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 guns and manners

This weekend dozens of lives were lost to what is often called “senseless gun violence.” Having experienced the horror of watching a loved one lose his life, I know pain can be significantly worse when the death feels senseless. I grieve with the families who lost sons and moms and cousins and neighbors, all the more because the grief, still so new, feels infinitely avoidable, reversible even. The ‘senseless’ nature of what appears to be random violence strengthens the shock, and we sit stunned: surely this could not have happened. Again. 

But it has, and we can argue about the many ways to make sense of what has happened, and what continues to happen—over 250 times in 2019—in our country. The shooter in El Paso offered his own attempt at making sense of his actions, posting his thoughts about the world and what is wrong with it. He, echoing certain sentiments of our President, believes that people who are not white are what is wrong with our country. To that end, making all the sense in the world, he decided to kill as many of the problem-makers as he could. Makes sense.

Others blame the power of the NRA and the strong legislation they have passed for decades to protect the free will and rights of gun owners. They will make sense of the deaths by blaming the lack of universal background checks for gun buyers, or trade show loopholes, or bump stocks, or gaping deficits in our mental health coverage and treatment. From this perspective, the resulting violence makes sense. 

I’d like to offer another explanation in an effort to make sense of the world around us. It fits here in this series examining the gaps between the things we know to be true and the things we continue to accept, senseless as they are. Outright violence toward others makes sense when we recognize that as a society, we have chosen good manners over the good. Despite the fact that we believe some speech is uncivil, hateful, and even dangerous, most of us rarely choose to speak up when we witness it face to face. Instead, we stay quiet, preferring good manners, and leave the hate lingering, unchecked, in the air.

We, collectively, prefer peace keeping to peace making. 

Imagine men, gathered around a grill in a backyard, kids playing nearby. One of them shakes his head and whistles when another mentions the name of a young and attractive teacher at the neighborhood school. The whistler goes on to say, “I wish she’d teach me a thing or two.” The men laugh, some uncomfortably, knowing that teacher has been objectified in demeaning ways.

Imagine a group of women discussing a friend whose kids go to a school with a wide variety of races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds. They say, “Can you imagine? Think about all the bad influences the kids will have to deal with. They won’t be able to go to playdates or anything!” The women nod knowingly, while a few just look down, uncertain how to respond to the prejudices and assumptions the other women accept about a community they don’t know. 

In both of these instances, we often choose to let inappropriate speech go unchecked. When we stay silent—even knowing it is wrong—we honor the evil spoken by others. We believe the lie that it would be bad manners to express discomfort with another person’s dehumanizing stance. We assume we would be the ‘bad guy’ if we speak up, and instead protect the person whose bigoted perspectives and poor assumptions abuse an entire gender, race or class. 

Schools now teach that we all have a part to play in stopping bullies; indeed, bystanders have many options if they want to help. And yet, how often do adults simply look down, mouths closed, while speech that demeans others is muttered around us? We tend to think more highly of ourselves and our good citizenship than we deserve. We like to think we are like Spiderman: good, responsible stewards of all the power we have been given. Instead though, I’m afraid we horde our power and abandon our values if they threaten our comfort.  

I understand that no one wants to be the jerk who makes the barbeque uncomfortable by confronting the sexist man demeaning his kid’s teacher. On the other hand, Seriously?! We would rather not say a word of caution than to allow a “great guy” to freely and shamelessly objectify a woman while his daughters play nearby? This kind of thinking helps preserve the hateful thinking of those who demean and hurt others. When we privilege the status quo and our comfort over the safety and dignity of all people, we create environments where a white supremacist mass murderer can believe his thoughts echo the thoughts of most other white Americans. Instead of normalizing words that dismiss or hurt others, could we normalize challenging such thoughts? Could we all have the courage to speak up and say, “What do you mean by that?”, or “I don’t agree; can you help me understand what you are suggesting?”

Last night our neighbors stopped by, and as the conversation turned to the killings of the weekend, we sensed a shared desperation: What do we do? What can I do to stop this madness? Voting, lobbying and education were mentioned; marching and calling out in protest was suggested. Perhaps the hardest, bravest thing each of us can do is to simply challenge the lies told in our presence. Take responsibility for what is uttered around you. Sure, start a non-profit, and call your Senator. In the meantime though, be the person you hope you are. The next time a friend or acquaintance says a terrible thing about other people, speak up immediately to challenge that assumption. Instead of thinking it is bad manners to “cause a scene”, make it bad manners to be a white supremacist. Make it bad manners to tell a racist or sexist joke.

If we stop our silence, perhaps we can help identify those who want to annihilate certain types of people, getting them help before they hurt others. Their destructive thinking should stick out in all the worst ways, not get lost in what a lot of people say because no one ever asks them to stop.

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.