Scrubbing Our American Nooks and Crannies: Racism and Other Filth

I don’t want to write about Charlottesville. I don’t even want to THINK about Charlottesville.

Last weekend I was in a sleep-deprived daze, going straight from wilderness camping to back-to-back days at my bakery job. And the Mate was out of town. I didn’t see any news, and since the twentysomethings I work with were even more exhausted than I, we talked mostly of cinnamon rolls and music.

Now the Mate is back home, the news is back on, and a weight has settled in my stomach, completely at odds with the fresh, beautiful view I see from our window.

So I’m going to write about my kitchen floor. It’s spotless again. So is the nook behind the toaster, and the gap between the dish drainer and the wall. Because–as I just mentioned–the Mate is back home.

It’s not that I’m a terrible housekeeper. I’m great fine perfectly quite competent. I keep my dishes washed and my counters wiped. But somehow, when the Mate is away for any length of time, my kitchen starts looking filthy.

It’s not that he’s a major cleaner. He’s a MINOR cleaner. He wipes a different spot each day, making the rounds. Today: behind the toaster. Tomorrow: under the fridge. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge, once done at one end, it’s time to start back at the other. But it’s no sweat, ’cause each spot-clean takes maybe two minutes, max.

Gotta stop pretending this ugliness will just disappear if I don’t look at it.

We live on an island of mostly left-leaning, mostly-white people. Not all privileged, by any means, but protected by race and by distance from the ugliness on display at Charlottesville. That weight in my stomach is for my country, not for myself.

But it is my weight just the same. Our weight, whether we live near or far. The threat of virulent, presidentially-approved racism is, in fact, a threat to us all. Our community.Our democracy.

A visitor told me this week he had seen a Confederate flag flying near someone’s driveway at the far end of our island. I don’t know when or how, but I’m going to find the person who owns that flag and talk to him/her. I’m not looking forward to the conversation. But that flag is a little pocket of grime in my kitchen, and I know what happens when you let those little pockets alone.

Begone, Confederate flags. You know what you really stand for.

Huh. Guess I wrote about Charlottesville after all.

 

The Flip Side Of White Privilege: White Outrage. So Where Is It?

White folks–are you woke?

During the Vietnam War, the term was “consciousness raising.” People who weren’t directly connected to the brutality in Southeast Asia via a family member or a job found little reason to care…until somehow their consciousness was raised. Maybe it was that famous photograph of the My Lai Massacre, all those dead villagers in a ditch. Maybe it was simply the stark rise in Walter Cronkite’s nightly death count. Or those white college kids getting shot at Kent State. But once that tipping point was reached, the war became an acknowledged mistake, a heartache, a cause for redemption ever since.

Black people have a briefer term for having one’s consciousness raised: “woke.”

I’ve been pondering this term since the verdict came down from the Philando Castile case in St. Anthony, Minnesota recently. You remember Castile, right? The Black man who was shot by police?

Damn, I wish that were funny. 

Anyway. Castile was shot exactly a year ago, in his car, with his partner, Diamond Reynolds,and her four year-old daughter, watching. Ms. Reynolds captured the immediate aftermath on her phone. Those of us who watched it felt sick.

But the officer who fired those seven shots was put on trial for manslaughter. When the jury saw what we’d seen, justice would surely be served. Right?

Wrong. Three weeks ago, the jury acquitted Officer Jeronimo Yanez. He was let go by the force, but the point of the trial wasn’t punishment. The point was redemption. Instead, the not-guilty verdict left me feeling more hopeless than I can remember feeling about the future of my country.

Trevor Noah (who isn’t an American but who IS a Black man who’s already been stopped by police multiple times in his few years in this country) speaks my heart:

Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair captures Noah’s stark emotional response better than I can:

 

And then, Noah got to the most heartbreaking detail of all: for years, the hypothetical solution to murky police shootings was body cams—because in theory, video footage would resolve any lingering questions people might have. “And black people have already taken that initiative, right?” Noah pointed out. “Thanks to cell phones, every black person has a body cam now. Black people have been saying for years, ‘Just give us an indictment. Just an indictment. Just get us in front of a jury. Just in front of a jury of our peers. Of our fellow citizens. We’ll show them the video, the evidence, and they will see it, and justice will be served.’ And black people finally get there, and it’s like, ‘Wait, what? Nothing?’ You hear the stories, but you watch that, and forget race. Are we all watching the same video? The video where a law-abiding man followed the officer’s instructions to the letter of the law and was killed regardless? People watched that video and then voted to acquit? And the saddest thing is, that wasn’t the only video that they watched.”

Noah then played part of the video that Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds,posted live on Facebook soon after watching Castile get shot next to her in the car. Now, just like before, the most striking and gut-wrenching detail is the composure with which Reynolds addresses the situation, and the officer who caused it.

“‘You shot four bullets into him, sir,’“ Noah said, quoting Reynolds. “It’s fucking mind-blowing that Diamond Reynolds has just seen her boyfriend shot in front of her. She still has the presence of mind to be deferential to the policeman. In that moment, the cop has panicked, but clearly black people never forget their training.”

So, what does it say that a jury was able to watch both of those videos in a courtroom and decide that the officer, Jeronimo Yanez—who, since the verdict, has been dismissed by the St. Anthony, Minnesota police department—was justified in fearing for his own life? Noah gave his own unambiguous verdict: “Let’s be honest. Why? Why would you say he was afraid? Was it because Philando Castile was being polite? Was it because he was following the officer’s instructions? Was it because he was in the car with his family? Or was it because Philando Castile was black?

“It’s one thing to have the system against you—the district attorneys, the police unions, the court. That’s one thing. But when a jury of your peers, your community, sees this evidence and decides that even this is self-defense, that is truly depressing. Because what they’re basically saying is, ‘In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.’“

I started this post with a term: consciousness-raising. Here’s another: white privilege.

White privilege is the equivalent of not having to know what’s going on in Vietnam. If you’re white like me, you can afford not to know about Philando Castile (or Freddie Gray, or Alton Sterling, or…). Sure, I heard about the verdict when it came out, and I was startled, but I was also very busy. Didn’t get around to thinking about it right away. ‘Cause I could afford not to.

Now I’m thinking about it. Now I’m woke. Now I feel sickened. “In America, it is officially reasonable to be afraid of a person just because they are black.” 

Is that where we are? Is that where we’re going to stay? Black outrage clearly means nothing in this country. So what about white outrage? Shall we try some of that? What would that look like?

What would America look like if white people like me got woke?

If We Can’t Weed the Bad Stuff, Can We Grow Enough Good Stuff?

Usually I enjoy weeding. Yeah, it’s violent–all that chopping and yanking, and today, since I was digging up salmonberry plants, wrestling and scratching–but it’s very satisfying. Such a simple job: getting rid of bad stuff in order to grow good stuff. 

Today, though, I came inside early, and not because of the scratches. My heart just wasn’t in the violence of the job. I kept thinking about LeBron James. He’s arguably the most famous athlete in the world, and probably one of the richest and most-loved American Black men (unless you’re a Golden State fan). And yet even King James isn’t immune from our current climate of hate. Someone spray-painted racist slurs on his property.

Says LeBron, as quoted by NPR,

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, you know being black in America is tough,” James said. “And we got a long way to go, for us as a society and for us as African-Americans, until we feel equal in America.”

I know most people who voted for Trump are probably not racist, thuggish bullies. But the guy they elected has empowered racist, thuggish bullies to crawl out from under their rocks. Some say it’s good that at least we know they’re there. I say…

…what do I say? I think that’s why I’m writing now. I want to grow something at this moment, not weed it out. And my thoughts are turning to Brian Doyle, a sweet, wonderful writer who died last week in Oregon. I am thinking about how he found goodness and joy in the everyday. Like in this “proem” from his little book, The Kind Of Brave You Wanted to Be:

And Then There is This

Here is who is really cool. Here is who is really

Admirable and to be emulated and what is holy:

The few people who get up instantly when their

Sister is suddenly sick, in awful ways, at dinner.

They just jumped up and dealt with it. It’s dirty,

And there’s no advantage in it, no money or sex,

No fame, nothing but stench an bleah and eww,

And then a young woman sat with the sic sister,

Letting her rattled sick aunt lean on her shoulder.

I saw all this. There’s all this talk, and then there

Is this. You know exactly what I am saying here. 

Live another day, salmonberries.

Do you know exactly what I am saying here? Can you give me something admirable and to be emulated and holy from your life right now? I need a little of that.

 

Why My Heart Goes Out to Black Parents: Sandra Bland’s No-Win Tragedy

You’re the parent of a Black child in a country whose racist legacy continues to bleed. You tell your kid, “If you’re stopped by a white cop, be respectful. Don’t look for trouble. But don’t you let the man turn back the clock of history on you. Be proud of who you are.”

I’m White, so what do I know? But that’s the message I think I would give my Black son or daughter if I had one. I think that must have been the message Sandra Bland’s folks gave her as she grew up. Maybe she had it in mind as she moved near Houston, Texas to start her new job. And this is the result: dragged out of her car, pushed to the ground and arrested. With bail set at $5,000. The original charge? Failure to signal. After three days in a Waller County jail, Sandra is found hanged.

I have no opinion on the controversy swirling over a murder cover-up, or whether Sandra was suffering from depression. I don’t know enough, and the more I read about this story, the sadder I get. Then I saw the footage of the actual arrest.

The video begins with the end of a different traffic stop–the officer’s giving a warning to some Sophomore at the university. Very cheery. We don’t know the race of that student, but s/he was obviously playing by the officer’s rules.

The very next stop is Sandra. She’s Black. She’s from out of state. She’s annoyed at being stopped. And for whatever reason, Officer Brian Encinia escalates the situation into a power struggle. Watching the result is like watching a train wreck in slow-motion, except that train wrecks are accidental.

Classic tragedy always contains a grain of irony to bitter up the taste a little. Here’s that grain: this video from “Sandy Speaks,” Sandra Bland’s Facebook page, in which she addresses the reason #BlackLivesMatter is a slogan with meaning far more powerful than simply saying All Lives Matter.

I’m not calling Sandra Bland a hero, even if others are. What makes her story so horrifying to me is that she’s just trying to be a normal, strong, Black woman. And apparently in our country, “normal,” “strong” and “Black” are enough to get you violently arrested. What happened to Sandra does NOT happen to normal, strong White people.

“Sandy Speaks” is right. Until we’re ALL ready to stand on a corner holding up a sign that says Black Lives Matter, then, in this country, all lives do NOT matter equally. Consider this my sign.

Out of Ashes, Hope: US Muslims Support Black Churches

The day after the Charleston Church Massacre, my personal media hero, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, was unable to tell a joke. He spent the opening of his show expressing his grief, and also his soul-sickness at the inability of the U.S. to “heal this racial wound,” or even to acknowledge its existence. (That’s why he’s my hero.)

It’s Jon Stewart’s job to rub Americans’ noses in painful truths. Since I couldn’t possibly improve on that job, I’ve taken on a different, but related assignment: to highlight small signs of improvement wherever I can find them.

This week’s sign of hope comes courtesy of Al-Jazeera, which published an article last week detailing how a coalition of U.S. Muslim groups has been spending Ramadan fund-raising to rebuild Black churches victimized by arson:

The coalition — which consists of U.S. organizations Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative and the Arab American Association of New York as well as digital startup Ummah Wide — has so far raised over $23,000 in five days. After the campaign ends on July 18, the money will be given to pastors of the burned churches that need it most, the groups said.

Like black communities in the United States, the coalition wrote, American Muslims are also vulnerable to intimidation, though not to the same extent as African-Americans.

“The American Muslim community cannot claim to have experienced anything close to the systematic and institutionalized racism and racist violence that has been visited upon African-Americans,” organizer Imam Zaid Shakir wrote on the campaign’s website.

However, Muslims can understand the “climate of racially inspired hate and bigotry that is being reignited in this country,” he wrote, saying the American Muslim community should stand in solidarity with African-Americans.

Racism, bigotry and violence are not going away any time soon. Blessings be upon those who stand up to them by reaching out like this. I don’t know any of these people, but I take comfort, for myself and for my country, in their existence.