Politics

"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/

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

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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.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/02/jussie-smollett-story-shows-rise-victimhood-culture/583099/

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Period.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mind. Blown.

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

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

Lesson Two: Love Wins.


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

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

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

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

Daniel Hill & White Awake Part 2

Daniel Hill2.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing Ourselves to be Transformed by the Stories of Others

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d say, everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a place I would rather make my destination.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

OathKeepers.jpg

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