Let Them Die, and Decrease the Surplus Population

An open letter to Paul Ryan and other politicians who aim to destroy and defund essential health care services.

Dear Mr. Ryan,

I am writing to you because your policies would have me lose my healthcare, along with millions of Americans. I am confident that my views on this issue are shared by many Americans, both Democrat and Republican, who will lose access to healthcare under your leadership.

First, I’ll state the obvious: we know you wouldn’t be defunding the ACA if it were called RomneyCare (which is what it actually is). We can see through you.

Quote from articleBut mostly, I am writing because I am heartbroken by the disturbing subtexts I see underneath so much of what you and other Republicans say: punishment, shame, and segregation.

In 2014, you told a story (which turned out to be false, but we know you don’t care about such things) about a boy who turned down the free lunch offered by his school in favor of one in a “paper bag,” like all the other kids. In the fictional story, the boy said that if he had a lunch in a paper bag, it meant someone “cared” about him. You managed to turn this simple anecdote into an argument against the supposed laziness of parents who require assistance, the unlikely equation (by a child!) of “paper bags” to the love and affection of middle-class parents, and, most revealing, you shared your ultimate take on the situation: the idea that impoverished children who receive assistance have “empty souls.”

You positioned yourself as the compassionate one, the Republican who knew better. You are the one with the anti-poverty initiative. Instead, you are just one of hundreds who coalesced behind a known fascist who openly celebrates the destruction of American lives. Let me be clear: the person with the empty soul is you.

Health care and poverty assistance are not the same thing. But you seem to think of them in the same way: you seem to believe that poverty or ill health are deserved outcomes. Your anti-poverty proposals are based on the myth that people can bootstrap their way off public assistance. Those poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Those people wouldn’t be sick if they hadn’t done something to make themselves that way. Study after study (after study!) shows that this just isn’t the case. There are no bootstraps, just like there are no welfare queens — and people do not deserve their own sickness. If you believe otherwise, you’ve been reading too much of that fake news.

Punitive responses are often fear based. “If I don’t do xyz, I won’t end up like them.” It’s a belief that allows you to ignore the fact that most of these situations are accidents of birth and luck. Given that you subscribe to it so fervently, the best I can tell is that you are absolutely terrified of ending up poor or devastatingly ill. So let me ask you, Mr. Ryan: which frightens you more — being sick and/or poor, or being sick and/or poor with no tangible means of escape?

When you write policy with your own fears in mind, and then punish millions of people for living a life you wouldn’t want for yourself, your “politics” have become abject cruelty.

America doesn’t have the worst health care of any developed nation. We have the worst outcomes, because our care is held hostage by a stratified, profit-driven system that assigns the best care only to those who are deemed worthy of it. The ACA was the best attempt in recent memory to fix this inequality. Making this system worse — your “high risk pools,” for example (they don’t work, and you know it) — will segregate society by isolating the sick and keeping them down by telling them it’s their fault. Only the healthiest, wealthiest, and by default, the whitest, will survive. From this, I can only infer that inequality is exactly what you want.

This holiday season, you’ll visit with your healthy family, exchange gifts, attend Christmas mass. You’ll share handshakes and hugs with your mirror-like circle of family and friends. Congratulations will be given and received for the ostensible good you will do for our country, and together you will read and recite the words of Jesus.

But you and I know the truth. You’re not listening to the words of Jesus at all. When I think of you and your Republican lawmaking friends, I think of an entirely different set of words:

“Are there no prisons?”

“Plenty of prisons…”

“And the Union workhouses.” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“Both very busy, sir…”

“Those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Illustration by John Leech, c. 1843.Oh, how I wish you could be visited by three ghosts this Christmas. But I suppose the voices of the American people will have to do, because you will hear from us. Letter by letter, phone call by phone call, one voice at a time until you have heard from everyone whose lives you have altered with your policies; until you have been haunted by the voices of those who died so you could balance a budget; until you are face to face with your bootstrap lie more times than you can count.

My husband and I are self employed, with well managed pre-existing conditions. As it happens, we are not on any sort of government assistance. Like most Americans, the aspects of the ACA that benefit us the most aren’t the subsidies — they’re the provisions of the law that allow us access to insurance in the first place.

If you have your way, we will have to shut down our business to seek employee based health care, or we will be thrown into your “high risk pool,” where we will undoubtedly receive sub-par care which could leave us too ill to work (and then we would need assistance). In other versions of your plan, we would have no health care at all, which could have all sorts of consequences. Our American dream is possible because we are healthy, but you would turn it into a nightmare.

I don’t have any conciliatory messages of hope or reconciliation or forgiveness to offer you, because it should be the other way around. I am saddened at the idea of being governed by the latest in a very long line of men whose idea of  “what is best for the country” means gleefully stripping away my chance at a better life.  And I am angry on behalf of the families of all those who will die without access to life saving care and assistance.

Like millions of Americans, I believe that you do not care about us, but you have the chance to prove us wrong. You have already secured your name in the history books, Mr. Ryan. Now is when you determine what will be written about you.

They Wanted This

Heartbroken, shock, despair, hopeless, terrified: the words of everyone who believes in a forward-moving America right now, upon waking up to a Trumpian nightmare.

In the coming days, we’ll hear from many who would blame us, blame Hillary Clinton and the Democrat elite, blame low turnout, blame the polls and even blame Brexit. They are all wrong.

In a few articles (such as this one for the Atlantic), it is already being implied that the outcome of the election is due to people on the Left who “didn’t listen” to the disaffected voters. This is yet another regurgitation of the “economic anxiety” narrative, and misses the point. This was not an election between two candidates, where you could make equivalent choices. This was an election between one person who was a candidate (an imperfect one, but still an exemplary one), and one person who showed us very early on exactly who he was.

Make no mistake: Trump is not sophisticated enough to hide his message in pleasantries. From the moment he came down those stairs, everyone on both sides, educated or not, knew what this candidacy was about. From the “Make America Great Again” shirts to the sexually predatory behavior he described in his own words, everyone, even small schoolchildren, knew what he was. But this isn’t even about what Donald Trump said — it’s about what so many millions of people said in response.

Donald Trump said Mexicans are murderers and rapists. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

He said he wanted to take our country back to the 50’s. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

He assaulted and grabbed and belittled and humiliated women. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

He wanted to ban Muslims, deport millions and destroy families of color. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

He shouted, swore, bragged, talked about his penis and called Hillary names on stage. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

He built a campaign whose only consistent positions were hate, fear, racism, and misogyny. And they said, “I want to vote for that.”

The media laughed.

And the people of color, most of them black, whose voices urgently pleaded with the electorate and the media to LISTEN, to avoid this repeating of history, were largely ignored.

And the people said, “I want to vote for that.”

When the pollsters came, they lied. Why? Because they knew better. But their sense of right and wrong could not overcome the truth of what was in their hearts.

In the coming days, in the analysis and the “who called it?” and the blaming, we cannot lose sight of what this election was really about, and whose voices were trampled over on the way to this horrifying moment. We also cannot ignore that this was a very long time coming (yes, you can be a racist even if you voted for Obama — it’s like your “one black friend,”), but there will be many books written in the coming years to analyze that.

My sadness tonight is not entirely existential. A few years ago, I had a dream. It was that most American of dreams: to start a business, to work for myself; to use my talents to try and do something good in this world. Being black, I learned from an early age never to expect too much from our country. But I pursued my dream anyway, because what happens to a dream deferred? So my husband and I jumped out and went for it. We were able to do so, in part, because of Obamacare. It has been one of the happiest times of my life. Now I’m awake, pacing the floors, because of the possibility that for me, and others like me, I could lose access to my dream, I may have to close down my business, and my life could change. Why? Because America voted for it.

The shocked pundits and the newscasters live in a different world. The rest of us have been terrified of this for a year and a half, precisely because we knew it could happen. But to see it on the screen is to see up close the direct and incontrovertible evidence that a dream like mine isn’t meant for me. The right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness now stands exactly as it was originally written — a dream and a possibility only for the young, the wealthy, and the white.

We will hear about a great America. We will hear about the need for unity. But right now, 5 am on November 9, I do not believe America is great. I do not believe there is a united America. America has shown what has been its true face all along. America turned its collective back on millions like me, and there is no unity in that.

*To read more on these sentiments, and a very apt comparison of the Obama era to late 19th century reconstruction, click here.

*For something more hopeful, click here.

*If you’re like me and terrified about healthcare, there may be consolation: my (very!) preliminary research suggests nothing can be completely reversed for possibly up to 2 years, and that even if they “reverse” the ACA they could keep the pre-existing coverage part in — it affects a lot of Republican voters as well.

To Trump Supporters, From Your One Black Friend

Are you someone who is voting for Donald Trump, and you have a couple of black friends or acquaintances? Do you think racism is something that doesn’t really matter, because if someone works hard they can “overcome” it? Are you a relatively good person, someone who says, “I can’t be racist! I have a black (friend, coworker, ex-boyfriend, etc)!” This is for you.

If you are voting for Trump, you’re voting for:

– someone who has appealed to your sense of white nationalism and nostalgia

– someone who would use the force of the state against people like me, because our skin color makes us suspicious (I am not suspicious)

– a Republican party who believes black people and “certain groups” should not have the right to vote

– someone who hates women and wants to use legislation to “punish” us

– an oppressive, dictatorial anti-Semite (yep, that one)

“Your vote supports a position that is in direct conflict with my very existence.”

You are voting for hatred, for elitism, and for the celebration of power. There is no “better trade” or “more jobs” about it; that is just filler. White nationalism is the underpinning of this entire campaign (who do you think he wants to “take back America” from?).

Are you saying “no, that’s not true!” because you are a good person? Well, “good people” can be racists. (If you are really fighting this idea, you might want to look up “implicit bias” because we’re going to be hearing that term a lot.)

As much as I’d like to write this post and say, “You’re a racist, goodbye!” I have lived and worked with people like you all my life, and I know that most people who are racist do not know it. They cannot see the subtext or the dog whistles, they love their kids and family and they go to church and volunteer sometimes, and at this point they are truly confused. This will help:

Your vote supports a position that is in direct conflict with my very existence. Your black friend — the one you have lunch with sometimes, the one you’ve invited to your house, the one you’re so nice to, except that you’re voting for Trump — I already know this about you. Call it “racist radar.” But at this point, you’ve lost the right to even look me in the eye.

Maybe I’m your coworker, maybe I’m that one person you went to school with, maybe I’m that one girl you dated once a long time ago who wouldn’t let you touch her hair. Maybe I’m that distant family member somebody married or adopted. But every time you think of me, you should remember what you’re voting for. You should know that you’re voting to cause suffering to people, millions of people. You should know that a vote for Donald Trump is a vote against me.

Simone Manuel, The Joy of Swimming, and My Mom

“If I were an athlete, and I could choose any Olympic sport, what sport do you think I might be good at?” My husband said, “Swimming.”

I’m not athletic at all, but I do love to swim. In fact, “love” is an understatement. When the summer comes around, I start referring to myself as a fish. I can be in the water for hours and hours, flipping, turning, swishing, enjoying an advantage in the water that my plus-size body isn’t afforded on land.

We watched the Olympic “prime time” coverage, and while Michael Phelps is certainly deserving of the attention, he’s all anyone talked about for days. My husband and I tried to think of other jobs Mr. Phelps would be especially good at, with his long arms.  We came up with “librarian.”

So I was tired of the breathless coverage of Michael Phelps. Aren’t there other things you can do in a pool besides swim in a straight line? Why don’t they show any water polo in primetime? When does synchronized swimming come on? And isn’t there a black swimmer in there this year?

And then there she was, as soon as I asked the question: Simone Manuel, onscreen, winning an Olympic gold medal. Unsure at first whether she was even a winner, her joyful surprise endeared her to everyone and the post-race interviewer wasted no time in reminding her of her accomplishment as the first African American woman to win a gold medal (or any medal) in swimming.

Black people have a long and uncomfortable history with water. From a great article by Joe Passan:

The history of black Americans and swimming is a microcosm of the institutional racism that held back the United States for so long and still percolates in society today. The perception that black people can’t swim is ignorant; the reality that black people don’t swim is closer to the truth – USA Swimming estimates 70 percent of black children don’t know how to swim and the CDC says they’re 5½ times likelier to drown than white kids – and it’s a symptom of the errors of our forebears. Errors that someone like Simone Manuel is going a long way to erase.

The city I live in has its own swimming pool history to atone for. The swim club at the end of my block was built in response to the public desegregation of the pools. I live in a subdivision that was built in the 60s, and it has a “neighborhood pool.” It was intended to be one of several unofficial “white” pools throughout the city. These pools escaped desegregation laws because they were private clubs, intended only for residents (all of whom “happened” to be white). While whites enjoyed their escape, blacks swam in pools that were underfunded, too small, poorly maintained, or not there at all.

Children swim at the Hampton Road Negro children’s swimming pool in August 1955. (From the collections of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library)
Children swim at the Hampton Road Negro children’s swimming pool in August 1955. (From the collections of the Dallas History & Archives Division, Dallas Public Library)

We all know segregation laws were generally intended to oppress and devalue. But there was something more at work when it came to pool segregation.

When I was a in the first grade, I had some classmates who refused to touch me or anything I’d handled. They said they would “turn brown,” and barring that, they thought there was something awful about my blackness that would transfer to them.

This proximal sense of disgust is a large component of American discrimination. Today, we see this disgust most clearly when we look at discrimination against the LGBT community. In fact people who are more easily disgusted are thought to make up a significant portion of modern conservatives.

But the other reason whites felt so protective of their swimming space is America’s long and fraught relationship with the Black body. Perceived to be threatening, hyper sexualized, “super human,” and foreign, the bodies which built this country make people very uncomfortable in their natural state. America has long used a system of brutality, from slavery to redlining to the police, to keep our bodies away, to make them docile, to break and plunder them.

The idea of being contaminated by the mere presence of someone who alternately frightens, titillates, and disgusts you is magnified when you consider the water, how it flows uncontrolled from one person to another, and the forced intimacy of public swimsuit-wearing. It magnifies whatever scary thing you think “those people” might do.

Just like so many things, casual swimming was one more thing black people didn’t have a chance to learn to know and love. What this created in my family, and in too many other Black families, was a legacy of avoidance and fear.

When I was 2, my mom decided to take me to swim class. My mother says that she was motivated by this history of fear in our family — my grandmother is terrified of water, for instance — and by the stereotype that “black people can’t swim” (there is an unfortunate factual basis for this). Most importantly, she viewed it as a safety issue — she wanted me to know enough to be able to keep myself from drowning, particularly since a few of our friends, also black and middle class, bought homes with beautiful manicured lawns and installed sparkling pools of their own, a deliberate confrontation of this same history.

It took three tries, because at age two, I already had my own fear of water and screamed my head off for the entire class. We were kicked out of the first two classes, and finally my mom found a no-nonsense teacher who was strong enough not to put up with my screaming, and patient enough to repeatedly reassure me that I had nothing to scream about. It was a mommy-and-me class, and I still remember my mom’s lavender suit and the purple one she sewed for me.

Once, when Grandmother came to visit, I said to her, “You don’t know how to swim?! I know how to swim, Grandmother. And I can dive.” After five years, the swim lessons I once protested just seemed like a natural part of summer. At the end of my last class, it was time for the children to have a little diving competition with their families as an audience. In the teacher’s backyard, we lined up to show off our skills. My father, whose initial reaction was less than positive (“Maybe you shouldn’t be taking her to swim lessons?! She hates it!”), brought his big camera. In the photos, you can see in my 7 year old arms the muscles I’d developed from all that swimming. My mother beamed.

I didn’t keep up with lessons, but I do love water and swim every chance I get. But Mom doesn’t swim anymore. When asked why, she said she was too self conscious to wear a swimsuit. Finally, in my 20s, I got her to go into the water, and a friend and I watched in horror as she had something like a panic attack. I didn’t know what was the matter with Mom, until she told me her secret.

My mom is afraid of water, too. It didn’t make sense — the stories of high school swim lessons, the mommy-and-me classes? Turns out, she was terrified the entire time. “But I had no fear in the water with you, because I didn’t want you to be afraid. I wasn’t scared then, because I had to be there for you.” I cannot write that sentence without tears. For 24 years, I had no idea the depth of her fear, and I’d had no idea of her extraordinary courage.

One incredible woman, swiping away 300 years of a racist legacy in her family in one fell swoop. By definition, this is the exceptionalism that makes racism so unfair — but it’s also what we mean when we say we are proud to be black. Because when you are black, you know that every single success we have, from reading a book to becoming the President, is a defiance of gravity; it’s the result of someone’s fight, someone’s venture into the unknown, someone who was willing to drive across town or risk their lives or do some small thing that ended up being extraordinary. One person looked down from the slave ship at that water, and as terrifying as it was, she reached in because to her it meant saving her daughter — me.

Whether Simone Manuel comes from a family that has always loved swimming, or whether she had someone in her family who, like my mom, made a conscious choice to approach the pool, she represents this exceptionalism too, and her victory and international visibility mean that many young girls will get from her what I got from my mother. Via Twitter:

My mom gave me something beyond the joy of swimming: she gave me the confidence to face my fears, to know that I could learn to love something even if no one else that I know has done it before. She taught me what it means to step outside the bounds of past experience, and find something new.

Additional Reading:

Hoping Olympic Gold Might End a Racial Divide

Why Most African-Americans Can’t Swim (Dallas Morning News)

Gone Swimmin’: From Oak Cliff creeks to aquatic centers of the future

McKinney, Texas, and the Racial History of American Swimming Pools

Serena Williams is Constantly the Target of Disgusting Racist and Sexist Attacks

Living with Racial Battle Fatigue: Why Fighting Microagressions Can Feel Like Treading Water

The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates

 

I met a good cop once

I worked in a building that had one local police officer assigned to it. When I came to work there, he seemed nice enough but I wasn’t going to go out of my way to say hello. I was one of a handful of black people in the entire building and I just came to do my job the best I could, work late when necessary, and go home.

Over time I noticed something interesting about this particular cop: he was an introvert. I’m a proud INTJ myself, so I could see that he was incredibly observant, not raising his voice unless he had to, and that his strength was in knowing what everyone’s usual patterns were. Anytime I saw him, he was watching us.

goodcoponceOne night I was working late after an event with the students, waiting out front for some late parents to pick up their kids. It was dark out and my husband was with me. He was also a teacher, but in a different school, and he came to help volunteer at the event. We were chatting with the kids and my husband turned to one student and complimented her on her performance. As he turned & walked towards her, I noticed that the officer was standing in the background, eyes trained on my husband, hand within reach of his weapon, looking very tense.

I rushed over and introduced my husband to the officer and explained that he was also a credentialed teacher, and that the kids were safe. In fact, whenever my husband came to help at my school I encouraged him to wear his teacher identification just for situations like this.

What made this interaction remarkable was that I am black and my husband is white. Between the two of us, I would normally be perceived as the threat or even asked again whether I work at the school.

You would think that recognizing one’s own coworker wouldn’t be such a big deal, even more so a police officer who should know everyone in the building. But in my career to that point I’d occasionally been asked, by teachers I worked with, if I was someone’s mother or a substitute. Sometimes I was just flat out not recognized by peers. Once I had been given a faulty key, and I stood outside the doors of the school while person after person looked at the window and kept walking. “Oh, was that you?” If that was how teachers reacted to me, I couldn’t imagine what a police officer might have done.

But this unusually thoughtful officer accurately recognized me as a legitimate presence, and my unknown (to him) husband as a potential threat. The significance of that cannot be overstated.

In the current political climate, the Black Lives Matter movement has been treated by many, including politicians, as something to be erased. At the Republican convention, the various speakers wasted no time in letting the audience know that black people are to be feared, that we are dangerous, that we are “roaming the streets.” (And if you aren’t well versed in code words, you won’t realize that Trump has been denouncing black people just as loudly as he has Muslims, Mexicans, and women.) At the Democratic convention, great care was taken to acknowledge black lives and the damage of racism, but it couldn’t have been coincidental that even one of the Mothers of the Movement made sure to mention that “the majority of police officers are good people.”

The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage
The Mothers of the Movement speak out against police violence at the Democratic National Convention, 2016. Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage

Thanks to Micah Xavier Johnson and his deadly admirer in Baton Rouge, the Black Lives Matter movement is inextricably linked with the deaths of police officers. No matter that neither of these crazy brothers were meaningfully associated with the movement. In fact, the only thing they really seemed to belong to was the unfortunate “Assassin personality profile” club, of which race is a very small part. Now until the end of time, whenever we honor black lives, we must revere the police. We cannot say that we are proud to be black without reassuring everyone that we do not want to kill them. “I’m black and I’m proud! (But not a murderer, I promise!)”

The problem here is not only the immediate conflating of blackness with violence, but also that the onus of nuance is, once again, on black people, and we are the ones who must prove to everyone else that we understand the difference between good and bad. To be taken seriously, we must repeat it often, like a mantra.

This upsets me. I would argue that no one understands nuance better than black people, the people who’ve had to grow up seeing themselves through the eyes of others. Who better than a black person understands the difference between Micah Johnson and Martin Luther King? No one understands the difference between “good” and “bad” cops better than someone who lives in a community where the police are both the problem and the answer. No one understands nuance better than someone who must repeatedly conflate the life experiences of others with her own, in books, film, television. No one understands nuance better than someone who sees her own people constantly depicted as sassy best friends and Magical Negroes, only to look around her living room and see a “normal” family.

We are the ones who go to work and school daily, have good friends and good teachers who are white, and even when some of them are racist we let them into our hearts anyway. We understand the continuum of people, from “bad” to “good” and everything in between. We have to sort it out every day.

We aren’t the ones painting everyone else with a broad brush — both because we don’t own the brush, and because life as a black American requires nuanced thought. We learn it earlier, and better, than anyone else.

Officer Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism
Police officer and Instagram star Tommy Norman, whose undeniable sincerity breaks through my cynicism.

There is a dismissive element to the current craze of “good cop” videos and photos going around the Internet. On an individual level, I believe these officers are sincere. But there is something that makes me uneasy about the videos of smiling white cops surrounded by happy black kids. I’m torn; as a black woman, it is unsettling to watch men with guns ply our children with toys and candy. At the same time, I see the sincerity in many of these videos (and no matter how cynical I become, seeing happy kids always makes me smile).

But I wonder what these videos say to the public at large? How do they reinforce stereotypes about docile black children (some of these images remind me of pictures of white missionaries in Africa)?

Not only that, but these videos don’t begin to address the problem. We know not to be scared of “good” cops. Do they know not to be scared of us? The “good cop” in my example above was good because he understood how to properly assess a threat. In doing so, he unknowingly overturned what, for most Blacks, is the natural order of things. The very idea of what constitutes a “threat” and what the average police officer thinks a “threat” looks like is the heart of what Black Lives Matter is all about.

I remember one of our briefings on school violence (lockdown drills are as familiar to students and teachers as high stakes testing), and our police officer was describing what would happen in an “active shooter” scenario. At one point, he said, “Our first priority is not to help you or call an ambulance. We are trained to eliminate threats. If you are on the floor bleeding, and there is still a threat, we will go after the threat and eliminate it. If someone has a gun and they’re a threat, even if it’s a student, we won’t wait and ask questions. We are trained to shoot and we will shoot to kill.” The bluntness of his answer shocked many of the teachers, and the silence was palpable and tense. Some gasped. But I looked around, trying to find another black teacher for some solidarity. I just wanted to see someone else who understood the absurdity of the white shock in the room. Because this is not new to us. We know this. We know it every day. I almost liked the officer more, just for putting it out there, saying it out loud. The police are not your friends.

We cannot change relationships between police and citizenry with staged dances (okay, some of those are cute), cookouts, or anything remotely resembling the unbelievable abusiveness of the staged ice cream stunt (you can familiarize yourself with that mess here). The inherent imbalance of power means that these feel-good photo ops force black people to set aside their legitimate grievances so that cops can control the narrative and feel better about themselves. We need real conversations and we need to be listened to. We need to find those “good cops” and get them to hear us and from there somehow change (or dismantle) the policing institution itself. But that will take years, and I don’t have an answer for what to do in the meantime.

As for the officer in my building, I never got a chance to tell him what his thoughtfulness meant to me. One of the last times I saw him, I’d just come back to work after a painful injury, and I was trying to make my way through a crowded hallway of kids. In the corner, eyes trained on my labored walk, was the officer, watching me with a quiet concern. I was reassured by that. In those moments I finally got what most others in the building took for granted: I felt like we had an officer that valued my life as much as everyone else’s.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Being Unwanted

The evening of the 4th night of the Republican convention, I went out to dinner with my husband and my in-laws. It was an ordinary weeknight, except that the restaurant was unusually crowded. My mother in law speculated that it was crowded because people wanted to have dinner early before getting home to watch the “highlight” of the convention, where the candidate would accept his unfortunate nomination.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Being UnwantedWe make an unusual group. Me, a plus-size black woman in my mid-30s, and my husband, a white man about 15 years older than me with elderly parents. Sometimes when we go out, they’ll say, “Party of 3?” And we say, “No, there’s 4 of us.”

I’m used to being stared at when I am out in mostly white spaces, especially when I am with my little family. But as we walked to our table, one couple stared at us so hard that they stopped their conversation. They looked uneasy and nervous. And they wouldn’t stop staring at me.

We were seated across from them. Making matters worse was that, due to the crowd, we were seated at what is literally the restaurant’s smallest booth, and I was squeezed in so tight that the table moved every time I took a deep breath. Faced with the choice between asking to be moved, (which would have involved asking my elderly mother in law, who is frail and uses a cane, to struggle to get up and then wait another 15 minutes for a seat), or sitting there hoping dinner would go by quickly, I made the second choice. And the couple kept staring.

I tried to ignore them. I am not sure if it was hostile or curious, but it was definitely one of the several types of “black stares” I have been subject to in my life and we all knew it. My husband said they stared like we were “animals at the zoo.” They stared until the waiter brought them their check, at which time they whispered audibly about getting home so they could watch the Trump speech. They scurried away, and I couldn’t help but be relieved when they were replaced with a friendly looking black couple.

I have wondered for the past year what Trump’s normalization of racism, his liberation of angry white people from “political correctness,” would do to the daily lives of black people. I’m old enough not to be shocked by racism, old enough to have been raised to be “twice as good.” But I’m too young to know what it was like to live in a “George Wallace” America. What will happen when the veil hiding the most virulent hatred from polite society is lifted? I spoke to my mom and grandmother the day after Trump’s fear mongering, hateful speech. After we all offered our multigenerational perspectives, Grandmother said, “You think this is bad? Just wait.”  She did not elaborate further, and the ominousness of her tone reduced my mother and me to silence.

She’s right. My life as a black woman is certainly different than Grandmother’s when she was my age. While I’ve never been free from the literally constant racism (it’s only since I left the work force that I’ve experienced a life without daily microaggressions for the first time), compared to what she went through my life has been easy. And I am heartened by my “woke” white friends who go around shutting down racists on Facebook like a digital game of Whac-a-mole. It is good to see Trump’s demagoguery openly condemned by so many (others, however, seem to have made a deal with Lucifer). And when I woke up the morning after the speech, the birds were indeed singing as the world continued to turn.

Donald Trump and the Politics of Being UnwantedI wouldn’t be a good Democrat if I believed in the dystopian nightmare Trump is selling. But the bottled up resentment that has been allowed to flourish will not be put back soon, in fact it has always simmered on the surface or just below it. We will encounter more of this specific category of people: people who used to be quiet or stick to “code words” who now feel free to stare openly, to comment, to intimidate, to blame us for “division” and “racism” when we have the audacity to remind them that we are black.

In those moments at the restaurant, I knew that not only was I a curiosity, but I was acutely unwanted, a situation created by race and magnified by the social politics of size. As well read and well versed in societal racism as I am, and as sure as I am of my right to exist in public as both a black woman and a person of size, I was frozen, my mind lost to its calculations — whether to say something or stay silent, my discomfort vs. my family’s inconvenience. Compounding the overthinking was the knowledge that these incidents are likely to increase, because I live in a red state where the nonsense seems to speak louder than anything else.

Later that night, the staring couple went home to their living room to watch and applaud a man who cannot speak or read above a 4th grade level, a man who gave a Mussolini speech with “fear of the brown people” as its central narrative. I can only hope at this point that Mr. Trump will be defeated and end up nothing more than just a horrible symbol for white angst. I’m only relieved by the idea that I can and will speak louder — maybe not in the restaurant (it is not always a good idea to verbally confront racists) but elsewhere. Trump has done less than nothing for black people on his own, but his horrifying candidacy has at least inspired us to speak out and assert ourselves and try to affect change.

When “Good People” Are Racist

One thing society has done effectively, up to this point, is to demonize racism. People in polite society know that spitting at black people, calling us names, openly denying us entry to places and other overt signifiers are racist behaviors. We know that racism is bad, and therefore it must follow that being a racist must make you a Bad Person. But can someone be a “good person,” and still be racist?

Overt racists make categorization easy. I know where I stand with them, and as long as I’m not being physically threatened, I can spot them easily and dismiss them. They cannot help but make themselves obvious.

But there’s a messier aspect to this. We have pushed racism underground so effectively that much of the time, people hold beliefs that they think are not associated with race at all. I’m talking about covert racism, the kind so hidden that it has people walking around like ghosts who don’t know they’re dead. And in this post-segregation, post Civil Rights, post Rodney King era, being around these unaware racists really messes with your mind.

"There aren't enough words to describe the mindf*ck of being surrounded by people who are "normal..."When the Trump candidacy began to pick up steam, my frustration and anger at the vitriol he incites caused me to hear in my head the voices from all over the spectrum of racial awareness. I’d just made a major career change, so I was still processing that along with a natural uncertainty about the future, and initially I blamed this for the nightmares I was having.

But dealing with racism had been a big part of my life up to that point, and the way it stood out was not only in classic-style overt racism, but in microaggressions. Leftover was the trauma of being unable to advocate for myself (beautifully described here) or respond to those who said such things for fear of putting my own position in jeopardy.

There were little slights and big slights, too many to count. The jobs where I was hired by phone, then showed up in person and was met with a deep breath and a long silence. The ladies in the lunchroom who kept asking me if I’d watched the latest Oprah. The professor who handed out papers to the class but routinely forgot me: “I didn’t see you there,” she always said. (She probably didn’t.) People who grabbed my hair to give me “compliments.” The endless complaints about the Spanish bilingual program from those who’d forgotten I was a bilingual teacher. The whispers I heard about Obama. The louder comments I heard about Obama. The diversity meetings hijacked by coworkers who said they would gladly work with black people as long as they were qualified. The people who told me I was “articulate.” The coworkers who didn’t recognize me outside the office.

Each of those things reflects very common patterns of absorbed racism, although they can seem truly innocuous out of of context.

I’ve written a little about my experiences with racism as a teacher and the literal choice between keeping it real or keeping my job. But the comments I overheard and beliefs that were expressed often came from people I worked or studied with, who considered me someone they liked. They worked hard, they were dedicated to their jobs, they loved their families. Several of them would have welcomed me into their homes. And if you asked them, they would have said they would work with anyone of any race, could teach any student of any race fairly, that they abhorred racism and pulled out their MLK lesson plans every January. I knew these people too well to categorize them as “bad.” In fact, they were good people.

What this meant for me is that I was constantly dancing in between these lines. Every so often, I’d get a professor or coworker who was overtly racist (“Brown people are bad!” etc.) and found over and over again that while their comments were annoying and even painful to hear, they were easier to deal with — I could categorize them. It was the others whose voices kept me up at night, whose interactions gave me headaches and high blood pressure and just plain stressed me out. The ones who were nice to me, the ones issuing my paychecks. There aren’t enough words to describe the mindf*ck of being surrounded by people who are “normal” and “good” but who also, deep down in a place they can’t even find, do not consider me to be as much of a human being as they are.

If someone is even remotely accused of being racist, their impulse is to be revolted, to feel guilty, to shame the accuser, to pervert the facts. Other white people quickly distance themselves from the accused, shame them, fire them, wash their hands of them and say “Things are fine now” and shut down the conversation.

“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them… It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”1

If you grew up knowing nothing other than “racism is bad, don’t be a racist,” you are probably lacking any sort of framework with which to talk about race with any nuance. You believe people are equal, without realizing that what you really believe is the status quo (where “people” = “white people”). You have absorbed it. This can be true even if you grew up in a “multicultural” environment. It is true even if you grew up poor. So when you interact with a black person, you have assumptions and biases that you don’t even know are there. In fact, what you are experiencing is a different version of reality.

If we un-demonize racism just a little bit, maybe we could talk about it. And then we could talk about coded racism, covert racism, institutionalized racism, white privilege. Maybe people wouldn’t panic when they hear the word “black.” And we could overturn the myth that racism is learned. (It isn’t — it’s absorbed.) People like the ones I worked & lived with for so many years would be better able to ask questions and hear the answers without shutting down.

And people like me… well, people like me wouldn’t have to keep wondering what we’ll say or not say the next time someone we have to work with or maintain ties with says something to demean us. We could breathe a little easier. We could be a little more free.

Edited to add: This essay from the Huffington Post, published the same time as this blog entry, describes what it’s like to realize you have absorbed racism as a white person. He says, “Black people aren’t asking for an apology, they are asking for an acknowledgement of their reality.”

  1. DeAngelis, T. (2009, February). Unmasking ‘racial microaggressions’ Monitor on Psychology, 40(2), 42. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/2009/02/microaggression.aspx

On existential fear while being black

On our way home from Chicago, on a road trip before we were married, my (white) fiancé, now husband, was driving and he was going a little fast. I told him it was night time, we were in Arkansas, and he should slow down. Soon we saw the lights behind us, and I was frightened.

I put my hands in my lap, visible. I made sure my engagement ring was visible so there wouldn’t be a question about why I was in the car. I put my purse down on the floor. I didn’t talk. I didn’t move. I looked straight ahead and froze. The officer came to the window, said “good evening.” He asked how my husband was doing and my husband said, “We’re fine, how are you officer?” They had a conversation. (!) The officer let us off with a warning and a “Merry Christmas.” I don’t know if he saw me.

When we drove off, I told my husband I was afraid, and he said, “But it’s just a traffic stop.”

Well, we had some conversations about that.

My husband is brilliant and sensitive and so he understood very quickly the difference in life experience between him and I, in fact I would not have married him had he shown an inability to do that. And he is one of my greatest champions. But part of the joining of our lives together, as it is with any couple, is a comparison of life experience, and I don’t think either of us realized quite how different life in general had been for the both of us. Chief among those differences is fear.

Like most African Americans I know, I have an innate distrust of the police. (Wait — this is the point where I have to stop and say that I’m college and grad school educated and have never had any sort of record and don’t know anyone who does. And that yes, I have met some good and compassionate cops. And since I finished this post as coverage was coming in of the police shootings — *of course* I condemn what happened in Dallas.) One of my earliest memories of the police is being a little girl in the back of the car when the police officer pulled us over so he could tell my father our car was “too nice” for people like us. One of my most recent interactions, just a year ago, is being screamed at by an officer who didn’t like the way I walked to my car. He screamed so loud that I didn’t know who he was talking to, so loud that it was obvious his goal couldn’t have been anything other than my subjugation.

The thing that’s difficult about being afraid of the police is the helplessness — if the people who hold the power of law will not support you, who will? But the fear extends beyond this.

When we travel, I try to watch where we stop because there are some areas where I’ve had some trouble. When we have flown together, we (well, I) have nearly been denied rental cars and airline seats because the people in charge didn’t believe we were “together,” in at least one case after we had shown ID (with our matching last names and addresses). So I worry about getting separated and stranded somewhere far from home. When I go to the doctor, I prepare myself for whatever demeaning thing will be said to me, and worry whether my complaints will be taken seriously. If I apply for a job, or get a new job, I have to wonder how race will affect things and how much time I’ll have to spend being some coworker’s diversity coach. And in the years that my husband and I have been planning for children, we’ve had many conversations about “the talks” we will have to give to our son or daughter.

There’s a level of fear that I think all African Americans carry with us as part of our burden. Much of the time things are fine, but there is an undercurrent of worry and cautiousness in everyday life that my white husband will never have to know. It’s different from regular every day anxieties; it’s more like a cloud that surrounds the world.

When people are failing to understand why we’re protesting, when people are just baffled that anyone would be angry at cops; when people say “well if you’re not doing anything you have nothing to fear,” when they tell us to just work harder and get a job, they are failing to acknowledge that the difference isn’t in skin color or in cultural history but that our very lives are different, and that they are different because of racism. They are gaslighting us, and they are not acknowledging our daily fight.

 

On the “DuVernay” Test

Salon.com has an article featuring the “DuVernay” test — a quick test analogous to the “Bechdel” test which analyzes female characters on screen. For those who might be concerned, there are six questions to answer regarding a character of color to help you determine if their on-screen presence is a fair representation. If you’re anywhere near this blog, it won’t surprise you that most movies featuring any characters of color will fail the “DuVernay” test.

I think they could add one more question to this one, though: Is the audience able to fully identify with the character? That is, whether or not race is a factor, is the character so well defined that the viewer can put him/herself in their shoes, fight alongside them, immerse themselves in their struggle, no matter how alien that struggle is to the viewer?

Because what we’re really talking about here is a problem of identity, which I think is more important than mere representation. Well-drawn main characters are really just placeholders for the viewers; we’re meant to see through their eyes. And if no black people are on screen and being represented fairly, as fully realized characters, it means that no one in Hollywood can possibly imagine a world where people can see through our eyes.

Chronicles of a Recovering Teacher: Implicit Messages

I was at an event today where everyone works on their own at tables; you can hear one another’s conversations and you can join in or just listen. Some ladies happened to be teachers, and started talking about teaching, and they talked about being micromanaged and the difficulty and began to compare stories.

Instead of joining the conversation, I grabbed my purse and dove for my headphones. I didn’t want to hear how much being a teacher hurt them, and I didn’t want to hear how difficult it was and how tiring. But I think at least part of my reaction was because I am tired of thinking about how teaching makes teachers feel; or at least, tired of talking about that without talking about why they are made to feel that way.

A while back, The Atlantic published an article that wondered if introverts leave teaching because they are forced into too much group work, or because they’re surrounded by too many loud extroverts. But I don’t think so. I’m a proud introvert myself (one friend described me as an observant super-ninja, and I won’t dispute the accuracy of that), and my humble opinion is that introverts are good at hearing what someone says and quickly figuring out what they really mean. As an introverted teacher, I was always attuned to the implicit messages we were getting, and it was a major cause of my burnout.

This is a huge issue to unpack, as the education system is seen to “belong to all of us,” and so the average teacher is constantly receiving messages about her value from administrators, parents, and from society at large. So here, I’ll focus on the messages we got from administrators.

  • You can’t be trusted. This is probably the most prevalent message. Teachers’ lesson plans are all but scripted in some cases, and for many, their value is determined by factors almost entirely beyond their control (testing). The growing amount of paperwork required for everything from field trips to throwing papers away (!) sends a message that our work must be checked, checked, and re-checked, and tells us that we cannot make any decisions without a committee or a bureaucrat overseeing us. Then, we are constantly being asked to “be creative.” With what?!
  • Your time has no value — not to you, anyway. Teachers’ time is extremely valuable, but not to the teachers themselves. The amount of extra unpaid work required by school districts means that, in terms of hours, schools are powered by thousands of hours of teachers’ unpaid labor. When teachers complain of the extra work, they are scolded or shamed by those who imply that they just aren’t committed enough. And, as is possible in any job, a teacher cursed with micromanaging bosses will also be subjected to harassment and guilt about how she uses her own time, even if she is sick, on vacation, or paid leave.
  • Your work is the most valuable thing on earth. If you teach lower income kids, you’ll hear this one a lot. It basically means that all of these children come with additional issues, and you might be the only one who can save them! But it will never be enough! This “hero teacher” narrative is exhausting and detrimental. Every time there is a study about what “poor kids” are missing, the school system comes up with another experimental initiative designed to get teachers to try and fix it. We can’t make up for everything they lack, that is a fantasy. You see this played out in teacher movies, which all have a pervasive and offensive “white savior” complex about them. The last time one of these movies was shown during a “teacher work day,” I quietly walked out (probably to get some actual work done). I will write more about this “white savior” narrative later on, but it’s harmful to everyone — students and teachers of all races.
  • You aren’t doing anything. This one will resonate especially to those who taught an “alternative” subject, like music, drama, P.E., or anything else that isn’t science or “reading, writing, & ‘rithmetic.” As a music teacher, I was always told of how “fun” my job must be. “How nice to sing all day!” Of course, I knew I was lucky to have a job at all (many states cut their music programs ages ago), but being reminded of that all the time, and being implicitly told I should put up with subpar conditions or outdated materials because I should be grateful to even be there, is grating. It invites a dismissal of your hard work (and that of our students’), and it reinforces the unimportance some people have for these subjects, which leads to budget cuts, which creates a vicious cycle.

If you asked an administrator directly, they’d never admit to anything on this list. They’ll tell you they value all their teachers, that they appreciate them, that they understand their stresses and difficulties. But the messages they send through their actions and requirements are the opposite.

The nature of teaching, the emotionally draining, constant giving of yourself, means that these messages are particularly demoralizing. Not only are you being given these messages at every turn, but you can’t help but internalize them. The heroic narrative. The “never enough” narrative. The “well, if you don’t like it, you’re probably not good enough” narrative. These are painful things. One of the biggest problems with the way teachers are treated by “the system” is that they are not being treated like educated professionals, and the constant invoking of martyrism (give us all your time, save the children, just be glad you’re even here) is a major impediment.