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Category Archives: Politics

(BHM) Slavery in the United States

Myth 150No one needs to tell you that slavery was kind of a big deal in the United States. It’s taught almost every year in American History classes, and at the very least students learn a lot about how it was ended when the Confederacy lost the American Civil War. Even still, while we know a lot about slavery it’s hard to really know it in a way that we understand just how poisonous it’s been for race relations in this country and how its legacy lives on in our politics, laws, culture, entertainment, even our language. Slavery is such a huge part of our history and yet its reality is incomprehensible. Most of us today can’t imagine what it must have been like to be a slave, or a slave owner, or someone fighting against the institution. But in order to understand black history in America, it’s vitally important to understand the foundation on which that history was built.

Hopefully, the best way to properly understand slavery in the United States is by defining its edges — when it started and ended; how far it spread and why; how it worked in practice; how it affected everyone it touched. We can gain a proper perspective of the institution and just how deeply it runs through American culture by these definitions. By knowing what slavery was in America and how it was codified into law through the colonies, we can form a basis through which all kinds of historical events can be tied right back to this practice.

The institution of slavery was one in which human beings from Africa were considered the property of others and forced to provide free labor on farms, in factories, businesses, and houses. While the slave trade in Africa had been going on for some time, slavery as a recognized institution lasted from 1565 all the way to 1865, some two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The 13th Amendment would be ratified in December of that year. During this time, 350,000 Africans were shipped to the United States and sold. This comprised around 3% of the 12,000,000 Africans forced to endure the Middle Passage, but it’s still a whopping number.

Think of it this way: the Middle Passage stole a population equal to the entire country of Belgium and forced it into slavery. Most of these people were sent to Brazil and the Caribbean, but the number of people sent to the United States? That would be equivalent to the current population of New Orleans, LA — or Arlington, TX. From that 350,000 came 4 million slaves in the United States by the year 1850 — or roughly the population of Los Angeles.

Slavery was common practice in the North American colonies even before the formation of the United States and its subsequent rebellion. St. Augustine, Florida was the first permanent settlement in the New World to include African slaves — as early as 1565. While many colonists considered Africans who had converted to Christianity as ‘indentured servants’ and gave these Africans their own land and supplies when the period of servitude had ended, legal distinctions between Africans and Europeans were being made as early as 1640. That year, a Virginia court decided that John Punch, an African indentured servant, would be punished by slavery for attempting to flee his servitude. The two European servants who fled with him were only given an extra year of indenture and an additional three years’ service to the colony. Slavery was legal in every colony right up to 1776, though by that time it was beginning to fall out of favor in the North.

This was because the North’s economy was largely industrial, so skilled labor was the most important thing there. The South, with its largely agrarian economy first dependent on tobacco and staple crops — then cotton with the invention of the cotton gin — depended on physical labor to sow and reap the crops for its cash. Since the sheer manpower needed to tend the fields would make profitability impossible for honestly paid laborers, there was a huge incentive to keep slavery around as much as possible. The Southern economy would not have grown so much, so fast, without its ability to treat people as property; that influx of money brought a lot of political influence and financial capital, which ensured the institution could be calcified in state legislatures, local laws, and business practices. Most Presidents between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln owned slaves, and of the few that didn’t none were elected to a second term. The whole “three-fifths of a person” you hear about in the Constitution was negotiated by James Madison of Virginia, who wanted slaves included in a state’s population by that ratio. Black people in early America were only counted in the political process as a means to tip the balance of representative power towards the Southern states, and they could not exercise that power directly.

Slavery was extended through the South with the Westward Expansion. The original Colonial States wanted to maintain the balance of power they had as more territories became states, so they lobbied hard for Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and other frontier territories to join their side. At the same time, a surplus of slaves in one part of the South necessitated a migration to the Deep South where more labor was needed. From 1815 – 1860, a “second Middle Passage” was devastating the population of slaves. Families were broken up, slaves were sold to horrendous owners, and abuses were commonplace. Even in states where the slave codes — laws governing the relationship between master and slave — forbade the mistreatment of enslaved Africans, the law was rarely enforced. At the same time, men and women alike were whipped one lash for each pound of cotton under quota they were on any given day.

Africans taken from their home and the descendents they bore were not allowed to read or write in most places. They were not allowed to practice their own religion or speak their own languages. They were not allowed to marry, and women were treated as sexual objects just as readily as workers. They were forced to adopt Christian beliefs, which were warped to justify their own enslavement. They were not allowed to own land or property. If they escaped, other states were bound by law to return them to their owners. An entire people were denied personhood for generations, legally according to the highest codes in the land.

Four million black Americans were considered nothing more than property in 1850. They had no legal rights. They couldn’t press charges for abuse. They couldn’t appeal their status. They weren’t allowed to read or write. They weren’t allowed to keep the culture of their ancestors. Their lives were entirely dependent on the whims of their masters. Rebellions were quashed quickly and retaliation claimed the lives of many innocents. Women were beaten, abused, raped. This happened, over the course of three hundred years, to a population equivalent to every man, woman and child currently living in Los Angeles. And it was done so that the people who owned the land worked by these slaves could make more money.

The legacy of slavery has a long shadow. There are six states in the United States with more than 25% of its population comprised of black Americans, and they’re all former slave states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Maryland, South Carolina, Alabama. Of these six states, four of them are in the top 10 for state imprisonment rates — and imprisoned felons are one of the few classes of people in the US where slave labor is essentially legal. These states also have fairly strict disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, preserving the historical barrier of black citizens from participating in the political process of the states they call home.

This is the foundation of racial relations in the United States. For three hundred years, most black Americans were considered not people, but property. Even the freemen among us were considered inequal in the eyes of the law and could not count on its protection. During that time, we were subjected to systemic cultural erasure, legally-codified abuse, backbreaking labor, disenfranchisement, dehumanization, rape, murder, the dissolution of families, the denial of education and opportunity. And while we’ve come a long way since then, the spectre of this period in our history still haunts us today, in just about every aspect of our lives.

There’s a reason many black Americans are angry and disillusioned with the idea of American exceptionalism. Our history is a direct refutation of the idea everyone has access to the American Dream, that anyone can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ to achieve anything they want. We have first-hand historical experience telling us this is not so. It’s no surprise to us when a police officer is acquitted for murdering black Americans in cold blood. It’s no surprise that income inequality and government policies disproportionately affect people of color. This is the way it’s always been, since before there was a United States. And even today, there are people who will deny these facts, deflect and dismiss them, instead of sitting with the reality of them.

The descendants of the people who have benefitted from slavery are still reaping the benefits of racist laws, bigoted practices, unfair institutions, generational wealth and access. While they’ve done nothing to build these injustices, their denial of them ensures they’re perpetuated down to this day. Until we can look at the reality of slavery and its long, long legacy, we’ll continue to ignore the pain it causes even now.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2019 in Politics

 

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It’s Black History Month!

Myth 150I honestly don’t know if Black History Month is a big deal to anyone who doesn’t have to learn about it because it’s a whole section of their American History class. Being educated in a predominantly black city, I was taught about the usual black American luminaries year after year — Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King. But even then, comparing what I learned then to what I know now, it feels like a shallow version of the true history of my forebears. We talked about the Underground Railroad, but we didn’t talk about the conditions that made it necessary, or made Tubman so brave when she kept going back to the South to lead slaves to freedom. We learned about King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, but we never learned about the event surrounding it — a march on Washington to protest the brutal Jim Crow laws that kept black Americans in the South oppressed one hundred years after slavery ended. Today, Black History Month feels more like a feel-good opportunity for companies to flout diversity than anything with meaning or weight.

It’s become increasingly important to me to reconnect with my culture and history, because it’s an indelible part of me. I am a reflection of that history in the eye of everyone who sees me, and if I’m going to be defined by that I should really know the truth of what I represent. I want to know more than the basic bullet points of what’s come before me, the flattened caricatures of the people who have made an impact. I want to dig into the long history of struggle, resilience, and cruelty that ties me to the place I and people like me have been assigned in our society.

So this month I’d like to take up a project of studying the bits of black American history that I’ve always wanted to know more about; the people who have contributed to our history but have been overlooked or mischaracterized; and the concepts that have persisted from our arrival in the United States some three hundred years ago to our fractured, angry time in the present. For me, it’s important not just to learn more about my history; I must also find a way to make sense of it, to connect it to my life today. History is only worth anything if it gives us perspective on our world and gives us the tools to plot a way forward.

The Writing Desk will be given over to this project all month. I’ll study up on the Atlantic slave trade that marked the arrival of our ancestors; the aftermath of the Civil War and how racial oppression was codified by laws and business practices in the South and North of the United States; the civil rights movement of the 60s, the Black Pride movement of the 70s, and all the things that haven’t changed since then. I’ll report back here with the things that I find most interesting, and hopefully provide a different perspective on black history that might make it more interesting for others, too. I’ll do my best to present facts without too much subjective interpretation, but ultimately this is a personal journey for me and I’ll include my personal thoughts as well.

So what’s the deal with Black History Month anyway? It’s a surprisingly recent event with surprisingly old roots. It was first proposed in 1969 by black educators and clubs at Kent State University, and celebrated for the first time one year later. In six years, it was a widespread practice within schools, cultural and community centers, and was recognized on a national level by President Gerald Ford during his speech for the nation’s bicentennial. From there, it was picked up by the United Kingdom in 1987, Canada in 1995, and Ireland in 2014.

It’s a trip that this is so new — only less than 50 years old. The precursor to Black History Month was “Negro History Week”, though, an initiative thought up by black American historian Carter G. Woodson — widely regarded as the “father of Black History”. Negro History Week was meant to be the second week of February, since that happens to fall on the birthdays of Abe Lincoln (the 12th) and escaped slave-turned-abolitionist Frederick Douglass (the 14th). From the jump, Woodson wanted to make the week a coordinated teaching of black Americans’ contributions to American history among the nation’s public schools. It was picked up in North Carolina, Delaware, West Virginia, Baltimore and Washington DC before spreading out from there. Over the decades, it increased in popularity until the trailblazers at Kent State carried it further.

Now, Black History Month is an American institution in our schools and its influence has spread to the rest of the culture. The celebration has been controversial for a while, with people wondering why we don’t include the contribution of black Americans (and Canadians, and Britons) all year ’round. Others wonder why we should even have a month dedicated to the history of one minority culture. I won’t get into those arguments, but I will say that it’s useful, even necessary, for me to dive into my own history. If an artificially-created month is what I need to do so, then I’ll take it.

I’m very excited to learn as much as I can over the next month, and I’m looking forward to our discussion about this overlooked section of American history.

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2019 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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We Need To Talk

Politics 150The season five finale of Steven Universe felt like a perfect encapsulation of what makes the show so great — it made a case for its themes and worldview while acknowledging just how difficult it can be holding to those views. Steven, and the family of Crystal Gems he’s built, have often struggled to navigate the labyrinthine paths of healing and reconciliation with humans, gems, and monsters they’ve come across but they have never stopped trying to walk that path. Steven Universe can be surprisingly dark for a children’s show, but that makes its messages land with that much more weight. The writers know how hard it is to have empathy for everyone you meet, even the enemies who want nothing less than your eradication. Fighting, the shows says, is necessary sometimes to protect yourself and the people you love. But you should never, ever lose sight of your true goal: to change the minds of the people you disagree with, to find a way towards peaceful resolution.

For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Steven Universe is an animated show about the titular half-human, half-alien boy as he comes of age in an idyllic beachside town. His father is a washed-out rocker who now owns a car wash, and has ceded the bulk of Steven’s education to three genderless (but female-presenting) aliens named the Crystal Gems. His mother, Rose Quartz, was the leader of an uprising against a tyrannical galactic empire ruled by the Diamonds, mysterious but incredibly powerful beings who have set very rigid roles for everyone under them and seek to colonize other worlds to keep their empire perfect.

Over the past five seasons, Steven has matured considerably. He has dealt with problems with his human friends; helped repair the trauma endured by the Gems (his caretakers and Rose Quartz’s lieutenants during the uprising); eased tensions between oblivious, panicky townsfolk and the aloof aliens that share the town with him; and learned just how difficult it is to be who you truly are in a world that is constantly seeking to mold you into a category it feels more comfortable with. As I’ve taken this journey with him, I’ve found myself trying harder to understand where people are coming from and work with them from that perspective. It’s not easy — these days it feels impossible — but it’s also necessary. Steven Universe has given me, and hopefully a lot of the children who watch it religiously, a blueprint for emotional maturity that I’m not sure we can get from too many other places.

One of the many things I love about the show is the nature of its dialogue and how it presents its worldview. Steven Universe is not a preachy show, though it does wear its themes proudly on its sleeve. The Crystal Gems are a wholly diverse expression of femininity: there’s uptight, proper Pearl; tomboy-trickster Amethyst; mysterious, self-possessed Garnet. The culture of the Gems gives us an entire society of women with a kaleidoscope of personalities, body types, and stories without diminishing Steven or any of the other men populating Beach City. Personal and cultural disagreements between characters are handled promptly and discreetly; people talk and listen, truly absorbing someone else’s point of view while advocating their own. Most of the time, everyone involved realizes something they could do better, and commit themselves to doing it.

These days it’s really easy to paint people we disagree as inhuman monsters. On the right, any attempt to square injustices or correct harmful attitudes is met with “SJW” or “NPC”. Folks like us are viewed as hordes of weak-willed communists who won’t rest until white men are left with nothing. On the left, most who question the prevailing wisdom of social justice are branded quickly as bigots, Nazis, or hopelessly clueless and dismissed or attacked accordingly. The division has become so white-hot that any attempt to establish a dialogue is frequently met with derision from both sides. The time, it seems, for discussion is over; all that’s left is the fighting.

And I get it: our reality is far more complex and difficult than the world of Steven Universe. People of color, people of different gender expression and sexual preferences, even the economically disadvantaged — we’ve all been treated so badly for so long despite peaceful resistance, civil disobedience, voluntary separation, assimilation and integration, and so many other coping mechanisms that steadfast, unyielding resistance feels like the only option left to us. If we look to our history, especially in the United States, we see that often the only way to affect change is to disrupt the comfort of the status quo enough that there’s no choice. Eventually, things reach a tipping point where what’s come before cannot continue.

But it does, only in a different way. The underlying illness of anti-social, bigoted, racist, xenophobic thinking doesn’t go away. It merely finds a new way to express itself. Colonialism gives way to capitalist exploitation. Slavery gives way to segregation and institutionalized oppression. While one system is eventually recognized as cruel and inhumane, it is merely replaced by another one that is better on paper but not in spirit. The reason we have Nazis and white supremacists on our streets again is that they never actually went away — they simply changed the way they operate so that they can hide in plain sight. If we turn this tide back, society will change, sure. But we’ll have to keep fighting, and another layer of lingering, generational resentment will form the soil where a new crop of bigots can flourish.

Like Steven, we’re in a time where we have to fight in order to protect ourselves and the people we love from the forces that seek to eradicate us just for being different, for being ourselves and not the rigidly-defined roles society has set out for us. We cannot tolerate the callous disregard of another person’s dignity, right to life, or right to happiness. But we also have to remember that our ultimate goal is something else entirely: the end of a need for fighting. And we can’t do that without changing minds. That cannot be done through violence or total defeat. It has to be done through understanding the motivations behind these attitudes and behaviors, honoring the same impulses within us, and finding a way to shift perspectives so those impulses are put towards a more common good.

We’ll still need to live together after the fighting is done. The more either side uses these scorched earth tactics, the more difficult that will be to do. I’m not naive enough to think that we can just talk our way out of this current flashpoint, but I am hopeful enough to believe that more talking can ease the fighting and build a better foundation for whatever peace can be found here. If we are to take up the mantle of the social justice warrior, we have to have a better sense of what being a warrior means. We’re not seeking the end of our enemies; we are seeking the end of enmity. Part of that work is finding a way to purge ourselves of the hostilities we harbor, even to the people (and yes, they are still people) who have done and said horrific things. That is not an easy thing to do. It might take us our entire lives. But if we don’t want to end up right back here in 50 or 60 years repeating this cycle, it’s what we must do. Anything less is a kind of social insanity, repeating the mistakes of our history with the full expectation that things will turn out different this time.

I’m exhausted being angry all of the time. There are still people I can’t talk to because I know they’re not speaking in good faith; when you know someone is manipulating communication for their own ends, there’s no solid foundation with which to build a relationship. There’s simply no way to trust them. I just have to disengage and hope that they can find their way through some other means. But I try very hard not to write someone off if I can help it. No one is too far gone that they can’t come around. No one is irredeemable. I have to believe this, because I would want someone else to believe this of me. We all want to be accepted, forgiven, embraced. Think about what it would take for a Trump (or Hillary) voter to mend your relationship; use this as your North Star. Even though we might get lost in the fog of war for a time, trust that it’s still there. Always move towards it. Never lose sight of it. It may take an impossibly long time to get there, but any step we can take is a good one.

 

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Building A Better Buddhist in 2019

Buddhism 150If there is one thing in 2019 we are sorely in need of, it’s more compassion and empathy. I know this has been the rallying cry of many different corners of our society for a while now — some have even weaponized the idea of civility as a means of shutting down dissent. But look at where we are these days. On the right, people are trying to justify breaking up families of migrants and abusing children in the name of national security; creating hardship for thousands of government workers so we can spend billions on a wall that no one wants; and indulging in a culture of bigotry against any minority you’d care to name. On the left, we’re engaging in the usual infighting between groups that have problematic perspectives; alienating well-meaning but ignorant people who just need guidance; and rejoicing in the suffering of people we’ve deemed truly deserving. Our social discourse has become so consistently, exhaustingly hateful that it’s hard to see any chance of reconciliation.

I understand why this is so, and I don’t want to give the impression I’m drawing a false equivalence here. What the current administration is doing, aided by the Republican Party and its base, is reprehensible and in no way the same thing as some of the worst tendencies of the left. But it feels like we in the liberal sphere have focused so much on hating the perpetrators of these atrocities that there’s no more room for us to feel compassion for its victims. The anger we feel is indeed fuel for the sustained fight we’ve engaged in for the past two years, but more and more it feels like this has come at a cost.

This year, one of the main things I wanted to focus on is being a better Buddhist — but what does that mean? Well, my particular Zen is one that prioritizes comfort and connection. I prize these things because I know how difficult it can be to change, and in order for people to make the adjustments we ask of them they need to feel comfort and support while doing so. Most of us flinch away when someone brings up one of our negative qualities, and the instinct to get defensive is so deeply rooted it can be impossible to deny it. So many of us can’t distinguish between a criticism of certain behaviors and a criticism of who we are as people; our self-identity is so deeply tied to our habits and beliefs we think of them as one and the same.

It takes empathy to translate that tendency in ourselves towards other people, to imagine how we would feel in someone else’s situation. If, for example, someone roasted us on Twitter for something we’ve said and any apology we could make just makes the situation worse, wouldn’t it be hard for us to resist the urge to defend ourselves? Maybe we’d double down on the behavior we think isn’t a problem. Maybe we’d call the whole affair silly and insubstantial. Maybe we’d chalk up the “drama” to “haters” who have nothing better to do than bring others down. Social media has been little more than an ideological battleground for years; in order for effective dialogue to happen, we have to shift our paradigm away from war and towards something else.

That is admittedly not easy. I know I still have this knot in my stomach when thinking about people I know who have voted for Trump, and I get intensely frustrated with people who don’t understand why issues like Black Lives Matter are so important to me. I haven’t been able to engage with many people about the news of the day because it genuinely makes me too upset and angry. Over the past two years, I’ve noticed my social circle get smaller and my general mood become more withdrawn and suspicious. I don’t want to be that person.

So it’s time to open myself more, and encourage others to do the same. This doesn’t mean engaging with people you know are acting in bad faith, or wasting your time with people who aren’t ready to entertain the idea that change might be needed on their part. But I think we could do a better job of filtering between the hostile and the merely ignorant, and I think it’s worth the time and effort it takes to educate our allies towards nuances they may have a blind spot towards. If we truly believe that our values are the right ones, then finding better ways to explain them or convince others to prioritize them is one of the best things we can do to help them spread.

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is one of the books that really made me take a good, long look at my behavior and a fundamental flaw in my perspective that caused the less desirable aspects of it. There are so many things that I can’t tolerate within myself, and that self-judgement closes emotional doors that would better serve me if they were open. Learning to accept people and situations as they are can help us become less angry, see things more clearly, and affect change more efficiently.

This not only requires empathy, but also mindfulness. Meditation is a bit more than just learning to be still in the present moment; it trains us to watch the pattern of our own thoughts and recognize when a particular framework doesn’t serve us as well as it used to. Armed with this self-knowledge, we can catch ourselves doing, saying, or even thinking things that solidify division and allows us to take a beat to find some other way of dealing with people that might get us closer to the world we want to live in. Acceptance of bad behavior isn’t excusing it: it’s putting it into perspective so that we can address it holistically, in a way that is more likely to stop it.

I know a lot of us are tired of having to moderate our emotions or check ourselves in order to make progress with contentious situations. A lot of us know that it isn’t fair to have the burden of being the better person consistently fall to us. It’s draining, and in a just world it wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately that’s just not the world we live in. We have to do what we can, when we can, to build that just world. Sometimes that means accepting an unjust situation while working to make it better.

This year I will try very hard not to get caught in that sense of outrage and despair. It’s not who I want to be. In order to build equanimity, I have to be mindful of my own tendency to dig in my heels and consciously soften my reaction when I feel it happening. I have to push myself to feel empathy and compassion towards the people who want to deny me and the people like me our basic dignity as human beings. If I don’t, then we will continue to resist one another and that disconnection will only deepen. Fighting the awful things that are happening in our world requires firmness and the willingness to say ‘no’, but it’s important to resist from a place of mindfulness and love. It’s so much harder, but I feel it’s the only way to really win out.

 
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Posted by on January 7, 2019 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Politics) For The Culture

Politics 150The culture wars have been raging for a little while now, on all kinds of different fronts in so many different ways. We’re fighting about the idea of “white culture”, the cultural appropriation of Native Americans and black Americans, how to clearly and succinctly define what’s offensive about one thing while another thing is given a pass. The very idea of “culture” is such a nebulous concept that it’s hard for us in the US — the great melting pot country — to think about it in a way that conversations about culture make sense. I wanted to talk for a minute about culture as I see it, and why the flashpoints of the culture war matter.

So just what is culture, anyway? If we’re going to debate about it, we have to make sure we’re working from the same definition. Here’s one that I like: culture is “the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group”. It feels simple, yet all-encompassing, and points to just why it’s so difficult to talk about culture as a concrete idea. When something can be used to talk about the entire breadth of an entire group, it can be hard to pull back enough to see it all clearly. Most of the time, we’re debating something we can’t get an objective perspective on because we’re way too close to it.

A specific culture is easier to identify when the nation, people, or social group that claims it is relatively homogenous or well-established. That’s why we have a fairly good image of, say, Japanese or Irish culture and we’re less comfortable on, say, African cultures or various minority cultures within the United States. Africa is a vast continent home to hundreds of different groups that have existed for varying lengths of time, in different environments, with different pressures exerting influence to determine the rate of cultural shift. Minority cultures in America are made up of patches consisting of the most distinctive bits of home and the things in our host country that exert the most powerful influence. The closeness of so many other cultures means there’s a lot of bleedthrough; black American culture has been influenced by Asian-American culture and vice versa. In such a dynamic, constantly shifting environment, without the anchor of a widely-known history or a stable social niche, minority cultures can feel fleeting and ephemeral. But they are very solid and very real.

Let’s talk about black American culture, because it’s the minority culture I’m most familiar with. My culture stretches back to the days of slavery in colonial America; the constant pressure of racism has been one of its most consistent influences. As a Black American, so many things about me are political: the music I like, the people I date, the places I live, the jobs I strive for and ultimately land. But it goes so much deeper than that. My skin, my lips, my name, my hair — my whole body — is political. That influence from the “dominant culture” — the American culture of US exceptionalism, self-made men, chain stores and cowboys — has shaped my culture in ways both subtle and explicit.

So much of black American culture is rooted in a response to the pain of our history and the ongoing mistreatment we endure from the institutions that are supposed to look out for us. Hairstyles like Afros, dreadlocks, and braids that center our natural texture are an attempt to reclaim our self-esteem after centuries of being told we’ll never achieve an American standard of beauty. Our music — blues, hip-hop, rap, and rock — are expressions of the tension we hold within us and feel steady through our lives every day. Our dances can be linked through the decades all the way back to the celebrations and rituals of our ancestors, the meanings of which have been forgotten but the movement of which we have retained. Despite being ripped from our home and forcibly separated from our culture, our ancestors found ways to hold on to what mattered to them and express them in new ways.

Black Americans aren’t the only minorities who’ve done this. Native Americans are fiercely protective of their culture after being systematically dismantled by European settlers and ultimately perverted by descendants who want to identify with something “exotic” but also “real”. Asian-Americans balance the traditional beliefs of their native cultures against the pressures of American society to blend in properly. Latinx Americans bring their own history, experiences, preferences and relationships from Central and South America. I realize that these are all hopeless simplifications of these cultures, and that’s precisely why it’s so hard to have these conversations. To properly understand another culture, you have to understand so much about where it came from; not just the people within the culture, but their history, art, values, philosophy, and interactions with others. Just understanding the context of one aspect of it (like hair) could take much more study than the average person would be willing to put up with.

So, what about the white culture that the alt-right and other supremacist groups claim to care about preserving? Why is that such a bogus claim? Well, it’s because white culture simply doesn’t exist — not in the way it’s meant. Let’s refer back to our definition of culture: the (collected) customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. What specific examples for custom, art, social institution or achievement could be classified as simply ‘white’ and refined no further? What kind of distinctly “white” expression is in danger of being lost? White Americans can trace their lineage back to a host of European cultures, the places that their ancestors emigrated from. There is English culture, Irish culture, German, French, Russian, Scandinavian culture. But “white” culture, everything that’s happened once the United States was formed? That is American culture, and it belongs to everyone who helped form it — from the European immigrants who formed the first government to the native Americans they displaced to the Africans they kidnapped and forced into slavery. American culture belongs to the Asians who were exploited for labor, the Latinx Americans who themselves descended from the messy, violent past of European settlement and native genocide, the Jewish and Pacific Islanders. If America is truly what we say it is, then the culture comprised of so many different groups is part of that — and that means no one group can claim sole ownership of it.

Culture, of course, is not strictly defined by race or nationality. Any social group can have its own culture, provided that the community that creates it is tight-knit enough and lasts long enough to develop a set of attitudes and expressions that can be passed from person to person. Those of us who spend a lot of time on the Internet belong to a culture; those of us who built careers in huge corporations belong to another. There’s comic-book culture, cinephile culture, wine culture, maker culture, gym culture, bibliophile culture. Our hobbies, professions and interests can each own their own specific culture, even though these tend to be fairly loose, obscure and relatively low-key. Most of us move through cultures all the time — the culture of our racial or national background at home, the culture of our professional career at work, various cultures online and in-person. Very few of us embody just one culture because as human beings we contain a multitude of thoughts, emotions and relationships.

So, if culture is so permeable, why is cultural appropriation such a bad thing? I have to admit, it took me a while to figure this one out. But I think I have it. Here’s a thought experiment.

Imagine you worked on something for a very long time that you felt was a direct expression of the deepest, most vulnerable part of you. It could be a novel, or a song, or a dance, or a computer program. Whatever it is, whenever you talk about it you’re shut down by most of your friends. Everyone you know discourages you from making it, telling you that it’s garbage or it doesn’t matter, or that it’s stupid and backwards. Over time, you’re forced to choose again and again — your friends, or your project. You want friends, but you can’t resist the call of what you’re creating. You can’t give up who you are just to be near people who don’t actually like you. So you become more isolated, and angry, and afraid, and that channels into your work too. And, after a long time of bruising work and rejection, your creation is complete, ready to show to the world.

Suddenly, those same people who were clowning you take a look at what you’ve done and decided they like it. So they take bits of it for their own — leaving out the symbolism you painstakingly weaved into each piece of your project. Some aspects of your creation are taken just because they look or sound nice, or because someone else decides they want it to mean something you had never meant. Over time, your work is everywhere, but the meaning behind it and the expression you hoped to put across is absent. The thing that meant so much to you is fragmented and distorted until it’s unrecognizable, subsumed by the people that never wanted you to make it in the first place.

That’s cultural appropriation. It’s taking an expression of someone else’s culture — something that wasn’t meant for someone outside of that culture, with no perspective of its history, meaning or importance — and deciding to use it in a way it was never intended. It’s stripping a deeply meaningful symbol of its meaning and making it a fashion statement.

I think this is why most objections of cultural appropriation come from minority cultures that have been persecuted by a dominant culture. Each culture will have different attitudes about cross-pollination or expressing an aspect of it within a different context, but for those of us with cultures that have been formed by enmity and repression, it’s a little hard to take when the culture of your oppressor decides that something that links you to your people is a fashion statement. The appropriation of a symbol associated with great pain and historical struggle can come across as further insult and belittling for the culture being taken from.

That can be a hard thing to grasp for people who don’t belong to a culture that’s been subjected to that kind of treatment, or where the wounds of history are allowed to heal. For many of us in communities of color, however, that’s simply not the case. History is very much alive through institutional equality and cultural diminishment; the same dominant American culture that dismisses our protests by finding fault in our culture steals the fashion, art, slang and self-expression generated by it.

This is a crude construction of culture, built by a layman so that other laypeople can understand a perspective different from their own. It’s by no means exhaustive or infallibly accurate, but hopefully it helps you understand what we think about when we talk about culture and why we say the things we do in debates and arguments. For those of us who have been marginalized for generations, our culture is a significant means of self-determination. It is a precious thing for us. For others who feel more comfortable with their social status, the pressure to belong or express a culture may not be understandable. I get that. Not everyone is going to take the cultures they belong to seriously, but that doesn’t mean everyone should be so flippant. Respecting the boundaries other people set for their cultural expression would go a long, long way towards building a harmonious relationship with them — and it may be the thing that encourages more open cross-cultural exchange.

 
 

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(Personal) Tharn

Myth 150It’s been a rough summer for me, anxiety-wise. The news is full of terrible stories from the current president’s administration in the United States, and it’s coming so fast the scandals just bleed together. Saying the President or his Cabinet has done something awful that threatens the fabric of democracy is like saying water is wet at this point — it’s hard to keep up the outrage and drive to do something when you feel like anyone in power won’t do anything to resolve the mess we’re in. Honestly, the best I can do is hang on for the 2018 midterm elections in the hope that the Blue Wave manifests and Democrats take the House and/or Senate. For now, it’s hard to know how we stop anything — even the atrocious Supreme Court nominees.

If political news isn’t bad enough, environmental news fills me with an existential dread. This summer has already been extraordinarily hot, with a number of records broken all over the world. Hurricane season has started, and there are so many people in island nations who have yet to recover from the last round of devastation. We’re seeing the first obvious effects of climate change right now, and these effects will only become more pronounced over the years. Here in the US, our government’s response is to remove all references to the phenomenon from all departmental documents.

Despite the fact that police officers are still killing unarmed people of color, we’re still at the part of the conversation where we need to convince people it’s a problem. People of color are being harassed in the street, reported to the police for anything from doing their jobs to using the community pool, beaten and killed through racist criminal actions; but we can’t seem to convince people that the racist rhetoric of the President and others associated with him are responsible for the rise in white supremacist terrorist activity. Newspapers would rather legitimize ignorant, irresponsible, bigoted thinking in editorials and human interest articles than hold the administration accountable for what it has enabled. Trump voters, the people responsible for this state of affairs, are still having their feelings centered while the poor and disadvantaged suffer horribly.

Most days, it’s more than I can take. I can’t look at the news because there’s nothing I can do about the knot it generates in my stomach. I can’t look at Twitter because my timeline is full of anger about the terrible things that people in the various communities I belong to are saying, or what the social media platforms are letting others get away with. It’s difficult to talk about something I love or promote what I’m writing when I see retweets for someone’s GoFundMe to pay for medical expenses, or the latest in jaw-dropping evil from the people in power. The idea of engaging in a world that feels so cruel, so aggressively and stubbornly ignorant, so inhumane — it fills me with dread.

I don’t want to be the person who looks away from the pain in the world and chases what fleeting, shallow pleasure he can manage while everything burns down around him. But it feels like this is what I have to do in order to stay sane these days. What good does it do to spread awareness about problems I could never hope to fix? What’s the point of arguing with someone who isn’t interested in understanding your experience, only shutting you up so they don’t have to feel bad about what they do? Why contribute to all the noise when no one’s listening anyway? Why try to save the planet when those with the actual means to do so would rather figure out how to build bunkers to survive the apocalypse?

It’s been so hard to see a way out of this predicament. Even if our current President is impeached and removed from office, the Vice-President is still a religious zealot who would do many of the same things but with far more socially-acceptable language. We still have an entire political party that enabled this disaster for the sole purpose of hanging on to power. We still have at least a quarter to a third of Americans who support what’s happening, who will refuse any attempts we make to fix this. We’re still just one bad election from having all of this happen all over again.

I don’t know what to do with that. I truly wish I had more faith in us as a species. I wish that I could be more hopeful about our ingenuity, our ability to come together, our resilience. I wish I could see us becoming a society that prizes intelligence and expertise again, that honors the sacrifice of personal comforts so that we can actually take care of the people in our community. But I just can’t from where I’m sitting. There’s always going to be a sizable chunk of people out there who only care about devoting themselves to their worst impulses, and those people will likely have the money and power needed to keep the rest of us from doing anything about that.

I’m tired, and I know that there’s a very long way to go before anything will be OK. I don’t know how to change the minds that need to be changed at this point — certainly not in time to prevent the death of our civilization at our own hand. It feels inevitable, and the only thing to do is decide what kind of people we will be when it happens.

I know how this sounds, and I want to be clear that I’m not giving up. I still write, I still try to be the change I want to see, I still help where and when I can. But the fatalism is something I’ve had to push through in order to motivate myself, and that kind of sustained effort takes a lot out of you after a while.

What’s strange is that this doesn’t feel like depression, though I’m fairly sure it is. It just doesn’t feel irrational to think this way; things are terrible, and those in power are pretending they aren’t, and there’s not a lot we can do to change that. Still, there’s nothing for it but to keep trying to make the world around us better. We can’t do nothing, even when it feels like anything we could do won’t matter.

That’s where my head’s at right now, and I know it’s not the best place. Still, I thought I’d write about it here just to put it out there.

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Geekery) Serving Our Stories, Ourselves

Myth 150We don’t live in times where self-reflection is encouraged often enough. I mean, I understand why it feels so hard to take a moment to check in with ourselves and make adjustments where needed; making sure we’re living up to our own values feels awfully self-indulgent when so many people around us feel as if they’re under an existential threat to their existence. But even now, with the world on fire, it’s more important than ever to examine the narrative we’ve given ourselves to see if it’s helping us or holding us back.

I was blown away several days ago by Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, Nanette. Like most Americans, this is my first real exposure to the veteran Tasmanian comic — and if she’s serious about following through on her decision to give up comedy, that’s a shame. The first 15-20 minutes reads like a retrospective of the material she’s known for, gentle and self-effacing reflections about the pain of growing up lesbian in small-town Australia. But then she declares that she might need to quit comedy and the set becomes something else entirely — a deconstruction of her career and the failings of comedy (and society) to heal the trauma endured by the marginalized.

One of Gadsby’s central arguments in Nanette is that repeating the story of her traumatic experiences in her routine has encouraged her to focus on the wrong parts of it so she can’t take the lessons from them she needs to. Worse still, when she shares her story that way the impact of them only serves to cement the shame and humiliation she’s internalized from being told that she was “wrong” at a very early age. What she shares with her audience stops at the punchline, which is only there to release the tension that’s built by talking about disapproval from her family and neighbors for being gay, or the confrontation she has with a gay-bashing man late at night. While the diffusion of that tension is fuel for her comedy, it also forces her to focus on the parts of the story that denies the closure she needs to make peace with her past.

So she gives us the full context of her stories and forces us to sit with the full weight of the tension she’s been dealing with her entire life. This is what it’s like for those of us on the margins of society, she says. All that pain and anger and confusion swirls inside of us with no outlet beyond the one we make for ourselves, and even then we have to diminish it, round off the sharp edges, and sweeten it up to make it palatable for mainstream audiences. Those of us in the minority build a life swallowing our own shame and anger in order to prioritize the comfort of those who’ve never had to experience it. Her refusal to do that any more, even in the space of a single stand-up special, forces us to reconsider the way we tell our own stories and the effect that decision has on us.

Taking ownership of our own story is one of the most powerful things we can do. In Nanette, during one particularly fiery invective, Gadsby says “There is NOTHING stronger than a woman who’s been torn apart and put herself back together again.” The latest pod of episodes for Steven Universe season 5 is an amazing example of how empowering it is to recontextualize the story of your past. By focusing on the parts of the story that gives you the most strength, you free yourself to choose what you pack in your own personal baggage.

After the latest revelation — that Rose Quartz and Pink Diamond are actually the same being, and that Pink’s shattering was staged so that the Earth could be free from the rule of the Diamonds — the Crystal Gems struggle to reconcile with the fact that everything they thought they knew about fundamental parts of their history is a lie. Rose, their leader in the revolution, is actually the “tyrant” they were fighting against the whole time. Garnet, the fusion of Ruby and Sapphire, takes it especially hard — Sapphire runs off devastated, saying that her relationship to Ruby was built on a lie this whole time.

In their time apart, both Ruby and Sapphire take the time to absorb this new information and consider what it means for them. Sapphire, in learning the truth about Rose/Pink and how she was inspired to fight the Diamonds because of Garnet’s (then) unheard-of fusion, decides to recommit to her relationship with Ruby. Ruby, on the other hand, decides to make a go of being her own person before realizing that the person she wants to be is the person that chooses Sapphire.

To celebrate their refusion, Ruby, Sapphire and Steven plan a wedding, and it’s the first half of “Reunited” (the season finale?) that serves as a tremendous capstone to their journey. Steven’s song, “Let’s Only Think About Love,” instantly lodged in my brain as a panacea against the panic inspired by the overwhelming litany of problems we have to face in this day and age. Garnet’s decision to focus on the parts of her new story that forges a connection becomes a rallying cry for everyone in Steven’s family to do the same. It’s a beautiful sequence that reminds me of how important it is to celebrate the love we have in our lives. Yes, there’ll be time to fight the evils of the world but we also have to give ourselves room to remind ourselves of what we’re fighting for. We fight for the ability to celebrate our resilience and our diversity and our hard-won joy. We fight for the chance to make sure others don’t have to fight so hard to be happy.

Both Hannah Gadsby and Garnet take stock of their lives and the narratives that have sustained them as a means of figuring out how they relate to themselves and the world around them. Gadsby decides it’s necessary to discard a huge part of her identity in order to move forward, while Garnet decides to remain who she is. Both of them come out of the exercise with a much clearer sense of themselves and their purpose, and watching them go through that painful work is engrossing, angering, exhilarating.

I’ve long been a proponent of setting aside my feelings on a political issue in order to try to meet people where they are; I still believe that the only way you get someone to shift their beliefs is by making sure they’re comfortable enough to be flexible. But at the same time, it’s so important to make sure we express ourselves in a way that asserts and affirms our humanity and our right to exist. It does us no good to perform as the meek and unthreatening minority when all it does is undermine our sense of self-worth; it’s not our lot in life to be the stewards of comfort for those with the privilege to look away from the inherent tension in our lives. Making sure we’ve taken care of our own stories, that we’re telling them in the way that helps us and people like us, allows us to connect in ways that are fundamentally important to our well-being and helps us erase the history of shame we carry with us.

That is worth so much more than the conditional approval of someone too fragile to be comfortable with diverse perspectives and the tension present in anything different. We’re worth so much more than that.

 

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