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.