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A Conversation About Racism and White Privilege

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Because there just hasn’t been enough about politics in the news recently, I’ve been reading up on potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020. I wondered why people identified Senator Kamala Harris as African American, since her heritage is Jamaican and Indian. Although I had a feeling this was a really stupid question, I nevertheless sent my query to the African American Registry.

File:Kamala Harris Delivers Remarks on 50th Anniversary of the Signing of the Civil Rights Act 11.jpg

Sure enough, a guy named Ben wrote back simply, “Follow the middle passage.” Too late, I remembered my trip to the Museum of African American History and Culture last year and all I had learned (and forgotten) about the early slave trade: the maps outlining slave ship routes from the African continent to the islands, the pictures of the sugar cane plantations, the whips and shackles and chains. In fact, by the time of the American Revolution, there were close to 200,000 African slaves in Jamaica.

Feeling sheepish and frustrated with myself, I wrote back thanking Ben and asking him to forgive “my ignorant white self.” I am always aware and grateful to people of color who take the time to educate me.

Much to my surprise, Ben wrote back and asked if he could interview me. Turns out he is the director of the Registry, and an important part of his work is educating white people. He said he hoped I could help him “understand whiteness.” I told him I certainly couldn’t speak for all white people, but I’d be happy to help if I could.

Understanding Whiteness

Ben has two main questions:

  1. How much does guilt propel whites to try to step outside their comfort zone in the professional world?
  2. What does it look like to consistently give up one’s racial privilege for a lifetime?

These questions have got me thinking, and I’m looking forward to our interview. Understanding my own history of family racism and privilege has been an important part of my personal and spiritual growth, and was also key to my professional development when I worked on cultural competency and dismantling racism at the Sierra Club. Getting beyond my guilt and shame was essential. 

What really interests me, though, is his second question. I’m not sure that white people *can* give up their privilege. It just is. It is a fact. You can’t take off your skin color. I did nothing to get it, it’s just the way other people and society as a whole view me.

I am aware of it now, and do small things like always letting a person of color walk through a door first or get in line ahead of me or speak first in a meeting. Just to purposely step out of my unwarranted position of privilege. And I work towards racial justice and reconciliation and try to make sure that the groups I work with are not led by white people. But I just don’t think that a person can “give it up.” The trick is to become increasingly conscious of it and to decline it or bring it to light whenever possible.

What do you think? I’d be really interested in your thoughts on either of these questions. These are such important conversations as our nation struggles to confront the resurgence of white supremacy in America today.

I wish you a blessed, just, inclusive, and compassionate new year!

— Image of Senator Kamala Harris from Wikimedia Commons

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Can We Please Ditch the Presidential Turkey Pardon?

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Can we be done with the White House tradition of “pardoning” a turkey for Thanksgiving, as if turkeys have done something so egregious that they deserve to have their throats slit, their feathers yanked out, and their flesh roasted before being sliced into little pieces and ingested by a “superior” species — and isn’t this a fun family celebration for the president to “pardon” an undeserving bird?

No, it’s not fun. It’s repulsive.

I usually post a Thanksgiving Day semi-humorous blog about vegetarianism and may still do so. But my sense of humor about the topic has been dulled by a talk I attended this weekend with Dr. Will Tuttle, a well-known vegan who has written a best-selling book called World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony.

Although I’ve been a veg-head for forty years for spiritual and ethical reasons, I still found Dr. Tuttle’s talk eye-opening. I have always understood that eating meat makes us harden our hearts against the living beings that we murder for our recipes. That’s why we call pigs “pork” and cows “beef.” It’s not as disturbing as “the flesh of dead pigs and cows.”

Dr. Tuttle takes this understanding to a much deeper level. He contends that our whole culture has been programmed to accept this denial. “No one is consciously choosing to eat meat, “ he says. “It’s what they’ve learned. They are like robots.”

He has a point.

I just had a conversation with an eighth-grader at the school where I teach. Madelyn has been a vegetarian since she was seven. Her parents aren’t vegetarian, but accept her choice. “I just couldn’t get past thinking about what was sitting on my plate,” Madelyn says. “I couldn’t eat it.” Madelyn refuses to be a robot.

Enough about vegetarianism. You’ll be glad to hear that I’m not going to lecture you. I’ve never been into that. In fact, Dr. Tuttle implored his vegan listeners to get over being “angry vegans” and instead strive for “deep veganism,” which sees meat-eaters as wounded souls disconnected from other living beings and deserving of compassion. Veganism (like Christianity) should be about compassion, not judgement.

All I’m saying is that the idea of “pardoning” a turkey — as if the poor thing should be grateful for our graciousness — is beyond the pale.

(I’m not even going to touch the topic of the current president and pardons. That’s another blog.)

I Pledge to Use the Freedoms Protected By Our Veterans

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Thank you to the men and women who have served and continue to serve our nation. Thank you for protecting our rights to kneel during the national anthem, to protest publicly in the streets when we see injustice, and to count every vote in every state in every election.

I personally pledge to take full advantage of my rights as an American. I will not be intimidated, frightened, gaslighted, or exhausted by the president’s efforts to suppress votes, stifle the free press, undercut our justice system, and oppress minorities. I will stand up, I will speak out, I will not be afraid. Thank you to our veterans who have made this freedom possible.

 

 

 

PROPHET OR MYSTIC? EITHER WAY: VOTE

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It’s a fine line many of us walk these days. I’m a big believer in not “normalizing” the man-child’s behavior; nor should we ignore it, though that is one strategy a parent might employ with a child throwing tantrums and spewing lies and invectives. We may occasionally laugh at his outlandish hubris or his ignorance about our system of government. But we must not fall into the habit of seeing him as a joke, as the Germans did with Hitler. This is dangerous and we should call it dangerous, even if friends tell us we need to lighten up or “let it go.” Let decency go? Let values go? Let justice go? Let our planet go? No.

So there’s that.

At the same time, how can I be a “light in the world,” as Jesus said? How can I “sow joy where there is sadness” and “hope where there is despair,” as Saint Francis prayed? How can I deepen the roots of my faith and truly believe, as mystic Dame Julian of Norwich believed, that “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well?”

Then there’s Philippians 4:18: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

So there’s all that.

But what about the prophets of old who called out depravity and violence in their political and religious leaders when they saw it? Not that I fancy myself a prophet, but it doesn’t take a prophet to see how depraved the man-child is. Yesterday, he complained that his political momentum was slowed down by a massacre of Jewish people and some assassination attempts. In case you missed it: “Now, we did have two maniacs stop a momentum that was incredible. Because for seven days, nobody talked about the elections. It stopped a tremendous momentum.”

It also stopped eleven beating hearts and threatened dozens of others, but who’s counting?

Also yesterday, at a press conference designed to terrorize his voters about an “invasion” of brown-skinned people — “a lot of young men, strong men” — trump declared that he had told the military they should view any potential throwing of rocks as an attack by rifles. “Consider it a rifle, I told them.” Which means, of course, shoot the brown-skinned people.

Fortunately, there is a high likelihood he’s lying and did not actually order our soldiers to shoot desperate families seeking asylum. He’s just trying to make this sound like a crisis so his 32% will vote and he can justify using the military in a political stunt, right? Right? Because our military wouldn’t do that, right? Right?

Much as I’d like to write a funny post about the challenge of closing up my New Hampshire house for the winter, or an inspirational post about the scents and scenes of autumn, or a despairing post about the mess that is my memoir, I can’t do that today.

Today my prophet needs to speak out, and she’s yelling from the rooftops: If you don’t vote Democratic this week, a lot more people are going to die, whether by assault weapons, loss of healthcare, white supremacist murders, racist police or soldiers egged on by their Commander in Chief, or the storms, floods, and fires brought by climate change.

Think that sounds like an over-reaction? Think I should “let it go?” If you are a trump fan, no doubt you think I’m fear-mongering. Know what? I don’t care. This is no joke.

Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Women on Fire

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I could spend the day watching the last flickers of decency and integrity vanish from the Congress, but I choose not to. I spent enough time doing that last week.

Now the GOP has decided their best strategy for stacking the Supreme Court with extremists is to mock victims of attempted rape and other sexual abuse and to rally their voting base by stoking more fear and anger: “Your son’s lives will be ruined by fiery feminists making up sexual abuse charges!! No male is safe!!”

I need to step away from the screen.

Instead of watching my country circling the drain, I will do the laundry, wash the dishes, and clean the bathtub. I’ll do what I can to clear away the dirt from my immediate surroundings because at this particular moment, I can do nothing about the filth that floods the Capitol and the White House.

I say “at this particular moment” because November 6th is coming. If you, like me, have been overwhelmed this week by friend’s stories of sexual attacks, or if you, like me, are a survivor yourself, the thought of election day is never far from your mind. Whether or not you generally pray, you are praying now. Praying that somehow the “angels of our better nature” can pull America out of this spiral. November 6th will tell.

Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.”

Well, ladies, we are on fire.

I pray that the intense pain, anger, and grief burning in the hearts of so many American women will not be extinguished by despair, but instead will burst into flames of tireless community activism and political engagement at every level. 

The radical misogyny of the GOP couldn’t be any more clear, beginning with the admitted sexual predator in the White House. The politicians need to hear us loud and clear. Regardless of your party affiliation, it’s time to call your nearest Democratic headquarters. Ask how you can help. Don’t sit this one out. 

Photo Credit: APA/Getty Image, circa 1920

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