I don’t know who I am. I don’t know how to be. I don’t know what’s next or even, sometimes, what’s come before. Even “where am I?” is a difficult question these days.
If I let a few days pass without scribing my three pages, I come a little unmoored. It took a while to notice this. These unholy pauses are sometimes followed by a great volume of ink, often equal to the aggregate number of missed pages. Now I’ve instituted a ‘catch up routine’ — whenever I miss a day, I mark my notebook where I’d be had I written every day. And then I catch up.
It seems to matter.
Strangely, writing makes me feel better even when dedicated to identifying what’s bothering me. Turns out, knowing what’s bothering me even without remedy is preferable to being bothered and ignorant to cause.
Does anyone understand why this is so?
I’ll answer the above questions, out of curiosity? Can you?
“Who am I?” All the labels hang like loose chads, so I’ll let Joni Mitchell’s words stand in as answer: “I am a woman of heart and mind, with time on her hands, no child to raise…” Maybe?
“How to be?” How to be with respect to writing, that is: Stay at it. Don’t let doubt in any of its guises derail you. The rest is detail: collect 18th century language; bounce between public risk and private assembly; keep assessing the story’s pace. Keep at it. Vanquish doubt.
“Where am I?” I’ve lived at this address for 23 years and in this town since 1986, so it’s strange to feel like I don’t really belong here. Did I ever? And if not here, where? Having been uprooted every few years growing up, I wanted stability for my boys and this was a good town for them to grow up in. But now? And it’s not just the leaf blowers.
The state of our nation and our planet shove disorientation down my throat in a manner most vile. Is this country mine anymore? Will there be a coup? Who will take him and his cronies down and when? Knowing that MILLIONS of Americans share my shock and grief doesn’t alter the central fact of my fearful alienation. Where am I, indeed!
Boston Climate March
I’ll leave you with Naomi Klein’s key note speech from the recent San Miguel’s writers conference. It is hair-raising in its precise measure of our perilous state but also galvanizing… perhaps the best political media I’ve taken in for weeks.
‘We don’t have four years,’ she says. ‘The planet doesn’t have four years’.
‘The entire political system has to change,’ she says, ‘We have to SWERVE.’ (What does that mean?)
‘It’s not enough to resist. We have to also build.’ How? How?
Recently, I attended an OSPAN anti-racism workshop run by Didi Delgado and Leslie Mac. (#OSPAN — stands for “Organizing on (Safety) Pins and Needles.” Developed by Leslie Mac and Marissa Jenae Johnson, these in-person and online trainings are designed to help whites become better allies. Attending was my way to take constructive action after being stunned by Didi Delgado’s incisive piece about whites’ failures at being allies: The Caucasian Invasion.It was a smart move. I came away both charged and humbled. The meeting was held in Boston a few blocks from Fort Point Channel. I took the T in, which for this old broad was something of an adventure. The clouds were gorgeous and it was a little too warm for my pea coat, but I would’ve been cold in anything lighter. That’s the kind of spring we’re having.
The meeting started a half-hour late, during which time I was stunned (agog really) to see how focused the gathering group was on their phones (what can I say? I don’t get out much). Hardly anyone talked or introduced themselves. I ate cinnamon Altoids (five at a time for some real fire) and — what else? — looked at my phone.
It was a decent-sized group with all ages represented. About half of the attendees were employees of non-profits, individuals clearly charged with bringing back reports. A fair number of UU ministers were present.
After some emphatic jokes about the origins of the program being ‘finding a way to get white people to pay me’ (which, P.S., I have no problem with) and a very brief ice-breaking exercise, the facilitators went over basic rules of engagement (listed below). Many in the group appeared to be familiar with them. I was not.
TAKE INDIVIDUAL AND COLLECTIVE RESPONSIBILITY. To be an effective ally, whites must both own and counter our status of privilege. This means addressing the sins of the past (i.e. slavery and its ongoing legacy) as well as acknowledging the privilege of the present. In any given setting or relationship, ask, ‘who has the power here?’ and ‘how am I wielding my power?’ and ‘how can I leverage privilege in aid of marginalized or oppressed people?’
ATTACK THE PROBLEM NOT THE PERSON. Didi Delgado shared about how truly awful some of the comments to her articles are by way exemplifying how to violate this rule.
PROGRESSIVE STACK and STEP FORWARD/STEP BACK, according to wikipedia:
The progressive stack attempts to counter a flaw in traditional representative democracy, where the majority is heard while the non-dominant groups are silenced or ignored. In practice, “majority culture” is interpreted by progressive stack practitioners to mean White people, men and young adults, while non-dominant groups include women, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, people of color, and very young or older people.
The “stack” is the list of speakers who are commenting or asking questions in public meetings. Anyone can request to be added to the stack. Generally, people speak in the order in which they were added to the queue. By contrast, in meetings using the progressive stack, ‘stack-keepers’ invite people from non-dominant groups to speak first (i.e. before people from dominant groups). They use the phrases ‘step forward’ or ‘step back’ to manage the list.
4. OUCH AND OOPS. ‘Ouch’ is a shorthand reaction to an offensive remark and ‘oops’ a shorthand response. This technique can be employed to briefly acknowledge hurtful statements or attitudes and apologize for same, with the goal of keeping a meeting from being derailed. Participants can choose to explore at greater length outside the meeting, or not.
Personal aside: You know that moment in “Hidden Figures” when the Kirsten Dunst character is trying to defend or apologize for her complicity with racist decisions within NASA (and really fucking it up) and the Octavia Spencer character says, “you might want to stop talking now”? That was a major ‘ouch’ and ‘oops’ moment.
I wished I’d had this technique sooner in life. Funnily enough, the friend with whom I attended “Hidden Figures” said those exact words to me years earlier. It happened at a track meet when I sputtered aloud my surprise that our kids’ coach was Black (there were reasons why it surprised me). I tried to add nuance to the statement — it was a sign of progress that it never came up, in my parents’ generation it would have, just like not knowing Mr. ______ was gay for two years. Blah, blah. She at last said: “you might want to stop talking now.”
Picture this then, years later, white woman leaning toward black woman in the cinematic dark, whispering,”You said that to me once upon a time.” The two of them laughing.
5. THERE IS NO QUICK FIX.
“Racism is a morphing beast.” (Leslie Mac)
Because racism is a constantly evolving, complex problem, fighting racial injustice requires sustained effort and ongoing learning. Activism of this sort does not lend itself to a check-list. “White people LOVE lists,” Leslie Mac joked (it’s true!) and then added, “anti-racism isn’t a a list. You can’t check if off.”
The work is messy and we’re gonna get messy doing it.
6. INTENT v. IMPACT
While some slack can be given to those allies with good intentions but little to show for them, black people have the right to make judgments based on value.
Is our involvement casual? More like a hobby than a sustained commitment? Would we risk our lives, the way they are forced, day by day, to risk theirs?
“I can’t eat your good intentions.” Leslie Mac
Here are some other points covered:
Support of Black lives cannot be conditional.
African American activists don’t have to frame their message in ways palatable to white people in order for us to support them. Didi Delgado is often dismissed as an “angry black woman” and in fact two of the recurring criticisms of her recent article were that it wasn’t constructive enough and its tone was too abrasive.
How can anger be a disqualifier given the history of oppression in this country?
T-shirt at the event:
“BLACK LIVES MATTER
more than white feelings”
Needing a tax receipt for a gift is inherently conditional. Below please find some creative forms of giving (shared with permission):
Black people are not monoliths. Neither are their responses to oppression.
The imposition that every black person speak for all black people is something James Baldwin referred to as : “the burden of representation”.
The burden of representation is not only hurtful and limiting in one on one exchanges, it is corrosive to wider intellectual inquiry and has a way of encouraging tokenism.
Certainly there ought to be room for elegant rants as well as polite political analyses.
I suppose whites make value judgments about who their sources are, as well, gravitating toward those that inspire rather than demoralize. But, if one is not feeling uncomfortable at least some of the time, it might be worth asking ‘what am I avoiding?’
White missteps are inevitable and we ought to anticipate them
How can #WHITEFRAGILITY surprise us anymore? Our job is not to avoid screwing up (and certainly not to avoid being in the fray out of fear of fucking up), but to make the recovery time quicker and a tad more graceful.
Name it / Claim it / Tame it.
Didi Delgado: “I’m still holding white people’s hands during my oppression.” Also: “I don’t want to spend time with someone who leaves me on the line because I made them uncomfortable.”
We mustn’t forget to act!
These are the stages to becoming a decent ally. We need to guard against getting stuck toggling between learning and reflection and failing ever to get to action.
Leslie Mac: “People ask, ‘what should I do,’ but once you get through the first steps, knowing what to do will be obvious.”
“At some point if we’re gonna dig a hole, someone has to pick up a god-damned shovel.” Leslie Mac
Accountability is a real thing.
One of the primary objections to some white efforts — Stand Up for Racial Justice, for example (explored in Delgado’s article, The Caucasian Invasion) — is the lack of accountability to people of color. It’s one thing to take ownership for learning history and understanding grass-roots movements, it is another thing altogether to expect to effectively fight racism with no actual ties to Black people.
Becoming accountable is an ask, one with real risks (see: ‘it’s messy’, above). However, absence of accountability is no excuse for failing to act.
Hope you benefited from this post. As always, comments welcome.
PS As a writer of a novel set in South Carolina during the mid-eighteenth century, I am really flummoxed on the business of accountability. How do I ask a Black reader to review my manuscript — it’s long, for one thing. And for another, the issues around creating authentic voices, cultural appropriation and exploitation of African American pain are really tangled (2022 add: and perhaps insurmountable).
It was in the 20’s when I walked Finn this morning. I went back for my hat. I’m tired of the cold. And, I’m just tired. Slept ten hours last night and could barely get out of bed. Not feeling great.
These critters cheer me though. Some are waiting for collaboration for wooden legs (the windowsill crowd). Some are just waiting for me (chicken in the studio). The most recent one (at bottom) is raggier than usual and might signal a trend.
Is she a dog? Is she a mouse? Believe it or not, for a while, she looked like an elk. Whatever she is, have no fear — her hearing is sharp! She’s been catching the news and how could she not, pinned to a board 15 feet from the TV screen? I like to imagine this morning that she is cocking her ear to Adam Schiff. Maybe she’s whispering, “Did you say ‘not circumstantial’? Did I hear you say ‘direct’ — as in direct evidence of collusion?”
If her little legs weren’t indigo dyed strips of loosely hanging vintage organza, she might do a little happy dance.
The idea is to get cities and towns to pass resolutions asking the House to begin investigating whether there are grounds for impeachment (there are, of course — more unfolding by the day). The idea is to express tangible outrage and exert public pressure.
They are focusing on the emoluments clause because that evidence is already in, even without the tax returns. DJT has been in violation of it for every minute of every hour since he took the oath of office.
Relentless pressure. From all quarters. This is not normal. This cannot go on.
PS At link above you can sign their online petition (for what it’s worth). Almost a million already have.