Grappling with Radical Honesty in Reactive Times

Image: The Daily Don

I’ve started this sentence six ways to Sunday. I keep watching the bird feeder instead — the elegant mourning doves, who seem to wait their turn while the littler sparrows and finch peck away, unlike the blue jay bullies who, while beautiful to look at, just barrel in and take over the joint.

The reason I’m hesitating is because I want to write about some things I’m observing as more and more people wake up to the atrocities our government is committing, and I don’t want to fall into the self-righteous, liberal white people camp that shames others rather than opens doors to real dialogue, learning, growth, and action.

Does that mean I should just keep quiet on this front? May it go without saying that I, like you, have an ocean of unconscious bias to discover. I’m doing this by reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and other white people who are also reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and each other.

When I don’t hear a political peep from religious friends, I wonder where they stand.

When friends are suddenly outraged, calling this “a new low,” I wonder where they stand..

I simply wonder.

Maybe they are active in their place of worship or community in ways they choose not to share on social media. Not everyone is public or visible in their activism.

Maybe they are working through their own trauma. Maybe maybe.

I realize lately, I am still more bound up in “niceness” than I care to admit.

I do not want to alienate people who may indeed be grappling with their privilege and not sure what steps to take.

I do not want to alienate those who I’ve come to know in writing groups or school yards, just because they aren’t publicly taking a stand against policy brutality.

I do not want to assume what I don’t know.

I know many, many good people. I say “good” meaning: Compassionate, civically engaged, hearts-in-the-right-place people. Cycles of outrage on social media, if not coupled with tangible, organized actions, achieve little more than to exhaust us. And an exhausted “us” cannot sufficiently keep going, keep fighting.

Let me bring this down to earth. Yesterday, Mani and I sat talking for a long time, about how to take care of our lives, how to direct our time and money as we can to suffering right here in our town, and at the same time not look away or check out from what’s happening in our country. If it’s true that one-third of Americans are vehemently against this government and working in some capacity to dismantle the structures and systems that have brought us to this day, one-third of Americans actively condone and support white supremacy, and one-third don’t care (which blows my mind, I might add — we talked about this part all on its own for a quite a while), then that means those of us who give a shit are in the minority.

Bottom line question here: Is there any possibility of righting this ship enough to truly change course?

We’ve been moving in this direction all along.

So that is another thing I find myself baffled and frustrated by: The number of people popping up and asking, “How?”

How is this possible?

How could this happen?

How did Trump get elected?

How can “they” get away with this?

How did it get this bad?

These are not useful questions. They are ignorant questions.

And yet, I grapple. Because I know that I am ignorant in so many ways.

And I am also not ignorant in others.

My people, my ancestors, came to this country to escape persecution, too.

Jews were denied entrance to the U.S. before the Holocaust.

My ancestors happened to arrive fifty or so years prior to WWII. They arrived at Ellis Island. They were poor. They came with trunks and the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language. They “worked their way up.” They experienced discrimination as Jews, yes, but not so much so that they weren’t ultimately able to benefit from the “American Dream.” My sisters and cousins and our children are all direct beneficiaries in some capacity or other of the fact that our white-skinned ancestors, Jewish notwithstanding, arrived on these shores.

So often right now, I read or hear, “We are a country of immigrants.”

I want to say, Yeah! Hear, hear!

But I cannot in good conscience cheer for this sentiment. It’s a noble truth and a slice of America — but it’s far, far from the whole story. And to not continuously redirect our attention at this time to the scope of harm America’s wealth and apparent stability rests on is to stand in the most dangerous blindspot of all.

We do need hope. We need hope and we need all hands on deck and we need all of us to be awake to this unfolding nightmare. And we also need to stay focused on all the ways we — those who have enjoyed relative ease, comfort, stability, and opportunity as Americans — have looked away. We have looked away from the fact that the person cleaning our hotel room cannot collect social security, because service jobs were negotiated out of that deal. We have looked away from the steady proliferation of prisons and policies disproportionately directed to devastate communities of color.

So yes, when someone is newly upset or sharing about children being ripped from their parents’ arms, parents being deported to countries where violence and poverty make life untenable, I wonder. Is it better to begin somewhere than nowhere at all? Yes, I suppose. It has to be. And at the same time, where have you been?

Of course all of this is also my way of checking myself. Where have I been?

And this is where what I fear is shrillness in my voice must soften. Where I must stop to take a breathe and step off of my soapbox. Where I must acknowledge that I don’t like being shamed. I don’t like it when people make assumptions about my values or actions.

Right.

None of us likes that.

These are incredibly reactive times.

How do we continue to organize, do the work, address 10,000 emergencies at a time, and get enough sleep, care for those under our own roofs, and weed our own literal and proverbial gardens?

Reacting, yelling ourselves hoarse, unfriending and blocking — on the one hand, probably not the most effective route. Certainly not a sustainable one. And we need sustainable, because we are in for a very, very long fight here. One that has already been happening for 400 years and shows no signs up letting up anytime soon.

On the other hand, coddling apologists, bowing to so-called civility when the word itself is such an affront, such an insult, such a hypocrisy, will also not do.

I admire people who stay steady. Whose flame seems to burn brightly. Those who neither flare nor flicker.

It could be that raising children, paying attention to the ways in which I can be of use in our own community, and continuously seeking to see past the blinding benefits of whiteness, are true forms of radical action.

It could be that owning the fact that I can be judgmental as fuck is a good start — especially because it sucks to admit it. I am judgmental about the people who do not appear to be saying or doing a damn thing about a damn thing. There, I said it.

It could be that worrying less about being nice and more about being radically honest would be a good place to hang out.

It could be that so many of us are truly struggling to stay grounded right now. That so many of us DO see the truth of our country, and this horrific moment as a completely natural evolution of a deeply unjust system.

None of this can wait. It can’t wait until November 2018 or November 2020.

And I know we all have to figure out what’s for dinner tonight, and the dog needs to go out and the bills need to get paid and little Timmy just rode a two-wheeler for the first time!

To live your life and take care of your own does not have to equal complicity. it’s not a binary equation. It’s real life.

But to be merely silent in these times is to say, I choose to look away — because I can.

Don’t look away.

Look in the mirror. Look to a friend you trust. Look to a book that challenges what you were taught to believe about the Land of the Free. Look to the sky that covers us all. Just look.

“The Perfect American Family”

Watching American Ninja Warrior this morning, one of the contestants gave the glowy little story about his family and how he came to be on the show.

“We were the perfect American family…” he began. A photo flashed across the screen of himself, his wife, a boy and a girl. White, blonde, middle class, smiling.

Hold up a second.

I pointed out to Pearl what I’d just seen and heard. This is the stuff we’re bombarded with in every medium countless times a day, often without even pausing to register the message, the myth, and most importantly — the harm they cause and the system of white supremacy they uphold.

The man continued to narrate his road to the show. He and his wife adopted a third child from an African nation. This boy “completed” their family. So now we are also expected to applaud them for this noble move and get teary at how sweet it is that they don’t see race.

A few minutes later, Pearl asked a question. (I hadn’t realized he was thinking about it — a good reminder that our kids are paying much more attention than we may think.)

“Would it have been better if he’d said they were the ‘stereotypical’ American family?”

I responded that I thought this would be at least a step in the right direction.

Who defines “perfect” or “typical” or “average”? Narratives come in many forms — written, spoken, visual. The dominant ones — on TV, in textbooks, on magazine covers, in the news — perpetuate a story about America that normalizes and celebrates whiteness as the default setting (not to mention heterosexual, Christian, cisgender, etc.).

If you haven’t already, think about the impact of the pairing of that contestant’s photo with his “perfect American family” comment for a non-white kid, or a kid with a single mom or a kid with same-sex parents for that matter. That adopted child is not going to have the same experience and ease in the world as his white siblings. I hope to God his parents know this.

White parents: Please.

Look hard at yourself. At the ways you want to bubble wrap your littles and protect them from the harshness of the world.

Think about the fact that parents of color have to talk with their children about not getting KILLED. To consider how they talk, what they wear, where they walk or drive, who they’re with — all while navigating a culture that centers whiteness and all while white people and culture are saying: You’re overreacting. You’re being too sensitive. You’re imagining things. You’re being negative.

Do not “protect” your kids from the realities of racism and the ways white dominance seeps into every aspect of our daily lives. No matter their age, they are old enough.

Catch these moments. Say something. Ask questions. Talk about it. Everything counts.

If we want things to change, we cannot raise fragile kids. This is not about being a good white person or getting pats on the back. This is about bringing up a generation who sees through the bullshit and won’t stand for it.

Stop Silencing Women of Color

Image from Layla Saad’s original FB post

Yesterday morning, I read a Facebook post to Pearl over breakfast.

Layla Saad, a brilliant writer, speaker, mentor, and guide whom I feel lucky to have connected with over the past year through social media, had shared a photo of her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite new doll, a doll that looked like HER, with brown skin and natural hair. Her daughter had excitedly brought her new doll to school to show her best friend, who is white.

Her friend’s response? The doll looked “scary.” Layla’s daughter was crushed.

Layla’s original post began with a plea to white parents, to teach our kids about racism.

Well, the same post of hers was blocked on Instagram. Someone reported her, and Instagram sided with the complaint.

Layla shared a screenshot of that post — the blocked one. That, too, was reported as “inappropriate content” and blocked. She wrote about all of this here on Facebook.

Do you see it coming? She was reported and banned from Facebook for 24 hours.

BLOCKED AND BANNED.

That is what the invisible powers that be will do with women of color who are sharing their everyday, lived experiences of racism. They are not making this shit up, but there are plenty of white people who feel “attacked” by these “offensive” posts.

You know what’s offensive? Denial. Coddling. Defensiveness. And actively silencing those who are sharing their pain and anger and frustration and truth.

This morning, I told Pearl what happened, how Layla had been blocked and then banned. I told him why I was so angry and explained as best I could why “reverse racism” is not a thing. I told him I was going to post something about this today, because to sit by and watch as women of color get silenced — by white women, by women who are more concerned with defending themselves or feeling hurt or misunderstood or with “protecting” their kids than they are willing to acknowledge that racism is real and constant and exhausting and violent in everyday ways — is to be complicit.

Pearl said: What if you get blocked, too? And: So why don’t you stop using Instagram and Facebook?

That’s a risk I am fine taking, I told him, adding that the chances of my getting blocked are exponentially lower — because I am unjustly protected by my whiteness.

Given not currently having another way of connecting with so many people, I will stay here. But I will stay here and use my privilege in this space in every way I can, to speak out against white supremacy and oppression.

It’s insidious. Clearly the powers that be behind the scenes  represent and favor white voices and cater to white fragility. Otherwise, why would they ban people of color for saying THIS IS REAL?

Fellow white parents: It is our responsibility to believe women of color when they tell us something is not right. When they tell us to stop. When they tell us to listen. When they tell us they’re angry. Don’t ask them what we can do. Ask each other.

We need to be making noise about this. It might not make you the most popular parent in the schoolyard, but fuck popularity. Really. If we don’t teach our kids about their privilege, about the harm perpetrated and perpetuated and permitted in the name of whiteness and under cover of whiteness; if we don’t teach them that it is both personal AND systemic; if we don’t teach them to be awake to their responsibility and aware that their friends of color are living a very different experience than theirs, one where having a doll that looks like you is special, one where you have to pay that much more attention to how you talk and what you wear and where you go and who you’re with; if we don’t name these things and teach our kids, we are failing.

I may lose friends as I become more vocal about this, but you can’t unsee it once you see it, and it is everywhere. It’s not enough to love Obama and Oprah and go to the Women’s Marches and say we’re angry or that’s terrible or I’m so sad, not all white people, but I’m not racist, my kid would never do that.

Layla Saad did nothing wrong. NOTHING. And yet she was banned from this space. Silenced.

Where can you speak up? Whether it’s at the kitchen table or at the PTO meeting, on social media or at the bus stop while you’re chatting with other parents. This will not stand and it has to stop.

* * *

Layla Saad’s Original Post

White parents, please teach your kids to not be racist.

My 8 year old daughter took one of her new dolls into school today to show her best friend (who is white). My daughter was really excited about showing this doll to her best friend because 1) the doll’s name is Mia (and my daughter’s name is Maya) and 2) the doll’s hair looks just like my daughter’s when she wears it out. She was excited that I had found a doll that looks like her and thought her best friend would share in her joy.

When I asked her after school if her best friend like the doll, she looked ashamed and said No. I asked why. She said, “She said She looks scary.”

???

So help me God, it took everything inside me not to say wtf. I told her:

“That is racist. This doll is beautiful, just like you. And you tell your friend, if she thinks the doll looks scary then that means she thinks you look scary. Tell her what she said was unkind, and if she says it again, she’s going to have to deal with me.”

My daughter is 8 years old and she had her #blackgirlmagic instantly drained out of her by her white friend who thinks natural hair looks scary. If this doll had been white with straight hair, her friend would not have said that. She is conditioned by virtue of her whiteness to view black features as scary. Even though her own best friend is black. Even though they are in a school of mixed expatriate students from all over the world. She still thinks black = scary. Not because she is a bad kid. But because the conditioning of white superiority starts so young.

All the work that I did in building up my daughter’s self-esteem as a beautiful black girl was undone by this one statement: “I don’t like your doll. She looks scary.”

All the work I did in affirming my daughter as a beautiful black girl by getting her this doll is unraveled because of the white gaze.

Whatever excitement my daughter had about getting this doll is now gone. Because of this one statement, my daughter is now looking at this doll (and herself) with shame.

This is what whiteness does. This is why I stay mad.

* * *

Steps You Can Take Right Now

  1. Support Layla Saad as a patron.
  2. Contact Facebook Support.
    Ask them to reinstate Layla’s posts or provide a detailed explanation why not if they won’t.
  3. Share this post or write your own. As Layla wrote today on Instagram: “SHARE what is happening with your communities. Post about it and get the word out. This isn’t just me. This happens to people of colour who speak on social justice issues ALL THE TIME. It needs to stop.”
  4. White parents: TALK TO YOUR KIDS.
  5. Share in the comments other steps you are taking to actively dismantle white supremacy.

* * *

Update: Friday 1/19

Facebook called the removal of Layla Saad’s posts accidental and “a mistake” for which they apologized. As if. Meanwhile, they’re still blocking her Rules of Engagement post, where she outlines very clear guidelines and boundaries, particularly for white people who want to engage with her on social media.

Part of what makes white supremacy so insidious is that we’re all swimming in it, but privilege, by definition, gives me a choice. I can close my eyes. I can choose whether to talk to my kids. Layla’s daughter didn’t have that choice when her friend called her doll scary. When her excitement was deflated in the stroke of a single word.

Being a member of a dominant group isn’t about guilt or shame or tears and outrage — these are expressions of centering and fragility, both words that have become much more prominent on my radar over the course of the last year, with good reason.

Opening your eyes underwater can sting, but it is the only way.

Keep listening hard, looking inward, and speaking outward. Awareness and learning and action aren’t linear; they can and must happen simultaneously.

We have to keep believing women of color when they tell us what’s happening.

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Waking Up Is a Prerequisite to Reckoning


What we need right now aren’t fantasies for the future. Calls for unity, healing, and kindness are beautiful, and they may make us feel better for a spell. But my fear is that they are also the stuff of national anesthetization and temporary amnesia that allow too many of us to go about our lives between marches or shootings, numbing out just enough to shrug at the status quo.

We’re tired, we say. There’s only so much we can do, we say. We feel hopeless, we say. There are about a bazillion ways to opt out of reality, and fantasizing tops the list.  I’d like to think we’re beyond this as a nation, but I know that that, too, is a fantasy.

As a younger woman, I used to have fantasies. Lots of them. Not psychic flashes of the future or winning-the-lottery type wishes, but more like a constant, distant mirage of where life was going and wouldn’t it be great when we finally got there?

In these fantasies, my then-husband had a job he loved, preferably one that allowed him to be outdoors a lot. In these fantasies, I had a thriving coaching practice that included Jennifer Aniston as a client, and we lived in a house with stainless steel appliances and a big mudroom. In these fantasies, money was never a source of stress. In these fantasies, I’d “get to” have a sexual experience with a woman, but just one, just enough to check it off my bucket list, nothing that would threaten the life we’d built. In these fantasies, I would reach a lot of people with my words and be known as a writer. In these fantasies, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states (why I cared so much, I wasn’t sure). There was peace in the Middle East. Racism was a thing of the past.

There was more, I’m sure, but those are the parts that come to mind right off the top of my head.

Later, after life undid the house of cards I’d so lovingly constructed, I sat in the rubble for a while. In my grief and emergence, fantasies seemed like folly or worse, a form of betrayal. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to trust myself. On the other hand, trusting myself had turned out to be the only solid ground.

Solid ground is where life is real and undeniable and perhaps scary and confusing to confront. It’s where things aren’t working and we’re willing to examine our role in that. It’s where we’re not telling the whole truth — usually out of fear, and usually out of fear that we will lose something. Solid ground is what we willingly trade for fault lines when we gloss over reality in the name of being good and/or trying to “make things work.”

Imagining a fantasy America that has healed (not heeled) from “its painful past,” sound nice — and should give us serious pause. The past isn’t the past when it’s the very ground we’re walking on. The past isn’t the past when it’s present in our everyday lives, in ways many white Americans continue to diminish, downplay, and downright deny.

If only we raise the vibration. If only we come together to sing in perfect harmony. We are the world, we are the children. My 80s are showing; these are the tropes of my growing-up years, and they’re not only tired, they’re dangerous. Why? Because skin color does matter. In a country built on racial hierarchies, it has everything to do with how we are perceived and treated, what obstacles or opportunities our children encounter, and how safe our bodies and psyches are in the world.

To pretend otherwise is its own kind of violence — and too many of us are perpetuating it. Sure, we may be perpetuating it inadvertently — but that is exactly my point. We need not to fantasize, but to be awake. We were taught not to generalize, not to lump whole groups of people together. But what I don’t remember reading or discussing in grade school or in middle school or in high school was the fact that as a person of color, the deck is stacked against you from birth. Period.

I was taught to remember how hard people — black and white alike — had fought for civil rights. In the past. We watched South Africa fight against Apartheid — and it was “over there,” surely something much worse than the racism that still existed in America. We were taught to envision a future where race wouldn’t matter. The privilege deeply embedded in all of this makes me wince.

Waking up might hurt, but it’s nothing next to the millions of ways white supremacy hurts real people every single day. And we most certainly cannot envision tomorrow without first taking responsibility for where we are today.

This fantasy of an America that has healed from its past will never exist if a majority of Americans won’t acknowledge the fundamental premise on which our country’s economy, popular culture, and capitalist ethos depend: That the lives of people of color are worth less than those of people with white skin — or worthless, period.

Fantasy is white people sharing rainbows and hearts and good vibes and calling it “healing.” It’s also the epitome of privilege, to paint pretty pictures of what’s possible but refusing to acknowledging the rot that is destroying us from the inside out — and our role in keeping it that way.

No, we have to do better. How? By dealing with what actually is. Without that, talk of a better America simply feeds this insatiable desire to look away. To not be accountable. To point the finger at “real” racists. To distance ourselves from racism. To insist that “we’re not like that.”

Reality — the only soil in which a true vision can grow roots — is where we wake up and say, “Yes, me too. I am part of this. I have to start looking at and confronting and shattering the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating an inherently racist culture.”

It occurred to me, somewhat out of the blue the other day, that I don’t have a lot of fantasies for my life these days. Sure, I picture my kids getting older and think about their futures, and I imagine the seasons turning and the years passing. But I don’t really spend my time thinking about what I’ll be doing or how things will be different — or better — for us. On the heels of this realization came a quiet knowing: I am actually here, in my life, accepting all of it. The parts that are really fulfilling right now along with the things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary.

When a patient is bleeding out, you don’t stand around talking about how great it will be when they’re all better.

I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself. But what I have written a lot about over the years is being awake. While this may seem like splitting hairs, to me there is a distinction. “Woke” isn’t  my word to use, to claim. To do so is appropriation — just one more example of me, a white woman, taking something that isn’t mine and making it about me.

But being awake? That is a prerequisite to reckoning. And reckon we must, every single one of us.

What beliefs have I internalized about race over the course of my 43 years here on the planet? What myths have I perpetuated that need to be smashed in order for us to have a clean slate as a country? Is a clean slate for our country possible? Not until we deal with what is right here, all around us, and right here, inside of each of us.