White Privilege, Part…II? XVIII? Who’s Counting?

The US election of 2016 ushered me, like a lot of folks, into a new era of reading, listening, and discussion, all aimed at understanding, to paraphrase Hillary, “What the Hell Just Happened (And What Does it Mean)?”

I quickly figured out that it was mostly my fellow white people who were asking that question. People of Color (whom I’ve mostly just been reading and listening to, since leaving very-colorful Tacoma for this very-white island 7 years ago) not only sounded less surprised on the whole, but also less shook. The overall message seems to be more along the lines of, “Really? Didn’t see this coming?”

For these thinkers, Trump isn’t the blacklight lighting up the creepy-crawlies in the sofa cushions; he’s just one more creepy-crawly in a house whose infestation was built into its foundation-which some of us have been noticing only intermittently. I realized I had something to learn.

One of the most powerful passages of one of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year comes from Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between The World And Me. He writes of the Dream—NOT Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” but quite the opposite. This Dream, to Coates, is the illusion of fundamental American fairness, decency and democracy that middle class whites cling to in order to feel good about living the way we do when we know others have not been, and still are not, able to live that way.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge those horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

Coates concludes that stark paragraph with this statement:

It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. —pp. 88-89

I think I might change that last word to “soul,” or perhaps “heart,” because I feel Coates’ challenge more there than in my mind. And for me the challenge is not to change my opinion about America so much as it is to change my focus. To think about what I haven’t had to think about. And to let new voices have my ear.

One such new voice I heard recently on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, debuting his new song, “First World Problems,” accompanied by Daniel Caesar.

Son One likes Chance and Caesar, and urged me to listen. I now urge you to do the same. Not your style of music? It’s not mine either. But give this song—pun intended—a chance. And pay attention to the lyrics.

These lyrics especially–notice the connection with Coates’ Dream?

Now—think about what you are thinking about. And let me know. Keep the conversation going.

 

“I Do…Right?” Maybe It’s Time For An American Recommitment Ceremony

You may have noticed I have some strong opinions. But one of them, which has been gaining strength since Trump’s inauguration, is this: I don’t want my own strong opinions irrevocably dividing me from my fellow Americans.

Easier said than done, when most of what I see and hear through the media fills me with reactive rage, disgust, and sorrow. But rage, disgust and sorrow are exhausting. So the temptation is to stick with my tribe, to talk only with  people who feel the same way, and to shut out the “ugly voices.”

Problem is, we’re all in this together—”this” being This American Experiment.

All in this together. “Togetherness,” by Author Woldh, October 2015, courtesy Wikimedia

So when I venture outside my tribe, I try to connect over shared values: music. Food. Sports. Children. Animals. And when I’m alone, I make myself read articles and listen to podcasts that force me to consider the downside of my own tribalism.

Recently I was struck by this bit from an “On Being” podcast—a dual interview with an Indian-American journalist from Ohio and an activist from rural White Tennessee. Here’s the journalist, Anand Giridharadas:

…the word that comes to me is “commitment.” … You’re committed to your home… in a way that…almost sounds more like the way people talk about marriage. You’re not there because you know it’s gonna be good; you’re willing to be there even if it’s not great. And I think what’s happened to us is that we’re not committed to each other as a people, so it’s almost like we are in this kind of situation where any disappointment that we encounter in our fellow citizens is like a reason to break up, and any deviation from deeply fulfilling each other as fellow citizens is like a tragedy. And part of commitment as a citizen is embracing other people’s dysfunction, and embracing other people’s incompleteness, because you know you have your own. And we’ve ended up in resistance to each other.

Embracing other people’s dysfunction? Does that mean their racism or homophobia? I don’t want to do that. But if I do nothing but entrench myself against it, nothing changes. So if “embrace” means “engage with, talk to, try to understand…” OK. MAYBE I can do that. No promises. But I can try.

The activist in that interview, Whitney Kimball Coe, had this response:

… I’m always thinking about how do I show up? How do I show up in the world and in my community and beyond, and am I going to show up with an open mind, an open heart, and with curiosity? Or am I going to go in, guns blazing, looking for a high for my ego, and see if I can nail this interview right now…? And it’s such a freeing way to live, if you can approach all of these interactions from a more open, curious perspective. That’s where I am, these days — ‘How am I bringing myself into a space?’

The journalist replies with a suggestion I love:

We live in an age that loves the solution. One of the things you experience, when you’re a writer in this age who tries to partake in an age-old tradition of writing as criticism, as holding up a mirror…is that you get shamed for not offering solutions…When we actually relax our need for solutions, I think we create space for…curiosity, when…instead of saying, “How do you solve this?” — if you like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work or are provoked by it, instead of being like, “OK, what’s your plan?” — let’s start some curiosity. What does he make you curious about? If you’re white, what does he make you — now that you’re unsettled or angry or agreeing or whatever, what are you left curious about?

The host of “On Being,” the articulate Krista Tippett, finishes with a quote from the journalist, stating our challenge:

“It is hardly the fault of the rest of us that those wielding unearned privilege bristle at surrendering it. But it is our problem. The burden of citizenship is committing to your fellow citizens and accepting that what is not your fault may be your problem.”

And Anand Giridharadas sums up, in his response, my entire point here, using that marriage metaphor:

I think the despair is that we’ve fallen not just out of love, but out of interest with each other. I actually think more and more of us love “our” America, but don’t necessarily love America or Americans. We love the ones we love. We love the ones who love us. It’s kind of become like a bad college relationship. We’re a country peopled by these rowdy, restless gamblers who tried to make it work, and I think we have lost our way. But I think if we can remember that the whole enterprise here is simply to try to make it work — that’s the experiment. That’s it…We’re not trying to make it work to create wealth. We’re not trying to make it work to create innovation. We’re not trying to make it work to restore some illusory, lost greatness. We’re trying to make it work to make it work — and if we can make this work, it perhaps suggests that the world is not one as a world, but the world is actually one here, in America. What a great, great thing to try.

America, I want to keep trying. Let’s keep talking.

 

What If I Did? Four Words Away From Empathy

When I make my way through my American day, I don’t have to think about the way my skin color, or the style of my dress or hair, or my accent might be taken by my fellow Americans. But what if I did?

I don’t have to worry that someone’s phone call to authorities might lead to my deportation away from my family. What if I did?

I don’t have to fear for my sons that a chance encounter with law enforcement might kill them. What if I did?

I don’t have to worry that a friend or family member might succumb to addiction and death despite everything I did for them. What if I did?

I don’t have to think hard before choosing which bathroom to use, knowing the wrong choice could get me beaten up. What if I did?

I don’t have to check my wallet or the family budget before buying myself a cup of tea, or a muffin, or even dinner out, whenever the urge strikes. What if I did?

I don’t ever have to suffer from lack of natural beauty. What if I did?

In each of these scenarios, I can imagine different responses, in thought or action or both, from the ones that flow from my usual cushy oblivion. I can imagine more involvement, yes. More self-education. But most of all, I don’t have to imagine, I FEEL more empathy, both toward people I am different from, and toward people with whom I deeply disagree.

So what? Still working on that one. Stay with me.

Making Lemonade Out Of Mighty Sweet Lemons, Or, Book Launch Reschedule = First World Problem

I admit to more than a little stress when I realized how few days remained between what I thought was my manuscript’s final upload and my November 18 book launch. But I told myself, with my usual fierce optimism, that the MS would be approved in time for me to press that magic “publish” button in time to order multiple copies of Altitude (Flying Burgowski Book Three) in time for said book launch.

I admit to more than a little swearing when my optimism was not, for once, rewarded.

The expected approval email did not appear. When notification arrived, it wasn’t good news: a glitch in the MS required a second upload. The nice CreateSpace rep I spoke with assured me that, assuming the second upload went through, the absolute earliest I could receive my books was…November 20.

I admit to more than a little self-pity at realizing my book’s long-awaited debut was going to have to be a little more-awaited.

But all it took for me to extricate myself from the Swamp of Stressed-out Self-Recrimination was a half-hour drive, during which I thought about…

…a friend of mine who’s going blind

…another friend whose son, a dad in his 40s, is dying of leukemia

…a colleague who pretty much lives paycheck to paycheck

…the family of Philando Castile

…the families of those killed at the Texas church, the South Carolina church, the Las Vegas concert, Sandy Hook elementary…and on, and, sadly, on…

You get the idea. My launch date postponement is the poster child of a First World Problem. I got home, got to work on setting a new date and notifying the people who helped me get this far with my book. 

Want to know how blessed I am? The friend who designed my original poster was emailing me the revised version within five minutes of receiving my news.

It was done before I’d even asked for it!

Sweet, sweet lemons indeed. 

White Privilege for Dummies (Like Me)

I have been thinking about white privilege, trying to articulate its meaning…then here comes this teacher who just sums the whole thing up visually:

(…with thanks to Allison Snow, from whose Facebook page I first saw this, and datniggakel, whose YouTube I used.)

As this worthy teacher/coach would probably say after a lesson: “Any questions?”

Not THAT Breakfast Club: Why Hip-Hop May Be More Straight-Laced Than You Thought

“Establish the culture and practice of voting as part of a desired civic lifestyle through integration of non- partisan election work, issue work, and culture work in a continuous cycle.
Empower and train leaders and volunteers from our communities to be strategic leaders, messengers, and spokespeople for issues critical to equality, justice, and opportunity.”

Sound like good goals to you? I can’t think of anyone in any political party who would not subscribe to them.

So what if I tell you these goals are espoused by someone called Charlemagne Tha God?

This guy (courtesy twitter.com)

This guy (courtesy twitter.com)

I just saw him interviewed on The Daily Show and came away feeling inspired by his inspiration to get folks to vote. I was so intrigued, I looked him up.

His real name (according to good ol’ Wikipedia) is Lenard McKelvey, and he runs a Hip-Hop radio show called The Breakfast Club. It’s the home base of Hip Hop Caucus, whose website can be found under respectmyvote.com

Those goals above? They come from Hip Hop Caucus. More specifically, this is what those folks do:

Community Organizing: We organize 14 – 40 year-olds, who identify with Hip Hop Culture, and share values of justice, equality, and opportunity.

Grassroots Leadership Development: We provide leadership training and real-world civic leadership opportunities for cultural influencers at the grassroots level.
Communicate to Large Audiences: Through partnerships with artists, celebrities, and media we drive narratives about important issues through cultural channels reaching millions of people.

Cultivate and Promote Thought Leadership: We source solutions for local to global challenges from our communities and advocate for them to decision makers and influencers.

You know what? Except for the word “influencers” (sorry, old English teacher here), there’s nothing about the above that I don’t celebrate for my country.

Why am I sharing this now? Because you know, as I do, that Hip-Hop culture is marginalized in our country. Many–perhaps most?–older white folks (like me) assume Hip-Hop is probably apolitical at best, anarchic at worst. But these guys? They’re downright Kiwanis.

My mind feels broadened, learning about Hip-Hop Caucus. And with all the stupidity of this election year, my heart feels warmed. Go, America.

 

Road Trip VI, Days 28-32, in my hometown, Durham, NC: My German Grandmother’s Take on Civil Rights Martyrs

Everyone who enjoys the privilege of time spent with aging parents knows this pattern: touch an object, hear a story. It could be an oil painting or a plate with cows on it; if it’s been held onto for decades, it has something to tell.

This week I’ve been roaming through my parents’ house in North Carolina, touching things and letting them talk to me. I’m especially lucky here, since my paternal grandma, my German Oma, was a sculptor. This house is bursting with her work. Today I’m going to let one of her pieces tell its story.

June 21, 1964. Philadelphia, Mississippi. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered buried in an earthen dam.

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Chaney, Goodman and Shwerner (courtesy Mississippi Civil Rights and Delta Blues Bookstore)

Actually that’s incorrect. Civil Rights activists Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner disappeared that Freedom Summer, having left their base in Meridian, Mississippi to investigate some church burnings in the eastern part of the state. According to Curtis J. Austin in The Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, “The Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion Church because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. After the three young men had gone into Neshoba County to investigate, they were subsequently stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price. After several hours, Price finally released them only to arrest them again shortly after 10 p.m. He then turned the civil rights workers over to his fellow Klansmen. The group took the activists to a remote area, beat them, and then shot them to death.” It took several weeks for their bodies to be found.

My grandmother, Edith Brauer Klopfer, moved from California to North Carolina in 1965, to help take care of baby me. Thirty years before, she had moved with her husband and young sons from Germany to Philadelphia–temporarily, she thought, to give that pesky Herr Hitler a wide berth. The Klopfers were Jewish.

My parents have not been able to tell me exactly what my grandmother thought of the Civil Rights movement she walked into when she moved to the South. But they don’t need to. This sculpture says it all. She called it Three Martyrs. It’s Chaney, Goodman and Schwermer.

Three Martyrs

Three Martyrs

Most historians agree that, because Schwerner and Goodman were White, the federal government’s response left earlier responses to murders of Black activists in the dust. If you’ve seen Mississippi Burning, you know they established an FBI office in Jackson and called out the state’s National Guard and U. S. Navy to help search for the three men. Freedom Summer organizers weren’t dumb–they had hoped for exactly this kind of attention when they asked for White volunteers.

Austin continues,

After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen, including Price, were arrested and tried for the brutal killings. A jury of sympathizers found them all not guilty. Some time later, the federal government charged the murderers with violating the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. This time the Klansmen were convicted and served sentences ranging from two to ten years.

This is as moving to me as it probably is to you. What moves me even more, though, is thinking of my German Jewish Oma, wielding her chisel to coax these figures out of the wood…figures which still testify, 50 years later, to the darkness from which our country is still hauling itself. Did she think of her homeland and its six million martyrs? Was it a work of despair or hope, sorrow or rage, or honor?

I think it was all of those. I run my fingers over the grooves her chisel made, thinking of her strong arms, and I pay homage to the three, to all they represent, and to her–and all she represents.

O Walter Cronkite, Where Art Thou? The Demise of Al Jazeera America

When it comes to mass media, The Mate and I are the kiss of death. If we love it, chances are it’s not commercially viable, and it goes away.

Case Study #1: Summer Olympics, Barcelona, 1992. TBS ran something called “Triplecast,” meaning three different channels simultaneously broadcasting three different sports venues. So instead of being hijacked into watching prime-time, after-the-fact gymnastics performances while waiting for that one after-the-fact swim race that’s been hyped all week but won’t be on till 11 p.m., we could watch the competitions we were interested in, LIVE. We track & field junkies were in heaven–but a very sparsely populated heaven, apparently. TBS lost a ton of money, which is why you’ve never heard of Triplecast.

Case Study #2: Cutter’s Way. The best movie no one we know has ever heard of, ever. Go watch it. Bring a handkerchief.

Case Study #3: My So-Called Life. You may have heard of this one. Still–audiences were too small to make it viable, apparently. It died after a single season.

And now…Case Study #4, to me the saddest of all. Our beloved Al-Jazeera America TV news station is going dark after not quite two years on the air. Although The Mate and I love its sober, non-flashy approach to news, its coverage of topics other networks never touch, and its perspective (more on that in a moment), we are, once again, in the minority. It seems AJAM has a viewership of only 20,000-40,000–NATIONALLY. No, I did not accidentally drop a zero. The other networks beat that by more than a multiple of ten.

The saddest irony? We heard this news first from CNN. According to the CNNMoney story by Tom Kludt and Brian Stelter, 

The channel’s end appears to have been prompted by the plunging price of oil, which dropped below $30 a barrel on Tuesday for the first time in 12 years. That’s significant because Al Jazeera America is owned by Al Jazeera Media Group, which in turn is owned by the government of Qatar.

A source at the company’s headquarters in Doha said that Al Jazeera was planning on making cuts all over — perhaps up to one thousand jobs — due to the falling oil prices.

“Al Jazeera Media Network had to cut, and instead of making it across the board or anywhere else, they decided to chop Al Jazeera America,” the source said.

Al Jazeera.com’s take on their TV station’s demise is, typically, a little different. They focus on the company’s desire to compete in the global digital media market–no mention of falling oil prices.

So, Gretchen–you might be wondering now–if you heard this story first on CNN, and if CNN gave you a background that AJAM did not discuss, WHY is this a superior news channel?

Easy. It’s because the shoe’s been on the other foot 99 times out of 100 in the past two years. Al Jazeera, as mentioned above, is run from Qatar. They are “foreigners,” and (mostly) Muslims. Therefore, their perspective turns our mainstream media’s xenophobia and anti-Muslim bias on its head. I cannot tell you how refreshing, and indeed how necessary, that breath of perspective is during these heated times. I never heard this story about Muslim Americans raising money to repair black churches from any other news source.

Yes, those news channels which share my political bias irritate me less than those which don’t. But only a little. I despise snarky news, even when the snark fits my own political profile. I grew up with Walter Cronkite, people. I miss Uncle Walter more than I can say. I’ve never seen AJAM use snark, even in its editorial pieces.

Also–perhaps ironically, given Quatar’s wealth–we count on AJAM to broadcast stories about the poor and minorities. Such stories are generally missing from the mainstream channels. Just one example: in the hype about the most recent snowstorm threatening the east coast, AJ’s Joshua Eaton focuses on its effect on poor people trying to get to work: 

For Boston resident Barbara Fisher, the snow has been more than just an inconvenience. Problems with public transit caused the 25-year-old mother of two to lose hours at her job at Dunkin’ Donuts. Added to the extra child care she had to pay because schools were closed, that has put a real strain on her budget.

“It’s very expensive. I can’t wait for it to go,” Fisher said of the snow. “It’s terrible, because you be trying to do your best, and there’s something that’s always going to stop [you].”

Another example: Jennifer Eaton’s recent story entitled, “How Black Lives Matter Saved Higher Education.” 

Ah, if only those AJAM execs had thought about the effect their Arabic name would have on American audiences! If only Al Jazeera did not sound, to American ears, so much like Al Quaeda! (Which is like saying The Church sounds like The Devil because they both start with “the.” Al Jazeera means “The Peninsula”–as in the Arabian Peninsula, where Quatar is.)

Could xenophobia possibly have anything to do with AJAM’s failure to thrive? Hmmm…that’s a toughie.

Save us, Uncle Walter!

Save us, Uncle Walter!

Luckily for me, and for Americans if they’d start listening to me 🙂 , Al Jazeera will still exist online, where I will continue to visit to learn stories that I won’t hear from my fellow Americans. But when our TV’s on? I’ll be watching The Daily Show. At least they’re honest about being a pretend news show.