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not for all my little words

Growing up in Florida, I think I always took the existence of palm trees for granted.

If you've never seen one, if you've only ever grown up with maple and pine and birch trees, a palm tree could be difficult to imagine, because it probably challenges all your notions of what a tree should be. There are no real branches, and its leaves only appear at the top of the tree. Its bark often grows in layers, like a series of stacked funnels, and it usually lists a little to the side, as though it's responding to a wind that isn't there. 

But even if you've never seen one, believing that they exist isn't that hard. There are photographs. You have my testimony, but even if you don't trust me, there is probably someone in your life whom you do trust who has seen one and can vouch for the plant's existence. In all likelihood, you have eaten a coconut. (At the very least, coconut is available at your grocery store.)

If you've never seen one, you can, of course, insist that they're not real, because no one can stop you. I can say that I am actually a dragon if I want to. But just because I say it doesn't make it true. I know that palm trees exist, and even if I hadn't seen them myself, there's enough evidence out there for me to believe in them.

This is how I feel about privilege, and racism, and inequality in America. Telling me they don't exist is like telling me that palm trees aren't real. You can say whatever you want, but it doesn't change the facts.


When I was six or seven years old, my father and I went to the customer service kiosk in DeSoto Square Mall to get a gift certificate for my friend's birthday present. While we were there, the people working the desk tried to give us a toddler. 

She had gotten lost, or been abandoned, or something, and aside from the color of her skin, she looked nothing like us. Also, she was speaking Spanish. This did not change the mall staff's conviction that the baby was ours. 

"That's not my kid," my father said. "I came to buy a gift certificate."

"Sir," they said, "we found your baby. You can't just leave your child."

"But it's not my baby," he said. "That baby is Mexican. I don't even speak Spanish. I'm Asian."

Believe it or not, this went on for quite a bit longer, despite the complete illogic of the situation: why would a baby abandoner return to the scene of the crime? Why would a baby loser not just take their baby back? What didn't they understand about the words "I came to buy a gift certificate"? 

And what I think has stuck with me, even more than the weird mix-up, is the mall staff's complete refusal to believe my father, despite all the evidence to the contrary. He fit their mental model of the child's father (man with brown skin), so it didn't matter to them what he said. It was like he hadn't said anything. That was how much weight they gave it. 

This refusal to validate or take seriously a person's opinion is something I keep thinking about as I read about Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner. Because I can sit here and tell you about my experience with white/non-black privilege all day long, as though it would do anything - not stories from the "liberal media," but my own stories, which are rough and challenging and don't always make me look good. I can tell you about the years I've spent working in economically depressed African-American neighborhoods and compare and contrast it with the poor white kids I've known in Appalachia or the poor Asian kids I've dealt with in other parts of DC. I can tell you about the casual racism in my high school, or all the petty crimes I've seen my white peers get away with, or the fact that no one has ever had to sit my little brother down and warn him how to deal with being harassed by the cops. I can tell you about the areas of Anacostia I've seen that are basically cut off from the rest of the city, devoid of any public transportation in or out, or talk about the old Georgetown leases that explicitly forbade renting houses to black people. I can introduce you to one of my very best friends, someone I will be friends with until I die, who is a brilliant psychologist who happens to be black, and who has put up with more racist bullshit in her life than the day is long. If it's testimony you want, I've got it in spades.

But I don't think it matters if I tell you or not, because proof is not the issue.

Sure, yes, you shouldn't need to hear this from me, because BLACK PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SAYING THIS FOR CENTURIES. Me being white, or Vietnamese, or having a master's degree, or being someone you know personally does not make me more credible. But let's say that for whatever reason, none of these accounts satisfy you, because their authors don't have whatever credential you're looking for. What else do you want? Are you looking for a direct comparison, like, for instance, if a white man and his black friend are arrested at the same time? Here you go. Would you prefer that your witness be both wealthy and an Ivy League alum? Try this. Really only trust the opinions of white women? Yup. Do you need to hear it from Republicans? Got you covered. What if there was, I don't know, video documentation of completely unnecessary police brutality? Unlike Eric Garner, today is your lucky day. (You probably know this, but that video is very difficult to watch. Just a warning.)

This is your evidence that palm trees exist, even though you have never personally seen one.  

I am usually a believer in nuance. I'm opinionated, but there are very few subjects on which I take a completely hard line. This is not one of them. You cannot tell me that it's possible that the palm tree I see could just be an oak with a growth disorder. The proof is there. It's been there. It doesn't matter if you've experienced it firsthand or not. You either have the moral imagination to accept the evidence in front of you, or you don't. And if you don't - if you still somehow believe that we live in a post-racial world, that everyone in America has an equal shot at the top - it doesn't matter who's talking anymore, or what they say. Because you've already made up your mind.


(ETA: I want to clarify that I am not saying that police are bad, or that white people are bad, or anything like that. I am acknowledging that palm trees exist. I am not saying that all trees are palm trees.)

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the poor in spirit

(Because this veers into rant territory, parts of it might be incoherent. Apologies. Remember, this is my sketchbook.)

One of the other teachers sometimes wears a t-shirt from her university mediation group to school. I told her jokingly that I wished we could teach mediation, educate the kids on the idea of the BATNA. But later, I realized that I wasn't joking at all. I work with sixth graders, and historically, between the school transition and the puberty, sixth and seventh grades are prime time for jerkhood no matter where you are. The kids yell at each other. When they get angry about something, instead of just TELLING US, they act it out in weird passive-aggressive ways or blow up over some other, usually much smaller, incident. And it's ridiculous. I tell them all the time that if they would just speak nicely to each other, their detentions would probably go down by 50%. The root problems wouldn't go away, and there would still be times when a good holler was necessary, but the road to solving them would be a lot smoother and faster for everyone.

But even so, I like them (obviously), and I know they have the skills to act decently. It's a matter of practice.

The other night I went out with that same teacher in a group for her boyfriend's birthday. She introduced me to one of her other friends as follows: "This is Miss Eason. She thinks about privilege a lot." (This was a compliment. She'd heard me read one of my essays.)

She's right. I do. Because, over the last eight years, I've spent a lot of time working with those very same kids, mostly very poor, mostly minorities, and - often because of the behavior described above - every day you spend doing that is a hit from a boxing glove on a spring, one that's labeled "Privilege." BAM! You did not struggle with this. POW! You took this for granted. WHAM! This problem never even occurred to you. And, to add insult to injury, the rest of the world often sends the message of fault - that struggle is a result of error, that the punches you feel are all in your head.

Because these boxing metaphors are somewhat opaque, however, I'd rather share the best summation of privilege that I've read recently - a hard knock to the idea that everyone here has the same shot. It comes from this article (via my friend Veronica, a former teacher herself).

There’s no give in the finances of a low-wage family: no margin for error, no wiggle room to account for the inevitable vagaries of life. Each day is spent tiptoeing along the edge of a canyon, knowing that the slightest breeze could push you right in.

Things that seem fairly minor to middle-income families — an unexpected car repair, a high heating bill during a cold snap, a trip to the E.R. when little Connor breaks his arm — are cause for total panic, because there’s no cushion to absorb them. Pay for that car repair and now there’s not enough for the light bill; forgo the light bill and now there’s a late fee; pay for all that and now there’s not enough for the rent.

It takes almost nothing to start a real avalanche.

My head started to hurt. People sometimes say folks are poor because they make “bad decisions,” but she wasn’t doing anything wrong (and society needs nurse’s aides, after all, so it seems reasonable to hope you could be one without worrying about starving).

What’s more, I could think of many middle-income and well-off people who’d made “bad decisions” without spiraling into poverty; the difference was just that they’d had the resources to fix them. (They could afford counseling and medication for the depression that sparked the alcohol problem, pay off credit cards just by trimming back on vacations and eating out. They could go back for a second semester after partying and flunking out, because it hadn’t taken their entire life savings to get them there for the first.)

But she had no cushion. There could be no surprises. She could not make mistakes.

I was raised to believe in the power of perseverance to overcome obstacles. I saw it happen through my parents, two of the hardest-working people that I know - people who, truth be told, operated without a cushion for a good part of their adult lives. I was raised to believe that people naturally gravitate towards a market economy. And to be honest, I still do, in my own way.

But I can't handle anymore the inverse of that idea, that these life challenges always equal fault somehow, that privilege doesn't matter that much, that the market weeded you out. As though trauma can't be inherited; as though simply attending your local school is definitely enough to prepare you for the world; as though, if you have all your paperwork in order, your applications or your loans or your processes will definitely go through. As though emotions are illegitimate, or they play no role.

Here is life in America: we trade things with each other, because that is our natural impulse, but not everyone has access to roads, or is allowed to trade with everyone else. Your school might not prepare you for the world. Your culture might not be recognized as legitimate by other people, which is, in a way, the same thing as saying that you are not legitimate either. And the world will tell you that this is your fault, because on paper you had the same chance as everyone else. But paper is two-dimensional. It doesn't let anyone else in.

The Salon article above ends with a call to compassion. In their marvelous book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, the Catholic theologians Henri Nouwen, Donald McNeill, and Douglas Morrison argue that compassion means "to suffer with" - to understand the experience of another before making these judgments or decisions. It's easy to write off compassion as a series of inefficient handouts, a pie-in-the-sky solution, instead of what it really means: changing the tenor of the argument, lowering the amount that we scream at each other. Trying to understand the vast systemic factors that inform the other person's viewpoint. Privilege is about not having to suffer unless we choose to do so, but making that choice - the choice to at least listen and understand - doesn't mean giving in as much as it means making the problems easier to handle, by everyone. We who have so many resources, can it really be so hard?

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what we had and what we lost

I wasn't really planning on writing about Jordan Davis. Because it's not like my opinion differs from thousands of others (death --> bad --> injustice), and anyone who has ever met me, or read anything I've ever written, could probably have guessed my stance. Besides, while I do hit that sweet spot of being both famous and widely beloved,* I don't have quite the following necessary to inspire a mass peace 'n' justice movement. Maybe next year.

But then, in a Florida Times-Union article about the case, I came across the following line:

“We all wanted to live lavish,” [Davis' friend Floyd] Haynes said. “We all wanted to be successful. We all wanted to be successful, not rich, but powerful, like music as it moves through you.” 

This is a description that stopped me in my (reading) tracks - I actually went back and read through it again to make sure I understood it. It's a throwaway line in a regional newspaper on a case that still isn't receiving the attention that it should, and it comes from a seventeen-year-old. It's amazing - a perfect description of power and desire and teenage aspiration. And its speaker was a friend and a peer of this boy who got shot, a person who, by luck and by chance, still happens to be alive.

I was talking to a teacher the other day and we were complaining about how the great flaw in educator memoirs is that it fails to capture how funny and brilliant and alive children, in particular, can be. We get so caught up in the narrative of long hours and poverty and solitude that we forget to notice the rest. I know a sixth grader who, on paper, is a low-income minority at a public school who can't pronounce his Rs and reads at the level of an eight-year-old. He is also, and this is not an exaggeration, one of the smartest people I've ever met; his metaphors are boundless, he has a knack for teaching others that some adults I know could learn from, and his ability to improvise a story is unparalleled. He has an imaginary acquaintance named Baby D. The other day, we had the following exchange:

MISS EASON [Student], I know you were running out there. Baby D told me.

STUDENT (looks me straight in the eye) You are a fibber. Because yesterday I sat on Baby D, and now he's in the hospital.

I have known this kid for about three months, and even with that short period of time, I can tell you that my life is better - more entertaining, more colorful, grander - for having known him. And he's just one example; over the course of my (varied) career, I've known literally thousands of children, and I could give you ten more descriptions of ten equally amazing students right now off the top of my head. We're so accustomed to focusing on the struggle that we ignore the fact that these students have just as much capacity for magic as any other human. Which is why, issues of injustice aside, it physically hurts me to think that these are the children who will grow up to be targets, that the only thing that separates them from the fate of Trayvon Martin or Jordan Davis or a hundred other unnamed victims is luck.

And this is what I wish we would talk about more, aside from the obvious issues of light and darkness: the fact that when someone - particularly a young person like Jordan Davis - dies, our world is dimmer. Naomi Shihab Nye says that "(a) man leaves the world/and the streets he lived on/grow a little bit shorter." We have no idea what or whom Jordan Davis could have become. We have no idea what words he could have spoken. Because the streets he would have walked on are shorter now.

Instead, we have the words of someone much like him, whose survival seems at this point to almost be a fluke, and the words of some girl who happened to read about it. So I guess that's why I changed my mind about writing this. Not because my own words are so eloquent or so deserved, but, because I am alive, I can at least use them to call attention to the ones we don't have anymore.

 

*joke

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we lift our outspread hands

 (On the heels of the post about the Italian reporter.)

 For about five years or so, it seemed as though everyone I met had read Ender's GameI suspect that, especially in the '80s and '90s, it was a frequent teacher suggestion for "smart" kids who didn't fit in, in one way or another; Ender is in some ways a prototypical prodigy, a kid whose power is used by others until he finally takes control of his own narrative. It would be a lie to say that his life gets fixed, per se, but it's a good book for outcasts to read, because he does ultimately learn to make his life work within the circumstances he has.

I've been thinking about Ender more lately than I have in a long time. When I returned to DC, I joined a faith-based social justice group, and our talk of late has been on the ever-cheery topic of drone warfare. What's weird is that Ender's Game more or less exactly predicts drone warfare and its consequences (spoiler alert: not pretty). What's weirder is that despite the fact that Orson Scott Card wrote a book in which I beautifully see my moral dilemmas outlined, there are other areas in which I can't really find any common ground with him at all. It's hard to reconcile.

There are a lot of ways in which long-distance killing, of men indiscriminately classified as "militants," seems to be the next (inevitable) step in humanity's (inevitable) decline. There are also a lot of ways in which I just want Orson Scott Card to be a Dude I Can Admire, instead of finding myself on the same page with a person I find otherwise difficult to stomach. Add to that the guilt of worrying about anything at *all* as a rich Westerner, and the inevitable personal and professional stresses that some weeks hit harder than others, and it all combines with the stupid and horrible problems of the world to make everything feel overwhelming, even for a privileged girl safe in a second-floor apartment in Washington. And after a while, you find yourself sympathizing with the righteous anger of this excerpt from George Appleton's Oxford Book of Prayer:

We worship death in our quest to possess ever more things; we worship death in our hankering after our own security, our own survival, our own peace, as if life were divisible, as if love were divisible, as if Christ had not died for all of us. To You we lift our outspread hands.

As if life were divisible. As if love were divisible. What vain messes we are as humans. Seriously, how do we stand ourselves?

And yet: you can't do anything if you're drowning in a sea of worry, and if you're fretting about how stupid it is for you to fret. (Welcome to the American dream: the luxury to worry about worrying.) Being with others tonight, finding fellowship even over such grim topics, was a good reminder that, in our quest to create a better world, sometimes we have to remind ourselves that happiness remains. In the words of Jennifer Michael Hecht, in a piece I think I've quoted in every journal I've ever had,

...The way you can sit there, miserable, and every person you can think of seems miserable. A is jealous of her boyfriend, B has just been put on Depakote, and C has a cat. Which is to say that life seems gross and frustrating and you feel certain that happiness or satisfaction isn't real. At least you're not singled out for misery, at least it's endemic and egalitarian...
[But] there are moments of such joy in writing this, and sometimes in looking out my window onto First Avenue. And if all that is true, that no one is happy and yet there is happiness, that the human heart changes more than you'd ever expect and yet it also runs alongside its chariot, blooming sweat and pounding away with the same glory that I feel right now, then it might also be true that we were once about twenty-one years old and standing outside my parent's house, and it was autumn, we were in college near my hometown and you were picking me up for a class we taking together. I carried my camera around a lot back then, largely because I was inspired by the photo album you and Linda had compiled when you were together... So I have this picture of you, under the tree, leaves everywhere, drinking from one of my parents' mugs. I guess we used to bring the mugs into the car and then return them at the end of the day. I guess we were alive, and I am alive, and the person in the photograph is you.

It's not revealing too much to say that Ender does not give up, despite a series of outcomes that would make anyone else reach for their cyanide capsules. Even that prayer offers a measure of hope: it doesn't end with "We worship death. UGHHHH WE ARE THE WORST," but rather a motion towards redemption. I guess that, as simplistic as it may sound, it's useful to remind ourselves sometimes that even if it seems that no one is happy, there is happiness. That no matter how frustrating the world becomes, there is joy in learning and being with friends and seeing the night sky. That we were alive, and that I am.

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the politics of difference

Transient

 I'm afraid this post might not be coherent, because this particular topic makes me really, really angry. But I obviously care enough to write about it, so I'll do my best to also make it readable.

I was raised to not be mean. This sounds like an obvious thing, but there's a big difference between "being raised without being encouraged to be mean" and "being actively encouraged to not be mean." My mother, who is otherwise a fairly quiet and laid-back person, was very firm on this point. We did not tell each other to shut up in my house. We disagreed, and we fought, but we did not yell at each other. Whenever an ad hominem element crept into a complaint about school or work, the response was usually something along the lines of "Okay, that part's not relevant." We could be frustrated, and angry, but mean, we were gently reminded, was never necessary.

So I think that this cultivated aversion to meanness is a big part of the problem I have with the coverage of Rachel Jeantel. Jeantel, you may have heard, is the star witness in the Trayvon Martin case, the girl who was on the phone with him when he was shot. You have also probably heard the following: that her testimony was "embarrassing" and "humiliating"; that she is "brutally ignorant" and "stupid"; that she is "unreliable" and "inconsistent," "cringe-worthy" and "difficult to understand." 

She has her defenders, of course, but even many of them are saying that "she's not the one on trial," which implies that these characteristics are irrelevant to her role - not that the critiques themselves are wrong.

In my opinion, however, they're nasty, petty attacks on a perfectly fine witness. Let's take a closer look at them, one by one.

  1. Rachel Jeantel is stupid because she can't read cursive writing. I grew up in Florida public schools. Believe me: it is totally plausible that her education there did not teach her cursive. It is also plausible that she was taught cursive, but for a variety of potential life reasons didn't have the resources to focus on her education. Or maybe she's dyslexic. None of these equate to stupidity

  2. Rachel Jeantel is unreliable because she (lied about x, y, z/is on record as drinking and smoking). Jeantel lied about being a minor (she wasn't) and going to Trayvon Martin's funeral (she didn't). She says she claimed to be under 18 because she wanted to avoid media attention - possibly because, as a young, poor, heavyset black woman, she knew that she would receive exactly the kind of attention that she's getting now. Are we going to blame her for not wanting that?

    She didn't go to Trayvon's funeral because she was traumatized by the fact that she was on the phone with a friend who then died. Which, again, seems totally reasonable to me. She drinks and she smokes and she Tweets about getting her nails done before court BECAUSE SHE'S NINETEEN AND NINETEEN-YEAR-OLDS ARE NOT RENOWNED FOR THEIR DECISION-MAKING SKILLS. Go find a freshman student government representative at UVA who doesn't drink or smoke, and then get back to me.


  3. Rachel Jeantel is hostile and/or incomprehensible, which hurts her credibility as a witness. First of all, the way we talk about language in this country drives me up a wall - with so much disdain, as though a person who speaks differently, in a way that hasn't been adopted by the mainstream, is dumb by default. Perhaps the reason that this particular dialect is not in the mainstream is because American society oppressed black people for hundreds of years? Just a thought. There's a long history of patchwork dialects in this world, and if you want to dismiss the way Jeantel speaks, bear in mind that you're also dismissing large English-speaking swaths of the Indian subcontinent and the entire nation of Haiti. Also, I understood her perfectly fine, and I'm not even an auditory learner. 
     
    Regarding her hostility*: personally, I think that makes her more credible, not less. Her friend is dead and now she has to talk about it in public, which doesn't sound like a fun afternoon to me. And again, she must have known how America would perceive her, justly or not. Who actively looks forward to being mocked?

To sum: Rachel Jeantel is embarrassing to herself and others because she is a) poor, b) young, c) black, and d) angry that her friend is dead. In other words, she is embarrassing because she is herself and not us. If that is not the very definition of meanness, I don't know what is.

 *** 

An interesting companion to this debate is a recent Buzzfeed piece on the one and only Kanye West, "In Defense of Kanye's Vanity." Their take on the musician's widely mocked narcissism is fascinating and, I think, very important:

To assert that, despite the boundaries of a racist world that strangles your very view of what is possible, you are still going to be out here stuntin’ on everyone, that you will love yourself and love yourself excessively, is powerful beyond measure. And as many black artists have said before, for black folks to love themselves is a political act. The poet Audre Lorde captures it best: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” 

With Kanye and with Rachel Jeantel, we are free to wish that they might appear more gentle, or comfortable, or familiar. But they have no obligation to be what we consider "palatable," and we have no right to expect it. Because it may be that our definition is what needs changing, and not the protests against it.

*Do not get me started on so-called "hostility" or "aggressiveness" in women, which is an entirely separate conversation. 

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