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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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(Politics) If Respect Is Mandatory, It’s Not Respect

Politics 150Earlier this week I received this response from a person named Kenny Stiles to my post on why I’m boycotting the NFL this season. Kenny thinks that the league should make all players stand for the National Anthem; not doing so is “the wrong way to protest” and a slap in the face for all military servicepeople. He also advises us to wake up, because this is the USA.

I thought about what Kenny had to say and considered my response carefully. In the end, I was inspired to write this. Thanks for encouraging my muse, dude.

Oh, say can you see,

Hello Kenny, I am a black man, aged 37. I work in tech, and I’ve been married to a wonderful man for nearly nine years. I live in California, but I was born and raised in Baltimore, MD — home of the Colts when I was a kid, and now the two-time Super Bowl Champions, the Baltimore Ravens.

By the dawn’s early light,

This is the city where Freddie Gray died in police custody. None of the six police officers responsible for his care were found guilty of the homicide that the medical examiner ruled as the cause of death. Someone killed him, but it wasn’t any of the six police officers — the only people near him when his life ended.

What so proudly we hailed,

I watched the people in this city — my city — tear it apart because they were angry, grieving, frustrated. Back when the Rams were in St. Louis, they had to deal with the same thing after Trayvon Martin. In Chicago, it was Laquan MacDonald; in New York it was Eric Garner; in Minnesota it was Philando Castile; in Cleveland, it was Tamir Rice, just 12 years old. These are just the names I remember, but there are way too many more.

At the twilight’s last gleaming?

Black folk have been trying to get something done about police brutality for years, but we only started getting attention for it a few years ago. I don’t know if it’s Twitter making it easier for folks to spread the word and get organized, or if it’s the fact that we got black boys and girls being assaulted and killed on tape, but we turned a corner on this. We’re not taking it lying down anymore.

Whose broad stripes and bright stars,

Last season, that protest came to the NFL. Colin Kaepernick started kneeling at the National Anthem during a preseason game and pissed off a ton of people. He also promised to donate a million dollars to charityso far he’s given $700,000 to 24 different places — but nobody talks about that. They talked about ratings going down, and politics not belonging in football, and how Kaep couldn’t get a job this season.

Through the perilous fight,

The owners haven’t said much about it — at least not publicly. Coaches and staff haven’t, either. But they don’t have to; we know what happens to people who don’t stand for the anthem. They get heat. They get told they should shut up and play. They don’t get listened to when they say that people who look like them are dying in the streets because the people supposed to protect us can do what they want and not get in trouble. They get cut for “being a distraction”.

O’er the ramparts we watched,

I’ve heard all kinds of criticism from different corners of the country, people saying that they just want to enjoy the game without politics ruining it. But politics ruin shit for me all the time, including right now. I love this game, and I love my team. I love this city. I even love these United States of America. But this game, this team, this city, this country — I can’t pretend any of ’em have been kind to me, showed me any love back.

Were so gallantly streaming.

It’s not just the police. It’s the way it’s harder for black men to get a job. It’s how black kids don’t get a decent education. It’s how it’s harder for black people to get paid. Or for them to get into leadership positions, even in the NFL. It’s the history of racial inequality and violence in this country in all aspects of our culture.

And the rocket’s red glare,

That history makes it so hard to break out of poverty if you don’t get famous doing something — like rapping, or playing a sport, or being a criminal. When we try to build ourselves up, the USA has a habit of knocking us back down. When we get pushed too far and start pushing back, all of a sudden we’re the ones causing the problem.

The bombs bursting in air,

No matter what we do to protest it isn’t the right way. Non-violent protests are ignored. Disruptive action like blocking traffic just makes people mad. Destroying property gets us called thugs. Taking a knee gets us fired. Going to politicians hasn’t done much for us in a minute — right now Republicans all over the country are doing their damnedest to make it harder or impossible for people of color to vote. Any time our voices are used to call out a problem or lodge dissent, people like you do anything you can to dismiss it, invalidate it, ignore it. It’s clear that this mythical ‘right way to protest’ is actually not protesting at all while bearing all kinds of injustices, just so you wouldn’t have to think about what we’re drawing attention to.

Gave proof through the night,

I want to make sure black children grow up in a country that loves them just as much as I love it, but we’re a long way from that. I want to make sure black men and women get paid fairly for the work they do, that when they see a police officer they doesn’t have to worry about getting shot or beaten. I want my country to admit that it’s been racist for a long, long time and start fixing it.

That our flag was still there.

You say it’s not patriotic to stand for the anthem. You say it’s disrespectful to all the soldiers who died defending my freedom. But isn’t it disrespectful not to say anything when we aren’t living up to the values they died for? Isn’t it disrespectful to pretend that nothing’s wrong, to act like you haven’t been making my whole life political since I was born?

Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,

This is my country, too. I’m an American same as you. And if you cared about respecting this country you would respect the struggle of my people and the history of that struggle. You wouldn’t suggest that the NFL violate the very First Amendment to the Constitution by forcing its players to stand for a country that doesn’t treat them fairly. You do know what it’s called when an organization — government or otherwise — doesn’t allow its members to dissent, don’t you?

For the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

Kenny, you need to wake up. This is the USA. The people who sacrifice their bodies and youth every Sunday so you can watch a game with your buddies deserve better than you. You who think that we should be forced to honor the state above all, especially when it doesn’t live up to its own values. You, who cares so little for the free expression that our military protects that you would dare suggest silencing an entire group of people because you don’t want to know what they care about. Our country deserves better than you.

 
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Posted by on August 23, 2017 in Politics, Pop Culture

 

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(Personal) Spit and Vinegar into Clear Water

Buddhism 150I think most Buddhists, if we’re really honest with ourselves deep down, flirt with the daydream of what we’d look like enlightened. I know personally I would love to resemble Budai, the eternally-laughing bodhisattva known for his jovial attitude, wisdom, contentment, and the fact that you can rub his belly for good luck. In my daydream, I would move through the world with a wide smile and ready laugh, meeting everyone in my travels with the same abundant good humor whether they were friend or foe. Of course, these daydreams about my enlightenment are ironically a barrier to my enlightenment. They move me away from who I am in the present — an already-enlightened being too distracted to realize it.

This daydream does something a bit more subtly damaging, too. Instead of accepting the parts of myself that are difficult to absorb I excise them to mold myself in the image of this laughing Buddha. Gone is the brief but intense flash of anger; gone too is the persistent static of anxiety and fear that thrums through my veins. Self-doubt, an easily-overwhelmed brain, impulsive and puzzling behavior — all mysteriously absent. As much as I love the idea that I would be Budai, the truth is I would not be; I would simply be myself, as imperfect as always, but mindful of my imperfections in a way that allowed me to express the Dharma in a truly unique way.

It’s important for me to remember this, especially these days. For a very long time I have built my energy around the hope that if I believed hard enough, I would unlock something within myself that loved everyone without reservation. I wanted to be the embodiment of loving-kindness, of compassion in even the most difficult circumstances. This is a not-so-secret of mine: the most beautiful thing in the world to me is a moment of small grace in a hopeless situation, those automatic gestures that speak to the spark within me, that gives me hope that for most people the basic state of humanity if collaboration and love.

One of the reasons this year has been so rough on me is that this dream of mine is dying and I have no idea what to replace it with. Reconnecting with my family and spending time briefly in Baltimore has shown me what life is like for too many people who have lived their entire lives in a hostile and unforgiving world; any sense of compassion and connection is seen as a weakness, and something even as basic as a smile is not to be trusted. Everyone has an angle, not because they’re selfish, but because it has been ingrained in generations of black Americans that there is absolutely no one who will look out for them; they’re on their own, and the more quickly that’s realized the better able they will be to get theirs and keep it.

Some brothers and sisters in the city are so desperate for connection that they’ll see any attempt to give it freely as an opportunity to tap the well dry. While it’s understandable, given their background and experience, it doesn’t make the reality of it any less unpleasant. I find myself pulling back more and more to protect myself from being drained completely, but at the same time I feel intensely selfish for doing so. I left Baltimore, and over a very long time and through painful effort eventually managed to build a decent life for myself. I have a loving husband and amazing friends. I make decent money. How could I not want to go back to the place I came from and help others to do the same thing?

It makes me feel like a bad person to not be generous. Aren’t people with compassion supposed to be? Isn’t that how you prove loving-kindness?

At the same time, I find it increasingly difficult to be compassionate and loving towards those people who have demonstrated time and again that my life, my rights, and my happiness mean less to them than preserving the status quo or taking a hard look at the inherent problems in our society. When I see someone making excuses for fascists, white nationalists, misogynists, bigots and other anti-social people I am filled with a rage that I have worked hard to manage and redirect towards positive action. But this is happening so often that I’m angry all the time; exasperated that there are so many people who are still silent and equivocating even though it’s so obvious that the current administration is filled with incompetent, criminal racists but that this is the result of decades of cultivating distrust of the government, racially-coded dog whistles, and the persistent preservation of institutionalized inequality. I used to believe that you had to be patient with everyone, for they were fighting a battle you could not see. But now we’re in a place where these people mean to do me real harm; I cannot be patient with someone who doesn’t see a problem with a world that thinks my continued existence is a threat to its survival.

So I am taking an increasingly hard stance on politics. I’m ending long friendships with people that I genuinely liked, because they voted for a man who is damaging the ideals of this country beyond repair. I can no longer tolerate people who have a problem with Colin Kaepernick but no problem whatsoever with police who brutalize and kill people of color without even a trial. I can no longer ignore that these people would rather be blind to the real fear and anger I have about my country than think about how they’ve been implicit in the progression of white supremacy and make deeply uncomfortable changes. I just don’t have it in me any more to give these people any quarter. But does that make me a bad Buddhist? Does that mean I simply can’t achieve boundless compassion for all people, for all times?

I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it does me no good to judge these feelings as bad, or keep trying to run away from them. They are who I am at this moment, and as such they are as much a part of this enlightened and distracted being as the love and equanimity I feel. I cannot sit with something that I refuse to recognize.

So I have to be honest with myself — and with all of you — about how I feel. I’m angry, all the time. I’m very scared that we will not be able to find a way out of this. Even if we impeach Trump and remove him from office, we still have a major political party that was willing to bring us to the brink of fascism to hold on to power — and that party has rigged the system through gerrymandering and voter suppression to make it easier that they keep themselves in state legislatures, governor’s mansions, and Congress. Even if we make sweeping changes to reset that, we still face the existential threat of climate change — the same issue we’ve been talking about for 50 years without meaningful progress or even complete willingness to make progress. There’s the runaway train of capitalism that replaces compassion with competition and will not stop until it is forced to crash, killing most of the people trapped on board. These problems may not be insurmountable, but they will require coordinated and sustained effort to solve. We are nowhere close to that, and we’re running out of time to get there. In this environment, it’s so easy to despair. I struggle against that every day. It takes more and more effort to try; what’s the point of succeeding in a world that seems determined to destroy itself anyway? Why bother being kind in a world where kindness is weakness to be taken advantage of? Why keep shouting into a void that wants nothing more than to render me invisible?

I don’t know. I really don’t. I’m having a tough time with this. I’m hoping that facing it will help me find a way through.

 
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Posted by on August 16, 2017 in Buddhism, mental-health, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Cracking Myself Open

Myth 150One of the earliest memories I have about my mental illness is breaking down in the middle of lunch in sixth or seventh grade. Things were not going well for me. I was a shy and awkward kid who loved reading fantasy books. I was really sensitive, so I didn’t hold up to bullying very well. And I had gotten into trouble enough that in addition to homework and everything else, I had to write a sentence “I will not…something something something.” 1000 times.

I was sitting alone, trying to think of what impossible task I should do over lunch and how I could justify putting off the others, when I just needed to put my head down. It didn’t help. Tears welled up and I let them fall. My entire body locked up. All I wanted to do was curl up tighter. Someone found me, stood me up, and asked me if I had eaten anything. Then they marched me up to the lunch line.

It felt like my entire body had fallen asleep. I didn’t have full control over the way I moved, so I just lurched around like Frankenstein’s monster. I couldn’t stop crying. There was no way I could eat, or speak, or open my mouth. When the lunch lady asked if I needed anything, all I could do was sob and shake my head and lurch back to my seat.

To this day I have no idea what to call that episode. A panic attack? A nervous breakdown? Who knows. But it happened again when my sister ran away from home, and again shortly after I dropped out of college and moved to Arkansas.

I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety for my entire life. Most of the memories I have of my childhood are unhappy ones, where something in my brain just snapped and a response rose from within me that I still don’t understand. What’s more, I can remember similar things happening to the people around me; my father’s mind going after his divorce, retreating further into himself; my mother disappearing for hours to sleep off depression; my sister’s mood swings; the strange rumors that dogged certain neighbors. When I was growing up, our understanding of mental illness was little more than being able to identify “crazy” behavior; if someone did something “crazy” once too often, then they were branded. And there wasn’t anything they could do to shake that off.

Even now, knowing what I know about my family history and the struggles that my siblings and I face, I see that for the most part that understanding hasn’t deepened much. My sister is on medication that makes her incoherent or sleepy. My brothers still do things they don’t understand. And, now that she’s reaching the end of her life, my mother is beginning to forget things and become confused.

It’s taken me a long time to come to grips with my mental illness, to accept it and learn how to incorporate it into my self-image. But there are so many black Americans and others in the diaspora who either can’t or won’t for a constellation of reasons. Most of us simply can’t afford treatment for mental health issues, and wouldn’t know where to begin even if we could. There is a stigma, even now, around therapy and medication that makes it difficult to encourage folks to seek out. There is still this narrative that those of us with mental illnesses are just “weak” or “whining” and only need to “get your mind right” to overcome them. We know so little, but we have such strong opinions.

Talking about my personal struggle with these things is still frightening to me, even though I do it so much. But it’s important that I do. Within black circles, and geek circles, and even Buddhist circles, there is so much misinformation about mental illness and what people who deal with them are like. If being open about them can help to dispel that, then that’s what I have to do. For my family, for my friends, and for my community.

If you are dealing with a mental health issue, please know that you’re not alone. There are more of us than you know, willing and able to lend a hand. If at all possible, do what you can to lessen the stigma around these issues — especially in minority groups. There is no shame at all in having a chronic mental illness, or in seeking treatment for it. There is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be the best person you can.

 

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(Review) Why Black People Don’t Time Travel

Reading 150Edana Peterson is a writer who works temporary jobs to make ends meet; during one of these jobs, she meets a white, blue-collar worker named Kevin Franklin and falls in love with him. Kevin rejects his racist family in order to marry Dana — not something that’s easy, but it was especially so back in 1976. As the newlyweds move into a small place together, Dana gets dizzy while having a conversation with her husband. The room begins to spin; her vision blurs. And suddenly, she’s in a river with a drowning child. She saves him, and in reward for her trouble she’s attacked by the boy’s mother and nearly shot by a white man wondering what she’s doing off of a plantation.

This is the first of a half-dozen incredible trips back in time and across the country for Dana, the protagonist of Octavia Butler’s seminal work Kindred. Over the course of the novel, she learns that she’s being pulled back through time to save a young man named Rufus Weylin, who turns out to be an ancestor living in slavery-era Maryland. However, Rufus’ calling her have massive and long-lasting effects on Dana and Kevin; the first-hand experience of American slavery leave deep and lasting scars on both of them that they struggle to deal with.

Kindred is essentially a fictionalized slavery narrative that does something vital — it recovers the true extent of the slave’s experience and contextualizes it for modern-day audiences. One of the greatest disservices that have been done to American history is the sanitization of this period. So many stories set during this period are “lightened” so that audiences don’t lose their stomach for the tale while still hopefully learning how difficult it was. But what that does is distance ourselves from the very thing we need to be connecting to — no matter how difficult it is, knowing exactly what happened to black Americans during slavery and who perpetrated these horrors is essential in understanding the social and psychological impact it had on the people and institutions of modern-day America.

Both Dana and Kevin see themselves as progressives of the time, but the forced confrontation of the reality of their history is still hard to take. Their experience gives them no choice but to re-examine the idea they had about slavery and the choices that people under that brutal regime had to make in order to survive. Kindred illustrates just how people could possibly come to accept the abuses they endured and why they did it; it gives shades to those “Uncle Tom” and “contented mammy” characters that were caricatured in stories like Gone With The Wind; and it restores agency to so many other people trapped in the huge social ecosystem of the Southern plantation. The slaves that Dana meets when she’s transported through time don’t belong to merely a few stereotypes; their rich inner lives shows us the vast array of responses to their enslavement and how those decisions came about.

Perhaps more than anything, Kindred makes me understand just how much black women in particular suffered under white patriarchal supremacy in the antebellum South and how much they continue to do so today. They were perceived as nothing but property by all of society, and were subject to the base desires and whims of their masters. When all of the world was arrayed against you, you had to think very carefully about how you rebelled; it wasn’t simply a matter of worrying about your own life, because you had to think about the lives of your children and family as well.

One of the most fascinating things about the novel is how the shared experience of Dana and Kevin affects their relationship. Even as they become separated across time and space, what they have to endure changes them. Kevin has to disabuse himself of several notions about the struggle of black Americans in both the slavery South and the more “enlightened” times of 1970’s Los Angeles. When he returns to his “world”, it’s clear that he can’t really absorb what happened and move forward. Combined with Dana’s trauma, the couple must struggle to build a life together as best they can. The novel ends on that difficult, unresolved, yet hopeful note.

I think that’s the ultimate lesson of Kindred; fully facing a difficult history will change you in ways that are irrevocable and possibly damaging, but ultimately necessary. We can no longer go on as a society thinking that we don’t have the scars we do. If we don’t pay attention to our collective wounds, they will continue to fester and grow infectious, poisoning the very life-blood of our society. This unwillingness to look at the legacy that was left for us by our ancestors results in the continued abuse against minorities of those in power; the persistent inability of our legal system to properly recognize how those abuses have been perpetrated, largely unbroken, to this day; and the unchecked, raw anger and resentment that so many of us black Americans feel for our brothers and sisters with different ideas, lives and stories as well as the broader society that we’re all struggling to integrate into.

Kindred teaches us that clear understanding of our history is difficult but also healing. We are not whole people; we’ve done and endured terrible things. Facing that teaches us to better grasp the decisions of others within that system, see how its consequences are still baked into our society and have more compassion and empathy for our ancestors and each other. Realizing the hell we were all in simply gives us better orientation to get ourselves out of it.

So, if you can, read Kindred. Precisely because it is difficult, and will change you.

 

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(Political) The Third Rail: Anger in Activism

Politics 150The 88th annual Academy Awards aired Sunday night, and like all good cinephiles I watched. It was a last-minute decision, though; with the eruption of protest against the Academy’s decidedly monolithic nominations (all 20 acting nominations were white, and there were depressingly few POC, female and other minorities nominated in the other major categories), I had to struggle with the question of whether or not to continue supporting (in my relatively meaningless way) an organization that still put up barriers to anyone who wasn’t white or male. In the end, I decided to watch but make it a point to watch and promote movies produced, written, directed by and starring people of color in the coming year. That particular moral dilemma resolved, I sat down with a bunch of friends to see Leonardo DiCaprio finally get his Oscar and Sylvester Stallone get passed over for Mark Rylance. Uhm, better luck next time, Sly?

It was a pretty good ceremony, I must say. Host Chris Rock did a good job (mostly), though a few of his jokes didn’t land. Still, a few missteps in a four-hour telecast isn’t bad. While checking Twitter Sunday night, though, I noticed something that was capturing the attention of my sphere of activists beyond what was happening on TV — the #NotYourMule response to other people of color calling out Rock for not speaking up more on behalf of non-black minorities.

On one hand, I get it. Rock had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the lack of diversity plaguing even the liberal bastion of Hollywood, and he used it to highlight the reality of black artists and creatives trying to make it in that town. He spoke on behalf of the community he was a part of, and I thought he did it well. But those jokes against Asian-Americans that were not cool, and us black folk aren’t the only ones suffering under the non-inclusive status quo set by studio heads, producers and power players. It would have been nice to use the platform to remind everyone involved — black and white — that Asians, Latinos, native Americans and others are also desperately in need of more representation in the stories we tell.

On the other hand…the protest against Rock came across to a lot of us as tearing down an activist at a time so many of us were invested in him. On a night the black community wanted to celebrate a major milestone for AA activism, we had to field attacks from our flanks about why Rock hadn’t pushed them too. It feels like there’s an expectation for the AA community to do all the work, push for equality, and have other groups walk through the door that they spent so much time breaking down.

I KNOW that’s not the case. Asian, Native American, Latino and transgender activists have done amazing work over the past few years increasing the visibility of issues specific to their communities. We’re all working hard in the progressive space to make sure inequality and injustice is dealt with and taken out of the structure of our society. And in so many cases, when these issues are brought to my attention, I highlight them as best I can (even if that means a simple retweet or repost on Tumblr). It’s definitely not much, but I’m still figuring myself out — I don’t do enough even for the causes I’m personally invested in.

There are so many fights on so many fronts, because white patriarchal supremacy affects all of us in a kaleidoscope of different ways. With the resistance that each of our groups face against simply being recognized, most days it’s all we can do to fight the fight that directly affects us. The problems we face, personally and on a social level, leaves us angry, frightened and tired. I see it all across Twitter — people are fatigued, y’all. How many times do we have to explain the institutional nature of racism or debunk the same tired counter-arguments again and again before we can move on to fixing the problem? When will it ever feel like we’re making progress?

That anger, that frustration, that fear causes so many of us to lash out against the folks we ought to be aligning with. In spaces like Twitter, where communication is limited to little more than sound bites, we construe the worst possible meaning from a careless or incomplete thought and attack immediately. We spend our time fighting each other instead of listening to and ironing out our grievances so we can get back to the work at hand — building a better, just world for everyone.

It breaks my heart to see the fallout from the Oscars and #NotYourMule take our eye off the ball. The #OscarsSoWhite movement has the potential to affect real change in the entertainment industry, with the Academy putting a concerted effort together to invite more under-represented communities. We need to use this momentum to continue the conversation, to show how great a multi-racial Hollywood could be, to unite and amplify our voices for effective change.

But instead we’re fighting amongst ourselves, taking out the frustrations we’ve harbored over long and endless years of activism on each other. It’s not a good look. Our anger shouldn’t be directed at other people who are just as underserved, just as tired, just as frustrated as we are. It should be put to work helping our fellow minorities, teaching them how to use their voices to shout for the causes they believe in. We don’t have to do the work for them — we shouldn’t — but we can help them in their own work.

We have to find better ways to relate to our brothers and sisters in this struggle. We’re all hustling out there, and since we’re just fallible human beings there are going to be blind spots. There are going to be times when even the best of us (I’m looking at you, Meryl) get it wrong. There are going to be times where we disagree, and it’s important for each and every one of us to start paying attention to how we handle those situations. Do we use them as moments to correct and connect, or does our anger run away from us to push these people away?

I have a quick temper, and I’ve had to work very hard to change my relationship with anger. It’s still a work in progress — but I truly believe that anger is simply an emotion, neither good or bad, and what matters is what we do with it. Anger can be used as motivation to push us into action; it can be used as steel to strengthen our resolve and remind us of the injustice we’re fighting to change when we get weary. It can give us the courage to stand up firmly for what we believe in. But it can also be used as grape-shot to bloody friends and foes alike, and its indiscriminate use hurts the people we should be trying to help.

So to my non-black people of color, to my family of various sexual orientations and gender expressions, to the strong and amazing women out there; I see you. I know it’s hard out there. I want you to know that I understand your frustrations, and I want to help. Let me know what you’re doing to push against injustice and get an equal shot in our society and I’ll do what I can to spread the word. If you’re working, I want to know. And I want to stand with you. I’m not your mule, but I am your friend. Let’s roll up our sleeves together.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2016 in Politics, Pop Culture, Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Imani (Faith)

Myth 150Happy New Year, everyone! Aren’t you glad that words typed on a scream can’t shout? I sincerely hope that this first day of a brand new year is a great one, and that you are able to spend it doing exactly what you want to be doing — whether that’s recovering from last night’s festivities, getting a jump-start on your New Year’s Resolutions, or anything in between.

This last day of Kwanzaa is the first day of 2016, and it is meant to be spent in quiet reflection and meditation. We are supposed to ask the three questions of Kawaida, what we tackled when we spoke about Kujichagulia. Who am I? Am I really what I say I am? Am I all that I ought to be?

Imani, or Faith, is not necessarily a religious faith — it is a belief with all our hearts in ourselves, our people, our parents, teachers and ancestors, our communities and the righteousness and eventual victory of our struggle. It is the belief that despite our flaws and mistakes, that we can achieve greatness in ourselves and our communities; that the problems we face aren’t impossible to overcome; that by applying the Seven Principles to our lives every day will see us through.

One of the dangers of being an idealist is burning out on hope. When I look at the shape of the world today, it’s really easy to do. We’ve known about the dangers of greenhouse gasses since the 1960s and scientists have been sounding alarms about the effects of climate change since the 1980s, but we still have to go around in circles about whether or not it’s a real thing and the worth of adopting more environmentally-friendly policies that reduce our reliance on fossil fuels — a non-renewable resource that will likely run out within our lifetimes. We must still remind people what happens when fear creeps its way into the core of our politics and way of life; how it makes us ugly, intolerant, even insane as a society. We must engage with illogical mental and philosophical gymnastics just to prove that the way racial, religious and other minorities are treated in this country is not OK — and in fact runs counter to the tenets of Christianity and our Constitution. We are still debating issues that have the potential to tear our civilization apart, pushing us past the time for immediate action.

When I think about where we are as a society and the progress we’re likely to make within the next generation, it’s easy for me to despair. I don’t think we’ll be able to get our act together in time; I think even if things can get better, they’re far more likely to get worse. I feel that my purpose, to connect people and promote and practice compassion, is simply putting a finger in a dyke that is failing. There are so many problems in the world, and so little being done about them. It feels hopeless.

Imani is our bulwark against that fatalism. It starts with ourselves, believing that we can change our thoughts and behavior to become the best version of who we are. We can take that progress to our communities, our fellow human beings, and band together to make our societies the best version of what they are. Our community can then rise up and be a beacon of light, or progress and greatness, that others can use as encouragement to continue the work that they’re doing. Eventually, somehow, the world becomes a better place — a kinder, more compassionate place; a just and equitable place; a sustainable, respectful, responsible place. But not until each and every one of us takes on the work to become kinder, compassionate, just, equitable, respectful and responsible people.

This is why we must ask ourselves who we are, whether or not we really are who we say we are, and whether we’re living up to the fullness of our potential. Because the immense problems facing us won’t be solved until we start working on us.

I may not have faith in the world, but I have faith in myself and my values. That will have to be enough for now; as I bring my progress to my community, I will see the strides taken by everyone around me; I will see how our self-improvement contributes to the improvement of my people; and I will see how the improvement of my people makes the world at large a better place. Think globally; act locally.

I have spent several days contemplating these Seven Principles and how they apply to my situation. Now, as I face a new year, it is time to put those principles to action. Today, I will contemplate how to start that process, how to continue it, how to encourage it in everyone I see.

Happy Kwanzaa, everyone. Happy New Year. Let’s work together to make 2016 a great one.

 

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