Deeyah Khan: SHERO for our time. A message of engagement, resistance, and LOVE for Valentines Day.

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When I was working for CARE in the early 2000s our CEO Dr. Helene Gayle presented us with a revised mission. Yes, we at CARE would still be a poverty fighting organization but Dr. Gayle introduced a new focus for how we would do this: an emphasis on empowering women and girls.

I was sold on day one. My own experience living and working in depressed neighborhoods in the US as well as East Africa aligned with the same facts that had influenced Dr. Gayle’s vision. Poverty, violence, illness, lack of opportunities, lack of rights, and legal protections disproportionately affect women and girls—often women and girls of color, too. Trying to address poverty while ignoring the additional barriers and vulnerabilities that half the world’s population experience because of their gender is futile.

While traveling in my career to 34 countries, I have witnessed some the abuse and indignities women suffer—my country of the US is no exception. Often the deeply entrenched chauvinism and patriarchy that benefits men like me is at the root of this. I’ve also witnessed, despite these odds, how it is frequently women who are the sheros of their families and communities. Research has shown that female caregivers are consistently more dependable stewards of social support funds than their male counterparts who are, sadly, more likely to drink or gamble money—earned and donated—away.

But at CARE, as we worked to promote and empower women, I frequently was worried that we were still only addressing half the problem. I wondered how we could make lasting change for women if we didn’t engage the men in their societies. Women’s and men’s self-concepts needed to evolve. If we didn’t do something about the deeply entrenched chauvinism and patriarchy that warps the thinking of boys so that they grow up into men who think they are entitled, who think they are better, than their female counterparts would the future be any different?

Men are half the problem and (conversely) half the solution. We need different roles to offer them, different models of masculinity.

By now the term “toxic masculinity” has entered the mainstream. In recent years I’ve been somewhat encouraged by the increasing number of books, research, and documentary films examining this phenomenon. Toxic masculinity has been a valuable way to encapsulate the beliefs and practices that men feel obliged to follow, even if these behaviors only end up being pernicious to them and those around them. The Netflix documentary, The Mask You Live In[1] is one of my favorite summaries of the challenges facing boys and young men today who are trying to chart a different course. It is also encouraging to see so many fathers, mentors, and coaches who are teaching their sons that being a man is not measured by physical strength, sexual conquest, or material wealth, but rather by our capacity to love and be loved.

Another important angle in all of this is how toxic masculinity is also in a mutually reinforcing cycle with racism and white supremacy as many commentators have pointed out.[2]

After years of asking myself, “What does it mean to be a good man?” or “What makes a good man?” I realized my own question was all wrong and reflected my own ingrained biases. I realized that the virtues I was seeking out to apply to “good men” don’t belong to only men, women, or nongendered individuals. They belong to everyone. The question is not, what makes a good man/woman. The question should be: What makes a good person? A good human.

Period.

But we have such a long way to go. Recently, after watching a smattering of commercials during a break in an NFL game (I’ve boycotted watching actual NFL games so far this year) I was reminded just how prevalent motifs of toxic masculinity are. Aside from football itself,[3] the commercials between brain-jarring plays included fast food ads with slovenly dopey men enslaved to their appetites for bacon cheeseburgers, breathless previews for pay-per-view boxing matches, and one car ad where a man is so busy playing computer games on a VR headset he doesn’t even notice his girlfriend moving out of their apartment until she slams the door and he takes off the headset to see all the furniture gone.

Enter Deeyah Khan, a shero for our time. She is a documentary film maker with a courageous approach to the issues of hate, violence, religious extremism, and white supremacy. Tired of avoiding it, avoiding the men who wanted to exterminate her and people like her, Khan decided to engage them through her art, setting out to interview them on camera. The results are two films, one focused on white supremacists and the other of Muslim extremists: White Right: Meeting the Enemy and Jihad: A Story of the Others. Both are available on Netflix.

I don’t have enough words to describe Khan’s courage to do this, as she was often threatened with violence from the men she encountered, either because she was a woman of color, or because she was a Muslim woman who resisted subjugation. Here is the link to a powerful interview with her by Vox.[4]

Now even Khan herself says that she does not recommend this approach for everyone. For members of targeted communities, doing what Khan did was risky, physically, emotionally, and psychically. Khan is the first person to say engagement, teaching others, trying to influence others, even win hearts, is something one should only engage in if they have the capacity to. It can be exhausting. So she (and I) definitely give a pass to members of oppressed communities who don’t want to spend their energy doing this type of work (especially when just BEING feels like an act of defiance). But Khan, for her part, was tired with non-engagement and in her own words she “just wanted to try something, different.”

There are parts of the interview I could only do a disservice to if I paraphrased further so I’m including Khan’s words verbatim below. Click the link in the footnotes for the full interview. It’s worth a read.

On how we can only drive out hate with love, Khan says we must:

“. . .not become hysterical, [the key is] not to dance to [extremists’] instructions, it’s to not behave how they want us to behave. They want us to become really afraid; they want us to become divided; they want us to join their ‘us and them’ thing. On a larger scale, I think we have to resist that. It’s an argument for celebrating and nurturing our diversity and nurturing our multicultural society, and our pluralism.”

Khan on what happened to one of the white supremacists (Ken) she interviewed a number of times:

“. . .he actually became friends with the pastor of a mostly black church who lived in his apartment complex. The pastor invited him and his fiancée to his church, and Ken basically stood in front of everyone there and said, “I used to be in the Klan, now I’m in a neo-Nazi organization, these are the views I hold ...”

And after he was done, people came up to him and hugged him and said, “Look, we detest what you stand for, but it takes a lot of courage for somebody like you to come in here and share what you have shared.”

That was the last straw for [Ken], where he realized that the people he hated so deeply are showing him nothing but kindness and compassion and an open heart, and are showing it to him even though he doesn’t deserve it. His whole ideology fell apart.

Mind. Blown.

Khan is definitely a shero for our time. I’m in awe. I don’t know if I have been living up to her example of courage, perseverance, radical love, and patient engagement, but I recognize two really valuable lessons here:

Lesson One: Khan’s is an example I want to emulate. I will fall short, but I’ll try.

Lesson Two: Love Wins.


[1] http://therepresentationproject.org/film/the-mask-you-live-in-film/

[2] https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullaly-toxic-masculinity-the-common-thread-in-american-hate-1.3190602

[3] American Football itself, especially the NFL, could be its own case study in toxic masculinity as well as institutional and interpersonal racism. It’s no wonder that the commercials align so closely with this, the irony being, that the men in the commercials—the obese an dreaming of cheeseburgers and the man addicted to videogames—are complicit in their own loser-dom, which (paradoxically) doesn’t seem to phase the men watching.

[4] https://www.vox.com/world/2019/1/14/18151799/extremism-white-supremacy-jihadism-deeyah-khan

Daniel Hill & White Awake Part 2

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We here at the Belong Blog are BIG fans of Daniel Hill (see earlier post[1]) – so it was with real excitement that I attended his talk at Bethany Community Church on January 28th. His full talk and the panel discussion after are all available on Bethany’s website (link here[2]).

There was so much to draw from Daniel’s talk and even more from his insightful book White Awake[3]. But for me, as a white person of privilege, one of the most valuable takeaways was the insight Daniel provided in a sit-down Q&A before his talk (not on the video—sorry, but I’ll share what I learned below. Keep reading!).

A member of the Bethany’s Ministry of Racial Justice and Reconciliation Committee asked Daniel what to say to well intentioned people of privilege (often but not always white) who feel convicted and moved to become engaged, to “help,” and to DO something to fight racism.

Daniel’s answer was brilliant and although he began with an examination of white culture (particularly White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant culture) it led to some valuable insights and practices when it comes to ally-ship in general.

Daniel pointed out that often times, white people, early in their journeys of awakening and combating racism, ask “What can I DO?” As Daniel points out in his book White Awake, “DOING” is not the starting point for those of us who have likely been blinded by a lifetime of privilege. Privilege is its own sort of pernicious disadvantage as it warps our own perceptions of ourselves, others, and the world. We need to do our own work, healing even, to rid ourselves of the blindness it causes us. What Daniel calls for is a more humble approach. He urges the newly inspired to ask, not “What can I DO,” but rather “How am I SEEING,” this.

How am I SEEING this is a call for greater reflection, additional learning, and listening. What Daniel points out is that for people of WASP-y backgrounds, to “DO” something often means to SOLVE something.

And as white people, many of us have benefited from and even perpetuated racial inequality without even realizing it. We have been spiritually warped and handicapped by our own privilege. We are the last people to be leading the charge to solve racism.

But having lived in a position of privilege, with so many resources at our disposal and fewer barriers, we whites . . . well we like to DO and SOLVE. It’s the WASP-y way. To counter this, Daniel counsels newly enthusiastic white friends to slow down. He reminds them, if they want to DO something so desperately, they should remember that LISTENING, LEARNING, READING, and REFLECTING, are all actions too. Maybe they are not “SOLVING” and maybe listening, learning, reading, and reflecting don’t put us in the middle of the spotlight, but part of joining this work (as my friends in AA would say) is to “right size” yourself. Shrink your ego down and be teachable.

And this was where Daniel shared his brilliant insight on ally-ship and how he tries to check himself from being “overly” helpful (read: harmful) to the work. As a white heterosexual man of privilege, Daniel’s DEFAULT position on all this work is not to solve but to listen, learn, read, and reflect and then. . .nothing.

That’s right. Nothing else. He sticks to listening, learning, reading, and reflecting at least, until he is called and/or invited by members of the community he wishes to “help” whether it is the African American community, Latinx, Native American, etc. . . . And when the day comes that they are no longer asking him to help, well then he essentially “sits back down” to wait his turn until called again. This way, it’s the members of these communities who determine whether what Daniel has to offer has any value or merit. They are the gatekeepers, as they should be, to the work that most directly affects them. Something I admire about Daniel is that he recognizes that no matter how much of this work he engages in, no matter how much reading, listening, dialoguing, etc. . . that he does, he will never understand what it is like to be a person of color. He will never understand the psychological cost of living in a world where his humanity is under assault 24/7. Never. That is why he holds to this approach. It ensures that he does not presume to take action, make a choice, or speak to a topic that would affect people of color, without seeking them out for their input first.

It may seem, at first, to be a high bar to clear for some of us, but it is absolutely necessary.

Daniel’s is a superb model of humility. It is also a great practical checklist for folks like myself who want to join this work. If you get a chance, I’d recommend Daniel’s book and the link to his talk. I’d call him a great role model, (and he IS), but I’m sure he’d modestly point out how white supremacy and the tendency for white-centeredness is so powerful, that the focus should not be on him, but the work.

Contrast Daniel’s approach with the epic mess two prominent white males find themselves in: Liam Neeson[4] and Ralph Northam.[5] What is common to the gaffs on the part of both Neeson and Northam is that they appear to confuse transparent and honest disclosure of their “racist” thoughts/actions as exoneration and evidence of them being “woke.”

To their surprise, they have found that it’s not. Admitting you have done racist things can be transformative. It’s a first step. Perhaps that is what they had hoped to do (I’m trying to be generous here). But without sincere remorse or sufficient reflection on the why what you have said or done is harmful, disclosure like Neeson’s and Northam’s is woefully incomplete. It only reveals your flawed inner thoughts without sufficient shame. It’s probably not helping that both men, so far, are digging in and on the defensive.

Disclosure alone does not earn you a pass. Transparency does not equal an I’m-not-racist trophy. And confessions of past bigotry followed by statements of “but I’m not a racist,” – as Neeson has done – probably reads to others (it does to me) that you still have a lot of learning and listening to do. To be clear, I wouldn't go as far to say Neeson IS a racist. I can't judge that from here. But one could categorize what Neeson said and did as racist. Phrased that way, it may be easier for all of us to admit we have said and done racist things.

As for the Northam controversy, the should-or-shouldn't he resign . . . plenty of people have written on that already so I won't add to the noise. I'd rather focus on what these men might do at this point for their own personal growth. How do they become better allies after these debacles? How could any of us? What is there to learn?

My fear is that the way Neeson and Northam seemed to anticipate a that-a-boy-pat-on-the-back from the public for their honesty, may indicate a sense of entitlement in both men. This is the pernicious effect of privilege. The antidote, as Daniel Hill demonstrates, is humility. The way out of our blind spots is to be teachable. To date, neither Neeson or Northam seem to have demonstrated sufficient remorse or reflection to convince others that they have grown enough or learned enough to merit forgiveness.

I hope, in time, they will. It comes full circle, for me, highlighting Daniel Hill's more modest and measured approach. Neeson, Northam, all of us, would benefit from following his example: DO LESS. LISTEN MORE. BE TEACHABLE.

[1] https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/7/4/white-awake-by-daniel-hill-a-must-read

[2] https://churchbcc.sermon.net/main/DanielHill/21320745

[3] https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1549132885&sr=8-2&keywords=daniel+hill+white+awake

[4] https://www.thedailybeast.com/liam-neeson-says-he-considered-carrying-out-a-racist-murder-after-someone-close-to-him-was-raped

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/02/05/yearbook-scoopster-people-are-uniting-their-hatred-ralph-northam/?utm_term=.3fec15f685ca

Self-Righteous Anger vs. Love - Humbling realizations on MLK Day

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Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have recently published an important book called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” based on their 2015 article in the Atlantic by the same name. Their premise is that the vocal efforts to police language and stop all microaggressions with vigorous, vociferous correction and confrontation—most prominently on American college campuses but in other spaces as well—can have unintended negative consequences. These consequences are important for any of us engaged in the work of reconciliation, racial or otherwise.

Most notably Lukianoff and Haidt have pointed out how the hyper-focus on language, and the attribution of racist intent behind insensitive comments, has unhealthy parallels to the very cognitive distortions and logical fallacies that contribute to a rise in anxiety and increased levels of depression and mental illness amongst college students. Yes, they say, our work to counter racism can, in some cases, contribute to mental health disorders!

Now I am all for uncovering our unconscious biases. We need careful reexamination of how we can harm others, even when that is not our intent. But the work of Lukianoff and Haidt has made me realize, there have been times even I’ve veered into what they call “vindictive protectiveness.” And that is not love and it’s not productive. It’s just a pointless performance.

Lukianoff and Haidt are not bomb throwers or provocateurs. They are thoughtful researchers and professors concerned for the mental health of their students and society at large. They are urging us to foster resilience and not reinforce fragility.

Most of the time, in this work, I’m countering “white fragility.” But this concept of “vindictive protectiveness” is something different. It’s our default tendency for stridency when doing this work. It’s when, instead of thoughtfully engaging others, we sanctimoniously police their language and browbeat them. I’ve witnessed this among my allies and definitely in myself. We’re the overzealous social justice warriors and campus protestors who would counter arrogance with our own condescension, thereby we become the mirror image of the very narrow-mindedness we are aligned against.

Humbly, I’ve realized my tendency for stridency, unchecked, only serves to bolster my own fragile ego—while alienating people who are just starting off on this work. Again, that is not real love, which I know is the antidote to this. It’s just my own insecurities run amok.

In his sermon just before Christmas Eve, the senior teaching pastor at my church reminded us that our Higher Power (God) never promises to hermetically seal us away from suffering. I came to recognize my own efforts over-protect and over-police others whom I perceived as less “woke” than me, rested on the very ungodly assumption that we could create a zone absolutely free of offense and a life free of suffering. I can’t do this or even promise this. No one can.

I don’t claim to know where the perfect balance between constructive dialogue that leads to helpful correction and overreaction that just leads to digging in is . . . but I’m aware I’ve erred on the side of the latter at times and need to course-correct.

This year I’m trying to reign in my self-righteous anger. Anger can be good, it can lead to social change, but it also can be self-indulgent and smug. I can’t make that choice for others, but I can make it for me. Half the time when I let myself get too publicly spun up, I’m engaging in a sort of self-righteous display to flaunt my credibility to others (virtue signaling[1] or slacktivism[2] as some sociologists call it). The risk I run with that, is that my performance of outrage will alienate people taking their first steps in this work (and, moreover, I’ll look like a fool).

The link to the article by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is below. It’s a good read and certainly moved me into new places of reflection and started some great discussions in my own circles on how to approach the work of living and realizing MLK’s Beloved Community.

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/


[1] The action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's good character or the moral correctness of one's position on a particular issue e.g. "It's remarkable how often virtue signaling consists of saying you hate things." (Wikipedia)

[2] A pejorative term for "feel-good" measures in support of an issue or social cause. Slacktivism is showing support for a cause with the main purpose of boosting the egos of participants in the movement. The action may have little effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low-cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them. (Wikipedia)

If you can't spread your gospel without the receipients dying. . .then don't.

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Last month an American missionary John Allen Chau, 26, of Vancouver, Washington (pictured above lower left) was killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe as he landed on the beach of their remote island in an effort to “convert” them to Christianity.

This is one of those blogposts wherein I want to pay my respects to the family and friends of the deceased and recognize the loss they are suffering as well as the intense emotional pain they have endured. I don’t wish this loss on anyone.

It’s for the very same reason that I also feel deep frustration at what this young man was trying to do, no less in the name of a faith—which I practice—whose central principle is love. Although Chau may have had good intentions, his actions were frightfully misguided and misaligned with the beliefs he professed.

I’ve been to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. I was there working for CARE as part of the rebuilding efforts after the devastating 2004 tsunami. The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribe in this island chain. The Jarawa are another and they were not so “lucky” to be isolated on a tiny island of their own.

The Jarawa did their best to avoid contact with outsiders, for centuries. However, as India took a greater interest in the island chain, especially because its strategic importance just off the coast of Myanmar, contact became harder to avoid. With the completion of the “Great” Andaman Trunk Road through the Jarawa’s territory in the 1970s, more frequent contact became inevitable.

The Jarawa suffered for it.

As a tribe, isolated for centuries, the Jarawa have no immunity to many of the diseases we carry. Measles and flu can be fatal for them—as they were along with small pox for so many Native Americans. Aside from the disease outbreaks (which become an immediate threat to life after every incident of outside contact) the socio-cultural impact of contact can have similar effects on indigenous people. This leads to the collapse of traditional social structures. In the eighteenth century, different waves of colonial occupiers (British and Japanese) tried to exterminate the Jarawa population through the introduction of alcohol and opium and encouraging overuse. This at all different from the introduction of alcohol and the “gifting” of small pox infected blankets by the US government to Native Americans in the nineteenth century. It was nothing less than a conscious attempt at genocide.

Substance abuse is still a threat today among the Jarawa. I saw this first hand and I witnessed the heart-breaking impact of the Andaman Trunk Road on the Jarawa’s way of life. From the window of my white Land Cruiser, that ubiquitous vehicle of international NGOs everywhere, I saw Jarawa teens stumbling around jetties at ferry crossings, mothers begging for handouts from passing vehicles, and children playing with trash discarded on the side of the trunk road. I saw just over 20 Jarawa during my trip through Andaman-Nicobar. Considering that their numbers are estimated to be around 270 surviving individuals, I realized that I had “seen” nearly 10 percent of their total population.

Human rights groups have called for the closure of the trunk road for decades. A Supreme Court ban against “human safaris” has been implemented and then lifted, amid controversy, in 2013. Today, Survival International reports that hundreds of people travel along the truck road daily, many throwing biscuits at Jarawa in hopes of making them dance for pictures.[1]

Witnessing what I did along the trunk road led me to openly question within CARE whether or not it was even right for CARE to help Indian nationals rebuild their homes and schools after the tsunami, especially in light of the Indian Supreme Court’s ruling that the encroachment of the trunk road on the Jarawa land was unconstitutional and human rights activists calling for its closure. (To my knowledge this was never honored and CARE India continued to work in the region years after, despite a stated commitment in their founding principles to respect and protect indigenous people).

All this brings me to Chau, this young American missionary who decided to try to land on Sentinel Island.

Anyone who visits the region will hear about Sentinel Island and how it is completely isolated. After the 2004 tsunami, when helicopters flew close to the island to investigate if any of the people needed “help,” warriors emerged from the forest shooting arrows and throwing spears as if to say, “We’re doing just fine, thank you. Please take your help/interference and bug off.”

Today, the regional and national governments have done their best to honor this. Sentinel Island is off limits by Indian law. It’s common knowledge that outside contact with these tribes can lead to huge disease outbreaks, loss of life, and possible destruction of their entire society.

So why did this young man want to make contact?

For Jesus.

We’re told, by the words of Mr. Chau’s own journal, that as he set foot on the beach he cried out, “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”

I read these words and cringe. As an American and a Christian, I feel shame at the peril Mr. Chau’s actions posed to these people. And for whose benefit? I feel that deeper introspection, self-reflection, or better spiritual mentoring might have revealed to Mr. Chau that his efforts were more about his own gratification than the benefit of these people—whose death sentences he was signing by setting foot on that beach.

There is simply no doubt that prolonged contact and Chau’s presence on that island would have led to the deaths of people. So I’m a little gob smacked that he would attempt it, especially as a follower of a faith based on love for others. It’s misguided at best, selfish at worst. While it feels callous to be writing these words so shortly after news of Chau’s death, as his family is experiencing a sorrowful holiday season facing an empty place at the table, and contemplating many more. But I feel like we also have to point out the even more massive loss of life that would have ensued had the Sentinelese not defended themselves.

What choice did Mr. Chau leave them but to use force to turn him away? I’m pretty sure the Jesus Chau claims to follow would not want to kill the Sentinelese with disease or threaten their civilization with collapse. Not in His name. In Matthew 10:14 Jesus even cautions against converting people against their will and encourages his disciples to move on and find more receptive listeners, listeners you don’t have to force to listen—as such coercion is antithetical to the spirit of the gospel.

So we’re left with this tragedy. A young man, with an earnest heart and good intentions, is dead. His family and community are in mourning.

This is not the first time I’ve felt this toxic mix of emotions: horror, anger, sorrow, shame. As I have described in my memoir Two Years of Wonder, in 2003 I was working for an NGO focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS in Nairobi. We had set up a mobile clinic in an impoverished slum in Nairobi and were immediately flooded with patients. The line was out the door while a volunteer doctor from the UK worked tirelessly to administer what care he could to people who otherwise had no other access to health care. We could not even provide the patients much privacy. We examined them in a classroom with dirty floor and without curtains while other anxious patients waited in child sized chairs against the walls.

Our nurse that day was an American missionary, driven by kindness, compassion, and her need to bring Jesus into people’s lives. When there was a break between patients the nurse asked me if she could try to “convert” some of the people while they waited. She opened a bag and showed me a clutch of Bibles she had brought for parents and toys for children. I was shocked. According to the demographics of Kenya, and personal experience, I knew most of our patients were already Christian. But what struck me most was the coercive nature of the conversion and her obliviousness to it. Here was the only medical attention these people could receive. Some of them were seriously ill. Some of their children were dying. I imagined they would tell us they believed in Baal, Zeus, or Thor, if we—the ones holding power over their health and their children’s health—asked them to.

I would say and do a lot of outrageous things if the only doctor available to treat my child asked me to.

I said “no” to the kind nurse. Whenever we are presenting others with a choice between “Christ” or death, or (in Chau’s case) Christ and death, it doesn’t seem to be an action grounded in a message of love in the least. Chau might not have known the risk he posed to the Sentinelese, but if he had done his homework, he would have. To what extent his earnest faith and zeal for helping others overrule knowledge and good judgment? How often do we see other Christian’s acting in similar ways? How often do we?

And this is where Chau’s actions on that beach feel so personal for me. As someone who was raised Christian, who is a deacon in a Christian church, I’m horrified at what some people are willing to do, what people are willing to risk, in the name of the spiritual teacher and moral genius—Jesus—whom I attempt to follow. This is compounded by the fact that both these instances I’ve shared (and as often is the case) the perpetrators are Americans and this is another identity that is deeply meaningful and personal to me.

So the coercive conversion of oppressed, impoverished, vulnerable people, I hope, will never be done in my name (and I’m fairly certain the Jesus I’ve read about wouldn’t want it in His name either). And if He truly is God, as Christian’s believe, I’m willing to believe He can orchestrate a way to get the gospel to the Sentinelese without decimating their population with disease.

Furthermore, this flagrant disregard for the rights and lives of others that I see all too often among “Christian” missionaries, is powerfully linked to a cultural and national arrogance that is endemic in the west. I feel remiss in not calling it out, criticizing, even condemning it from within, in hopes that it will stop. It must.

I can’t help but ask where were the leaders in Chau’s faith community, “The Way,” or his associates at Oral Roberts University? Isn’t it the role of elders in a faith community to speak wisdom to young people such as Chau, whose misguided impulses could otherwise cause serious harm to themselves and others? My wish is that this tragedy prompts deep and honest self-reflection and humility among those who counseled him. I pray his death does not inspire copy-cats who endeavor to go out and complete his “mission.” We should do everything we can to prevent another tragedy like this. No one should come to the end that Chau did and no family should have to bear such a tremendous loss of a young man who, despite making a poor choice, had so much life to offer the world.

I imagine some readers might counter, in sincerity, “What of the Sentinelese? What if they live their whole lives without hearing the name of Jesus? What if they are not ‘saved?’”

While I admire your piety, I’d answer that by leaving the Sentilese alone—which is obviously their preference—they will remain protected from influenza, measles, and pertussis. Given the choice, I certainly would prefer this outcome for myself. As for the Sentinelese people’s souls, I’m inclined to reference one of the pastors at my church who recently posed the same question in respect to a hypothetical Tibetan shepherd. His answer: “We always want to know ‘who is in, who is out, who is saved, who is not.’ It’s such a western question. How about this: it’s none of our business.”

In other words, if you believe in an all knowing, all powerful, all seeing God, who exists outside of time, well, He, She, It (whatever you want to call your deity) can sort it out. That question is above our pay grade, so we can relax. As my friends in AA say, “Let go and let God."

So consider, if you can’t spread your “gospel” without the recipients dying, then don’t. Please reflect on the fact that your methods might invalidate your message.


[1] https://www.survivalinternational.org/news/9008

7 Lessons on Artistic Perseverance & Awards for The Selah Branch

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“You haven’t read the review, have you?”

That was all I could politely say to the earnest representative from Kirkus Reviews. She had called me to inquire whether or not I was interested in putting some money down on ad space to promote the recent Kirkus review of my book The Selah Branch.

It’s not unusual for Kirkus or other review sites/magazines to offer ad space to books that have received favorable reviews.

The thing is, The Selah Branch had not received a favorable review.

As part of my own practice of self-care/self-preservation, once I read the negative review, I deleted it from my computer, and I chose to exercise the option not to publish the review on their site (a service Kirkus offers to small-time indie authors like myself).

It wasn’t unreasonable for the Kirkus rep to call me. I’d received very positive reviews from Kirkus before, even a Kirkus Star for my Elk Riders series. Those positive reviews earned me boatloads of credibility in writing circles and opened a lot of doors for me. I had paid to promote some of these reviews as part of previous marketing campaigns.

But this was not the case with the Kirkus review of The Selah Branch. I don’t know the name of the anonymous reviewer, but to say they didn’t like my book would be an understatement.

To the embarrassment of the rep on the phone, she pulled the review up on her internal server and began to skim it. I listened to the lengthening silence, punctuated by a series of soft “Oh . . . Oh . . . Oh,” each one sounding more deflated than the last. She was coming to realize that this reviewer had taken pains to ensure there was not a single line or even word that might be used as a pull quote—unless we resorted to using an article or conjunction.

“And,” – Kirkus Reviews;

“But,” – Kirkus Reviews;

“The,” – Kirkus Reviews;

“A,” – Kirkus Reviews.

But these were not going to do much to promote The Selah Branch.

Like I said, I’ve deleted the review. I don’t have it in front of me. But one of the adjectives used to describe The Selah Branch that really stood out to me was “bonkers.”

And the reviewer didn’t mean it in a good way. If The Selah Branch was a zany, funny book, “Bonkers” – Kirkus Reviews, might have worked as a possible pull quote. Maybe. But for a book trying to wrestle with the issues of race, racism, violence, white supremacy, and the fallout from the 2016 election, “bonkers” was not going to cut it.

“Yeah . . .” was all I could really offer in reply to the defeated words of the Kirkus rep. I tried to put on a resilient face and offered, “You win some, you lose some.”

We quickly ended the call.

Fast forward to today and The Selah Branch is my most award-winning novel.

It has won the Multicultural Fiction Book Award in the 2017 New York City Big Book Awards and the 2018 Independent Press Awards (IPA), and was a Finalist in the 2018 National Indie Excellence Awards. It was a Distinguished Favorite in the Sci-Fi category of the 2018 IPA and is now a finalist for best Sci-Fi novel in the 2018 Cygnus Book Awards.

Bonkers indeed.

This isn’t meant as an “I-told-you-so-Kirkus-na-na-na-na-na,” blog post. It is meant as an encouragement to everyone reading, whether you are a writer, musician, artist, entrepreneur . . . anyone with a passion project.

Haters gonna hate, you know?

But you can’t let them stop you if you have passion and feel confident about your idea.

And I felt confident about The Selah Branch.

A key ingredient, however, was that I wasn’t alone. I am blessed with a circle of friends and family with whom I can float ideas. Furthermore, I can trust them to give me their honest, but loving opinion.

And “love” shouldn’t be confused with “nice” or “happiness.” Those are completely different concepts. Sometimes love is frank, tough, and brutal. But that keeps us in line, on track, and growing as people and artists. For months I had been sustained by my friends and trusted fellow writers who had been telling me The Selah Branch was one of the best things I had ever written. They had some critiques, many of them well founded. But once incorporated, those notes only made the book stronger.

So, a few lessons here.

Number 1: Certainly, there is some lesson around perseverance in the face of people who can’t see your vision. Like I said before, my previous Kirkus Star really opened doors for me as a writer. I soaked that praise up. But I had to practice a sort of selective listening, dismissing the latest reviewer as a naysayer, and choosing to listen to my circle of trusted friends instead.

That selective listening, and focusing on the positive while not ruminating on the negative, would probably be lesson Number 2. Lesson Number 3 would be cultivating that circle of friends and trusted critics in the first place. We need those partners—our first readers of our rough drafts—whose input is valuable, informed, and loving. I’ve found these people in my writing friends, but not necessarily in my family. Mad love and appreciation to my parents, but they will ALWAYS be in my corner (which is a great blessing and not to be taken for granted). Mom and Dad’s unwavering support is not always the best for course correction when it comes to the nuances of a project. You probably have people like this in your life. (I hope you do!) You need both, but know how to distinguish among them. Some are cheerleaders, some are coaches. Know the difference. Discerning between them, that’s lesson Number 4.

The real takeaway is that writing, creating something that is new, original, ground breaking, challenging—all those things—well that’s damn hard. Get used to resistance, disappointment, and failure. As David Gewanter, a celebrated poet and one of my writing instructors in college, said to me, “When trying to succeed as a writer, failure means 100 percent rejection. Success is 99 percent rejection, either way, that is still a lot of rejection.”

That’s a useful ratio to remember.

Lesson Number 5: It’s good to remember the subject matter experts (SMEs) can get it spectacularly wrong. This is where I reference the record exec that turned down signing the Beatles in the 1960s telling them that “guitar bands are on the way out.” That reviewer who called The Selah Branch bonkers, well, as an SME who got it wrong, they have a lot a company.

Lesson Number 6 of all this has to do with the content and people’s ambiguous reactions to it. This has less to do with writing and more to do with being an agent of social change, which I cover a lot in this blog.

I don’t know who the reviewer was, but a part of me can’t help but wonder if they were put off by the issues raised by the book. Perhaps the reviewer was white and the pointed critiques of white fragility, white supremacy, and the tragic racist history of the US put them on the defensive. Perhaps they were a person of color and they were uncomfortable with what they saw was a white person-of-privilege, appropriating the voice of a woman of color as the protagonist.[1]

I said as much to my close friend Rasheed Newson who has written dozens of episodes of television over a ten-year career in Hollywood.[2] Unlike me, he has often had to ask the questions, “Do they not like what I wrote/said/did because I am black?” “Do they not like what I wrote/said/did because I am gay?”

“Maybe the Kirkus reviewer didn’t like the content, but maybe they were triggered by it too, by their own ‘isms,’ whatever they might be,” I said to Rasheed.

“Yes, could be all those things, could be none of them. Welcome to the carnival of oppression. You are just visiting, but some of us have lived here all our lives. Because of the distortions of these fun house mirrors, you will never really know if it’s you or if it’s them or if it’s the work.”

Then he laughed.

There are many reasons I love Rasheed, and have since I first met him over 20 years ago. But his resilience in the face of all the confusion, ambiguity, hate, and tragedy the world throws at him, has to be one of the top 5. But aside from his indefatigable sense of humor, Rasheed was modeling for me an important survival strategy, whether for writing, for leading, or life. Rasheed has learned how to cope with ambiguity. Because, along the road to realizing a dream, we rarely get clear answers, unequivocal advice, or counsel that is not contradictory or conflicting. So there, that’s lesson Number 6.

Oh yeah, and being able to laugh at yourself, keeping your sense of humor intact, and not taking yourself too seriously, that is lesson Number 7. That will help you as well as those around you. It keeps you from being insufferable.

So, to wrap up:

(1) Persevere against resistance;

(2) Practice selective listening, keeping an open mind to positive and negative critiques, but learn how not to obsess over the haters. This is important for your own self-care and in order to maintain you own personal reality-distortion-field;[3]

(3) Cultivate friendships in your life with people who are life giving, wise, trustworthy, and loving critics, they will help you practice lessons 1 & 2;

(4) Discern between cheerleaders and coaches, but listen to both;

(5) Remember SMEs can get it wrong;

(6) Learn to cope with ambiguity; and

(7) Keep your sense of humor. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Laugh—especially at yourself.

Those last four will help you keep perspective and remain centered.

Sure, maybe your idea is crap. Maybe it sucks and will turn out earning you heaps of derision and hate mail—it might do this even if has merit![4]

Or maybe, just maybe, your baby is brilliant and just needs you and some well selected friends to believe in it.

But most of all, you.

Keep writing my friends.


_______________________________________________________________

[1] I’ve written about this here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/13/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it-part-two; And here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/1/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it; And here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/6/28/writing-characters-of-color-when-you-are-a-cis-gender-white-heterosexual-male

[2] I know what you are thinking: “Here he goes again, trotting out his gay, black friend, as a cover for his hopeless, uninformed privilege.” Yeah, I’m probably guilty of that. You can stop reading at any point if you want or you can continue hate-reading, too, and then text your friends about what a jerk I am and how I just don’t get it. Up to you, but be sure to link to the offending blog post. Link is here: https://www.amazon.com/Ted-Neill/e/B00O5J5FZC/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1544469446&sr=8-1

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reality_distortion_field

[4] Ha-ha! Welcome to the world of artistic expression!


Allowing Ourselves to be Transformed by the Stories of Others

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A friend of mine recently said, “I miss the people of September 12, 2001.” She quickly pointed out she DID NOT want another 9/11. But in context of the deep divisions in our country right now, what she missed was the solidarity among Americans the day after 9/11, when there was not the factionalism and tribalism we see now. “Where are those people?” she lamented. “I know they are still out there.” 

I thought of her words when I came across the op-ed in the Washington Post this week by Chesley B. 'Sully' Sullenberger III, the airline captain who successfully made an emergency landing on the Hudson river January 15, 2009 saving 155 lives with the help of his crew. Link to the op-ed below.[1]  

Captain “Sully” poses a similar quandry as my friend, albeit in terms more familiar to military officers and leadership consultants. He asks where our “unit cohesion” has gone and points out that when a team, army, or community loses such cohesion, defeat and dissolution quickly follows. He goes on to say that as a country, [W]e are in a struggle for who and what we are as a people . . . The fabric of our nation is under attack.”

Both these observations take me back to a dinner I attended New Year’s Eve, 2001. As the final hours of a traumatic year ticked down, the meal, of course, turned to the tragedy still fresh on everyone’s mind. One relative at the table expressed his desire for a more aggressive stance on terrorism, insisting upon an eye for an eye approach. He asked those of us seated around the table, “If someone broke into your house, shot your family, wouldn’t you want to go out, find them, and shoot them back? Wouldn’t you be justified?”

My father was at that dinner—a former Catholic priest, retired federal judge, and my lifelong spiritual mentor. Dad answered him, “Well, yes, I probably would want that, but whether or not it would be ‘justified,’ who am I to say? That is why I, as an aggrieved party, should not be judge, jury, and executioner. I think—I hope—I would first try to understand why this person committed this act of violence against me and my family. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Was someone holding his family hostage, someone with a grudge against me, or whom I had wronged? I think I’d like to know all this before I contributed to perpetuating the cycle of violence.”

It was my father’s piety and his time as a priest, traveling to some of the poorest parts of the world that inspired me to move to Kenya and live and work at an orphanage for children with HIV/AIDS in 2002—the story I chronicle in my memoir Two Years of Wonder. I left on that trip with my own biases, prejudices, and presuppositions. But I think my dad’s words December of 2001, planted a seed whether I knew it or not. Because in the subsequent years in Kenya and in a myriad of other countries after, I learned that the story was never about me. Reflecting on only myself, as a writer and as an activist, just leads to navel gazing, solipsism, and shitty writing.

The real story (or stories), were the stories of the people I met. The children I met while at the orphanage, not to mention the friends I made in rehab years later: the “junkies” and “drunks” who poured love and wisdom into me when the suffering and deaths of the children I witnessed in Kenya brought me close to suicide.

What does any of this have to do with today’s news cycle?

I’d say, everything.

I’ve seen wall to wall coverage of this migrant caravan in the past weeks leading up to this midterm election. I’ve listened to the breathless commentary from news hosts speculating about the “diseases” these people carry into our country. Consistently, in television coverage I see wide angled aerial shots, from helicopters or drones, showing the column of people moving north. Inevitably this leads the “migrant caravan” to be treated as a monolith. Individuals are lost in that river of bodies and when that happens, we can’t hear their stories.

And it’s those individual stories—I know this from experience—will transform us.

Some journalists have endeavored to cover the people, the individuals. Those profiles, those people, their stories stand out to me. There is José Luis Hernández, who, as Jonathan Blitzer points out in the New Yorker: “[T]ried three times to come to the United States. When he was sixteen, after gangsters in Honduras threatened to kill him, he made the trip with two other boys, but they were attacked by extortionists at the Mexican border, robbed, and eventually apprehended by Mexican authorities . . . Two years later, he undertook the journey again, this this time with a slightly larger group. In Mexico, he fell from a moving freight train and lost an arm, half of one leg, and part of his left hand. Once more he was deported to Honduras. When he finally left the hospital, after a two-year recovery, Hernández began planning another trip . . . In 2015, he joined a group of disabled Honduran asylum seekers who called themselves the Caravan of the Mutilated, and together they reached Texas.”[2]

There is the story of Chantal and Stefani, as profiled by CNN. Chantal, from Honduras, and Stephani from El Salvador both identify as transgender. As such, they face high rates of violence and persecution in many Latin American countries. They are traveling north in search of safety, as well as jobs as climate change (an overlooked actor in all this) has altered the labor landscape throughout Latin America. 

In the same CNN story we encounter Iris, a twenty-one-year-old woman fleeing violence and endemic poverty with her siblings, nephews, and nieces, who rest by the side of the road with her sleeping or playing with dirty stuffed animals.[3] Iris said she would take the first job available that she could find in the States. The risk of being captured by sex traffickers in transit (a real risk to women her age[4]) does not deter her.

A caravan is a thing. As such it can be painted into something threatening, a menace that we can project our deepest fears and insecurities onto to. But seeing these people as a threat is akin to that relative of mine at the dinner table New Year’s Eve 2001, the one who proffered that he would be justified executing his hypothetical home invader. Judge, jury, and executioner.But I feel compelled to try to live up to my father’s proposal: to understand, to comprehend, before I act. This was all the more striking to me since my father actually was a federal judge. His forbearance makes sense though. After all, lives are at stake. It’s only when we draw in closer, take the time to read profiles like the ones in the New Yorker and CNN that the humanity of Jose, Chantal, Stefani, and Iris comes through. These are not some abstract home invaders. They are human beings. As Emmanuel Lévinas, a Jewish philosopher once said, the only thing we are ever converted by is “the face of the other.”[5] The stories of others will transform us. If we let them.  

This was what I learned Kenya and it was, ultimately, why it is the children’s stories that make up the lion share of Two Years of Wonder, not my own.  

What is hardest for me to comprehend is that embracing the unknown was once such a defining feature of the American character. “The US is a country of immigrants,” teachers told us in school. “A place for every culture, creed, and ethnicity. Where everyone has a voice.” America (supposedly) is (was?) a country that pushes against boundaries and barriers, whether it was reaching the Moon or Mars, or diving into the realms of science, math, engineering and the arts. Innovation, exploration are supposed to be in our national DNA. But we can’t take a step towards either without facing and embracing the unknown, trying to comprehend what we don’t understand, even if what we don’t comprehend is another human being. That said, with their souls and our own at stake, isn’t the imperative that much greater to comprehend, to understand, to not shy away from the unknown, the unfamiliar, the alien? 

I think my father realized that, seventeen years ago, on New Year’s Eve. 

So today, in November 2018, on the eve of another divisive election, as we’re challenged to choose between fear or facts, ignorance or understanding, I DO wonder, where are the people of September 12, 2001? Did they all turn into my relative who wanted to chase down “invaders” with their guns? Or are they people like my father, who seeks understanding even today as he asks “Why are these people in the caravan migrating in the first place? What can we learn from their stories?” I learned in my travels that these questions, inevitably, lead us down a path of compassion and transformation.  

That is a place I would rather make my destination.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-saved-155-lives-on-the-hudson-now-lets-vote-for-leaders-wholl-protect-us-all/2018/10/29/554fd0e6-d87c-11e8-a10f-b51546b10756_story.html?utm_term=.af3835b48f67

 [2] https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/why-the-trump-white-house-is-having-a-meltdown-over-the-migrant-caravan

[3] https://www.cnn.com/2018/10/28/americas/migrant-caravan-profiles/index.html

[4] https://iwantrest.com/blog/

[5] Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Lévinas, ed. Jill Robibns (Stanford University Press: 2001)

 

Little Rock ECD: Turning Scars into Stars!

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In my memoir Two Years of Wonder, there a number of children who experience increased vulnerability due to developmental, cognitive, or physical disabilities. For a long-time there were no places for these children to receive therapeutic services, much less an education in Kenya. There are still too few. But one of the organizations working to change that is Little Rock Inclusive Early Childhood Development Center. 

I first visited Little Rock Early Childhood Development Center in Kibera in 2006, when I was a graduate intern for CARE USA. Little Rock ECD Center was founded in 2003. It was the ONLY ECD center where the CARE Kenya staff could refer children with special needs in 2006—and these needs ran the gamut from hearing impairment to cerebral palsy.  

What struck me most about that first visit was the powerful feeling of love and warmth I sensed from the staff and the children. By 2006 I was already a bit of a veteran when it came to visiting children’s homes, pre-schools, and primary schools. I could tell that at Little Rock ECD Center, something was different. There was a unity, solidarity, and genuine determination to give the children there the best chance possible—despite the lack of resources. This came across powerfully when we stopped by for a visit and class was not interrupted so that the children could perform song and dance for us. An aside: another song and dance by children is the last thing you want when you do a school visit—what you want to see is how the school goes about the business of teaching children! 

The interactions among the children were also remarkable to me. Little Rock ECD was (and still is) an inclusive school environment, where children who are “normal learners” are integrated with children who are not. I remember seeing children without special needs helping their friends who did eat, play, and learn. It was remarkable to see: these young children who did not flinch from one another’s differences, who didn’t think twice about helping one another. There was no shunning here, no shame, no stigma, only love, fellowship, and solidarity. 

I visited Little Rock every time I’ve been to Kenya since. I’ve seen them move to a larger campus as they have grown. The same spirit of inclusion continues. As I watched the children play soccer on my last visit in 2015, I realized ALL of them—hearing and hearing impaired—had been taught sign language in order to communicate. There was no telling who was hearing impaired and who was not. Throughout the game they all signed to one another. In additional to successes like these, over the years, the school’s services have broadened further, with trained staff and facilities that can accommodate and treat children with a wide range of cognitive and physical disabilities.  

All this started when Little Rock’s founder, Lilly Oyare founded an ECD center in 2003. It was her goal to focus on vulnerable children in her community. When one child named Melody (more on her below) came to the school in 2006, Lilly faced a dilemma. Melody had cerebral palsy. Due to that, she was more vulnerable than most. Lilly realized they had no training on how to deal with such a child with Melody’s needs. But if Little Rock was to be true to its goal of meeting the needs of the most vulnerable children, Lilly knew they had to accept Melody—she had nowhere else to go. Even though the staff were not sure how they would continue, they opened their doors to all children with special needs after that.

The rest, as they say, is history. Little Rock now has had thousands of children pass through its classroom, hundreds of them have been children with special needs who had received the finest levels of support available. They have classes and after school programs not only for children, but trainings for parents on everything from child care and nutrition, to business generation and microfinance. 

I wanted to provide a glimpse of who Lilly Oyare is, so I sent her a few short questions over email. Her answers are below.

T: Hi Lilly, can you share what inspired you to start your foundation?

L: What inspired me were the lovely faces of the many children I met in Kibera informal settlement. They didn’t look any different than the ones I had in my house, thus they had they had the same motivations to build their dreams of being pilots, doctors, nurses, teachers, and pastors.

T: What are you working on right now that has you especially excited?

L: We are working on a Manual of Inclusive Education and we are fundraising to build a resource center for children with special needs who are unable to transition to primary school because of their disabilities. 

T: Is there a particular success story you’d like to share with readers?

L: Out of the class of 3 year-olds who were admitted among the Baby class in 2004: 13 are joining university and technical college this semester—2018—to pursue a number of different courses. Melody, [Little Rock’s first student with special needs] who has cerebral palsy, completed primary school and has been admitted to high school. She wants to be a lawyer to advocate for the rights of children with special needs.

T: What can readers to do be more involved and to support your cause?

L: Readers can participate in our fundraising activities through our global giving platform (providing early childhood education to 250 children). You can send money through our Paypal account or one can donate through direct debit.

T: Bonus question, what do you do when you’re NOT working, for fun, to restore your spirit, and/or relax?

L: I am very much involved in church activities and I draw my strength from Bible reading 

  

Lilly is one of my all time most inspiring SHEROS. You can watch a video on YouTube with her here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3l8dOk6uTt4

 It’s thanks to people like Lilly that children with dyslexia, such as Miriam in Two Years of Wonder, can get help so they can have a chance to learn, succeed, and thrive. If you’d like to donate to Little Rock, here is the link to their site: http://littlerockkenya.org/newsite/ The donation link will take you right to their Paypal account.

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part Two.

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In Part One of this two-part series, I focused on the positive feedback I’ve received for my Sci-Fi novel, The Selah Branch, A Novel of Time Travel and Race in America. You can read it here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/1/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it

This post will focus on the criticism (much of it legitimate) of this same book. To recap, the story is focalized through its protagonist, Kenia Dezy, a Georgetown University undergrad studying public health. Many people of color have praised the book. They have expressed gratitude for the work I put into it. Others, even friends of mine, HATE The Selah Branch. Some don’t even consider themselves friends of mine any longer.

And I see their point. Stories about women of color BY women of color have never had the platform they deserve in this country—or in the world. Writing is a tough profession and it took a lot of capital (social and financial) for me to break into the industry. My privilege gave me access to resources to fall back on as I started down this road and copies of my first books were selling slowly. Publishing has given me a voice, but no one can argue that white males are historically underrepresented in the US—much less American Literature. (If you think you can, I’d like to know which planet you are living on and if Elon Musk colonized it yet.)

When the median net worth for 40-49 year-old black women with a college education is only $6,000 (debt factored in against savings), as opposed to college educated white women of the same age whose median net worth is $25,000, there is no denying the disparities in privilege, opportunity, and capital that exist in our country as the result of racism.[1] The net worth of younger black women, even with a college degree, falls to an astonishing ZERO, while white women with an equivalent education are still very much in the net positive. See more at the link in the footnote. 

These economic disparities have fallen disproportionately in favor to white people, like me, giving me more access, more opportunities, and more resources. These advantages have enabled me to pursue further education and good jobs, to network professionally, to seek out mentors, and ultimately has helped me to publish. So when I roll up and write a Sci-Fi book, written from the point of view of a woman of color, let’s face it, this can mean shelf space taken away from a Sci-Fi book written about black women by black women. A book like An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (one of the best books I’ve read this year). Suddenly, here I am, a white dude, taking up space (once again) from women writers of color, who historically have not had the same opportunities that have been granted, undeservedly, to me.

And that’s how erasure happens folks. That’s how structural racism persists.  

And I’m part of the problem. 

Sh**. 

But wait! Sadly, there is more. 

When we consider books by white authors or films by white writer/directors, we must consider the legitimate question of, how well do they depict characters of color? Are the men and women of color fully fleshed out, authentic people, or are they one dimensional caricatures that might just reinforce stereotypes? As a writer, it’s deeply uncomfortable for me to read that, on reflection, a luminary like Viola Davis wishes she had passed on her role in the 2011 film The Help—partly for this very reason https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/about-aibileen-viola-davis-says-she-regrets-playing-ma-1828998001.

Ms. Davis has a valuable point. The Help, as feel good of a movie as it was, failed to really explore the lives of the women of color or represent their voices in an authentic way. We are witness to the indignities they suffer, but in the end (like so many black characters before them in American cinema) they end up serving as props to highlight the moral development and moral victory of the white protagonist (played by Emma Stone) and her family. Despite a movie title that references the characters of color, The Help is, disappointingly, white centered. The harshest criticism for the film being that it is another example of a white artist(s) exploiting the stories and suffering of blacks, to promote their careers, fill their pockets. Nia Long has recently spoken out about this https://www.theroot.com/nia-long-i-ve-watched-a-lot-of-men-get-rich-off-of-the-1828664319. To quote the article: “The Love Jones actress has a point—the gender pay gap is real, and it impacts black women tremendously. In fact, black women make 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women.”  

But even more pernicious, not only does revenue from these films flow disproportionately to men (and white men at that), the storylines, white focused as they are, work to ameliorate the guilt white people might have regarding the legacy of racism in this country. Once again, we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” and, “It’s all going to be okay.” 

I won’t argue with any of Ms. Davis’ or Ms. Long’s points. I can’t, because they are right. 

So, what am I to do, as a writer? As a privileged white writer? 

To my frustration (crying fragile white tears here, I know), it’s impossible for me to disentangle myself from my own skin color and the privilege it gives me. I know many white writers try to highlight these issues; we try to call one another out when our work falls short of a higher standard (e.g., The Help). I do think white people need to participate in these conversations on race, art, and representation. We certainly need to do more listening than talking in these conversations, but we do need to add our voices to the mix. For no other reason than the sad fact that, as Dahleen Glanton recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.[2] (I keep finding myself referencing this excellent article in my blog posts. Check it out, link below!)

That sad truth, stated by Ms. Glanton, is uncomfortable to accept. But it rings true. And yet, there are further double standards and injustices we white people have to be aware of as we engage in these issues. Perhaps most important to acknowledge is that we white folks are rarely penalized for trying to address racial inequalities. If anything, we get patted on the back—by ourselves especially—for being “woke.” We give ourselves an A+ for just making the effort.  

But when black people make these same claims (as they have been longer than we have), they are punished. Case in point: Colin Kaepernick still does NOT have a QB job despite being a better quarterback than more than half the men playing in that position.  

But I also believe that doing nothing, for white artists/writers not to wrestle with these issues, to not participate in these conversations, would be a loss. I still feel that to NOT write and publish The Selah Branch would have been a missed opportunity. I think of the women in my life who inspired it and how, in many ways, the story was a declaration of my love for them. I also think of the woman who came up to me weeping, thanking me for writing it. Then there are the comments on Goodreads and Amazon from readers of color who appreciate the book. And frankly, I see The Selah Branch as an opportunity to appeal to white readers, who might not otherwise pick up such a book with a female black protagonist, but would pick it up if it was written by a white author.  

Sad but true. 

So I’ve tried to split the difference, and make up for any “harm” I’m doing with The Selah Branch. I won’t allow The Selah Branch to “compete” in any contests in the category of “African American Writing.” Without question, that would place it in competition with authors of color, possibly limiting their exposure and their opportunities for promotion and accolades. I won’t do that. Any awards The Selah Branch has been nominated for, I have made sure it is in categories such as Sci-Fi or Multicultural, not African American. 

I’ve also been trying to make The Selah Branch a force for good. Not just by the content, but by donating all the proceeds from my sales to three organizations I know well. These are organizations that work to counter the effects of structural racism and racial injustice. In the final analysis, I felt I should not “profit” from writing a book like The Selah Branch. I have profited from racism enough living as a white man in America. But if other people of color, children, college students, or aspiring writers could benefit, well, then I might be able to sleep at night. More on those organizations here:  https://www.tenebraypress.com/the-selah-branch/

It’s not a perfect solution. But there are no perfect allies, only imperfect ones. I hope writers like Rivers Solomon, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, and Tomi Adeyemi would be all right with that. And I hope the Rivers Solomons, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafors, NK Jemisins, and Tomi Adeyemis of the future will be too. Maybe some of them are enrolling at Georgia State or in a head start program run by CURS or Atlantic Street Center right now.

I can only hope.

[1] http://www.insightcced.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/January2017_ResearchBriefSeries_WomenRaceWealth-Volume1-Pages-1.pdf

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part One.

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It’s been about a year since I published my book The Selah Branch, a Novel of Time Travel and Race in America.

People love it, (it’s won numerous awards).

People also hate it, (I’ve lost friends over it).

No one seems to take the middle ground and just say they “like” it.

This post is about the people who love it and why. Part Two will give equal time to those who hate it.

As I’ve had women of color come up to me and tearfully thank me for writing the book. I’ve also had friends, people of color, stop speaking to me because I wrote it.

I knew when I waded into this territory of race, gender, and politics it was a minefield.  All the more so because I was writing a fictional story from the perspective of a woman of color, and I’m a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, male author. I admit, there is an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation and lack of authenticity in that.

But first, at the risk of sounding defensive, a bit on the positive feedback and my original intentions regarding the story.

My book The Selah Branch features a fiercely intelligent, educated, African American college student, Kenia Dezy, as its protagonist. Kenia is the daughter of an African American woman—a physician—and a father who immigrated from Nigeria and became a surgeon. Kenia comes from a privileged background and has had opportunities to learn about her Nigerian roots, even travelling to West Africa to connect with her extended family. It’s been gratifying to see The Selah Branch receive generous reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s also received numerous professional awards and accolades.

I’d never write a book from the perspective of a woman of color and claim that the protagonist somehow represented the voices of all oppressed women of color. I could never write such a character. To that end, I’d never even make such a claim for the characters I write who are white males like me. There is too much variety within that category alone for me to claim to represent all white males. That is an impossible task for any character, any writer, no matter their demographics, white, black, female, male, non-gendered, etc. . .  And it’s when we take the sample size of one character and extrapolate that representation to the greater whole that we are falling into the very old trap of stereotyping.

I would offer that part of the trick/illusion/talent of writing lies in the artist’s ability to step into the shoes, the skin, the lives of the characters we create. I believe this is similar for actors who portray characters who are perhaps very unlike their true selves.

Even though we authors must write from what we “know,” that is never enough. We still need to use our imaginations and we need to seek out new experiences to feed our imaginations. That way the range of what we know is ever expanding. This includes interacting with people, places, and perspectives that are novel to us. As my friend Rasheed Newson, a writer from television shows such as Narcos, The 100, and Army Wives has attested, “I’ve never been a drug dealer in Latin America, a teenager in space, or a wife of an enlisted soldier, but I write from those perspectives all the time. It’s part of the job and it’s the integral to the talent of being a writer.”

If writers, poets, playwrights, singer-songwriters, and/or actors were locked in to characters and voices that were only aligned with their given identities, it would be a poorer world indeed. Rasheed, as a gay black man would have a very narrow demographic to write about and write to. So narrow in fact, he would likely not have had as many writing opportunities as his career has actually afforded him. I would only be “allowed” to write protagonists who were white men. This would make my books City on a Hill, In the Darkness Visible, and Voyage of the Elawn—all featuring female leads—off limits to me.

Even now, I’m reading Earnest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines switches chapter by chapter from the perspective of men and women, white and black, young and old. The novel is all the more powerful for it. If Gaines had been limited only to male characters because he was male, or black characters because he was black, this powerful piece of art—that stands as an indictment against racism and a persuasive argument for love and understanding—wouldn’t exist.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/6/28/writing-characters-of-color-when-you-are-a-cis-gender-white-heterosexual-male) I think the position that we should only write from the point of view of characters whom we share an identity with is highly problematic. Such narrow boundaries does more to contribute to division than to foster understanding.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit my own experience, that which I “know” and “see” the world, is limited. I have blind spots. A few I know, but most I don’t. For instance, I’ve traveled to 36 countries. I have friends from a variety of backgrounds—backgrounds and orientations very different from my own. But some of these backgrounds I am familiar enough with that I would be comfortable creating a character from such a place.

But I’ve never traveled in south or central America. I’m sad to say I don’t have a plethora of intimate friends who come from a Latinx background. As a result, I can’t say I’d be comfortable trying to write from the point of view of a Latinx character. I doubt the character would have an authentic feel. I’ve simply had to few experiences and not enough Latinx friends and family members who can speak into my life or check me when I get outside my lane.

In this respect, writers such as my friend Rasheed or my hero Earnest J. Gaines have an advantage over me. As members of minority/oppressed groups, to survive in mainstream society they have to understand the perspectives of the dominant culture.

As a white male, sadly, I don’t. For me, I have to make a conscious, intentional effort to try to see past my own privilege. And I don’t always do it right.

That said, I did feel comfortable writing Kenia Dezy and crafting the members of her family in The Selah Branch. Mainly this is because I’ve been blessed to have friends like Kenia. One of my dearest and oldest friends, Chisara, a woman I’ve considered my “little sister,” and a friend who was so instrumental in encouraging my early writing career that I dedicated my first book to her—she served as the template for Kenia. Do I know enough college educated, upper middle-class black women with a Nigerian heritage to claim to represent all of them? Of course not.

But do I know my friend Chisara and her family. So I felt comfortable writing a story about someone like her.

As a result, the positive feedback I’ve received regarding The Selah Branch has been that women whose experiences align with Kenia LOVE The Selah Branch. They enjoyed a story centered on a character whose experience reflected their own. One woman who had attended a college in a small white town in Texas, where she was one of the few black people, told me that reading The Selah Branch made her feel “seen” and her own struggles validated.

Ultimately, to only identify with characters (or people!) who match our hyphenated identities, may leave us wanting. As a practice, the approach suffers from the same drawbacks that leaves identity politics open to criticism—mainly that is only leaves us more divided and more alienated from one another.

What I hoped to do with The Selah Branch and with Kenia’s character was what drove me to write it and her in the first place: I identify with Kenia. I firmly believe there are universal things that connect us, unite us, and draw us closer through bonds of humanity and compassion. These are things that transcend our long-tailed demographic labels. These are the desires of our hearts, the goals of our lives, the values we champion. I identify with Kenia, not because she is a black woman, but because she is a someone who is against racism, who loves her family and friends, who wants to live right in relationship with others, and who wants America to live up to its ideals.

These things bring us together, across color lines, ethnicity, educational background, and social economic status. My hope with The Selah Branch, was to show that.

Next post: why people hate The Selah Branch. Why they are right, and why I have been donating all the proceeds to causes that counter racial injustice.

Nia Wilson & Mollie Tibbitts. This is really. . .uncomfortable.

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This post is truly uncomfortable. I’ve been reluctant to even post it, considering the unresolved nature of both these cases, the raw emotions involved, and the pain of the families. I can’t imagine the agony the families of Nia Wilson and Mollie Tibbetts are experiencing. My heart goes out to all those affected. It is gut wrenching to imagine how it must feel to lose a young woman like Nia to such senseless violence or to have someone like Mollie simply “disappear” while jogging the same familiar route each day.

This is not a post comparing/contrasting the worth of either of these young women. They both seem so full of life and potential. Rather, this post is a reflection on how these cases are portrayed in the media and how those portrayals reflect and reinforce our own implicit biases. As for these young women, my heart breaks. For the families I wish resolution and healing. I am holding out hope Mollie Tibbetts is returned safe and sound to her family soon. No one should ever have to endure what her or Nia’s family has gone through.

Like I said, this is a post on media coverage. My thought are as follows:

A veteran journalist once said to me that in terms of which stories get coverage in the US market, the following formula holds true: 1 American life = 5 Europeans = 10 Israelis = 20 Palestinians = 50 Asians = 200 Africans.

Cynical? Yes. But when we consider which tragedies get air time, column inches, and tweets, it’s hard to ignore the truth of the statement. Case in point, my Kenyan friends asked—rightly so—why there was not the same outpouring of international mourning after the terrorist attacks in the Westgate Mall in 2013 or Garissa in 2015 (where 67 and 152 people were killed respectively) as there was in 2016 when 137 and 32 people were killed by terrorists in Paris and Belgium. In 2016 thousands of us modified our profile pictures with the French and Belgium flags. In 2013 and 2015, I don’t remember seeing a single Kenyan flag superimposed on a profile picture.

The notion of bias in media is nothing new. But how this bias reflects racism. . . we have a harder time admitting.

That brings me to these two cases of Mollie and Nia. The disappearance of Mollie Tibbetts is deeply disturbing and tragic. As I write this, she is still missing. I know everyday she is not found is torture for her friends and family. I am praying she is found safe and sound. I don’t wish this ordeal on anyone. I do wish for her to be returned safely to her loved ones.

What is noteworthy is the coverage. Of course, Mollie is still missing, so the urgency of finding her is great. In that sense, the saturation of coverage and stridency is completely called for.  I don’t question that for a moment.

It’s just, we don’t always do it for everyone. And that’s the deeply uncomfortable bit.

If you are white and don’t understand why your black friends or neighbors might not see the latest coverage of a missing white girl the same way you do, read this article:

https://mic.com/articles/93780/64-000-missing-women-in-america-all-have-one-important-thing-in-common#.ubFEq3Seu

As the article points out, the bottom line is that even though African Americans represent only about 12 percent of the US population, they account for 34 percent of all missing person cases. They are OVER represented in missing persons cases, just as they are over represented in incarceration figures. To quote the article: "If you Google 'Natalee Holloway,' how many impressions would you get?" Black and Missing cofounder Natalie Wilson told ABC News last year. "If you Google 'Unique Harris,' who's missing from D.C., the story is not the same."

Where do these missing women of color go? Many are fleeing domestic violence. Women of color experience domestic violence at rates 35 percent higher than white counterparts.[1] Many end up as unsolved murder cases. Many are trafficked into sex work. In my own home county, King County which encompasses Seattle, 84 percent of child trafficking victims (18 and younger) were female, and 52 percent of them were African American. The general population of King County is just 7 percent African American.[2]

Those statistics are not making headlines. That leads to a long-standing complaint from people of color about what grabs media attention (and thus ours). A young missing white woman in Iowa garners national headlines and primetime coverage. Hundreds of missing black women in US cities doesn’t.

We can’t say the media is solely to blame here, because the media is made up of people just like you and me. The media is us. We are also its consumers. And we’re biased. We’re racist. Even if we don’t mean to be biased, we are biased. Even if we don’t mean to do racist things, we still do racist things. Often without even knowing.

Stories of missing white women or white women who have been victims of violence are packaged for our consumption with a familiar outline that harkens back to the damsel-in-distress trope. For women of color, the same treatment is not merited. That brings us to Nia Wilson.

As many might know, Nia Wilson (21) was stabbed to death on a BART platform in an unprovoked attack July 28th of this year. The man who murdered her and stabbed her friend was apprehended. He is white. Nia was black. Some are alleging this was a hate crime. In my own Google search for Nia’s image, I found at least half a dozen pictures of her. She was a photogenic woman. She wanted to be a paramedic and liked the idea of helping others. She appeared happy and approachable in her photos. There were half a dozen flattering photos that came up in my cursory search, much like the ones I used above. But when the local Oakland television station KTVU, ran the story, the picture they chose, from Nia’s Facebook profile, was one of her holding a toy gun.

Nia, who had been brutally murdered, for some reason, did not merit the “damsel in distress” treatment. Instead she was portrayed holding a weapon, confirming the implicit associations, on the part of whites, that black people are dangerous, criminal, and violent.

We’ve progressed enough as a society that plenty of people cried foul. Dahleen Glanton in the Chicago Tribune credits Anne Hathaway as one sympathetic and influential voice that brought attention to Nia’s story and the outrageous, biased, and racist way she was portrayed through the choice of this picture http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html

The headline of Ms. Glanton’s article is another hard truth: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.

What’s striking to me is the privilege so many of us white people (youth AND adults) have to dress up as Storm Troopers, Gangsters, Bounty Hunters, (complete with imitation guns) but we’re not DEFINED by it, nor are we imperiled by it. We can gather at various CON, events, e.g. Dragoncon, Comicon, Emerald City Con, and no one calls the police on us. If we’re murdered, the picture put on the evening news is likely not of us posing in Han Solo cosplay with a replica ray-gun.

Meanwhile, my friends, parents of black children, can’t even let their kids play with water guns, for fear they might be shot by police.

Nia Wilson dressing up as a 1920s gangster and holding a toy gun doesn’t scare me. You know what does scare me? These white men with real guns.

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Those pictures were from the Oath Keeper’s armed protests last month outside member of Congress, Maxine Waters’ office in Washington DC and from Ferguson Missouri. I am not advocating violence, no matter how problematic I find the politics of groups like the Oath Keepers. But consider this: an extraterrestrial visitor lands on your street tomorrow morning. He’s been watching CNN. He asks you why there have not been “misunderstandings” that lead to police shooting dead these white men carrying real firearms and threatening people, when black children are shot dead for carrying toy guns. Can you explain this to him without implicating racism?

Oh yeah, and speaking of white guys with guns, someone keeps shooting the sign commemorating the murder of Emmett Till. It’s been shot, dragged, and thrown in the river, like his body was, numerous times. Each time it is replaced, someone shoots it up. https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/06/us/emmett-till-sign-vandalized-trnd/index.html

It’s 2018, right? Just checking.

Back to Nia. The damsel-in-distress narrative vs. the dangerous-black-person-with-a-gun feeds into the toxic (if implicit) bias that “well that black person probably did something to provoke/deserve it that treatment.” I’m afraid we white people feed ourselves this line when we encounter these stories and then move on under the illusion that all OK with the world. Our police are virtuous. Our society is post racial. These fallacies allows us to suppress our own cognitive dissonance. They let us ignore how we might be reaping benefits of a horribly prejudiced system.

All is definitely NOT right with the world. Actually, things are pretty damn wrong. To paraphrase Ving Rhames as Marcellus Wallace: “Things are pretty f***ing far from OK.”

And things are far from OK when it comes to how we track these things. In researching for this post, I looked up government statistics on missing persons. It’s heartening to see that at least some agencies are tracking these cases. But (again) attention is not applied in equal measure. When I tried to find data on missing Native American women, I found out that the US government does not even track reported disappearances for this group. It was a sobering reminder that we don’t act as if ALL lives actually matter in this country.

To that end, ALL lives will NEVER matter, until we act as if women’s lives matter, black lives matter, and native lives matter. Mollie Tibbitt’s life matters. So does Nia Wilson’s.

No more or less so than one another. No more or less so than anyone else’s.

Hopefully, in a not too distant future, the data we collect, the media representation—our representations—of these women and women like them, will reflect that.

 

[1] https://www.doj.state.or.us/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/women_of_color_network_facts_domestic_violence_2006.pdf

[2]  https://iwantrest.com/blog/systemic-oppression-inequity-and-sex-trafficking/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=March