personal, politics

My Own Trajectory with Anti-Racism and White Privilege

When I bring up issues of white privilege, racial inequality, and discrimination, I often get negative responses, no matter how humble, specific or on-topic I try to be. This can be tough. It can lead all of us on all sides to be more arrogant than is justified. But as much as I do think these are matters of injustice, and as insensitive as people can get, I do get the negativity and the skepticism.

The average person who reads a lot of statistics that seem to undermine their worldview is likely to get angry. They’re worried that they may be being hoodwinked. They worry that some activist is trying to get their vote or try to make them support some kind of electoral politics that might harm their own interests by using guilt. They worry that they’re being insulted or attacked for things they had nothing to do with that happened decades before they were born. They’re afraid that their country and the people they love are being spat upon, even though every country has had its problems.

I understand that. It can be tough to keep track of the truth. It can be tough to sort out which statistics are relevant and which aren’t. It can be tough to listen to someone else who says something that is totally alien to your experience. I realize that, with all the writing I’ve done on this topic, I still haven’t discussed in one place my own history with this topic. I want to share this because I feel that I should be accountable to it. There was a time where I didn’t believe in white privilege or in racism as being a dominant social institution.

When I was in middle school and high school, I was pretty politically informed. My parents listened to NPR. I read lots of history books and political science books. As my friends started to get into Mumia abu-Jamal, Rage Against the Machine, the Seattle protests, and the other left strands in the 1990s, I found a lot of their arguments to be perhaps a little specious. They would point to the disproportions of black men in jail, for example, or disadvantages of sentencing. They would point to the poverty in ghettos and the ongoing residential segregation. My position until late into high school was that racism per se was of declining importance in America. (Growing up in a mostly white town and spending most of my time with people of left-leaning hippie persuasions, I was able to be unaware of black perspectives on this problem and how much people of color by and large report experiencing widespread discrimination). I viewed the state and corporations as being the dominant institutions, and saw that formal apartheid had been rolled back for what I believed to be long enough to have made it so that racist bias in particular was less important than usual. I viewed the problems that people of color faced in the U.S. as being primarily caused by an admixture of factors: Poverty due to prior inequality in the United States, the worsening of neo-liberal institutions that slammed the already poor, and individual acts of discrimination that, though only done by the minority of whites, still could block opportunities just enough times to lead all else held equal to people suffering disproportionately. After all, it only takes one racist DA to send a lot of people to prison.

So think about how poverty alone could explain a lot of the racial gaps that we seem to see if you don’t look carefully. Sure, a lot of African-American men are jailed, but being poor means you are less likely to have top-flight legal representation and that you are less likely to have political clout. Seeing the OJ trial, I found it quite clear that there was racialized resentment at play throughout the trial, especially with Mark Fuhrman. But OJ’s victory seemed to show that a black man with enough money and clout could indeed get away with murder, just like a white man with enough money. Because of my understanding of history and society, I could hold onto the idea that race per se was of declining importance and view race as secondary to resolving income inequality, brutal capitalism, and the damage being done by investor’s rights treaties like NAFTA.

In fact, a Chomsky book even helped contribute to this idea. Chomsky pointed out that a lot of sociology in the West takes into account race, but then cited a researcher, Vicente Navarro, who looked at class as a predictor of health and found it to be much more serious. (I should note Chomsky went on to make a very important point that stuck with me: “On the other hand, it’s certainly worth overcoming the other forms of oppression. For people’s lives, racism and sexism may be much worse than class oppression. When a kid was lynched in the South, that was worse than being paid low wages. So when we talk about the roots of the system of oppression, that can’t be spelled out simply in terms of suffering. Suffering is an independent dimension, and you want to overcome suffering”).

I should note that I never gave much credence to the idea that black poverty was a cultural failing. Even in middle school, I recognized that, if a group of people are doing worse in a broadly sociological sense, it just can’t be due to some characteristic they share as a group. Sure, rappers singing homophobic and misogynistic lyrics, or people wanting to be on welfare rolls instead of working, or people resenting whites instead of working on their own problems, do exist. But while individual people can be lazy, or ignorant, or unintelligent, or criminal, people as a group aren’t any of those things. If a people with a cross-section of skills and backgrounds are encountering barriers, it’s not because of them but because of the society they live in. After all, plenty of white folks also listen to music with destructive messages, abuse welfare, commit crime, or blame others for their problems. But these people just never seem to have it as bad.

I also recognized that people’s traits don’t emerge in a vacuum. If a group of people are resentful of another group, there’s some kind of reason why that reason is taking hold, whether that’s due to internal elites in that group taking advantage of and blowing out of proportion simmering rivalries or due to an actual pattern of abuse. If a group of people are more likely to be criminal, it’s because the opportunities to join normative social life are limited. There’s a reason why people turn out the way they do, and it’s because of other people before them. That’s why it’s so myopic and destructive to blame them exclusively for their decisions and thereby refuse to extend help or second chances, like the universe only came into existence forty years ago. There are no perfect human beings, so we all owe each other some help and opportunity to do better and be better.

Still, I would reject those who pushed forward an idea of racism as being incomplete or looking only at a narrow slice of the problem. I won’t deny that there was great arrogance in that view, and that if I had bothered looking into it on my own, I might have come around much earlier.

It took not only the work of Tim Wise and other anti-racist scholars on the left (including actually reading Mumia’s work) but also taking sociology classes and seeing the sociological evidence to realize that I had been looking at only part of the picture. Specifically, my awakening to the idea that race matters was from Tim Wise’s careful decimation of David Horowitz in an e-mail debate. As a high school debater, I loved reading great debates. Tim carefully laid out source after source after source, referring to both conservative and liberal scholars… I highly recommend people read it, as it’s a good primer as to both conservative and leftist views on the topic of race.

But that fascination with watching a conservative blowhard get decimated didn’t last very long when I actually took multicultural studies classes and talked to other people. Sure, I was angry conceptually at the injustice that Tim discussed, that I subsequently read repeatedly in Z Magazine. But it’s one thing to be conceptually mad at racism in America and thereby attend a protest against Israeli occupation, and another thing to see the face of someone you like and know that they got hurt because they encountered something I read in a book. Then it became clear to me that, in fact, these issues really matter. I saw so many white participants in these multicultural studies come to deeply regret how they had lost so much of their culture over the years, from their language to their names. I saw Asian participants struggle with balancing their American identity with their Asian names and heritage. They literally had to choose whether to be Rex or Renjun, Amy or Chun.

Most importantly, I heard African-Americans talk about being pulled over by cops, watched in department stores, ignored in classrooms, treated one way on the phone and another way in person. I heard my black Professor talk about how a white girl assumed that he was a valet in a parking lot. And I kept seeing how angry white folks got when black folks said that. Like some other guy being a jerk said anything about them. I never felt defensive unless someone said, clearly, “All white folks are racists”, which I may have heard less than five times in ten years of engaging with people on these issues. It was obvious to me that some cop or security guard that was letting subconscious bias guide them didn’t say something about me.

See, when I try to figure out if a social institution exists, I see if there are pervasive influences. I can say that America is “capitalist”, whatever that specifically means, and thereby classist, because I can point to classist patterns in health care, electoral politics, employment, foreign and domestic policy, and everywhere else.

I can say the same thing about racism, discrimination and white privilege. The evidence does not just say that it’s better to be white if you’re pulled over by a cop, or go to a department store. The evidence is clear: Being white (whether that is specifically being perceived as white or actually being of a European racial background) gives a person demonstrable advantages in wealth and income, employment, the criminal justice system, health care, housing, media representation, banking, and virtually every other institution in life. I did not come to accept this because I read one author or one article. It is because I have looked at every part of American life and found conservative (and mainstream liberal) claims that racism, discrimination and white privilege are no longer operant or are of declining importance to be demonstrably false.

So let me again say that I understand skepticism. I understand why people might view American history differently than I do. I understand why people may reject academics. I understand why people might be afraid to be bludgeoned by statistics, or may be afraid of being guilt-tripped. I can understand why it can be frustrating to be corrected by people about what one calls another group or about an opinion one has. It is absolutely possible to be skeptical about the existence and validity of white privilege without being a racist, or a jerk, or an idiot, or misinformed.

But there is something I cannot abide. Those of us who dismiss snidely the idea of white privilege, as if it were obviously false, are being arrogant. And they are dismissing the experiences of black people, and they rarely have any reason to do so. If you want to say, “There is no such thing as white privilege, get over it”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. If you want to say, “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for their problems”, you are wrong and you are being a jerk. Well-meaning (i.e. non-jerk) people can disagree. But the idea that it is absurd that racism still matters in American life when we have just now elected our first black President to a second term even after African-Americans being in this country since before it was a country and when segregation and formal apartheid was a part of this country in the lifespans of a lot of still-living people is insane. It’s possible that America managed to really change incredibly rapidly in fifty years. But it is not so obviously the case that it justifies viewing others as obviously dishonest political opportunists for insisting that racism still matters.

Let me reassure you that plenty of scholars are very careful about what they say and don’t say. These issues are complicated. A lot of the people doing the work on this topic have no animosity towards whites; indeed, a lot are white. Researchers and activists in this field of all stripes struggle to find truth between the shifting sands of society. Those researchers who looked into subconscious bias using the Implicit Attitude Test, for example, were surprised and humbled to find out that decades of doing the work that they had done still didn’t make them less biased at a subconscious level.

And the reasons I have heard for why white privilege exists must be dismissed as laughably ignorant. They wouldn’t be offered by anyone with any intelligence, as they so often are, without a need to defend themselves. Like the claim, “It’s not a privilege to be white because there’s a lot of crime in my city”. (As if black-on-black crime didn’t exist). Or the claim, “Lots of black people are on welfare and don’t want to get off”. (As if white welfare abusers didn’t exist, and as if there weren’t plenty of middle-class black families that still lost their jobs in the 2008 recession or their houses and certainly weren’t welfare abusers prior to that while plenty of white middle-class families managed to weather the storm). Or the claim, “I see lots of white homeless people!” (As if there aren’t black homeless people, and as if a white homeless guy who cleaned up and dressed up wouldn’t find it easier to get an apartment or a job than a black homeless guy who did the same thing). In fact, I have yet to encounter a single claim against white privilege that passes muster. All of them were beating up a strawman.

So I ask that everyone, myself included, be a lot more willing to listen to other voices that they haven’t heard and be willing to do the research with an open mind to see if there’s anything to those voices. I hope that as many people as possible will pop over to Google Books or Google Scholar and look up “anti-black discrimination” or “racial discrimination in the United States”, and look at the bulk of the data. Don’t just cite the Heritage Foundation. (Or ignore it). Don’t just repeat memes you see on Tumblr. It is possible to look this data up and become informed. Because people who argue that white privilege exists don’t have to be totally right for it to matter to you. Maybe the only place that people of color still encounter discrimination is in housing markets. But if that’s the case, we should do something. Maybe schools and standardized tests are getting better about trying to deal with stereotype threat. But they should still be better about tracking blacks and Hispanics into remedial classes.

Living in a society that is striving to be free means we have to pay attention and learn. I fully suspect that in ten years I will have changed my opinions on a lot of topics, because I will have learned more and discovered more. Nothing stops you from being a conservative who recognizes that Hispanics aren’t all criminal parasites, or from being a liberal who recognizes that ostentatious consumption in the African-American community might be a pretty serious problem.

And let me close by pointing one thing out: However much of a problem we have with racism in America, it’s only us who can fix it, together. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American… We have to do a lot of work to forgive, to have truth and then reconciliation. And it matters. So I will hold everyone to the standard that they should care to make sure that, whatever they believe in, however widespread they view racism as being, they are sure that they are right beyond a doubt. I want people to have read the arguments, read the statistics, read the studies, and understood them. It’s just too important.

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personal, personal news

A Novel Feeling: Reflections on the Completion of Soul Surgeon

In the aftermath of the completion of my first novel (working title being Adelbert Vo, Soul Surgeon), I am quite surprised at my array of feelings.

The actual completion of it, the realization that I was at the final chapters and I could see that light at the end of the tunnel, that there were no more nuances to work through, was one of the greatest moments of my life.

But, after I was done, after I had slept fifteen hours, it very much felt like, “Well, back to work”.

I wanted to throw myself into Steam Saint, my steampunk Don Quixote novel, immediately.

Maya Angelou was right when she said there’s no worse pain than an untold story. It was as if a tether pulling me back into the darkness was cut.

But I’m on Cloud Nine most of the time. I’m elated most moments of most days. It’s hard to get much greater than that.

I felt the same way when I discovered that my first short story, Silent Saint, was published in the Rifter #49. I was happy for a few moments, then back to work.

So, what’s the point of creating, then, if I do not feel joy that makes me leap into the sky?

After I finished Soul Surgeon, I felt like a different man.

I felt humbler. I felt kinder. I felt better able to see the dynamics of people and more able to empathize with uncertainty.

That’s because, in a real sense, completing Soul Surgeon got me to the point where I could absorb Adelbert into me. I had worked through that character and why they exist in my heart.

Every one of you that has an unfinished short story, a novel idea, a game idea… Do your best to try to see it come to fruition.

Even if Soul Surgeon is never published, I will be a better practitioner of compassion and care because I finished it. And now, anyone who wants to understand me and why I fight for the things I do has 88,000 words to explain why.

So even if I’m not feeling some new threshold of happiness, I have been improved indelibly because of my art.

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personal

Gift Cards and True Presents

As I’m becoming more focused on spreading something real, banal consumerism has begun to really annoy me.

There was a picture at my local IHOP. It said, “Give the only gift that makes everyone feel good inside”, or some such drivel.

The gift?

A goddamn gift card.

Not love. Not a poem. Not a story. Not a painting. Not the kind of gift that someone takes from apartment to apartment, home to home, because of its beauty and the care put into it.

Nope. A gift card for pancakes.

I know this is just the slop that a marketing wiz came up with. I’ve done marketing. It’s somewhere between lying and advocacy. Hopefully, the dude who wrote that at least thinks IHOP makes a decent product.

But it stems from a consumerist set of values, and that’s something far, far more serious.

It demeans and trivializes the real experience of human and spiritual merit that we have that actually brings us together, the experiences that we really need. Those experiences can happen at an IHOP, a Denny’s, or even in a trench on the Western Front.

I wonder how much we forget this daily psychic assault. And remember: Given that corporations spend untold billions on it, that psychic assault is winning.

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love, personal

Birthday Retrospective

It’s always frustrating as a writer, to be asked to respond with the deep thoughts to things that are ongoing in a way that is timely. Salient. Topical.

My birthday was on January 25th.
That’s not this previous Sunday, nor the one before that, but the one before that.
I’ve been thinking in the interim about what the previous year was like for me. (I’d love to say what it was like for everyone, but I’m not about to write billions of paragraphs).

It was a tough year. In the final months of 2013, I had been in a pretty serious funk. I was bummed. I carefully do not use the term “depressed” because, as bad as it was sometimes, I could not call it anything like even mild depression. I had too much joy, too much optimism. I never even contemplated suicide. I knew that, if the rest of my life was to be like this, I’d still be doing something good for others, and that was worth it.

And then in January of 2014, I met someone quite special. I rebuilt connections with another friend who was also quite special. And on the 25th, I felt as if I had become enlightened.

It was as if the world was pressing in on me, in a positive way. I felt the gravity of the cosmos. I felt the length and breadth of things for the first time. Colors became more intense, sensations more real. I was in the world, without distraction or diversion. It was a magnificent experience.

To this day, I can rub my three fingers together and replicate the experience.

I was hoping to finish my novel from November. But then January, then February, then March came about.

Work, personal obligations, family obligations, helping others, working on Sol Avenger, responding to political issues… it took me from it.

This year’s National Novel Writing Month, I only wrote 10,000 words.

The year of 2014 was the longest year of my life. I was exhausted for most of it. And it’s likely not going to change yet.
But I have been feeling changes that have been tremendously rewarding, even if in the moments of fatigue they may not always seem to be adequate recompense.

For much of my life, I’ve tried to be kind, nice, helpful, positive. But I always felt myself having a distance from others. It comes from being “gifted” and being told it. I see things differently from others. I have a creativity, an ability to learn and to communicate advanced ideas.

That made me spend a good portion of my life looking at a lot of people like zombies.

Their concerns to me felt petty. Their thoughts felt banal. Their great insights were trivial.

It’s not a nice place to be. It’s very isolating. I like people. I recharge around them. But I was shutting myself out from their energy.

This year, it finally became clear to me:

My greatest weapon isn’t my brain.

It’s my love.

Part of the reason I felt distant from people my whole life was because I felt in tune with a world of experiences, sensations and imaginations. It wasn’t just that my mind was always filled with adventures to entire other universes. It’s that I experienced this world differently. I experienced its joys. I knew that the world could be changed.

My sincere belief is that we create the good of tomorrow today. Goodness is not out there to be found. It’s not an abstract philosophical idea. It’s not in a heaven locked away from us. It’s right there, and we make it more and more real, and more and more advanced, by our deeds today.

It’s exhausting living life by love. It can be vulnerable. It can drain me totally.
People often tell me that I may be mistaken. Other people may not need the help I sometimes think they do. They may have wisdom I don’t. And that may be true.

But I look about this world and see how we kill each other, abuse each other, take each other for granted, and I know that we are nowhere near done leveling the injustices of the past to make a new world.

So perhaps all of 2014 for me was just one lesson:

Love is the greatest sword in the arsenal of any knight.

Let’s hope 2015 lets me use it more productively.

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personal, politics

Role Models and Privilege: Who I Want To Be and Who I Am

As a white heterosexual American from a middle-class economic background (though I myself am probably not middle-class yet), I have to be accountable to where I came from. This is often misunderstood by people to mean that I have to feel guilty or culpable about where I came from. No, the mess we’re all in wasn’t caused by us, but it damn well better be fixed by us.

But that accountability doesn’t mean I have to identify with that identity. I don’t have to think about my interests in white, or heterosexual, or American ways.

When I was a kid, I remember reading the history books, especially the American history books, and not having a lot of role models to look up to. For most of European history, we see zealots, warlords and genocidal maniacs. When we get to colonial American history, there are a precious few good men who seemed to rise above their era: William Penn, for example, his heritage honored in the Quakers of whom I have yet to meet a modern representative who is not an exemplary human being.

There’s a brief spike around the time of the Founding Fathers. While they were slave-owning rich white men (though of course many of the soldiers fighting the battles were not), they did believe in something, however incompletely, that I cherished.

But after the Founding Fathers, the history of our country’s leadership was of condoning and protecting slavery, “manifest destiny”, repeatedly breaking solemn promises with the Aboriginal peoples instead of living in harmony, imperialistic relations with other countries, and corporate mistreatment of labor.

Despite being white, I identified with the slaves and their white allies, with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and John Brown and William Lloyd Garrison. There was something about Lincoln that was lovable even as he was politically flawed, of course: His melancholy and self-effacing character paired with real genius and a real belief that did lead him to be able to get the respect of Frederick Douglass (and be praised by blacks today as the Great Emancipator). But most of the faces I felt in harmony with did not look like my own.

Despite being of a middle-class background, I identified with the heroes of labor. The socialists, the anarchists, the Knights of Labor. Emma Goldman, Kropotkin, Bakunin.

Despite being male, I identified with women. I was angry at the injustice of their condition, of being unable to contribute, of having their life trajectory chosen for them. When I was in the third grade, I read a series of books about American girls throughout points in American history, the American Girls series (connected with some pretty ludicrously expensive dolls). I missed reading one of the series as it was in the hands of a girl I had a crush on at the time.

I must admit, it was a little harder to identify with homosexuals throughout American history. Still, it burned me to think about people who wanted to do something that was absolutely consensual and based in love and who had to be hidden by shame as a result. (And, of course, my own sexual predilections included some elements of a counter-culture as well).

As I walked throughout history, I looked forward to the 1960s. Post-colonialism, the civil rights movement, hippies, the counter-culture. Good values, not hypocrisy. (Of course, I also had to see the country that once fought an empire for liberty now be an empire that repressed liberty).

Of course, I am a second-generation immigrant, the son of a (white) immigrant. I have always seen how being an immigrant made me, even if just a little, an alien. Combined with my family’s somewhat left-leaning politics, it’s unsurprising that I’d identify with those people in history on the side of change, the radicals and fomentors.

And, of course, there was Dr. King.

Dr. King’s shadow looms large. A man of towering intellect, a man of true faith and conviction, a man who reached across the lines of identity to make peace, a man who believed in the humanity of his oppressors and of those who were silent as his people were oppressed. Though today “I Have A Dream” has been stripped of all of its immensely radical content in the minds of Americans, it is memorable for a reason: It was a positive vision. Dr. King wasn’t saying what was wrong. He was talking about what should be right. A world to be won. (Modern whites confuse this for saying that it’s the world we live in. It isn’t).

As a child, he really did feel like a saint. Someone special. Someone no one could be like.

As I grew up, I realized that I should have the audacity to replicate him. To try to exceed him. Because he was just a man.

All of this to say that, when I was a child, all of the role models being offered to me by mainstream white American society were ones I simply couldn’t identify with. The Roosevelts, whatever FDR’s contribution with the New Deal; all the Presidents after World War II; Wilson, even with his vaunted idealism… They weren’t my heroes.

My heroes and heroines often had a different color of skin, different lips, different hair.

My heroines often had different sexual organs and a different gender.

My heroes and heroines often swung a different way from me.

My heroes and heroines often spoke a different language and were from a different country from the place of my birth.

Again: It’s important for us to recognize the impact of where we’ve come from.

But we never need let where we came from limit our aspirations.

I don’t have to be like George W. Bush because I share his gender, sexual orientation, national origin and race. I can strive to be like Dr. King despite us coming from very different places. I can strive to be someone who reaches out to the Other, who forgives, who practices love and compassion as a lifestyle, who truly acts as a prophet of the God that I believe exists. I can strive to be someone whose vision was so inspirational that it drove people to want to crush him, because they were afraid of the vanguard of the change he represented. Dr. King in my view was a true knight for the modern age.

Of course, there were many other heroes of mine that I am not mentioning, but the point is made: We can all choose to identify with the best of what people from other cultures have to offer. I don’t need to force myself to cleave to an identity full of people I don’t like.

What role models will you choose?

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