To Troll or Not to Troll?

That’s my question for this first morning of spring, should I keep up with what appears to be a new undertaking for me, trolling with kindness? What the heck do I mean by that, anyway?

And by the way, Ostara (Vernal equinox) greetings to all of you!

Well, the book I just finished, Blind Spot, made it quite clear that humans are hard-wired to participate in us versus them thinking, and that there are actually good things about feeling a part of a group. Group membership conveys a sense of safety and belonging, and encourages us to take care of other members of our group.

You can’t really avoid creating “others” who are not in your group, and it is natural to focus on your differences to clarify who’s in what group. The authors of Blind Spot pointed to the Dr. Seuss book, The Sneetches, which arbitrarily had a star on their chest or not, leading to great division. And I think of that Star Trek episode, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, where the people who are black on the right and white on the left are mortal enemies of people who are white on the right and black on the left. Both of these are heavy-handed examples, but they are right: we will work very hard to find ways to divide ourselves.

Yes, our outfits are embarrassing, and we do agree on that.

So, I am totally and completely aware that anything I do is not going to change people’s adamant insistence that “the other side” consists of horrible, no-good, bad, creepy people. Still, I know that even people who are biased to one belief system can start to question things, and that one way to initiate questioning is to repeatedly be exposed to other perspectives. THIS is why I feel compelled to “troll with kindness.”

Bubbling up inside me is a mission to not just keep scrolling when I see people making assertions that further our divided society. Rather, I am compelled to say something in a kind and/or neutral way that provides another way of looking at things.

Today’s example came when someone I used to know, sort of, posted something about President Biden tripping on the stairs of Air Force One. Commenters commenced to making all sorts of assertions about Biden’s age, competency, and such. I responded by asking if none of them had ever tripped on stairs before, that it seems common and not worthy of partisan commentary. Someone replied that they are doing it because once the previous president slipped and the media picked at him. So, I pointed out, nicely, that the tit for tat stuff isn’t very helpful, but I understand that it’s not going to stop.

And after that, I’m out of the conversation. I hope that just by planting the seed that being mean to someone because someone was mean to a member of your group in the past really doesn’t help anything at all. I don’t plan to prod and respond, just to provide another viewpoint.

No doubt I could have done a better job on today’s attempt, but it was only my second try. Maybe I’ll get better or get some suggestions. I know I won’t change anyone’s mind, but it makes ME feel better to gently point out that there are other ways of looking at things.

The chickens heard the Ostara Bunny was coming for their eggs.

Diversion About Today’s News

I know I’ve been pretty naïve most of my life about the hatred deep inside people. My conscious mind has worked so hard to overcome prejudices and stereotypes that I’m often genuinely surprised to find out how others feel about their fellow humans. It’s never occurred to me to think badly about people of Asian descent (consciously; I now know I’ve no clue what’s lurking in my brain).

I’ve always found Asian cultures interesting (since I was a tiny girl in love with kimono) and I’ve had many close friends who are Asian, even dated more than one. Once again, thanks to that linguistics education and that Japanese minor! For some reason, my bias toward Asians is more like they tend to be fun people and potential friends. My upbringing didn’t overtly cause this, though; it was something inside. (I always said it was because there were so few people I had things in common with that I didn’t want to rule out potential friends because of race, gender, religion, or sexuality.)

(here I give you a little piece of my history, again.)

It occurs to me that while my mom was not shy about her traditional Southern US white people view of Black folks, she was equally unhappy with Japanese (who killed her fiancé in WWII) and loved to sing some truly horrid song about “Chink-chink Chinaman named Chow Chow,” that I never understood, but is still in my brain, right along with the sound of her endlessly reading Little Black Sambo to me.

Still, just like she actually loved Black people she knew personally, she was really fond of her Chinese-American friend, Fay Eng.* Fay owned the only Chinese restaurant in the town I grew up in, and she and Mom became friends when my sister and her child were young. It was a long-time friendship, because I knew her all my childhood, and took all my friends to meet her and eat at the restaurant in college. Ha, I remember thinking Chop Suey was an exotic Asian dish. I did quickly learn better in college.

Sorry, I keep coming back to my mom, because I am pretty sure her attitudes about people got imprinted deep within me. I guess I rebelled in a constructive way by getting to know people of so many races and ethnicities and dragging them home to confront her stereotypes. And I’m sure my own children, who had a more diverse set of friends than I did (and do) are at least helping carry on the lessening of racial biases the Blind Spot book mentioned.

(back to the topic)

Where I was originally going with this was how blown away I was to learn about the murders of mostly Asian people in Atlanta this week. I don’t get it, at all. Hurting people just because of the way they look seems like the deepest depths of horrible human behavior. I’m now crying for my Asian-American friends just like I’ve been for African-American friends for so long.

Yes, it’s convenient to divide up according to superficial things like skin color, but it’s just not right, and I WILL speak up about this, and it may not be trolling with kindness.


*Oh my gosh, I looked Fay up to be sure I spelled her name right, and as of last year, she was still alive, at age 95 and a Democratic voter, not only that, she was a poll worker, and used to serve cookies from her father’s recipe, which used to be served at the restaurant I ate in my entire young life! She still lives with her daughter, in a beautiful home. Good for you, Fay. Mom picked a great friend.

Book Report: Biased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

It’s time for another in my series of book reports on unconscious bias. This one’s a little different from the previous ones, because it covers mostly just one racial bias, the one against Black people, particularly in the USA. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, was written by Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Ph.D., who’s spent her entire career studying this type of bias, and has worked extensively with many police departments to help diminish this kind of behavior within their work. The book came out in 2020, so has recent statistics and analysis, which is always something I enjoy.

Eberhardt shares many stories from her own experience, not only as a researcher, but as a Black woman and mother to Black male children. Her stories about her sons and their experiences, her own experiences in school, and the people she’s encountered during her lecture tours and workshops with police officers are quite eye-opening and add strong punctuation to the data and other information she presents.

I truly appreciated her honesty as she talked about progress and setbacks in racial bias throughout our recent history. She makes it very clear that we have a LONG way to go before people can eliminate this bias, even when they very much want to do so. Data she presents about how people associate Black people with apes without even knowing it disturbed me greatly. And when she presented evidence that the stereotypes and biases are just as present in Black people as in others, I really got to understand that this is a hard, hard issue with no easy solutions.

Eberhardt even comes out and exhorts readers to not be too discouraged, because at least we are now learning exactly what we’re up against.

I learned some facts about how Asians are being treated, both in the US and Europe, and I now understand the pressures many of my children’s classmates dealt with. Even if she didn’t devote as many pages to biases against Asians, Hispanics, and women, she shared enough to get me thinking. It’s just as hard to live up to certain expectations as to rise above negative stereotypes! The few paragraphs on smart women explained a lot of my past experiences.

Sometimes I learned new things from Biased that I wish I hadn’t learned, such as that many “minority” job candidates “whiten up” their resumes, so that prospective employers don’t apply stereotypes. For example, Chinese people put their American nickname on their resume, or Black people just use initials (women do this, too). And they scrub activities that give away their ethnicity. SHEESH! I now see why blind resumes are NOT such a bad idea after all.

I’ll conclude that if you are interested in learning more about racial bias, this book will keep you both engrossed and saddened. But, we need to learn the hard facts of just how much our unconscious biases are ingrained in us before we can work to lessen them consciously. I think it’s worth it.

If you’ve read this book, feel free to share your reactions to it!


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Book Report: The Warmth of Other Suns

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You’d think I would have finished a couple of books by now, since I’ve been mostly alone in Utah for two weeks. But, there has been knitting, and that does take away from reading time. And the book I have been reading is over 600 pages. But, I finished The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration today! It’s the 2010 first book by Isabel Wilkerson, who wrote Caste, the book that has moved me so much.

I took the photo with sun shining on it.

Many people told me I just had to read this book, and I’m glad they did, since it provided a lot of context for my life, both in the American South and my 20 years in Illinois. I would recommend this book to everyone, but especially to Black friends, because it really does a great job making sense out of both the people who migrated northward from the 1930s to the 1960s, as well as to those who stayed and stuck it out through really awful times.

For sure, reading about the struggles of “colored” people, as Wilkerson correctly calls the folks living before the 1960s, makes it clear how hard the parents and grandparents of the current generations of Black Americans worked to get us to where we are now. Whenever I think there’s been no progress, I can think of the people in this book and realize that yes, things ARE better now for Black citizens. They just aren’t good enough (as the Caste book explains and anyone with eyeballs can see for themselves).

The table runner I’m working on is certainly stripey.

I was a white child in the Deep South, and I recall how separate the worlds of our races still were in the 1960s. What I didn’t see were some of the really, really awful things a child wouldn’t see, such as how hard it was to buy a house, get an education, or get a non-menial job for the colored folks where I lived. No wonder so many people left, hoping it would be better in the North.

But wow, I now know how things got the way they were in the big cities back then, how hard it was to live anywhere but crowded areas, how quickly a neighborhood would empty of White folks (and their businesses) once integration occurred. I remember it happening in the South, where my dad told me his brothers kept moving to get away from Blacks, only that’s not what they called them. I didn’t think it was like that up in the North, where people were free. Or so I thought. Now I know.

Why we aren’t out having fun today. Ugh.

Wilkerson follows three different people and their families, who moved to Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles in this book. I like that she humanizes what could easily have been a dry, intellectual discourse, by sharing the lives of real people. The three are fallible, human, and above all, honest about their lives, and Wilkerson does an amazing job of interspersing their stories with historical background and generalizations about migrants to the North all over the US. The human element just keeps you drawn in and helps you get through the sad stories of beatings, lynchings, cruelty, and unfairness.

One thing is for sure, anyone who reads this book and learns the stories of the people in the Great Migration will not be able to figure out when the heck America was ever “great,” at least for large segments of the population. And that is why more of us should read this book, because it puts our history into perspective. We can be proud of the hard work our citizens have put in to make life better for others, but seeing what a battle it’s been clarifies WHY we still have to work so hard for all of us.

I now understand what was going on during the years I spent visiting Hyde Park in Chicago, whereas at the time I was just a frightened young woman wanting to safely get from that integrated oasis to downtown and transportation. I understand what was going on with the trains going through my hometown. I understand why it was so hard to integrate the schools there: people were scared of each other. People are still scared, perhaps for different reasons, and I realize not much has changed in that respect.

But, when I think back to how I lived 20 years next door to a Black family and had nothing but good neighborly experiences, how my children had friends whose parents had migrated from all over the world, how no one looks sideways at people dating members of other races and cultures, and how many bright and talented Black folks DO get a chance to shine now, I feel a bit better. I have no illusions that we are a “post-racial” society. But I have hope.

By reading this book, any reader will have the context to understand how and why we got to where we are in 2020. Now to keep working together to build a better world. Like my dear husband told me last week, even when there are setbacks, we have to keep trying. We’re all worth it, aren’t we?

Whew, sorry I got so pedantic there. I’ve just been thinking a lot, here by myself. Now I will go to the convenient exercise room and do my walking. Indoors.

Why I Care about Blacks, Gays, and Others Not Like Me

Like the rest of the world, I have been watching events unfold after the US election. One thing I have seen over and over is people lamenting, “How could so many people have voted for the other side?” And ooh, are they serious, as I found out when I tried to post something funny that I didn’t realize was such a hot potato for the side I’m not a member of. Oops. No opinionating on Facebook, even just to be funny, it appears. On the other hand, I guess I actually agree with the humor, and it has to do with why I’m not so surprised so many people voted on each side.

A Digression on Divisiveness

There are two different world views, and each one is “right” from their point of view.

Depending on how you were raised, your life experiences, and yes, even some genetic influence, you are just going to have different priorities. Actual scientific research concluded  “the development of political attitudes depends, on average, about 60 percent on the environment in which we grow up and live and 40 percent on our genes.” Scientific American

Blue fruit, red leaves. All beautiful.

I know there’s stuff written on this, but I’m just going to say it as my opinion: I believe that about half of us primarily act out of self preservation and keeping their group on top (safe, in power, well fed). The other half of us have a larger view of preservation and focus on preserving all of humanity and the rest of the earth, too. That’s an over-generalization, of course.

Having read the Caste book recently (sorry if I keep referring to it, but it’s just chock full of helpful information), I am very aware that the country where I live was designed to preserve the wealth and power of one group (that would be the white dudes). And yes, the Electoral College was set up to preserve the power of the right white dudes. The idea of one person’s vote counting the same as another’s really scares some of us, because it might disrupt the balance of power. A person I know said that if we didn’t use the Electoral College, people in New York and Las Angeles would count the SAME as him! Oh no! Their vote would be equal to his! All that work keeping progressives, blacks, and others from influencing things would be down the drain. I guess? I honestly don’t get it.

What Was I Writing About?

What I wanted to actually talk about today is why I care about people who are not a part of my “group.” I am lucky enough to be descended from the English and Scots people who fled the UK because the were religious outsiders, criminals, or sons who couldn’t inherit land. A fine bunch. But because of that, I am the recipient of a lot of advantages. This has never set well with me.

For example, I feel safe to go hiking all by myself in an unknown place. Privilege. If I were not a white woman, I’d be looking over my shoulder.

Part of it comes from being raised in the Deep South and experiencing a lot of discomfort about how Black people were treated. I have s strong memory of being yelled at for peeing in Versie’s toilet in the garage at my grandmother’s house. This woman could cook our food, but her toilet was forbidden? And why did she have her own toilet?

And as things went on, I ended up having more Black friends than a lot of people like me did. When my parents moved to (ugh) Plantation, Florida, I was in eighth grade. For some reason, my classmates took an initial dislike to me. I went straight from being a popular kid in a gifted class to the person no one talked to, who had to sit with the black kids. Well, it turned out the black kids felt like me. They’d been bussed into this extra white neighborhood and did not feel welcome. So, what the heck, I talked to them (as much as I could; back then there actually was quite a difference in how the two groups talked).

I ended up spending most of the year with a Black girl, Earnestine, who was smart, like me, but who also didn’t understand Algebra 1 (we were in a horrible experimental school that was one giant room and where you were supposed to teach yourself from textbooks and just ask teachers if you needed help). Earnie ended up being the first person I ever taught to crochet, and we made money from it! The moral to that whole experience was that I got to actually know a lot of these kids, learned all about their families and lives, and found we had a lot in common. (Earnie was top in her class when she graduated from the historically black high school in Ft. Lauderdale, though I didn’t see her again until senior year of high school; things might have been different if we’d had email and social media!).

I am not ashamed for believing in this. Image by @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

I was glad to have my eyes opened to see that the people my peers said bad things about were actually just fine. Thank goodness I also made really good Jewish friends and Cuban-American friends (we didn’t have Mexicans) in high school, plus being really close to one of my Black friends. Poor Mom, dealing with me bringing ALL these kids home. But wow, I’m glad I made all these good friends while I was young. I simply can’t view people who aren’t like me in looks, religious tradition, or ethnicity as non-people.

In college, I just happened to fall into a group of young gay men, which was really important. This was pre-AIDS. It was also long before people were coming out in high school or earlier. Many of these guys were trying to figure out who they were, and feeling very vulnerable. Most important, though, was that they were kind to me and my straight friends, and taught us so much about what it’s like to be afraid to be yourself, but go out in the world as you really are. My deep care for these people is probably why I care SO MUCH for young people today who are exploring their gender and sexuality. I remember how hard it was for my friends.

So, no, I wasn’t born such a tree-hugging, peace-mongering, equality-promoting human. Both my genetics (from my dad) AND my experiences led me to be how I am. I totally get how someone with different genes and different experiences might feel threatened by people like me, my friends who are people of color, and all those LGBTQ folks. They are different.

I still think we will be stronger and better if we stand together. Photo by @TonyTheTigersSon via Twenty20

I know so many people I care about feel very threatened by the idea of people who aren’t white dudes being in charge. I’ve heard people say they voted against Biden because if he died in office, TWO WOMEN would be in charge! Yeah, that’s way too many vaginas in power. The thing is, those of us who care about everyone also care about people who feel threatened by change in the status quo. So, don’t worry folks. Those of us who love everybody will keep on loving them, regardless of power struggles. And we don’t expect people who are wired differently to change.

Who knows, maybe the fact that we are about 50/50 is a good thing for humanity and contributes to our continued ability to thrive in the world. Maybe it’s okay that some of us are for unity and some for division. I just want the best and the brightest to get a chance to lead, regardless of superficial differences. That makes me radical, but it’s just how I am.

I’m Becoming Irritating

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Maybe it’s irritating; maybe it’s righteously indignant; maybe it’s newly awakened evangelism. Whatever it is, I can’t stop talking to all my friends about the Caste book I just read. I keep retelling the parts about the lynching postcards, Hitler’s use of the US as a model in how to de-humanize Jews, and the clear explanation of why poor whites identify more with powerful elites than to other poor people. Apparently, I have been deeply affected by Isabel Wilkerson’s scholarship, and I simply MUST share.

This woman is inspiring.

Have you ever read something that you can’t shut up about? I was recently that way about Nature’s Best Hope, which I begged everyone I knew to read (and at least I know all my Master Naturalist friends will read after hearing Doug Tallamy speak in person. I can remember being that excited over The Color Purple, too, as well as the first book on feminist spirituality I ever read. But, it doesn’t happen often, so forgive me, if you know me in person, if I keep going on and on about things the US has institutionalized to maintain an artificial difference between two groups of people.

These are the kinds of things that just get me angry at my fellow white people.

You will be either pleased or annoyed to know I just got Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, which is about the immigration history of the US. I can’t wait to learn which group of misfits gets scapegoated decade by decade. I’ll try to keep my enthusiasm to a dull roar, hee hee.

I’ve been thinking, though, about what gets me all riled up into a pile of agitated activism. It always seems to center around people or other living beings not being treated fairly. That’s what sparked my religious outrage in the past, nearly all of my strong political feelings, and my advocacy of child and animal welfare. None of us is ACTUALLY any better than anyone else, people, animals, plants, rocks, whatever. At least that’s what I’ve been socialized to believe.

Just shut me up. Hey, at least this stuff keeps me from dwelling on other things that annoy me. Yeah, Suna, just keep on shaking your fist at the status quo!

Thanks to all the reading I’ve done lately, though, I can see how other people come to view things differently. I may not think it’s right all the time, but it’s odd how learning about the treatment of minorities, indigenous people, and disfavored groups has led me to a better understanding of how desperately people cling to anything that lets them believe they are members of favored groups.

I’m still thinking. In the meantime, what book (or movie or television program) has led you to get all riled up and ready to take action about injustice?

Book Report: Fifty Words for Rain

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After the emotional turmoil of reading Caste, I wanted something less intense and not about race. Well, the next book I read, Fifty Words for Rain, by Asha Lemmie turned out to be intense and about race, but it also had fun elements, so it was a bit of a break. Here’s how the Amazon description starts out:

Kyoto, Japan, 1948. “Do not question. Do not fight. Do not resist.”

Such is eight-year-old Noriko “Nori” Kamiza’s first lesson. She will not question why her mother abandoned her with only these final words. She will not fight her confinement to the attic of her grandparents’ imperial estate. And she will not resist the scalding chemical baths she receives daily to lighten her skin.

https://smile.amazon.com/gp/product/1524746363/

Turns out little Nori is half Black, and that was quite a problem back then, especially for a member of the Imperial Family. The poor girl certainly has a hard time, but she’s one of those resilient types, thankfully. I found it interesting how she made the best of whatever situation she was in, and was able to learn and grow into an amazing person. She is amazingly good at being alone, that’s for sure.

Pretty cover.

Other than a few annoying repetitions (how many times must Nori bite her lips so hard that she tastes blood?), I enjoyed the writing and the fascinating (if sometimes scary) characters Nori encounters. Her family puts the D in dysfunctional, to put it mildly.

The other part that was fun for me, in particular, is the Japanese language and culture from the times I’m most familiar with that is spread through the novel. I’m way better with formal Japanese than colloquial, so I understood most of it (I was trained by a fairly formal Japanese speaker, or actually, I’m glad Swann-sensei didn’t teach us what he did know; that would be fifty words for alcoholic beverages). At least some of the horrors of that culture didn’t shock me, since I knew about them. Other readers might find some of the book a little disturbing, but that’s what you need in a novel, right? Something to get you to turn the pages!

I predict Lemmie’s writing will only get better, so I look forward to future work by her. Even if the race theme keeps popping up to remind me not to become complacent, it’s worth it. Go ahead, get it! It will give you a nice break from reality. It certainly improved my Saturday afternoon and evening!

Book Report: Caste – The Origins of Our Discontent

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Oh my. Here’s a book you probably should read. I guarantee you won’t “enjoy” it, but you may well be a better person for having read it. You know how they say there are things you can’t “un-see?” Well, this book hammers you with things that you won’t be able to “un-read” even if you want to.

I set it on a pretty backdrop.

I had to stop reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, by Isabel Wilkerson, for a couple of weeks, because I was having nightmares about lynchings and beatings. I was ignorant of how many there were in the 20th century, as well as how people came to see the lynched people, took photos with them, and even sent postcards of it, until the Post Office banned them. Nightmare stuff. This was in my parents’ lifetime.

That’s just one example of what Wilkerson shares as she lays out the history and consequences of what she defines as the two-caste system in the US, which is unique to this country. Oh boy, makes me so not proud. Makes me sick.

Taking a break to breathe.

She also makes it frighteningly clear how similar the US caste system parallels the way Nazi Germany was set up. What horrified me most was learning that they based their system for de-humanizing the Jews and others on how the high-caste people in the US made people from Africa into non-humans, to justify how they were treated in the slave economy. I got sick to my stomach just typing this.

Yeah, it’s a hard book to read. But it’s so important to look at the way Black people have been treated here in the US and (most important) how they continue to be treated up until the present. Especially for those of us who just happened to be born in the high caste, if you don’t have this information presented to you, right in your face, it’s easy to assume everything’s just fine, because, heck WE like our black colleagues and friends and treat them well. Oops. Not true.

Breathing some more. What a lovely morning sky. Sure looks like our electric pole is slanted.

No, things are NOT better, and no, people have not stopped treating lower-caste people as less than human. Yes, progress has been made, but all you have to do is look at how panicked a large portion of the white people in the US got when a Black man became President. Preserving the status quo turns out to be more important for this group than many things that might help them as a group (and that’s all I’ll say about this; read the book).

In good news, not all the book makes you sick to your stomach if you have any empathy at all for fellow humans. Wilkerson does talk about interesting historical parallels in India and talks about ways to make things better. Like I’ve always thought, she concludes that actually getting to know people and seeing their common humanity, one at a time, is how ANY of us can work to break the caste system down.

People who show a greater sense of joint responsibility to one another when they see their fellow citizens as like themselves.

page 353

It’s just that we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and it will go way slower if we don’t actually LISTEN to our fellow citizens, even when it hurts.

I did not exactly “enjoy” the journey through this book, but I’m glad I embarked on it. And I am glad I finished.

The chapter of Caste that gobsmacked me was the one at the end, where she shares the consequences of the caste system and the fear and distrust it engenders in the US. When put in the context of the rest of the world, this is one weird place. Examples from the book:

Americans own nearly half the guns in the world owned by civilians.

If the U.S. prison population were a city, it would be the fifth largest in America.

page 355

I know this is not a popular thing to say right now, but I can see why so many of my friends are moving to other countries. I’ve just been conveniently ignoring a lot of things that are right in front of my face, passively watching fellow Americans support and encourage the caste system, and failed to do the work needed to make this a good place for all of us. I’m so afraid of the dominant caste and the masses it’s indoctrinated that I’m not much better than them.

Well, that is changing, thanks to what I’ve been learning this year, and I’m just going to have to deal with the nasty consequences from fearful fellow citizens. It’s not like I have to be on the defensive every second of every day like so many Black people, the ones I know and care about included, must deal with. Because, as Wilkerson notes:

There are thriving, prosperous nations where people do not have to sell their Nobel Prizes to get medical care, where families don’t go broke taking care of elderly loved ones, where children exceed the educational achievements of American children, where drug addicts are in treatment rather than in prison, where perhaps the greatest measure of human success – happiness and a long life – exists in greater measure because they value their shared commonality.

pp. 353-54

I don’t know for sure how I came out this way, having grown up in the American South. But I don’t want to see people’s potential wasted just because of what they look like or where their parents were born. We need all the contributions of all the brilliant humans out there…so maybe we can live in peace. I’m still gonna try, no matter how cynical books like this make me.

Not gonna give up. Image from peaceoneday.org – Peace Day is September 21!

Book Report: The Vanishing Half

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Been wondering where those book reports went? I had to take some time off while reading The Vanishing Half, by Brit Bennet, because at some point, my dislike of almost every character in the book made me not look forward to picking it up again. I was also disappointed that I’d scheduled a trip to Austin just to attend book club there, and they moved it to next week, when I have to stay in Cameron to attend all-day meetings that would drive Anita nuts.

I didn’t figure out that the cover art was anything more than blocks of color until five minutes before I started writing. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad.

In the end, I came to appreciate how everyone in the book constantly lied to themselves and each other, because it became clear that the theme to the Bennet’s story was that we are both tied to the labels we are assigned at birth, but we are also free to move away from them, when we are seeking our true selves. More on that in a bit.

The Vanishing Half was chosen by the book club members, and I wasn’t there for the discussion, so I knew nothing about it until I opened it up. I was hoping for something less intense than How to Be an Antiracist. Imagine my surprise when I found out the symbolism-laden Louisiana “town” the book centers around is populated exclusively by light-skinned Black people. It was a chance to explore race in a fictional context. Serendipity!

This skin color thing was a source of great pride in the community, which consisted of people with freckles, red hair, hazel eyes, and other combinations of superficial markings of White people. But, the surrounding area deemed them Black, and they worked at jobs that Black people in the South used to be stuck with. They were proud of being culturally Black, but also looked down at darker-skinned people. As you can imagine, that can complicate things.

Eventually, the very light twins who are the pivotal characters end up exploiting all the possibilities you can imagine for people like themselves. One stays home, and one vanishes. They each have daughters, one very light, one very dark. The daughters meet, and all sorts of racial stereotypes get twisted, turned, and explored.

Every single character you run across is very human, capable of truth, lies, devotion, desertion, prejudice, and acceptance (which explains why, at some point, I really didn’t like some of them). The only character I didn’t feel like I got to know well was the husband of one of the twins, but maybe it’s good that the stereotypical White business dude is the one who’s not worth fleshing out. At least it’s a nice change.

I liked how the daughter of the twin who lives an entirely new life after disappearing becomes an actor, herself, and feels most comfortable when playing a role. It’s all acting, for them. They fluidly go from identity to identity.

And I liked how Jude,the daughter of the twin who stays and plays the role tradition assigned her, knows who she is and what she wants to do, despite hardship and prejudice. She never doubts herself, just her confusing family. She never doubts the love of her life, Reese, sticking with him as he transitions his external appearance to match who he is inside.

I hope the world comes to accept everyone like the characters in The Vanishing Half. Be who you want to be. Love who you want to love. Cherish your roots, however tangled they may be.

Book Report: How to Be an Antiracist

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you ever read a book and wanted to start over immediately after finishing it? Have you ever wanted to make everyone you care about read a book? Have you ever wanted to give a book a big hug and thank it? I have. And this is the book: How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi (2019). I am so grateful that I saw an interview with Kendi by Stephen Colbert that convinced me to stop procrastinating and get this book!

How to Be an Antiracist
My beloved copy of this book!

You see, a lot of books, films, journal articles, etc., on racism have annoyed me, but I never could quite put my finger on why. Thus, I was reluctant to read this book, even with all the great reviews and recommendations from people I respect. But, ha! Now I know why I was so annoyed! My internal definition of racism, though not very well thought out and rather ineffable, was more like Kendi’s definition. And I didn’t have his term for antiracism in my vocabulary, but the ideas were back there, churning away, making me feel like I was missing something.

I was glad the publisher shared these images.

I was missing the ideas in this book. As I read through each chapter, I learned more and more about how the times I lived in shaped my views, and WHY some of the things I kept hearing bothered me (things like Black people can’t be racist). Now it’s clear that anyone can express racist ideas or do racist things. People aren’t racist, ideas are. And people who have done racist things in the past can do antiracist things, even before they know what those are in Kendi’s definition.

My favorite assertion he makes, though, is that we all will have both racist and antiracist thoughts. We can’t help it, living in this society. Kendi brings this home with a vengeance as he talks about his own journey and attitudes toward race in the US. Some of the most powerful parts of the book are where he breaks down his own mistakes and shows that he learned from them and moved forward with new knowledge. We ALL can do that.

Kendi thanks his editor for his help with the way the book is organized. I thank Chris Jackson, too. The structure of the book is complex, as it interweaves stories of Kendi’s life with research and analysis. Here’s how Kendi put it:

“This book was quite difficult to wrap my head around and write–the chronological personal narrative interspersed with a series of connected chapter themes that build on each other like a stepladder to antiracism.”

How to Be an Antiracist, p. 239

This writer and technical editor was very impressed with every bit of the structure of the book, and how well the content flows. Dang. Life goals.

But, if the book was written like a textbook, I’d still have lapped it up like someone thirsty for a concoction they didn’t know existed. I just kept repeating, “yes, yes,” to myself with every page. I saw my own mistakes, I saw where my instincts were good but my actions weren’t, I saw areas for growth, and I saw things I could be proud of in my past.

Like Kendi, I got most of my ideas about racism and antiracism in graduate school, where I was surrounded by a mini United Nations of people from all over the world (I studied linguistics at the University of Illinois, which had a large program and did a lot of research on languages from Africa and India). When you work closely with people from different cultures, religions, and backgrounds, you quickly learn that there are people you like and people you don’t like in every group, but MOST IMPORTANT you end up losing the idea that YOUR culture is better than anyone else’s. I got an early start on realizing that no culture is without flaws and sad histories, but that no culture is without beauty, joy, and precious traits that should be treasured.

However, Kendi put these ideas into words way better than I ever could, so I’m grateful to him for giving me words and concepts to express my beliefs and goals.

I’m putting this book right next to The Color Purple and Where the Crawdads Sing among my favorites, ever.

Stuff I Learned

I want you to read this book. Still, I want to share a couple of the things I learned, having read way too much history from the perspective of the dominant culture, and being totally unaware of a few important ideas (to me, at least).

  • Race as a concept didn’t exist until 400 years ago! How did I now know THAT? It was invented to support the slave trade from Africa to Europe and later the US. Before that, people identified themselves by their cultural groups (tribes, kingdoms, etc.) not skin color.
  • The combinations of racist ideas with sexist, homophobic, and other ways of dividing people can lead to an entire system of X is “better” than Y (meaning they have more opportunities for education, jobs, and safe places to live).
  • All that stuff we tried to do in the 70s and 80s, with integrating schools by busing Black kids for hours to give them “equal” education was misguided. What we really need is for everyone to have the same opportunities right where they live. Black neighborhoods, Hispanic neighborhoods, Asian neighborhoods, and others are no better or worse than each other. Given equal access to power and influence, we could all thrive equally.
  • And this: racism is not about ignorance and hatred; it’s about power and influence. Power is what needs to be equally distributed among all of us. And that, my friends, is why I identify so strongly with social democrats, as does Kendi. If we all share, we can all thrive. And we can still have free markets and all that, just without one group having all the power.
  • See the quotes in the images for other gleanings.

I wax political. And I note, as Kendi does, that getting to the place in our society that I outline here (from him, sorta), is not likely. He likens racism to a Stage 4 cancer in our society. It’s one that is growing and growing. But some of those cancers can be eradicated by hard work and a multi-factored approach (chemo, radiation, diet, attitude). Maybe racism can be eliminated if we work from an antiracist perspective to deal with the actual causes of the problem, rather than applying bandages.

A Summary

Since summarizing books is not my best skill, I wanted to share this nice summary from the publisher. I hope it will encourage you to take a chance on being made uncomfortable sometimes, but go ahead and read How to Be an Antiracist so you can help build a just and equitable world where we can respect each other as we are.

Antiracism is a transformative concept that reorients and reenergizes the conversation about racism—and, even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other. At its core, racism is a powerful system that creates false hierarchies of human value; its warped logic extends beyond race, from the way we regard people of different ethnicities or skin colors to the way we treat people of different sexes, gender identities, and body types. Racism intersects with class and culture and geography and even changes the way we see and value ourselves. In How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi takes readers through a widening circle of antiracist ideas—from the most basic concepts to visionary possibilities—that will help readers see all forms of racism clearly, understand their poisonous consequences, and work to oppose them in our systems and in ourselves.

DOWNLOAD AND SHARE QUOTE CARDS FROM HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST BY IBRAM X. KENDI

Prejudice and Me

Extreme honesty alert!

Poor bear. What did the bear do to deserve this?

In any case, things I was reading today about other people’s biases gave me pause to think about my own. As hard as I’ve worked to overcome different kinds of prejudice, some seem almost hard wired. I have no scientific basis to go on, but my gut feeling is that these are the ones I learned when I was very young, before my ability to make judgments like that on my own kicked in.

Yep, I’m a white person. I was raised in a Southern US white culture. Some of the prejudices of that group rub off. I’ve spent many years dwelling on this, and it doesn’t make me happy. I know that having slave ancestors as well as slave owning ancestors is something to think about. I know I have biases in other areas that skew my opinions. I know I can’t fix past things. But I know I can work hard to treat people fairly today.

Where Prejudice Comes From (for me)

I sure know where a lot of my prejudices come from, and that’s my mom, whom I loved dearly, but I could tell from an early age had some extra doozies of flaws. One was her wide range of racial and ethnic stereotypes. She had a bad World War II experience (lost a fiance) and was pissed off at Japanese people and Germans (they spit when they talk) her whole life. She was also quite opposed to “white trash,” and kept telling us not to be like them. And she both loved black people personally and said awful things about them them as a group (probably from her own upbringing). All this stuff confused the heck out of me, and even though I was uncomfortable with the things she said and did, I know some of it sunk in.

Skin is just skin. Cultural differences are interesting, not scary. Yep. All images from here down from Twenty20.

Thanks to my upbringing, I was scared of black people and looked down from my barely middle-class perch at poor white people. I have a feeling many of my black and poor white future friends came about from me wanting to distance myself from my mom and not wanting to be like that. At least I stuck around to like my friends as people. But to this day, I get this tiny bit of negativity that my higher thought processes immediately slap down. Whew, no wonder racial stereotypes and prejudices are so hard to eradicate, when even someone who knows better and wants to judge people on who they are, not how they look, still deals with childhood crap.

Continue reading “Prejudice and Me”