From Greek myth. A frightened and wild-looking Kronos eats one of his children.
Saturn, by Goya. 1820-ish.

There’s a painting by the Spanish artist Goya. It lives in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but you’ve probably seen somewhere. It’s a very famous painting. You can buy it on t-shirts and mouse pads and things. The Prado website just calls it “Saturn,” though I’ve also seen it called “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On a dark background, the Titan Saturn (the Roman version of the Greek Cronus), an old man, wild and desperate, is shoving a bloody, helpless body into his mouth.

I was listening to a podcast about the myth of Cronus eating his children this past week, and (perhaps using the Goya painting as an inspiration) it was very detailed in its description of how Cronus’ body changed and failed him after he started eating his children, who could not die, but who he also could not digest. How swollen and distended his belly became. How he became bedridden, trying to hide from the other Titans how uncomfortable he was, how weak. Cronus, who castrated his own father with a sickle, and was afraid of a prophecy that said that he would be deposed by his son in return.

There’s a lot of myths about power and how to use it, and some of them are about how power corrupts (hello, King Midas), but very few myths about it turning somebody grotesque, misshapen, monstrous. It makes me think a little bit of No Face in Spirited Away, eating customers in the bathhouse, or even of Chihiro’s parents, eating enchanted food until they turn into pigs. Jacob Marley, maybe, weighted down in the afterlife with chains and locks. It also made me think of the episode of The Simpsons when Springfield legalizes gambling and Mr. Burns gets even more filthy rich, and starts taking on qualities of Howard Hughes (oddly, it doesn’t make me think of Howard Hughes, who clearly had some mental illness stuff going on in addition to his enormous fuck-off levels of wealth and power, but Mr Burns has the privilege of just being cartoonishly evil).

A square of four images: No Face from Spirited Away, swollen and misshapen from overeating; Chihiro's parents from the same movie, turning into pigs; Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, chained up and pale; and Mr Burns from the Simpsons, bearded
Being corrupted has consequences, eventually.

What if the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth was a metaphor for power, and not just greed?

There’s a song that’s been running through my head basically since DJT was elected, but especially since George Floyd was murdered and America started going to protests instead of our jobs (because so many people had lost their jobs). It’s called “Timebomb Generation” by the hardcore band Strike Anywhere, and it was released in 2001. “What does it mean to take their power and push it away?/To overcome this culture and the lies they tell them everyday?/Find a voice for a better future and a place for you and I to face our fears/Fall down to rise back up.”

America is sick. For awhile we could call it polarization, division, culture wars, whatever. It started with racism, and it started with white people having power and wanting to keep it, and with every cultural revolution, white people scrambling to keep their power. Even if it harmed us economically, even if it harmed us spiritually. I suppose if we couldn’t be bothered about the physical and emotional trauma that we were inflicting on millions of African-Americans and Native Americans and Chinese people building railroads and Latino migrants in hieleras, it is particularly white-girl-naive of me to think that we would give a shit about our own spiritual, mental, and economic wholeness. We put billions of dollars into colonialism and imperialism and imprisoning and disenfranchising a huge part of our population, instead of building a system of empowerment and liberation that would surely benefit everyone. Right now in multiple police departments across the nation, officers are turning on the citizens they ostensibly protect with weapons of war because the citizens had the audacity to say that they don’t want to be policed any more, not this way, not at this cost. We cannot build a system of justice because we are too invested in our system of power, and too afraid to try anything else.

America is a wild-eyed, broken, bow-legged old man, terrified and eating his children in a futile hope to keep the world from changing.

Cronus created his own demise by eating his children (Greek myths are full of people who try to escape from fate and end up creating it). Next to him was his sister/wife/victim Rhea, losing child after child to his endless fear and appetite. Her desperation grew, and out of it came anger, and then vengeance, and a plan. Out of it came Zeus, and swaddled stones, and eventually, a warrior who could depose his old, sick, corrupt father.

What if Cronus had made different choices? Interestingly, in Greek myths, characters are often both ruled by fate and yet entirely in control of their own destiny. What if Cronus had accepted his deposition from power as inevitable, even beneficial, for the continued health of the universe he ruled over? What if he nurtured his sons and daughters, raised them to be a family, and work together?

What if he took the power and pushed it away?

How do we both acknowledge the power that we have, and use it to the benefit of those who have none…and then push that power away? Not in the silly context of saying “I renounce my white privilege!” as if that’s all it takes, but if we as a culture truly reckoned with what it would take to dismantle that system that gave us all this power, and corrupted us deep into our souls?

And what would the world be like if we did?

Anti-Racism as Practice

It continues to be a hell of a week (this week has been, what, four months long now?). I can’t go to protests and I spend way too much time on social media, so one of the many things I’ve been watching, along with white folks showing up and protesting alongside black folks, is white folks learning about systemic racism and police brutality in real time. It got me thinking about how I started learning about these issues over a decade ago. Not just about events in my life or people I’ve known who influenced me, but what is it about me, that predisposes me to care about this stuff? I’m not unique in my experiences. When did this state of affairs creep into your consciousness? And why do some of us (white people) let it change our consciousness, and some of us dig in and refuse?

I know there’s a lot of white people out there who just realized the depth and breadth of racism and injustice in America (welcome!), and there’s a ton of blog posts out there pointing people towards books and TED talks and resources. You should check in with all that. This isn’t that, this is about the perspective that I try to keep, things I remind myself of before I act. These are the things that I do inside my head, every day, when I can’t go to protests or smash the police state.

Disclaimer #1: I am in no way saying that I am a great ally, or even a good ally. I’m trying to be, but I’m not the one who gets to decide if I succeed. I think I’ve got some stuff down. I know there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work at. 

Disclaimer #2: While obviously PoC are welcome to read this and weigh in, this is definitely a post by a white person for white people and is likely to contain some white feeeeeeeelings (and/or acknowledgement of same). If you don’t have the time or energy for that, that is totally legit.

1. LISTEN and TRUST. This is the one thing I’m willing to claim that I do well, since it’s a running theme in my entire life, not just when I’m trying to be an ally. When people tell me how their lives are, or what they want, I just…believe them. Which should not be a radical act, but in the context of racism in America, not believing Black people is the #1 fundamental thing that White people must do in order to maintain this system. Outside of anti-racism practice, this trustingness probably means I get taken advantage of by panhandlers with sob stories (shrug), and I miss a lot of undercurrents in office politics, and the “honeymoon phase” of relationships is secretly hell because I believe all the soppy things that men tell to me during that time and have trouble readjusting later. But it also means that when an older black lady from my church says she’s been subjected to racism her whole life, I believe her. I don’t have any reason not to. When another older black lady tells me that racism is why she retired as an associate law professor, not a full professor, I believe her. Why would I not? What does that get me, or them?

Flipside: Learning to trust Black people when they describe their lives and experiences, trusting that they are right about those experiences, means learning to distrust institutions like the police, the media, and politicians who are trying to get elected to things. This is basically a project all on its own, and one that (specifically in the context of distrusting the media) I still struggle with. I have spent the last three weeks repeatedly falling for police/media propaganda (I definitely shared pictures of the cops kneeling for the protesters, for instance), then catching myself and backing up and readjusting my mental viewfinder.

You have to listen to people, if you’re going to learn anything. You have to believe that they are the experts on their own lives. You have to believe that they have no reason to lie to you. If they say something that doesn’t jive with your own understanding or personal experience, chalk that up to a difference of experience, not misdirection or misperception.

Which leads me to

2. HUSH. Just hush. Just listen. Don’t argue. Arguing with white people is exhausting. Every black person with any kind of public persona has to do it all the time. The one black person who works in the same department as you probably just wants to get work done, not talk about racism and white privilege to all of her co-workers that she never exchanged a social word with until two weeks ago. 

You can practice hushing and still get your questions answered! On social media, look in the comments. Chances are you’ll see some other white person with the same question as you. See if someone answered that person. Don’t be asking people to answer the same question over and over.

If you don’t see an answer to your question, hang tight. People often address the same topic over and over. It’s a side effect of the fact that we like to talk about the things that we feel very strongly about, and most of us have a limited number of things we feel strongly about. We talk about what’s going on in our lives, a lot. What a lot of black people have going on in their lives is racism. Some of them choose to talk about it publicly, and those that do, will talk about it regularly. If someone says something you don’t understand or disagree with, I promise you lose nothing by letting it slide by. Lurking is good for you, and good for the person whose feed you’re reading. Remind yourself of all the things that person said that you found powerful and true, remind yourself of all the stuff they’ve already taught you (for free!) and just let it go. The subject will come around again. And the person will make their point differently, or they’ll talk about another aspect of it that they didn’t mention before, or they’ll link to an article. And you’ll have learned more in the time between. Your ears will hear better. It’ll be different. Keep listening. Keep learning. Figuring out racism and how it functions is a process

And hey, eventually you’ll hear something that you don’t agree with completely, even if you understand exactly what the person speaking is trying to convey. That’s fine. But you don’t have to open your mouth to say it in somebody’s mentions (go back to the paragraph above, and remember that somebody else has probably already said it). Just let it go. It’s fine.

Remember that Google is a thing! Try googling your question, or asking a handy reference librarian. Many, many times, the question you are wondering about has already been asked and answered elsewhere. A lot of the topics that are currently under discussion–racism in policing, lopsided city budgets, the broken criminal justice system–have literally decades of academic discussion and research out there, because these are problems that we have declined to solve for decades. Which, in terms of treating our fellow citizens with actual justice and compassion, is very very bad. But for you, person with questions who just wants to know more, it means that there is so much information and analysis out there, waiting for you to find it.

3. READ. KEEP READING. There’s a million reading lists out there for people who want to learn about racism and white privilege in America. I’ll refrain from making another one here. But this isn’t about homework. This isn’t about how you can read The New Jim Crow or watch 13th and call it good. And maybe you don’t like reading! That’s fine. (Try listening to something on audiobook?) But if you’re an American, I bet you take in a lot of art and media, one way or the other. You gotta diversify that shit. Like reading fantasy? Find black fantasy authors. Like movies? Find movies by black directors, writers. Watch movies from Africa (I hear Nigeria is fostering a growing African movie industry). Podcasts? Music? History books? Television? Comics? Is your local art gallery organizing a showing of local black artists? Can you tell them that that’s something you would like to see?

And don’t make it all about racism, either. I mean, maybe at first. You gotta learn about racism and how it functions and how our society got the way it is. That is a project that’ll keep you busy for a while. But don’t get yourself into a place where the only stories you know about black people are ones of discrimination or oppression. Part of de-colonizing your mind is hearing more stories, different stories, new stories. Give yourself a break and watch a Tyler Perry movie. There’s a black dude out there who makes videos where he raps with his cat. Watch the Nicholas Brothers dance. Learn about the pre-MJ history of the Moonwalk. Or the history of go-go in DC. Maybe Jordan Peele has a list somewhere of his favorite movies by black directors? Who are some badass black visual artists working these days? I don’t know. You do you, and you like what you like. You’re most likely to be successful if you diversify a type of art you already like, instead of trying to foster a whole new interest just because it’s done by black people.

I did this/am doing this (my book collection was White As Shit until about five years ago), and I don’t regret it. Not even for “And now I’m a better person! And I know more about black people!” reasons, but because you don’t always realize how many of your stories are the same until you start taking in different stories, by people from different backgrounds. And then you start to realize you’ve been cheated, all this time. There is so much stuff that the white folks who run music companies, movie studios, and book publishers have been keeping from you because they didn’t know how to market it. There is so much fucking creativity and beautiful art out there, but if you don’t specifically go looking for black folks (and other marginalized voices), they’re not likely to end up in your bookcase by accident, because marketing is also racist.

Also, reading fiction has been shown to increase empathy. Go find stories! They’re good for you!

4. Perspective. There is a weird tension in trying to be anti-racist. Being a racist is the worst thing in the world, right? We (white people) have all been trained from babyhood to reject it. We’re not racists. We perceive the mere accusation as violence. If you want to shut down a conversation with a well-meaning but ignorant white person, call them a racist, or use the word white supremacy. We deflect those accusations reflexively. Being called a racist is the worst.

We gotta get over that. Every white person is racist. If you grew up in America, especially if you grew up in a segregated neighborhood (and most of us did!) and you’re white, you’re racist. You can’t help it. It’s not your fault. It’s because the country is racist. The air is racist. It’s a miasma. You can’t keep it off you. By the time symptoms developed, it was already too late. It sucks, but you’ve got to get over it. You’ve got to admit it. That’s the only way we move forward. As a friend of mine said the other day, “Once I realized and admitted I was racist, it was freeing. I had nowhere to go but up. Every step was progress.”

It might be a little like admitting you’re an addict? (Or this might be the worst metaphor ever.) Addicts do some heinous shit sometimes, they do damage, and they may not realize they’re doing it (or not realize the impact), because they’re addicts and they’re using. Call them an addict, and they’re offended, they’re mad, they storm out, they don’t want to know you. But when they reach their own moment of clarity, when they can call themselves an addict, when they can look around with clear eyes and see the part they’ve played in their life turning into whatever it’s turned into? That’s when they can start to move forward.

So, you’re a racist, and that’s okay.

Except it’s not okay! Don’t forget! Being a racist is still the worst thing! Our system of racial oppression is still terrible and it’s eating people alive! We have to undo it. In order to undo it, we have to acknowledge it’s there. To acknowledge that it’s there, we have to admit our part in it, and its effect on us. 

Racism is the fucking worst thing but admitting that doesn’t make you the worst person but also it’s the worst thing and we have to dismantle it right now. It’s the worst, but it’s not, but it is. Clear?

5. When you fuck up. Because you’re going to fuck up! You’ve been breathing in racism your entire life and you just started to change your perspective like, five minutes ago. You don’t even know what you don’t know yet. So you’re going to fuck up, and it’s going to hurt even worse than it did when somebody called you a racist before you realized you were a racist, because now your whole thing is understanding how much harm black people experience every day but you’ve contributed to that harm and that sucks that we can’t seem to stop hurting black people, even when we’re on their side. So: You’ve fucked up, you’ve said something hurtful that you didn’t realize was hurtful, but a black person has told you it’s hurtful (and you believe them, because you’re still following #1 on the list). What do you do?

  1. You say you’re sorry.
  2. You thank them for telling you what you did wrong.
  3. You shut the fuck up.

You’re going to want to say more. White people, we’re used to having our emotions and grievances listened to. If we’re white women of a certain demographic, we’re used to processing those emotions. We’re used to being validated, one way or another. We’re so used to it, we reach out for it and demand it from others without even realizing we’re doing it. Listen to me: It is not a black person’s job to help you process your emotions or listen to you explain where you were coming from or what you were trying to say. Stop. Stop that. This is such a common spiral that white people fall into when we’re being corrected that it’s got a name now: White tears. It takes over conversations and suddenly now we’re talking about how sad Karen is because Tara told her she was racist, and not about the harm and the hurt that Tara is feeling.

Find a fellow white person to process your shit with. (Preferably one who also knows how racism works who won’t tell you that Tara was just being mean and validate all your white feelings.) Needing to process is fine! Needing to feel your feelings is fine. Needing to let some stuff out before you circle back around to working on not being racist is fine. Do not feel your feelings at black people. I promise you, experiencing racism is worse than being called racist. Take a deep breath, leave the conversation for a minute if you have to, come back when you can be a person participating in a conversation instead of dominating it. 

And remember: Hard as it is to hear, being told you’ve said or done something shitty is also an opportunity. On some level, that person wouldn’t have told you about the harm you’d done if they didn’t think you were capable of learning to do better. 

(Tangent: Back in 2012 [I think it was 2012 because I remember Mitt Romney was in the picture], Dreamers and immigration activists kept shouting at President Obama and interrupting events, trying to push him into doing something about the Dream Act. I think at one event he actually departed from his planned speech and responded to them a little bit. They were notably not shouting at Mitt Romney [who was running for President at the time], or John Boehner [who was Speaker of the House] or Eric Cantor, or [as far as I remember] any of the Democratic Senate leadership. A journalist actually asked one of the activists, Why are you yelling at Obama, who is on your side, but not at any of the Republicans who are blocking the legislation, or at Mitt Romney, who is super high profile and would get you attention if you engaged in civil disobedience at one of his campaign stops?

Their answer: They thought Obama was the mostly likely person to actually get something done for them. They knew that yelling at Republicans was a waste of breath. They weren’t out for attention, they were out for actual change. So they yelled at the guy that they thought might actually change something.

I’m sure that Obama did not like being yelled at [though as far as I remember he handled it with grace]. But I hope he knew why they were yelling at him, specifically, and maybe felt a little bit…honored? Flattered? Slightly less annoyed than before?]

So. Remember. Black people are asking you to change. They are trusting that you can. Don’t tell them you’ll do better. Shut the hell up and do better.

This ended up being a lot of words to describe some things that are really pretty simple. They aren’t always easy. But they’re simple, once you get down to them. Believe Black people. Listen to them. Seek out their stories. Change and grow as a person. Destroy white supremacy. You can do it.

In the middle of All This

Oof. It’s been a week, hasn’t it, Best Beloved? A year. An interminable, endless year.

I had at least half an entry in my head last week (was it last week?), when the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman in Central Park who (among other things) doesn’t think that dog leash laws apply to her and will enforce that belief by threatening random black men with murder-by-cop, was circulating. But then George Floyd was murdered, and then protests, and then riots. I don’t know that I have anything like a cohesive post, but I got some things. (Also, I’m not the first to say any of these things.)

A.) I was accused of having a “laundry list” of things that worried me more than property damage when I responded to a person on social media who was lamenting property damage. And…yeah. I do indeed have a long-ass list of concerns. Because I am 38 years old and this list has been growing for my entire lifetime and then some. That’s the thing about lists, and grievances, and grief, and trauma: they don’t go away when you ignore them. They sits there, festering, self-replicating, creeping out the cracks in the walls until the walls lose their integrity and come tumbling down. What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up…or does it explode?

What “rational” response should people be engaging in right now? Colin Kaepernick engaged in peaceful protest and lost his job. MLK engaged in peaceful protest and he was murdered. How many black people have to die, and the people who killed them face no justice, before it’s okay to break some shit? Activist Stokely Carmichael said that, “in order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience.” It’s clear that forces with power in the US are fine with ignoring peaceful protest; violent protest they can squash with guns and tanks and then do what they can to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Because if activists really wanted change, they would do this shit nonviolently, right? And they think we’ll forget that activists already tried that, have been trying that, will continue to try that. What’s left, then? What are folks supposed to do?

How long are communities expected to go without health care, including mental health care? How long should activists spend trying to reform the criminal justice system, to get nonviolent offenders out of jail, to get cops to stop killing people? Does systematically depriving children of an education because you don’t want to pay for schools count as violence? What about systematically depriving children of their parents because you want to house them in a for-profit jail system and make money off of them? What about systematically putting children in jail because you don’t know any other way to change their behavior? How do we change all that? I agree that lighting a dumpster on fire won’t directly change that, but neither has decades of direct activism and hard work, so I got no answers and I’m not going to judge the people who got to the end of their rope and found that it dropped off a cliff.

B.) Just after George Floyd was murdered, I said on social media (kind of offhandedly, while talking about something else) that I thought it was important that videos like that be shared. That white people should watch them and not look away. I changed my mind, though, after seeing multiple people of color (on other social media platforms, not in my mentions) talk about how traumatizing they find these videos. How they’ve become more traumatizing over time because it’s a cycle now: graphic video/protest/nothing happens/rinse/repeat. To watch black people die, over and over and over, is traumatizing. To have it show up, unasked-for, in your social media feeds, is exhausting. When’s the last time you saw a white person murdered on camera? When’s the last time that got broadcast over and over on CNN? We (white people) have to expand the definition of “don’t look away” to something beyond “share shit on facebook.” Or if you’re going to share that shit on facebook or twitter, commit to doing something else, too. Contact your congressperson. Donate to a bail fund. Make some art. Buy some art from a person of color. Don’t just feel sad/mad for a minute, share the news story, and move on. Do something.

There was a time when it was important to see and share and take in these videos, along with other accounts of the trauma and danger that people of color live through in this country every day. I’m glad that more people seem to believe people of color when they tell their stories now. I wish we white folks could have gotten there without the need for video documentation, but it is what it is. Now we have to keep believing them and keep sharing stories and do it in a way that isn’t traumatizing our friends and family and people who are just trying to walk through the world without getting killed or harassed.

If sharing videos of these atrocities could have stopped them from happening, they would have stopped by now. But the death of Philando Castile didn’t even galvanize change in the state of Minnesota. We gotta do something else.

(Also: relying on videos and viral sharing is a bad way to do justice, friends. There’s no way it can reach every murder, galvanize every city. Look at the difference in reaction between George Floyd’s death and Breonna Taylor’s. Is one of them more deserving of justice than the other? Is one of them, at this moment, more likely to see justice served? This is what we’re talking about when we need systemic change. We can’t rely on social media to catch everyone who deserves justice and find it for them.)

C.) Talk to your people who still believe that colorblindness is how we solve racism. It is not. Thinking and talking about race is hard and uncomfortable, especially when you’re a well-meaning white person who doesn’t want to piss anybody off. It still is for me, and I’ve been reading/thinking/talking about systemic racism and whiteness for well over a decade now. We have to know our own history and how racism is tied into it. You think the Nazis and the fascists and the slavery nostalgists don’t know this history? You think they don’t use our ignorance against us, to outflank us and cause harm to PoC and Jewish people, every step of the way? They use our loyalty to and investment in colorblindness and they make us complicit in the harm they cause. It’s one of the reasons why people of color end up doing so much of the labor, physical and emotional. This investment in not acknowledging race or racism has never helped black folks. It has only helped white supremacy.

And we have to start talking about this shit with kids. Kids can see the difference between how white folks live and how black folks live. They want explanations. They want to know why the world is the way it is. And right now, with white kids, a lot of the best explanations they can find is coming from racists. And that’s a problem, right? We can agree that that’s a problem?

I remember going to punk shows as a teenager, and reading zines, and the ARA (Anti-Racist Action) would hand out and distribute fliers from the SPLC showing different names and logos and code words of white power groups, publications, websites. I got warned off Skrewdriver before I even knew anything about them. There was no hoping that failing to recognize them would make them go away. Instead, there was positive action. Naming them. Showing what they looked like. Forcibly ejecting them from shows when they were recognized. Maybe if white liberals had learned how to talk about racism forty years ago, Bannon and Miller and the other racists in this administration could not have gone so unchecked for so long, or built up the empires that they have.

When Trmp says, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he is quoting somebody. Do you know who he’s quoting? I didn’t, I found out like two days ago. Were there white nationalists out there who heard him say that and understood exactly what he meant? You bet your ass. And yeah, maybe he didn’t know who he was quoting either (it’s not like he reads anything), but I bet that somebody in the White House does. Somebody put that line in his head. Learn to recognize dogwhistles and call them out, if you do nothing else. If today is your first day looking around and thinking, Holy shit, maybe there’s something to this racism thing, welcome! You don’t even have to start with systemic racism or implicit bias or white privilege! Our president is giving real-time lessons in how racists talk to each other when they don’t want to be obvious about it. Learn the language.

Black people have known how to talk about race for decades. White racists have known how to talk about race for decades. We white liberal antiracists have to learn how to talk about it too.

D.) White women in particular: Don’t forget about Amy Cooper. Watch that video, and sit with that. That was such a perfect fucking textbook example of how white women wield their social standing and their fear to enforce racist outcomes in this country.

E.) Buy work by black artists, musicians, and writers. Support their podcasts. Find their patreons. Share those videos. Listen to those stories. Lift up voices, allow other perspectives into your feed.

F.) This is all aspirational for me too. I’m not saying I’m great at doing any of this, but it’s past time I redirected some energy into trying harder. We all need to pay attention, and keep paying attention. Learn what hushing up and letting other people talk looks like (it probably doesn’t look like this entry, which I realize is full of all kinds of white-centered thoughts and feelings, but that’s what blogs are for, I suppose).

G.) Stephen Dubner, the host of the radio show/podcast Freakonomics, has started signing of off episodes with the phrase, “Take care of yourself, and if you can, take care of someone else.” I like that. I might start using it.

Take care of yourself. If you can, take care of someone else.

 

Poets I’m reading this week: Langston Hughes. Martin Espada. Danez Smith. Ross Gay.

Prose I’m reading and/or listening to: Roxane Gay, NK Jemisin, Stokely Carmichael, W Kamau Bell, Ta-Nahesi Coates, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Frederick Douglass (1852 Fourth of July Speech), MLK Jr (Letter from Birmingham Jail).

Music is good: Jurassic 5, the Flobots, the Gossip, Le Tigre, Strike Anywhere, Lizzo, Yo-Yo Ma.

Once Upon a Time

It started with a boy , and it started on a very particular Sunday .

The name of the boy is lost, or was never known, certainly not outside the
original conspirators. This is as it should be.

The news went out that a Royal Ball had been announced for Sunday. Decrees proclaiming a holiday were posted in the town square. Supply wagons had been trundling to the castle, day after day, food and decorations and bands and extra cooks, all working flat out to prepare for the upcoming celebration. Lutists and flautists could be heard practicing late at night, soft music dancing on moonbeams as they sought not to wake the town.

Maybe it was one of the boys in the tavern, or the stableyard , or one of the delivery
boys. Again, his name is lost to us. Perhaps it went like this: looking across the square at the market stalls where the ladies held up frocks and skirts to see what would suit them
best for the ball, he stared for a little too long. Perhaps after school let out, a crowd of boys clustered around a sign to read the Feast Day Proclamation and start planning their attendance (the event was open, anyone could attend, from the richest miser to the poorest churchmouse), and one boy sighed, and looked wistful; or perhaps he said, jokingly, to disguise his true desire, “I wish I could wear a dress.” Or, “Wouldn’t it
be grand if we all went in dresses?”

As for why, we don’t know that either. A popular schoolmaster had recently been shamed when it was revealed that his out-of-town sweetheart was not a beautiful lady, or, in fact, any sort of lady at all. The school boys had arisen as one and refused to go to school or do work of any kind until their master was reinstated. One particularly obstreperous lad was heard to declare that he did not give a ewe’s left buttock who the schoolmaster monkeyed about with, everyone should just mind their bloomin’ business. So perhaps they wanted to support their friend, or their schoolmaster. Perhaps something else.

Regardless, on the day of the Ball, twelve boys in glittery skirts, rouge and eyeliner, and
plaited hair stepped onto the dance floor. Hovering behind them were various giddy sisters and girl cousins who had donated skirts and paints and hair-ironing skills, who had hurriedly let out or taken in bodices and skirt lengths.

If the boys had been laughing, or cutting up, or teasing each other, it would have been boys doing boy things. But it wasn’t. They behaved as they always did. But they did it in dresses. It’s hard to dismiss something as a prank when it is so earnestly and seriously done. Lady Havishton was scandalized, but then, she is always scandalized by something, so nobody paid much mind.

The boys wore their gowns all night. The next morning they reappeared in their usual trousers and jackets, though some with a smudge of rouge still next to their noses, or black edging to their eyelashes. They declined to explain themselves beyond a vague shrug.

The next year, there were fifteen boys, and instead of wearing their sisters’ dresses, they
had procured their own.

Note to a kid and also myself

makegoodart
Picture by Gavin Aung Than of zenpencils.com

“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
—Stephen King

Recently, I was going through my google drive to see what I could clean up. Docs tends to be where I start impulsive projects, or where I take notes if I’m out and about somewhere and don’t have a pen and paper handy. I get started, write a few paragraphs, realize that I have no real place to go with it and no conclusion, run out of time, and close the app. I never remember to title these bits and pieces so my drive is full of “Untitled Document” with only the creation date to differentiate them. And every now and then I go through and try to figure out what I can expand on and finish, and what I can just delete.

This time, though, I actually found something interesting. Marginally. In 2017, I was on a panel at Denver Comic Con about writing fanfic (DCC has since been renamed something that won’t get them sued by the San Diego Comic Con, who have decided that they are the only comic con, but I never remember what the new name is, so in my head the event is still, and probably always will be, the Denver Comic Con). I was working at the public library at the time, which often organizes a bunch of family-friendly panels covering various aspects of nerdly books/movies/fandom. It was fun, if terrifying, because I’m not exactly known for my public speaking skills or confidence. We covered a bunch of topics, from writing generally to a history of fanfic to an overview of a few of the largest sites, like AO3 and fanfiction.net. I went first, and spoke about writing generally. It was…not a lie, exactly, but more of an aspirational talk than a factual one, because I was (and still am) struggling with writer’s block. I was giving advice to kids that I was having trouble taking myself.

But anyway. This is more or less what I said. I have gone through and edited and updated it, since it’s two years old:


I took on the task to make a case for writing, which I think is both easy and hard, because to me it comes down to this: If you want to be a writer, if you want to write, you should write. And you should write what you want, and what you enjoy. Period, the end. That’s all you really need to be a writer. Everything else is details.

“We owe it to ourselves to tell stories.” That’s what Neil Gaiman says. Especially in this day and age, in this culture, when it’s so much easier to be a consumer than a contributor, we must tell stories. In this age when so many of our stories are fed to us by corporate behemoths who write by committee, we owe it to ourselves to tell stories. Don’t wait for someone else to write the story you want to read.

When I was in high school and college, I got intimidated out of writing what I wanted to write. I thought that if I was going to be a “real writer,” I had to write stuff like what I was reading in English class. I thought I had to write like Steinbeck or Tolkien or Toni Morrison. I don’t even know where I got that impression. It certainly wasn’t anything that anybody told me, but more of a vague idea of what a Real Writer looked like. If I’d been cognizant enough of it to articulate it, any adult would have told me what I’m telling you now: write whatever you want, and don’t worry about whether you’re measuring up to Charles Freaking Dickens. Don’t worry about symbolism or theme or whether your subject is weighty enough. Soap operas get dragged for being silly and impossible and overly dramatic, but their writers get paid like anyone else. Chuck Tingle writes stories about being pounded in the butt by [insert noun or sometimes figurative idea here] and got nominated for a Hugo award. Don’t worry about whether it’s worth it. Worry about finishing. Just write it, whatever it is that’s in your head.

So, with that manifesto out of the way, I thought I’d spend a minute talking about some specific advantages to writing fanfic especially if you’re a new writer.

Sometimes it seems like people will only consider you a “real fan” if you know everything about the thing that you’re a fan of. Don’t get me wrong, knowing everything about one thing can be cool and fun if that’s your jam. I have a friend who owns every single Daredevil comic ever written. He can name all the all the writers and artists and often what issues or arcs they worked on. If that’s where your fandom happiness lies, go for it. More power to you, and I hope you make editor someday. But if you want to write, and you’re hesitating to start because you fear that you don’t know enough yet–stop that. Start writing. Stop doing homework and start writing. There’s a ton of resources out there about how to write, but they all boil down to: Sit with a pad of paper and a pen, or with your computer, and start putting words on paper. That’s all you really need to get going. The rest you can learn.

Fandom is changing, and with the internet comes a lot of gatekeepers, but there’s also a lot of people around who are determined to burn the gates to the ground and piss all over its ashes. Just as you can write whatever you want and however you want, you can define fandom however you want. It’s your fandom. Love the Good Omens miniseries? I definitely recommend reading the book if you haven’t, I think it’s great, but don’t feel like you have to read the book and also Neil Gaiman’s tumblr asks where he answers questions about it and also the script book and also the TV companion book before you can write your story. Do you want to cosplay Wonder Woman even though you’ve only read a few issues, but Comic Con is soon and you love her armor? I sure won’t stop you. And anyone at a con who starts quizzing you about all her writers and artists and storylines is doing it wrong. Don’t let them discourage you. Fan fiction is great because you can just start.

If you’re wanting to get published, sure, different standards come into play. Grammar and style and structure and (probably) using characters you created instead of somebody else’s. But this is fanfic. This is fun. There is where nothing but possibility lives.

You get better at writing by writing. The first thing you write will probably be terrible. That’s okay. The more you write, the more you’ll find your voice.

Who Lives, Who Dies

(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)

“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.

If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.

My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.

My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.

A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.

It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.

One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.

Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.

Harry Potter is 20

1200px-Harry_Potter_wordmark.svg(My writing life is still slow. Which is why this is being posted a week after everyone else posted their Harry Potter reminisces.)

 
I work in a public library, which means I have frequent (and frequently random) conversations with customers about books and local politics and the idiocy of computers. Yesterday, a customer came up to me and started telling me that Harry Potter was 20 years old and all about her Harry Potter memories (she did this with no introduction or conversation opener whatsoever; just walked up to me while I was shelving holds and started chattering at me about Harry Potter). So that was basically how I celebrated the week, which is (in some small way) in keeping with my relationship with Harry Potter for the last 20 years.

 
I started reading the Harry Potter series in 2000. I remember because I read it on a road trip with my family, our last big trip as a family because I was graduating high school and my brother was graduating college and moving to Seattle. I started working at a bookstore the next year, and for the last three books (which came out in 2003, 2005, and 2007), I worked the Harry Potter release parties. When the Deathly Hallows came out, I was also working at a public library; I got to stay late the night before the release date and process the holds so that they would be ready for customers first thing in the morning. In short: I have been a part of getting the Harry Potter books into people’s hands for almost as long as I’ve been reading them, and in a lot of ways, this is fundamental to why I find them important books, and what they mean to me, beyond just being a fun and enjoyable story.

 
I was a reader, all through my childhood. It was one of the things that made me weird in school. I was never teased for it, I was never ostracized just because I was a reader, but I was definitely the kid that maxed out all the reading lists, got in trouble for reading in class, read while I was walking home from school, fucked up the curve on writing assignments because I read so much that my writing skill just followed right along. The other kids just acknowledged that this was a thing that I did. When I started reading Harry Potter (well past the magical formulating years of reader-hood when one book drops into your life and changes you), it was just another book, another fun story. This was also before social media; certainly before I was on the Internet with any regularity, before fandom became the behemoth it is today. Those early years of Harry Potter, maybe even up to the first book release party, I certainly knew that Harry Potter was popular, but it wasn’t the sort of thing it is now–where people discuss and bond over it.

 
It was the book release parties where I got to see the fandom for the first time, and more importantly, got to see something that I think adults who grow up reading (and who were often the “weird kid who reads” in their class at school) always want to see more of: kids who are fucking excited about books. Weird Reader Kids, all over the place, all in one bookstore, instead of scattered from classroom to classroom. Kids up past their bedtime, getting chocolate frogs and butterbeer from the bookstore coffee shop. Kids dressed up in wizard robes. Kids waiting in line for hours. Kids getting handed their books at midnight, and then sprinting for the door to get to their parents’ cars to get back home so they can start reading.

 
They were late nights, after the book release parties, when me and my coworkers would be at work until the wee hours of the morning cleaning up the remnants of chocolate milks and fire whiskies and double espressos that the parents needed to stay up. Cookie crumbs and pastry wrappers. Dirty coffee mugs and plates. I didn’t care. I loved it. I wanted to make books exciting and fun for these kids in a way that I never got to experience.

 
The movies kept the community going, I think, in between books, and then after the books were done. The movies pulled in a lot of people who weren’t Weird Reader kids, and even though I haven’t seen most of them since they were in theaters, they broadened and cemented the fandom. I went to a couple movie release nights and they were much the same mix of fun, overwhelming, noisy nerddom as the book releases. And by then, the books had been around long enough that older siblings were indoctrinating younger siblings. Livejournal was a thing. Tumblr started to exist. Fan fiction started leaking out of its previously-ironclad hinterlands. And Harry truly stepped out of the books and into our heads.

 
Even though I don’t actively participate in the fandom that much, so much of that fandom is what Harry Potter is for me. I don’t write fanfic or cosplay or draw fan art or even really get into long discussions with people online. I like the books. I like the stories. But really, what I love–what I adore–is that this books are so huge, took over so much of the culture. And maybe the kids who read during class feel a little less weird these days than they did when I was young. Maybe they can talk about Harry with their classmates, as well as in online forums. I don’t know exactly when nerdy fandom went from a thing that only happened at Comic Cons to a thing that happened all over the internet; it seemed fully fledged and omnipresent by the time I happened upon it. But I’m really happy that this is a thing in the world that exists, even though I only ever observe it from the sidelines.

 
At some point (and I resisted doing this for a long time because I hate having to give my email address to things because then everyone sends you email) (Also, come on, I’m an adult, I don’t need Sorting, I am too old, sniff sniff), I went over to Pottermore and got myself Sorted. It was…weirdly emotional, and resonant, and flattering, when I got Sorted into Hufflepuff. So, here’s me:
House: Hufflepuff
Patronus: Occamy
Wand: Willow wood w/dragon heartstring

 

PS. Also, one thing I discovered in the week it took me to write this: Harry Potter might be 20, but “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls is apparently 21 this week, and that makes me feel old in a way that Harry Potter does not.

Don’t Go, Carrie Fisher

leiaCarrie Fisher’s death is hitting me way harder than I thought it would. I keep tearing up at random moments, thinking about her and her legacy, which I don’t think I’ve done with any other celebrity death this year. Not that I thought about this in advance, but on the surface, Richard Adams’ death should have way more of an effect on me: Watership Down is one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve read it countless times since middle school. Bigwig is one of my all-time favorite fictional characters. (“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”) Harper Lee, another one of my favorite authors, also died this year. Maybe the difference with them is that they were both in their 90s, had both “finished” their contributions (at least insofar as their formative influence on my life, which I realize is 100% secondary to the loss and sorrow that their families must be feeling, because they loved Adams and Lee as people, and not as authors.) But Carrie Fisher? She wasn’t done yet. Not with life, not with work, not with her effect on me or all the rest of us.

I basically missed Star Wars growing up. Neither of my parents were into it (they were slightly older than the target audience, being newlyweds in 1977, and if they saw it in the theaters it didn’t grab them the way it grabbed so many others), so we never had it on VHS around the house. We never had cable television either, so I never saw the movies until the special editions were re-released in theaters when I was in high school in 1997 or whenever that was. It took me even longer to appreciate the effect that Star Wars had on culture and fandom and science fiction. And in 1997, I had not yet reached the point in my life where I needed role models and fangirl objects that were specifically girls. I was still doing fine with my music collection that was 97% male. I was doing fine with Watership Down, whose rabbit cast is probably 85% male. My favorite movie was The Princess Bride, and don’t get me wrong, it is still one of my favorites, but there’s two female characters in the whole thing (Buttercup counts as one character; the mom and the queen combine to be the other). I hadn’t discovered Patti Smith, or riot grrrl, or bell hooks, or the need for diverse and powerful women in my life. So Leia the Princess slipped right by me.

But General Leia Organa?

I saw The Force Awakens last year (age 33, for context), and the movie, the characters, all were great. I like the story, the dialogue, the music. It’s not my favorite movie ever, but it’s a solid, enjoyable flick and I wouldn’t mind seeing it for a third time. I didn’t think about it until this week, but it’s also a movie that is filled with active characters. Rey, Finn, Chewie, Han, even Kylo, all are constantly doing stuff. Reacting to stuff. Running away from explosions. They don’t really have time to stop and reflect on what’s happening and why.

But Leia? And to a lesser extent, Maz Kanata? In some ways, they’re the heart of the story, because they’re removed enough from the action that they can think about how they got to where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re the calm at the center of the storm. Leia looks at Han and holds their entire history together—good and bad—in her heart. Leia can see how lonely Rey is, how hungry for family. General and Senator Leia Organa knows the weight of responsibility and power, she’s held it her whole life.

And as much as I need and enjoy Rey, badass female character who fights with a bo staff and survives basically on instinct?

I need Leia too, in a way I didn’t know that I needed her before this week, when suddenly she was gone. I need that calm female leader, the one who’s accomplished greatness, the military and political professional, the one who’s made mistakes but who keeps going forward anyway, the one who takes time to both lead and nurture.

We still don’t have enough female heroes that we can afford to lose this one. Who is my badass female hero leader now? It’s not like when we lost Obi-Wan, because his role then got filled by Yoda. It’s not like when we lost Dumbledore, who stepped aside because Harry could stand without him. And it’s not like losing a Batman actor, because there’s literally seven other Batman actors. There’s nobody else like Leia. Maybe it’s just because I’m sad and full of feelings, but I can’t think of another character who fills the same archtype who could stand into the gap that’s suddenly in my sad little nerd heart. There’s just her. And now she’s gone.

And look, it’s not even that I need Leia as a badass female to look up to. It turns out I needed Carrie Fisher. Who else is so perfectly imperfect? Who else owns her experiences—good and bad—with the aplomb and humor that she does? Who else is so likable precisely because she doesn’t give a shit if you like her? She had a tempest of a life. She fell down and got up and kept moving forward by any means necessary. Like Leia (or maybe Leia was like Carrie), she made mistakes, but kept going forward anyway. I don’t mean to idolize her in any way, because it was the public difficulties she had (living with bipolar disorder and being a recovering addict; and living those experiences in the public eye had to be so much more difficult than just living them on their own) that made her strength so powerful to me. She let us see her weaknesses, and that shone a light on how truly strong she was. She let us meet Gary, she was open about his role as one of her coping mechanisms. She was not ashamed. I think that’s the thing that breaks my heart open, just how blunt and unashamed she was, and how rare that is to see in a woman, and how brave that makes her.

There was nobody else. Just her. And now she’s gone.

Down in the Hole

“Well I’ll tell you one thing that I know.
You don’t face your demons down, 
You gotta grapple ’em, Jack, and pin ’em to the ground.”
–Joe Strummer, “Long Shadow”
Every June, I go to a conference in the mesa country in northern New Mexico. There’s a couple hundred people of all ages, no cell phone signals, sleeping in rustic cabins that have spiders and occasionally rodents, bitey juniper gnats, no cars. It’s great.
The high school and college aged kids stay together in their own building, and most of the rest of us only see them at mealtimes or maybe for an hour or two a day. They do their thing, and their thing is good. In less than a week they assemble and foster a community so strong it carries them the rest of the year (or at least it did, when I was part of that group, and I see no signs that it’s changed with the passage of time. If anything, the creation of social media has helped them keep the community connected over the rest of the year). This year, even though I never saw the kids for more than an hour or two a day, I found myself buoyed up every time I was with them or thought about them. They are such a great and fantastic group of kids (they are not all kids, as the age group goes up to about 22, but I considered myself a kid when I was part of the group and the terminology stuck). Strong and funny, grappling with the world, struggling and dancing and listening to each other. They’re not angels, they’re just regular human teenagers, and they amaze me. I am in awe of them even though/because I know they struggle. I know some of them have mental health issues or substance abuse issues. General life-as-a-teenager issues. Some of them have lost dearly beloved family members, and that shreds you at any age. But they’re stunning people all the same.
It’s hard to even try to describe how happy they make me, partly because there’s no way to do it without sounding hokey, and partly because I’m afraid that if they knew how much someone was watching and enjoying them, it would make them feel self-conscious and weird and they would stop being so fabulous. But they’re the light of the world, okay? They’re great and amazing. I see differences in how I was as a teenager/young adult and how they are now and they are so far ahead of me and so wise. I can’t wait to see these kids run the world. That’s what I was thinking that week, six months ago, in June 2016.
And then on the drive home, still going in and out of cell service, I started checking Twitter and Reddit and found out about the shooting in Orlando that had happened the night before. And just like that, all my rosy and optimistic thoughts about The Youth, they all evaporated, replaced with dread and sorrow and regret.
Because I was supposed to make this world safe for the queer kids of the future, black kids of the future, Latino kids of the future, Muslim kids of the future. I was once The Youth, and I charged myself with changing the world. But I haven’t. We haven’t. Shit like Matt Shepherd’s murder and the shooting at Columbine, those were supposed to be the high water mark of shittery. Not the floor. Michael Brown’s death, Trayvon Martin’s—hell, Emmett Till’s—were supposed to be the cultural turning point. Not the beginning of a new season of violence on black men. And now we have these beautiful kids—queer and not—that are going out into a world that isn’t safe for them. And what do we do? What do I tell them?
So I’ve been carrying that around with me, trying to figure out how to write about it, trying to find some wisdom, and in the meantime 2016 carried on being the oozing Vogon of a year that it is, and now it’s December and some aged orange troll is going to be president and it’s so much worse. I admit that I was one of those who was just waiting for the election to be over, because I assumed that Clinton would win and we could all move on with our lives. I did not give one second of thought to what would happen if Trump won. (This is, incidentally, me showing off my White People Problems, because when I read post-election reactions of PoC on Twitter, I was reminded that African-Americans—particularly older African-Americans—have always known just how racist America is, and that white people still don’t know.) A bunch of old white people who will die before the world fully catches on fire have burdened us (and the world) with a 70-year-old man-baby who may very well destroy the country and/or the planet and/or all the civil rights gains we’ve spent the last 100 years trying to attain, and we’re going to be paying for that decision for decades. Now it feels like I have to fight the battles of my mother and grandmother all over again. And I still don’t know what to tell these kids, these kids who don’t even know how amazing they are.
In my worst moments, I think that maybe we should be raising our kids to be harder. If I had less of a “saving people thing” (as Hermione puts it), if I didn’t care so goddamn much, this wouldn’t be so hard to live through. I know there’s some that do that, that teach their kids to encase themselves behind walls so that the world can’t crush them. But then, I don’t know the difference between hiding your light and extinguishing it. Maybe there isn’t one. I don’t know. I don’t know what to tell you, you beautiful kids. I’m sorry. I wanted the world to be different. I assumed it was different. Getting bruised by the world is inevitable, and nobody can keep you safe from that. But now I’m worried that you might just get crushed, and that’s different.
I don’t know what to do to survive this, to fix it.
I had a conversation with a friend of mine when we were 17 or so. She’s social justice-y like me, and in our fabulous teenage naivete we both felt like the larger historical battles against injustice were done. Slavery had been abolished, Jim Crow was over, women could vote and have abortions. It seemed like the last big cultural battle left was gay civil rights, and then after that we’d just mop up some of the leftovers that hadn’t 100% gotten the message about how we do things now, places like Jasper, TX. But, we thought, we could relax. It was done. We just had to finish what had been started, tackle the totally surmountable problems of injustice in Palestine and famine in Africa, and we’d be good. The world would be good.
But progress isn’t inevitable. I learned that this year (more importantly, I learned that that was a thing that I thought was true). There is no moral arc of history, there’s nothing about our culture or species that says we can’t also go backwards, erase everything we did fifty years ago. There’s nothing in our culture or history that is assured. We are stuck in this shitshow for the duration. Water goes over the wheel and right straight back into the same fetid pond.
I don’t know if it’s a silver lining, precisely, but there is one small comfort in the whole “progress is not inevitable” truth: we need you. We won’t be okay without you showing up and demanding better of us. You can’t sit this one out because on some lower level you think it’ll happen with or without you. It won’t happen. We won’t move forward.
So do the thing.
Write the story. Go to the protest or the city council meeting. Start the band. Sign the petition. Plant the garden. There are millions of things that won’t get done unless we do them.
One of my favorite shows is The West Wing. And one of the most famous and quoted pieces of dialogue, from anywhere in the whole series, is in the second season, when Leo (the White House Chief of Staff) convinces Josh (the Deputy Chief of Staff) that it’s okay to need help. That it’s okay to not be okay. This is the story that Leo tells Josh:
This guy’s walking down a street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep, he can’t get out. A doctor passes by, and the guy shouts up, “Hey you, can you help me out?” The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a priest comes along, and the guy shouts up “Father, I’m down in this hole, can you help me out?” The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on. Then a friend walks by. “Hey Joe, it’s me, can you help me out?” And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, “Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.” The friend says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out.”
I’ll be honest: I don’t know the way out of the hole. I don’t know if anyone really does. What the United States is trying to accomplish, has been trying to accomplish since our infancy, is knit together many disparate groups into one cohesive and just whole. It’s not something that’s ever been successfully done, on a large scale, in the history of the world.
But I’m in this hole with you. Because you’re my friend. The rest we’ll figure out together.

The Inadequacy of Perception

booksOne of the things that is both bad and good about working at a library is that you get to see these little chunks of people’s lives. A piece of the whole. Since I mostly re-shelve books, for me that often looks like going through the bookdrop and finding a little pile of books on “parenting through divorce,” or “how to file for bankrupty,” or “understanding your autistic child.” When stuff like that happens, I typically say a little prayer for that person, hope that they’re finding the support that they need, and move on.
But sometimes, it’s more complicated. Sometimes, it’s a homeless guy trying to tell you about all of his problems getting housing assistance, and he’s asking about help applying for jobs and he has a resume and you look at his resume and you have this sinking feeling that nobody’s going to hire this guy, but you don’t say that, because you’re really not qualified to edit people’s resumes. Sometimes, it’s a guy who doesn’t even know how to use a mouse trying to figure out the internet enough to apply for jobs online, jobs that don’t require any computer skills, and you think, This. This is what the digital divide looks like it is a huge fucking problem and I don’t know any way around it except to teach what it is to double-click, one person at a time. And also indefinitely extend their computer time because they’ve never used a keyboard before and it takes them ten minutes to type a single sentence. Sometimes it’s that.
I heard most of this second hand, but we had a group of teenagers (like 13- and 14-year-olds) playing games on our public computers. They were a little loud, as teenagers tend to be. Our security guard talked to them, but they apparently didn’t get as whisper-quiet as another patron on the computers would have liked, because he went outside and called the police and told them that a kid was “talking about buying ammunition.” (The kid may have been talking about ammunition, but if so it was computer game ammunition, and I’m pretty confident that the surly customer knew exactly what the kids were actually talking about.) The customer didn’t tell anybody that he’d called the cops, so the first we knew of the whole situation was when four cops came in to the library, made a beeline for one of the kids (one of the only black kids, as it happens), hauled him out of his chair, and started searching him.
The kid looked fucking terrified. The cops hadn’t explained themselves to us, but more importantly didn’t explain what the hell was going on to the kid, just hauled him up and started putting their hands on him. He’s fourteen, and he’s got this look on his face like he’s sure he’s about to get shot.
They didn’t find weapons, obviously. The kid was playing a game. They didn’t really apologize either, just shook his hand like, “Haha, still friends, right?!” and left.
I assume that the cops were responding to the description that the customer gave them. Why the customer picked out the black kid, I don’t know (the disgruntled customer was also black). But to the kid, and to everyone watching, a bunch of cops just marched into a public building and beelined straight for the black kid.
To the cops, they were being prudent and cautious, and maybe trying to catch a suspect in the act of looking at ammunition online (which is a crime since when?), to the rest of us, they were grabbing and terrifying a kid who might be obnoxious but who is not (to the best of my knowledge) a criminal of any sort. I want everyone to feel safe in the library, and when cops march in and haul people out of their chairs at the public computers, that undermines that goal.
And as an employee of the library, I can’t really go up to the kid and say, “Dude, that totally sucked and was racist and I’m sorry,” because then I’m speaking for the library. And what black kid wants a random white woman to label his experience, library employee or not? What commiseration can a total stranger of any race offer? “Oh, so you saw this racist shit go down, recognized it as racist shit, and did nothing, but now you want cookies from me for recognizing it? I think not.”
I know a lot of white people with this problem. We’ve gotten better about seeing racism, maybe; we’ve gotten better at listening to our friends of color and at reading blogs about the experiences of people of color. We want to be compassionate and woke while also being cognizant of when we’re overstepping, when we’re taking up too much space, when we need to shut up and listen instead of taking over a situation. We want to help create safe spaces but are painfully conscious that sometimes our mere presence feels unsafe. The fear of doing the wrong thing leads to doing nothing–but that is also the wrong thing.
First world problems? Oh god, yes. I swear this is not some poor-me-white-girl sadness rant. I’m just trying to articulate the rock-and-hard place spot that some liberal progressive whites (or at least, this liberal progressive white person) can find themselves in. And trying to meditate on how to move past it (this is where the entry ends on a disappointing cliffhanger, because I don’t have the answer to that question). I’m not so bad on the internet, where we so often talk about things that happened instead of being asked to react in the moment. But reacting in the moment–not just to racist shit, but to all violent shit and not-okay shit and people-who-need-our-help shit–is part of what all of us humans need to get better at. I work in a library, I work in customer service, I work with the public, and part of being good at that is being able to recognize and talk to people about their own experience when they want me to.
Postscript: The incident I described above happened about a week ago, and I’ve seen the boys in the library since then, playing their game and talking to each other. So thankfully, they were at least not so badly scared/unwelcomed that they stopped coming to the library.