what I've been reading

Yesterday I met a dear friend to watch the documentary,Toni Morrison: Pieces I Am at a small theater in Nashville. Before the film, we met for a drink and talked about all the things. This friend and I stumbled upon each other near or in our 40s, and we have been making up for lost time since. She is brilliant and fierce and compassionate and reflective. She is curious and challenging and knows who she is and isn’t. Time together feels abundant, full of possibilities and lament, hope and outrage. She makes me better.

So does Toni Morrison. I’m so sad her voice has reached its coda. Spending three hours together and with Morrison, we explored ALL the ways to be a human, to love and to hurt, to be torn apart and put back together again. Time well spent.

Of course I am biased. I love books and think words are magnificently powerful. I rarely regret any moment I spend with a book in my hands. In the film, a Morrison scholar, like a precious disciple, suggests that the written word is the only real medium that allows a person to immerse themselves in the skin of another. Books help us to dive deep, to witness and share the thoughts, histories, hopes, fears and emotions of a character. Good characters are precise in a universal kind of way, and he thought Morrison wrote people better than anyone.

In the spirit of losing (and understanding?) ourselves by immersing our thinking in someone else’s context, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve read in the past couple of years. Particularly for those of us hoping to understand and confront the racialized society we live in, these texts help. (And stun, and shatter, and inspire, and undo, and motivate, and educate, and satisfy.)

Happy Reading.

Recent-ish Books Worth Reading in the Quest for Racial Justice

Addressing our Historical Gaps

Stamped From the Beginning Ibram X. Kendi

Academic, thick, and accessible. A well documented and contextualized account of racialized understandings in America.

 

The Color of Compromise Jemar Tisby

History of the Church’s action and inaction regarding racial oppression. Truth-telling that demands the church reckon with our past.

 

Stony the Road Henry Louis Gates, Jr

Academic essays and photos discussing the history of black resistance. Gates is a rare scholar determined to teach us all, convinced that his work is relevant and meaningful for each of us. He is right.

 

Waking Up White Debbie Irving

Personal account of a wealthy white woman studying the origins of racial inequities interwoven with research explaining the history of those disparities (informative and personal).

 

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria Beverly Daniel Tatum

Academic, but from a social science lens mixed with observational research. The 2017 Introduction is one of the best pieces I’ve read on historically contextualizing our current moment.

The Color of Law Richard Rothstein

Deep dive into the history of segregation at the hands of our government. Academic but accessible.

Why I’m No Longer Talking (to White People) About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge

Clear about her own boundaries and determined to educate, she covers the reality of and paths of resistance against structural racism in Britain. Includes a fabulous chapter on the nature of the interaction between feminist and antiracist activists.

  

Personal Accounts of Experiencing/Overcoming Prejudice and Valuable Advice on How to Engage the Work

How to be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi

Just got it…can’t describe it yet but expect to devour it shortly. He is an incredible thinker and communicator.

White Awake Daniel Hill

Story of a well-meaning, woke-ish pastor who tried to start a multicultural church in Chicago, and learned a lot through his failures as he learned to be antiracist as a Christ follower.

I’m Still Here Austin Channing Brown

Personal account of the cost of being “the only one” in many white, church/non prof spaces. A love letter to black women saying, “I see you. I hear you. We’ve got this.”

 Between the World and Me Ta-nehisi Coates

A letter from a black writer to his son about being in his skin in America. Morrison called it “required reading.” Wow.

Dream With Me John Perkins

Reflection on how to reconcile communities without hurting them from a legend in community development.

 

Finally, Fiction

I’ll only say here that I recently reread Morrison’s Love and Home, and both are brilliant. The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon and Beloved get all the love. They are indeed wonderful. But so are the others. Pick any book she wrote and wrestle/read your way through. You might just come away understanding your town, the people who share it, and yourself, a little better.

aim higher: on smoking and toxic speech

If you listen closely to the stories of people born to a generation different than yours, you will quickly remember that cultural norms are always in flux. What we think of as normal is actually a set of loosely held beliefs, shared collectively by those similar in age, geographical location, religion or ethnicity. Normal for you might not be normal for me.

We know this, and yet those very norms are incredibly powerful. It is easy to shake our heads as kids lose their way in the face of peer pressure, but are we any different? Adults, claiming to live with free agency, often mimic their younger selves, following the herd in which they find themselves, doing what everyone else does. We easily replace our own sense of right and wrong with those who claim the right path is the one that doesn’t ask me to change.

For good or for bad, norms are comforting because they help us understand the context in which we live, revealing good ideas and bad ones as we decide which habits must change. When such change comes, it is easy to lose the sense of comfort that came with knowing what ‘normal’ felt like. When norms change, some people feel alienated, and left behind.

Consider smoking. My extended family was sitting on the beach recently, and one of the ten grandkids started waving her hand flamboyantly in front of her nose. “What’s that nasty smell?”, she nearly yelled. “Smoke!” another kid answered, “someone is smoking out here.” Kids groaned, parents rolled their eyes, and then looked around indignantly, as if to say, “Who dares to think its okay to smoke out here? Disgusting!”

Full disclosure, I was also appalled, bothered that we were being subjected to such a destructive habit. Later though, I heard my family tell stories about past vacations where aunts and uncles smoked incessantly, inside, outside, and most certainly on the beach. Our thoughts about smoking are a direct reflection of the cultural norms that surround us. Apparently everyone used to smoke: pregnant women, folks lounging in bed, and matriarchs rolling out biscuits for Sunday lunch…it was neither appalling nor disgusting 50 years ago.

Not a fan of cancer, I am thrilled that smoking is now considered taboo. I’m thankful my kids nearly think it is a sign of moral destitution to light up regularly. What about the smokers though? If you came of age in a time when smoking was ubiquitous, the changes that made smoking frowned upon labeled you an enemy of public decency.

That is the tricky thing about norms: They constantly change, and yet our attachment to them can make us feel dislocated when changes inevitably occur. There is a pervasive alienation that comes when the thing that is normal for me is suddenly outlawed out in the real world. If unexamined, it can begin to shape our understanding of our place in the world. Feeling as if my habits or instincts are not appropriate for public spaces can make me feel desperate for a place to fit. Moreover, it can make me feel as if I am a victim of public progress, a person now deemed unfit for proper society.  It can make me long for things to go back to the way they were.

It is easy to imagine the resentment smokers feel when obnoxious children loudly condemn them on a random beach. As we think about expanding our embrace of the different folks around us, it is also helpful to imagine the resentment people might feel who are increasingly told their opinions are disrespectful toward women or bigoted toward certain others. To be clear, I find misogyny, racism, homophobia and xenophobia even more toxic than smoking. Nevertheless, I have come to understand it takes hard (and perhaps unfamiliar?) work to recognize the evil and abusive nature of a set of opinions one has held for decades—that were once widely shared among his ancestors.

Rather than loudly condemning them as toxic, could we help them see the norms they have long accepted are destructive? When it is okay to insult and denigrate others based on gender or race, inequity, exclusion and power imbalances become the natural norm. If we want to live in a country with liberty for all, then this change is good and necessary. It is also worthwhile to recognize it takes humble reflection and courageous curiosity for those who found the old way of interacting acceptable. Rather than simply accusing them of disgusting behavior, it would be more productive to make space for their questions and frustrations, giving them a place to belong as they change their way of speaking.

I should say here that so many women and men from minority communities have been creating space for bigoted folks to learn to be less bigoted for centuries. And many of them are done with that work. It is incredibly costly for a person to sit with another person and explain to them why their perspective is hurtful, demeaning or oppressive. It is a cost borne by those who are not served by the status quo or norms of the past. Every time they step forward to sit across the table from someone angry or just confused by the need for norms to change, they are required to face dismissive prejudice or outright hate. Folks historically marginalized have been inhaling that cancerous smoke for longer than I’ve been alive, and the effects are often toxic.

It is incumbent on the rest of us to pull a chair up to the table and talk openly about why blaming other people for the alienation one feels is not the path forward. The task before us is to ask those who feel left behind to stop blaming women and men already victimized by prejudice. We must also make every effort not to condemn those who find themselves outside societal norms for being frustrated as they learn to respect and even honor the new norms for public interacting. Habits won’t change unless people are willing to calmly explain why it is necessary.

 In an age where every other podcast discusses the power of tribal connectivity in this political moment, it might help us to acknowledge that some of our tribes become strong because the rest of us point our fingers at those who need a little time and help in discovering how our old norms dehumanized and hurt a lot of people. Let us not talk falsely now, but instead commit ourselves to support any effort made to reflect on how our commitment to some norms hurt the people around us. Offer people a seat at the table instead of kicking them out of the house.

aim higher: how we think about men

“I know how to do it at school, but I don’t know how to do it at home.” Our four year old daughter loves to yell at me, perched atop the toilet near our kitchen. Yesterday, after telling her I could not leave the stove to watch her pee, she demanded I come wipe her. I reminded her she knows how to take care of herself, and does it at school all the time. That’s when she whine-yelled the sentence above on loop for several minutes.

Her reasoning was ridiculous, but I have a feeling she learned it from us. Many of us have standards for behaviors that vary based on our setting. For instance, I am more likely to yell at someone who angers me at home, but I have yet to do so at work. My kids’ behavior at home reminds me of wild elephants that are occasionally affectionate but always leave a wake of destruction in their path. I sincerely hope they do not behave that way in other people’s homes. My own mother has wished for years that I had different standards of clothing for home and public. Alas, I continue to baffle her, rarely looking in the mirror before I grab my keys.

Her hope that I will dress up for the outside world reflects a larger cultural acceptance that our behavior and habits change depending on where we are.

This is certainly true in many areas of my life, but at times it all seems rather absurd to me. Why do I use restraint or fully engage only in certain arenas? Why do our expectations of others fluctuate dependent on place? My favorite iteration of this type of thinking is when married women disparage their husbands, laughing as they complain that their partner is genetically incapable of picking up his shoes, returning his glass to the sink, lowering the seat, or remembering when the kids have choir. The deficits of males who live in interdependent households shared by others are widely mocked and accepted by women and men alike.

Often the party pooper, I loathe this type of thinking for at least two reasons.

First, these stereotypes totalize our gendered experiences in ways that I find unobservant. The basic construct that ALL MEN do any one thing strikes me as ridiculous. We know plenty of slobby, disorganized women, just as we know type A, neat freak men. Given this, why do we agree to pretend like there are no exceptions to the rule that men mostly function as needy, additional children?

I think the answer is imbedded in the question. We love to think we are exceptional, while often painting others with the broadest brush possible. I am more than a product of my gender or cultural norms or habits, but those other people are all the same! We offer ourselves the dignity of agency, choosing how we live and how our actions impact others, but we easily slide into assuming the people around us are just the way they are, and we might as well get used to it.

We might be less likely to dismiss others if we notice the unique individual standing before us rather than seeing them mostly as a product of the group to which they ‘belong.’

The second reason I think humorous stereotypes about men are unintelligent and maybe even dangerous is this: We expect and allow men to rule the world while treating them as incapable slobs around the house. The boldness of our society-wide cognitive dissonance is staggering. How do we simultaneously view men as natural leaders, effective visionaries who complete tasks while improving systems as they go, and—at the same time—as utterly incapable of getting their laundry to and from the washing machine? In my view, we mostly give them far too much credit in the public sphere, and far too little credit in the private one.

It is tempting to treat men like extra-large problem children. It is often all in good fun, and many men seem to enjoy the banter and revel in the labels placed upon them (Maybe they have discovered that such incongruent stereotypes work in their favor. These widely mocked behaviors pave the way for men to kick ass at work and do little at home. Sounds like a sweet deal, but I know better). Even if it is socially acceptable to belittle the function of men at home, it reduces us in toxic ways.

I need look no further than my partner and husband, who is a physician. He is, in fact, prone to leave his junk wherever it lands at home, he often forgets who goes where when, and his instincts for tidying up are lackluster. However, he has never, to my knowledge, forgotten about a surgery or left medical instruments inside a person’s body. He is, in fact, incredibly organized, decisive, dare I say tidy?, at work. He is a fabulous leader and detail oriented in all the right ways. Knowing this, why on earth would I treat him as an incapable slob at home, preventing him from engaging our family in all the helpful ways that only he can?

When we reduce folks to a stereotype, locking them into a tribe or a group rather than seeing them as individuals capable of growth, we limit our ability to hope for better. We choose to deal with the status quo rather than to challenge it in order to improve.  

Why do we act certain ways in some contexts, and abandon those standards in others? We know how to be compassionate in many spaces, but we thwart those instincts in others. We know how to speak up, using our voice to raise a different point of view or to protect a vulnerable person in some moments, but we remain silent in others. For the next few weeks, I’ll explore the ways our habits demonstrate my daughter’s thinking as she hollers incessantly from the bathroom. Let’s think about all the ways we “know how to do it at school, but don’t know how to do it at home,” and then dream together as we imagine how to remind ourselves that we already know how to care deeply about the growth of those around us, if only we will pay attention.