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Sunday, August 20, 2017

And now to talk about Nazis

I focused my last post on race because of the tiki torches blazing in a southern town but SS symbols were plastered on t-shirts and posters so I'm going to talk about that aspect.

In late July I read and saw a performance of The Merchant of Venice, which some of my middle school students will read this fall. There is clearly anti-Semitism in it, and there is also Shylock's explanation of his revenge.....the long tradition of Jews being spat upon and his desire to be treated with dignity because he is, after all, a human being.  To read or see the play is to be made uncomfortable on many fronts, with Shylock's plea for decent respect, with his sinister desire for Antonio's death, and with Antonio's seeming smugness.

I have a long-standing fascination with the Holocaust, although fascination is the wrong word.  When I was in high school, I did a research project on the Nuremberg trials, which required me to read about the many sick things that were done to Jews, gypsies, gays and anyone else the SS deemed unworthy. I still remember my voice and body shaking while delivering this presentation because it was so upsetting to me to speak of. Not too long ago, I heard an interview with Affinity Konar about her book Mischling, and it made me feel similarly horrified and unable to pull myself away.

My ability to understand genocide is limited, just as a sane person has a limited ability to understand the illogic musings of the insane. The mass graves in Bosnia or the visual horror of the roads amassed with murdered bodies as portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda are overwhelming. On a purely intellectual level, I can understand how the process of such deep hatred happens and how humans are psychologically pulled into doing terrible things, but on every other level I just cannot wrap my head around it. Scapegoating and mob mentality are very real and to think that we are "past that" is rubbish.

Just as I didn't know any Black people while growing up, I didn't know any Jews or gays (or if I did, I didn't know I did). Although I heard prejudiced whisperings of Blacks, I do not recall anything anti-Semitic. It took me well into adulthood to notice that some names are what might be considered "Jewish" surnames. I was also unaware that Catholics have been historically lumped in with Jews and Blacks on the most-hated list by Nazis.

I like to think that I am a pretty moral person, but this week I have considered whether, in my own small ways, I am, or appear, morally relativistic. I read this article which really hit home for me about the use of playing devil's advocate. I do try very much to consider all sides and their respective motivations as a means of understanding, but I have never considered whether this appears to others as moral equivocation.

When I teach Macbeth, or any novel with a villainous character, I strive to understand the villain, noting that most villains aren't all bad. A villain who has nothing redeeming about him or her is not a truly real or human character. There has to be, or have once been, something of value, of virtue, about the character. We watch Macbeth become evil, and we see him note that he has come so far in his evil misdoings that he has two choices---"I am in blood, stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as to go o'er." In these moments, we can feel some inkling of sympathy for Macbeth. He knows he has done horrible evil, and he knows he has the choice to go back to being a good person, to stop in his relentless ambition. 

But we cannot have sympathy for his movement further into evil. We cannot have sympathy for his actions--killing Macduff's family, killing Banquo, killing Duncan, upending his responsibilities as a host, kinsman and thane.  

I do believe there are two, or more, sides to every story, but that does not in any way mean the stories are equally at fault, equally honest, equally right or equally wrong. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

All sorts of stuff on my mind in the wake of Charlottesville

We were on our way home from vacation when I started getting tweets about the rallies and murder in Charlottesville.

Like so many others, I am saddened and disgusted and ashamed and worried.

I have been thinking a lot about my whiteness and racism and disadvantaged populations, and in thinking about these things I have been reading and viewing documentaries to try to parse out my own complicated feelings.

I have never subscribed to the idea that people can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and succeed or attain the American Dream or whatever. I think this is generally the exception to the rule rather than the rule. I understand the appeal of the bootstrap mentality, though. It gives a person a sense of control over his or her life. If I work hard enough and long enough, I can get x, y and z. What is the point of trying if the odds are against your hard work making a difference?

The bootstrap mentality is akin to the praying mentality. I think prayer can do great things, but I also know from personal experience that you can try your damnedest to pray yourself out of a situation but prayer alone may not work. I spent my entire childhood trying to pray away the turmoil inside my head, and the only things that helped me "triumph over them" (however long that triumph may actually last is unclear) was medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

I apply my mental health experience to the situation of disadvantaged people in whatever form I find them. Poor people might work their hardest, but the deck is stacked against them just like my genetics stacked the deck against me in dealing with my anxiety and OCD. Minorities might do everything "right" but their skin color may stack the deck against them in ways that white people do not have to contend. That doesn't mean that disadvantaged people or minorities cannot get ahead or see positive change, but it takes an awful lot of support (institutional support included)....just like my anxiety takes daily medication and checkups with my psychiatrist and blogging and a whole lot of self-talk to help me regulate myself.

Since my thoughts right now are all over the map (ya know, since race and racism and life is complicated....who knew?), I better do some bolding and caps and stuff.

WHITENESS--
I try to be aware of my whiteness and what that means, but I know I fail pretty miserably. I saw this on one of the links about educating oneself about race after Charlottesville, but I cannot identify myself, in large part because I do not want to. I know that I don't speak out about racism as much as I could or should. I know that I rely on my white privilege because it is safe and comfortable and the only existence I know. I am not a good judge of my white identity.

I am uncomfortable with the idea of attending rallies not because I fear acting in solidarity with others but because of sheer laziness, which is probably white privilege. I am afforded the privilege of feeling lazy about such things because they do not impact my life in a way that makes life difficult for me. A couple weeks ago when there was no bus stop for my kids at this end of the neighborhood, you better believe I was taking action and speaking out to remedy the situation. Until or unless you are actively made uncomfortable or life is made difficult/unbearable, you generally keep the status quo.

What I do try to do regularly and well is, through my teaching, play devil's advocate and bring things to the attention of students. I recently found a PBS documentary called Slavery By Another Name, which I will be sharing with students when they read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry this fall.  In discussions of race, I often hear White people say things like, "Slavery ended a long time ago," and while this is technically true, documentaries and a little understanding of history make it clear that Blacks spent well over a hundred years after slavery still being stifled by policies that acted in ways that, at best, disadvantaged them, and at worst enslaved them in different ways.

I also made an effort, when I was finding local women to feature in a magazine, to seek out women of color because I felt like every face I was seeing in the pages was white, and it bothered me. I did what I could to try to bring different faces to the forefront.

It's not much.

SEEING COLOR
Whenever I hear people say things like, "I don't see color," my initial reaction is that they are full of shit. I think people like to think they do not see color, and they may not actively or consciously judge other people based on skin color (or any of the others things by which you shouldn't judge others), but they are very much aware of color. It really sounds ridiculous to me, to be perfectly honest.

I have moments when I need to describe someone who is of a different skin color, and I think really hard about how to describe that person, but I ultimately end up mentioning skin simply because this is a characteristic by which a person is identified. To say "I don't see color" is stripping a person of their identity. I think White people mean well (sometimes) when they say this, but I really struggle with it when I hear it.

BLACK FRIENDS
I also cringe when I hear people say something about having a Black friend. I have found that if a White person talks about having a Black friend, you can check their social media "friends" and see pretty quickly that they really don't know any Black people. I actually just checked my own Facebook page for a cursory view of my own "friendships"--- I have about 8 Black friends who are former coworkers or classmates or parents of my children's friends. Between 2-5 of my White friends are in interracial relationships or marriages. Of course, having social media "friends" is not the same as having sustained relationships where you eat together and socialize together and shop together.

UNCOMFORTABLE WITH CULTURE
I get a pretty clear sense of how a White person feels about race (even if they aren't aware of how they actually feel about race) when a discussion of Black literature comes up. When teachers, especially Black teachers, make a concerted effort to educate students about Black writers in any month other than February, I have heardWhite people say something about these teachers' "agenda."

That sounds sinister....as if the Black teachers are trying to warp the minds of innocent young White kids by showcasing the value of Black literature and the contributions of Black writers. White students need to know this, and Black students need to be inspired by this.

TEACHING WITH BLACK COLLEAGUES
When I first began teaching, there was a team of three teachers (2 Black teachers and 1 White teacher) that I thought were really cool. If memory serves, they were a strictly "neighborhood" team, which means they did not have any AP kids (upper middle class, predominantly White children from the other side of the county).

I felt both honored and scared when I was able to work on a team with the two Black teachers. I had observed how they interacted with students, and I was regularly inspired by them. They were great teachers, but their experience as Black women played a role in their ability to relate to their students, and I feared that my Whiteness would hinder my ability to be effective. Would I be so "White" that I couldn't reach students?  Would I be so unaware of their culture that I couldn't make a difference?

It was a profound learning experience for me, and one that I loved. I didn't pay attention to their race as a negative but as a positive that I could learn from. To say that race doesn't matter to students and teachers is not true, in my humble opinion. It can be intimidating or inspiring. In my case, it began as intimidating and ended up inspiring. I think I became a better teacher because I was not on a team of all-White teachers.

DIRTY
There are euphemisms about race that I sometimes hear.

Recently, a family member mentioned that they no longer shop at a nearby Kroger because it is "dirty." That person now shops at the Kroger down the road, which is right across the street from a big, upper middle class housing community.

When they said "dirty," I knew what they meant. They meant that an increasing number of Blacks and immigrants shop there. I know they don't mean dirty as in dirt, filth, disrepair because that Kroger is undergoing a renovation. I shop in both Kroger stores and neither one is disgusting.

These are the same people who don't want their children or grandchildren attending the school district because of Blacks and immigrants.  They like the idea of them going to districts outside this county, where the children are predominantly White.

I AM NOT IMMUNE
I might come across as Judgy Mcjudgerson about other people's race comments, but I cannot pretend as if I don't have my own internal prejudiced notions that flit across my mind. I wasn't raised in a vacuum.

Growing up in a virtually all-White community until high school, and hearing comments from people within that community, impacted me. I try to be aware of some of my reactionary go-to thoughts that I know are prejudiced and without merit. I strive to recognize them and be critical with them.

FIN
Not really. It isn't over, and my thoughts about race and my own relation to it are not quiet, but I need to stop writing and give myself time to continue to think.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Blog and university

A college friend of mine who teaches at a local university asked me if I would speak to her classes about blogging and share my experience as someone who is a "professional" writer (my quotes, not hers).

I realize that I get paid for writing, but in my own head, I think I'd have to make an actual sustainable living from writing to consider myself a professional. Of course, I suspect that many, many writers who get paid for their work do not rely on that as their sole breadwinning activity.

Anyway.....

Her students will have a long-term blogging assignment and must consider the following essential questions:
1. How does writing act as a way of knowing?
2. How can I use digital technologies to reach an authentic audience?
3. What do I have to contribute to the conversation?

It is interesting for me to think about these essential questions in light of my own blog, which is in its 11th year of existence.

My purpose in writing has changed over the years to some extent.

My mood disorder is way better managed now than it was then. Time and age have mellowed me a bit. Children have mellowed me a bit.

My blog remains a place where I come to work through my life and doing it publicly forces me to be analytical instead of going off the rails emotionally, which is what I did in my handwritten journaling for years and years. Having an audience forces me to deeply explore my feelings through the lenses of the intellect and fact and rationality.

There has been a movement toward advocacy in this blog for the people who do read it. In sharing my mood disorder, G's mood disorder, and my own parenting challenges, I have been told I have helped others manage their own issues or, at the very least, feel less alone.

Blogging has helped me know more about myself, both positive and negative. It has helped me find more balance between emotion and intellect. Finally, it has allowed me to know others who have reached out to me with questions or comments after reading the blog.

Oh, another thing blogging has done is force me to do research to support whatever belief or feeling I have. Even if it is just a Shakespearean quote from a play to tie into something I'm experiencing, because it is public I want it to be as accurate as possible.

I never really considered this blogging thing a means of reaching an authentic audience, but I guess it is. It is as valid a writing piece as a letter to the editor of a newspaper or a feature article or any of the other pieces of writing I have done (or taught students to do).

I'm very excited to speak to the college students, sharing what I know and probably more importantly, learning from them. That experience is one way in which my blog is helping me contribute to the conversation of writing, purpose, and authenticity.