Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Immigrant Anxiety is Nothing New

I recently had the pleasure of sharing my talk about "Living in More than One World" at Calvary Church in Wyncote, PA. (I feel a little like the Sigourney Weaver character in one of my favorite movies, Galaxy Quest -- I have one sermon, and I'm gonna preach it!) Anyway, I'm thankful for the opportunity to share with such a responsive group of people.

Just a quick synopsis of my message for context's sake -- during the talk I explore three stories of people who had to learn to live in more than one world. Story #1 looks at the early life of Moses from the first few chapters of the book of Exodus. Story #2 takes a peek at Ryan King, the protagonist of my middle grade novel, King Me! Finally, story #3 describes my own journey as a white person who needed to learn that my experience is not universal. During this part of the talk I explore the unearned, invisible privileges my whiteness affords me.

As I was reviewing my notes in preparation, the story of Moses jumped out at me for its relevance to our current world situation. Written thousands of years ago, this second book of the Pentateuch begins with the story of an immigrant population, the Hebrews, who suffered great oppression at the hands of their host country. Maybe you know the story -- Joseph and his family migrated to Egypt because of a famine (in other words, they were refugees). The Hebrew population flourished there, and after several centuries a king came to power who wasn't too happy about the presence of the Hebrews. Why? There might have been lots of reasons, but the text tells us that the king was worried because, in his mind, there were just too many Israelites around. "Come," he said, "we must deal shrewdly with them, or they will become even more numerous and if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country" (1:10). Sound familiar? This very rationalization was used to place over 100,000 Japanese people, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens, in camps during WWII. As our government has since admitted, many Japanese children, women, and men suffered because of anxiety and fear fueled by racism. 

Tragically, some haven't seemed to learn from either the ancient or recent past. It's becoming common in some circles to conflate the categories "immigrant," "refugee," and "terrorist" as if the words are interchangeable. Of course, they are not. The world is a scary place, I get it. We need to be careful, okay, I think we can all agree on that. But when we let fear take the place of rational thought, when apprehension outweighs logic, when anxiety overpowers compassion, we may find ourselves in an endless loop, repeating variations of the same sad, terrifying story. I know, the U.S. is not forcing anyone into slavery or relocating them to internment camps. But the recent so-called travel ban was so swiftly and poorly executed that, to me, it seemed more an expression of anger and anxiety than an attempt at national safety. Other more horrifying recent suggestions take us closer to the loop, such as watches on Muslim neighborhoods and a required Muslim registry.

Since I started with a sci-fi quote, I guess it's fitting I end with one. From Battlestar Galactica (also found in Ecclesiastes 1:9 and apparently in Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie) -- "All of this has happened before and will happen again." But does it have to? Maybe I'm hopeful, or maybe I'm just stubborn, but I don't believe we're destined to repeat our mistakes. We can stop the loop if we insist our leaders take actions based on logical, reasonable analysis of facts tempered with compassion, and not on rhetoric peppered with conflation and deflection (honestly, some of the arguments I'm hearing lately wouldn't pass muster in a freshman college writing course). Regardless of our political persuasion or who we voted for, we can agree that the role of government is to keep citizens safe. But we can do better than instituting sweeping orders based on fear and devoid of nuance. We must.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

OK, You're Not Racist. Now Prove It.

It's been a few days since the election and it's taken me that time to put my emotions in check and gather my thoughts. As a person who believes that her faith compels her toward social justice, this has been hard for me. I'm going light on social media these days, too, because I'm tired. Maybe you feel the same. So much has been, is being, and will continue to be said about this election that really, what can I add? But there is one thing I want to say before, for my sanity and inner peace, I need to move on. So here it is, for what it's worth.

Several of my friends have posted that they voted for the Republican nominee, but please don't call them racist. Please don't make assumptions about them because of how they voted. Okay, I understand. People make assumptions about me all the time and I don't like it either. Plus, I've learned that calling people racist is not the way to keep dialog open, which has always been my goal. And the truth is, I know these people well. They're my friends and I really don't think they are racist (most of them, anyway). So, maybe they voted the way they did because they want more jobs, or they're pro-life, or they want change, or they don't like the Affordable Care Act, or they felt they had no other choice because as much as they don't like him, they don't like her even more. Okay, whatever. I suppose there are many reasons a person could vote for someone who promotes dangerous stereotypical ideas about entire populations. Let's face it, most of us don't agree with everything any one candidate says or stands for, and when it comes down to it, most of us vote based on an overall philosophical or religious stance, not on everything the candidate or party promotes. I get that.

But here's what I don't get. During the days, weeks, and months leading up to the Republican primary there were so many choices. There were so many people who I considered to be more worthy candidates -- people who were experienced, reasonable, didn't insult others, people I could have lived with. Perhaps you voted for one of them. How did it happen, then, that the one candidate who continually spewed insults and basically acted like a seventh grader (apologies to seventh graders everywhere) became the Republican nominee? How is it that the majority of people who voted in the Republic primaries voted for the one person who created such a toxic environment? There were so many other choices. 

Therefore, I can't help but believe that while you may not be racist, somewhere out there, somebody is. Somewhere out there are a large number of people who agree with the incindiary comments he made about whole groups of people throughout the election season. That is what frightens me the most. 

So, here's my challenge. If you're truly not racist, prove it. Demand from your President a reasonable and compassionate approach to immigration. Demand that law enforcement personnel be both supported AND accountable for their actions. Demand that whatever replaces the Affordable Care Act take into account people who can't afford insurance premiums and who don't make enough money to create health savings accounts. Demand that equitable education for all our children be a priority. 

And don't put up with those people within your sphere of influence who will feel emboldened by the election results to perpetuate stereotypes or make racist statements in their everyday conversations. Whether during a conversation with  Uncle Whoever at Thanksgiving dinner or with your neighbor while you're out raking leaves, shut it down in no uncertain terms. You might say something like, "Yes, I agree we need more jobs, but I don't agree that all Muslims are terrorists. That's ridiculous." Or, "I agree that we need to secure our borders, but I know that most undocumented immigrants are hard working people who are trying to find a better life and support their families." 

With power comes responsibility. With control comes accountability. Now is your time. Prove it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Hearing the Hurt

I had a hard time sleeping last night. It was the voices.

No, I'm not losing it (yet). The voices I heard were real - they were the voices of people who shared openly and honestly last night at a community forum on race. Twenty-five or so folks of diverse racial backgrounds met in a small room at a public library to talk about race relations. I spoke a little but mostly I listened to the voices of African American neighbors in pain. Here's some of what I heard:

"Why did it take me so long to get a job? I have a degree and ten years of experience. I was told several times that I was the most qualified. So why did it take me so long to get a job?"

"Why do I have to see Confederate flags in people's windows when I walk to work? Do they understand what that symbol means? Why do my kids have to see that symbol of hate when they walk to school every day?"

"The N-word is flown like crazy here. Why is there so much anger in this area?"

"I was raised to respect authority. I'm proud to have served my country in the military. Why do I have to be afraid when a police car slows near me?"

"Why was my daughter treated so poorly by some of the white athletes at her high school? And why didn't the administration do anything about it when I complained?"

As a white person, I can never fully understand what it must feel like to live with questions like these every day of my life. As a white person, I have the privilege of pulling race out of my back pocket when I feel like dealing with it and keeping it safely tucked away there when I don't. As a white person, I don't have to live with the hurt. But I hear it. And I'm sorry.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Colin Kaepernick and The Anger

Have you noticed that conversations about race often result in anger? And, for better or worse, social media has provided a ripe environment for the expression of that anger. Take, for example, the latest controversy over the decision by several NFL players to use body language during the playing of the National Anthem to express dissatisfaction over the treatment of people of color in this country. Most players are “taking a knee” (a position associated with prayer in religious traditions and with quiet respect for an injured player in sports), although a few have sat or raised fists in protest. None of this is new, of course. A very long time ago some kids at my high school sat when the National Anthem was played during school assemblies to protest the war in Vietnam. I was one of them. Back then, no one seemed to care all that much, at least in my New York City public school. There were no cameras recording our every move and as long as we were quiet, the teachers didn’t say a word about it.

Today, however, this kind of stuff is making some folks very angry. I’m not afraid of anger – in fact, I find it to be a familiar companion. It doesn’t take much to annoy me and I’m usually perfectly happy to tell you how the world would be a better place if only people did things my way. Though I try to be a nice person, I can be a little crotchety and you’ll want to keep your distance if I’m hungry – “hangry” is the better term. But the kind of anger I’m talking about is a much stronger emotion. It’s much deeper than my flittering annoyance – it lives in a hidden place where it smolders quietly, ready to explode when someone primes the pump. Some of the nicest people I know, kind, caring people, can let loose a rage on Facebook that leaves me concerned and a little perplexed. And while I think that anger can benefit us if it spurs us to some needed action, it can also blind us. Left unexamined, anger can block other important emotions like empathy, kindness, and supportiveness. It can hinder our ability to understand someone else’s perspective. So, anger should be fully explored. Where is the anger that surrounds issues of race coming from? What’s at the bottom of it, and why is it so tenacious?

Let me give you an example of some fairly explosive anger I witnessed first hand over the topic of race relations. I was researching 11th grade honors students’ responses to The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s devastating depiction of Depression era racism in the U.S. The book especially focuses on the emotional damage inflicted on African American women by the dominance of white beauty standards. The students’ responses formed the basis of chapter four in my book, Race Among Friends.

If you’ve read The Bluest Eye you know that the content is enough to make anyone angry. African Americans in the novel are treated deplorably, but the treatment of the children is especially hard to take. Reading that book could and should make anyone angry. If it doesn’t, we’re either heartless or we’ve shielded ourselves from anything other than happy, positive feelings (unless something goes wrong that directly affects us personally, of course. Then it’s okay to feel angry or sad). So, one might have expected the African American students in the class to respond to Morrison’s text in anger. Reading the brutal details of how one’s ancestors were treated simply because of the color of their skin could, understandably, make one angry.

I’d like to start this paragraph with the words, “Imagine my surprise,” but the truth is I was not surprised at all at what happened in that classroom. Because I’ve been talking about race for a long time in a variety of settings, I wasn’t surprised at who got angry and who didn’t. It wasn’t the black kids who got angry. It wasn’t the kids who had to read about people of their background being degraded and humiliated who lashed out in anger at their classmates. It was the white kids. And they weren’t angry about the treatment of the characters in the novel, either. No. They were angry that we were reading the story at all. In their view, racism was over and they were sick of hearing about it. Slavery happened a long time ago – why couldn’t people just get over it? Why couldn’t the young girl in the story who was made to feel that her blackness made her ugly just look in the mirror and say, “I’m beautiful”? The deeper we delved into the book, the angrier the white kids became. “Why are you trying to make us feel guilty?” they demanded to know. Racism was not their fault. Racism was over. And the more we pointed out ways that racism is not, in fact, over, the more strongly they resisted. When their African American “friends” in the class tried to explain their point of view, many white students simply could not or would not understand. Their anger stood in the way. So what was going on here? What was the source of all this anger?

Back to those NFL protests – why does the peaceful protest of a few football players generate such an intensity of anger for some? Is it the form the protest is taking – the perceived disrespect to the symbols of our nation? What would be a better form of protest? Picketing? Stopping traffic? A work stoppage? A boycott? Disruption of a government function? How about instituting a government shutdown with possible loss of pay for thousands of veterans? For some, the symbols of the flag and the National Anthem have been elevated to religious status and any deviation from the proper body language (even not placing one’s hand over one’s heart during the Pledge) is an insult that cannot be tolerated.

But I think there’s more going on here. I believe that the anger expressed through social media over the NFL players’ protest is comparable to that of those 11th graders reading The Bluest Eye. Deep down, some folks just don’t understand what the protest is about. These folks may be angry because they feel national symbols are being disrespected (although Colin Kaepernick, the 49er who started it all, has repeatedly said he intends no disrespect), but they are also angry at the claim that racism still exists. Just like those high school students, they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Some of them might believe that if anyone is being discriminated against, it’s whites – whites who don't get jobs, whites who don’t get scholarships, whites who don’t get whatever, because less deserving black people get them instead. And it is often the case that when whites perceive a potential loss of their position of dominance, anger is the result.

This also explains why some whites simply cannot understand the Black Lives Matter movement, no matter how many times it’s explained to them. Admitting that racial discrimination still exists and that whites hold an advantaged status may require the willingness to give up that unearned advantage. For some, this takes the idea of racial justice entirely too far.

I heard a young black male put it this way. He shook his head in quiet resignation and said, “Black Lives Matter has been around for a long time now. It’s been explained over and over. I’ve come to realize that if people still don’t understand, it’s because they don’t want to understand.” Note, this young man was not angry, only painfully resigned.

So I’ll end by encouraging us all to examine our anger. Think about where your anger is coming from. For those of Christian faith, remember that the Bible instructs us to “Be angry, yet do not sin. Do not let the sun set on your anger, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph. 4:26 & 27). If a desire to hang on to the status quo is fueling your anger, it might be time to take a closer look. We all feel angry sometimes, but if we let that anger block our ability to think logically, to feel empathy, or to understand someone else’s perspective, only trouble will result.

Friday, July 8, 2016

What's Wrong with "All Lives Matter"

You don't need me to tell you about the horrific events of this week. We all watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being killed at close range by police officers. We haven't heard the story from the officers' points of view yet, but the videos seem pretty damning. They seem to show two more shootings of black men who posed no immediate threat to the cops who shot them. Horrible. What's more horrible is that if these cases follow form the cops will probably be exonerated. I'm still shaking my head over Freddie Gray - did the man break his own back? So far, none of the cops involved have been held accountable, although there are still more trials coming. Many similar instances have given rise to a movement that birthed the slogan, "Black Lives Matter." It's not okay to shoot African Americans who pose no immediate threat and get away with it because black lives matter. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

So why is it that more often than not, at least in some circles, when I say "black lives matter" someone answers "all lives matter"?

To those who have answered this way, I pose the following questions:

What do you mean by "all lives matter"?
What do you think I mean by "black lives matter"?
And really, why does any of this matter?

When I say "black lives matter," and you say, "all lives matter," do you think I mean "black lives matter more than any other lives?" I think you must. So let me explain with an example I've heard somewhere along the way:

Say there are a row of houses and the house on the end is on fire. The other houses are in no immediate danger, but, being a fair minded person, I proceed to spray all the houses with water. While I do this the house on the end, the one that is actually on fire, burns to the ground. All houses matter, but not all houses needed that water. Sort of reminds me of my last blog post about funding education - equality is not the same as equity.

Of course, "blue lives matter" too. We're all sick about the police shootings in Dallas. No one is saying that all police are bad and our hearts go out to the friends and families of those five officers who were killed. Our prayers go forth for those wounded in this horrific crime. But that doesn't change the fact that African Americans are at greater risk for profiling and excessive police force in this country. Black lives STILL matter.

Now, there's something else going on here too, because I don't think for a minute that if you respond to "black lives matter" with "all lives matter" it's because you don't understand that black lives are at risk. Instead, you choose to respond defensively, as if you have somehow been personally attacked or accused of racism. The goal of saying "all lives matter" is to take the focus away from the black lives at risk and place it on yourself. It reminds me of a little kid standing next to a drowning friend, saying, "Wait, I matter too. I need attention!" even though it's the other kid who's just gone under for the third time.

Let me say it clearly. The response "all lives matter" is not okay. It mitigates the experience of people of color who are at much great risk of becoming victims of excessive police force than whites.

My friend Lori put it this way. The problem with "all lives matter," she says, is that "all lives DON'T matter in this culture...It cheapens the struggles African Americans face when people use that 'all lives matter' slogan. If all lives mattered, people of color would not be disproportionately killed, imprisoned, and discriminated against."

So please, think twice before you respond to "black lives matter" with "all lives matter." Ask yourself, what's your motivation for saying it? Why is it so hard to empathize with the people who are hurting? Do you think black people just like to complain, and that in their complaining they're taking attention away from you? How would you feel if you believed that you or your loved ones were unfairly targeted by the people sworn to protect them? And if nothing else, recognize that your experience is different from the experience of others around you. Listen and try to learn something.

Yes, all lives matter. That's why black lives matter. Tragically, so far they haven't seem to matter as much as other lives. Words are important. Please stop saying "all lives matter."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

School Funding: Is it "Fair"?

Last week the governor of New Jersey proposed a new formula for school funding to make it "fair." (I  have to admit that as much as I enjoy watching his rants on youtube, I've never been a big fan of this particular politician, mostly because of his unsuccessful attempt to give away Rutgers/Camden. But that's another story.) Anyway, under the proposed new plan all school districts would receive the exact same amount of funding per student. Behind this change is the idea of lowering real estate taxes, which are incredibly high in that state. You can read more about the school funding proposal here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/christie-announces-new-school-funding-plan-1466552933.

On the surface this may seem like a good idea. Fair means equal, right? That might make sense if all else in the lives of school children were equal, but of course, it is not.  Because of our past and current policies and practices that limit opportunities for some and privilege others, the lives of children across our country are certainly not equal. Yes, I know -- personal choice of parents and family members matters, too, but that doesn't change the fact that poverty has devastating effects on children. Let me say that again. Poverty has devastating effects on children.

Here's another example of how something that seems "fair" is a bad idea. We recently read in our local newspaper that our local taxes will be going up -- again. Why? The school district is building a new early learning center and elementary school. It's tempting to think - Wow, why should we be forced to pay for it? Our kids are older now and they won't reap the benefits of the new school. Why should we have to pay more taxes? It's not fair. Following that line of thinking, why should people who have no children, or people who send their children to private school have to support the public school system with their taxes?

I guess we have to ask ourselves, are we a nation that believes in free, public education, or do we want to go back to the days when only the affluent were educated? The answer is obvious - an educated population creates a healthier, more productive society and benefits us all.

Back to the new funding proposal. The proponent of the plan was quick to explain that children receiving special education services would not be affected. Their current level of funding would remain secure. So, there seems to be an understanding that children with special needs require extra support. Ironically, there's a saying in the world of special education -- "Fair means giving each person what he or she needs." In other words, "fair" does not mean "equal." Equality is not the same as equity. Check out the picture below for a visual of how this works:

Now, is it possible that money dedicated to poor districts is not being spent wisely? Yes. Perhaps we need to look more closely at initiatives like the Harlem Children's Zone for some answers. Poor children need support within the school and within the community at large. Is it also true that middle class people need tax relief? Yes. But across the board cutting of funds dedicated to poor school districts is not the answer. And doing so in the name of "fairness" is, well, just wrong.

Monday, June 13, 2016

In this corner: Hate v. Hate

I had to turn off the news this morning. I just couldn't watch for another second. My heart goes out to the victims of the Orlando shooting and their families. I'm also angry - for better or worse, that's how I tend to respond. It's been heart-wrenching to hear the report of what happened during the early morning hours of June 12 - people crawling out to safety while others hid, texting their loved ones goodbye, victims helping other victims as best they could, sobbing parents still waiting for word of their children, not knowing if they are dead or alive. It is horrible to watch and for my own mental health I had to turn it off for a while. At the same time, I had to lay aside what I'd planned to post about today, because how can I write a blog about racism and not deal with this event?

Yes, I know, the shooter didn't seem to have race in mind as he chose his victims. I know that he targeted members of the LGBT community. I know that race, sexual orientation, and gender identity are not the same issues, and although (of course) I believe that ALL people deserve to be treated with respect, I'm not trying to tie the shooter's hateful actions to racism. That's not where I see racism in this sad, complicated, infuriating mess. Instead, I'm talking about the responses I've heard from political figures and from every day people. Tragically, that's where racism has reared its ugly head.

We're all asking the same question - how do we prevent this from happening again? For some, fear and anger (and remember I'm angry too - I get that) lead to one conclusion, one group to blame - Muslims. The shooter was Muslim and declared his allegiance to a militant Islamist group. What could be more obvious? We need to ban Muslims from entering the country (never mind that the shooter was born in New York). We need to keep a closer watch on Muslim neighborhoods. And any idea of taking in refugees from Syria or anywhere near it - well, unthinkable. These people are clearly our enemies and we need to protect ourselves against them. And so, for some (many of them Christian believers like I am) the response to hate is more hate.

Meanwhile, back in Holland, not far from the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium and France, something quite different is taking place. The church I attended while there, a church that is part of a conservative Pentecostal denomination, is welcoming refugees with open arms. They have totally shifted the focus of their ministry toward helping the large group of recently arrived that are in need. Rather than pulling back in fear and anger, people of faith are doing whatever they can, sometimes opening up their homes and taking in people to live. As a result, there are so many new converts in the church that they had to begin an English speaking service (English being the language the Dutch citizens and the refugees have in common).

We can learn something here, I believe. I know that not everyone in the Netherlands or in other European countries agrees on their country's refugee policies. I'm sure that these countries have their own particular set of problems and I'm not trying to say that they are better than we are. But I saw with my own eyes how, rather than respond with bigoted statements based on stereotypical ideas, people of faith are responding in love. Our country needs to be smart. Our leaders need to fight terrorism on physical and psychological fronts. But we can't do that by promoting racist ideas against the entirety of a religious group. We can't fight hate with hate.