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Friday, September 29, 2017

#TakeAKnee Brings a lot of Troubling Things to Light

The news cycle is abhorrent basically every day. The divide among US citizens, even with the world, deepens all the time. The latest thing to really get to me is this controversy over #TakeAKnee. The level of vitriol and arrogance is troubling. My overarching concern is this tendency to try to invalidate anything that doesn't directly relate to ones own experience. It's very easy to say "Shut up and stand for the anthem," when what's being protested is not part of your reality. Maybe it's because my eyes have been opened to "sensitivity readings" in writing but I'm deeply troubled by the overwhelming drive to silence others rather than listen. Perhaps, if someone is upset about something enough that they feel moved to do an unpopular thing, we should be concerned about why they feel that upset rather than telling them their feelings are wrong.

This doesn't just apply to racial issues. How many times have women said they feel unsafe when men catcall them, make comments about their appearance, or worse? So many women agree that this kind of behavior is uncomfortable or downright scary for them but you'll always see the comments that these behaviors are meant as a compliment. Women need to settle down and let a man (even a stranger) tell them sexual things and get over themselves. The takeaway is the same. "I don't share your experiences or viewpoint, therefore you're completely wrong and need to stop saying what you're saying and start acting like me." In short, this is a dangerous way of thinking. We can see the evidence every time we turn on the news. The vitriol and absolute hatred between opposing viewpoints is shocking, yet is becoming more and more familiar.

Observing these things has led me to the following realizations that I feel compelled to share. I do not purport to be an expert on the topics or to have answers. These are just the thoughts I'm having right now and I thought they might be used as a springboard for brainstorming better ideas for better outcomes. Constructive ideas and polite viewpoints of others are welcome in the comments.

First, it happens to be the end of Banned Books Week. As a librarian and author, this is something I'm very familiar with. This year, I feel that it ties in perfectly with what we're seeing in the news. Just because you wouldn't read it, doesn't mean someone else doesn't need it. This led me to think about how important it is to see yourself reflected in the books you read. Think about this. I just finished reading Hello, Sunshine by Leila Howland. Now, this is not a political book by any means, but it's the story of blonde haired, blue eyed, 18 year old Becca who was not accepted into any college. She's always loved acting, so she takes a road trip from Boston to LA, with her boyfriend, to try to make it as an actress. Nothing earth shattering, right? It was a book I really enjoyed, but in light of the outrageous responses to #TakeAKnee, I can't help but think that this would be a vastly different book if Becca was an African-American girl. Similarly, if she was an Asian-American, or a Native American, or a Hispanic American, a male character, a gay character, a transgender character, etc. etc.

Think about it. Do you see what I mean? We're all people, but we have different things projected onto us that have nothing to do with who we actually are.  I can't help but think that any of the non-white characters in this fictional retelling would have to struggle against each other to fill a significantly smaller number of acting roles specifically for minority characters in a way the white protagonist did not. Who remembers the outrage when Lenny Kravitz was cast as Cinna in the Hunger Games because readers hadn't visualized Cinna as a black man? On the other side, how many times are diverse characters cast with white actors instead?  Likewise, if the character was a male instead of a female there likely wouldn't be a scene with a creepy stranger hitting on him in a way that makes him wonder if he's safe. If the hypothetical African-American wannabe actress drove across the country with her boyfriend, what other factors might enter into the story? Ever heard the phrase "driving while black?" What I'm getting at is the story might have the same universal theme, but vastly different details which create a different narrative. For an illustration of how these different flavors of life experience impact a person's perception, consider this heartbreaking poem:

"When black boys are born 
We mothers kiss their faces 
Twirl our fingers in their curls 
Put them in carriers on our chest 
Show them to the world 
Our tiny black princes 
And when they start school 
As early as 3
We mothers 
Place huge back packs on their backs 
And we slowly fill them with bricks 
Etched with tools 
Tattooed with truths 
Hoping to save them 
Don't talk back 
Don't get angry 
Say yes ma'am 
Say no sir 
Don't fight
Even if they hit you first
Especially if they are white 
Do your best 
Better than best 
Be still 
Work hardest 
BRICK 
they get a little older 
And we add more 
Keep your hands out of your pockets 
Don't look them in the eye 
Don't challenge 
Don't put your manhood before your life 
Just get home safe 
Don't walk alone 
Don't walk with too many boys 
Don't walk towards police 
Don't walk away from police 
Don't buy candy or ice tea
Don't put your hood up 
I'll drive you 
I'll pick you up 
You can't be free 
Don't go wandering 
Come home to me 
BRICK 
They get a little older 
And we add more 
Understand you are a threat
Standing still 
Breathing 
Your degrees are not a shield 
Your job is not a shield 
Your salary makes you a target 
Your car makes you a target 
Your nice house in a nice neighborhood 
Makes you a target 
Don't put your ego before your safety 
Don't talk back 
Don't look them in the eye
Get home to your wife 
Your son
BRICK 
They weigh them down. 
This knowing 
Of having to carry the load 
Of their blackness 
the world hasn't changed 
The straps just dig deeper into their skin 
Their backs ache 
But their souls don't break 
Our beautiful black men 
When you say to me 
All lives matter 
I simply ask
Will your son die with the world on his back 
Mine will."

Author Unknown

I am a mother of a son and I have to say, I do not have all the same worries for his future that this mother has. It's because we come from a different life frame of reference, but I can appreciate that she has these struggles and I can be sickened by it. I can also try to do whatever I can to lessen these types of burdens by challenging my own perceptions and educating myself. This also showed me that I have different worries for my black friends than I do for my white friends, or my LGBT friends, my female friends, or my male friends. Humans put ourselves and each other into groups. Like it or not, these groups have different stereotypes and pressures placed upon them by the rest of the groups. I think we need to consider this very carefully before we react with trying to dismiss someone's feelings.

Keeping that in mind, I saw a Facebook post by my incredible friend, Joy, who said "True healing cannot come to our nation without relationship." That really struck a chord with me. I think that's exactly the crux of the problem. Looking at Facebook, which is not, of course, the measure of the nation by any means, but I'd venture that, in general, friends lists are primarily filled with people who look like each other. This is not to say there isn't any diversity of friendships, but anecdotally for me, it seems that white friends have mostly white friends, black friends have mostly black friends, etc. There can still be diversity among similar looking friends: religious beliefs, education, sexual identity and orientation, etc. but there's still generally that shared experience among people who are perceived the same as you. But it's got to be a lot harder to play the childish "us" vs "them" when "they" are part of our group. "They" become people with qualities we admire. Shoulders we can cry on. Friends we can laugh with. Not so easy to lump that kind of friend as a "them" you don't want to associate with.

But how can we break out of our seemingly inherent need to be homogenous? It has to be purposeful. I admit, I have plenty of room to improve, to really diversify my group of friends. And I want to! As an adult, it's hard to make new friends as it is, let alone to seek out and try to befriend (without being weird or offensive) someone who might be very different from me. But I'm going to keep trying. In the meantime, while I seek out real connections in my daily life, I also try to broaden my outlook by following a variety of people on Twitter. It may sound trivial, but my eyes have been opened to all sorts of struggles I never would have imagined just by following people and seeing what they deal with and what hurts them.

While I think personal connections, the relationships, my friend mentioned are the best way to change hearts, it can be difficult. I mean, it can be tricky to be in diverse situations in our daily lives. And it takes strength to walk up to anyone and strike up a conversation and get to a point where you feel like you can safely ask a person to meet you for coffee sometime or hang out at the park and not come across as a weirdo. But we shouldn't stop trying, even if it's uncomfortable. In the meantime, we can educate ourselves in far easier and more comfortable ways like following diverse viewpoints on Twitter or reading books by diverse authors. #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices are huge movements in the book world that seek to increase the number of published books that explore diverse content but also allow authors to authentically tell these stories. This means that it's frowned upon for a white woman to write a story about a young black man. The reason for this is what I mentioned above. There are different nuances and details among these life experiences. While the white woman may want to portray her character genuinely and without prejudice, no amount of research can give her the authentic perspective of being a young black man. She should leave that particular story to a black man to write. It will resonate better with the readers and will give an accurate account in a way the woman never could. This is a topic that has caused a lot of backlash but I think writers are starting to really consider what stories are theirs to tell. The least we can do is stop whitewashing and let people of different ethnicities and races tell their own stories. And you know what else we can do? Read them!

I've been trying to read more books by diverse viewpoints and here are a few I've enjoyed. (These are all fiction because that's what I like to read.)

For adults
A House for Happy Mothers - Amulya Malladi 
No One Can Pronounce My Name - Rakesh Satyal 

For teens
Written in the Stars - Aisha Saaed 
Ties That Bind, Ties that Break - Lensey Namioka
The Not-So-Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen - Mitali Perkins

For children
Bud, Not Buddy - Christopher Paul Curtis
Ghost - Jason Reynolds
These are not books, but I highly recommend the Families of the World videos. Each episode takes a look at the daily life of a child in a rural area and an urban area of a different country. It includes what happens in a typical school day, the types of chores kids do, what their home looks like, what they eat, and what they do for fun. Although it's about children, it's a fascinating series for adults as well!

Books I want to read:
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas
When Dimple Met Rishi - Sandhya Menon

As you can see, even these titles could be more diverse. I know I still have a long way to go but I'm a work in progress.


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