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.

 

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.

 

America’s National Parks: Big, Beautiful, and…Downright Un-American: Ever Wonder Why?

Hey, I’m back. Just spent a wonderful four days wandering with my besties from high school through Olympic National Park–which should be called Olympic National Parks, it contains so many different ecozones. From the giant cedars and spruces of the rain forest to the wild waves and fantastical drift logs of the Pacific beaches, from the azure shores of Crescent Lake to the glint of Blue Glacier shining across to Hurricane Ridge–all in four days!–we luxuriated in accessible diversity and diverse accessibility.

And I noticed something I’ve noticed many times before in national parks. We met lots of people–people of all colors speaking Dutch and Chinese and Hindi and English. Except the English speakers were not exactly ALL colors. We met very, very, very few Black folks. And that reminded me of this article I’d recently read on Al Jazeera America.com about just this topic. 

According to the article, my perceptions are sadly borne out by statistics:

According to a 2009 survey by the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service (NPS), whites accounted for 78 percent of the national parks’ visitors from 2008 to 2009; Hispanics, 9 percent; African-Americans, 7 percent; and Asian-Americans, 3 percent.

When compared with their share of the U.S. population, white park visitors are overrepresented by 14 percentage points, whereas African-Americans were underrepresented by 6 percentage points. Whites are overrepresented not only as visitors but also as park employees. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, 80 percent of NPS employees were white. And the National Park Foundation’s 22-member board, whose mission is to support the NPS through fundraising, has only four minorities.

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The article goes on to emphasize that this issue isn’t simply one of Black folks not being particularly drawn to natural beauty. Ironically, the National Park Service itself appears to be contributing to African Americans’ feelings of unwelcome in our parks:

Last month we learned firsthand about the racist mistreatment of African-American park visitors during a scholarly event at Yosemite National Park in California. By inviting a diverse group of women to the park, we inadvertently carried out a study of racial profiling by park gate agents.

As part of our event, eight female academics — four of them white or Hispanic and four African-American — drove into the park. The organizers told participants not to pay the entrance fee and to inform gate agents that their fees were waived because they were visiting the research station.

The white and Hispanic drivers gave the agents the information as directed and were welcomed and waved through. The four African-American scholars entered the park at different times and entrances and gave the same information. In all four cases, the African-American professors were extensively questioned, made to fill out a superfluous form, which required extra and unnecessary effort and a check-in with the research center staff, and reluctantly let into the park.

One of the black professors was questioned about her college degrees, the title of her research project and her university affiliation and was asked to provide a faculty ID. The agents appeared incapable of imagining that a black woman could hold a Ph.D. and visit a research station for a scholarly event. (The Yosemite National Park Service has since opened an investigation into the incidents.)

I’m glad to see that Yosemite is investigating this incident. I hope the whole issue gets more attention. My recent re-affirmation of a lifelong love affair with our national parks reminds me: these parks belong to ALL of us. But until ALL of us go there, they won’t be truly national.

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Care to weigh in with your own experience? I’d love to hear.

 

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.

Sterling and Silver: The NBA Shows its True Mettle, and…I Love It!

I could go on for awhile with the metallic puns, but I’m going to pass up this golden opportunity and just talk about how weird and wonderful it is all of a sudden to listen to professional sports chat.

But first a quick update, for those of you who don’t care/are too busy to pay attention to the NBA/aren’t sure which sport the NBA involves/don’t live with partners who watch a lot of ESPN/think that ESPN stands for something to do with Spain:

There’s this 84 year-old rich guy, Donald Sterling, okay? Very rich: billionaire rich. Owns a basketball team rich. The LA Clippers, to be precise. Also the kind of rich who can apparently have both a wife AND a 31 year-old girlfriend without that being a news story in itself.

Last week someone (who? Who? Ooooh, news story!) recorded a private phone call between Sterling and said girlfriend, V. Stiviano, in which he berated her for posting pictures on her Instagram account of herself standing with “minorities” .

Those “minorities”? Among others, current NBA star Blake Griffin and NBA LEGEND/philanthropic entrepreneur Magic Johnson. To Mr. Sterling, they are just “black people.”

(orig. image courtesy wikimedia.org)

(orig. image courtesy wikimedia.org)

Here is the transcript of the tape, as offered by Deadspin.com (which also has video):

V: I don’t understand, I don’t see your views. I wasn’t raised the way you were raised.

DS: Well then, if you don’t feel—don’t come to my games. Don’t bring black people, and don’t come.

V: Do you know that you have a whole team that’s black, that plays for you?

DS: You just, do I know? I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them?Do I know that I have—Who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners, that created the league?

Poor Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp is also dragged into the conversation, having appeared in an Instagram photo with V. Stiviano. It was her photo with Magic Johnson that had apparently started the fight.

V: Honey, if it makes you happy, I will remove all of the black people from my Instagram.

DS: You said that before, you said, “I understand.”

V: I DID remove the people that were independently on my Instagram that are black.

DS: Then why did you start saying that you didn’t? You just said that you didn’t remove them. You didn’t remove every—

V: I didn’t remove Matt Kemp and Magic Johnson, but I thought—

DS: Why?

V: I thought Matt Kemp is mixed, and he was OK, just like me.

DS: OK.

V: He’s lighter and whiter than me.

DS: OK.

V: I met his mother.

DS: You think I’m a racist, and wouldn’t—

V: I don’t think you’re a racist.

DS: Yes you do. Yes you do.

V: I think you, you—

DS: Evil heart.

And there is also this baffling exchange about black Jews in Israel:

DS: It’s the world! You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.

V: So do you have to treat them like that too?

DS: The white Jews, there’s white Jews and black Jews, do you understand?

V: And are the black Jews less than the white Jews?

DS: A hundred percent, fifty, a hundred percent.

V: And is that right?

DS: It isn’t a question—we don’t evaluate what’s right and wrong, we live in a society. We live in a culture. We have to live within that culture.

V: But shouldn’t we take a stand for what’s wrong? And be the change and the difference?

DS: I don’t want to change the culture, because I can’t. It’s too big and too [unknown].

V: But you can change yourself.

DS: I don’t want to change. If my girl can’t do what I want, I don’t want the girl. I’ll find a girl that will do what I want! Believe me. I thought you were that girl—because I tried to do what you want. But you’re not that girl.

They close by essentially invoking Hitler and closing down the thread, comparing Sterling’s viewpoints to the Holocaust:

V: It’s like saying, “Let’s just persecute and kill all of the Jews.”

DS: Oh, it’s the same thing, right?

V: Isn’t it wrong? Wasn’t it wrong then? With the Holocaust? And you’re Jewish, you understand discrimination.

DS: You’re a mental case, you’re really a mental case. The Holocaust, we’re comparing with—

V: Racism! Discrimination.

DS: There’s no racism here. If you don’t want to be… walking… into a basketball game with a certain… person, is that racism?

Thank you, Deadspin.com. Seeing this down in black and white, along with your commentary…well, I’m not sure if it’s more chilling than disgusting, or vice versa.

SO. Between Saturday and Tuesday, ESPN and all the other sports chatterers erupted into a conflagration of righteous anger that was beautiful to behold. “Round-Mound-of-Rebound” Charles Barkley, now a commentator, said it “pisses me off” to know that Sterling greets him happily in public but still thinks of him as a lesser human being, and doesn’t see anything wrong with that attitude. (You heard the man, right? “There’s no racism here.”) 

On Tuesday, brand-spanking new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (who, it must be said, looks an awful lot like Dobby the House-Elf), announced the NBA’s response. Donald Sterling is banned from the NBA for life, meaninghe can never attend another game ANYwhere. He must pay a 2.5 million-dollar fine (the highest that can be assessed). And Silver himself will pressure the other NBA owners to force Sterling to sell the team.

In other words: whatever else you want to complain about, in terms of our Moneyball sports culture, we have achieved this progress: we ALL AGREE that RACISM IS REPUGNANT.

(orig. image courtesy wikimedia.org)

(orig. image courtesy wikimedia.org)

The reaction among the sports chatterers has been one of authentic relief, pride, and yes, joy. I can’t get enough of it. Finally…we’re talking about something REAL here! We’re discussing the importance of human dignity in the workplace! We’re drawing parallels between “minorities” and women! We are sounding full-on progressive.

I know pretty soon it’ll all die down and I’ll go back to being annoyed by cheerleaders, badly-behaved spoiled stars, and coverage of things like the Masters golf tournament that still excludes women and still plays on a course with a proud history of excluding both women and people of color. But for now, I want to celebrate Adam Silver, the NBA, and this moment of joy in the power of standing up for what’s decent.

Care to tune in? What do you make of this moment in sports history? What does it say to you?

Teachable Moments: What Richard Sherman Said To Me

I’ve jumped on a bandwagon and I’m not embarrassed to say it. Richard Sherman, you’re cool in my book. And I’ve learned a lot about myself from thinking about my own reaction to your post-win rant after the NFL Divisional Championship.

For those of you who a) lack Seattle or San Francisco ties, b) couldn’t care less about the NFL, or c) are very smart, thoughtful people who get outside more than the rest of us and enjoy freedom from the death-grip of American capitalism don’t own a TV, let me briefly catch you up.

The 49ers were moments away from beating the Seahawks and heading to the Superbowl. In the end zone, Richard Sherman caught the ball intended for 49er receiver Michael Crabtree, and Seattle won the game. In the immediate-post-game interview conducted by Erin Andrews of Fox, Sherman yelled, “I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me. […] Don’t you open your mouth about the best or I’m gonna shut it for you real quick.”

Don’t worry if you missed the video of that interview. You’re probably going to see plenty of replays between now and the end of the Superbowl.

I watched the game–uncharacteristic of me, but hey, I love my town! To me, Sherman sounded angry and childish. I remember turning to my husband and saying, “Well, that’s a shame. That really leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” I went on to say something about being Sherman being a poor role model for kids.

If my reaction had been all that immediately lit up Twitter, it still would have created a Teachable Moment. But of course the Twitterverse was far uglier. Hiding being anonymity, people posted horrible comments comparing Sherman to an “angry monkey” and calling him a “thug.” To my horror, I realized my own distaste was magnified a thousand times by those who saw the issue as one of race rather than simply maturity level.

The very next day, a former colleague whom I respect put a Huffington Post article on her Facebook page.  It went into detail about Sherman’s background, from growing up poor in Compton, CA to graduating from Stanford with 4.0. More powerfully, it challenged those who decried Sherman to think about their own reactions.

I did. I’ve read a lot since then, and watched some interviews. And I’m going to hand the mic over to the Huffington Post on this one:

Sherman suggests being labeled a thug is another way for a segment of the white media to call African-Americans like himself the N-Word. He feels a segment of the media contingent has unfairly labeled him something he’s not.

Is Richard Sherman really a thug?

By definition a thug is a person who engages in violent and/or criminal behavior.

Interesting.

Did Sherman kill someone?

Did Sherman rob, deceive or steal from someone?

Has Sherman served anytime in prison for acts contrary to the law?

I characterize his behavior as a display of passion. Sherman was exhibiting behavior in sports that few African-Americans having the platform are willing to use. He was simply talking trash about an opponent whose game he does not respect.

Period.

I agree. And in a later interview, Sherman calmly taught me what I should already have known, if I hadn’t gone solely with my gut reaction in those post-game moments:

It was loud, it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am. I don’t want to be a villain, because I’m not a villainous person. When I say I’m the best cornerback in football, it’s with a caveat: There isn’t a great defensive backfield in the NFL that doesn’t have a great front seven. Everything begins with pressure up front, and that’s what we get from our pass rushers every Sunday. To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.

Reading that makes me feel like the childish one. Thanks for the reminder, Richard. I may not be rushing over to the mainland to buy myself a #25 Seahawks jersey like the rest of Seattle, but I’ll be rooting for you, in the big game and in general. 

OK, gonna open it up now. Want to share your own reactions? Talk about the use of the word “thug”? Make a prediction for the Superbowl score? Share your favorite guacamole recipe? I’m listening!

Why I’m Glad That Richie Incognito Isn’t Incognito

“Big man bullied: Jonathan Martin reminds us that victims aren’t always the little guys.” 

That’s NBCNews.com’s take on the current NFL scandal involving Richie Incognito. The article goes on to mention Martin’s 312-pound frame to underscore their point that bullying is more psychological than physical.

Point taken, NBC. But let’s look at the point you missed, shall we? This bullying was more about RACE than anything. Martin is Black; Incognito is White. The violent, threatening texts and phone messages received by the 2nd-year Miami Dolphins lineman were laced with vicious racial slurs and epithets.

That’s called hate, people. It might be combined with bullying, but it’s still hate. 

Laying the two men’s career paths side by side provides such a textbook good boy/bad boy template, it’s almost a caricature. Martin, the son of a professor, attended Stanford; according to National Public Radio, had he gone with Harvard (his other choice), he would have been the first 4th-generation African American to attend.

Incognito (according to Wikipedia) was suspended from the University of Nebraska team, transferred to University of Oregon, and dismissed a week later. Yahoo!Sports reports that at least two NFL teams had listed Incognito on their “DNDC” list:  “Do Not Draft Due to Character.” Nice guy.

(Courtesy ditlo.com)

(Courtesy ditlo.com)

When I first got wind of this story–not being the least bit of a football fan, but being married to someone who embraces ALL sports–I expected the usual “boys will be boys, hazing happens” kind of reaction among the NFL. At first, I wasn’t disappointed.

ESPN.com quotes New York Jets quarterback David Garrard, a former Miami teammate of Incognito’s, describing him this way:

“I would just say he’s a jokester kind of guy,” Garrard said. “A good guy, but like all of us, you want to have your fair shake of pranks and stuff like that. … It’s unfortunate. You never want it to get to a point where guys want to leave the team. You would hope other guys in the locker room would help police it. It’s one of those situations that’s sad to see.”(ESPN.com)

Yeah, real sad. Now can we get back to some football?

But here’s what’s cool. That sadly predictable reaction has been all but drowned out by the rest of the NFL, who are, to my amazement, taking this disgusting episode with the full seriousness that it deserves.

Take it away, ESPN.com:

“Incognito was suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins on Sunday night for conduct detrimental to the team. Meanwhile, the Miami Herald reported Monday that the team plans to cut ties with him.

“He’s done,” a team source told the newspaper. “There are procedures in place, and everyone wants to be fair. The NFL is involved. But from a club perspective he’ll never play another game here.”

In a statement announcing his suspension, the Dolphins said, “we believe in maintaining a culture of respect for one another and as a result we believe this decision is in the best interest of the organization at this time. As we noted earlier, we reached out to the NFL to conduct an objective and thorough review. We will continue to work with the league on this matter.”

Never thought I’d say this, but: You GO, Miami Dolphins.You actually get it.

That’s why I’m glad that Incognito, and the racist brutishness he represents, is no longer, well, incognito. When I grew up in North Carolina, segregation still flourished. I attended the first integrated school in NC because my parents co-founded it, not wanting their girls to go to segregated schools. They refused to accept the norm.

When I first taught English and we read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out loud, that ol’ n-word filled the classroom and we all just shrugged away anyone’s discomfort. Ten years later, we started challenging that norm, saying “n-word” instead. A few years after that, I instituted the phrase “black gentleman” as a substitute, to make an ironic point. My students, of all colors, loved killing that racist norm, one word at a time.

(Courtesy thestarlite.com)

(Image from To Kill a Mockingbird film, courtesy thestarlite.com)

Once upon a time, not that many years ago, a slug like Richie Incognito would have made barely a ripple in the news. Now he’s about to get fired by an organization that pays people to beat on each other. Weird as it sounds, I call that progress, and I thank Mr. Incognito for being so “out there” with his racism that we can now use him as a benchmark.

What do you think? Is this event a step forward for mankind, or backward? Want to weigh in with your thoughts? As always, I’d love to hear.