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I put this mini primer together for a friend, and it seemed a waste not to share it with everyone.
This is by *no means* an exhaustive list, but it touches on a lot of contextual, historical proof of how racism is systemic, not just about a bunch of dudes in white sheets. There is also some more recent cultural commentary, with an emphasis on racism in the LGBTQ community.
Check back often - this resource will grow. Add your own suggestions in the comments.
GENERAL SUGGESTION: Get more active on Twitter, and diversify your timeline. Follow the writers and creators whose names you see below. Start there, and keep following other experts on the Black experience as they pop up. (Remember to read and listen more than you respond!)
White Noise Collective has tons of resources for having conversations about race with white people.
Facts about the criminal justice system's disproportionate targeting of Black Americans (NAACP)
School to prison pipeline stuff, since it starts when they're literal babies, and the general unfair incarceration of Black people:
- School to Prison Pipeline Explained
- "Black Girls are Twice As Likely to Be Suspended, In Every State"
- "40 Reasons Our Jails Are Full of Poor Black People"
- Racial injustice on death row
- The Evolution: Slavery to Mass Incarceration"
How systemic racism affects society:
- Millions of Black voters purged from voter rolls
- Segregation perpetuated by realtors
- The wage gap for Black women
- Racism in healthcare
Racism in the LGBT community:
- "Pride is Still an Elitist White Gay Fantasy" by Phillip Henry
- "Gay Bars Can Be Mind-Bogglingly Racist" by Mikelle Street
- Gurl, Am I Appropriating Black Women?
Some essays by awesome people that give tons of great commentary:
- "So You Want To Fight White Supremacy" by Ijeoma Oluo
- "Welcome to the Anti-Racism Movement - Here's What You've Missed" by Ijeoma Oluo (She is amazing, follow her everywhere)
- "Not All White People: A Definitive Disclaimer" by Monique Judge (another great follow on Twitter)
Awesome podcasts to check out:
- Seeing White: massive podcast documentary about race. (Thanks to Carolyn A. for this one)
- Small Doses w/ Amanda Seales: "Side Effects of White Women" episode
- The Read - lighthearted fun but also righteous anger when the time calls for it! Hosts are Black and queer.
- Still Processing - hosted by 2 Black queer NYTimes culture writers
Also - "Decoded" on YouTube! Bite-sized chats about racism and the like.
Movies to watch:
Books to read:
WHAT DID I MISS? Share your resources below if you'd like, and I will add them to this list.
I have been pretty quiet about the nature of my last long-term relationship before my current one. I was open about the infidelity, yes, because that was easy for others to understand; it is something most people accept as a rational reason to leave and stay gone. There was less shame in copping to a symptom than there was in openly airing the disease.
For just about eight years, I was in an emotionally and verbally abusive relationship.
I have never talked about this openly, because I was afraid of how it would make me look, and of the retribution it would bring down upon me from the perpetrator of said abuse. But I now find myself in this sickening age of déjà-vu, thanks to our current president, and it felt like the right time to talk about this and hopefully get some peace.
I understand the hesitation when it comes to saying, definitively, that our president is suffering from a host of untreated mental illnesses. Ableism is real, and people in need of help should not be shamed for it. But as someone who lived with a person who refused treatment and took their issues out on me for a long time, I can say this much: Trump's entire administration is functioning like an abusive partner.
In this administration, I recognize the narcissism that keeps abusers from feeling any kind of real emotion or empathy for the one they claim to love and protect (in this case, all of us). I see the mood swings, the unchecked rage, the backtracking. I see the excuses and anger used to sidestep a sincere apology: the one act that, in their eyes, brands a narcissist/addict as Guilty and Bad and Altogether Terrible. This is the thing they fear the most--the crushing feeling of their actions catching up with them.
And then there's the gas-lighting, the outright lies that make you question your own memory and experience. Did they really say that to me yesterday? Was I really as scared as I remember? Am I overreacting?
To anyone watching the president right now and wondering any of the above: you really heard that, he really meant it, your fear is rational, and you should listen to it.
After all the work I did to extricate myself from abuse and codependency, after the years of solitude it took to relearn how to listen to and trust my own voice above someone else's, this presidency is, as the kids say, triggering. The highest office in this country is telling us not to believe what we see and what we feel. Everyone in the administration knows exactly what they are doing and shows no signs of letting up. It all feels so familiar: the disorientation, the struggling to anticipate their next move or head off an outburst before it fully crests and smashes you to bits. For eight years, I never knew which version of my partner would come home at the end of the day. I recognize this same dread now, in others' desperate tweets and Facebook posts about the president.
I am angry to be here again, based not on my own decisions but on the choice of millions of white Americans to elect a known abuser, and the cowardice of the Republican Congress that protects and enables him. And while it feels similarly hopeless, I do have one secret weapon: I've been here before.
I already know there's no use in trying to appeal to this man's empathy, because abusers don't have any. I already know it's fruitless to try to predict his next move, because abusers are impulsive in their meanness. I already know that making excuses for his behavior only serves to enable the worst of him, because abusers use your pity to trap you. And, most of all, I already know I'm not crazy, overreacting, being unfair to them, or remembering things incorrectly.
And neither are you.
While most of us can't leave this country like we would an abusive relationship, we have something I didn't have back then: someone besides ourselves who sees exactly what is going on. Millions of someones, actually. Keep talking; keep reminding one another that this is not normal. Take care of your own mental health with regular news breaks, and come back strong and ready to cover for others who need time away. Pour as much focus into the beauty of your healthy relationships as you do the dysfunctional one we have with our government right now (this is hard, but I am trying). Find a productive steam valve for your emotions: protests, social-action groups, calling your elected officials.
I was alone, but you aren't. We aren't. And we're going to do our damnedest to get out of this alive.
I guess 2017 is the year of “I can’t believe this is still up for debate.”
Recently, Bill Maher acted a racist fool (not for the first time) by referring to himself as a “house n*****” on his TV show. Maher later apologized and said it was in the heat of “banter in a live moment” on television that the most despicable word in the English language flew out of his mouth. Whatever cameras they’re using over at HBO add 10 pounds and also racism, I guess, because that is not a word that’s ever just rolled off my tongue in any conversation I've had in my 31 years on this earth.
For some naïve reason, I expected the white-liberal community to rise up in outrage, condemning him. But you all know how that went. I’m part of a huge Facebook group (over 70,000 members) whose members fight for equality and social justice. Even there, people felt there was room to debate Maher's casual use of the most despicable word in the English language: that there was room to defend some white guy they didn’t even know over the chorus of Black voices expressing their outrage, hurt, and anger.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the root of white people’s “instincts” and our first reactions, and the fallout (or lack thereof) from Maher’s racist comment is a perfect example of what I’ve seen happening in the progressive community. The conclusion I’ve reached: even the most progressive white person’s first reaction in situations of racism will probably be racist.
Take a minute to examine what you just felt reading that.
You probably think you’re not affected, because you're super liberal. You probably think the anger or indignation you just felt was about the way I said what I said, or how little I know you. You marched on January 21, you say. You give to Black Lives Matter. You rail against mass incarceration and poison water in Flint and make all your white friends watch 13th, so your first instinctual reaction must be rooted in all of this goodness and light.
And this is why our first reactions are trash and we can’t trust them. Because that was your embedded white supremacy leaping up to protect itself, all wrapped up in progressive denial.
White supremacy has leeched into our blood over centuries of inequality, oppression, violence, and segregation. Everything is tainted by it: not only white people, but most deeply in us. No one is safe. You can bury it under a layer of activism and progressive ideals, but that doesn’t make it go away; it runs deeper than your time or mine on this earth and will be here long after. In progressives it is even more insidious, because we believe our decisions are no longer governed by this system and thus are free to fight tooth and nail to defend our own instincts. I see this in the choice we always seem to make when something like Bill Maher surfaces.
You’re not Bill’s mom or dad or brother or sister. You aren’t his best friend, acquaintance, assistant, or dog groomer. He wouldn’t know you if you passed him on the street. And still: when faced with who to believe and support, you chose one old white man over the entirety of Black America. Because you thought you could trust your gut.
But you can’t. Your gut is still racist. So is mine.
So. What can we do? Lean into the latent racism? Give it all up and go full David Duke? No. To avoid saying racist things, the answer is simple:
1. Observe that first feeling.
That’s the racism talking. If you start a fight based on that initial “instinct,” you will find yourself in a world of shit defending whiteness. Keep your Twitter fingers to yourself.
2. Let that first feeling rise, crest, and break.
I promise you will have another, and it will be your own.
3. Listen to what the affected party is saying.
How did this comment make them feel, and why? What historical and cultural contexts exist around this comment that you might not have realized? (Notice you’re still not responding to anyone yet.)
4. Digest and reflect.
How do you feel about this topic now? Will your voice add support to the attacked community, or are you still trying to play devil’s advocate for a total stranger who happens to share your skin color?
5. Join the conversation with respect and deference.
It’s very possible this discussion has little to do with you personally. If you feel the need to participate, do so with open ears and the readiness to have your mind changed by someone who knows more.
If this seems like too much work, just remember: people of color have had to code switch and change entire chunks of their personalities in order to survive in white environments for centuries. We can take a few extra minutes before firing off an ignorant tweet to make sure we aren’t operating as agents of white supremacy.
Also, for the love of all things holy: stop f*cking dabbing.
If one more person who has more privilege than I do tells me how I should be handling this presidency, I am going to lose my shit.
Scratch that: shit is officially lost. Can't find it anywhere. If my shit is smart, it probably already caught a bus to Canada.
While thousands were protesting at airports across the country to free hundreds of stranded American citizens, residents, visa-holders, and refugees, white dudes were sitting on their computers writing think-pieces about how naive we were.
"Hey, idiots," their editorials gloat. "You've been duped! The real scandal is (fill in the blank)."
While I cried in my car about threats of executive orders that would crush my chances, as a gay woman, to be a mom--when my fiancée and I were so scared that we moved up our wedding five months--straight women shrugged off my panic.
"You're letting fear win," they chided. "Whatever happens to your rights, it won't change how we feel about you."
Do you empathy-vacuums hear yourselves? Do you actually believe that helping those in immediate danger is somehow less pressing than your slippery-slope logic about Bannon using his post to start assassinating people? Are you truly so insulated from what's happening on the ground, right now and soon, to Muslims and queer people respectively, that you can write off our pain and suffering as a distraction?
A distraction from what? The things you deem important? The things that will actually affect you, for once?
You've gone from expecting us--queer people, people of color, Native people, Muslims and Jews and the differently abled--to take pity on your newfound disillusionment with America and educate you in activism, to belittling our righteous anger and fear as distractions. All in a matter of days.
The whiplash is real.
Look. We are all super jealous that you have the luxury of a bird's-eye view of this tragedy as it unfolds. We all wish we were up in that helicopter with you, nestled in a blanket of security, knowing that it will be ages before our new president comes for anyone who looks or loves or worships like we do. But down here, on Planet Earth, those of us in the crosshairs of white, hetero, Christian supremacy are scrambling to take cover. And some of us are already dying.
While you were trying to sound smart and somehow "ahead of the game," while you were letting us know that our present suffering is secondary to whatever the next crisis is on the horizon, you lost that thread of empathy.
Luckily for you, you're not beyond help. Your soul can be restored with a a few simple questions. Before you hit "Publish" on your next scolding-by-thinkpiece on Medium, ask yourself:
- What does this add to the conversation at hand? Does everything I think need to be heard? (I know this is a tough one, fellas.)
- Is this opinion based in any fact at all, or am I just trying to assert my intelligence on this subject by stating my feelings as if they were absolute truths?
- Does this make me sound like an insensitive shitbag?
If you find your answers to the above to be unsatisfactory, I have an idea. Instead of using your distance from the issues to judge how the rest of us are dealing with them, put all that anxiety-free energy and vision into action. Show up at stuff. Call your senators and representatives; micromanage their response instead of ours. Let us cry; let us be afraid. Let us act where we are able and fall apart when we need to.
Use the power you were arbitrarily given for good.
I could use this space today to talk about Orlando, but I think my recent Facebook post sums up just about all the complicated feelings I'm having about it. I'm sure all of the other think-pieces out there are doing a much better job addressing the implications of the massacre; I'm too in my feelings to do more than what I've done.
I'm going to talk instead about why being uncomfortable is essential for white people.
Last month, at Hampshire College's commencement ceremony, a young man named Xavier Torres de Janon gave a speech before graduating. The video of Torres de Janon, a young political organizer and agitator, made the rounds on social media, because his speech was not what one has come to expect from a commencement speaker. A week before graduation, he had been issued a sanction by the college for "promoting civil disruption on campus." Knowing this, I was excited to hear what he had to say.
To say "he didn't hold back" is to put it lightly. He called his soon-to-be alma mater a "harborer of rapists," an institution rife with "heartless frivolity" and racism. He went on to slam every single candidate for president and deemed them unworthy of the office and responsibility, because they did not truly care for or represent the interests of non-white, non-straight, and non-rich Americans.
As I listened, I felt this slow anger seep into me: not toward Hampshire College, or Trump, or Hillary, or Bernie. Toward Xavier. Words like "ungrateful" and "arrogant," "naive" and "immature" bubbled up inside me. How dare he attack the college that gave him the opportunity to become as informed and confident as he was? How dare he attack Bernie Sanders, who was fighting so hard for people of all races and socioeconomic standings? The more he talked, the more I wanted him to shut up and give the kind of feel-good speech one wants to hear at a graduation. (Read: the kind that I, as a white woman, wanted to hear.)
But anger is a secondary emotion - beneath it lie the true emotions of fear, sadness, shame. We get angry to cover what we consider weakness. In that moment, my weakness was deep, deep discomfort and guilt. Classic white-people stuff.
I see men and other white people doing this kind of bait-and-switch daily on social media ("not all men," "all lives matter"), but I didn't recognize it in myself. I thought I was completely justified in my righteous anger toward this 22-year-old know-it-all.
But then my girlfriend pulled up a straight, white dude's response to Xavier's speech. I recognized the anger and felt myself nodding along...until he started making it directly about the young man's race, sexuality, and gender expression: even about his speaking Spanish for a few moments to his mother in the crowd. Only then did I realize that I had let my own discomfort with Xavier's message distract from his message altogether, and I had chosen to find solace in the righteous anger of a sexist, racist, homophobic jerk with a blog, because it was a break from feeling guilty and uncomfortable for being party to the system that oppressed and stifled Xavier and people like him, simply by being white and liberal.
This election cycle has shown me how toxic white liberalism can be. White liberalism (like white feminism) is more about patting ourselves on the back for all the great things we've done to help the brown and poor and less about growing to let in and elevate the brown and poor. We almost expect people of color to praise us as "the cool ones," especially when compared to the GOP. The idea of a 22-year-old standing up and proclaiming that we are no better than conservatives stung; but that didn't mean he was wrong.
It is so important to be uncomfortable, especially as white liberals in America. We need to listen to young people, not dismiss them: especially young people who are queer, of color, and/or differently abled. Their experience and stories are essential to true progress, not progress in the name of making us all feel like we're good people.
White people: let yourself be uncomfortable; put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Realize the privilege that exists in the choice to avoid discomfort. Listen, learn, and grow.
The rejection letter comes late, and I'm confused at first. I have to read it a few times, check the sender's name and the position referenced. It's been so long since I applied, since I gave up waiting, that there's no sting in the "no." Like giving up on someone in May, and having them tell you it's over in October, the rejection doesn't register.
* * *
As soon as I started college in 2004, I wanted to be a professor. I loved school; I was good at it. The idea of devoting my life to books and research and teaching felt natural, like some kind of destiny. Grad school gave me the chance to teach in libraries and community-college classrooms: just enough of a taste of the real thing to make it all seem within reach. It was all I wanted.
I had the education, I told myself. I had done the work and paid some dues. All I had to do was apply.
I wasn't thinking about the thousands of other MFA-holders who were more experienced and just as hungry. I wasn't thinking about the tenuous and insecure life of my peers who were struggling to break into academia. No, I was thinking about the idyllic-yet-totally-attainable future I had crafted in my mind over the years: grading mountains of papers and inspiring new writers, with summers off to write books and sabbaticals abroad. You know. "The Dream."
The rock-solid, crippling dream.
Writers pin a lot of their worth on dreams: mostly on dreams of acceptance. Acceptance into a master's program, a conference, a residency, a job. We know it won't be easy, but the pain of rejection is worth that one "yes." We're artists, we say. We're built for the pain. It makes us better. It makes us feel as if we've "earned it" when the Universe finally gives us a win. The rules of insanity don't apply to us; we must do the same thing over and over, because, eventually, there will be a different result.
But sometimes, what we pursue is insane. Sometimes it slowly kills us. And we need to know when to stop.
A few months back I was looking to move out of Rhode Island. I knew I needed a new job, and I thought, yes. Now is the time! At last, The Dream will come true. I will find a professorship at a university in Massachusetts and my life will finally begin. The fantasies came back, vivid and blinding as ever. I applied for every writing-teacher job I could find, some as far as ninety minutes from my new home. The long nights and drives would be worth it, I told myself, because I would be living The Dream at last.
But all I got was silence, from each and every one.
In a fit of desperation I side-stepped The Dream and looked elsewhere. I applied for writing jobs in marketing, social media, public relations. For the first time in years, I got a phone interview.
And then another.
And then another.
Then an in-person interview.
Then, a job offer: a really good one.
But! But! The Dream! I whined. I still had writing-professor applications out in cyberspace. What if one of them said yes? What if I took this job, and a few weeks later The Dream came through? I had been rejected every single time I had tried to break into college teaching, but the vision of that life had become so rooted in my purpose as a human being that it still hung there, waiting.
But here was something else, something real: placed in my hands without weeks of silence or agony. I could see it; I could feel it. And I had made it so, by forgetting The Dream and pushing on something else for a change. The grip of the abstract loosened; the haze of delusion lifted. I saw how far away that other dream had been all along. I could never have stretched my arms far enough.
Not every dream is good. Giving up on bad dreams doesn't make us quitters; it gives us back our energy and lets us put it where it truly belongs. Every day now, I shoot out of bed as I never have before. I come to a workplace that is quiet and calm and full of brilliant people. I write and read and edit, all day. My brain stretches and opens to learn, to process, to create. I am exhausted yet energized. If this isn't the actual dream, I don't know what would be.
When I see the boiler-plate email rejection, I am tempted to reply. Go break someone else's heart for a change, I want to tell them. I've moved on.
Instead, I delete it and go back to work.
I don't want to talk about what inspired this blog post; it's gotten enough press. I'm here instead to talk about how important it is for marginalized groups to know their own, unique history and share it with the generations after them.
"Silence = Death" became an important slogan in the queer community in the late 1980s. The silence in question was that of President Reagan. The death: tens of thousands of gay men being infected with, and dying from, HIV/AIDS every year, while the federal government did nothing.
Seriously: read the timeline in that last link. The numbers made me physically sick. Prior to this latest snafu on the campaign trail, I had a rather peripheral understanding of the AIDS crisis in America. As an elementary-age kid during the height of the epidemic, I learned about it a little in school; it was the nineties, and they couldn't ignore it any longer. Of course, the focus was mostly on cases like Ryan White, the boy who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, and not the scores of grown men dying all over the country.
Then I grew up, figured out I was gay, and got more context by association. I saw Rent onstage and in the movie theaters and learned about Act Up! and AZT. I joined the LGBT center in college and met men who had protested and fought for recognition during the epidemic. I had gay friends who were scared of contracting HIV every time they had sex with someone new, no matter how careful they were. I had gay friends who rolled the dice with their sex lives because they took PrEP and figured that was enough to keep the worst away. I knew about AIDS; I knew it had been bad. But I didn't know how bad. Because no one ever told me.
No one ever told me how the government ignored the epidemic for years and years. No one ever told me about the countless, brilliant minds and talents and agitators that were lost in a decade. No one ever told me how the queer community was gutted with each loss, or how they continued to fight for a voice--for help, for anything--even as their friends and lovers wasted away in front of them.
What's equally important: I never asked.
Imagine a world where every queer kid grew up like me, or even more sheltered from their own history. Imagine my generation, with the Internet at our fingertips, never taking the time to learn about the struggles of the queer generations before us. Now, imagine if this week's gaffe had happened forty, fifty years from now, long after any survivors of the epidemic had passed away.
Would there be anyone alive to set the record straight, or would the villain of the story live on in history as the hero?
The less we know about our own culture, the easier it is for the majority to co-opt it for their own gains. The majority does not cherish the history of the minority; what happens to us is unimportant, so long as it doesn't spill over into their lives. This is why, in 2016, HIV/AIDS medication still costs thousands of dollars a month, but every gay man in American is forbidden from donating blood, on the off-chance that an "innocent" might be infected with HIV. They bend over backwards to protect their own from the disease, to the point of barring us from giving such a valuable resource, but they don't fight alongside us to care for those who are already dying and can't afford treatment.
We aren't going to learn this stuff in a textbook. It is up to us to seek information from those who came before us, and to pass it on to those who follow. No one will do either for us, and if we stop, so does our control of the story. Our story.
Silence still equals death in the queer community. Today, it is mostly metaphorical (though not entirely). It means the death of our culture, our history: our very voice in the annals of time. We need to learn and understand what happened, so it never happens again. We need to make sure our people and their power are remembered as they were. Make time in your life for a history lesson, be it with an elder who lived through past struggles, or down the rabbit-hole of Wikipedia. Work or volunteer with young people. Tell them what you learned, what you know, what you experience today as an adult living in the margins.
Tell them, because no one else will.
Can we all agree that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the man? Yes? Okay.
The science beast got into a battle of wits recently with rapper B.O.B. over the shape of our planet. B.O.B.’s adamant belief, in the face of overwhelming evidence, in a flat Earth led Tyson to deliver an epic response on “The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore.”
Here’s my favorite part:
"There's a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country that many think may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy. In a free society, you can and should think whatever you want. And if you want to think the Earth is flat, go right ahead. But if you think the Earth is flat and you have influence over others, as would successful rappers — or even presidential candidates — then being wrong becomes harmful to the health, wealth and the security of our citizenry.”
Between Trump winning over voters with no platform outside of thinly veiled racism and a host of experiences on the personal level as of late, I see what Tyson means.
We are in the Information Age; we have the answers to most any question within the reach of a few keystrokes. No one with the means to access the Internet has an excuse for being ignorant anymore. We can’t really say “they just don’t know any better," because "knowing better" now takes less effort than it ever has.
The scariest thing about this trend of anti-intellectualism is the sense of pride people seem to take in it. Remaining in the dark intellectually is now a choice one makes; it’s hard to avoid information. And those who make the choice to “stay stupid” seem so pleased with themselves, as if there is weakness in knowledge. As if we lose our identity by absorbing facts and adjusting our opinions accordingly. Have we truly become so fragile?
In the past year on social media, I have defended arguments with basic, searchable, known facts and figures. Stuff that would be considered common knowledge in most circles. In some cases, constructive arguments broke out. Other conversations were less productive. In one instance, someone called me “enlightened.” They meant it as an insult.
In the face of proof and statistics, their jab seemed to cry: So, what. You know stuff. You think you're better than me?
It is this kind of mental insecurity that stands between the United States and measurable progress: fear of learning we are wrong and the painful process of adjusting our point of view. Any attempt to educate someone else is seen as personal criticism: a ploy to make them “look stupid.” In response they dig in deeper, take even more pride in avoiding the truth. Some politicians, noticing the trend, have decided to fan the flames instead of raising the level of a conversation on which they have a large influence. They speak in sound bites without substance and tout their own simple-mindedness while underselling their experience and intelligence. I'm just like you, they say, stroking their constituents' fragile egos.
It’s always nice to end a post like this with some kind of suggestion for fixing this problem. Today, at least, I am at a loss. I have tried being gentle; I have tried being forceful. I have tried being funny and compassionate and direct and indirect and all it ever seems to do is make the strong and wrong ever stronger and wronger.
I don’t know how we, as a country, can overcome this obstacle any time soon. So I’d like to speak to my age group and those who come after: the current and future parents of America. Encourage curiosity in your children. Teach them to ask questions and hunt for answers. Instill in them a healthy skepticism and a sturdy bullshit detector. Read to them.
In the meantime: let’s make 2016 the year we no longer suffer fools. Instead of rolling our eyes at the Strong and Wrong disciples among us, take them to task. Ask questions; present reasonable arguments. Even if they dig in and get defensive, their friends and followers might absorb a little something and carry it forward.
To play on Queen Bey’s latest: let’s get information. And let’s give it, too.
I fell in love this year. Let me write you a letter.
It always surprises me when people talk about the anxiety they feel when they put pen to paper (fingers to keys to blank page and blinking cursor). Storytellers and jesters--even teachers--who fill with dread at the idea of writing.
Writing has always been a release. A sanctuary. It helps me make sense of the world, of me. Seeing something in black and white makes it true. Especially the words of someone I love. Words I can reread, close my eyes and see. I love you. I miss you. Forever.
Who doesn't want that? Let me help.
If you want to tell someone something this holiday season, and you can't find the words, I've got them. I know about love. About loss. About reconciliation. New feelings and old. And, most importantly: I can write the hell out of just about anything.
I'm just about bursting with all kinds of awesome feelings right now. So let me write you a love letter. Give the gift of words.
You know the story: the link pops up while you’re scrolling, but you’re not in a position to sit and absorb. Maybe you’re at your desk at work, or you catch it while waiting for a friend to meet you or the waiter to come back. Time and again I saw “On Pandering” shared by people in my social-media sphere. Twitter storms, Facebook epiphanies, blog posts, and think pieces responding to Watkins flooded my feeds. It was clearly a resonant piece. Time and again, I made a mental note to read it.
Time and again, I forgot.
Cut to yesterday afternoon, just about lunchtime. An email comes in from one of my favorite writing professors and authors. It is short and sweet, as if dashed off with some urgency between more consuming tasks. The subject line: "On Pandering" by Claire Vaye Watkins:
A student in my workshop sent me this link. It’s an important piece, I think. - R
To most, this might read as a mere suggestion; the “I think” might diminish the power of the declaration before it. For me, though, if this writer thinks something is important, it is. I opened the post at my desk and grabbed my sandwich. Within thirty minutes, I had devoured both.
I responded to her email in massive paragraphs, singing the praises of this piece (seriously, everyone, read it if you haven’t). I talked about how hard it hits, and how closely to home, as a young, woman writer coming of age in an MFA program. I remembered my first residency, my first workshops: the incessant name-dropping of old, white dude writers. Look to Hemingway and Carver for effective dialogue; look to Updike for setting.
I came into the program somewhat ignorant to the male literary powerhouses. Other students had the words of men already amplified in their minds; they were their "writers with the megaphones," as Watkins puts it. For me, the loudest voices were those of Oates and Plath and Morrison: dark, raw, vulnerable stuff that jived with my dark, raw, vulnerable experiences. These were the writers I watched.
At the time, I felt ignorant and amateurish because I hadn’t read everything Faulkner had ever written. I realize now that my canon of women authors was a shield, protection against an invasion of men-with-megaphones who would distort the way I write, edit, and read. And I realize that shield was forged slowly throughout my time as a student, in middle school, high school, and beyond, by a succession of one awesome English teacher after the next: all of them women.
In Ms. Collins’s seventh-grade Language Arts class, literature became a living, breathing thing: more importantly, it became something within reach, something I could aspire to create on my own. Writing leapt from a hobby to an outlet. I wrote poetry. Shitty, shitty poetry. It was a start.
In Ms. Taylor’s freshman English class, I learned about vignettes. I learned about Sandra Cisneros and The House on Mango Street. I learned that not everyone had to write the same way people had been writing for centuries. Cisneros’s voice in my head was loud and clear; I studied her ability to bring an entire world to life in a matter of pages: to make a few minutes in time sing with history.
In Ms. Adler’s sophomore English class, I delved into topics that plague the world, and the traditional literary canon. Sexism, racism, homophobia. We cried about injustice, laughed about Shakespeare.
In Ms. Dimaggio’s junior English class, I was introduced to Sylvia Plath. I remember her reading “Mirror” aloud to us. I had read the poem on my own the night before and struggled to understand it. But hearing it spoken was like a key in a lock, and something new opened in me. It remains one of my favorites. Because of Ms. Dimaggio, I understood Plath. I understood her darkness, and was able to articulate my own.
In Ms. Thibeau’s Creative Writing elective, my voice as a writer bloomed. I was encouraged to break away from the five-paragraph essay and do, honestly, whatever the fuck I wanted. There was no wrong way to write. I still carry that idea with me when I teach writing now.
As I began my MFA journey, I instinctively clung to the female author-professors in the program. My own history had shown me that they were the ones who could help me navigate the testosterone-fueled ego-fest alive in graduate writing programs. They, in turn, became the new women-with-megaphones in my mind: Rachel Basch, Nalini Jones, Kim Dana Kupperman, Eugenia Kim, Karen Osborn. They shared their own canons with me: writers like Elizabeth Strout, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Patricia Highsmith, Virginia Woolf, Sarah Waters, Jeanette Winterson. They gave me time, old books, even a side job here and there.
Thanks to these teachers, these authors--these women--I have the courage to take the megaphone myself every once in awhile. Sometimes it’s on the page, when I tell my story without judgment or pandering. Sometimes it’s in a workshop, when I call out a male writer on his flimsy props of female characters. And sometimes I only realize I had the megaphone after the fact, like the time I ran into a former student, and she thanked me for introducing her to Sylvia Plath.
In the fight for equal representation and respect in the world of literature, lady-to-lady mentorship is key. These women helped me forge a shield I carry even now, and now it's my turn to help forge those of others. Gaslighting be damned. We have a duty to each other.
His job is to be cute and distract you from the stuff I'm about to say that might not sit right with you.
I've seen a lot of stuff online since Friday night, pitting East vs. West. Think pieces, statuses, tweets, all with more or less the same message:
"Why do you care more about what happened in ________ than you do about _______?"
"Where was your outrage when ________ happened, or _________?"
The general consensus, on both sides, is that the other side cares more about its own people than those in a different part of the world. The answer, for me, is simple.
Of course we do. And that's okay.
I speak French. I lived in France. I work in a French school, and I'm surrounded with the language and culture and people of France every day. I've studied their history, art, and literature, eaten at sidewalk cafés--just the summer before last, with my own family. I have ridden trains out past the Stade de France, taken the Métro to La Place de la République. And, perhaps most importantly, I know people there. People with whom I have studied--high school, college, grad school. People who attended my wedding. Friday night I waited and breathed sigh after sigh of relief as friends in Paris checked in as "safe." As alive.
Yes, this felt like a more personal attack to me. Because it was. It simply was.
On a wider scale, there are so many cultural parallels between the US and France. Two Western worlds, whose revolutions in the 18th century inspired and influenced one another. We've been allies for ages. We've welcomed each other's expats. We love their food and wine. They love our movies and music (and our donuts, whether they want to admit it or not). We understand each other in a global way, despite discord on what it means to be polite and how to hold a fork and knife. It's human to draw closer to those whom we understand, even if it doesn't make sense (see: white people not feeling unsafe every time a twentysomething white dude enters a school classroom or movie theater, even though they're kind of Public Enemy #1 in both situations).
The West is to blame for everything unfolding in the Middle East; I know this. The political borders we've drawn arbitrarily over time, the chaos we have left in the wake of wars, has gotten us to this point. And most every other day, I gladly shoulder the guilt and sadness and outrage. But can we have, like, a few days to be sad about just this one thing? Do the senseless deaths in France matter more to us than the senseless deaths in the Middle East? No. But they might hurt a little more. And given the state of Twitter since Friday, the same seems true in the other direction.
But I don't think that makes us bad people. I think it just makes us people.
I am in a lady quandary. And it's all Bernie's fault.
I sent away for this bumper sticker about a month ago, around the time I decided that I would support Bernie Sanders in his race for President. I did my research, I talked with people who have followed the campaign more closely than I, and I came to the conclusion that he was the dude for me.
But I can't seem to put the darn thing on my car.
If I haven't made it abundantly clear on this site, I'm a woman. A feminist, even. I love few things more than railing against the white, wealthy, hetero-normative patriarchy. Putting a misogynist in his (or her) place gives my life purpose. So the idea of not voting for a female Democrat who is running for president, one who could totally win this thing, is not sitting well with me.
I feel like a traitor. I feel like a shitty feminist.
I have to remind myself it's about the issues: about true change for women of all stripes, thanks to the kind of economic policies Sanders espouses. But no matter how many times I repeat this mantra to myself, no matter how much sense it makes, my body is rejecting the idea of voting for yet another white dude when there's a woman in the running.
Because symbols are important, too, aren't they? For nearly 250 years, women have watched man after man become president, with very little hope that someone of their own gender would have a shot or even be considered qualified to run. Seeing a woman in that office at last would be proof to little girls in the U.S. that, yes, they are allowed to be President. The dream would become something more tangible and worth pursuing, as I imagine it did for Black Americans when President Obama was elected. Who knows what kind of shift in consciousness this progress would create?
The ability to point to the wall of presidents and say with finality that women, too, can be president gives me goosebumps on behalf of the girls this could inspire. But we are in the middle of such a political shit-storm that I can't rightly vote for a symbol without substance. Not this cycle. I am not alone in that mindset. There are lots of other women who, for history's sake, want to vote for Hillary but can't based on her policies and old-world politics.
The good news for the tortured lady-souls out there: she is hearing our criticism and feeling the pressure. In the past months, she has come out as surprisingly progressive on prison reform and the Keystone Pipeline XL. The political landscape has changed, and simply being a woman is no longer enough of a platform to secure our votes. We demand real, measurable progress for women, and we're willing to put in yet another white dude if that's what it takes to get it. Hillary seems to understand now that the women's vote is not guaranteed this time around, not with someone like Bernie in the running, and this has pushed her to be more vocal and left-leaning on the issues.
Will any of this change of heart spill into her actual presidency, or is she pandering to those of us wandering into Sanders Country? It's hard to say. But watching Hillary's evolution as she learns what her constituents want is encouraging. I'm still Feeling the Bern, as it were, but if she comes out on top after the primaries, I will happily fall in line behind her, with the hope that our dissent has changed her for the better, and the resolve to hold her to the progressive promises she has made.
In the meantime, I'll try to find the courage to peel off the back of that sticker.
So I wasn't going to write this because I thought, this is probably not the high-brow kinda stuff I want to put on my website. And then I remembered: it's my website. So I'm going to talk about my hair for a minute.
I have awesome hair. Big, curly, awesome hair. No matter how I cut it, it boings up and looks great. I've been shaken by old ladies my entire life who NEED TO TELL ME HOW MUCH MONEY PEOPLE WOULD PAY TO HAVE THAT HAIR. When I was little, my hairbrush was literally an afro pick.
But I live in New England, and it gets humid in the summer, and drier than dry in the winter. There used to only be a finite number of months (or weeks, or days) in a year when my hair would be at optimal curly controlled-ness. And my skin in winter was itchy and terrible. Because I was literally sucking all the awesome out of my body every single time I showered.
SULFATES ARE BAD. They're detergents--yes, like the kind in which you wash your clothes--that suck all of the natural oils (moisture) out of your skin and hair, and they're found in most big-name shampoos. Oils are good; they prevent frizz and give your hair body while making it healthy and shiny. Sulfates are probably why dandruff is such a problem. (Meanwhile, dandruff shampoos are full of sulfates...not a coincidence.)
It's not hard now to find sulfate-free shampoo, and depending on the brand, prices are comparable to the other stuff. And honestly, if you're struggling so bad you can't afford to buy a slightly better kind of shampoo, skip the 'poo altogether and just buy conditioner. Obviously rinse your hair well before using, but that's enough to clean your hair. Some people cut out all hair-washing products altogether. So it could even save you money to treat your hair better.
So here are my good-New-England-hair tips that cost next to nothing:
- Skip the sulfates when shampooing. My current favorite shampoo is a brand called Soapbox. It smells awesome and they work with and donate to charities around the world. I've also loved Beessential in the past, but it can get pricey with shipping. Still a delicious product and worth every penny.
- Rinse your hair well, and then turn the water as cold as you can stand it. I read somewhere that rinsing your hair with super-cold water locks in the moisture and oils, so I decided to try it. My hair's been awesome since I started doing this, so whatever the reason, I'm sticking with this routine.
- After washing/conditioning your hair, apply a little more conditioner as a leave-in. It doesn't have to be any fancy brand; I use the Soapbox conditioner.
- Use alcohol-free styling products. After cutting sulfates for a while, you might not need much in the way of product. But make sure it's alcohol-free, or it'll suck your hair dry. Current favorites are Crack Styling Crème and Old Reliable: the Frizz Ease line from John Frieda. Girl knew what she was doing.
Better hair and skin is as close as the next time you run out of shampoo/soap. And then all you have to do is choose differently.
Welcome to the Frankenstein book club!
Here's how it works:
Start with the "Introduce Yourself" thread. Let us know who you are and why you're here!
Start your own threads! Put your thread title in bold using ** ** around the text.
Leave comments and questions for other readers. Click "Subscribe via e-mail" so you don't miss responses.
What's with the book club? Find out here.
I was such a flake in college and high school. I never really read any book assigned to me (sorry, all the awesome English teachers I had). I would skim the text the night before it was due and roll the dice when the teacher called on me in class. I gained valuable bullshitting skills...but I lost a lot of reading years. Lately, I've been on a mission to catch up, challenging myself to read more: especially the classics I faked my way through.
Reading the old stuff, the stuff we still teach decades--even centuries--after publication, is essential to me as a writer. Each author's style is unique, but there are patterns to be found: reasons why these vastly different works have held the interest of readers for generations. Something worth studying, to be sure.
I have an obsession with assigning myself tasks like this. And it's always fun when these challenges coincide with stuff I already love. Like Halloween, my favorite holiday.
This is, by far, my favorite time of year. The pumpkins, the leaves, the opportunities to be scared shitless. The chill in the air relieves you of any guilt you might feel in spring or summer if you stayed in bed reading all day. I wanted to take advantage of the season and read creepy classics I'd never tried before. But I had a dilemma: ten days to read wouldn't allow for a deep reading of more than one book, and I had two in mind. So I polled my Facebook friends: if I had to read one, should I go with Dracula or Frankenstein? Stoker or Shelley?
The responses were mostly pro-Shelley, but I was still on the fence. And then my friend Warren, a Halloween and horror buff, weighed in, tipping the scales entirely in Mary's favor:
Mary Shelley wrote the novel because of a writing contest she, her husband, and Lord Byron had on a stormy night...trying to out-scare each other. She couldn't think of anything until bedtime. She saw a man on a slab in a dream and that's how it started. Read it.
What a boss. How could I not start with Shelley after learning that? I've gotten ideas for stories in dreams so many times, and the image of her and two other literary giants sitting around telling scary stories...I can't wait to crack this classic now.
Looking for a new-to-you book? Read along with me. Between now and All Hallow's Eve, I'll be blogging and live-tweeting as I go. I'd love to have a virtual book club of sorts, and you're invited. Pick up a copy of Frankenstein at your local library and follow along.
Thanks for weighing in, everyone!
I'll admit it: I'm a sucker for North Korea.
Thousands of people in concentration camps! Fake, empty villages masking widespread famine and disease! State-approved haircuts! How is this even real in 2015? I am equal parts fascinated and horrified by everything I learn about that place.
Today, though, I'm just horrified. And not about North Korea: about the Huffington Post's latest words on the country. The piece (which I'm not going to link, because it's pointless) is a slideshow of North-Korean women with the title: "Photos Of Women In North Korea Show Beauty Crosses All Boundaries."
My audible reaction when I first saw the headline: "So f*cking what?"
As a human with eyes and critical-thinking skills, I can deduce that if life is hard somewhere in the world, women usually suffer the most. Imagine having your period in the middle of a refugee camp...or giving birth in one. Or losing children to starvation or AIDS. And let's not forget everyone's favorite war crime: rape! I can't imagine the women of North Korea are somehow exempt from the extra helping of suffering. So why in the world would this writer waste our time, and this opportunity, on something as trivial as beauty?
Beauty. In this new and mostly awesome wave of feminism, it has become a term of empowerment. "All bodies are beautiful, and all women are beautiful. It doesn't matter how you look or what you wear; don't worry, girlfriend, you're beautiful, too!" The message sounds new, but it still exists within the tired, old framework that beauty equals worth, when it comes to women.
So I ask you today: Why do we all have to be beautiful? What does beauty have to do with anything?
Of all the curious/disturbing/surprising things about women in North Korea, why on earth should any of us give a crap if they are beautiful? Would you ever see a piece like this about the beauty of North Korean men? Or think pieces on how all men are beautiful on the inside as well as the outside? No. Because men haven't been conditioned to crave--need--that kind of affirmation.
It's time to move the conversation in a new direction, away from outer aesthetics altogether. We need to find new ways to lift up women that don't involve telling them they are beautiful. And at the root, we need to stop raising our girls to need reassurance of their attractiveness.
Let's put "beautiful" to bed. Let's embrace more tangible, measurable reasons we are awesome: intelligence, humor, tenacity, strength, creativity. Let's raise our girls on a diet of meaningful words and see what happens.
I wrestled with the idea of starting this thing. I had a great time collaborating on It's Just Brunch with my lovelies for over a year. That dried up, and I began to crave a new outlet. As a young(ish) writer, new to the game, I saw my fellow scribes starting their own personal sites, showing off their words and their wares. I asked myself if it was something I had to do as a writer in the age of the Internet.
Then, I asked the Internet. And the Internet said YES.
So here I am. And there you are. Thanks for coming.