The most disturbing thing about the new Joker film: it's treatment of Women of Color and what that says about us.



While Zazie Beetz’s character, Sophie Dumond, is certainly real in Todd Philips’ Joker, the filmmakers still try to pull a Fight Club-esque turn two thirds of the way into the film, “revealing” to the audience that, aside from Arthur’s (Joaquin Phoenix) encounter with Sophie on the elevator, all the scenes of romance between Arthur and Sophie have been figments of his imagination. 

If this build up and reveal was supposed to have a powerful payoff (and I believe that was what was intended) I wonder how many of us believed it? And for those who were genuinely surprised by the “twist,” because we bought the notion that a woman like Sophie would see something in budding supervillain like Arthur, what does that say about the filmmakers’ and our perceptions of black women? 

I can hear readers raising objections that I’m even bringing race into it, especially because Sophie is the film’s love interest and that, in turn, elevates her character. But I think as writers and storytellers we need to push ourselves beyond a surface-level reading of these roles. We need to analyze their function in the overall story. We need to consider how the plots and characters we present align with positive and negative trends throughout society and the entertainment industry.  

I say this because I know I left Joker unsettled by what Zazie Beetz’s character has in common with the two other women-of-color characters in the film and my further observation that all of them do little more than serve as plot devices. Their characters essentially cater to the emotional needs of a white man (in this case a despicable man) only then to be dispatched by the story when they have served their purpose.  

Alone, this might not be terribly significant. But it’s not unique to Joker, and that is a problem. 

For the Sophie “turn” to work in Joker, we have to believe that this warm, intelligent, strikingly attractive single mother (with a job and plenty of social capital) would see Arthur as a viable partner with something to offer. Does he? The film tells us “No,” portraying him as an unattractive, creepy older man. He is struggling with a chronic mental illness and is living with his mentally ill mother.[1] If that is not enough baggage, Arthur is failing at his job, his side hustle, and life in general. Yet, the narrative invites us—at least a little—to suspend our disbelief that a “10” like Sophie would consider dating a “2” like Arthur. 

Unless Sophie is not a 10. But given her personal warmth, her physical attractiveness, and her employment status, what is left that would make us consider her anything other than a 10? She already has a kid? Well, for many, that’s not a problem at all. You already know she is a good mother.

And come on, can Arthur really afford to be choosy?  

So what is left? Which one of Sophie’s attributes as a woman are left that might, in some people’s view, bring down her social capital enough that we might entertain, even for just a few beats, that this relationship is a viable possibility? 

What leaves me so uncomfortable is that, intentionally or not, I feel that the undervaluing of Sophie rests on her status as a black woman and the overvaluing of Arthur essentially relies on the fact that he is a white man. 

I’m not saying that the filmmakers did this purposefully. That is actually the deeper problem. Skin color doing the “work” of undervaluing Sophie and signaling her diminished social capital makes intuitive sense—to all of us. That is the nature of implicit bias. We don’t even consciously think about it because the associations are so deeply ingrained. And we don’t like to admit why.  

A defense I already can hear in my mind is this: “You liberals are impossible to please. If the part was given to a white woman, you would complain that the casting wasn’t diverse enough.” That is possible! But let’s consider if the role was played by a white actress. If Sophie’s character was identical in all ways but skin color (perhaps played by Gal Gadot or Brie Larson—who like Beetz have also recently played formidable superheroines), might viewers pause a bit sooner in the story? Might they wonder, “What is a woman like Sophie doing with a guy like Arthur . . . what is she doing in a rundown apartment building at all?” thus jeopardizing the payoff of the reveal?  

I think we owe it to women of color, and to our own growth as individuals and society, to ask ourselves: why is it that placing a black woman in such an impoverished setting and using her skin color as shorthand for desperation seem so . . . natural . . . automatic . . . even authentic? What does that say about us viewers? Our society?  

I’m not even necessarily saying the casting was a mistake . . . but if we storytellers are going to write stories with characters different from ourselves and if we are going to put these images out into the world, then we have an obligation to go deeper in our analysis. We have to ask what pre-existing and harmful narratives we are leaning into for our stories to work? What toxic tropes, stereotypes, and trends are we perpetuating? Do we recognize our responsibility to question and challenge them? 

Sophie’s casting could be dismissed as a one off, if not for the other roles for women of color in Joker (or Hollywood more broadly). The two other significant women of color in the film are both Arthur’s counselors. The first is his social worker. The second is his psychiatrist. Like Sophie, these women serve Arthur’s emotional needs. In as visual a medium as film, I imagine the choice on the part of the producers to make the counselors resemble one another had to be intentional. The visual call back to the first counselor when we meet the second is obvious. We meet this psychiatrist in the penultimate scene of the film, in Arkham Asylum, just before Arthur brutally murders her.

As we watch Arthur saunter down the hall in the closing image of the film, his feet leaving footprints in shocking red on the white floor, I was left wondering: while the studio execs who produced Joker were congratulating themselves on the diverse cast, did anyone stop to consider the overall optics of these roles? 

I suspect the answer is no and that is problematic because diversity placeholders and tokens, when it’s almost 2020, are insufficient. And they can get us into dangerous waters.  

Like I said, this isn’t isolated to Joker. 

The 2017 film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is a recent (and painful) example. Rhianna is plopped into this story playing a shape-shifting alien, Bubble. Bubble is held captive at a sort of futuristic cabaret/bordello. She is charmed by the eponymous lead, Major Valerian, played by a smirking Dane DeHaan, who needs her talents for his own quest. The major is portrayed as a selfish chauvinist who unabashedly sexually harasses his female subordinate, Sergeant Laureline, played by Cara Delevinge. One could argue that in the film’s opening scene, Valerian comes close to sexually assaulting Laureline. Considering the power dynamics (he is her commanding officer), it’s all very Harvey Weinstein. The film’s treatment of these interactions is uncomfortably light and playful. The characters eventually marry so . . . this is ok? (It’s all based on a French comic book from the seventies, so the mores are obviously terribly dated).  

While there is some, limited growth on Major Valerian’s part, when his blond-haired, blue-eyed Laureline is kidnapped, we the audience are asked to believe that his charm is able to convince Rhianna’s Bubble to risk her life to help him save Laureline. Bubble does and ends up sacrificing herself in the effort. As an isolated character arc and casting choice (as in Joker), this is not a big deal. Yes, maybe Bubble’s death raises the stakes for the story. And yes, Arthur’s murder of his psychiatrist cements his devolution into a monster/villain. But I’d venture, as socially responsible writers, we’re obligated to consider how these things read. Here is a take on the subplot in Valerian: 

  • Woman of color character risks life in service to white male so he can rescue his white female love interest.

  • Woman of color character dies helping unabashed chauvinist. Sad beat.

  • Woman of color character never mentioned in script again (forsaken) as white male hero continues (cue soaring march) in his pursuit of GOAL (cue ethereal ballad): the blond-haired, blue-eyed princess, I mean, sergeant.   

The good news is that the corrective to these unfortunate subtexts isn’t rocket science. The biggest obstacle is our own willingness or unwillingness to humbly self-examine and admit our implicit biases. Granted, Bubble is a shape-shifting alien. But do young kids of color appreciate that nuance? I’d argue no. They see another woman-of-color character castoff by the story as irrelevant (Rhianna no less!) after she has fulfilled the purpose of serving the “entitled” white male protagonist. It’s a shame and a loss. I would argue that Bubble’s character was a more interesting one than Valerian or Sergeant Laureline, but I’m not the one calling the shots in Hollywood (I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered white guy working at his writing desk in his pajamas . . . so clearly not studio executive material).  

I’d argue that the course correction comes in two parts. First, it’s a matter of pausing for a moment, asking ourselves a few incisive questions and seeking feedback from others. A lot of these conversations are enriched by having more diversity in front and behind the camera. These issues won’t be solved by an individual white guy at his writing desk in his pjs, but rather, by teams of diverse creatives. That means writers’ rooms, studios, and publishing houses where intellectual property is crafted, marketed, and sold should better reflect the majority-minority country and world we are living in. 

The questions I’m suggesting we ask are simple and would do a lot to get us beyond tokenism. They would help us to break out of some of the toxic and harmful patterns we keep repeating for our kids to see and internalize. Questions like, what ARE the roles we’re writing for characters of color? Who is writing them? Whose stories are we telling? Who is sitting around the writers’ table, at the studios, in the publishing houses? Do the characters of color we present in film, TV, books reflect our own implicit biases in unseemly ways? How are those characters treated in the story? Are they plot devices, clichés, stereotypes? Are they given meaningful inner lives or are we substituting the questionably accurate shorthand society has already given us? What images do these characters offer to younger viewers looking for representations they can relate to? Are we even the best people to answer these questions? Whom should we consult for a perspective other than our own? Does our team of creatives and decision makers reflect the society we’re writing about/for? 

The second suggestion is to enhance our understanding (and curricula) around media literacy. We do this with literature. We know better than to read The Merchant of Venice or Othello innocently. Classes at the secondary and tertiary levels discuss the problematic nature of characters like Shylock and Othello. Just because it hasn’t been considered high art, doesn’t mean we should give what we see on our screens a pass. And that assignment is for everyone, not just creatives who manage IP, but fans who consume it.

But speaking as a writer (because that is my vocation and profession) we have an artistic imperative to do better. As humans, we have a moral one. We can and we should. It will produce better writing and—this is not hyperbole—a better world. After all, if anything is to be brought into existence, it has to be imagined first.


[1] I intend no shame in pointing this out. I live with a chronic mental illness. And really, who doesn’t have some ongoing health issues, especially as we age. I think taking into account a potential partner’s ongoing health challenges—and more importantly how they are managing them—is a reasonable and even necessary consideration during courtship.

Say Her Name: Atatiana Jefferson

atatiana jefferson.jpg

Texas Police Officer Shoots and Kills Black Woman in Her Own Home

The tragedy of this story speaks for itself. My posting of it on this blog is really just in effort to ensure it gets the attention it deserves (which, in time of impeachment fever, it won’t).

One line in particular, a quote from Atatiana Jefferson’s aunt, illustrates the poignancy of her niece's death for me:

“[Atatiana] was a college graduate with a good job who would never have been a threat to anyone . . . that is why this is so hard to conceive.”

The notion that Atatiana was a “college graduate” and that this professional and scholastic achievement would some how protect her reminds me of comments friends of color have made to me over the years. In so many words they say, “No matter my job, my six-figure income, how I dress, how I talk . . . when a cop looks down the barrel of his gun at me, he see’s a criminal and a threat.”

It’s also a powerful indictment of respectability politics—the notion that as long as black people dress like whites, talk like whites, and work to attain academic and professional success “like whites,” racism will magically disappear.

It won’t and it doesn’t. That is why a world-renowned scholar like Henry Louis Gates Jr. PhD can be arrested, in broad daylight, on the front porch of his own home, because he forgot his house key, got locked out, and a woman called the police because he “looked suspicious.” Henry Louis Gates arrest controversy. That event was ten years ago and culminated in the “Beer Summit.” Remember?

Anyone reading can be forgiven for their cynicism right now as they wonder "Has anything changed?" Especially since, ten years ago many (white) Americans would never have conceived that within the next decade white supremacists would be marching on Charlottesville VA with torches, crying out, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us,” and “White power.” Ten years ago we had just elected our first black president. Racism was over!

This is when my black friends would point out my naiveté.

The notion of income, degrees, the trappings of “respectability,” protecting people of color was also driven home to me in the following Washington Post series: Perspective | A renowned scientist searched for his mystery angel for 30 years. Case closed. This ongoing series has covered how Mahmoud Ghannoun, a Kuwaiti scientist facing an expiring visa in 1990 during the first Gulf War and trying to help his family immigrate to the US as refugees while Kuwait burned, was allowed to stay in the US just a week longer by a Vietnam vet, turned volunteer firefighter, turned travel agent - a black man named Jimmy Dorsey.

Dorsey was moved by Ghannoun’s plight when he walked into a travel agency off Farragut Square in Washington DC. After hearing his story, Dorsey opened his wallet, gave Ghannoun eighty dollars so he could eat that week, then risked his job fudging some paper work so Ghannoun could remain in the US seven days longer. In that time, Ghannoun was able to do two job interviews. Ghannoun was offered both jobs and as a result was able to get his family safely to the US.

Your life has been impacted by Jimmy Dorsey. As a result of his kindness for a stranger (a Muslim seeking asylum who had a strong accent and thick mustache) the knowledge regarding the microbiome in our digestive system has grown. Our health is better for it. As the article points out, “Whenever you read about gut bacteria or probiotics? That’s Ghannoum’s work.”

A further tragedy is evident the divergent paths the men’s lives have taken since. Coincidentally, Ghannoun and Dorsey were the same age. Ghannoun’s career continues to flourish and with the help of his son he was able to track down Doresy’s family after thirty years and thank them.

Unfortunately, the two men will never reunite. Jimmy Doresy died this February, succumbing to lung and liver cancer. Two men. The same age. But Doresy’s health and lifespan, tragically, tracks along with the health statistics of so many other black men and women who face elevated rates of illness, reduced access to quality health care, and shorter life expectancy.

It burns me that these inequities and injustices affect people I love. If they don’t die from health inequalities, my friends of color could just as easily die at the end of the barrel of a weapon brandished by police officers sworn to “protect and serve.” My own best friend, a successful writer/producer in LA, with a college degree, nearly came to the same end as Atatiana Jefferson—in his own neighborhood. A few years ago, while he was walking to the post office, two police officers approached him at gun point, forced him to the ground, and handcuffed him. This was because of reports of a black suspect that “resembled him” in the area.

Right there in that moment, the limitations of respectability politics were laid bare. My friend, his profession, his income, his college degree, the title to his home, his Ted Baker[1] designer clothes, none of those things protected him. He could have ended up like Atatiana Jefferson, Botham Jean, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Harris, Amadou Diallo, Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark . . . and so so many others.

The world would have lost a man who is a husband, a father, a friend, and a brilliant writer. A man with a big heart, whom I got to know in college because he volunteered at a shelter for homeless children with HIV/AIDS. A man who has adopted two children offering them a home, life, and love, that would have been unavailable to them otherwise. A man, not unlike Jimmy Dorsey, whose generosity and kindness regularly extends to strangers.

It makes you wonder at what we lost, when we lost Atatiana Jefferson.

Will we ever learn?



[1] A bitter irony is that, as a white man, I can shop for most of my clothes at secondhand shops and still get more respect from police than my black friend who wears designer brands that I can’t even afford. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve been told as much by a Seattle police officer.

On Forgiveness


So much has already been written, from people more qualified than myself, on the racial, spiritual, social, and political dynamics/implications in the above image that it’s best for me to link to their work here rather than running the risk of “whitesplaining” it. (The subsequent murder of Joshua Brown, a key witness in convicting Guyger, has been a deeply troubling development that merits its own blog post).

The One-Sided Nature of Black Forgiveness 

Botham Jean, Amber Guyger and the Delusion of Forgiveness 

Amber Guyger was hugged by her victim’s brother and a judge, igniting a debate about forgiveness and race

Dear White People: About Botham Jean, Forgiveness, Justice, and Cheap Grace 

Adam Serwer, one of my favorite writers, wrote this in his Twitter feed: “We would be living in a very different world if many of the people who exult in black displays of forgiveness reciprocated that grace and mercy but that’s not reflected at all in our criminal justice policy, and it makes you question what they really find compelling about it.”

Even before this week, many other influential writers have written on this same topic. Links to two of those pieces are below in the footnotes.[1]

The story of Brandt Jean’s forgiveness for his brother’s killer has stirred passionate discussion within my social and professional circles. To a great extent I agree with writers such as Sophia Nelson, Anne Branigin, Hannah Knowles, Karyn Carlo, Jenn M. Jackson, Roxane Gay, and Adam Serwer. As a white male writer, there isn’t much I can add to their words on the racial dynamics of this and how it fits into a larger context of racism in the US. I would not presume to be able to write from their perspectives on this deeply personal issue. 

Instead, for what it’s worth, I’m interpreting Brandt Jean’s gesture of forgiveness through the lens of what I’ve learned from the recovery community, and that is the angle I’m using for this blog post. 

For regular readers of this blog, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of the recovery community, specifically 12-step programs such as AA, NA, Al-Anon, ACA, etc. I first came into serious contact with them when I was suicidal and hospitalized for depression in 2012. It changed my life. Although I have never struggled with addiction or alcoholism, suicidal ideation is a sort of compulsion in itself. What I learned from my brothers and sisters in the recovery community has helped me with my mental and spiritual health since. Because of them, and what I learned from the wisdom of these programs, I’ve learned to live with my mental illness. I’m deeply grateful for all I’ve gained from their fellowship. So much so that I frequently tell people that my near-suicide and hospitalization was the “best worst thing” that ever happened to me. And, like many in the AA community, I often feel like everything I own should be stamped with “Property of Alcoholics Anonymous” because everything I have today I owe to these programs of recovery and the way of living I learned from them. 

Since September 25, 2012 (the day of my hospitalization), I’ve worked through the 12 steps twice. I attend open AA meetings regularly. I meet with a sponsor each week. My sponsor, Terry B., has thirty-eight years of sobriety and serves as my spiritual director as well as friend.[2]  

It’s a story my sponsor told me this very week on the nature of forgiveness and acceptance that I thought of while looking at that photo of Brandt Jean embracing Amber Guyger. Terry was telling me about a sponsee he had years ago. We’ll call him Jack. Jack was bitter and angry with so many of the people in his life, including his wife and his mother. Terry was trying to help Jack through a step 4 inventory,[3] wherein a sponsor guides a sponsee through their transgressions, their resentments, and their fears. The ultimate goal is to help the sponsee recognize their part in these lingering sources of toxic thoughts so they can remedy that. But Jack simply could not let go of his anger, his resentment, and thus his sense of persecution and victimization—especially from his wife and mother. Sensing they were reaching a critical juncture, Terry got up, walked around the table he and Jack were working at, and sat down next to Jack. Terry looked him in the eye and said, “Listen Jack, if you can’t find a way to forgive your wife and mother, it will kill you.” 

Jack couldn’t.  

He was dead within a year. 

I’ve heard many speakers and many folks disclose in AA meetings how, despite never being apologized to by those parents/spouses/family members/bosses/friends/strangers who had hurt them in the past, they HAD to find it in their hearts to forgive them. They didn’t do this because grace required it of them. They did it because their own sobriety depends on it. They have to let go.[4] They have to forgive because they know that resentments, over time, are toxic and otherwise will lead to poor spiritual health, a loss of sobriety, and death.  

The stakes are that high with alcohol, addiction, and I would say, many other forms of mental illness, like my own.  

So when I see Brandt Jean embracing Amber Guyger and forgiving her, I see him doing it less for her and more for himself. It is part of his own healing process. To an extent, many writers and commentators have acknowledged this in the articles linked to above. 

And then there are the people of the world who are claiming this act to be more than it is. These folks (mostly white) want to see it as absolution for all white people who have benefited from racial injustice.[5] These white folks see this gesture as an example for all black people to follow. They see it as a justification for black people to abandon black rage all together. 

Writers of color and their allies are right to push back against this gross misinterpretation. And I agree with the theologians and essayists pointing out how, throughout history, the Christian notion of “turn the other cheek” has been perverted—even weaponized—by white oppressors and their enablers. “Turn the other cheek” has been used to justify enslavement, discrimination, and to delegitimize the righteous anger of many oppressed communities.  

And I agree with Sophia Nelson in the Washington Post: it is by no means fair that forgiveness only goes one way. Full stop. It just ain’t. Add to that, I don’t think it’s fair that so many of my friends in the recovery community have had to forgive deadbeat dads, abusive spouses, and exploitative pimps, even though some of these individuals never asked for it.  

It’s not fair . . . but . . . what do we do? . . . what do I do with that lingering sense of injustice? 

It certainly motivates me in my work for social change, whether that is on the page or hands on. But humility forces me to recognize that my sphere of influence is much, much smaller than I’d like to admit. Friends in AA have insisted to me that I should envision a hula hoop around me. That gives me a clear picture of how wide my circle of influence and control really is. That sucks. The hard truth I have to admit is that, through my power and influence alone, I’ll never be able to right all the wrongs and restore justice to the world.  

My fellow journeyers in the recovery community, with more years than I, have said to me, “Ted, life doesn’t offer justice. It just is.” Terry would tell me that 99.99 percent of the world’s problems don’t have my name on them and that the 00.01 percent that do will keep me more than busy. So I’m left to practice humility, recognize it’s not on me to fix everything wrong with the world. I need to practice acceptance that I won’t be able to fix it all. And I need to practice trust that my higher power/God will.  

In other words, I should stop trying to play God, fixer, and/or savior and just keep my side of the street clean, or in my sponsor Terry B.’s words, “I want people to heal, to get better, especially my sponsees, but I have to love them whether they do or not. And if they get better or not, ultimately, its none of my f***ing business. It’s their business and God’s business. When my service to them turns into ‘saving’ them, that is just another form of pride.” 

How is that for humility and radical acceptance? 

It’s not that Terry would ask me to forget the slights and injustices in the world. He’s moved by them as much as I am. I’m certain of that. And he certainly encourages me in my own work to try to affect positive change. But Terry reminds me of the importance of letting go, of not making my anger at injustice or unfairness too deep a part of my identity. He’s warned me that holding on to resentments for the world’s injustices—the ones that affect me directly or the ones that affect others—can be toxic for the soul. 

Like it was for his sponsee Jack. 

Boy, that is hard to hear. Really hard to hear for a recovering control freak, do-gooder, aid worker, with a history of poor boundaries, virtue signaling, and a chronic case of “white savior-dom.”  

But I think Brandt Jean knows this even better than I do. 

This “letting go” certainly doesn’t excuse us from the work of social change. Not at all. Although I think that is what some white folks, looking for absolution, want to read into Brandt’s gesture. They shouldn’t. But keeping in mind our humility should right-size us, help us (or at least me) see our selves and our work in perspective.  

I wouldn’t want to go as far as to say Brandt was making a statement on race relations or racial justice. Those things are way outside his hula hoop. But what was in his sphere of influence right then and there was Amber Guyger. And faced with the opportunity to forgive, he took it. Might that have an impact outside that courtroom, outside his hula hoop? Maybe, but (fortunately) that’s not on his shoulders either. As for how our personal and intrapersonal interactions go out into the universe as a force for good, a force for change, that is an answer that is beyond our pay grade, and I think is the very “mystery” theologians talk about when they talk about the mystery of grace and the paradox at the center of it. We’re either all deserving or none of us are. 

I’m afraid the answer is that both statements are true. 

But it’s 12 steps, not four. And for spiritual health there are other steps that I lean on for understanding the contradiction in that. It’s steps 8 and 9: making a list of those we have harmed and making amends to them. 

Bear with me. 

See, step 4 deals with how we have been victims (or perceived victims). Steps 8 and 9 deal with how we have victimized others. Part of the transformational practice of the 12 steps is to be responsible for what you can control (what is inside your hula hoop). If you have harmed others, and if you wish for your own spiritual healing, then not only are you called upon to apologize, but you are required to go further and make amends.  

Amends means more than saying “sorry.” Making amends implies that true healing comes in four parts: (1) expression of regret; (2) acceptance of responsibility; (3) acknowledgement of the impact on others; (4) a remedy, an act of restitution to the injured party or (when that route is unavailable) paying it forward to others. 

But here’s the thing: AA will tell us that if we’re the injured party, we can’t wait around for amends from others! They might never come. What I’ve heard folks say in meetings is that, “I had to forgive [my father/my abusive ex-spouse/my pimp], otherwise I would be a victim of them for the rest of my life.” And in recovery we must accept that we have no control over that person and/or whether they ever apologize. They are outside our hula hoop. 

Yep, we have to let it, let them, go. 

On the other side of the victim/victimizer equation, if you are the party that injured others (the victimizer, e.g. Amber Guyger), then these steps of making amends are part of your path back to wholeness. Again, I don’t confuse Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of Amber Guyger with absolution for her (or all white people—it’s definitely not that). Brandt’s graciousness is inviting Amber down a long road of reflection, restitution, and reconciliation. Amber’s admission of responsibility certainly makes it easier for Brandt to forgive her, but he likely knows he would have had to forgive her whether she asked for it or not—for the sake of his own healing. Just like so many of my friends in the AA fellowship have learned. If they didn’t want to be eaten alive, defined completely by their hurt and anger, they’d have to forgive—even the victimizers who never asked for it. 

It’s not fair. It’s not justice. It just is. 

As for Amber Guyger, she still has a long road ahead of her. But no one is irredeemable. Her jailtime and (hopefully) the inter- and intrapersonal work she will do in the future will all be part of her road to healing.  

In closing, when I see Brandt Jean embrace his brother’s killer, I see a man taking care of himself and his soul. No more, no less. It’s rarely the easy path. I admire him for taking it. I hope that, for Amber Guyger, it’s the first step to redemption. But that work will be within the exclusive domain of her and her creator, in the space of her own hula hoop.



[1] Jenn M. Jackson: Why Is Forgiveness Always Expected from the Black Community After Violence Occurs?; Roxane Gay:

[2] Although many members of the AA fellowship would not claim it, I’d say that the people I have met in the rooms of AA are better “Christians” than many of the people I meet who vaingloriously claim that label for themselves.

[3] To make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

[4] “Let go and let God [handle it]” is a frequent manta in AA.

[5] That is 99.99 percent of white people, if you are wondering.

Understanding & Hope in the wake of El Paso and Dayton Shootings

PBD_ Hate with Love1.jpg

This has been a hard week to choose the words, links, articles to share for a blog. I imagine so many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the coverage of the loss, the disbelief, and anger—not to mention feeling all those things. I don’t want to add to that. 

But I don’t want to be silent either. So, I’m dedicating this week’s brief to the issue of white supremacy, which has been on my mind anyway since, with the help of friends, I’ve already begun slipping copies of Reaper Moon, my novel meant to be a counter to white supremacy and white nationalism, into free lending libraries across the country. We hope to have one thousand free copies out there in this fashion over the next few months. It will be available on all online retailers the first week of September (this year). 

There is so much hurt out there this week. As a counter, I really wanted to be thorough and lean into the spiritual in this post. I’ll share examples of understanding and hope that have provided me some solace. 

First: Understanding. From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew firsthand about facing down race supremacists and how they emerge from an ecosystem of hurt and hate—a collective failure on the part of society to love. Bonhoeffer writes in Letters, Papers from Prison that the individual “supremacist” (or in his words “fool”) substitutes slogans for critical thinking while being exploited himself:  

“The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. One feels that when talking to him, one is dealing with slogans, catchwords and the like, which have taken hold of him. He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil . . . reasoning is no use; facts that contradict prejudices can simply be disbelieved.” 

(I’m struck here by the themes of blindness—raised so often by Daniel Hill[1] in his anti-racism work—as well as this notion of alternative facts, a phenomenon from the past reminding us that this work is cyclical and, likely, never completed but rather constant). 

Secondly: Hope, from Christain Picciolini. Picciolini puts these concepts of transformation, reconciliation, and redemption into practice. He is a former white supremacist who works to get people OUT of the movement. This interview[2] with him is fascinating for its parallels with what Bonhoeffer wrote 75 years ago. When asked what sways people to leave these movements, Picciolini says that it is: 

“Certainly not facts. It’s very emotional. I try to take [white supremacists & neo nazis] through an emotional journey where they come to the conclusion that they’ve changed, and it’s not me telling them that they’ve changed. What I’ve found least effective is me telling them that they’re wrong, or me telling them that they need to think a certain way. Typically these people are pretty idealistic, although they’re lost, typically pretty bruised emotionally, and they have very low self-esteem . . . folks in these movements, they have their own set of facts. Two plus two equals five, so you can’t argue that two plus two equals four, even though we know that that’s the case. You have to take them through situations where they challenge themselves . . . it’s not an easy process; it’s a very, very long process.” 

Picciolini is very much against using the term “lone wolf.” He emphasizes that we need to see these people in their context (if we don’t understand someone, it’s because we don’t understand their context). He points out how supremacists are caught up in a movement they turned to as a result of loneliness and alienation. What he emphasizes is that for many supremacists, there is trauma, hurt, and deep self-hate in their stories that led them down this destructive path. They lacked positive communities in their past and must be steered towards them in the present and future. Picciolini’s approach truly sees the human even in folks who struggle to see it in others. It’s a deeply spiritual path and really, probably the best antidote to hate. As Dorothy Day once said, “Love and more love is the only solution.”  

And while it also might be controversial to say, I believe all these approaches, Bonhoeffer’s, Picciolini’s, Day’s require a certain amount of personal engagement, personal effort, and sacrifice even when it’s with people and ideas we find offensive. It is sort of the burden we’re left with to advocate for change. While I’m always one to encourage advocates to step back into the embrace of community, seeking spaces where we can recharge, I’m also struck at how this continuing engagement is the opposite of the disengagement and implied exclusion driving in the demarcation of “safe spaces” on places like college campuses—exactly the places where young people should be learning about the variety of perspectives in the world. . .even if only to fight them. While I believe we do need these spaces of safety, I don’t know if retreating from the conflict of the world in a permanent fashion will make it any “safer” for those who don’t have the privilege to retreat. 

Unfortunately, if there is one thing I’m learning, the price of fighting hate, racism, injustice is to engage it. That takes energy and engaging can leave us bruised. But if love is to be our antidote, we must remember the first ingredient of love is paying attention.[3] As Bonhoeffer, Picciolini, and Day show, the power of their approach comes from close examination and personal encounters with injustice, with flawed social structures, and with people spouting deplorable ideologies. To dismantle these things, we have to understand them. Not fair. Not easy. Not something we can do without self care and occasional retreats, but that is indeed the nature of the work. 

Be well. Be Blessed. Take care of yourselves and continue to do good work.




[3] Thich Nhat Hanh


"Never Again" and the importance of Historical Analogy


By now, many of us have heard about the appalling conditions in the detention centers where Latinx migrants are being kept. If not, link here: ‘There Is a Stench’: Soiled Clothes and No Baths for Migrant Children at a Texas Center . There has also been the photo of the father and daughter downed in the Rio Grande (above) and accompanying articles like this one Perspective | We used to think photos like this could change the world. What needs to change is who we are.

Amid all this bad news, the story of Dr. Satusuki Ina stood out to me: Japanese-Americans held in U.S. internment camps to lead protest against Fort Sill child detention: "It's never too late to do the right thing" Dr. Ina was born in an internment camp for Japanese Americans in the 1940s. Internment left such an impact on her and her family that she became a professor and psychotherapist specializing in trauma. Last Saturday Dr. Ina led a group of formerly detained Japanese Americans joined by a number of Native American groups to protest plans to use Fort Sill in Oklahoma as a detention center for migrant children. In the past, Fort Sill has served as an internment site for Japanese Americans and, before that, Native Americans.


The point that historical parallels are key for interpreting the crises and injustices of today, feels especially salient not only as I read about the descendants and former detainees of Fort Sill protesting this last weekend, but also as this week I am in Nebraska on book tour talking about my grandfather’s World War Two memoir. In pulling together my grandfather’s account (and others) who fought against fascism and Nazism in the 1940s, I am struck by the parallels with our own time, with our country of today. Sadly, they’ve always been there and even some recent work has uncovered how even the Nazi’s ideas of racial supremacy and ethnic segregation were imported from the white supremacists of the United States: White Nationalism’s Deep American Roots. But what I find myself grieving today is the contrast between the heroism of the men and women of a generation that fought to end Nazism, fascism, and what they stood for, and the quagmire of inaction/division we are in today. Why does the gulf between the moral resolve and the courage of the 1940s and the 2010s feel so wide? (Not that they were perfect, FDR was putting Japanese Americans in cages and there was still legal segregation of people of color throughout the US, but there seemed to be no doubt that the Third Reich had to be defeated).

Picture taken by Gordon E. Cross, medic in the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard while his division (the 35th, also my grandfather’s) was en-route to the Battle of the Bulge. Cross and my grandfather’s accounts are included in the book Finding St. Lo: A Memoir of War and Family link here:  Ted Neill

Picture taken by Gordon E. Cross, medic in the 134th Infantry Regiment of the Army National Guard while his division (the 35th, also my grandfather’s) was en-route to the Battle of the Bulge. Cross and my grandfather’s accounts are included in the book Finding St. Lo: A Memoir of War and Family link here: Ted Neill

In the work of dismantling racism, we’re often called to see beyond our “categories” our “tribes”, and our self identifying labels, to recognize the humanity in everyone, regardless of ethnicity, creed, or nationality. To bring it back to the Newsweek article, I see Dr. Ina and those joining her (Native Americans and Japanese Americans) as doing just that. The children in these concentration camps (and yes I called them concentration camps because that is what they are) may not look like Dr. Ina, but she and her protest partners see their plight as their own. Recognizing that we are all children of God, with universal humanity and universal rights, Dr. Ina and others are allowing themselves to be moved to action, their hearts to be broken, by the same things that break God’s heart too. Their courage, their moral resolve, their moral clarity, are refreshingly strong and clear. I suspect history will see them as the greatest of their generation.

Post Note: these articles on the importance of historical analogies being central to the spirit of “never again” are great reads I’ve also included Caitlyn Flannigan’s (influenced by Catholic social teachings like myself) impassioned appeal to Christians.

Opinion | ‘Never forget’ is dead. And it was killed on our watch.

Holocaust Museum's Awful Intervention In the Concentration Camp Debate

Christ in the Camps

Allies Stand in the Gap

Racism is alive and well in the United States. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.

Racism is alive and well in the United States. Don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.

One of this week’s news story is a sober reminder of why dismantling racism remains a priority, even in 2019.

From the May 29th edition of the Washington Post:

“Franklin and Jessica Richardson had planned for a relaxing Memorial Day weekend. They would spend Sunday picnicking on the sandy shores of Oktibbeha County Lake, a popular fishing destination on the outskirts of Starkville, Miss . . . Instead, within minutes of their arrival, the young black couple were facing down a white campground manager who pulled out a gun and told them to leave . . . The experience was made all the more harrowing — and somewhat ironic — by the fact that Franklin, a sergeant in the Army National Guard, had recently returned from a nine-month deployment in the Middle East, “It’s kind of crazy,” [Franklin Richardson said] “You go over there and don’t have a gun pointed at you, and you come back home and the first thing that happens is you have a gun pointed at you.”[1]

This is a raw example of blatant racism. It is illustrative of the constant threat violence our black brothers and sisters must always be vigilant for. The comparison to the US as being more dangerous than a war zone for African Americans a poignant and powerful.

It is also a challenge to those of us who consider ourselves allies. Caught in such a situation, there is little moral obligation upon our black brothers and sisters but to preserve their lives and flee. But what of the rest of us? For me, as despicable and repulsive as I find that white woman, as evil as I find her words, I can’t help but feel my knee-jerk instinct to shun her, to label her, to alienate her as a “racist” is only a marginal improvement over her own hate.

Do I answer hate with my own hate? Or something different? What actually would engender change?

In keeping with examples from activists such as Deeyah Khan,[2] I wonder if I might be called to swallow my indignation and at least try to engage first. Ask this woman she holds such views, why she might do such a thing. Instead of shunning her and immediately walking away, are those of us with privilege are we called to engage? To plant a seed of change?

I’d venture an emphatic YES.

It’s the harder choice, certainly. I don’t want to talk to this cruel and ignorant woman. I would never require such of my friends of color. They would be staring down the barrel of a gun. But for those of us don't have the gun pointed at us, I feel our principles require us to engage, to inquire, to speak up, on behalf of those who do. Even if it means engaging with a woman who, on the surface, comes off as morally repugnant. If I don’t, then all my “Black Lives Matter,” T-Shirts and bracelets really are just empty, trendy, virtue signaling.

And maybe I’m not going to run into this exact woman, but I think I’m safe in saying most of us have some neighbor, some relative who, although they might not chase our black friends off with a loaded gun, may harbor some archaic notions on race. I’m not saying we have to make it our life’s mission to change their minds, but I think love and commitment to justice, manifests in the difficult conversations where we confront these attitudes in whatever way will allow the most productive conversation. Maybe that is with righteous indignation (but probably not). More likely, its through humble inquiry, which takes mountains of restraint and patience. The cost to us is might be some energy, some time, and definitely some discomfort.

Where as to people of color like the Richardson’s, the cost could have been their lives.

The work continues.


[1] A black couple were having a picnic. Then a white campground manager pulled out her gun.


What Losses Do We Choose to Mourn?

Whose Culture Gets Mourned When It's Lost_.jpg

Two stories caught my attention this week. One in relation to an event, the other to a trend.

First, the trend: NPR featured a story on the decline of empathy and cited some disturbing peer-reviewed research demonstrating that this decline is no fluke.[1] Americans are growing less empathetic. Additionally, for many of us, the practice of empathy is reserved only for those who are just like us. Even more disturbing is the evidence that for many people today not employing empathy towards those deemed different is viewed as a virtue! This selective empathy reinforces tribal loyalties and furthers the “othering” of people we disagree with . . . dehumanizing others, you can see, is just a few short steps further down this slippery slope.

We can see the effects of this decline all around us: in politics, in the behavior of leaders, and with the increasing disregard we have for those who do not think like us or vote like us. Yeah, I get pretty disgusted with some of the people who respond with vitriol and hate speech towards marginalized people or even towards my own posts; but the work (I remind myself) is to recognize their humanity too, even if they don’t recognize it in others . . . that is why it’s work, if it were easy we’d have some different word for it.

The second item that caught my attention was the following statement from Randy Woodley[2], which he posted amid the news coverage of the Notre Dame fire:

Dear Euro-Americans, I'm sorry your church at Notre Dame is destroyed, but stop referring to it on national news as a "symbol of our civilization." Much of America has no European roots and you destroyed our civilizations when you came here. Do you have any regrets about that?

I love this post for its truth and its frank honesty. With all the headlines and sound bites pointing out how Notre Dame is a “priceless symbol” of European culture, a counter point was needed to put this in perspective. The centering of European/white culture in the media has been obvious and painful, especially considering that in the past few weeks three arson-hit black churches in Louisiana had been struggling to raise funds to rebuild. The feel-good element here is that after some prodding on social media from journalist Yashar Ali[3] and a $20K donation from Chrissy Teigen, the crowdfunding campaigns for these churches have now topped $1.8 million.

Thank you to Yashar Ali for right-sizing us. It was needed. He certainly was not the only one. The Root this week was of course spot-on as well with this headline: White People Don’t Live in Flint or Puerto Rico, So President Sends Aid to France.[4] I believe it’s fruitful to consider that as we talk about sending literally billions to rebuild a church in France, a much needed discussion about providing reparations to descendants of slaves or Native Americans in the US becomes a subject of “controversy.” This is even the case when we talk about reparations in the sense that Bryan Stevenson talks about them: not as financial but as structural and service-oriented actions made in direct response to past injustices; e.g., in the past people of color were kept from the polls, the reparation should be lowering of the barriers to voting. Stevenson’s ideas are practical and concrete and shouldn’t be considered controversial.[5]

Bringing this together with Randy Woodley’s quote and the theme of empathy, as we mourn the loss of Notre Dame as a symbol of French and Christian culture, I feel a sadness for the lack of lament we have (as a society) expressed for the loss of Native American culture in the US. On an encouraging note, there are signs of a reawakening of native culture in the US, demonstrating that the native population is growing and even thriving. The counter-intuitive finding has been that much of this growth has been in urban centers, a welcome counter narrative to the one of endemic poverty, addiction, and human suffering on reservations.[6]

It is worth noting that the illustration in this Economist column drew criticism from some corners, but the statistics cited in the story are certainly encouraging. That said, I wish as a country we could do a better job lamenting and recognizing the way European/white culture has harmed others through slavery and through the steamrolling of native communities. In the name of manifest destiny, the US did the equivalent of burning down thousands of Notre Dames that belonged to the civilizations here before us. And for God’s sake, we’re STILL burning down black churches.

Come on white people, it’s 2019!

If there ever was an opportunity for empathy, it doesn’t get much more obvious than this! Of course, the work of lamenting such travesties can feel overwhelming. Sometimes I don’t know where to start. That is when I try to rein in my circle of concern to more closely match my circle of influence. To that end, in my own community, Seattle (where I live on land once occupied by the Duwamish people), I’ve decided to give to Real Rent Duwamish. See the link in the footnote.[7] It’s an opportunity to support the Duwamish who are still in Seattle . . . and sadly, are still not federally recognized (a subject for a different blog, but you can learn more here at[8] These are small steps, but they are good places to start. The GoFundMe site for the Louisiana church fires is here too in the footnotes.[9]











How do we critique without fostering HATE?

Ihan Omar1.jpg

This week I have felt some discouragement around the internecine fighting over Ilhan Omar’s critiques of Israel.[1]

The worst I feel I could say about some of congresswoman’s Omar’s past comments is that maybe they came off as glib and uninformed, e.g. “It’s all about the Benjamins.” Thing is, I don’t know if she wasn’t speaking some truth, if perhaps inelegantly. I don’t think measured critique of our allies, even Israel, whose leadership is not exactly beyond reproach these days,[2] should be out of bounds. Reasonable examination certainly should not be conflated with hate speech.

Full disclosure, I personally find congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s election to congress as the BEST of what the US can be. Her journey from Somali refugee camp to the halls of Congress is nothing short of inspiring. By contrast, some of the racist reactions to her election, such as the poster in the West Virginia legislature linking her to the 9/11 attacks, represents the WORST of our country.[3] Rep. Ilhan Omar has made some missteps in her choice of language—I should note white people do this all the time and expect grace from those they offend. Some criticism of her is warranted. But trying to link her to 9/11 is just outside the circle of acceptable discourse.

It is the weird time we live in today that these two manifestations of our country’s conflicted legacy, the story of a Somali refugee elected to congress and the hateful response in the West Virginia legislature, are juxtaposed with such prominence. These contradictions have always been present in our country’s character, as any person of color. Perhaps it is valuable they are revealed so starkly now. It can give us opportunity to address our failures and faults. But the opportunity to repair and redress makes that poster linking Ilhan Omar to 9/11 and the intent behind it no less vile.

Stepping back from that undeniably racist act, this current fracas over whether representative Ilhan Omar’s remarks amount to anti-Semitism or that any criticism of her is tantamount to sexism, racism, islamophobia, makes me wonder: “How do those of us engaged in reconciliation dialogue provide reflection, feedback, critique to one another without being accused of defensiveness—or worse: ‘anti-Semitism; racism; sexism; homophobia; Islamophobia?” As un-politic as it is for me to point out, our inclusion in a marginalized group should not inoculate us from criticism. Furthermore, criticism in itself, does not always equal a more pernicious “ism.”

Inserting my own commentary on this is especially troublesome, as I am a person who sits squarely in the category of “benefiting from white, educated, hetero, male, WASP privilege.” I’m not sure I should be suggesting anything as much as I should simply be listening to others right now. If I write nothing else on this topic, it should probably be that.

But if you want to keep reading, I’ll volunteer the following.

On the Israel and Palestinian conflict, Steven Spielberg reflected, after filming Schindler's List, that the tragedy of oppressed communities taking aim at one another was acutely painful since, “They see the face of their oppressors in each other,” thus they are blind to the true identity and the suffering of one another. This blindness robs them of an opportunity for solidarity.

All I know is that self-reflection, humility, and tolerance must be part of our posture in reconciliation work. And this is hard! I can’t speak with much credibility as to how members of other more marginalized communities should act in all this. They have endured centuries of pain that I will never truly understand. But I am moved to reflect upon my own demographic: educated white males.

Exhibit A: this article in the Atlantic that examines the level of partisanship, tolerance (or lack thereof) in the US. The studies cited in the article found that educated urban whites are the least politically tolerant people in America. We seem to be in a rush to “virtue” signal our own outrage at various “isms.” As the article states:

“In general, the most politically intolerant Americans, according to the analysis, tend to be whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan themselves. . . White, highly educated people . . .don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents. In fact, people who went to graduate school have the least amount of political disagreement in their lives. . . they [are] quicker to assume the worst about their political counterparts.”[4]

Oh sh**. They are talking about me.

Intolerant of political opponents that I see as racist, homophobic, Anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and close-minded? Yep. Caricaturing them? I am guilty of that, too. Advocating violence towards them? Well, I’ve definitely re-posted gifs of Neo-Nazis getting punched in the face.

And I still don’t regret it.

But that leaves me wondering if my glee in posting a video of Richard Spenser getting decked is just a more extreme point on a continuum of intolerance. It’s me virtue-signaling my “woke-ness” from a pedestal of self-righteousness. I think a lot of white folks find ourselves on this pedestal sometimes. But let’s be frank: should I really be staking a claim to Mt. Pious, when I should probably be decrying violence in any context? Tolerance and non-violent opposition are the way to go. Right?

Well, maybe not? There are thinkers like Sam Harris (whom I respect deeply) who say we CAN’T allow ourselves to tolerate hate, ever, even if hate tries to defend itself under the guise of freedom of religion or freedom of speech. Tolerance in that case is simply a trap. So punch away.

<Groan> It’s enough to make my head spin.

My own back-and-forth brings to mind what a therapist friend recently pointed out to me: there is a difference between “hurt” and “harm.” In that, there are times we must say things to others, whom we love, that may hurt them, such as frank feedback and honest criticism. For example: “Honorable Rep. Ilhan Omar, you might not realize this but linking Jews to ‘Benjamins’ is a dog-whistle used by Neo-Nazis. Maybe don’t use it when presenting valid questions regarding the influence of the Israeli lobby.”

Feedback such as this might sting our egos or even hurt our hearts a bit, but it’s different from words and actions meant to harm—words that are said in malice with intent to dehumanize, control, or cause pain and suffering.

As traditional allies in congress find themselves divided and lining up against one another and lobbing accusations of slander and racism—I am reminded of Spielberg’s observations on oppressed communities turning one each other mentioned above.

All I can’t think of is the imperative to “talk less and listen more.”

Maybe congresswoman Ilham Omar’s comments might have hurt, but were they really meant to harm? Was there some truth in her comments that shed light on the pernicious role of money in politics, the power of political lobbies, and the suffering of the Palestinian people? Did representative Ilham Omar’s comments really qualify as hate speech? Does counter-criticism of her amount to sexist, Islamophobic, racism?

I’d like to think that I can acknowledge the inhumane living conditions in Gaza while not being called anti-Semitic. Can I describe Ilham Omar’s “Benjamins” comment as glib and reckless, without being labeled racist?

I’d like to think, as a society, we can hold space for the current humanitarian tragedy in Gaza and the horrors of the Holocaust, without denying the suffering and evil inherent in either.

Can’t we?

I’ll repeat, I’m in a problematic position here. I’m a person a privilege and I’m not a member of any of the groups claiming offense in the most recent skirmish. But this is a troubling position a lot of white, well-intentioned people of privilege find ourselves in. When in doubt, likely we should err on the side of listening. (But here I go ignoring my own advice):

I do wonder if this is a time for a bit of personal resilience. A time to take a deep breath before reacting. A time to pause and reflect before responding. Otherwise it’s as if we’re just feeding the beast, the cycle of recrimination, reproach, and moral sanctimony.

Then again, that is all too easy for me to say, right, as a WASP-y privileged bystander. Noted. But I think it’s even good advice white people need to heed when listening to the stories of people of color. Even if bearing witness to poc’s pain “hurts” us with our own pangs of guilt, it doesn’t harm us in the long run. Quite the opposite, that hurt can bring healing. I believe that white people claiming “white discrimination” are actually conflating hurt and harm. Sure, the feedback about white privilege might sting, but it is NOT on par with the discrimination people of color have endured for centuries. So take a deep breath and sit down. Good medicine doesn’t always taste good, but it can cure what ails you.

More broadly, if all these divisions are not a sign to continue to engage, to listen, to learn, to reflect, to check our own sanctimony and not to isolate ourselves into ideological tribes, I’m not sure what is. More than ever I appreciate the words of Governor Jerry Brown when he reminded us of the value of the American civic identity, one that embraces: tolerance, diversity, freedom of speech, of the press, of faith, equal access to opportunity and protections of the law. We haven’t always lived up to these ideals, but we can keep working towards them. As the studies in the Atlantic article show, some US communities are doing this better than others. It’s worth a full read.

I hope I still don’t sound like a Polly-Anna when I wish that we can still be: Out of Many, One.






Racial and Anti-LGBTQ Violence in America is REAL despite what the Jussie Smollett case might reveal.


Even though this post refers to the strange Jussie Smollett case unfolding in Chicago, I’ve opted to include a picture from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching Museum in Birmingham Alabama as a reminder, that whether it turns out Smollett did indeed stage his attack, hate crimes and violence against people of color and LGBTQ in the US are real. Below I’m including an excerpt from an article by John McWhorter contributing editor at The Atlantic and professor at Columbia University, making commentary on Smollett’s case.[1]

It's a challenging but thoughtful article. McWhorter has recently done some great, balanced writing on the issue of the Covington Catholic teens at the Lincoln Memorial harassing a Native American activist. On Smollett, McWhorter writes (emphasis added):

"Racial politics today have become a kind of religion in which whites grapple with the original sin of privilege, converts tar questioners of the orthodoxy as ‘problematic’ blasphemers, and everyone looks forward to a judgment day when America “comes to terms” with race. Smollett—if he really did stage the attack—would have been acting out the black-American component in this eschatological configuration, the role of victim as a form of status. We are, within this hierarchy, persecuted prophets, ever attesting to the harm that white racism does to us and pointing to a future context in which our persecutors will be redeemed of the sin of having leveled that harm upon us. We are noble in our suffering. . . Only in an America in which matters of race are not as utterly irredeemable as we are often told could things get to the point that someone would pretend to be tortured in this way, acting oppression rather than suffering it, seeking to play a prophet out of a sense that playing a singer on television is not as glamorous as getting beaten up by white guys. That anyone could feel this way and act on it in the public sphere is, in a twisted way, a kind of privilege, and a sign that we have come further on race than we are often comfortable admitting."

This is nuanced stuff, but for me, I think McWhorter is calling out a very real phenomenon of overplaying the role of victim. While it DOES NOT negate the suffering and oppression marginalized groups experience, it’s exceptional stories like Smollett's that defensive people of privilege point to first when confronted with issues of race or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. I know as someone who feels called to reach out to white folks, people of privilege, and anti-LGBTQ folks, I'm already anticipating having to counter the way this phenomenon and this case in particular will be overemphasized and used as an example to discredit legitimate examples of violence and oppression.

Not to say McWhorter is wrong, my instinct is that he is right and calling out an over-correction that truly does happen. But these over-corrections are not representative of the overall work. As advocates I believe we need to read his excellent piece and be ready for folks pointing to this incident and this phenomenon as reasons to discredit legitimate voices.

The work continues.


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


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.


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.



[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.