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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

Dear Mr. President

mr-presidentDear Mr. President,

You won! Congratulations. Now that you’ve installed yourself in the Oval Office and surrounded yourself with a cabinet that appears to be mined from the nightmares of the liberal left, a few things, if I may.

Please don’t speak of the MAJORITY. The fact is, the majority of Americans voted against you. Sure, you won the election, and there is plenty of back and forth over the system that allowed that victory, but at the end of the day, the MAJORITY of Americans don’t want you there. In fact, I’d say the MAJORITY of Americans loathe you, both personally and the policies you stand for. Of course, I have no proof of that, but if I had to guess, I’d say at least 1 to 1.5 million more Americans actively loathe you than don’t. I’ll get the National Parks Department on it right away for proof.

So, in between overuse of exclamation points (God help me survive four years of that), 140 character assignation attempts, and generally scaring the bejesus out of the modern world, you need to remember that when you say you speak for Americans, you really don’t. Not all of us. And not the majority of us.

The orders you are signing with the stroke of a pen? Those orders don’t respect the wishes of the majority of Americans either. They pander to a fear-fueled base of people who need something to project their fears onto–because facing inward and realizing that the life of a coal miner is never going to be the life of a Kardashian is too depressing to face. Oh, and those frothing at the mouth to turn a neighbor in for wearing a headscarf or not speaking English or cooking something that smells ‘gross’. And the ones that are all rah-rah-sis-boom-bah about blowing shit up. You are governing to a minority who feels that exceptionalism takes the form of Fuck you world, we’re America! Here, hold my beer.

That is not what American Exceptionalism is, or ever was supposed to be. American Exceptionalism is the idea of creating a bastion of freedom and democracy to use as a model, not chest thumping and grunting and posturing to see who has the biggest missile in their pants…I mean arsenal.

You have, in two short weeks, reduced my country to satire. In fact, no one can tell what is satire and what isn’t anymore. McSweeny’s, known for it’s cutting wit, just published one of your ‘speeches’ in lieu of a satirical piece. I use the term “speeches” lightly because really they are just a mash-up of words. Incoherent and full of braggadocio–or was it braggadocios?– ego stroking, full of falsehoods, well…shit to be honest. My seven year-old did a research project last year which was better thought out than your speeches. And his vocabulary was bigger too. And he knows what a thesaurus is. Granted, he’s pretty smart. But still…You know that theory that if you gave a group of monkeys long enough they would replicate Shakespeare? You didn’t have enough monkeys. And you didn’t give them long enough.

groucho-marx

You may be playing to your base, but the eyes of the world are on you, Mr. President. And right now, those eyes are rolling heavenward with a mixture of “Are you kidding me? and “What the fuck is actually going on?” If, as my favorite author Margaret Atwood wrote, the greatest fear of men is being laughed at, well then, you should be shaking in your boots, because the majority of Americans and the world are laughing. Granted, we’re laughing while shitting our pants in terror, but we’re laughing none the less.

Your posturing is ridiculous. Your obsession with ratings and popularity. Your bullying. Your need for sycophantic (look it up) behavior and blind loyalty, your form of governance, which essentially amounts to I’m not going to share my shovel with anyone in the sandbox, your bizarre fixation with adoration, everything really. Everything about you is ridiculous.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We, the MAJORITY, we will never love you. No matter what you do. No matter if you give free health care to all and reverse the Hyde Amendment. You did too much damage to our relationships, our psyches, our ideals and our vision of what America is and could be. Personally, I will never get over the pussy grabbing comment. Ever. No, we will never love you. You will never speak for us.

But you can go a long way toward easing the loathing.

You can start by listening to those around you when they tell you to wait, to study, to look before you leap. You can actually listen to what the MAJORITY of Americans want. You can do all you can to avoid getting into another war, instead of rushing headlong into one or two just to see who can piss higher up the wall. You can at least try to meet us–if not half way, then perhaps a quarter. An eighth even.

majorityI’m not going to lie. There is still a part of me that wants to see you fuck up spectacularly–simply because I think you deserve the loathing of the minority as well as the majority. But I’m willing to shelve my increasingly dark fantasies if it means no actual Americans will be harmed during this reality show administration.

You want me to give you a chance? You’ll have to actually give the majority of Americans a chance first.

Respectfully,
A Majority Member

Strangers in a Strange Land

photo-dI used to write about the ups and downs of  life abroad. I used to write pithy posts about parenting. I used to write salty observations of marriage and life and love and all the stuff that falls between the cracks like so much cheese doodle dust.

Now I seem only to write about events taking place 3,000 miles away. In a homeland that’s not my current homeland but whose life, liberty and pursuit of happiness schtick is part and parcel of my makeup.

Right now, it’s excruciating to be an American living outside America.

But it’s also liberating.

Like so many other things in life, it’s both a blessing and a curse.

By definition, I’m an immigrant. A stranger in a strange land. I know first hand what it is like to try to go about your daily business in a country that’s not your own. It’s disorienting and difficult, frustrating. And make no mistake, I’m doing it from a socio-economic standpoint way up near the top of the totem pole. I can fly home to see my family. I can travel. I don’t worry about how I’m going to feed my kids or if they’re going to be harassed, deported or killed because they aren’t indigenous to the culture we are living in. I am so ridiculously privileged it’s hard to grasp sometimes.

But I can tell you this.

As a foreigner living in another country, I feel an immense gratefulness to the nation which has allowed me the privilege of living here. I imagine immigrants to the United States feel exactly the same way. I walk a careful line –exhausting at times–between maintaining the important elements of my own culture and adhering to Danish cultural norms. I am embarrassed–rightly–of the fact that I don’t speak the language of the country I’ve called home for five years. Yet never once has a Dane scoffed at me or chided me for not speaking their language. Never once has a Dane told me to go back where I belong.

Americans sometimes vilify recent immigrants for not speaking English, conveniently forgetting that not that far up on the family tree they had parents, grand-parents, or great-grandparents who traveled to America seeking a better life or fleeing war or poverty. Those strangers in a strange land often settled in enclaves of ‘likeness’, maintaining their language and traditions while they went about the exhausting task of assimilation.

My grandmother grew up speaking Italian. She and her sisters were the liaison between the old world and the new. But by the time my mother was born a generation later, only English was spoken.

Generations of immigrants have been weaving themselves into the fabric of American society, the same way I loosely assimilate into Danish society. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s difficult finding a balance between celebrating facets of the culture you came from while immersing yourself in the one you are in.

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But they do it. My great-grandparents did it. So much so that their native tongue was lost in the time it took for a daughter to become a mother. The same way recent immigrants to the US will do it. Many will encourage their children to join the military–because what is more of a commitment to your new homeland than agreeing to risk your very life for it, let alone your liberty and pursuit of happiness?

Now I watch from afar, as the country which opened its doors to my grandmother’s family closes them to others. Out of what? Fear? Security? The boogeyman we’ve been told is out to get us?

The boogeyman in America right now is Muslim or Mexican or Somalian. Speaks a different language, worships the same God in a different way, eats different food. The boogeyman who is coming for us, coming for our children. Coming to eat us or kill us or blow us up or take away our ‘traditions’, our ‘way of life’.

It’s a story, the same story parents have been using for generations to get their kids to fall into line when the realities of life are too difficult or distressing to explain.

Are there folks who would do harm given the chance? Sure. There always have been. But there are more of them born, bred, and living within the borders of the United States than those coming in desperate to sleep at night without worrying if a bomb is going to fall through their roof or if a militia is going to come in and rape their daughter or kidnap their son into war.

America’s got plenty of home-grown boogeymen. But it’s too difficult to face that, so we project our fear onto the ones who sound odd or  pray differently, whose food smells unfamiliar.

So here I sit on my ridiculously privileged fence in my ridiculously privileged life. I am torn between the need to keep my family safe, out of the true carnage–that which has yet to be released–and the need to be there to do something. I sit, thousands of miles away, hobbled and paralyzed.

I have never felt so deeply ashamed of my country, and yet proud of the those who are fighting for it. I have never felt so deeply the desire to stay put, to stay safe and sane, and the desire to go home, to put my own boots on the ground of the soil I call home.

ellis-islandAnd I am even more ridiculously privileged because I have that choice.

It is a bizarre and difficult time to be an American abroad. In less than two weeks, those elected have managed to anger much of the world with their sweeping declarations of keeping Americans safe from the boogeymen.

I don’t recognize the America that I am viewing from afar, yet I have never felt so American in all my life.