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(Politics) For The Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 

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(Personal) Tharn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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(Politics) Your Light is All You Have

Politics 150The world is on fire and nothing is okay. At a time when climate change is chugging along exactly as scientists said it would, when we’re running out of fresh water and the crude, polluting oil we’ve built our entire society around, the world is caught up in a wave of xenophobia, authoritarianism and weaponized resentment. Instead of looking at our planet and wondering how we can live on it more sustainably, or looking at each other and rolling up our sleeves to figure out how we can take better care of each other, we’re rolling back protections for the last bits of unspoiled land and taking increasingly drastic measures to make sure no one else can ever take what we have. The Internet — a platform that could lead us to come together as one people and stand up for each other — is a hornet’s nest of outrage-memes, rhetorical back-alley brawls, tribal cheering and jeering. It is getting increasingly hard to look anywhere without cringing at the sight of what it’s become.

The current frame of the unending debate between Right and Left in the United States is “civility”. A few representatives of the Trump administration have been challenged in public, or refused service in restaurants, and now conservative pundits (aided by the media) are wondering what happened to our civil discourse. These are the same people who assassinate the characters of unarmed black people who’ve been killed by the police; who have targeted Democratic leadership with misogynist and racist rhetoric for a generation; who have tacitly or directly approved the coarsening of our political discourse by courting racists, “men’s rights” activists, Tea Partiers, Christian supremacists, and all manner of people who have refused to offer almost anyone the basics of respect and decency. When they went low, we went high — and lost 33 Governor’s mansions, 31 state legislatures, the House of Representatives, the US Senate, the Supreme Court, the White House.

Republicans have taken control of the American government on just about every conceivable level by being shameless and unrepentant about taking power and fixing the system — through gerrymandering, voting restrictions, blatant lying, and the consistent corrosion of the people’s faith in our institutions. Their grip on American politics is anything but civil, and it rightly makes those of us on the Left angry when, after a decade of increasingly-blatant racist backlash against our first Black American President, they’re suddenly worried about the tone of protest in the air.

As angry as I am, as disgusted as I am at their blatant hypocrisy and social manipulation, I have to admit that I’m worried too. As I watch the feeds of my friends, fellow activists, and fellow minorities, I see the tone subtly but steadily changing. Words like “fear” and “hate” are becoming more prominent. Where before we were angry at the abuses of the administration and the feeble justifications for them by complicit parties, now it feels we’re just angry. At everything. And in a time where the news is nothing but the well-catalogued descent of democracy peppered with perspectives of the people who voted for this to happen and finger-wagging about how we need to understand them better, I understand that. The idea that we were building a just and equal society — or that we’re even capable of it — feels faint and fragile and hopelessly naive now. The belief that we could overcome our problems if we just worked harder and smarter feels ignorant and dumb. For so many of us, these past two years has been the dissolving of a dream we were glad to be a part of; getting woke is a nightmare.

What’s left but anger when you realize how firmly entrenched, how deeply rooted and mutable, the connection to white privilege is in American life? How can you not be angry when you watch people you know quibble about whether or not to compare Trumpists to Nazis when refugee families are being torn apart and children put in cages? How can you still believe in America when the institutions we’ve built over hundreds of years have been powerless to stop the unchecked stripping of rights and protections for our most vulnerable citizens? Wouldn’t you be furious too if you realized your country had been lying to you for your entire life about what it stood for?

I can’t read the news, not because the suffering of other people makes me uncomfortable, but because I can barely tolerate the heat of the anger I feel. I felt myself flaming out through most of last year, and I’ve tried hard to pull back from letting that rage consume me completely. And I see so many of us losing that battle, letting the light of our kindness and empathy grow red and smoking with the fury of watching an unjust world kill people because they were different, or powerless. We’re afraid of what America is turning into, and angry about what it’s been for far too long, and the space we have for anything besides that fear and fury is dwindling. I get it. I feel it too. But if I let it happen, if I give myself over to it, then the fear and the fury consumes everything I am. There will be nothing left. And that’s just as good to the parties that want me (and people like me) gone as them eliminating me themselves.

The light that gives me the ability to be angry about these things is the same light that can be extinguished by that anger. Anger chokes our ability to be kind, open, and self-aware; fear freezes our perspective. In order to build the kind of society we want, we must be able to imagine it — and that requires seeing past our fear and fury and frustration. We have to imagine the kind of people we would need to be in order for that society to work. We have to work on ourselves in order to become those people. I think that means being aware of our anger and fear, accepting these emotions as just another part of ourselves, of working with them in healthy and helpful ways.

People might think that’s a whole different kind of work from social justice, but it’s not. It means fixing ourselves as much as fixing the world around us, because anything that’s not right within us will not be right with the world. If we want to live in a world where we’ve dealt with our worst impulses, we’re going to have to deal with our worst impulses. The things we do based on anger and fear are often just those things. If we find those emotions guiding our actions with fewer checks from other influences, we have to stop and consider if that’s what we want.

I am not saying that it’s wrong to be angry, or that we shouldn’t be afraid. Those are both completely normal reactions to what’s happening right now. But we do have to think about where anger and fear leads us, what kind of people we are when we’re nothing but anger and fear. We have to think about how we get from here to some place better, and how we’re going to light the way. If we’ve been immolated by our rage, all that’s left is smoke and ash. We still need our values to guide us. We really do.

I’ve been trying very hard to think about what I’m fighting for — not just the things I’m confronted with and fighting against. What do I want? What do I believe? Why do I believe my values are the right ones? And does the form of my protest align with the answers I come up with?

I want to be civil not because I give a shit what those hypocrites think, but because civility is something I value. I want to believe that my principles can be tested against the crucible of reality, and that they’re strong enough to endure. I want to be the kind of person that still believes we can overcome these problems if we work harder and smarter, if we’re clear about the sacrifices that need to be made and the compromises we cannot allow. I know that the United States isn’t the land of the free or the home of the brave — that’s a lie we’ve been sold to allow the cowardly and the greedy to do what they want. But I also know that it can be, and that if it’s going to be each and every one of us must be free from our anger and fear.

Reminding ourselves and our brothers and sisters to be positive, to hold fast to the values we hold dear, is a necessary component of our protest. So please, think about what the world could be like, and think about what you can do to get us a little bit closer to that, and do it. Lift up your allies as much as you tear down the institutions that have failed us all this time. Tend to your light. Keep the light of your fellows safe. Let in a little sunshine so that we don’t choke on the smoke of our collective anger. Find something — anything — to smile about. Remind yourself why this world is worth saving, why YOU’RE worth saving.

Our voices can be loud and firm without rancor. We don’t have to put up with injustice, but we do have to live with ourselves in a more just world. Saving the world, and the United States, is not just about reshaping society. It’s about preserving ourselves and our sanity so we can keep doing the work that needs to be done.

Let’s hold the things we love in our hearts while we’re out on the streets protesting the effects of Trump in ways both large and small. As long as we do, we save a little space for the goodness we’re working so hard to preserve.

 

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(Politics) Fighting to Save the Things We Love

“That’s how we’re going to win: not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” – Rose Tico, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Gaming 150Last week, the actress who played Rose, Kelly Marie Tran, deleted her Instagram account after months of harassment rooted in racism and misogyny by trolls who hated her inclusion in the Skywalker Saga. Tran became the first Asian-American woman to join the main cast of a Star Wars film (in the ninth film of the franchise); she was the first Asian woman on the cover of Vanity Fair when the magazine did a cover story that also featured costars John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. This woman, who was the first in her family to attend college in America, who is the daughter of immigrants fleeing the Vietnam War, who got to break barriers in a franchise she had been a fan of her entire life — this was how she was accepted into the Star Wars community, with months of racist attacks from people who should have been celebrating her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Kelly Marie Tran and what happens to the trailblazers who try to take a place at the table of fandom. Leslie Jones — the actress and SNL comedienne who joined Paul Feig’s all-woman Ghostbusters reboot — experienced much the same thing in 2016 after Milo Y. began tweeting to her directly and sharing fake posts supposedly from her account. She, too, was chased off social media for a time.

These are just the most prominent recent examples of a toxic fandom killing the joy of creation and inclusion for people. It’s happened in the fandoms for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Steven Universe, Doctor Who, and Star Trek — all genre staples for an entire generation that gives us messages of acceptance and brotherhood as part of their core tenets. Instead of proving the message of the show in their communities, the people who populate Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr and various message boards have shown time and again that they would rather punish women and people of color for being visible in their fiction than the showrunners and community leaders who have been responsible for some hideous abuses to those of us who are most vulnerable and voiceless.

It’s been a frustrating thing to watch. At precisely the point we should be celebrating the explosion of diversity in the science-fiction and fantasy fandom, we have to watch the folks gaining visibility for us for the first time get harassed out of public spaces from people who feel like only they (and the folks like them) get to own it. These folks will attempt to frame the conversation through disingenuous means and rhetorical tricks, as if the violent, emotional response to inclusion can be couched in “logical debate” and a “reasonable difference in opinion”. I think it’s important to call these reactions what they are: greed, bigotry, and hypocrisy. It’s also important to state — in no uncertain terms — that this kind of hate has no place in a fandom that’s been dedicated from the beginning towards the resistance of a tyrannical, racist power structure deciding who does and doesn’t matter. And it’s important to fight against that hate as much as we can, so we don’t allow it to take root and fester within our fandoms.

But I would argue it’s more important to support and lift up the people who’ve uplifted us within the fandom. It’s more important to let Kelly Marie Tran know that there are many, many more people who support her than it is to give visibility to the people who have worn down her love for Star Wars and its fans. It’s more important to support Leslie Jones and the new Ghostbusters by talking about why we loved it than it is to push back against the fans who can’t deal seeing women taking the helm of a favorite franchise. It’s more important to show up for the creators who are putting themselves out there, willing to be visible and show us something different, who are stepping up to represent us at a time that’s so desperately needed. I think to really turn the tide and save the reputation of our various fandoms, we need to make our love louder than their hate.

This is more than performative action. Focusing on the things we love — and expressing our support for them — changes the tone of the entire conversation. It reminds us daily why we spend so much time and energy in these spaces, keeps us focused on the positive things that fandom has brought into our lives, makes us more resilient against the never-ending tide of negativity that can overwhelm us on the Internet. Keeping the lessons of the stories we love and the attributes of our favorite characters close in our hearts can show us the way towards responding from a more positive place: we can condemn the actions of terrible people from a place of love for what we’re protecting, not hate for the people sullying it. That matters, because it leads us to make better choices in our response. It helps us to internalize the principles these stories mean to instill in us.

A few years ago, superhero movies were so concerned with spectacle that the stories forgot about the people meant to exist within those set-pieces. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed by an alien invasion or scientific accident or mythical end-game, and the camera followed each punch and counter-punch between the hero and the big bad on screen; occasionally, we could see fleeting glances of ducking, panicked citizens fleeing in the background. Once the criticism against this got loud enough, there was a (perhaps slight) course-correction: we saw more scenes of superheroes saving people, making sure the innocent were OK before going off to stop the bad guy. It’s a small detail, but it’s so important. We can’t forget why we fight. We can’t be so absorbed in defeating evil that the innocent people around us fade into the background. We can’t ignore them precisely because they’re supposed to be the most important piece of this puzzle. This is why we’re fighting in the first place.

There is no shortage of people who need to protected these days. There are people of color, LGBQTIA+ people, immigrants, the poor, the homeless, people with disabilities, children in the care of an incompetent and uncaring government. While we should absolutely be protesting the government’s policies that fail these vulnerable populations, we should also be working to help them however we can. It’s not enough to fight this administration to keep from doing harm; we have to help those who are most affected by its callous treatment. What are we doing on that side of the coin? How do we check in to make sure they’re OK?

It might not feel as glamorous or as visible or even as easy as protesting, but it’s absolutely the most important thing to do right now. Support Kelly. Support Leslie. Support one another. That’s how we win without losing ourselves.

 

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(Politics) Mindful Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Kwanzaa, Day 4: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150

Habari gani, brothers and sisters?

So a number of studies have been released teasing out the role that race plays in upward mobility — in other words, how easy it is for black vs. white families to rise out of poverty. There’s this study from the Brookings Institution about the economic mobility of black and white families from 2007. There’s this article from the Washington Post, discussing the findings of Harvard economists on how children in majority Black cities are far more likely to have a lower income or chance of upward mobility than poor children in other parts of the country. There’s this longitudinal study from Johns Hopkins University, measuring the economic performance of nearly 800 low-income children in Baltimore as they grew up, from 1982 – 2007. There’s even this research (again from the Brookings Institution) discussing the wide gap in education between black and white students and how firmly that’s tied to the history of black education in this country.

Attempts to address the educational and economic disparity between black and white families have been fought at every turn. The Reagan administration worked to stop school desegregation programs, despite good evidence that they actually worked. This American Life released a two-part episode on what happened when desegregation efforts were rolled out near Ferguson, MO and Hartford, CT and how local governments and parents fought against it tooth and nail. Over the years, affirmative action — making sure that universities and workplaces have student or employee bodies that more closely match the diversity in broader society — has been rolled back steadily and surely. The Trump administration, just this past August, has announced plans for the Justice Department to investigate and restrict race-based admissions into universities. Applicants with black “sounding” names are less likely to be called in for an interview; another study found that racial discrimination against black workers has been largely unchanged since 1989.

This, unfortunately, is nothing new. Racial education and economic inequality in the US has its roots all the way back to the slave trade, and there have been a number of institutional influences aimed at maintaining the status quo. The segregation of schools after emancipation is well documented. The practice of redlining, or making sure minorities didn’t have access to certain housing markets, financial services, or businesses, has codified the make-up of cities for decades. There’s the “school-to-prison pipeline“, which disproportionately affects children of color and makes it much harder for victims to get decent jobs. Racial inequality in criminal justice affects black and Hispanic Americans in general and has for decades. Voter suppression aimed at reducing the political power of people of color in the United States happened in a multitude of ways post-slavery, during Jim Crow, and is becoming an increasing problem today. When black communities have been able to build economic success for themselves, such as Greenwood, OK in the 1920s, there is often a devastating backlash.

With so many external institutional pressures against the success of the black community, it’s vital that we focus on doing what we can to promote its success whenever we can. That’s the idea behind Ujamaa, the fourth principle of the Nguzo Saba. It means ‘cooperative economics’, working with one another to raise our collective standard of living.

This can be done in any number of ways, of course — the only limit is your will and imagination. We can make sure we buy from black-owned businesses and support our brothers and sisters in their financial endeavors. We can also push back against those external pressures by fighting the systems that promote educational, economic, and social inequality where we live. We can invest our time and resources into programs, services, and organizations that help those affected by those pressures. We can build new programs and initiatives designed to help our neighbors and local businesses not just survive, but thrive.

Of course this doesn’t just mean buying products with the FUBU mindset; it means investing locally wherever we happen to be. A healthy economy, we know, depends on the movement of capital from one place to another. This is more likely to happen with local small businesses no matter who happens to be running them. Large corporations owned by the ultra-wealthy act as capital sinks; money flows towards the top, where it is then hoarded away from anyone else. It doesn’t go anywhere, and this doesn’t help anyone. Putting money in the pocket of our neighbor through our business helps our community. That comes back to us eventually. It’s one tangible, important aspect of Ujima; by investing in the work of our neighbor, we share responsibility for its success.

We can also make sure our schools have the best chance possible to teach our children what they need to thrive in the future, not just push them into the early path of criminality. We can empower our brothers and sisters with political insight and knowledge; we can hold our elected representatives accountable for ensuring our well-being and continued success. We can save our people from financial ruin, when possible, by donating our time, our money, and our knowledge where it can serve the most good. Most importantly, we can stop the tendency to tear down our brothers and sisters for being successful and teach each other that success can come in many forms. There’s nothing wrong with owning the corner store, or being a good mechanic. It’s OK to be a scientist, a ballet dancer, or a security guard. There’s no one path to being black and successful.

In our lives, we learn to stand united for our community; we learn to take control of our identities; we learn to work hard and share responsibility for our success; and we learn to cooperate with our social, financial and political capital towards that end. Whatever you can do to help your neighbor and community flourish is appreciated. It helps all of us, and it builds closer connections to each other. Most importantly, it weakens the powerful forces that would seek to keep all of us poor, afraid, ignorant and divided.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2017 in Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Writing) A Future With Me In It

Myth 150It’s getting harder for me to look at the news these days without feeling like I’m staring into the void of our own self-destruction. The current US administration seems obsessed with assuaging the bruised ego of the President, making the lives of the poor and working class as difficult as possible, and letting the rich and powerful get away with whatever they want. It’s times like these where I need an escape more than ever, and science-fiction/fantasy provides a wonderful avenue for that — up to a point. It’s also getting harder for me to ignore that most characters in science-fiction and fantasy stories don’t look like me or even share a lot of my same experiences. That’s why I need to read and write Afrofuturism stories more than ever; I want to have characters like me going on adventures, and I want to imagine a future where people like me can thrive — but most importantly, I want to be comfortable in my own skin and tell stories from my particular perspective.

There aren’t a lot of characters of color in modern science-fiction and fantasy, even though there are a lot more than there were. The biggest thing going in the genre right now is arguably Blade Runner 2049, the incredible sequel to Ridley Scott’s seminal cyberpunk masterpiece. While it’s wonderful to be sure, you see more Asian writing on the screen than actual Asian characters; there are only a few black characters who are never seen beyond a single scene; and Hispanic characters are limited to a cameo appearance or two. Like so many movies in the space today, people of color are used to fill out crowd scenes and give the appearance of diversity, but the characters you spend the most time with are overwhelmingly white — with a few exceptions. American Gods and The Expanse, I’m looking at you.

We never get to read a portal fantasy where the protagonist pulled into a strange new world is a person of color, or how their race and background experience would influence their reaction to such an incredible event. We don’t often get to see people of color doing their thing in some far-off future, especially in stories where we extrapolate the history of their culture into that distant imagining. When people of color are stripped out of these stories by casting directors, the pushback against the outcry revolves around not making everything about race; whenever people of color are added to these retellings, people often complain by posing the hypothetical question of taking one of “our” characters to illustrate how silly that is. “When do we get a movie with a white Black Panther?” “I can’t relate to Rue as much now that you made her black.” Boosting our visibility is always decried as political correctness run amok; erasing us from a possible future or an imaginary past is never a big deal, though.

The #OwnVoices movement has been in full swing for a little while now, at least, and we’re starting to see stories told about people of color, queer and transgender people, people with disabilities, and all kinds of other minorities, written by members of those groups themselves. The space is changing, and these stories are getting recognition for introducing us to different ways of thinking and being — not only in different times and places, but right here and now. That’s tremendously exciting to me, and I want to be a part of that. I want to read and promote stories that center on non-white experiences; I want to write stories with non-white, LGBQTIA protagonists, or characters with disabilities. I want to promote worlds in my fiction that has a place at the table for all of these people, that present the world not as we wish it to be, but as it IS — a diverse and wonderful place filled with folks from different backgrounds. Poor, inner-city black geeks deserve to go to Narnia too.

We also deserve to go into space. We deserve to have the lands of our ancestors share in future advancements, have their economies explode in ways they never thought possible, reach the stars and explore the galaxy on their own terms. There are so many futures written where black people are all gone, or alluded to as poor sods worse off than the protagonist for some reason. There are so many books where Africa has been left out of the unified government taking humanity into its next phase as a multi-planet species, or where African scientists are simply along for the ride as exceptional examples of a culture that still hasn’t ‘caught up’ to the rest of the world. Even those stories that feature Africa as a technological power — like Black Panther, for instance — finds ways to skirt around spotlighting the culture and history of the continent, or the astonishing variety of civilizations that flourished before being stamped out or forever changed by European colonialism. One of the only SFF movies I can think of set in Africa, District 9, used aliens as a metaphor for the actual treatment of people of color in South Africa and refugees of color all around the world.

There aren’t many stories that spotlight African culture without exploiting the problems or historical bloodshed that has taken place on the continent. Where are the stories that feature a healthy, confident African diaspora honoring their culture and traditions while also embracing the future? Does every story that centers on blackness have to be about slavery, rape, poverty, or war? Where are the hopeful stories about what Africa could be? About what her many children all around the globe could aspire to?

We desperately need these stories. All around us, there are these markers that point to how little progress we’ve made overcoming the historical disadvantages forced upon our ancestors. The natural resources of Africa are being plundered to increase the wealth of foreign corporations; the many African-descended people who live elsewhere around the world are forced to suffer continued institutional racism that others refuse to even acknowledge; in America, so many of us live and die in hopeless poverty, unable to believe in the possibility of getting a fair shake. We need to be able to envision a world where that’s true if we hope to make it so. Stories give us that power, a signpost to work towards. We have to conjure hope for the people who have none.

This deeply matters to me, personally. I grew up in inner-city Baltimore as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I never felt accepted by the culture I was raised in. At school, my religion and my geekiness made me an easy target for the students who fit in more easily to the black experience; at the Kingdom Hall, my family situation and lack of social skills made it impossible for me to be accepted by my peer group. I grew up thinking that my own culture was hostile and dangerous, that there was nothing there for me, that my only choice was to leave and never look back.

Now I see that’s not true. There are a ton of black geeks out there with varying experiences and relationships with black American culture. It’s been a revelation to me, the idea that I could be myself — a gay black Buddhist furry — and still embrace my culture and background at the same time. Now that I know it’s possible, I can’t stop until I make it real.

That means learning how to absorb my personal history and accept what happened, putting it in the context of the societal pressures that drive that behavior, and teasing out the lessons that I can take from that to improve myself — but also talk about how black American culture can be improved. We limit ourselves by adopting the limited historical perspective of the past; we dishonor our own values by denying our brothers and sisters the right to self-determination; we keep ourselves down by continuing to dismiss and demean those who think and believe differently. We are so much more than what we have been; we could be so much more than what we are now. Wild, imaginative, authentic stories could show us how.

Afro-futurism is more than a genre to me; it’s a lifeline. It feels like the thing I’ve been moving towards all my life, the thing that will give me hope at a time where that’s been so hard to come by. It’s a framework I can use to understand my past and imagine my future; it’s what I need to have a complete sense of myself. It’s a beautiful, complicated, contradictory thing. That suits me perfectly.

 

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