Archive for the ‘Race’ Category


There is a dissertation, and a toddler, and getting over the flood (still), and many many Friends and friends, and anxiety about what to write when I do decide to write here again–

but this morning there was only an African-American man and his wife on TV voting for himself for president with their two daughters looking on.

I’ll not likely forget seeing that, ever.


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I’m pretty conservative when it comes to calling someone an a**hole.  And Bill, you and I agree on an awful lot.  I’m looking forward to your movie.

And even after this (the breastfeeding part) I was willing to write you off as nothing more than an uninformed blabbermouth.

But referring to Senator Barack Obama as “our BOY” on the Daily Show??  You know better.  Now apologize.

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On Being Quiet

It hasn’t been for lack of suitable material: my son’s rapidly growing, frequently outlandish vocabulary (which tonight expanded to include “pastaaaaaaa!” with a little growl); my evolving sense of race issues both personally and communally in our new neighborhood; the astounding–and I do not exaggerate–fact that our house has remained neat, clean, and under control for five entire weeks with nary a hiccup longer than two days; continued frustration over being over 30 and not yet living my ‘real life,’ complete with ‘real job’ and ‘real house’ and continued self-flagellation over feeling entitled to those things when most people don’t have them and can never expect to; and in general my increasingly complicated relationship with my own aging process, mortality, the mortality of all people, and my incredulousness over the passage of time (see out comma freaking);

and becoming a Quaker.  That I may be able to talk about.

Two weeks ago at the end of the IC Meeting for Worship I voiced my intention to form a Clearness Committee, which is a group of people that are supposed to help me discern my readiness for Quaker life and its appropriateness for mine.  After happy murmurs from the meeting the clerk kindly explained that I would need to send a letter addressed to the meeting stating my intentions and that at the next Meeting for Business a Clearness Committee would be discussed.

Probably all that I will need to write is something like, “I wish to ask the Meeting to form a Clearness Committee to help me determine whether or not membership is appropriate at this time,” but I find myself writing a much longer letter in my head, one that contemplates the many paths I’ve wandered on and how they’ve intersected and intertwined in the need for a particular kind of community striving for the kind of life I yearn to live but have never been able to on my own.

I suppose it really does relate to this turning-thirty business (which I did a whole year ago; the plan was to take the year between 30 and 31 to set into motion all the changes I wanted to make permanent, and then start living them at 31, which is simultaneously hilarious, ridiculous, and wonderful).  When I picture the best version of myself–gentle, strong, compassionate, giving (but from a place of strength, not doormattishiness), respectful and protective of life in all its forms, practicing peaceful and mindful living–that person is closest of all to the prototypical Quaker.  I know myself, and I know that I will become what I am near, and the best thing I can do for myself it to be near what I wish to become.

I have learned in the past few weeks that the outward practices of Friends–peace and social justice work, silent meetings–drew me in initially, but less tangible aspects of Quaker life are beginning to anchor me to it.  There are so many tendrils from which to choose, but tonight I am thinking about the best kind of flexibility: like the yoga instructor soothingly explains in the video I used in college, encouraging the yogi through the tree pose, “you may sway.  trees sway.  get more grounded.”  Quaker flexibility allows for the winds to blow wherever they may (and the metaphor is intentional–Friends emphasize the Holy Spirit, which is almost always referred to as a wind in scripture), for the demands of each age to be accommodated as God leads, but always, always the Friend is deeply rooted in tradition, scripture, prayer, and community. To me Quakerism is like Unitarianism with a root system: gentle, accepting, flexible, and firm, sure, and–in a way I cannot yet articulate–uncompromising (indeed Quaker decision-making is always based on consensus, not on a democratic majority-rules ethic.  One does not compromise so much as one moves with surety).  Because of this rooted flexibility, Friends have never excluded or marginalized women (hard to do anyway when everyone in the meeting–elders included–is completely and equally able to receive the Holy Spirit and to share its leadings with the meeting), were against slavery from the start, have been involved in every major peace movement since their genesis, accept and celebrate alternative sexual expression, and more recently, have taken a lead on environmental issues.

Friends are not ordinary liberals.  Though they take up many liberal social issues, they are less prone to the hypocrisies of liberal life because their practice is to continually examine their own real and potential hypocrisies (in a wonderful moment at the last Meeting for Worship at Iowa Yearly Meeting, a man spoke of his normally-gentle father’s horrible response to his brother’s homosexuality and how it reminds him that every generation has its blind spots, and of his intention to seek out what his were, and wondered if one of those blind spots has been the way we have persisted in abusing the earth and its inhabitants).

And then there are these moments of strangeness in which I feel alienated from a tradition that is so different from my own, wondering if it will ever feel perfect–as it does in small moments during meetings–and if it should.  I wonder about the absence in this country of Quakers of color, especially given Friends’ inclusiveness, and wonder if that’s a blind spot, too, one that I may be right to give voice to…wonder not only if the Friends are right for me, but if I am right for them, if I have something to give as well…

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Playground Invasion, cont.

Cloudscome’s question to my original post is a good one, and one that I meant to address initially but forgot. I don’t think it’s only White Middle Class entitlement that compels people to ask about a family’s racial/ethnic background or to inquire about how various members are related to one another. There’s straight-up class entitlement, and then there can also be group entitlement–that maybe the black folks who inquire about Cloudscome’s kids feel a right to know because her kids are in some ways one of “them,” to put it roughly. And I don’t know if I feel as bothered by that because transracial adoption, even in the best of circumstances, carries with it a lot of residual (and real-time) power differentials. On the other hand, there’s a way to do it kindly in that case and there’s a rude and judgmental way to do it, too (and I’ve heard plenty of white parents of black kids cite examples of a.a. people who came up to them and did have a problem with the situation and were rude enough to impose hefty judgment, so of course there’s more than enough rudeness, presumption, and entitlement to go around). Actually, I think a white person could ask probing questions about race/family makeup but it would definitely depend on how the conversation is going and how one asked. I’m just not comfortable enough with my own newly-discovered flaw to venture into nuanced territory in terms of my approach. For right now it is better to err on the polite side.

I guess my point is that you can be rude on the playground for lots of different reasons–this is just one of them.

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Playground Invasion

One of the things I like best about our new neighborhood is the opportunity it affords me and my son to interact with lots of people who don’t look like us or share all parts of our racial and cultural background. Most evenings we visit our lovely playground the Snapper is either the only Caucasian kid or in a distinct minority. Every night it’s a little different; sometimes he is playing with A.A. kids, sometimes with Hispanic kids, sometimes with immigrant kids, sometimes with kids from family structures unlike his own. I remarked to a friend recently that part of my residual racism is how surprised I was that a neighborhood this nice (which I defined without examination as tree-lined, quiet-ish, well-kept and safe) was largely minority. Egads–of course a neighborhood could be all those thing AND multi-racial/cultural. I understand there is some overlap between the poverty rates among minorities and the persistence of sub-ideal living conditions in poorer communities, but that does NOT translate to minority neighborhood = bad neighborhood. I am ashamed at this particular feature of my until-now buried-to-me stereotyping, but there it is (and hopefully WAS). I just can’t keep it here–it doesn’t hold water. There are as many kinds of black families as there are black families in this neighborhood, as well as Hispanics, foreign-born, etc…

I have had nothing but positive encounters on the playground (in general there are a few people on our walks that I have stopped trying to say hi to, because they are so surly, but this is rare). I find this side of the minor highway that runs alongside downtown far more easygoing than the university side, which doesn’t surprise me (and this is true in other college towns in which I’ve lived that were majority white). I have really enjoyed my evenings here with the Snapper. I’ve met so many nice people who are kind to my son and eager to chat while our children play.

I feel comfortable asking relatively socially acceptable fact-finding questions, such as “so do you live on this block?” or “how old is your daughter?” or, if the conversation moves forward, “do you go to school or work here in IC?”

But I never, ever ask questions like, “Where are you from?” (unless the person says, “we just moved here,” in which case I might ask where they’ve moved from, which is a different question), or “what is your son?” or “are your children adopted?” or the hideous, “what are you?” or any P.C. version of the above. For awhile I’ve just felt uncomfortable asking these questions. As time progresses I find that my burning curiosity has turned into mild interest, but I no longer feel this sense of entitlement to know what exactly is UP with every family I run into. Because seriously? A family’s specific racial/cultural makeup and sexual activities is none of my damned business. Sometimes it comes up naturally in the conversation, in which case there is usually a comfortable opening for gentle inquiries that the person in question seems open to address. But mostly when these encounters are casual and polite–as they are especially at this stage of our newness in the neighborhood–ages of kids, location of domicile, and place of employment or university department is all one can really push for, and even then it’s a matter of polite interest and not probing. As I contemplated my feelings about these conversations, I realized that I have abdicated a very important White Middle Class entitlement, which is the right to go anywhere and everywhere. Like this article that Kohana linked to recently from Racialicious, “going anywhere” can also mean, “knowing anything,” which from my studies smacks of old-fashioned colonialism: that it is your assumed, unexamined right to satiate your curiosity no matter how offensive or invasive it is.

Now I suppose one could argue that one’s racial or cultural background is not an intimate matter. After all we very often look different from one another and it is not wrong to wonder where someone was born or who their parents were. But what makes it presumptuous to ask is that there is such a wide variety in ways of being, and people should have the right to define that for themselves as in as nuanced a way as they please. “What are you?” asks for a single-dimensional answer. More importantly, racial and cultural background are intimate details, especially if a minority person (or a non-minority, for that matter) has experienced a complex and painful journey surrounding those details. It may be hard to say what one “is” or where one is “from” when speaking with a relative strangers. Those details can slowly unfold as people get to know one another.

The other day the Snapper and I met the sweetest family. They shared their ball with him and spoke kindly to us both. I could tell by their appearance and accent that they were probably South* East Asian, maybe Indian. But maybe they were Pakistani? I didn’t ask. The history of Indian/Pakistani relations is long, complex, and fraught with strife (as well as lots of positive interactions and exchanges, I’m sure). It would have been incredibly rude to ask. Besides, what is it to me? I will not pretend that they aren’t brown or that they speak perfect standard English. That is interesting. But it is not my right to know anything else about them. I hope over time that we will get to know them better, and them us. I secretly hope every time we go that they’ll be there again. No use pushing anything. The difference between the me of now and the me of ten years ago is that what would disappoint me is not getting to know them better as people rather than “finding out” what their “deal” is.

I’ve wondered about the family make-up of groups of people there, I’ve wondered about racial background and even of disability. But I’ve just wondered.

I hope this is growth.

*Believe it or not, this is what I intended to say–just left out the ‘south.’  Thanks, anon.

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To those of you who still believe racism is a thing of the past, on both an institutional and individual basis, read this, making especially sure to read the comments. I understand that the comments are skewed toward trollage, but I have personally heard more than one Cedar Rapidian refer to those “people from Chicago” (aka, poor black people mucking up our perfect, safe white city).

I know many, many CR people who do not discriminate and work hard to fight their inner racist.  But clearly we have a long, long way to go.

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Welcome back, nuance

This is amazing.

(My thoughts, as they developed: you’re giving too much ground to the anti-your-pastor people, but I see why you’re doing it…but wait! you can explain why you don’t support the manner he expressed his views but that you understand its origins? And that understanding those origins is crucial to bringing about real change? Are politicians even allowed to do that anymore? Wow–talk about walking a fine, fine line elegantly, passionately, persuasively…OK, really, do you have to make me cry? You are trying to break through my cynicism, aren’t you. Dammit, Obama, this is one burned-out, fed-up, disavowing white liberal who is now willing to jump on your bandwagon wholeheartedly. I can hear you sniveling, friends of mine who will chalk it up to my gullibility for good rhetoric. All I can say is, “bite me.” It’s been a long, long time since we’ve had a candidate that wasn’t merely ‘least bad’ but BEST. Holy shit.)

What’s that? You say that for the first time a post on race and politics is NOT going to be tagged “I’m angry today?” Really??

(P.S. Obviously there are a few things on which I could take him to task. I am not convinced that the American People are inherently decent and that whites aren’t inherently [if usually unconsciously] racist. Plus a bunch of other stuff that’s informed by my education and reading in race, particularly my loathing for the myth of progress [are we reliving the nineteenth century?]. BUT here is someone who is saying [out loud!] that the job is not done. I love the moxie. Oh, and yes, it’s mixed in with a lot of “look how far we’ve come”-ness but I can accept that as part of the rhetoric that is most likely to draw people who aren’t cynics like me in.)

ETA: I did remove some melodramatic text. I should probably give myself a day before posting on things that inspire me.

ETA: Jonathan over at Bitch, PhD, says this in the comments and sums up my main critique of Obama’s speech: “The theme of the speech is American exceptionalism. Within this patriotic context he is able skillfully to link various imperfections together: Geraldine Ferraro, the rhetoric of his own “former” pastor; slavery; lower-middle class White resentment at immigration and affirmative action; even his own Grandmothers’ racism. He explains all of this as part of the unfulfilled promise of America. The narrow aim of the speech–distancing himself from Wright–is subsumed under this wider goal: making his own election seem like the logical culmination of the slow march of progress toward the unachieved ideals enshrined in the constitution. He’s spinning a negative into a positive.”  Overall, though, I still like it.

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