The Big Antiracism “Now What?”: Can There Be Angels in the Details?

Erin Aubry Kaplan, in her op-ed in the New York Times, “Everyone’s an Antiracist. Now What?” makes a rather devastating point: Congratulations, White People. You have arrived…at the beginning of something:

Recognizing that Black people matter as much as all other Americans is only acknowledging what’s always been true. Embracing Blackness as a something of value and dignity is a baseline for progress, not progress; it is moving into position at the starting line, but it is not the race.

I am finding my days heartened currently by the scope of racial education among people and groups who have, like me, always assumed themselves to be “good,” “non-racist” folks without doing any real work to back up that assumption. People who’ve coasted on privilege for generations (like me) are finally scrutinizing that fact and grappling with the implications. BUT, as Kaplan writes,

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

It’s one thing to declare your support for Black Lives Matter with a lawn sign and quite another to give up segregated schools, or always seeing yourself and people like you as the center of the moral universe. The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

This is the part where people usually say, “Yeah, antiracism’s great, but the devil’s in the details.” As in: what do you mean by antiracist work? What if it’s not only inconvenient by messy, complicated, hard, threatening?

To that thought–my own thought!–I am trying to give this reply: What if those aren’t devils but angels in the details? What if we can find our own redemption as a dominant race by taking some nitty-gritty steps toward REAL equality, REAL justice? Doesn’t that sound like a blessing to you?

So, for my own work, my own “angels,” I am committing to the following:

  1. actively engage in the struggle to protect voting rights in “battleground” states, by phone-banking to promote mail-in balloting, along with promoting progressive candidates from the bottom to the top of the ballot; continue to mail letters to individual voters to urge their participation in November
  2. continue to advocate, through phone calls and email, for the closure of the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, WA, run by the private prison company Geo Group
  3. continue to educate myself about the American carceral state, to see what else needs advocating for (restoration of voting privileges for former felons? prison defunding? what else?)
  4. look for opportunities to support Black businesses, like WeBuyBlack.com (gorgeous dresses!)
  5. stay open to calls for action from organizations like Color of Change, using the privilege of my free time to advocate on specific cases of injustice whenever I have a moment

    Not gonna lie–it’s a tough read.

When I find myself foot-dragging on any of the above actions–which, face it, are not inherently fun–all I have to do is re-read Kaplan’s line: The privilege to not engage is one that many may be loath to give up, even if they believe engagement is the right thing to do.

Photo Courtesy of Color of Change.org

I admit, I’m writing this as much to keep myself motivated as anything. Privileged non-engagement is very, VERY comfortable. That’s why I’ve lived there for most of my life.

Anyway–thanks for reading about my commitments. I’d love to read about yours! Please share your current or next steps, wherever you are on this journey.

 

“Stand-up Tragedy”: When Coping Mechanisms Become Calls to Action

I’m not a particularly gifted comedian, but comedy plays a big role in the life I’ve made with my Mate. We like to say Jon Stewart pretty much raised our children. I know he got us through the Dubya Bush years, especially after the invasion of Iraq. When the Daily Show theme music came on, we’d yell, “Hey boys, Funny People!” and the boys would come running.

Since the election of 2016, I’ve leaned hard on Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah to remind myself that I’m not the only one who feels like my country’s turning back 100 years. But since the death of George Floyd, like the comedians themselves, I’m finding more solace in bitterness.

Isn’t that a contradiction? No–not when the bitterness is shared, and focused.

This morning’s New York Times article about Richard Pryor, by Jason Zinoman, put it best. After moving on to discuss Pryor’s legacy among Black comics, including SNL’s Michael Che and The Daily Show’s Roy Wood Jr., Zinoman focuses on Dave Chappelle, and coins the perfect phrase:

Over the past few decades, Chappelle has repeatedly made comedy from the pain of police brutality, but what stood out about his recent set was how his typically grave tone didn’t pivot to a joke, how often he let his unfiltered outrage sit there…Chappelle went long stretches without jokes, producing a kind of stand-up tragedy. When he asked what the police officer whose knee was on the neck of George Floyd could be thinking, he spoke with a righteous anger that comedy could not address. There are limits to what a joke can do.

Stand-up tragedy. YES. That is what feeds my soul these days: someone standing up, literally, and calling out what happened and what it means. Here is Trevor Noah, his first workday after the death of Rayshard Brooks:

Trevor isn’t telling me what to do. But when this professional funny person, this man whose impish dimple has brought me so much joy over the past five years, looks me in the eye and speaks his bitter truth, I feel called up. Which is how I want to feel right now.

It’s even more (bizarrely) comforting to hear comedians call other people out–people not like me, whom I wouldn’t have the right to criticize. Here’s Hasan Minhaj, from his show Patriot Act, calling out his fellow immigrants from Asia and the Middle East:

There are some speakers, like Killer Mike and Kimberly Jones, whose words are pure bitterness and zero comedy–no less brilliant and even more gripping–and I’ll probably focus on them another time.

Right now I want to give a huge shout-out to those “Funny People” whose wit and wisdom is fueling me these days–and hopefully you too. Please share others!

‘Nuff Said? We’ll See.

This book is suddenly a national best-seller. My copy’s back-ordered. It’s a start.

Of what? 

“Some people go out in glory

Yeah with the wind at their back

Some get to tell their own story

Write their own epitaph

Sometimes you see it coming

Sometimes you won’t know until

You’re out of breath

With a knee on your neck

For a $20 bill.”                          –Tom Prasado-Rao

 

Friends–let’s do the hard work, whatever’s ours to do.

White, Horrified and Helpless: Six Ways to Find Your Direction

Let’s say you’re White. Let’s say you’re not in close touch with many People of Color. Let’s say the reality of being Black in America is coming home to you in a deeper way than it ever has. Let’s say you are feeling ready to do more than just feel bad, attend a demonstration or write a check. Let’s say you are wondering where to start.

That was me, following the election of 2016. From what I’m hearing and seeing on social media, it’s a lot more people now. If it’s you, please keep reading.

Since struggling in the winter of 2016-17, I’ve begun to find some direction, some guidance. I would like to share it here.

  1. First, rip off your emotional blinders. Read Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    This book is soul-changing.

  2. Learn the history you never knew you needed to know: Wherever you can fit it into your day, listen to episodes of the podcast “Seeing White” by John Boewin, with special guest Chenjeria Kumanyika.
  3. Get personal with that history. Read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

    Better yet, read it with a friend.

  4. Turn the lens on yourself. Read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Debbie Irving’s Waking Up White. Or both.

    Start a book group.

  5. Reach out. Investigate groups you may have never heard of, like Color of Change. What work are they doing? Do you want to support it, and if so, how? Watch Netflix shows like “Dear White People” or “BlackAF”–they’ll make you laugh while your mind is expanding. Read People of Color. Listen to People of Color. Think about what you’ve never thought about. Think about where this country has an opportunity to go.
  6. Get involved with a group like VoteForward or Common Purpose to defeat Donald Trump. While we find a way to move forward, we have to keep our country from sliding further backward. How can you help?

    Racism is like COVID, or cancer. If you can’t study it and talk about it, you can’t cure it.

You know and I know, it is no longer possible just to dislike racism. We are either doing anti-racist work–starting with ourselves–or we are permitting racism to hold its grip. Please add your own suggestions here for what people like you, like me, or ANY people can do.

But Wait! I Have One More Gift Idea! Just…Give! OK? Merry Christmas.

Before I sign off for the holiday week (I know, I’m not a teacher anymore, but I still think of Christmas/New Year as one lengthy holiday. That’s still better than the corporations, who seem to think it starts after Halloween.)–sorry, where was I? Right. The holidays. I know it’s late, but I have ONE MORE EXCELLENT GIFT IDEA, and it requires NO driving, NO wrapping, and very little time. But lots of thought, and heart.

Why not give the gift of giving? My best find of 2019 was the Americans of Conscience Checklist, a weekly message in my inbox full of suggestions of political phonecalls to make or letters to write (including thank-you notes to people who’ve taken good or brave action). AoCC is a regular part of my week now–usually 20 minutes’ worth.

And now, AoCC offers a curated list of causes to donate to, based on your passions–or those of the person you wish to gift. Click here to see the list.

Categories for giving include:

Migrant justice: give to an organization which collects airline miles to help re-unite separated migrant families.

Prison reform: support an organization dedicated to providing books for prisoners, while educating Americans about the prison crisis.

Election integrity: give to a non-partisan group which oversees elections at all levels, in our own country. And there’s one particular group that focuses on enfranchisement in Indian Country.

I can’t think of a better way to show your love for someone than to donate to a cause they love.

Of course, it’s not all about money. If you want to gift someone with the feeling I’ve been enjoying these past few months–the feeling of empowerment–just send them the AoCC link and let them feel it for themselves.Merry happy!

Merry, happy Everything, people! See you in 2020.

My Conscience Speaks In Joan Baez’s Voice. And I Don’t Care If That’s Weird.

A friend once offered some questions she’d brought back from a writing retreat. I can’t remember them verbatim, only that they were mind-opening. Especially the one that went something like this:

“Give your Inner Critic a persona and a voice. What does s/he say?”

I didn’t have to think at all. My Inner Critic–sometimes self-doubt, but more often simply my conscience–sounds like Joan Baez. She IS Joan Baez. And she usually wants to know, in her beautiful, stripped-down, poetic but peremptory way, why I’m not making more out of my time on Earth.

Do I need to explain this foible of mine, or defend it? Maybe I will, someday. But right now all I want to do is celebrate and share Joan singing, “The President Sang Amazing Grace.”

The song, written by Zoe Mulford, captures in song the moment Barack Obama did just that, in June 2015, while giving the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was shot in his own church along with eight other worshippers by a young man in the depths of hate. But it also captures…amazing grace. The kind that turns hopeless grief into hopeful action. The kind that speaks, decade after decade, in Joan Baez’s voice, asking me if I’m living the best life I can lead.

That’s all I think I need to say. If the hatred of our age is getting to you…just listen to Joan. Then comment and/or share as you feel moved.

Americans of Conscience Checklist: For Those Of Us Who Can’t Keep Up

I admit it. I hate calling my Congressperson. I actually have to ASSIGN myself a time to call, or a number of calls to make, depending on the issue. But after calling, I always feel good, and wonder why I had to fight so much inertia.

If this sounds at all like you, you might be interested in this website I was just introduced to by my friend Iris, the Americans of Conscience Checklist.

I signed up to receive the weekly Checklist via email. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. As it tells you on the home page,

the AoC Checklist features clear, well-researched actions for Americans who value democracy, equality, voting, and respect. To stay engaged through challenging times, we practice gratitude, self-care, and celebration.

So I get the best of both worlds: a definitive, time-based reminder that’s done all my legwork for me. All I have to do is choose one thing–boom, done. I can go deeper if I want, but that’s entirely up to me.

My own little bit for America (photo by SweetShutter, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take this week’s list, for example. It offers actions to take if you are concerned about…

…advocating for a crucial safeguard against election fraud:

[h/t Verified Voting]Call: Your two state legislators (look up).

Script: Hi, I’m calling from [ZIP] because I want security around [STATE]’s elections to be public and trustworthy. Nonpartisan experts agree that a specific type of post-election oversight called a risk-limiting audit (RLA) is the strongest and most cost-effective defense against malfunctioning or hacked voting systems. Can I count on [NAME] to support mandatory RLAs in [STATE] beginning with the 2020 presidential primaries? Thank you.

…the rights of vulnerable people, like Native American women:

 [h/t National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center] Call: Your two senators (look up).

Script: Hi. I’m calling from [ZIP] to express my deep frustration that the Senate still has not acted on the Violence Against Women Act, lapsed now for more than a year. As a result, Native American women in particular are even more vulnerable to assault and rape. I’m asking [NAME] to support the complete House version (H.R. 1585) and call for an immediate vote on it.

The checklist goes on to offer a name of someone worthy of thanking. This week, it suggests: “Thank NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for affirming employees’ individual rights to freedom of expression.”

And of course it provides Mr. Silver’s address.

Then comes my favorite part, the Good News section. Don’t know about you, but I need this stuff to keep me hopeful! There’s national good news…

A federal court issues a temporary injunction against the administration’s “public charge” rule, which would limit aspiring Americans’ ability to receive green cards should they need to utilize public assistance. 

…as well as state-by-state, like this from Vermont:

VT will allow young adults aged 18-20 with criminal charges to remain in the juvenile court system, providing them with age-appropriate services and allowing them to avoid a life-altering criminal record.

Way to go, Vermont! I doubt I would have learned that news from any other source.

Point is, my inertia doesn’t stand a chance against this kind of easy, hand-picked list of ways to weigh in on things I do care about, even if you wouldn’t know it from my laziness. If you can relate to this at all, I hope you’ll consider checking out the Americans of Conscience Checklist here.

Let’s go, America! (photo by finn, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

 

Defending What the (Chicago) Defender Defended: The Need For a Non-Dominant Lens

The Chicago Defender, legendary Black newspaper, has ceased printing after nearly 115 years.According to today’s story in the New York Times, by Monica Davie and John Eligon, 

…the demise of The Chicago Defender’s print editions represented a painful passage for many people who grew up in Chicago and for those with memories of its influence far beyond this city. Of its many significant effects over many years, The Defender told of economic success in the North, and was seen as a catalyst in the migration of hundreds of thousands of black Americans from the South.

The article goes on to say,

The Defender delivered news of monumental events — the funeral of Emmett Till, the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the election of Barack Obama — but also of everyday life for black Americans, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

“We never saw ourselves listed other places in weddings, funerals, debutantes, so this became a real frame of reference for activities,” Mr. Jackson said. “My career would not be what it is today if not for The Defender.”

Images courtesy of New York Times and Chicago Defender

I won’t say “R.I.P.” because the Defender will continue–and, I hope, thrive–in its digital form.  But the article caught my attention because the news hits in a moment when I, like many White liberals, am scrutinizing what it means to be a part of white supremacist society that benefits me even while I criticize it.

One thing it has meant, over the years, is a comforting sense of “Yep, I’m America,” while minorities, no matter how much I support their rights, remain just that: minorities. Not fully people with their own lenses, lenses which might cast me in a view I’d rather not face up to.

To battle this default, given that I live in a very White community, I’ve been reading and listening to challenging words. My current book is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric.

Image courtesy Indiebound.com

Part poetry, part essay, part lament, part witness, filled with art and filled especially with pointed pain, this small book skewers any notion of White righteousness with passages like this one:

Someone in the audience asks the man promoting is new book on humor what makes something funny. His answer is what you expect–context. After a pause he adds that if someone said something, like about someone, and you were with your friends you would probably laugh, but if they said it out in public where black people could hear what was said, you might not, probably would not. Only then do you realize you are among “the others out in public” and not among “friends.” (p. 48)

Or this:

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry. (p. 18)

Reading Citizen is painful. That’s why I’m doing it. I know The Chicago Defender was not written for me. That’s why I need it to exist. If I think about this a little longer, I’ll probably end up subscribing. 

Yes. I think I will. Because if I’m okay with my lens being the only lens offered to Americans, aren’t I complicit in pushing everyone else out of the frame?

 

 

 

 

O Say Can You See…The Beloved Community?

This past week, several friends of mine in different parts of the country voiced ambivalence about celebrating America. Their common refrain: “Our current government seems to be all about turning people against each other. What’s to celebrate? Make America Hate Again?”

But as Dr. Martin Luther King once wrote (and as President Obama loves to remind us, even if he quotes it incorrectly), “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’m trying to keep that in mind these days, keep my eyes on the prize: the Beloved Community.

The Huffington Post’s Dr. Jeff Ritterman published this blog a while ago, defining the Beloved Community and breaking down its real-world implications:

As explained by The King Center, the memorial institution founded by Coretta Scott King to further the goals of Martin Luther King,

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood .

Now, that sounds mighty high-falutin’ to me. But here’s what the Beloved Community looks like to me, here on my little island: everyone can talk to everyone else. People feel bad if someone in the community is suffering, even if they themselves are untouched. We are islanders together, maybe even more than we are Americans together.

Is this true now? Of course not. But this vision draws me eagerly to our amazing community parade, and our even more amazing fireworks display. This vision fuels my conversations with fellow islanders I’m pretty sure vote differently from me.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Kabir Bakie, Blue Ash Fireworks Display, July 4 2005

Would I have those conversations with similar folks on the mainland? Not sure. That’s a pretty daunting thought. But here? It’s a start, at least.

What is your own version of the Beloved Community? Can you sum it up in one sentence? 

Celebrate America–by Remembering Philando Castile

Philando Castile died two days after Independence Day, July 6, 2016. Shot to death in his car, in a traffic stop in Minnesota, in front of his girlfriend and her young daughter, by a police officer who later swore he was in fear of his life. One year later, in July 2017, the officer was acquitted by a jury containing men and women of different races.

Courtesy Fibonacci Blue from Minnesota, via Wikimedia Commons

 This is not a post about guns, shooting, police, or even Black Lives Matter. This is a post about love. This is a signpost, showing a way forward.

According to a story by Michelle Krupa of CNN in March of this year, Philando’s legacy is still alive, helping children the way he used to, when he worked as a custodian at a public school in St. Paul:

One by one.That’s how Philando Castile, who was killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop, used to help kids who couldn’t afford lunch. The school nutrition supervisor would dip into his pocket and pay the bill.

Now a charity run in his name has multiplied his mission by thousands, wiping out the lunch debt of every student at all 56 schools in Minnesota’s St. Paul Public Schools, where Castile worked.
“That means that no parent of the 37,000 kids who eat meals at school need worry about how to pay that overdue debt,” according to a post at the YouCaring fundraising page Philando Feeds the Children. “Philando is STILL reaching into his pocket, and helping a kid out. One by one.”
This July 4th, I’m going to celebrate my country, which I love, as much as anything, for its ability to rise from its own evil–slavery–and become better. And I’m going to remember Philando Castile, who died because the legacy of slavery has legitimized the idea of a black man being scary, even as he sits in his car with his family. I’m going to celebrate the fact that an American like Philando, held to one of the lowest jobs, chose to help children the way we all want adults to help children.
God bless America. God bless the example of Philando Castile. Let’s make ourselves and our country better.