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.

Burbling Through White Privilege (part one of many) (orig. published Feb. 2, 2011)

On a recent visit to Denver, I led a workshop on allyship in the context of racism and white privilege.  In the past, I have been annoyed at the idea of racism and white privilege workshops that are attended/led by entirely or primarily white people (whites, in general, not having the best history of self-awareness when it comes to race issues), so for me to lead a workshop was…kind of crazy.  Also not having a whole lot of experience or wisdom in the particular sphere of allyship?  Kind of crazy.  I think it went well, at least, I hope it did, though I don’t know if everyone who attended felt it was worthwhile or if they learned something they didn’t know before.  I tried to make the discussion practical, and not theoretical (because one of the problems of having a discussion about institutional racism is that it pits individuals against a giant faceless system and leaves them feeling powerless.  I’m tired of feeling powerless).  I tried to make it seem like allyship was not something that is hard—it’s intricate, definitely; it requires constant self-checking, definitely; but hard it does not necessarily have to be.

The Quaker term for elders whose opinions or spiritual gifts are most highly valued is Weighty Friend.  One of the best parts about planning this whole racism and white privilege series has been getting to hang out with M-, one of the Weightiest, and one of the only African-American folks in Meeting.  Her patience and grace and intelligence and compassion have turned her into one of my favorite people.  Our Meeting is so lucky to have her; I’m so lucky to have been able to make friends with her.

One of the things that M- talked about, to our small group, was how long it’s taken her—as a black woman who believes in the importance of interracial conversations about race; as a black woman who married a white man; as a black woman who worked in diversity training for much of her professional life—to be able to call out a white person for saying something racist or insensitive and then be able to walk away from that encounter and not let it bother her further.  To not feel like she has to change the mind of every white person she meets.  To not feel attached to the outcome of a discussion.  It struck me that, if the challenge for folk of color is to lay race down and not let it take over their lives, then the challenge for white folk is to pick it up a little more often, and be more aware.

One Friend came up to me after the workshop and told me that I have a gift for facilitating groups (my father came up to me to give me tips on how I can improve my facilitation skills in the future.  This is somehow indicative both of the Meeting as a whole and of my father in particular), and that he hopes that I will keep such things in mind for the future as I move through my career at Columbia and beyond.  It’s weird that, though I am generally quiet and uncomfortable in loud, disorganized, chaotic settings (ie, a party), I don’t have a whole lot of fear when it comes to leading a group activity or facilitating a group discussion.  Granted, most of the groups I’ve led have been Quaker ones where I’ve known everyone or most everyone.  Maybe I would feel different in a group full of strangers.  But I think I have a pretty good background in consensus process and listening to a group, which is an important part of leading a group.  Something to keep in mind.  Maybe I could be a teacher after all—always assuming that I get to teach things that I find interesting, which is, of course, a total fallacy.  I don’t know what direction to go in when I have total faith in myself but absolutely none in the system I’m thinking about entering—usually it’s the other way around, and I do my best to try and make myself fit into the situation in question.  But this is one of those instances where I have total confidence in my own integrity, and I’m not interested in compromising that to fit into a broken system.

One of the activities I led during the workshop was called “I could do that if…”  I adapted it from a similar workshop I found at http://turning-the-tide.org/  The basic idea is that for each statement of action, you decide either “I could do that,” “I couldn’t do that,” or “I could do that if…” and then elaborate on the circumstances under which you could take a particular plan of action.  Because my goals in this workshop was to make allyship seem accessible and do-able, I think, in retrospect, that must of the list I made was perhaps too easy.  Working on your privilege is hard—really hard.  Finding mentors is essential.  But here is the list I came up with, if you’re curious.

 

I could confront a co-worker who makes a racist joke.

I could be comfortable being the only white person in a room full of people of color.

I could boycott a business if a person of color told me that they had been discriminated against by employees or owners of the business.

I could sit next to a person of color on the bus.

I could confront a family member who says something racist.

I could listen to a person of color tell a story about racism in their own lives with an open heart.

I could admit that I do not know everything in a discussion about racism, or that I do not know what racism feels like.

I could vote for a black political candidate.

I could take a day and make it a project to notice, throughout the day, moments when I am either benefitting from or denied privilege.

I could resolve to count to ten before opening my mouth when I am feeling defensive and angry because somebody has called me out for saying something racist or insensitive.

I could write a letter to a publication that generalizes or stereotypes race or ethnicity.

I can wait for people to self-identify their race or ethnicity and not label them myself.

 

Unhelpful Apology (orig. posted Feb. 2, 2011)

Quakers (of whom I am one) have a long history of social justice.  Many Quakers were involved in the Underground Railroad, they generally believed that Indians should be treated justly (though this meant paying them a “fair price” for their land, not keeping off of it entirely).  In 1688, Germantown Friends drafted the first anti-slavery minute, and over the course of the next 100 years, Friends gradually came to consensus around the idea of slavery being wrong.  In the first half of the 1800s, Friends were convinced, by gradual social pressure and other stuff, to free their slaves or not buy new ones (I’d go into details, but I honestly don’t know them very well, and it’s late and I’m kinda tired).

Quakers are proud of our history, and justifiably so.  We’re one of the first organized groups to formally come out against slavery.  Quakers did a lot to contribute to the downfall of slavery in the United States, and aided countless men and women escaping slavery in the South.

But still.  It took us 100 years to get there.

A Friend once told me of an experience she had in a discussion at a Quaker gathering about race.  A (white) man stood up and more or less what I’ve repeated above, the usual self-congratulation at the enlightenment of Quakers.

A (black) woman stood up and asked, “How many of my people had to die in chains while white Quakers sat around and debated what they knew to be true for one hundred years before finally getting off their asses and doing something?”

She was right.  Quakers knew that slavery was a violation of Quaker principles, and a violation against God, and an unjust system long before we managed to come together and get rid of all our slaves.  Like Thomas Jefferson, so against slavery, and yet so beholden to its power as a social system.  We enslave ourselves to habits.  And I’m not saying that Quakers should be ridden with guilt that it took us 100 years to get to a place that, from 20th century perspective, seems self-evident.  I’m just saying that we don’t get to decide whether we were or weren’t (or are or aren’t) effective allies.  But next time the opportunity presents itself, hopefully we learn lessons from our past and don’t take quite so long to do the right thing.

That was what came to my mind when I read this excerpt that Barack Obama did recently with The Advocate:

Yes, and Joe asked me the same question. And since I’ve been making a lot of news over the last several weeks, I’m not going to make more news today. The sentiment I expressed then is still where I am—which is, like a lot of people, I’m wrestling with this. My attitudes are evolving on this. I have always firmly believed in having a robust civil union that provides the rights and benefits under the law that marriage does. I’ve wrestled with the fact that marriage traditionally has had a different connotation. But I also have a lot of very close friends who are married gay or lesbian couples.

And squaring that circle is something that I have not done yet, but I’m continually asking myself this question and I do think that—I will make this observation, that I notice there is a big generational difference. When you talk to people who are in their 20s, they don’t understand what the holdup is on this, regardless of their own sexual orientation. And obviously when you talk to older folks, then there’s greater resistance.

And so this is an issue that I’m still wrestling with, others are still wrestling with. What I know is that at minimum, a baseline is that there has to be a strong, robust civil union available to all gay and lesbian couples.

 

Now, sure, that Obama would do an interview with a gay magazine is a step forward in and of itself.  But the question still remains: Obama knows that legalizing gay marraige is the right and just thing to do.  I’m sure he knows that it’s basically inevitable–sooner or later, straights-only marraige is going to go the way of anti-misogynation laws.  So what the hell are we waiting for?  How many gays and lesbians have to continue to exist in this unjust system–without partner health care, without wills, without the ability to adopt children, without tax breaks, without the security and safety in their person–while we straights pussyfoot around and “evolve our attitudes”?  How many queer kids have to be bullied to the point of suicide before the outcry against it becomes so deafening that we manage to create safe schools?  How many Pride parades must a man walk in before they call him a man?  Let’s hold hands and sing all together, now.

I just…I’m so sorry, gay America.  I’m sorry you have to put up with this bullshit.  I’m sorry that straight America is so reluctant to do the right thing.  I’m sorry that so many of you have died without ever getting to see what should be a basic civil right granted to you.  That we use the excuses that we do is an example, in and of itself, of the privilege that we have that we’re unaware of.  I haven’t yet figured out how to put my money where my mouth is (sigh, privilege again, sorry), but here’s at least one straight chick who can’t wait for America to get gayer.