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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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(Geekery) Serving Our Stories, Ourselves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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(Political) Social Justice Cleric

Politics 150This is the fifth Presidential election of my politically active life, and each one has taught me something about the American public and the nature of being a responsible citizen. This one taught me perhaps the most painful but also the most important lesson: a community is only as good as the people who belong to it, only as strong as the will of the people who keep it together. Over time, we’ve become less community-focused and much more self-oriented. Over on the right, groups like the TEA Party have demanded “personal freedom” to do whatever they want in their lives and businesses while also supporting legislation that dictates other people live by their beliefs. And for us on the left, we’ve come to demand respect and recognition for the groups we belong to while also having blind spots about how our actions make it difficult for those groups to organize and be effective. I understand that this is not an equivalent problem; the right is attempting to monopolize our political system to fit their political beliefs while the left is fighting to attain something resembling equality for all Americans, no matter what their race, religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation or gender identity. I also understand that not EVERYONE on the right believes in this social and religious monopoly, but the power structure in place certainly does.

As I’ve become more and more determined to resist the attempts by the GOP in its current form to subvert American democracy by claiming to uphold it, I’ve tried to find a group that I would feel comfortable fighting with. It hasn’t been easy; the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s at stake for its base or what to do to stop Trump and the Republicans from rolling back rights and services for women, people of color, the poor, the disabled, and so many other minorities; the NAACP hasn’t been organized enough to galvanize black people into a strong, united community on the issues that matter most to it; several other political action groups are too small, scattered or fringe to really get behind. One of the reasons we’re in the state we’re in is our inability to set principles we can agree on as progressives and organize behind those values consistently and en masse. Who is leading the resistance against Trump and his agenda right now? Protests and congressional feedback campaigns have been largely grassroots, while none of our progressive institutions have been able to even agree on the degree or nature of its resistance.

The more I look around me, the more I see the need to build community. More than just providing a way to amplify our voices and make our actions more effective, having a community of people who strive for the same values allows us to remember that we’re not alone. There are others who believe in the fight we’re undertaking, who will have our back in times of need, who are working to build the better world we envision. That better world, for me, is a society of people who recognize the inherent responsibility we owe to our fellow men — without them, our society would be slightly poorer, less resilient, less capable of reaching our ultimate potential. We can’t be self-focused any more. None of us live in a vacuum; everything we do affects someone else, from the kind of car we drive to the things we choose to entertain us. The choices we make need to take that into consideration. How do our actions change the world around us, in small ways and big?

I understand the impulse to ditch that responsibility. None of us has asked for it, and none of us can properly understand the immensity of it. It can feel unfair to give up total freedom or unfettered individuality in order to make sure someone else can have a better life. We can feel like it shouldn’t be up to us to look out for someone less fortunate, or going through a rough spot, or who doesn’t have as much power as we do. When we work hard to make a lot of money or gain a lot of prestige, it sucks to realize that the system that allowed us to get where we are needs our help to continue so that those after us can do the same thing. All of us, from the broke and broken to the rich and powerful, want to reap the rewards of the struggles we’ve been through without having to think about anyone else.

But human beings are a social species. We’ve evolved to work together, and that evolution demands we put aside our worst impulses to continue to do so. We can’t be selfish or myopic any more. We can’t be disdainful of the different or distrustful of strangers. We can’t be gatekeepers. We have to stop reinforcing the divisions that keep us apart. We have to stop denying the basic humanity of the people we disagree with.

It’s taken me a very long time to get to this point, to know what I want to do for my community and feel as if I have some small measure of ability to make it happen, but I feel like I’m finally ready. I want to work to build and maintain the bonds that form a community, to help and heal the wounded and sick however I can, to provide for those in need and fight when necessary to protect the people who can’t fend for themselves. I want to uphold the values that make for strong connections with my fellow man, and I want to encourage others to do the same however I can. I have no idea how to actually do any of this, but it’s something I will learn in the doing. It’s not enough to believe this should be done; it’s time to do it.

I don’t have illusions that I’ll be perfect at this. I’m a fragile and struggling human being who is bound to give in to his bad impulses from time to time. But it feels like I’ve found my north star, and as long as I keep following it I know I’m going in the right direction.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2017 in Buddhism, Politics

 

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(Buddhism) Using Anger in Practice

Buddhism 150It might surprise some of you to know that I consider myself to be an angry person, but it’s true. I have a pretty quick temper, and like most idealists there’s a strong sense of order and fairness within me that gets offended often. That sense of fair play isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can lead us to have strong emotions against the people who we think disrespect it on a frequent basis.

A lot of people think that anger is a negative emotion, but it’s not; it’s simply a difficult one to react constructively with. Acting on anger without thought leads us to do terrible things to other people in the name of “justice” or “revenge”, and that doesn’t really solve anything. It just directs pain somewhere else; instead of dissipating or eliminating it, it’s amplified and channeled. Instead of stopping the behavior that caused the anger in the first place, these actions can often harden the targets of our lashing out. It makes them more defensive, less likely to listen.

I’m seeing this play out in activist circles, and it unnerves and exhausts me. Being angry about the problems we face is a completely reasonable reaction; we’ve noticed how unfair our society is, how few times those in power do the “right” thing by us. As idealists, of course living in a world where anti-social behavior is accepted as “normal” drives us crazy. However, I don’t think we’ve learned how to really think about the best uses of our anger. I’ve mentioned before how it can be a catalyzing force for us to change, or a way that we keep ourselves firmly on the path of social justice. But way too often, I see us lashing out, hardening the very people we should hope to change, demonizing and disconnecting an increasingly large set of people. Our anger is beginning to put us into an echo chamber, where we’re only willing to tolerate the people who think exactly the same way we do.

That’s not good for anyone. So in order to find a better way of dealing with those injustices that are everywhere within the modern world, I have to figure out how to have a better relationship with my anger, to really understand and harness it. For me, the best way to do that is fall back on the foundation of my Zen practice and recommit myself to the precepts and Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths tell us that attachment and desire is the root of all suffering, and the elimination of suffering can be achieved by eliminating our attachments. This is often misunderstood as having no emotions on anything, having no likes or dislikes, simply existing in reaction to whatever stimulus comes our way. That’s a mistake; taking such an extreme view of detachment isn’t consistent with the Middle Way, of course. It’s a form of emotional asceticism, another attachment to a bad idea.

I think what’s happening these days in activist spaces is a deep attachment to our anger. Perhaps we’ve spent so long ignoring or repressing our anger that letting it out just feels too good. It’s an empowering thing to express our anger and have other voices rise up in chorus with it. But that attachment is simply preserving the cycle of suffering; we hold on to our anger, use it to lash out regardless of the situation, and the resulting ill will and alienation just creates more anger in others…who then lash out, and pass on this cycle to someone else.

What detachment really means is being able to disconnect ourselves from our anger just enough to figure out the best way to express it. Sometimes that’s organized protest; sometimes that’s respectful debate; sometimes that’s leaving a situation where it’s clear there is simply no way you will be understood or treated fairly. It depends on a multitude of factors that must be considered before action; even though the stimulus is the same (something offensive happened), the things that gave rise to that stimulus are different and have to be examined both on their own and in relation to one another.

Anger is one powerful emotion, but that doesn’t mean there is only one response to it. We must put our anger in perspective to figure out its proper place and usage each time we encounter it. Knowing more about our emotions, when and how they arise, what our instinctive response may be to it, and how people are likely to react to that all help us out with that work. And one of the ways we learn more about our anger is through meditation, self-reflection and listening to the experiences of our fellow human beings.

As someone who struggles to cope with a variety of strong emotions, it’s very important to me that I have multiple tools at my disposal to manage them. Anger, anxiety, despair and boredom are emotions that I’m very sensitive to; that makes it much more difficult for me to put them in their proper places. But hopefully, with a firm commitment towards Zen, I can do just that.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2016 in Buddhism, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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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: Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics)

Myth 150Want to know something really great? Read the Wikipedia entry on Ujamaa here. Julius Nyerere developed a political and economic blueprint for lifting Tanzania out of poverty back in the 60s. The idea was to remove barriers and dividing lines between the people within Tanzania and replacing them with incentives to fostering a national identity with a focus on shared wealth and community. It didn’t quite work — mostly due to circumstances beyond Nyerere’s control — but it was a noble experiment that the hip-hop scene in Tanzania is trying to bring back.

Here in the United States and Western parts of the African diaspora, Ujamaa is the principle we focus on today, the fourth day of Kwanzaa. While it doesn’t quite go as far as promoting the African socialism of Tanzania, it does encourage the idea of cooperative economics; this builds on the concept of Ujima quite well, turning the social idea into a financial blueprint. We are meant to build and maintain our own stores, shops and businesses, and profit from them together. In black America, we go into businesses that serve our people and community, and small (or large) business owners use that generated wealth for the good of the neighborhoods they’re in.

This could mean shopping at the local corner store when you can instead of heading to a convenience store chain like 7-Eleven; it could mean choosing hair and skin care products made for us, buy us; it could mean supporting black artists and creative people by buying and promoting the work that offers us reflections of our culture that are more nuanced, positive and engaging. Ujamaa is an immensely broad concept, and one of the great things about it is there are so many different ways to practice it.

One of the great joys for me this year was the discovery of the small business online and the popularization of sites like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Patreon. It was a great way for small businesses and artists to make their pitches directly to their customers, and for the customers to respond in kind with a financial statement. Each donation or pledge told these people that we believe in them and their work, and we would like to see it come to fruition. In gaming and fandom circles, there are now artists who can do what they do full-time because they now have a mechanism that allows them to be supported by an appreciative and engaged audience. For me, these sites are a wonderful way to bring Ujamaa into the 21st century.

It also means encouraging responsible use of the wealth we create. One of the big difficulties in impoverished communities in general is the understanding of how to use money wisely. I’m not talking about poor people buying televisions or tennis shoes; I’m talking about finding ways to make what little money we have work harder for us. When a financial windfall comes, we’re often faced with the choice of getting ahead on bills (which really sucks all the joy out of having unexpected money) or doing something fun with it. All too often, there’s a sense that the game is rigged and any effort taken to get ahead will ultimately be wasted. And to be sure, there are all kinds of ways the poor are unfairly taxed in this country. But come on — black people in this country have had to maintain ourselves during slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, and the continuing structural discrimination that makes it so hard for us to get a leg up in this world. With time, patience, effort and intelligence, we can beat that too.

This year, I vow to continue what I’ve started in 2015 — to seek out, promote and shop at minority-owned and -operated businesses. Because I’m such a geek, it’s been a genuine pleasure to find creators of color whose works I’m totally down with. Are you aware of The Pack, a graphic novel about African werewolves? Or the many, many, MANY sci-fi/fantasy writers of color out there? I’ll talk a bit about these folks in a couple of days, but if nothing else 2015 has really opened my eyes about what minorities are doing in genre spaces and just how exciting it is.

I’ll also do my best to be smarter about managing/eliminating my debt this year, and making sure that my money is going places that help me, my family, my community and my people. I’m very fortunate to be in the financial situation I’m in, and I could be doing better things with it. I’ll be devoting time and energy to figuring out how.

As always, Ujamaa doesn’t JUST have to be focused on the African diaspora. We all belong to communities, close and online, that could use a bit of care. How are we using our money wisely? How are we promoting good in our lives through our dollars?

Have a solid Kwanzaa today, everyone. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Politics

 

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(Personal) The Wolf We Feed

Myth 150I’m sure you know this story. One evening, an elder sits down with his son. The son had been getting into trouble because he had problems with anger and lashing out, so the elder tells him a quick fable. “There are two wolves fighting inside of each and every one of us,” he says. “One of them is everything that is evil within us – anger, envy, sorrow, greed. The other is everything that is good – joy, compassion, peace and kindness. Though one may gain the upper hand for a time, the other is never truly defeated. They are fighting for the nourishment that only you can provide them.”

The son thought about this for a while, then asked. “OK. Which one of them wins?”

“The one you feed,” the elder says.

I think about this story a lot. As a Zen Buddhist, I see karma as simply the kind of environment we create for ourselves; we can only control our actions, and it’s important that we understand the effect of our actions on the people and places around us. It’s important to me that I bring comfort, contentment and connection to the places I’m in, because those are the kind of spaces that attract me. If I’m going to make the kind of world I would want to live in, I need to put in the work. So I try hard to find common ground with the people I’m with, to make them feel comfortable enough that we can work through our differences, to make them feel connected enough that they won’t fear me rejecting them for a disagreement. I don’t always succeed, but that’s the aim. That’s the kind of person I want to be.

But here’s something else. I self-identify as a social justice warrior. I know that’s a loaded label; most of the time it’s used by people who mean it as an insult. The narrative for social justice warriors is one of immediate, unthinking and overwhelming anger against anything that could be viewed as remotely offensive. If you say something politically incorrect, then the social justice warriors will grab their pitchforks and come after you. They’re the thought police of the internet.

I take on that moniker because I believe in the causes championed by many who’ve been derided as such. I occupy many different intersecting minority spaces, being gay, black, non-Christian and coping with chronic mental illnesses. I know what it’s like to move through a world that hasn’t been built for you, and I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis what it’s like to have your existence questioned, dismissed or belittled. I’ve also experienced how occupying many privileged spaces has made my life easier in many respects; I’m a cisgender male, I’m able-bodied, I’m reasonably educated, have medical insurance and a support network. My illnesses aren’t so severe that I can’t function in modern society. There are people who have more fundamental challenges than I do.
So I fight for them, and I fight for the people who are dealing with the same challenges I do. I believe in a world where we clearly see, understand and accept the unique challenges and burdens of our fellow human beings. I believe we ought to live in a society that provides them with whatever they need to be healthy, happy and whole. I believe in fighting for a shift in our consciousness around these issues; it’s not enough that I personally believe these things – we as a civilization must address the needs of our most vulnerable and powerless. We must make sure they can be connected to the fabric of society just as well as those of us who don’t need additional considerations. I’m willing to work to make sure that happens, however I can.

This is a mindset I’ve come by recently, to be sure. As a progressive, it’s sort of my job to continually test and reshape my understanding of how the world works, my place in it, and how society should function. I absorb new information and ideas about the human experience, including the really fundamental concepts that we often take for granted. My views have evolved from where they were one year ago, and hopefully they’ll have improved still further a year from now. Change is a constant in so many ways, and that must be embraced.

However, I understand why so many of us in progressive spaces have the reputations we do. We’re passionate, we can be uncompromising, and we’re fierce believers in our way of life. For so many of us, especially as minorities, the ability to organize into a community and speak in a way we can be heard is very new. The power that affords us is intoxicating, and we’re still learning how to wield it responsibly. But for the first time we can say that the frequent targeting, incarceration, abuse and murder of our black men, women and children is unacceptable. We can say that it’s unacceptable for our transgender men and women to be forced through a parade of humiliating ordeals just to “prove” their gender to people who have no business policing that concept. We can say that each and every one of us occupy space of privilege as well as under-privileged spaces, and it’s important for us to recognize that and accept what it means. What’s more, when we say it loudly enough, forcefully enough, people have no choice but to hear us. We have the power to force a conversation about these issues, and we need to because otherwise the vulnerable among us will continue to suffer and die at the hands of a society that’s only interested in keeping things exactly as they are.

If you’re not a part of these spaces, or you don’t hold the same views about society, privilege and our individual responsibilities to our community, then it may seem like I’m forcing you to talk about ideas that don’t make sense. When you ask (or demand) that I explain these ideas in a way that makes sense to you and I respond with “It’s not my job to educate you” or a dismissal of that request, it can be tremendously frustrating. When you tell me that you don’t agree or explain your position and I respond by shouting down your ideas or making personal attacks and moral judgements, it can be enraging and only encourage you to dig in your heels. I understand that.

It’s taken me some time to reconcile my identity as a Zen Buddhist with my identity as a social justice warrior. Spending time in activist spaces, I see how so many of them have become hornet’s nests of anger and frustration. For so many of us, this is a life-and-death struggle. For so many of us, people like Michael Brown and Freddie Gray (remember them?) don’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not aberrations or miscarriages of justice. They’re the end result of a system working as designed.
So many of us in progressive circles are afraid about what happens to us when someone decides that our differences will not be accepted. As a black man, will I be harassed by the police while I’m driving? As a gay man, will I be targeted for expressing love towards my husband in public? As a non-Christian, hearing the rhetoric in our politics about anyone who doesn’t go to church is disheartening. And these are anxieties I carry with my all day, every day.

We’re tired of being afraid. We’re tired of living in a world where speaking up means being shouted down or dismissed. We’re tired of feeling like we have to justify our existence. And that fear, fatigue and anger has reached a point where it’s simply taken over these spaces.

I understand why that has happened, and I hope other people do too. But…at this point it feels like we’re feeding the wrong wolf. We’ve given ourselves over to this anger and it means that we’ve become unable to actually affect change. When someone comes to us trying to understand why we say or do the things we say or do, it’s an opportunity to actually explain our position, to connect with someone else, to actually act on our principles and change the world. When we shut that person down with “It’s not my job” or anger, then we’ve missed that change. The disconnection deepens; that person becomes unable to speak with us because they don’t want to be subjected to that anger again.

Not every situation in which we’re asked to explain our position is an opportunity, and I know that too. But I’ve seen too many people turned away at the gate of our spaces because anger and dismissal is our default response. A lot of us have come to see the world as a more hostile place then it is, and we respond accordingly. We’ve fed the dark wolf until it has overpowered our better nature.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’ve come to the decision that this cycle has to stop somewhere. We can’t keep alienating those who disagree with us, and we can’t keep shouting down the people who haven’t arrived to the exact same conclusions we have. If we expect to change the world, we have to change the minds of the people living there. And we can’t do that with the tone of the conversation we’ve been having in and around these topics.

Inevitably, this opinion is going to be called “tone policing” or “concern trolling” because I’m more interested in the tone of the conversation than the subject. Since I’ve owned the social justice warrior moniker, I’ll go ahead and own the label of tone policing too. Fine, I’m advocating that we consider our tone. You know why? BECAUSE OUR TONE IS IMPORTANT.

The emotions that we deal with as minorities are certainly valid. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to be tired. And it’s OK to be afraid. There is a lot that’s wrong with the world we live in, and we’ve been fighting the same battles for a very long time. Sometimes, it’s even OK to let that anger fuel our actions; we can rise up and state in no uncertain terms that we will not tolerate unfair or extreme treatment from a power structure that is supposed to protect us from it.

However, different situations call for different actions, regardless of our emotional state. It’s important to consider what we want out of our conversations. Are we hoping to express ourselves in a way that gets someone to see the world the way we do? If that’s the case, what’s the best way to do that? Making someone feel bad about what they believe rarely changes their mind, from my experience. Making them feel kinship with you stands a much better chance. It can be more difficult, and a lot more frustrating, but ultimately it’s much more effective.

Explaining why a certain statement or action is offensive requires patience and compassion. If we truly want the behavior to cease, then we must get the person engaging in it to understand what’s wrong with it and what would be a better course of action. People aren’t willing to examine themselves if they feel attacked; they close themselves off as a protective measure. In order to soften habits, we must allow them to be vulnerable. We must respect that vulnerability and treat it gently. That is difficult, if not impossible to do when you’re angry. So we must find a way to temper that anger.

I understand where the anger of progressives comes from; in many ways, I share it. But I also realize that I must remain vigilant against the effect of that anger. I don’t want to feed the wrong wolf, because that pulls me away from the person I would like to be, which pulls me away from the world I would like to create. I do my best to feed my compassion, my joy, my kindness by acting on those emotions, even when it’s difficult. Especially when it’s difficult.

I think in order for social justice warriors to be effective in combat, we’re going to need to start doing the same.

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2015 in Better Living Through Stories, Buddhism, Politics

 

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