Anti-racism

"Never Again" and the importance of Historical Analogy

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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.

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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.

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

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deeyah_Khan

What Losses Do We Choose to Mourn?

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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 Promisedlanddoc.com).[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]

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[1] https://www.npr.org/2019/04/15/712249664/the-end-of-empathy

[2] https://twitter.com/randywoodley7?lang=en

[3] https://twitter.com/yashar/status/1118719513619587075

[4] https://www.theroot.com/white-people-dont-live-in-flint-or-puerto-rico-so-pres-1834097106

[5] https://www.ted.com/talks/bryan_stevenson_we_need_to_talk_about_an_injustice?language=en

[6] https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/11/29/the-rise-of-native-american-politicians

[7] https://www.realrentduwamish.org/

[8] https://www.promisedlanddoc.com/about

[9] https://www.gofundme.com/f/church-fires-st-landry-parishmacedonia-ministry?member=&utm_medium=email&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_email%2Binvitesupporters

How do we critique without fostering HATE?

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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 elegantly. 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.

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[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/house-democrats-erupt-in-protests-over-indirect-sanction-of-rep-omar-for-alleged-anti-semitism/2019/03/06/c06bcd18-4022-11e9-85ad-779ef05fd9d8_story.html?utm_term=.cb0e9ec78ec4

[2] https://www.lawfareblog.com/israels-attorney-general-moves-forward-netanyahus-indictment-what-happens-next

[3] https://www.npr.org/2019/03/02/699699805/sign-linking-muslim-congresswoman-ilhan-omar-to-9-11-sparks-outrage-in-west-virg

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/03/us-counties-vary-their-degree-partisan-prejudice/583072/

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)

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

Out of Many, One. Identity Politics, Loneliness, and Falling (Back) in Love with America

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While reflecting on the place our country finds itself in right now I’ve come across two great articles that have gotten my mental gears turning and given me insight, even some optimism.

The first is In extremis by Nabeelah Jaffer published on the website Aeon this week.

https://aeon.co/essays/loneliness-is-the-common-ground-of-terror-and-extremism

Jaffer, a PhD student at the University of Oxford challenges our widely held belief that religious extremism, fanaticism, and violence are phenomena born out of foreign lands, foreign cultures, and foreign faiths. Instead she highlights that the root of these social ills lies in the universal experience of loneliness.

As George Orwell said, sometimes it takes all our effort just to see what is right in front of our faces.

Jaffer’s observations already fit with the clichés we hear uttered about nearly every mass shooter, domestic terrorist, or serial killer: they are loners. . .alienated, isolated (and almost always male—that is a whole other blog post). But Jaffer pushes her readers to see the foreign terrorist, the domestic mass shooter, and the violent white supremacist as one in the same. We should. The distinction between domestic and foreign criminals who perpetrate this type of extremist violence is facile at best. It relies on an “othering” of people from different nationalities and backgrounds that has no real basis in fact. No matter who we are, where we are from, our hearts break for the same reasons.

What Jaffer’s article opens up is a line of inquiry to examine the alienation and isolation that is behind violence in the Middle East, violent Alt-Right extremism here in the states, and even nativist White Supremacist hate groups in Europe. These are manifestations of the same maladies and might even have similar solutions. (Spoiler alert, those solutions are love and inclusion—don’t act surprised, the name of the blog is BELONG after all).

The second article is the special report in the July 14-20th edition of The Economist (full disclosure, I am an unapologetic fanboy of The Economist). This special report on America’s Democrats, taken with the same issue’s cover story on the inherent bias built into the electoral college and its “odious” (The Economist’s word not mine) roots in slavery make the edition a MUST read.

I’m sympathetic to the spirit of what is often derided as “identity politics.” I think it is crucial we recognize that people from different backgrounds—ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, faith, etc . . . have different experiences of the world. This is a non-negotiable if we are to move forward as a country and try to evolve away from out normalization and centering of “whiteness” and “maleness.” I like how the report, in the balanced-yet-witty fashion of the Economist, says the following:

“Candidates who are not in power must be able to persuade people that they share their worries, are on their side and, at some level, are like them. Voting is partly an exercise in narcissism. People want to be able to look at a candidate and see something of themselves. When your party does this, it is called empathy. When the other side tries, it is called identity politics.”

I admit, identity politics frequently leaves me with a sense of unease. For taken too far, I see its potential to set us apart from one another to further divide us. A balance needs to be struck, but what that balance is exactly, has eluded me up to this point. How do we do so without glossing over people’s legitimate experiences, their unique identities, the value of different voices?

The Economist article goes on to posit a way forward. It closes with an interview with Governor Jerry Brown of California—a leader who has remained relevant in an increasingly diverse electorate by consistently being on the cutting edge of progressive politics, and one might say, the right side of history. (The guy has been succeeding in California politics longer than I’ve been alive, serving as Governor in the seventies and today—well played Mr. Brown, well played).

Brown argues that we need to steer clear of the roll call of identities taking over the introduction of speeches by democratic candidates. While we certainly need to de-center white-masculinity, this does not mean we value some voices over others. We white men definitely need to do more listening and less talking these days. There needs to be a shift in how much time folks get to hold the microphone. But telling white men to simply “shut up” because they are not valued and people of color are, is just the mirror opposite of the white supremacy we are trying to combat today. James Baldwin said as much years ago when he criticized the Nation of Islam of exhibiting the very same racism as the whites they were calling devils.

I say that knowing I’ve have, figuratively, told white men to shut up at times. (Sometimes they deserved the rebuke—looking at you Matt Damon). Those of us on the progressive side of things are all likely guilty of some version of this I fear. It takes several forms. It even can show up when we tokenize the stories and voices of people of color, LGBTQ, (at the risk of appropriating them), simply moving down that “check list of oppressed identities” without reflecting on the individual persons telling their story. We don’t pay attention to the person as much as the label and the perfunctory task of getting some “melanin behind the microphone” for optics rather than true recognition.

It’s a tricky balance to strike I admit, but we need to constantly check ourselves, our motives, and how we present ourselves and ask others to tell their stories (and others not to). When we appear to completely devalue some points of view because they are too “privileged,” when we are blind to their pain or treat them as inauthentic, we get into dangerous waters. It can lead us into, what some observers have deemed, the “misery Olympics.” It even contributes to the (mistaken) impression among some whites that they are being persecuted.

Let me be the first to say they aren’t. But we can over steer in our efforts to self-correct and end up doubling down on differences, which can further alienate us from each other. This can make some people, who operate on a scarcity model, feel that in the recognition of historically marginalized voices means their own will be lost.

It won’t be. We’re all made better by inclusion of many voices. I’m convinced of it, but it requires a shift from a zero-sum to win-win mindset. One of generosity. That is NOT the worldview promoted by our current administration. If anything, the current administration has succeeded by doing the opposite, convincing people that if others are “winning” they must be losing. . .and on the verge of social extinction, which some (idiots) interpret as genocide.

                <Eye Roll>

                I can’t even . . .

As we correct historical imbalances in representation, however, it can be an exceedingly tough balancing act and sometimes feels like a real catch-22. But Governor Brown presents a refreshing antidote, urging us to focus on an articulation of the American identity that is, at its core, inclusive.

That has always been the ideal of America from the beginning, but not the practice. (This is captured powerfully in the recent excavation of the burial site of George Yeardley, the first governor of Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia. Yeardley was the first leader of a representative assembly in North America, as well as its first slave holder. He is the inescapable epitome the contradictory themes of our country, right there, in front of our faces from its very beginning: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/archaeologists-have-found-the-remains-of-one-of-jamestowns-early-settlers-now-they-have-to-prove-he-is-who-they-think-he-is/2018/07/23/81c71708-8901-11e8-85ae-511bc1146b0b_story.html?utm_term=.1d61235c0c43 ).

But enough about the governor of Jamestown. Back to the governor of California, Jerry Brown. Here I see that, again, we can evoke George Orwell: the solution was staring us in the face the whole time. In Brown’s words, progressive leaders need to “wrap themselves in the flag and become grounded in this ‘Americana business.’” By Americana business, Brown does not mean whiteness, border walls, guns, or Christianity. He means embracing and fighting for an American identity that emphasizes the things about America that leads so many to fall in love with her in the first place: freedom of speech, of the press, of faith, equal access to opportunity and protections of the law. As The Economist report concludes, we “must relearn the language of American civil religion: self-evident truths; a shining city upon a hill; life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And above all, e pluribus unum: out of many, one.”

(An aside: I wonder if “out of many one,” has been floated with focus groups as a slogan for the next democratic presidential campaign slogan).

This vision not only helps us to strive towards the best ideals of the United States of America, but it presents us with a big-bucket identity that is at once inclusive and also embracing of our differences. It might also be a healthy counter to the hyper-categorization and segregation of the electorate we see taking place by political operatives who place emphasis on long-tailed labels. Some labels have value. They help us to be SEEN. But they can also lead to the isolation and alienation Nabeela Jaffer warns against in the first article mentioned above. This is the very isolation that leads to political extremism and violence, especially if it contributes to the “othering” of our brothers and sisters.

I see Jerry Brown’s approach as a shift from a deficit minded lens to a strengths-based one. I guess my hope is that the socially conservative, church-going white-dude in Alabama (Joe six pack) can stand alongside green tea sipping LGBTQ allied, agnostic, AfroLatina in San Francisco (Ayesha Yoga mat) and they can realize there are American ideals that unite us, not just labels that divide us.

Out of Many, One.

               

White Awake by Daniel Hill - A Must Read!

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I frequently encourage the white participants in my Reconciliation and Justice book groups to read more authors of color. I provide my students with recommendations ranging from Brenda Salter McNeil, to James Baldwin, bell hooks, Michael Harriot, and Michelle Alexander.

However, there are times I think the best person to reach people (especially white folks early in their journey to deeper understanding) is actually a white male—a white male who has grown up in privilege, made all the beginner mistakes when trying to be an ally, fallen down, gotten up, brushed himself off, and tried again.

That is where Daniel Hill comes in.

I recently was able to participate in a meeting with some of the leaders at my church and Daniel Hill. Daniel Hill is a pastor at River City Community Church, a multiethnic church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago. He is also an author. I was first directed to Daniel’s book, White Awake, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, a reconciliation leader and church pastor here in Seattle. Here are some links to cut and paste to Daniel’s website and his book on Amazon. I’ll just say now that any white person in this country interested in working towards eradicating racism and building reconciliation should read White Awake.

https://pastordanielhill.com/

https://www.amazon.com/White-Awake-Honest-Look-Means/dp/0830843930

Amid so many gems, one of the most fundamental lessons of Daniel’s book has to be how he breaks down the two tracks we must use when discussing anti-racism and reconciliation work. These two tracks are interdependent and inseparable.

The first track is to consider Ethnicity and Diversity. Daniel, being a pastor, would be the first to call ethnicity, “God given and God created.” His point is that our different cultural backgrounds are valuable and worth acknowledging without self-consciousness. This is in direct response to people (often white) who are uncomfortable even talking about race. They will insist they are “colorblind,” which is of course a huge mistake. Striving to be “colorblind” only leads to the dead end of ignoring the undeniable fact that people of different ethnicities and skin colors experience the world in different ways. As a white male, when I see a police officer, I generally feel safe. But for my friends of color, they have a fundamentally different experience.

The second track is that of Race, Racism, and Discrimination. Daniel makes the critical and valuable point that THERE IS NOTHING REDEEMABLE ABOUT THE CONCEPT OF RACE. It is evil. I agree. Hear me (and us) out. Race, is a construct that is human-made, not only that, but it was created and propagated by European colonial powers as a justification for colonialization, slavery, exploitation, oppression, and genocide. This aligns with Brian Stevenson’s (author of Just Mercy) concept of the false Narrative of Racial Difference. This is the notion that points to ethnic differences, which are fine unto themselves, but then assigns different values to those ethnic differences. This is the essence of racism and I think Daniel is right to call it out as evil and unredeemable.

Daniel goes on to point out that to discuss just the first of these tracks without the second, is often what we get in the corporate sector when we attend mandatory gender, equity, and diversity trainings. Those can be useful, but without acknowledging the second track in these discussions, we’re not getting to the root of the problems that require us to have gender, equity, and diversity trainings in the first place.

As Daniel is a pastor, his core arguments against racism rest on scripture and tenets of faith. I know this might pose a challenge for those of us progressives who sometimes seek resources and justifications for anti-racism and equity work that are not associated with the faith community. This is understandable (which might be surprising to hear from a deacon). The church has so many times been on the wrong side of these discussions and so many people from marginalized communities have been church-hurt by bigoted religious folks, that association with the faith community can taint some equity and justice resources. It’s sad but true! See: Westboro Baptist Church (ugh gross, I don’t even like typing their name!). As a result, I know there are times equity leaders are required to step away from religious affiliations and references which can be divisive or triggering to some.

But Daniel’s work can be translated to the secular sphere seamlessly, as he does for his trainings and consultancies with government agencies. A middle way might be to borrow from the recovery community and 12 Step programs. As equity leaders and change agents we can recognize that racism, like addiction, is a social malaise and even a disease at the level of the individual. But these afflictions can be overcome through building community, honest self-examination, and spiritual (but not necessarily religious) growth.

So, my heart is full of thanks for Daniel Hill, an influential thinker/activist, a powerful speaker, and gifted writer. His book is a must read!