color who have had a hand in them. If you’re curious about what person-of-color-centered creative work to dive into, let me know a medium and/or genre, and give me a few examples of your own personal favorites. I’d be more than glad to recommend something to you.

Happy New Year, all of you. See you in 2018!

 

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