The Forgotten American

If I read one more think piece about what constitutes a ‘real’ American, or what alphabetized or categorized or hypothesized list of attributes define a ‘real’ American, I’m going to scream.

If I read one more newspaper article, or book blurb, or journal piece by men and women with glasses and thoughtful looks in their bio pictures extolling the plight of the ‘forgotten’ American I am going to lose my shit.

If I have to listen to one more pundit, one more punter, one more pontificator blindly reaching into the ether to grasp the imaginary coattails or the slippery bootstraps of the “real” American I am going to go pull my hair out.

Look–I am not denying this truth: millions upon millions upon millions of Americans have been forgotten. By corporations and government, by their neighbors and communities, by Congress and politicians. What I am disputing is the mythical notion of the one-size fits all American. The hurtful and degrading insinuation that anything or anyone deviating from a caricature, a caricature which is now decked out in a red MAGA hat and living somewhere between the coasts is somehow…what? A fake American? Not real enough? Semi-real…like Veleeta?

Let’s not play dumb. When you hear or see the phrase “All-American”, there is a certain image which comes to mind. It’s the same image that populates these news articles and books and think pieces.

And it’s not the inner-city Detroit kid or the Hasid from Brooklyn or the teenage girl from Nebraska who’s transitioning to a teenage boy.

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The notion that rural, white Americans who are living in towns decimated by opioids or lost industry have any more claim to the title of ‘forgotten American’ than the inner city families decimated by the crack epidemic and rampant unemployment in the 1980s is preposterous. Yet one is now wearing the mantle of Americana while the other is held up as a giant American don’t. One is seen as a failure of the government and services, of trade agreements and globalization. The other?

The other was…and is…hyped as a failure of morality.

The rural American narrative sings a merry tune. Yet inner-city America (that’s fancy government code for black, by the way) is a cacophony. Only one is courted. Only one is being studied and endlessly scrutinized.

Only one of those is granted the title of American.

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There is no such thing as a ‘real’ American. Trying to chase down some elusive, mythical one-piece will be about as successful as chasing down a Hypogriff.

It’s a fool’s errand.

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To be sure, there are stereotypes. Hollywoodized and memorialized in books and films and television shows.

The shy cow-poke with hair the color of Iowa wheat-fields who ‘aw shucks, ma’am’s his way through life.

The inner-city single mother who’s struggling to keep her kids off the corner.

The perfect suburban family, picket fence, whitened smiles, baseball games and apple pie on a Sunday afternoon.

But what of the ones which don’t spring easily to mind?

The naturalized immigrant who works two jobs to save enough for his daughter to go to college.

The successful black doctor who lives in the suburbs and listens to Kendrick Lamar in secret so his white neighbors don’t think he’s ‘too black’.

The drug dealer’s daughter who recognizes the only reason there’s a roof over their heads and food on the table is because of her father’s illegal activity.

The reservation-dwelling kid who fights to claw his way out of the drain of poverty.

They’re all Americans. And they’ve all been left behind in one way or another. They’ve been shoved to the margins, erased.

Forgotten.

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You can’t take away someone else’s story because it doesn’t fit the neat plot structure you’ve outlined.

Those stories are just as American. If you cut them, will they not bleed red, white, and blue?

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Try to paint American and you’re not going to get a picture, but a mosaic. Like the US itself, it’s a hodgepodge. A glorious haphazard. States were tacked on willy-nilly, here and there, a geographical mish-mash of mountainous terrain and coastline and fields of wheat-filled glory in-between. Swamplands and badlands and your land and my land and all the land in between.

There is NO one America. It’s too big. It’s too diverse, in every way imaginable. Just as there is not one American.

Yes, we’re full of stereotypes, camera snapping socks and sandal shod gun-toting chino wearing chitlin eating sweet tea drinking stereotypes. They stretch 3,000 miles across and half as many again up and down. It’s a land which encompasses indigenous tribal tradition and oral spiritual from slaves just as much as it does the heartland. It embraces co-opted foods and bastardized traditions from the steady streams of immigrants which have washed upon its shores for the past two-hundred and fifty years just as much as it does 4H fairs and VFW halls.

In reality the real forgotten Americans are the ones conveniently forgotten to be included in our definition of forgotten.

The snotty East side of Manhattan trust fund baby is just as much an American as the corn-fed blue-eyed Joe from Iowa. The California Latina and the heroin addict from Ohio. The out-of work coal-miner, the upper middle class neighbor. The dish-washer. The super-market bagger. The hedge-fund manager. The activist. The millions of children living in poverty and the millions of children living in privilege. They are all Americans.

No one person or group gets to define what makes an American.

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The immigrant who gave up her homeland to take a pledge to a country which doesn’t want her is no less of an American because she wasn’t born in the heartland or on the coast. Choosing a country, giving up the soil you first walked on, is no easy feat, regardless of what’s happening on the shores you left behind. To believe enough in a new home to give up identity, culture, homeland, family, language. It’s a witch relinquishing her familiar. And yet these are the very folks who some would consider not ‘real’ Americans. They are forgotten.

Native tribes who were shoved to the corners of the country, into dust bowls and barren lands. They are forgotten.

Black Americans, dragged here in chains against their will, still rising up against a different set of chains. They are forgotten.

Yet no one is chasing down their stories in the quest to hear from the forgotten American.

There is no litmus test. There is no purity test. There is no financial means test. The family who needs help from the government is just as American as the one who funds university libraries. There is no single set of criteria one must meet.

And so you’ll forgive me if I am weary of so many Americans forgetting about so many Americans in the search to track down the forgotten American.

 

 

 

 

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Vive la Révolution

No one expects a revolution.

Oh sure, uprisings are almost always the result of powder kegs of inequity and frustration built up over time, but no one can accurately predict the stray match which lights up the night. Who would have predicted a dearth of French cake or a shipload of too-taxed tea would be straws that broke the camel’s back?

Or a Hollywood mogul.

Glance around girls and boys, we are in the midst of a revolution, though it’s not the one promised or predicted. It’s not the one coveted by ethno-nationalists or the one hoped for by far-left socialists.

Don’t be fooled. The cascade of sexual assault allegations which are coming down as thick and fast as Niagara Falls? It is nothing short of a revolution. It is a seismic shift in the conscious thought of a nation, or at least, a good chunk of a nation. To move, seemingly overnight, from dismissing the concerns of women to not only believing them, but holding the men responsible….well, responsible?

That is a tectonic shift of attitude. That is a revolution.

Sexual harassment is nothing new. Women have been coming forward with allegations of contact ranging from inappropriate to rape for decades. They were kind of/sort of/maybe/sometimes believed. Yet even when we, as a society did believe them, the power structure remained intact. Nondisclosure agreements and arbitration, out of court settlements and gag orders, or just garden variety misogynistic I think women make shit up for the hell of it. Maybe there was a slap on the wrist or a reprimand, a closed-door meeting with HR. But more often than not, not only have women’s concerns, allegations, and evidence been largely sidelined, covered up, and ignored, but the men accused have faced zero consequence.

In fact, not only have they never faced any real consequence, they’re often rewarded.

Casey Affleck settled two sexual harassment suits. He was awarded an Oscar. Chris Brown beat the shit out of Rhianna. He sells out concert venues. Roman Polanski raped a 13 y/o girl. He’s the recipient of several lifetime achievement awards. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Charlie Sheen. That’s just Hollywood. That’s before we get to publishing, finance, tech, academia.

Congress.

Like the roving hands of a serial groper, sexual harassment is everywhere. And powerful men who have had their hand in the cookie jar of women’s bodies, psyches, and pockets? They’ve been allowed to slide, chocolate chip crumbs all over their face.

Yet now, suddenly, there are consequences. Real ones. Not just financial settlements, but actual consequences. Powerful men who have abused their power and victimized women are being outed, fired, shunned, dropped.

Fox News’s Roger Ailes was a chink in the damn. Harvey Weinstein blew a whole in it.

And here we are, drenched in the downfall.

Women have long become accustomed to not having their stories believed, to having their motives doubted, their pasts dragged through the public. To suddenly have people believe them is both shocking and confusing. It is a welcome change, a long overdue and needed change, but one which drags with it in its wake a host of questions and uncertainty.

Perhaps there are women who were expecting it. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t. And like those street urchins standing below a tri-colored flag at the end of Les Mis, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

It’s glorious and affirming, but also scary as hell.

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Human beings are complex and flawed. Both men and women. Add the dimensions of sex and power to that and our relationships become even more complex.

And here we are, standing in suddenly abandoned enemy territory, a flag ready to plant. New map lines must be drawn. What is acceptable, what is not? There will be gray areas that are fought over as fiercely as Kashmir. Does a photo depicting a violating act = a violating act itself?   Does a forced kiss = grooming a fourteen year old? Is there a hierarchy of shitty male behavior? And more importantly, the realization that we, as women, must turn inward and contemplate our own questionable feelings and shitty behavior.

What we need is time to figure it all out.

In a revolution, time is a luxury you don’t have.

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In any major cultural shift, there is a period of panic and disorientation. There are snap judgments and on-the-ground decisions, some of which will turn out to be wrong. When you start dredging the depths, you’ve got to wade through a lot of muck and sludge. You’re going to take a bit of it with you, no matter how hard you try to scrape it off.

Revolutions are a messy business. People are going to get hurt. There will be fallout. Once the dust has settled, a lot of soul-searching will be required. It will take a massive amount of long, hard work to remold the status quo.

And this is where we must be smart. We must take our time and redraw the map of acceptability and accountability. And that requires women to look at their own behavior, their own process, their own complex relationship with sex and power. Because if history has taught us anything, it is this: if you drag out a guillotine and start demanding heads, you run the danger of having that guillotine sharpened and readied for your own.

These are terrifying and exhilarating times. The potential seeds for great change are being laid. All that remains to be seen is which way the wind blows. Away from us, toward that arc of justice…or back in our face, dirt and all.

 

 

To My White Friends…We Have to Do Better

If you’re white, I need you to stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Actually, take ten, this may take a while.

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I’m not going to call anyone a racist. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone they don’t deserve whatever they’ve worked to achieve in their lives.

I’m just going to say this: We need to do better.

We’re waaaaaaaayyyy beyond the ‘this makes me uncomfortable so I’m just going to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist‘ phase of the game. You know those stories about your mother’s friend’s cousin Gert, the one who smoked two packs a day, coughed up blood for years but chalked it up to cat allergies? The one who, when she eventually went to the doctor’s, found out she had stage 4 lung cancer? That’s where we are. We are at Stage 4 racism.

We, as white people are the cause. We, as white people could have done something about it earlier. We, as white people bear the responsibility for fixing it and cleaning up the fallout.

We need to do better. Big things, little things, every damn day things. We must do better.

Do better. Stop the “…but my great-uncle was denied a job because he was an Irish red-head” anecdotes. Stop using ‘some of my best friends are black,” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stop using ‘black on black crime’ as a justification for refusing to acknowledge the killing of black and brown men and women (or even more importantly, a refusal to look at the institutionalized racism of the judicial system itself). Stop using “it’s how things used to be” as an excuse not to change.

Pointing to a red-haired uncle on the family tree or having watched The Cosby Show growing up, touting hip-hop as your favorite music genre or being appalled by the word ni**ger does not absolve us of complicity in this mess.

Because make no mistake, it’s a mess. It’s a fucking mess. And not only do we bear sole responsibility for this mess, for centuries we’ve been forcing/asking/expecting people of color to clean it up.

Do better. Own the damn mess.

Do better. Get over the fact that being called racist may hurt your feelings. Understand those were our ancestors, not us is not a valid excuse. Know that as whites we don’t get to turn away from the cancer of white supremacy by whining about history.

Why? We forfeited the right to put our feelings at the forefront or to play the fairness game way back when the US had to go to war over the issue of whether it was ok to own other human beings to bolster our profits.

Do better. The history of racism in the United States is not told in bronze statues and marble monuments. And it doesn’t begin with importing and trading human beings, but when white Europeans thought the genocide of Native Americans was a proportionate response to needing a place to live. It’s not about statues of men on horses. It is about systematically oppressing, subjugating, ignoring, raping, kidnapping, belittling, demeaning, and overlooking Native, black, and brown Americans–not only what they have endured, but what they have as accomplished as well. Not only in the past, but ever since. Right damn now.

Do better. Acknowledge just because black Americans are not in literal chains doesn’t mean they are not still bearing the weight of them.

Do better. Stop diluting the black experience. Stop saying All lives Matter. The BLM movement does not mean the lives of white people don’t matter. ALL history, past, and present points to the opposite–that white lives do indeed matter. In fact, statistically they matter MORE than black, brown, and native lives.

This is not an either/or situation. This is an ‘in addition to’.

When whites insist all lives matter because it hurts their feelings that someone might think or insinuate their or their white child’s life doesn’t matter? That’s diluting the message. And the message is this: We have always put the hurt feelings of white people above the very lives of black and brown people.

Do better. Stop turning away from racism with ‘hey, at least things are better than they used to be‘. I know this one is true… because looking back, I did that my whole life. Post slavery, post MLK, Jr.– no one ever taught me how deeply ingrained racism is. But it’s more than that. No one taught me about black girls like Ruby Bridges. No one taught me about whites burning the busses of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. No one taught me what happened to Emmet Till. No one mentioned the Tulsa Massacre that wiped out the wealthiest black community in the United States in one fell swoop. But equally importantly, no one ever taught me of the accomplishments of Pauli Murray, Amelia Boynton Robinson, or Katherine Johnson. When listing off successful business owners, no one mentioned Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire.

As a white girl growing up I learned Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape and Rosa Parks sat on a bus and now we’re all equal. That’s it.

My history was whitewashed. The bad AND the good.

Do better. Learn the names of black women and men who have always been there making history and never getting any credit. The ones who have been begging us to listen. The ones who we’ve been tuning out because we’re only tuned to hear our white skin frequency.

Do better. It’s easy enough to threaten to wash your kids’ mouths out with soap if you ever hear them say ni**er.  It’s not so easy to teach them the sneaky, serpentine ways that institutionalized racism runs like an electric current under everything we do.

Do better. It’s easy to say, don’t treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. It’s harder to say we are treated better because of the color of ours.

Do better. It’s easy to say hey, that’s not right. But it’s harder to say, here’s how we fix it. Because that means facing up to the fact that we all of us, ALL of us, have benefited from white supremacy. Even if we didn’t know it. Even if we’re poor. Yes, even if your Irish great-uncle with the red hair was barred from applying for a job. Even if you’ve been the victim of racial prejudice. Even if, even if, even if.

I walk through my life, a white skinned woman, with all of the privilege that confers upon me. The biggest privilege of all? I can turn away from racism. I can have a few dinner table conversations with my kids and pat myself on the back. I can convince myself I’m not like those hood-wearing triple K Klansman. I’m not even like everyone’s great-aunt who makes racist jokes at the Thanksgiving table that nobody blinks at.

Or.

I can do more. I can read and listen to voices of color. I can elevate them above white voices, support them and give them an amplifier in any way I can.

I can reexamine the way that I benefit from this skin I wear.

I can do better.

I acknowledge my life is different because of my white skin. Regardless of any hurdles I have faced, those hurdles would be magnified ten-fold if I was black. None of this invalidates my life, or me, or my accomplishments. No one is trying to take anything away from anyone else. Remember, it’s not either/or. It’s in addition to.

Do better. Stop demanding people of color explain themselves or educate you on racism. Our mess. Our responsibility.

Do better. Stop refusing to look at white supremacy as a political tool that has been used to keep the power in the hands on ONE group.

Do better. Stop using the success of black Americans as evidence of being post-racism. Lynching isn’t merely done from a tree in the back woods of Alabama. Black Americans have succeeded despite every roadblock we, as white people, have erected for them. They’ve had to be ten times better to get there. Recognize it for what it is.

Do better. Start branching out. One thing I try to do is diversify my go-to portfolio. Instead of using the first white woman or man who comes to mind, I seek out a woman or man of color to  hold up as examples. Use them. Whatever the opposite of dilute is, do it. Throw some color into the pool. It’s been over-bleached for too long. Representation matters.

Do better. Realize this centuries old mess is not going to be cleaned up in a day or a month or a year. Realize you’re going to fuck up and people are going to, rightly, call you on it. Listen to what they say and do better.

Now take ten more deep breathes and do better.

 

 

For the Greater Good

fire-bucket-brigadeI’m a parent. I’m supposed to be teaching my kids, guiding them, yet I’m continually humbled by how much I learn from them whenever I stop to watch and listen.

Recently we took a trip to the local science museum–because science is real, and fun, and interesting, and because my kids always do better in museums with hands-on experiments about centrifugal force than they do in museums with hands-off paintings on the wall. Nevertheless. Toward the end of the day we made our way to a large space dominated by a Rube Goldberg structure with balls and pulleys, chutes and ladders. More than anything, it looked like a life-size version of the game Mousetrap we used to play as kids. The true purpose of the From København to Singapore exhibit, which involved push and pull cargo ships and lots of plastic balls, was lost on me. But just by watching, I learned a lesson.

The space was packed. There were parents on the sidelines, some, like me, continually checking their phone for news about the downfall of western civilization. Ok, maybe that was just me. But those very adult worries were swallowed up by what was going on in the room. What was going on in the room was this: a room full of about forty kids–all working together–in order to make things happen.

There was a hodgepodge of languages, Danish, English, Spanish, Russian. There were toddlers pulling little cargo boats and kids in their early teens loading them up every time they ‘docked’. There were boys unloading and girls shoving more balls into the chutes to start the process all over again. And yet somehow these kids, who’d never spoken to one another or met one another, all worked together to move those balls from the København side of the room to the Singapore side. They were all working together for the greater good.

Kids seem to get this idea naturally. Never mind that the greater good in this case was a hands-on experiences in a science museum. You put a bunch of kids together in a room and give them a task, and more times than not, they’re going to figure out how to make it work. They don’t give a rat’s ass about what the kid next to them looks like or what language they’re speaking or whether they’re a boy with long hair or a girl with overalls on. You give them a job, and they figure it out. They’re not concerned with the who, only with the how.

assembly-line

The larger message wasn’t lost on me.

There used to be a lot more working together for the greater good, for a common goal. Sure, there are always those actively seeking to undermine others, just as there is always going to be the one kid who crosses his arms and refuses to budge until he gets a turn with the cargo ship. But overall, there was a sense that to keep things working the way they’re supposed to, whether it’s an exhibit in a science museum or a country, there has to be push and pull, loading and unloading toward a common goal.

After 9/11, as a New Yorker, I witnessed the real life version of that science exhibit. A city coming together for the greater good. First responders weren’t going to leave someone buried under the rubble because of their religion or because they didn’t have documentation. Blood banks weren’t going to turn away donors because they spoke a foreign language. In a time of crisis, we reverted back to the same instincts I saw in those children. We worked together for the greater good.

Something’s changed. A lot of things have changed. There’s no one thing to put your finger on, no smoking gun, no one cause and effect. But it’s impossible to deny that at the moment, we seem to have two distinct groups, both convinced they are acting for the greater good. But instead of actually moving those balls from København to Singapore, they’re actively working against one another until all we’re left with is a giant mess of balls in the middle of the room going nowhere fast.

women-wwiiI’m sure there were kids there yesterday who were tired of loading balls who wanted to steer a toy cargo ship. But the whole thing would have come to a standstill without everyone working together. Those kids instinctively knew that. They knew they couldn’t do it on their own. They couldn’t do it with only the people who looked like them or spoke the same language. If they did, the balls would stay in their chutes, on their own side. Blue with blue, orange with orange and never the twain shall meet. Going nowhere fast.

I don’t have any answers. But I’m starting to think I should just ask a room full of kids what they think we should do with this giant mess of balls we seem to be standing in the midst of.