Category Archives: Race

Contextual Awareness

An unintended consequence of my new hobby of birding is that I almost always feel more connected to my surroundings. I’ll be standing somewhere, hear some chirps, and know “Oh, that’s a Cardinal.” “Oh, that’s a House Sparrow.” “Yep, there’s the Starlings again.” These songs have been the soundtrack of my life but I never knew who they belonged to, and now I do, for most of the frequent fliers of my city environment. I feel less alone because I know who they are.

After Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and the Dallas shootings, I heard a lot of people, especially white ones in my life, say that they felt alone. I wonder if some of the isolation that my friends and acquaintances have expressed is the opposite experience from what I have had with birding. We thought we knew what society is like, and now we are learning that it is quite different, and in some very heartbreaking ways. We thought we knew who society is and how it worked and now we know that we may have been wrong.

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In the Wake of White Supremacy

I’ve been taking the approach with the people of color in my life that I take with people I know are in the midst of, or just past, some trauma: I try to be extra kind and I wait for them to volunteer information without prying, assuming if they want to talk about it, they will. The reason is that sometimes people want escape, sometimes people do not want to be triggered, and sometimes a rehash just hurts. I don’t want to hurt people. Yet, I don’t know if waiting is the right thing to do. It can come off as indifference. It can come off as denial. It can come off as tacit approval of whatever is causing ill. I’ve been talking more with the white people in my life, yet! That can also feel clannish. There is no perfect action, of course. There are just preferential mistakes.

My numbness grows with every new hashtagged name of someone killed by the police. I don’t have an inherent problem with police officers; lots of people in my life have been, or currently are, cops. They care about their work, they do their best. I do have problems with institutions that do not fix their problems and with occupational cultures that let professional malfeasance go uncorrected. One way to see the killing of Black people in traffic stops and such as an extreme form of professional malfeasance; many in my Twitter feed has argued this is how the system is designed. They aren’t necessarily wrong, in that all power structures are built to be self-perpetuating. I expect more from police officers. I want to dictate the norms of a profession that I am not in, I want to demand they be better than people with authority tend to be, because this profession is funded through my taxes, this profession exists explicitly to serve society at large, and I’m concerned with the boundaries of the society that’s served doesn’t always include everyone in it. I fear the codification of racial prejudice through the enforcement arm – to quote a philosopher-cop I used to TA for, law is pretty much only that which is enforced. I’ve been having the same conversation with a lot of white people – this isn’t really about if cops are inherently bad people, it’s more about what happens when the job done is lacking. Some occupations really need you to rise above prejudices and the big-picture aggregate is disheartening. One way white supremacy reinforces itself is by making everything about the inherent goodness or not, and then defines goodness as a weird socially-located set of intentions for the pale and perfection for people of color.

My numbness seemed to transform into emptiness with Philando Castile. I don’t know why it was him. Maybe it was because I was awake when the video broadcast on Facebook Live. Maybe it’s because his daughter isn’t that much older than mine. Maybe it’s because I recently had my first traffic stop and it was a ten minute speeding ticket and that’s it. I did not watch the video, because the purpose of being awake was to put my son back to sleep. I read Twitter when I rock him to stunt the encroachment of late-night ennui, and that night it was just outrage and sadness. I still haven’t seen the video. I feel like I don’t need to, what I read was awful enough. Then the sniper shot the Dallas Police and I found myself frustrated with the sniper for 1) killing and 2) complicating the narrative because white supremacy demands angelic victims, demands the oppressed rise above all occasions by never having a member of the group do anything wrong. It’s not right of him, of me, none of this is OK. Seems that people are getting a little better at acknowledging that you can demand better policing practices in our country and hold law enforcement officers to high standards *and* believe that the professional malfeasance of some officers doesn’t make belonging to that profession an executable crime. This understanding shouldn’t require people to stretch the muscles of nuance so strenuously, I would have hoped, but here we are.

Sociologist in me understands that oppression requires obedience, and any challenge to dominance gets pushed back. I’m trying to be gentle in the conversations with other white people about Black Lives Matter. No, it’s not perfect. Does it need to be? Does the violence in the white community require we dismiss our own claims to worth? Why are so many people willing to do so for the Black community? I try to be gentle because I don’t want my thoughts dismissed after people know what they are, and that it’s just how I think and to move on. I don’t want to damage the relationships I have with others, for selfish reasons (guys, I really like the people in my life) and it’s also a lousy persuasive rhetoric. I am a gear in this system, and I’m trying to slow the spinning, watching as the rest of the machine continues, as if all I managed to do was shear off some of the gear’s teeth.

Black Lives Matter. My Black friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow country residents, etc matter. They matter whether I agree with everything they do, they matter whether you agree with everything they do. That’s the thing about mattering – it’s not conditional on perfection or expectations. Black people have the same inherent worth and dignity that all human beings do. This society is, ever so subtly in some ways and overtly in others, structured to diminish that. I’ve been hearing a lot of white people who have beloved people of color in their lives articulating a real fear of loss. I can only imagine what living in a society structured with systemic racism is like when you are a person of color. This is not the world that should be. It needs to change, and that’s work, and that’s slow, and that probably has a longer time horizon than my lifespan. I feel numb. I fear an encroaching sense of futility in the work I do. I’ve been quiet. Know the silence isn’t approval of the status quo – the silence is an imperfect effort to keep space. The silence is the attempt to stand up as waves crash over, again and again, realizing there is no shore, not knowing what to do next.

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Notes from the Hegemon

From morguefile.com http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/180811

From morguefile.com http://www.morguefile.com/archive/display/180811

I remember when the planes hit the towers. I was a sophomore in high school in Academic Support, the euphemistic name the district gave study hall, making up a Global History quiz I missed. My teacher, Ms. Zalewski, turned on the TV. One of the World Trade Center towers was on fire. She was somber. I assumed it was an accident and was astonished that the plane couldn’t miss the building.

I went the band room for the second half to practice clarinet. Soon, I was the only person in the hall. My (to this day!) dear friend Laura pulled me out and told me a second plane hit the other tower. It was then that I, and maybe everyone else, realized it wasn’t an accident. I remember thinking, “Our turn.” See, I’d spent my youth watching coverage of bombs in the Balkans, bombs in Israel and Palestine, mines in Africa and Asia, bombs seemingly everywhere. Violence seemed to be the way of the world. I’ve never met anyone who also had this reaction.

My countrymen were scared. Isolated by oceans and protected by the strongest military in the world, this sort of attack struck everyone else as unfathomable. We reacted. Oh, did we react. We swiftly went to war and we’ve been at war ever since, about half my lifetime.

I watched as we traded civil liberties for a chance at that fleeting feeling of protection. I watched as a group I rarely thought about before – Muslims – suddenly became the denigrated group. I watched as people approximately my age joined the military and hearing about how some of them never came back. I watched as my country opened a detention center offshores, and then another, and then another despite violating war crimes ethics and conventions. I watched as so many of the values I was taught we had as a child were undone in the name of safety and security. Dissenters were unpatriotic. It became thought reasonable to judge an entire religion based on its extremists. White Christians who never apologized for Timothy McVeigh (who is from my area) demanded apologies from Muslims for 9/11, contributing and creating a conventional (if inaccurate) wisdom that Muslims are violent. The surveillance state grew, buoyed by technological advances and the support of a scared population. I felt like I’d lost my country a bit, that this sweet land of liberty was tip-toeing towards becoming a fear-driven police state.

Getting older has been a disenchanting process realizing that we are not now, nor never have been, as good as I thought. As governor after governor (and some of my local politicians) try to block Syrian refugees from settling in their states, I realize this: We’ve learned nothing. This is textbook, exactly what we did with the Jewish refugees and look what happened to them. The terror attacks in France were horrific, as terror attacks always are. Horrific and apparently effective, as politicians are now shifting their rhetoric because they are scared, because they sense their constituents are scared, and exploiting fear is politically profitable. Never mind that this is more or less the goal of Daesh/ISIS.

I had already written letters to several elected officials asking they increase the refugee quotas. I live in a depopulated city near many refugees. My next door neighbor was one. A couple families down the street are refugees. A few blocks over and there are many more refugees. Some of them are Muslim. I love where I live and I have the absolute best neighbors. Then I called the governor, called my Congressman with my telephone as it seemed every public figure on Facebook’s comments were filled with people asking to drive the refugees away. No, no, no, no, no…. not this again.

Listen, I’ve known people with Syrian heritage. Heck, I have kin with Syrian heritage! Some are Muslim. Some are Christian. One is Jewish. Syrians are not a monolith. Everything I know about the Syrian war is that it is absolutely brutal. I can’t read about it. I work on problems of profound human misery for a living and I cannot read about the Syrian War or ISIS/Daesh because it’s too bad for me to cope. I get nightmares for days. I give money to refugee agencies, but that is all I can do as an individual. I rely on forces more powerful than I to make wise decisions and here we are closing the door because of the chance – the chance! – that someone from Syria could cause us harm. The chance that someone born in our own country could cause us harm doesn’t inspire us to more strictly regulate our weapons. The fact that cars are the most likely thing to kill us hasn’t inspired most of us to trade in our keys for public transit. We’re more likely to die from overindulging in our dinners and forgetting to exercise than we are in a terror attack but Syrians are the real threat, and please pass the butter.

Refusing to be afraid is a political act. Walking home at night when you are a woman is a political act when everyone tells you that you are assault bait. Not being anxious going into a “bad” (read: usually Black and usually poor) neighborhood is a political act if you are a white person and your society is structured on fearing non-white people. There is this vein in our culture that anything is justifiable if it could protect us from the people we dislike, as if safety were paramount. It’s completely based on prejudice. Crimes rates have been dropping? Whatever. Immigrants commit fewer crimes? Forget it.

I’m so sick of reading comments on my local news websites written by people using the fanciest technology that humanity has ever known, sitting in the wealthiest country of the world, begrudging letting what ends up being relatively few people to their cushy sphere of prosperity because they don’t want their taxes dollars spent on them. Or because they are afraid of “those people”. “Can you justify the risk” I’ve read, over and over again, “that you or your loved ones might be the target of a terrorist who slips in?” We justify lots of risks all of the time. Yet, here, the risk of one person doing harm to us is so great that we should let hundreds of thousands of people die in the process, because we won’t trust an thorough federal government over our prejudices. We value our lives more than anyone else’s. All of our foreign policies boil down to that. We won’t give up our hegemonic position and we’ll kill or let die anyone who we think might threaten that.

We are no better than anyone else, but we certainly act as if our lives are. At the time when “All Lives Matter” is the preferred dismissive retort to those advocating for African American rights, we turn our backs on refugees and bomb the Middle East. All lives matter indeed.

I often think back to September 11, 2001, and mourn, “It could have been so different.” If only we we’d been, or could be now, a bit braver. I hold on to optimism that we could find courage from common humanity, that we could be so brave as to be the moral example, that we could be the model of ideal humanity. I cannot make that argument as we close our doors and use our powers and privileges to ruthlessly prioritize our own safety. I cannot make that claim as our elected leaders attempt to push out the vulnerable.

We could do better. May we be brave enough to live with moral courage, instead of deferring to the impulse of safety at all costs. All costs have been too expensive and it is not going to become cheaper.

11/18/15-edited for grammar and typos.

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Filed under Class Warfare, Lessons Learned The Hard Way, Race, Social Justice Commentary

Thoughts in brief

What are the obstacles to writing?

In my case, it has been fatigue and a lack of a computer. My last pregnancy was challenging; having a newborn isn’t exactly a process rife with rest and spare arms. I had worked on a lengthy essay to have every computer in my home cease to function – deaths of largely old age. So while my journal has been productive, this site has not.

But here are a few ideas I’d had in the couple months without computer:

1. Marriage equality – We can finally marry whomever we’d like, without the law restricting our marriage pool by sex. This is excellent, and a victory for LGBTQ activists, who have their existence further legitimated by access to one of our society’s oldest institutions. Access to the legal benefits of marriage is important for this, as we are in the current habit of marrying the people we are sexually attracted to, as a significantly large criteria for lifelong companionship happens to be this attraction. Therefore, LGBTQ people who are primarily attracted to someone of the same sex as they are may now enjoy legal benefits.

I am wondering if we will eventually watch marriage change from an institution of love to an institution of companionship. Marriage equity has decoupled the importance of one’s sex, and I would argue sex itself, from marriage, in a legal way. We currently expect that the person we “fall in love with” would be the proper fit for a life long companion. Yet, the benefits that come with marriage are primarily ones benefiting companions – how do you split resources, who has access to you, who can you bring into your country, etc. I can foresee a distant future where the stability of companionship is lauded, and it could be considered sensible for let’s say platonic best friends to get married and be together for life, and have sexual and romantic relationships on the side, not expecting those to fulfill other needs for intimacy and social life. This could be particularly true if someone did not wish to have children. We shall see – I don’t think that would be such a bad thing for society, and I suspect that those wishing to have children would continue to pursue companionship based on attraction.

2. I registered as a member of the Green Party when I moved back to New York State largely out of ideological support for the Green platform and also disillusionment with the Democrats. The disillusionment comes in two forms: A) I am significantly more leftist than the Democrats tend to pursue (especially when it comes to the importance of democratic representation, racial equity, the need for the economy to support everyone, and the environment) and B) Corruption. Oh dear goodness we have a problem with corruption. Abandon hope that your leaders are exclusively in the game for civil service, because there is a plethora of politicians using their positions for personal or financial gain (past that which, you know, having a job permits you). I understand that those whose job is to keep an eye on the legalities are often not permitted to share their findings unless it is politically salient – for instance, the way that Cuomo shut down the Mooreland Commission once it started discovering his problems. Sigh.

The trouble with Green candidates are that they are people who run great with ideas and less on political savvy. They don’t tend to get the large numbers of campaign contributions that Democrats and Republicans get, and they lack the expectation that they will win, so people see them as left-wing “spoilers” instead of honest-to-goodness candidates worthy of consideration. I think that this is quite unfortunate, because their ideas are the best ones, and something I’d like to actively change. My occupation takes me into contact with elected officials, and in my area, elected officials generally means no one from my party of registration. (My life takes me elsewhere – I had an opportunity to show Howie Hawkins around Buffalo and that was a lot of fun.)

I have a funny anecdote where one of the members of the Green Party came to my door seeking me as we were entertaining friends. I was sitting in the glider nursing my son and chatting so my husband answered the door. The fellow, perhaps nervous, failed to identify himself at first, leaving my husband to wonder who was this strange man trying to interrupt his kid’s dinner (National Grid subcontractor? Door to door salesman? Serial killer?) and so Will started to question him on why he was there. Once he realized it was the chair of the local Green Party – oh, my wife would want to talk to you – he had me come to the door. We had a really pleasant conversation about trying to get the local Greens organized and about who was running – he was running for County Executive, another gentleman for another position, and we have a Green challenging a city council position in an adjoining district. Great!

I come to find out later, from a friend of mine who lives outside of the city, that one reason the chair is running for county executive is that our current elected county executive, a Democrat, is apparently pursuing opportunity to ballot on the Green line wihtout actually coordinating anything with the local Greens. Greens don’t cross-endorse. They run their own candidates because really, a cross endorsement just makes you a front for that party. This was really disappointing to me, because I consider our county executive one of the most competent and thoughtful politicians in our area. I appreciate the attention and energy he pays to issues of poverty and the ways that he’s stood up to powerful commercial entities (like the Buffalo Bills) when their interest is not the public one. That doesn’t mean I don’t welcome competition for the post – I happily signed the petition for a Green challenger, Eric Jones. It was further disillusioning to see that my favorite Democrat and otherwise trusted leader is engaging in underhanded political plays too.

3. I’d be remiss not to make note of #BlackLivesMatter, though I find I do not have much to say beyond the usual. You can see how the rhetoric of white supremacy operates – those who direct attention to the factually accurate problematic state of racial relationships in our country are decried as the inventors of the problem (race-baiters), thus discrediting those who seek to create racial equity. After the shooting in the church in Charleston (and I am losing track of all the violence in my sleep-deprived state) – there was discussion of forgiveness and some further discussion about the expectation for forgiveness. It never occurred to me that forgiveness could be a tool of oppression, but I came to see how the expectation that those wronged by racism forgive the perpetrators serves as a way to protect the perpetrators – it’s OK, see, you were forgiven! I think some of the expectation that African Americans “get over” slavery is from the same vein: using forgiveness as a weapon to hide the severity of wrongs.

4. I think Buffalo, in its supposed renaissance, needs to decide what type of city it is going to be. Is it going to be a playground for adults, with lots of new bars and restaurants and things that require the expenditure of disposable income? Is it going to be a great place to raise children, where families stay for a long time? Is it going to be a center of innovation and commerce? I see most efforts going towards lifestyle, restaurants, redeveloping warehouses into fancy lofts, creating a sports arena, and less going into other pursuits. I’ve seen local urban activists dismiss poverty as a problem that we’ll either always have, or that individuals should extract themselves from, ignoring power structures or tacitly supporting them as righteous. If there was one frustration I could cite of urban activists, is that not enough of them, locally, at least, have children. It seems that only parents in the city really care about the schools, and there’s a slew of other urban activists who focus primarily on the aesthetics of urbanity, pursuing development of density at every ideological corner, nevermind that we may not actually have the population to support it. I have concerns about an economy based on industries relying on disposable income when we have such a large problem of poverty.

And those are a few thoughts for now.

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