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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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Kwanzaa 2015: Kuumba (Creativity)

Myth 1502015 has been an amazing year for me in a lot of different ways, but one of my absolute favorites is learning about the wonderful people who are putting themselves out there with their stories. This year I got to meet Nora Jemisin (author of “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms”) at Writers With Drinks in San Francisco; I saw “Danger Word”, a short film put together by Tananarive Due at WorldCon — and I got to speak with her for a long time about black horror, writing and storytelling; I learned about Afro-Futurism and its history from Ajani Brown at WorldCon as well; I was introduced to Mark Oshiro, Arthur Chu, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Troy Wiggins, K. Tempest Bradford, Daniel Jose Older, Ta-Nehisi Coates, G. Willow Wilson and so many others who are shaping the discourse of what it means to be a minority in the science-fiction and fantasy space. There is a community of people out there working hard to show the world the power of a distinctive voice. It really has been amazing to discover this; it’s instituted a shift in my thinking about what I can do with my own writing, what I should be doing.

The principle we focus on today, the sixth day of Kwanzaa, is Kuumba or Creativity. I took this to mean that today we celebrate the different perspectives we have in viewing the world and how that translates to our stories, which I can totally get behind. Telling stories to make sense of our environment is one of the oldest and best things we do as humans, and I don’t think that its given the proper appreciation.

However, in researching up a bit on the theme for today, Kuumba can also mean “continuous improvement”. It’s not enough to just “get by”, or to “do all right”. We must keep striving for the ideals we set for ourselves — there’s always a purer, uncomplicated expression of it that we can aim for. Kuumba is having the insight to see the many different facets of Nia; to see the shapes and sides it can inhabit. How can we stretch our purpose even further to be better people, to encourage our communities to be better?

Ryan and I watched the final few episodes of “How I Met Your Mother” yesterday, and there was an exchange that blew me away. One of the characters is having a crisis about what to do in life, and someone asks her what she wants her life to be about. She says, “I want to end poverty,” and her friend says “Well, every choice you make in life should be in service to that.” It’s such a simple idea, so powerful, but so incredibly difficult.

Applied to myself, I have to think about how every decision I make serves my purpose — to connect people to each other, to make them feel more comfortable with their world, to be OK with the fact that change is constant and they can weather it. How do my stories serve that purpose? How do my blog entries? How can I creatively refine my actions to make sure they achieve that?

My favorite protagonists in stories are the paladins — not the people who sit on a mountain and reflect upon some ideal without having to make the attempt to engage it in the real world, but the people who come down off that mountain, who struggle to be the living embodiment of those ideals, who have to find ways to uphold it in the complicated and messy struggle of life. I believe that being an idealist means becoming intimately connected with failure. We’re imperfect creatures moving through an imperfect world, giving ourselves over to a perfect idea that we’ll never attain. But the struggle to achieve it means that we accomplish amazing things in the meantime.

Creativity is about so much more than telling stories, but that’s one of my favorite expressions of it. It requires creativity to make it through life, simply to improve yourself when there are restrictions and road-blocks in front of you. Creativity is one of the best expressions of intelligence, making connections that aren’t readily apparent, improving our understanding of life by viewing it from a radically different perspective. Creativity is a requirement for empathy; you can’t put yourself in someone else’s shoes without it.

It allows us to take ancient lessons and apply them to modern, more complicated times. It allows us to replace the lessons that don’t work anymore because our understanding of the world has changed so much. It allows us to accept the tragedies in life with the hope that we can move past them and become better people. It makes us better thinkers, more compassionate people, more connected and sensitive to what’s around us.

Over the next year, I will try to strengthen my creativity — I will do my best to find creative ways to deal with the challenges in front of me, and to deal with people I might find challenging as well. I want to live and breathe the stories I create, and the stories I take in. I will use my creativity to sharpen my purpose, to make my actions precise and efficient, to trim the fat in my life. I will use my creativity to make myself lean, powerful and focused.

I would just like to thank all of you for reading these essays this week; your response has been amazing and much appreciated. I was very nervous about tackling this — Kwanzaa does not have the best reputation among the people who know about it at all, and while I really wanted to make this holiday my own I was also sensitive of the history it comes with and the possibility that I wouldn’t understand or explain the principles well at all. This has been a wonderful learning process, and I’m so glad we got to go through it together.

Have a joyous Kwanzaa today, folks, and a wonderful New Year. I’ll check in with all of you tomorrow — probably after I’ve recovered from my hangover!

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Nia (Purpose)

Myth 150Why are we here? The answer to that question depends on who you are and what you believe. Many people believe that we’re here to reflect the glory of God and praise His creation; there are a lot of different ways to do that, but if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life that’s a good thing. Others believe that there isn’t a purpose to life; we’re here to survive long enough to pass on our genes, make the human race stronger in the next generation, and that’s it. Again — if it leads you to a more positive and compassionate life, more power to you.

Personally, I believe there’s no inherent purpose to life, no grand design. But far from being a depressing realization, I find it’s actually liberating and exciting. Because that means we get to make our own, tailor-made to our temperament and experience. We can decide how we will spend our lives, what we want to leave behind as our legacy, and what we’ll be remembered for. The objective purpose of life is to find our own purpose, and once having done that, work towards it to the best of our ability.

The principle we’re focusing on today, the fifth day of Kwanzaa, is Nia or Purpose. According to Dr. Maulana Karenga, this means “to make our collective vocation the building and developing of our community in order to restore our people to their traditional greatness.” That’s a concept I can get behind, actually — how awesome would it be to lift African civilization and the African diaspora to great renown? How great would it be for our culture to be known the world over as the most advanced, responsible and utopian in human history? The more I think about it, the more I would love to see more stories featuring Black Panther’s Wakanda — an Afrocentric culture that has dedicated itself to achieving as much as possible.

We don’t have many stories like that, in fiction or in real life. Positive steps towards uplifting our communities aren’t reported very often; peaceful protests, community clean-up initiatives, organized benefits don’t get the same kind of air time that disruptive things do. In America, stories featuring black people far too often revolve around death and poverty. In Africa, all we know of the continent is sickness, war, famine and death. We think of it as the continent of the Four Horsemen, a hellish landscape where there is never enough to eat and mortality is a daily fact of life.

Chimamana Ngozi Adichie tells us about the danger of a single story here. She writes about an Africa most people in the West never see, and encourages us to think about the people and the continent in a more holistic way. Yes, there are warlords and corruption, famine and sickness, but there are also people who are doing everything they can to make their world better. There are thinkers and creative people; friendly, hard-working dreamers; people who are proud of their community, tribe, country and continent. Africa is an immense place. It is diverse, wonderful, and so much more than most of us know.

The purpose I’ve found in life is to encourage people to become more connected with the world around them, more accepting of their fellow human beings, more comfortable with change and differences. What I want more than anything is to initiate and continue dialogues that allow us to know each other better, foster empathy that lets us step outside of our own experience to genuinely see things from another perspective. I want to understand you. And I want you to understand people like me. Humanity is a social species, and we are at our best when we come together for a common purpose.

So much about the black experience — and the human experience — is about alienation and disenfranchisement. The most dangerous thing I see about our future is giving ourselves over to apathy and disconnection, this idea that “as long as I’ve got mine, that’s all that matters.” We do not exist alone. We exist inextricably connected to an immense and complicated framework of socio-political, environmental and interpersonal factors. We are affected by the actions of our fellow man. Everything we do affects someone else.

A lot of us who have grown up being bullied or ostracized internalize the idea that we don’t matter. We grow up really believing we’re alone, and that it’s entirely possible no one would miss us if we disappeared. We think that the consequences of our actions, such as they are, are ours alone and no one else has to worry about them. We feel so powerless and small, and can’t possibly understand how each and every one of us has the power to shape our world — and the responsibility to use that power wisely.

My purpose is to use that power to the most positive end I can manage. I’m still learning the full shape and force of it, and I’m still learning the limits of it. I still need to learn how to use it responsibly. But that’s the thrust of my existence; I have my entire life to learn this. And I’m genuinely excited to do that.

What’s your purpose? How are you fulfilling it? What are you doing to contribute to the restoration of greatness for the human race? This isn’t a judgement question: I really want to know. What do you think about your purpose?

Have a solid Kwanzaa, everyone. I’ve been sick for the past few days, but developing a writing habit in the mornings has been something I very much look forward to. I’ll check in with all of you tomorrow.

 
 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility)

Myth 150The principle we focus on today, this third day of Kwanzaa, is Ujima. It’s a word that points to the idea of collective work and responsibility, which is a concept that I feel is missing from so many of our communities. One of the things that binds a society together is this very ideal, that the problems of one of us are the problems of all of us. If just one of our number is struggling to feed themselves, we are all impoverished. If one of our children is having a difficult time in school, we’re all concerned with educating him. If one of our people is misunderstood, rejected, alone, then it’s a failing of our community. Ujima, to me, means that we are our brother’s keeper. His happiness is ours, his sorrows are ours. No one is alone; we’re all in this together.

I think this principle is a little different for me because I’ve been on the outskirts of the black community pretty much all my life. I’ve never felt a sense of kinship with my family or my neighbors growing up, and even now, as I’m making the first tentative steps back towards the community, I feel hesitant about it. I am very different. What if those differences are too great and I find myself pushed to the outside again? One of our blind spots is the treatment of those who have a different sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender roles tend to be rigidly defined in our black communities, and transgressions of those roles are not looked upon favorably.

Personally, I struggle with the idea of being my brother’s keeper when that brother has distanced himself from me because of who I love. I find it hard to be a part of a community that spends so much energy ostracizing people like me who don’t “act like a man,” or who still uses “faggot” and “gay” as one of the worst verbal attacks you can make on a guy. How do I take responsibility for the problems of my fellow man when I *am* their problem? How do I embody the concept of Ujima?

Like so many things in life, all we can do is the best we can do. Even though I may be on the fringes of my community — even though I may never be fully accepted — I’m still invested in the problems and issues that face it. I still want to see my fellow black Americans live in a country where they are treated equally, where the institutions of our government and society is working to remove the discriminations that were baked into their foundations, where economic and intellectual poverty is not a default and the full expanse of the American dream is available to us. I want what’s best for my people; if that feeling is not returned, I have no control over that.

This year I’ve learned so much more about the myriad problems facing the black community. Our children tend to be disciplined more frequently and more harshly in our schools; we’re taught from a very young age that the authority structure will come down harder on us than it will for other kids. Our women frequently don’t have a place at any table but their own when it comes to issues of equal pay, sexual liberation and safety, the respect of their colleagues and inclusion in art and entertainment. Our men face the actions of a society that fears and hates them; we’re less likely to get good jobs, more likely to be arrested, brutalized and killed by the police, only see ourselves on TV as criminals, toughs or stereotypical smoothies. There are issues we face in just about every aspect of American society, and even if those issues don’t directly affect me it’s my responsibility to help solve them.

The concept of Ujima can be taken outside of that context, too. In the broader geek space that I inhabit, it’s difficult for us to band together to take care of problems that affect our spaces. So many fandoms have become toxic in-groups that violently reject anything that threatens the mono-culture people insist on maintaining. Women in gaming, sci-fi/fantasy entertainment, costuming and so many other areas have to face down so much bile just for trying to enjoy the same things we do, or demanding the same respect given to others. It’s a serious problem, and as fellow geeks Ujima calls on us to make it ours and fix it already.

Our communities will not cohere unless we learn to have empathy for our own. I talked about how self-determination may lead us to a greater understanding of ourselves yesterday, but we must also understand how that carves out different paths for the people in our community. Not everyone in our group will like the same things, or like the same thing for the same reasons. We have to strive to understand and respect that, to acknowledge the challenges our brothers and sisters face, to reach out and help them overcome them when we can.

But how do we do that? I’m still figuring that part out, to be honest. I feel I’ve taken the first step just by being educated on the work to be done and shouldering some of the responsibility for it. Where do I go from here? Do I become more socially active? Do I join groups that have organized to advance solutions to these problems? Which problems do we focus on first? That requires a lot more thinking, and I’ll do my best to come up with *something* to answer those questions.

For now, I’m in this with all of you. There’s work to do. Let’s pitch in to get it done, yeah? Have a joyous and wonderful Kwanzaa today, and I’ll check in with you all tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 28, 2015 in Self-Reflection

 

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Kwanzaa 2015: Kujichagulia (Self-Determination)

Myth 150I am a gay black man. I am a Zen Buddhist. (Thank you, Kevin.) I am agnostic — I don’t know if there is a God, but I don’t believe that being a good person should be dependent on that. I am a writer, gamer, geek, lover of animals, myths, and the intersection between them. I’m a morning person. I drink coffee. I believe that in order to be at my best I must be stripped down and simplified to my essence. That requires the very difficult work of scrubbing away decades of gunk that has been built to protect me from the hardships of life. (I’m stripping a cast-iron skillet over the holiday, so maybe my metaphors are going to be reflecting that today.)

I didn’t always believe this, of course. When I was a child — well, I was still called gay, and a nerd, but the connotations were negative. As I grew up, I was called a pussy, a weirdo, an Oreo — black on the outside, but white on the inside. As a defense mechanism, I took all the terrible things people said about me and turned them into positives:

“Yeah, I’m a pussy — but that means I don’t get my ass kicked on the regular or have to worry about being shot.”

“I’m a weirdo, sure, but that means I get to think about stuff that you never will.”

“Oreos are fucking delicious, and everyone wants to have them nearby. I’m crunchy AND I’m sweet, you jackass.”

These days, I don’t even engage. Of course I care about what people think about me, but at the end of the day I know who I am and what I stand for. I’ve put in the time and the work to strip myself bare, see what lies beneath my face and put myself back together to try and be the best reflection of that. It’s an ongoing process, and I will never be finished with it — that’s life, that’s self-improvement. But it is one of the most important and worthwhile things you will ever do.

The principle we focus on today, the second day of Kwanzaa, is Kujichagulia — self-determination. I love this concept; the Swahili word is so much fun to say, but it’s also one of those things that tends to work in a spiral. There are always new ways to name and define yourself, and because you’re a living being who exists in a complex and ever-evolving society, the relationship between who you are, who you want to be, and how that relates to other people demands that you constantly check yourself. But first, let’s start with the basics.

Self-determination, at its most simple, is answering these three questions:

Who am I? No really, who am I? It’s a simple question that is almost impossible to answer. You must seek and understand the core of yourself in order to do that…but is there a core there? Are we actually the tension that exists between the various aspects that make up who we are? Am I only myself because I am gay, black, Zen, geek, etc.? Am I only a series of definitions, a collection of names I have given myself? Or am I something beyond and beneath that, some unnamable, unknowable kernel? If I can’t name it or know it, how can I define it or ensure its existence? What do I think about all of this? Who is the one that is doing the thinking?

Am I really who I say I am? Determining who you are is a process that I don’t think you may ever get to the bottom of. You do the best you can with the information you can, and then you try to confirm it. I think this question forces you to take a look at your actions; if you really are who you say you are, then you would behave in ways consistent with that, correct? What are your beliefs, and how do your actions reflect them?

It can be a bit of a gut check to realize that you behave in ways that are inconsistent with what you believe. But it’s also necessary to face that down and make the changes you need to in order to re-align yourself. For example, if I look within myself and find that I’m not actually following the Noble Eightfold Path, then it’s on me to figure out what that means and how I can work my way back there. This may mean painful changes, or stepping outside of a comfort zone, but knowing yourself and being yourself is more important. This is a sacrifice that must be made for the right to self-determination.

Am I all that I ought to be? So we’ve worked out who we believe we are and determined that how we act accurately reflects that. But is that enough? Of course not. We could always strive to be something more, something better — to embody our beliefs more closely and carefully. Could I be more than who I am? What do I need to do in order to get there? Self-determination is more than knowing who you are — it’s knowing where you are going and what it takes to get there.

It is vital to know ourselves, especially as black people. My ancestors came from western and southern Africa. Somehow, they were put on ships by men who took their destinies from them and replaced them with the Middle Passage. When they arrived, they were stripped of their clothing, their cultures, their families and their very names. They were given other names, other religions, other jobs and relationships. Even after they were freed, they were told that they were lesser than their fellow Americans, forced to confine themselves to the poorest neighborhoods and work the worst jobs. This is a process that continues down to this day.

In our media we are given a narrative, a single story. Our men are called thugs and criminals; even the “good guys” are tough and physical. Our women are crazy, loud, outspoken but unintelligible; they speak almost entirely in slang and are predominantly concerned about hair, makeup, clothes and men. Our children are told they don’t have the intelligence to make it in American society, that the best they can hope for is to be athletes, drug dealers, or prisoners. Our communities are impoverished and intellectually stagnant, but the fight for better is called “disruptive,” “obnoxious,” and “unnecessary.”

We must reject that story, and find our own. Black men are smart, courageous, confused, scared and just as soft as anyone else. Black women are incredible; tough, intelligent, beautiful, complicated. Our children are precious, each a kaleidoscope of possibilities — they could be astronauts, scientists, businesspeople, politicians, artists and activists. We joined American society being told who we were and what we were, but there is no reason that needs to continue. We are who we are, and only we know what that is.

As individuals and as a culture, we must define ourselves to be active participants in our own destinies. We must fight the pressure to be defined or named by other people; we accept or reject terms based on our own principles. That is Kujichagulia. That is life.

Have a wonderful Kwanzaa today, everyone. Know yourselves. I’ll check in with you tomorrow!

 

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The Rachel Dolezal Moment

Politics 150Last week the parents of Rachel Dolezal announced to the media that her daughter was white. This normally wouldn’t be news; there’s nothing special about a white couple having a white child. But Rachel had been passing as a black woman for years — through her collegiate education at Howard University, through a career of social activism centered around issues facing the black community, through her tenure as the head of the regional NAACP. Rachel was a professor of Africana studies at Eastern Washington University, worked with the city government of Spokane to ensure fair treatment of minorities by the police, and passionately spoke about black history, culture and issues.

But Rachel also straight-up lied about her background. She denied her parents, instead telling the university newspaper that her mother was a back-to-the-land hippie who gave birth to her in a tee-pee. She lived in South Africa for a time, where she was abused by her mother and stepfather with “baboon whips” “similar to the ones slaves were beaten with”. She submitted reports of racial discrimination and hate crimes to the police a number of times, claimed that she had been threatened by members of the Aryan Nation and received suspicious packages at the NAACP headquarters. So many of those claims have been disproven that it calls into question just about everything she’s ever said.

This story absolutely fascinates me. Rachel has managed to fool so many people for so long, rising to a position of prominence in the black activism community. Now that she’s been outed, the Internet has wasted no time in making her a laughingstock. And you know what, fair enough. Anyone who lies about being beaten by baboon whips in South Africa deserves to be clowned a little bit. But at the same time, Rachel lied about her background to…what, exactly? Put herself deep in the trenches for a fight that didn’t really need to touch her at all?

Why would a woman from an apparently comfortably-situated family forsake them to identify with a community that has a history of systemic oppression backed into its story? It couldn’t have been just to have a prominent position within that community, could it? The NAACP doesn’t bar white people from joining its ranks, or even holding leadership positions. So why go through this whole charade?

It’s too easy to dismiss her as crazy or attention-seeking. It’s also not compassionate. This is a woman who adopted a story of discrimination and suffering for herself — and while that ultimately diminishes the true stories that we live every day, I don’t think it was done with selfish or malicious intentions.

Let me be clear here: what Rachel Dolezal did was wrong. What’s worse, it hurt the cause she’s been working so hard to advance. Instead of talking about what happened in McKinney, Texas or the continuing stories of police brutality and murder in Ohio, Utah, Maryland, Missouri and so many other places, we’re talking about her. For God’s sake, we now have to explain to why “trans-racial” is not a thing and should never be a thing.

But when I think about Rachel, I find I just can’t be angry with her. While a lot of the clowning she’s gotten through Twitter is hilarious, I can’t join in. I feel nothing but compassion for her. She wanted so badly to belong to a world she wasn’t a part of she left behind a life of privilege and comfort to construct a crucible for her to be tempered by. And she didn’t do this to get a book deal or become famous; she did it to allow her passion for black rights a channel to be used.

One thing I have to say about us minority populations; we’re fiercely protective of our culture and history. The suffering of our ancestors is a birthright that we carry with us — the burden of it either breaks our backs or makes us strong enough to deal with the stuff that gets thrown at us today. It’s a complicated thing; it makes us sad and angry, suspicious about the dominant culture we must navigate every day. But it can also serve as the glue that holds our culture together, gives us a shared history that helps us understand the space we occupy in America today.

That attitude — the hyper-protectiveness of the space we’ve made for ourselves, and the suspicions of outsiders encroaching on that space — might make it daunting for allies who want to help. We can be tremendously insular, especially in our activist spaces, and I imagine it would be really easy for someone to feel marginalized even though they’re coming to us with the best of intentions.

Well, so what, right? We’re marginalized within just about every space we have to move in, and we don’t get a choice to retreat in most cases. It shouldn’t be our job to make someone else comfortable in our safe spaces.

But I think this is what happens when we take on that attitude. We get people who feel like the only way they can have a seat at the table is to fake their way to it. Imagine what a Rachel Dolezal could do if she didn’t have to build a fauxtobiography to build up her street cred? What could she have done if she actually had a healthy self-image and came correct to the black activism community?

We won’t know, and what’s worse is it’s quite possible we’ve lost a passionate ally. Of course, Rachel’s relationship with activism is going to need to be put on hold while she deals with herself for a little bit. But what lesson is she going to learn here? That she doesn’t need to lie to us to help us out? Or that her fear of rejection wasn’t entirely misplaced?

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer here. But I do think there’s a compassionate one, and that’s important to keep in mind. Rachel has a difficult road ahead of her, and the friends and allies she’s made through her activism, and the millions of eyes on her now, could either make that a bit easier or a lot harder. Why wouldn’t we lighten the load for someone if we had it within our power to do so?

What do we want to happen to Rachel Dolezal? What kind of life do we want for her five years from now? When the jokes die down and the news cycle moves on and she’s left to sift through the wreckage of her life, do we want her to discard what hasn’t worked for her and keep what will help her to continue the good fight with us? Or do we want her to forever live with that shame, unable to do something positive with it?

I think it’s vital we remember that Rachel Dolezal is a person underneath the caricature she’s made herself out to be. And our reaction to her carries so much power. Now is an opportunity to teach someone how to interact with us, how an ally can work peaceably and effectively with us, how we can move past mistakes together.

Our response to problematic interactions with our community can’t be a “one size fits all” outrage. Rachel has built her life around trying to be a friend to the black community, and while it was horribly misguided the attempt counts for something with me. We need to learn how to correct our friends without alienating them. We need to think about the effect our words have on friend and foe alike, and whether it’s what we want. And Rachel is a perfect chance to do that.

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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