Sunday, December 28, 2008

On Freedom

I swear my brain shuts down halfway while I'm home visiting the parents. At least halfway.

Did I mention I watch a lot of movies when I'm here?

Anyway, I just finished watching the movie "Shooter." In a really small nutshell, "Shooter" is an action/suspense movie about an American ex-military sniper fighting against corrupt government officials, including a U.S. senator, who do a lot of bad things to foreign countries in the name of oil and money. I have to admit, I kind of enjoyed it (I also happen to be a Mark Wahlberg fan - he will always be "Marky-Mark" to me).*

And by no means was this movie anything other than a big-budget Hollywood action movie. With themes on government corruption and the U.S. thirst for oil. In a big-budget Hollywood action movie.

And - sure - it wasn't done extraordinarily well. It didn't point the finger at any real-life folks. But it asked questions (and gave its own negative answers) about U.S. foreign policy. In a big-budget Hollywood action movie. Hell - it even mentioned Abu Ghraib (and a very direct condemnation of how that all played out). In a big-budget Hollywood action movie.

And that's kind of amazing. In spite of all that's wrong with this country, all the questionable actions of our government, and what we do to other countries and governments - this movie was made. Made, and put on the big-screen in every major city in America. Made available on DVD to any American citizen (as well as foreign citizens) who want to pay to watch it. And nobody was arrested for that. Nobody was threatened, the film wasn't stopped. Nobody labels the director, writer, or producer a "dissident." In fact, nothing was said in the movie that doesn't seem even somewhat cliche because it's been said so often publicly in recent years.

And that's something I am very thankful for. I can complain and call out "the System" for all that's wrong with it. I can have a publicly-read blog challenging the history lessons we are fed in the classroom (inspired by other books that touch on similar topics), and I am not harassed, arrested, or threatened by my government (maybe I'm on some sort of "watch list," but I'll take what I can get).

And there are so many places where that is not possible. Places where finding the information that I disseminate in my own rants would be virtually impossible. There are plenty of places (and, perhaps, one of those places is the past for this country), where doing what I would do would mark me as a "revolutionary" or a "national threat." But here? Now? I'm just one more random U.S. citizen with a blog talking about race and the institutional racism that's part of our current system. And that banality is something that I will do my best to never forget.

While I continue to point out the flaws in the system.

* "Can you feel it baby? I can, too . . . Vibrations good like Sunkist, makes me wanna know who done this?"

Friday, December 26, 2008

On "In the Name of the King" Being the Greatest Movie Ever

I watch A LOT of tv when I'm home visiting my parents over the Winter. And so I was led to the movie pictured (and mentioned) above.

Taking into consideration my recent post (On Escaping Race) about how white-washed fantasy/sci-fi books and movies tend to be, the photo above is a breath of fresh air. It's an image taken from the film "In the Name of the King" - a fantasy film that actually has a large number of actors of color in it. And not just as token characters meant to die, but rather major characters (on the side of good, no less), as well as being sprinkled throughout to make a positively DIVERSE fantasy landscape. There are even Asian ninja-warriors who are the king's sort of elite guard. Wonderful.

The problem is, this is one of the most ridiculous movies ever made. Seriously. So much so that it feels almost insulting that this is one of the few sci-fi movies with major PoC representation (and with no Rock to make up for it, Sis). The effects are awful (about 10 years behind its release date in terms of technology), and the acting is even worse (with a storyline to match).

But then I let it percolate a little bit. And I soon began to appreciate this amazing film. From Burt Reynolds as a heroic king (the way he delivers commands is captivating) to the evil warlock played by freaking RAY LIOTTA (he wears a leather trenchcoat that I keep expecting him to pull a sawed-off shotgun from) the fun and hijinx are non-stop. In a medieval-type setting, I really can't explain how funny it is to see Ray Liotta wearing an outfit that would be perfectly natural in one of his contemporary roles as a crooked cop or a mobster (and delivering his lines in a similar manner).

And when we're talking about line delivery - half the cast are young actors and actresses (one such being the obnoxious friend -murderer from the original "Scream" movie) who deliver their lines in such a manner as to have me constantly expecting a "dude" or "man" to be uttered with every-other sentence. Unfortunately, that did not happen (or maybe it did, and it was so natural that I didn't even notice). And of course, half the characters have British accents, some have American "dude" accents, and the rest of generic mid-west American accents. All from the same country . . .

There are also a race of "wood-nymphs" who fly around on vines a la Cirque du Soleil acrobats - which is just so very breathtaking; jiggly rubber suits galore; awkward grunting and hopping by said jiggly rubber-suit-wearers; and a soundtrack that is to die for.

In a nutshell? Mind-blowingly hilarious, and subsequently quite enjoyable. I honestly can't do the movie justice with the written word, as so much of it must be heard (or at least mimicked). "Dude, your comportment doth be so below your dignity. Man."

If only you all could be here with me, watching this film, laughing uproariously - a diverse audience for a diverse film.

Because, in the end, what makes this movie so fun for me right now is the fact that my "race-radar" hasn't screamed out once the whole time, and so - in spite of the horrendous nature of the actual film-making - I can actually relax and just enjoy it for what it is - the unintentionally funniest movie ever made. And thus - the greatest.

Go forth and view it.


Monday, December 22, 2008

Honestly . . .

"Fat, lazy, bad-tempered pig voted China's favorite animal."

That's the headline that goes to the "news story" at the link below. When you read the story (if you even bother) - it tells how a pig that survived the Sichuan earthquake and "vividly illustrated the spirit of never giving up" was voted China's favorite animal, along with a loyal dog and a cat that almost died from grief when its partner was killed.

But let's go back to that little "headline" that is what most Americans are going to see when they see their MSN homepage after logging out of their hotmail account (which is how I saw it). Now what are the inferred implications of the headline versus why the people of China actually chose the pig as their favorite animal? Seriously. Is there any explanation for why the headline wasn't "Earthquake survivor pig voted as China's favorite animal" as opposed to the one they chose? Yes, they explain where the "fat and lazy" part came from, but that isn't the story, nor is it why the animal was chosen.

So why would an American online publication choose the headline emphasizing the fat, lazy and bad-tempered aspect of the pig in tandem with the nation that voted for it? No idea here . . .

And I know how many people out there are going to shake their head and say that - once again - I'm looking for a fight. But this is just such a perfect example of the little things. Those little bits that are completely deniable and may very well be coincidence. The stuff that I MAY be reading too much into, but may also just be exactly what I think it is - but, either way, done in such a manner that I only look like a "sensitive" jerk for saying anything about it. Because, again, those who wish for me to "get over" such a thing look at it in isolation - only notice it when I (or somebody else like me) says something - and then go on to ignore or miss the hundred other "little things" just like it that happen over the rest of the day - and every other day, as well.

One person staring at you in a restaurant one time is strange, and worrying about it is paranoia. Multiple people staring at you EVERY time you enter the restaurant is more than a coincidence. Your friend "slipping" and saying something disturbing once is funny. Them doing it on a regular basis is a problem. This is how race works. Little bits and pieces that - by themselves - are nothing remarkable; but when added up become enough to drive a person crazy.

At least, that's how this bad-tempered pig - I mean Chinese-American - sees it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On Escaping Race

Three of the last five weekdays I was off of work due to snow days. I had to ditch my car in another part of the city yesterday and take the bus home because the roads were too icy. I've been in my house A LOT this past week.

So you'd think that would have made it more likely for me to write a bunch of blog posts. You'd think that. But, instead, I wrote less than I have in any other week, even though I was LESS busy. Interesting.

So why was that? Mostly . . . because I've been trying to escape from race a little bit this week (or thoughts about race, more accurately). I put up my book on revisionist history, grabbed a fantasy novel (the one pictured on this post), curled up on the couch, under a blanket by the fire - and tried to ESCAPE.

Because all the drama of the preceding week had me a bit burnt. All this back-and-forth, all the comments basically implying (or saying flat-out) that I was just "looking" for something to get offended about, etc. It put a sour taste in my mouth and made me want to just escape it all for a while. And so I did my best.

I slipped into a fantasy novel. And that's always been my most effective means of escape through my whole life. The majority of my adult life, I have been thoroughly immersed in non-fiction - history, psychology, sociology-type stuff. But when push comes to shove, and I just want to hide out for a bit? I go back to my bookstore and find a thick-ass fantasy book to read.

Of course, when trying to avoid thoughts of race, fantasy isn't always the best place to go. Because most fantasy out there is clearly written for white folks. In all the descriptions of characters, it's always the attributes of white people - the pale skin, the golden hair, the piercing blue eyes . . . The "darkest" characters are generally the villains. Not exactly heart-warming and inspirational to a person of color.

As a result, I've found myself drawn to the edgier novels - ones in which there are no clear black/white goodguys and badguys. And ones that tend to fall on a more epic, global scope - and thus including characters of different racial backgrounds. The most successful on that level so far (as far as white authors) that I have found has been Steven Erikson's "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series. A number of characters of color, a lot of gray areas - well-written. It's definitely not perfect, but as far as these kinds of things go . . .

But no matter how "good" they get, I still have to put a part of myself aside when reading even these "escapist" novels to not allow race to sully my enjoyment. My mind still jumps at times when there are problematic descriptions, or when I still haven't heard dark skin described positively 400 pages in. Mostly, I am good at "getting over it" and enjoying for other reasons . . .

But it doesn't go away. Because I can't ever fully "turn off" my racial mind. I went and saw "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (have I mentioned Keanu Reeves is actually a quarter Chinese) expecting exactly what I got - not the greatest movie, a bit ridiculous, but relatively entertaining. And yet, my racial mind kept firing off "why do the middle-class white folks get to represent all of humanity - and subsequently save it?" "Why does the one character of color have to be a black kid with no parents who keeps wanting to "kill them all" like his father?" And then I'll be like, "Shut the f--- up, mind - just watch the freaking movie!"

It's like watching a stupid action film with an over-critical friend who keeps going, "Yeah RIGHT that could happen!" It's annoying. And obnoxious. But I can't make it stop. And that friend is good to me and helpful and necessary on so many other levels, so I can't just cut it off. Because I've learned that "ignoring" race does just as much good as "ignoring" the bully who steals my lunch money every day - maybe it doesn't get me as many black eyes, but it sure as Hell doesn't keep me from going without lunch, and it only sets me up to be a sucker for the next bully at my next school and so on for the rest of my life.*

And that's how escaping race goes. During a week of intentionally avoiding race-oriented blogs and discussion, mostly staying inside - it doesn't just go away. I'm not going out of my way to look for it. In fact, I was intentionally avoiding it, and yet I can't. It doesn't work like that for me. Or - likely - for anybody else that isn't white in this country. No matter what, race tracks me down and slaps me a few times a day. It's like a woman trying to stay in and avoid gender - she can't. Not totally. Because it's a fact of life that doesn't just go away because you want it to.

And that's what all these "color-blind," anti-Affirmative Action folks clearly don't understand - race doesn't exist because I see it. Problems of race don't exist because I'm looking for them and calling attention to them. If I shut my mouth and don't say anything, race and race problems will only go away for those few white people who have the privilege of ignoring it, while things get worse, overall.

If returning to my childhood, curling up in a ball by myself and hiding from the outside world while reading a fantasy novel can't make race disappear - then nothing can. So how 'bout we all just accept that fact, stop lying to ourselves and others, and do something about it?

* Hmmm . . . it's also a very white, middle-class cultural thing for adults to tell kids to "ignore" people they have problems with or who are messing with them, or to "ignore" insults because "sticks and stones will break my bones . . ." Could that have any relation to the tendency of that same demographic to want people to "ignore" race?

** I know I've come a long way when I'm writing a whole post around reading a fantasy book. My brother gave me so much shit about that when I was a kid, that I've been ashamed of my enjoyment of fantasy books for most of my life - hiding the fact that I read them. I've even been known to keep a back-up fake "book I'm reading" at my side, so if anybody came in, I could switch out and hide the fantasy novel and pretend I was reading something else. Sounds like a precursor to a post on social stigma.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On the Invention of Racism, Part II

Oh, what a way to start the party I referred to a couple days back. From the very beginning. Note to the upstairs party - make sure you read the full post before you let the way it all begins get you, because it was very intentional, and NOT because I hate white people.

For the first installment, see "On the Invention of Racism, Part I."

So, where did I leave off? Oh, right - what history really looked like before it got re-written.

I was talking about the fact that white Europeans were simply NOT superior - AT ALL - for most of the period of time we like to call "written history." In fact, if we were talking about technological and social advances, we'd have to call them plain inferior. To - pretty much - everyone else. Seriously.

And me writing that probably blows people's minds. Because that's not how our textbooks tell it. And isn't that just racist to say in the first place?

My response? I don't know - is it? Is it racist to state the simple fact that white Europeans literally swam in their own sh-- during much of the second millennium while civilizations of color in Africa, Asia, and the "American" continent practiced good hygiene? Is it racist to say that white Europeans in the 1300s were illiterate savages, in contrast to the highly-educated, scientifically-advanced Moors, or Mayans, or Sudanese, or Chinese, or . . . (you get the picture)? Is it racist to speak of the barbarism of white European colonists in contrast to the settled, civilized natives that they butchered? Is that racist? Because it really seems to me that that's what every single American child learned in school . . .

Oh, wait. No. My bad. They learned the opposite. Right. They (we) learned that white Europeans were the advanced ones, while everybody else was backwards. But that wasn't racist because it was true.

Except it wasn't.

No - it was only true after racism was invented. And institutionalized.

Because there was a time (through all these years of primitive European backwardness) when different races of people didn't exist. The concept of race didn't really exist. There was the acknowledgement of different skin color, of course. And of different places of origin and civilizations. But it wasn't about race. The differently-colored civilizations of the world traded with each other, took advantage of the advancements (and weaknesses) of the others, and lived in a relative state of peace with each other (and I specify "with each other," because they were obviously fighting amongst themselves - but more within the same racial groups than without).

And nobody was "superior." Sure, the Chinese have always thought themselves superior to everybody else, but nobody was actually superior in terms of dominance or advancement or anything else like that. One culture had their way of doing things, the other culture had their own way, and that was how it was.

So what caused superiority to happen? It started with wars of subjugation and slavery.

But most wars of subjugation through the majority of historical time were not between different races. No - they were one tribe or group from one race* taking over land or control of another tribe or group of the same race. And, with that, came slavery. Africans enslaved Africans. Indigenous Americans enslaved other Americans. And white Europeans enslaved other white Europeans. And wasn't it all so hunky-dory? No. But it wasn't about race, either.

Wars that happened between different races weren't about race, either. The major ones were about religion - Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. And neither side thought the other was inferior - simply wrong about God. And so it went until the Inquisition. And, at that point, race starts to appear in the picture - because, although it was ostensibly about religion - it fell out to start eliminating people of the wrong "look" or opinions (I believe this is where true anti-semitism really made its first major stand, the dark-skinned Moors were pushed from Europe, "witches" were persecuted, etc.) . . .

And then Columbus' terrorist attacks on the Americas began. As white Europeans gained control of the Americas (again, through brutality and plague), they gained wealth. Wealth in terms of gold and trinkets, but also in terms of manpower - SLAVES. Because the most slaves in the original Americas were not actually Africans - they were Native Americans. So many that there certainly wasn't a need for white slaves, anymore. But then the plague started wiping out the Natives, so the white Europeans, used to all the extra slave help to do their work, had to ship in African slaves to take their place.

And that's about when the invention of racism really began to take full shape. Because Columbus' initial reports on the natives he met were highly positive. Commenting on their regal physical appearance, their kindness, and their civilized culture. That was until he decided he would kill them and take over their land for "God and country." Then, suddenly, he started talking about their "savagery" and their uncivilized nature, likening them to animals.

Because the problem was this: how could a God-fearing Christian man kill off a whole race of kind, regal, and civilized people? He couldn't. Which presented two options: either, a) don't kill them and leave their land and resources, or b) change how you look at them, so you can feel okay about killing them all.

Guess what option Columbus went with?

And the rest followed suit. There are hundreds of accounts of "explorers" and "statesmen" initially having positive things to say about native peoples, only to do a complete 180 in opinion once they started profiting by killing them.

It was simply a matter of propaganda. If you can convince your people that the "enemy" is less than, then they will have no problem killing them. This kind of dehumanization during wartime has always occurred (and still does).

But it stopped happening only during wartime. Because the majority of slaves became black slaves. And - again - no God-fearing man or woman could whip another man or woman, split up their family, rape them, murder them, etc. No. But they could do all these things if they changed their mind about who those people were. In fact, changed their mind to not even make them people.

And so history had to be re-written. Because if the conquerors acknowledged the previous power (and superiority) of these peoples' civilizations, then how could they adequately justify their current actions? Again - they couldn't. So they - very intentionally - changed history to put white folks on top, from beginning to end. Suddenly, Europeans conquering and colonizing the world wasn't an act of epic brutality and fascist Empire - it was inevitable. It was the ever-constant march of progress. Something that nobody could stop.

They took the morals right out of the equation. And never put them back in. Think back to your history lessons of your childhood - how often was this battle presented as "more advanced" versus "less advanced"?** Manifest Destiny. Exploration. Africa became the "Dark Continent" as slavery reached its peak. None of this was a coincidence.

Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry - they all owned slaves. They had them beat. They broke up their families. They acknowledged the wrong of it all (in a way), but they continued it. Because that was how it was. Because it was easier to let it continue than to function without it.

But slavery did end (at least in the most literal, legal sense). And, afterwards, Reconstruction occurred. Black Americans were given full rights, put into positions of authority, sat in government. But it fell through. Not because the black folks were unable to handle the new way of things, but because white racists (which was the majority of white folks) were murdering black officials. They attacked entire towns. Burned the homes of the most successful black folks.

And suddenly the rights were revoked by the government. But they couldn't admit that it was because the white racists had won - of course not. So it got re-written as the newly-freed slaves being unable to handle authority. Being too uneducated to be successful. Because that story felt better for the authors.

And that story was so effective and became so ingrained, that few people today even realize that black people actually served in government and had legal equality any time before the Civil Rights movements of the 60s. We're taught to believe that things have steadily been getting better. That the racist institution of segregation had to bow to the "inevitable" might of "progress." Uh-oh. Sound familiar?

That's the story we keep hearing. That things "are getting better." Which is often code (when said by people with power) to mean, "stop complaining - be thankful for what you're given;" a justification for those same people to do nothing active to change how things are.

But the problem is - things haven't "been getting better." Things are better now than they were during the 1800s and early 1900s, for sure. But, as far as race relations go, they aren't better than a few hundred years before that. So, if we're looking at the BIG PICTURE, things (racially speaking) have actually been getting WORSE over the course of history. But that kind of outlook doesn't really help the current straight*** white male power system keep us blind and apathetic. If we become too aware of all that, then we might actually start doing something about it, instead of passively talking about "progress" and waiting for the "inevitable" improvement.

In the meantime, racism prevails. We continue to think that welfare recipients are black, single parents that are waiting for handouts without working for it (when data proves to us that those black, single parents actually tend to work MORE than any other demographic). We talk about how our Irish immigrant forefathers "pulled themselves up by the bootstraps" in the face of adversity, while black Americans have not done the same (ignoring the fact that those black Americans who did exactly that were lynched, beaten, and threatened with no legal recourse up to a couple decades back****). We talk about McCain being a "true patriot" because he was tortured at the hands of Vietnamese savages (while we torture and hold "terrorists" without trial or direct evidence to this very day). We pillory black athletes who screw up, chiding them for not being role models (then go out to see another movie that only casts black males as thugs and convicts).

We tell our kids to value their educations - then pump lies down their throats.

Progress is NOT inevitable. It has to be fought for, tooth and nail. Because racism has been the most successful, enduring invention of the last thousand years, and I'm tired of paying for it.

* At least what we would now call "one race."

** Which implies "more intelligent" versus "less intelligent," of course.

*** I could do a very similar post about the invention of homophobia (and will at some point).

**** And it's arguable whether or not equivalents are truly a thing of the past.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On Walking in a Snow Storm - Literally

I keep putting off that "Invention of Race" post I promised, but . . .

It's snowing outside. Real snow. Big, fluffy flakes of snow that are actually sticking to the ground. SNOW.

In Portland, Oregon.

That doesn't happen very often.

And I have this giddy-as-a-schoolboy feeling about it. I keep standing up on my chair (I live in a basement) to look out the window at the falling flakes, and the white sky beyond. I have a park across the street from me (I like to call it "my park"), and it's so exciting to see the grass replaced by a covering of snow. The white clumps sticking to the trees - the cars slowly disappearing under a fresh coat.

I'm planning out the rest of my day as I write this: DEFINITELY going to throw some wood on and have a nice, crackling fire. Going to snuggle up and do a whole lot of reading (George R.R. Martin, for those curious - this faux-radical wannabe emcee likes his fantasy) and - at some point - I'm going to go walk around a little bit.

I'm going to bundle up like crazy, throw on some boots (if I have any that can withstand the snow) and go run around in the park like I'm 5 years old. I'll probably throw a snowball or two (maybe even try to build a little snow-sculpture). And once I'm all tired-out from that (and soaking wet and freezing), I'm going to run back inside (right across the street - brilliant) throw off my wet clothes, and warm back up in front of the fire with a mug of hot tea (or maybe cocoa). And read some more. And not leave my house for the rest of the day.

And then, tomorrow morning, I'm going to cross my fingers and hope against hope for . . . a Snow Day. Again - I'm a teacher, so if I am lucky enough for the snow to stick and make travel difficult, I could get a free day off of work - and how could I use it at this point in the year.

So that's how I'm going to spend my day. Cheerful and cozy and light - because, somedays, there are other things to think about than race. And I'm going to take advantage when I can.

Have a great day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

On Blogging, Preaching to the Choir, and Throwing a Party

I chose this image not because I'm going to write on the movie, but because it seemed to best convey all the topics to be covered in this particular post.

So who would have thought my last post would be so aptly named? "On Walking in a Wind Storm." We certainly got ourselves some wind - and quite the storm - from this one. More drama than I'm used to - for sure - and I teach at a middle school.

I keep thinking of the image of the Joker from the most recent Batman movie, as he says, "And . . . away . . . we . . . GO!"

BOOM!!! (imagine explosion sounds)

So here goes. I've been crazy frustrated for the last few days. To the point of not sleeping and all that. I have a feeling my counterpart in this particular blogosphere whirl of a storm probably has an idea of a similar kind of irritation and stress. Because - I mean - did either of us ever want this kind of ridiculous "battle"? I seriously doubt it.

And there are a number of frustrations to this - that I've already aired - but one that's got me is what happened when I tried to wander over to "the other side" and say my piece. In retrospect, I should have totally seen it coming, but it kind of surprised me the reactions I got over there. Nowhere (other than with the blogger herself) was there any sort of response to the gist of the matter - that something had offended, unintentionally, and should be addressed in some way. Instead, there were attacks, numerous references to my "sensitivity" and inability to take a joke, "PC" references . . . the usual.

And, really, why did that surprise me? Because that's what happens in the larger world - but it's also what happens when you step into somebody else's turf and call out the boss. At that point, whether or not you are making sense, the boss's people are going to step in and protect. That's normal human reaction. When the opportunity to draw a line in the sand and call out sides occurs, we all choose a side and defend those we know. "Our people" - whether that line is drawn by family ties, race, neighborhood, or who reads whose blog.

And that's exactly what happened. Those on "my side" jumped to tell me how right I was and how reasonable I was being, while "her side" jumped to say the exact same thing to her - while both of us were probably a little bit wrong. Et voila! Drama.

And that's what really bothers me here. Because this blog stopped being about my personal space to vent or "practice writing regularly." It's become an opportunity to educate and share experiences, as a means to spread the word and battle the institutionalized and media-led ignorance of those living in this country. And I don't say "ignorance" as the loaded term that so many see it to be, but the definition - lack of knowledge. Because, if you don't have the experience, and nobody takes the time to teach you, you're going to lack that knowledge.

And in my attempts to share experience and knowledge, I've developed a little following. Not a huge one, by any means, but a decent number. The problem is, this particular following sounds so much like a choir. Because people choose to come to this blog to read it. And most people are going to continually come to and read a blog that they agree with - because it's just too painful and frustrating to read something that you can't nod your head to on a regular basis.

The problem is, that process makes it difficult for true education and learning to occur. Because one-sided agreeing doesn't really change anybody's mind. I just get to hear - "Yeah! Say it again! I totally agree with you!!!" - which feels great, but am I really reaching anybody that wasn't already headed in that direction?

And then I found a venue (blog) FULL of EXACTLY who I want to reach - folks learning about race and dealing with it from the context of raising their children (of color) in a white-dominated society and world. Folks that seemed willing and excited to learn (I know this because I only found out about it when they linked to my post on Guess Who? as something to think about). And so I paid it a visit. And I saw something that bothered me, so I commented - thanking the writer for the link, and explaining my concern.

And then . . . away . . . we . . . went!


Because it turned out that that particular choir wasn't having it. We all went into "protection" mode. And here we are.

Want to know the saddest thing? Since the drama occurred, I have gotten hundreds of hits coming over from that site. When I was originally linked to, as a means to learn something and think about it? Three. It's one more microcosm of how people of color tend to get attention in this society - ignored until something BIG and negative goes down.

So where am I going with this? I'm not exactly sure. But I have always been proud of my ability to win anybody over - no matter their demographics. Race, gender, economic status - throw it all away when the CVT walks in, because he can find the common ground and walk there. The beauty of practice in "The Gray Area." But that's in person. In writing? I tend to chafe a little bit more . . .

And so I find myself thinking about a party that happened at my new house after Thanksgiving. My new roommate (a black man) can best be described to have stereotypical "hippie" tendencies from an outside viewpoint. His friends follow suit. The friends I brought to this party were a bit more colorful (still a few white folks), but from a hip-hop cultural grounding.

So, most of the party, there were sort of two parties happening - the upstairs: hand-drums, barefoot, and less-clad dancing with abandon( average age between 40 and 50); and the downstairs: chilling on a big couch, listening to hip-hop and giving each other a hard time (average age mid-twenties to mid-thirties). When folks from the upstairs wandered down, we would exchange cordial greetings and introductions, there would be an awkward pause, and then the newcomer would return to upstairs.

Except at the end. At the end, the straggling "upstairs folks" came on down and joined us all on the big couch. We made a mini-performance space, and folks took turns sharing their words. I shared some politicized spoken word about my relationship with race as it pertains to my father. An "upstairs woman" shared some of her own spoken word (also political) from back in the day. Two of the downstairs crew dropped lyrics over a generic beat I put on. And we all just shared a positive, creative, and intimate space for a short period of time. "Them" and "us" - sitting all lined up on a big-ass couch, appreciating each others' talents (and courage to share).

And THAT'S the kind of party I want to host again. A party where you can all have your different places to camp out and do whatever it is that brings you satisfaction, while also coming together to share and learn and connect at the end of it all.

I don't want to preach to just the choir. Sure, I need the choir to keep me fed and strong enough to battle on through the rough stuff, but I don't want only the choir. Because I want the opportunity to really reach some people who don't see my side. I want the opportunity to re-structure my own views based on somebody else's comments. And I want the opportunity to foster a respectful dialogue between different sides, so that they can edge a little bit closer towards common ground.

And so I make an offer to all those from the "upstairs party" that have been coming over here to see what I have to say: why don't you come back again, bob your head to my beat for a minute, appreciate the subtleties of a well-formed verse? And to those with me at the "downstairs" party - how 'bout we go upstairs for a bit and dance a little; see how a head-spin goes to a natural drum rhythm? And when we hit that point of being a bit too far past our respective comfort zones, we'll both head back to our little areas of the party - but we won't go home. Oh, no. We'll share the same house, and all the positive, good-natured fun emanating from upstairs and down, until we're relaxed enough to switch it up again and stretch.

And to the now-"infamous" blogger from the "upstairs party" - I offer you a space to post a little something. Share your thoughts and where you're at, honestly and respectfully (as you have been doing), so we can reach out a little bit. I offer my own services to the "upstairs," as well (but not pushing it).

And wouldn't that be quite the party!!?? I mean - seriously. Somewhere where we all don't just preach to choirs, but to the "other side." Somewhere where true, knock-the-breath-out learning happens. Dang.

I'm not a (specifically) religious man, but I've always felt that everything happens for a reason. I doubt you disagree. So wouldn't that be tight if this was the reason?

That's my little dream. Not likely, by any means, but something worth aspiring to (and daydreaming about).

And as far as my choir goes - thank you all for the support, don't stop reading, and please feel free to share a verse or two whenever the need strikes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

On Walking in a Wind Storm (and Dealing with Being Other)

I shall continue my essay on the invention of race shortly, but something has come up, so I shall write on it while it's on my mind.

In my second part of my "relating topics of race via metaphor" series (see On Driving in the Rain), I bring you a new metaphor: walking in a wind storm.

Picture it: coat held tight, collar up, forward-leaning into the wind. Edges of your coat fluttering and flapping and slapping you as you just try to put one foot in front of another. Random objects (newspapers, garbage) are hitting you from the side. The rain is hitting you in the face. It's uncomfortable. Terribly unpleasant. Frustrating. But you push on, ignoring it as best you can, letting everything bounce off you as you just move forward.

And then one tiny bottle-cap gets flung into the air. A tiny little bottle-cap. Insignificant. Harmless. If it hits you, it's just going to bounce off your coat - you probably won't even realize it happened. But for some reason, that cap gets lifted off the ground, swirled once or twice, and then flies directly into your earlobe. And it STINGS!!! It hurts. It even drew a little bit of blood. You curse, grabbing your inflamed ear. And that's the one thing that just knocks you off your game, you start swearing, throw your useless umbrella to the ground, trying to stomp the offending bottle-cap into submission.

All the while, you're still in the middle of a windstorm.

I think about race all the time. I watch ten seconds of television, and I am guaranteed to see something that "otherizes" people of color and establishes white people as the norm. A white co-worker says something that displays their cultural incompetence. I read the news and see how it portrays people of color. I hear a joke about Asian men and the size of their ----. All the time. But it doesn't really phase me on any sort of noticeable level. I brush it off. I put up my collar and push on. That's how it is, crying about it isn't going to help me; so I take note when I have the energy, let it bounce away when I don't, and go on with my life, thinking on a way to make it a little more manageable.

But then something hits me in the gut. Something that shouldn't be that big of a deal. Just one more in a long line of things. It's not meant to be offensive. It's not meant to hurt. A tiny little bottle-cap that wouldn't have bothered me if it hit me anywhere other than my ear.

But it hit me in the ear.

Now, I'm not going to do a big public call-out here, but let's just say I saw something on a blog the other day that bothered me. It wasn't big. It wasn't meant to harm. By itself, I never would have even thought on it more than a few minutes. But, for whatever reason, it hit me in the ear. It threw me off my game. And I'm still thinking about it.

And I received an impassioned apology. One that I believe to be genuine. Almost immediately. And I appreciate that, but for some reason - it's not enough for me here. I don't know if I'm being rational, but I just got hit in the ear during a wind storm, you know? And so I want more.

Because an apology isn't active. It's reactive. It's the - "oops, I got caught" - reaction to guilt when it's brought to one's attention. I never thought the person meant harm to begin with. So an apology establishing that changes nothing. I want something active to happen. No defense, no justifications - I already know the person isn't bad or evil or racist or anything else like that at all. But I want something to happen.

Because, in the end, my mentioning of the matter changed nothing. I got the apology, but the post is still there. I got the apology, but I still got to see 30 other commenters completely ignore my own reference to the offensiveness of the post and talk about how "cute" it was. 30 (presumably white) folks ignoring the one person of color (and representative of the race mentioned) speaking out because they can. Because that's how it always goes. And what crushes me is that these are people that want to raise a Chinese kid!

Now, obviously, there's nothing the blogger can do about commenters choosing to ignore my comment. That's their personal preference, and we can't change other people's personal preferences . . . Or can we?

Because this is the second part where the apology isn't enough. Just like with all the more public apologies that come from institutions and radio stations when somebody does something wrong, nothing follows up to demonstrate the sincerity of the apology. Because, if it is so truly heartfelt (which, oddly enough, I still believe it to be), then shouldn't that person desire a change? To prevent similar things from happening?

And so the blogger CAN affect the readers' choices to ignore my comment: by drawing attention to it. By writing on it. By posting on the topic. Surely, by removing the post with an explanation. By asking for further education or help. By MAKING the other readers think about the one person of color in the room. By MAKING other readers (and those in a similar situation) open their eyes to their own cultural biases on "normality" and "otherization." By MAKING other readers think about the painful realities of race BEFORE they raise a kid that's going to have to suffer through them (with less help precisely because their "parents" haven't been MADE to think on it).

That's action. That's sincere regret. That's making change.

*And so here I must undo my own B.S. "apology" and take a next step. Because, in my comments to a previous post, an inappropriate comment came in regarding preferences of mixed female "looks" (more or less following the line of "exotifying" mixed people, by all races). In response, I gave a half-assed explanation for why I allowed it, but pretty much left it as a side-conversation. I eventually deleted the comment.

But here, I would like to follow up on my apology to Seitzk in the same way that I ask for in this post: first, I would like to put on my "posts-to-write" queue the topic of exotification (especially of females of color). Second, I invite Seitzk to write her (my assumption is female from previous comments, but I'm actually not certain) own breakdown of what personally offended in that situation, which I offer to post as clarification for ALL readers that may not have caught it, or understood. I also offer the opportunity for the commenter to respond - to create a dialogue. See if we can't clear up a possible misunderstanding, or simply educate to eliminate another instance.

Because the primary aim of this post is education. We're all going to mess up at some point. We all have our own stereotypes and biases and prejudices that we're not even aware of. We all will be misunderstood at times. So if we cannot address that and learn from it, then what's the point of me writing all that I do?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

On the Invention of Racism, Part I

So, before I get into this post, I want to note that uglyblackjohn secretly (not really, but the announcement was embedded in the comments of my first post, so I just found it) bestowed a blogging award on me last week. Just found it, so I shall let that marinate for a minute before I more competently address that. However, I wanted to thank uglyblackjohn for the acknowledgment and invite you all to click on his name above to check out his blog.

Now, on to the racism!!!

The above image is a depiction of a schematic drawing from one of Leonardo da Vinci's many inventions. Da Vinci, of course, is now (and was during his time) acknowledged as one of the foremost geniuses of his time - and maybe beyond. A true representative of a "Renaissance Man," he flourished as Europe came out of the throes of the Dark Ages.

But the question is: how did Europe come out of the Dark Ages? And what were other people doing during that time? Did the Dark Ages span the entire world?

To answer the last question first - of course not. While Europe was battling through plague and squalor and the lack of any semblance of what modern folks call "civilization" (i.e. literacy, academia, peaceful co-existence, medicine, hygiene, etc.) the rest of the world was - gasp - doing pretty much fine. China was pushing along, celebrating over two thousand years straight of scholastic aptitude and written language. In Western Africa, Timbuktu boasted a library of 1600 volumes, as well as a university rivaled only by another advanced university in the Sudan (Eastern Africa). Arab Muslims (the Moors) were in a period of scientific and academic achievement perhaps unrivaled in all of the world. Across the Pacific, the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Empires were building cities of hundreds of thousands with irrigated farmlands and sewage systems.

In Europe, backwards tribes were fighting over nomadic lands and wallowing in their own filth.

So how did white Europeans stop acting like savages and get a little bit of civilization? By getting help from all the non-white civilizations, of course. Mostly, it was the Moors who were able to pass on their knowledge to the primitive Europeans. Their extensive academic and scientific knowledge - preserved in libraries - was the backbone of European "genius" as it blossomed during the Renaissance. But the Europeans were smart - they knew that they had much to learn from all the other more advanced civilizations, so they built on what they learned from interactions with the Chinese and Africans that they traded with. End result? Europe stopped being a cesspool.

Or did it? At the time of the white "discovery" of the Americas, London was still a city swarming with filth and excrement and disease (while the Mexican city of Tenochtitlan harbored hundreds of thousands - perhaps more - in perfectly-ordered streets). Scotland was a hinterland full of feuding tribes. The indigenous Americans commented on the incoming Europeans' filth (as it was against custom for white folks to bathe at the time, while the Natives upheld customs of cleanliness and hygiene).

So how did these backwards people take over the world? Was it because they were more "advanced"? Somewhat. They surely had more firepower in most cases. But it really came down to savagery. Because the conquering Europeans were more ruthless in their desire to kill all who stood in their way, they were able to succeed. Oh, and not to mention the fact that over 70% of the original inhabitants of the Americas died of disease before even having a chance to fight back.

Because the fact of the matter is that the indigenous Americans taught the Europeans how to farm, so they could survive in the "New World." Most of the original colonial towns were built on Native city-plans (complete with sectioned-off farm-plots) that had been abandoned as Natives died of plague (probably smallpox).

So where does the racism come in? Well, somewhere along the line, white Europeans became the "inevitable" conquerors of the world. Somewhere along the line, we stopped thinking of the different "races" (which didn't really exist in the way they do now) as equals. We stopped thinking of the various non-white civilizations of the world as on par with (or more advanced than) white European culture. Somewhere, somehow, we started ranking races against each other. Instead of where we had been - where different ethnicities were acknowledged to be different (because, even then, there was no "color-blind") and unusual, but NOT inferior - we came to a world where people started thinking of different "races" as more or less human than others.

So how did that happen? By design, pure and simple. Racism was intentionally constructed to serve very specific purposes. Racism is not - and has never been - a natural result of physical differences between people. I'm tired of hearing that claim. Noticing difference and grouping people IS natural. But those are two very different things - with very different possible results.

And so, if you tune in for my next installment, I will break down the true history of racism, why it was invented, the results, and (hopefully) what we can do about it.

The suspense must be killing you . . .

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wednesday Respite

And now for my weekly "blast-from-the-past" quasi-cheekiness:

MONDAY, APRIL 16, 2007

Dear Pho,

This is a perfect letter to be writing after waking up from a nap. I'm all groggy and cloudy-headed, and the words "Dear Pho" kind of just fall out of my mouth like cotton balls after I was anesthetized by the dentist (for those of you who don't know, "pho" is pronounced like "fuh"). But I guess this probably isn't the first time somebody has been amused at the pronunciation of your name at your expense. Sorry about that.

Anyway, I'm sitting here at the computer with a steaming bowl of you right in front of me. It's leftover from dinner a few nights ago, but it still seems to be perfect for the moment: I look out the window directly in front of me to see one more overcast, rainy, cold Portland day, and my body is just trying to shake off a nap, making my slowed metabolism cause me to feel a little colder than normal. The steam from you is dancing right in front of my eyes as I write, and it seems very reassuring.

It's funny that I'm happy to have you in front of me right now because I used to talk so much ish about you, back in the day. When I first moved to Portland, I noticed all sorts of places that specialized in you around town, and it piqued my curiosity. So I did a little research to find out that you were basically just beef broth with noodles and some other crap thrown in. That's it. So when random Portlanders kept telling me about how a specific restaurant "had good pho," I couldn't help but scoff: stupid Portlanders.

It seemed so perfect for this town full of hippies and cultural appropriators (everyone being so proud in their proper pronunciation of your name) to talk about "good pho." I mean, how could there be anything but one version of you? Beef broth. With noodles. That was like saying that Safeway sold some "good Cup o' Noodles." As if one cup tasted different than another cup. Couldn't I just cut the top off a Swanson's beef broth container, throw some veggies and crap in it and call it "good pho?"

But in spite of my best contempt, people continued to talk about you and order you for dinner and talk about good places to get you. And so - about a year ago (and two years into my time in Portland) - I found myself on a crappy, overcast day at another Pan-Asian restaurant (that's another thing Portland specializes in, so-called "Chinese" or "Vietnamese" restaurants that actually serve dishes from all over the Continent, furthering white people's beliefs that we're "all the same"). I was hungry and feeling dark because of the weather, but I wasn't REAL hungry, and I was craving veggies. And - suddenly - you became the perfect option (this, of course, coming about a year after I finally relented and decided that soup was - indeed - food). And so I ordered you.

And when you were served to me, all steamy and hot in your bowl, I actually salivated. Diving in with my chopsticks first, I scooped large clump after large clump of soft noodles into my mouth to kill my initial hunger. Then, less desperate to fill my belly, I chose out some veggies to eat - and they still crunched. The basil gave you a nice, fresh taste and mouth-feel, and the chunks of meat gave you substance. Finally, I lifted the giant bowl to my lips and drank down your salty, oily broth, which coated my stomach like a warm, satisfying blanket. My body comfortably warm and my hunger and cravings thus satisfied, I declared, "That was some GOOD pho." And I haven't looked back. I get it now - you're not popular here because of Portland culture, but because of the crappy weather. Your warmth and perceived freshness in the midst of the Season of Seasonal Affective Disorder are a ray of hope in a sky of gray.

Now, I still sniff with a bit of contempt when somebody recommends a "good pho" place, but then I take note and try it the next time I have you for dinner. Because you really do hit a very specific spot a lot of the time. Not to mention that a lot of places that have you also serve avocado shakes or home-made lime-ade. That fact alone kind of makes you cool.

And so I acknowledge your special goodness. I thank you for the times we've had and how you opened my eyes, and I will definitely share you with any outsiders who come to visit me. But now, you're getting cold, and I need to eat you.

Be careful on the way down,

Monday, December 1, 2008

On True Education

I could be a kick-ass teacher. I really could. Sometimes, I am a kick-ass teacher. But I could be one on a regular basis.

If our education system wasn't so f---ed.

I teach at a middle school. My particular designation is "Math," but I also teach elective classes twice a week (currently, Music Production and Psychology; I taught Public Speaking and a podcasting class last term). And guess when I'm more often a kick-ass teacher?

Yeah - not when I'm teaching math.

Some of the problem is my lack of passion for the subject-matter. I always hated math when I was in school, so my main motivation is to not have it be as painful as it was for me as a kid. When I teach my elective classes, I obviously pick subjects that I'm interested in or even passionate about, and that comes out in how I teach.

But the passion vs. lack thereof isn't actually the main problem. No - the main difference between how I teach (and plan curriculum for) my math classes versus my elective classes is simple: there's so much bullsh-- involved in teaching math, and little to none in my other classes.

So - why is that? Good question. It's because I have to teach math to the State Standards. Which really means that I have to teach to the annual State-administered tests for each grade level. And so exactly what I have to cover is pretty much laid out for me in advance by some hypothetical panel of "experts."

And my questions to these "experts" is: how do you decide what is important to "know"? Really? Because so much of the subject-matter I have to cover is complete and utter B.S. Complete. And utter. Really.

I mean - honestly - how many of you all have ever used a box-and-whisker plot in your real life? Or a stem-and-leaf plot? How often has the Pythagorean Theorem come in handy (and if it ever has, what was the chance that you couldn't easily look it up when you needed it)? Outside of basic math functions, how many specific math concepts have ever been necessary without being able to readily look it up or gain assistance?

Now, I believe in the value of mathematics. I think the problem-solving skills are handy. A basic knowledge of algebra is great for better solving real-life math problems. The various ways of thinking and pattern-recognition learned through practicing math skills are invaluable. But what difference does it really make if some kid knows how to make a freaking box-and-whisker plot as opposed to spending that time mastering more basic skills at a deeper level?

Because I could make math relevant to the kids. I could come up with some ridiculous, fun and hands-on games and activities that would hone kids' math skills. I could teach the Hell out of math. If I didn't have to waste so much time on B.S. that some imaginary board came up with as "important" enough to put on the standardized tests that my kids' academic standing and progress are measured by. If I didn't have to scrap deeper-level learning and comprehension and actual MASTERY because my quality as a math teacher is gauged by how much improvement my kids make on B.S. tests that put as much weight on being able to determine the measures of alternate interior angles as calculating averages - with almost NO emphasis on true comprehension and problem-solving skills.

And it kills me. When the kids ask "when are we ever going to use this?" and all I have is a lie because I can't just say "after the test, you won't."

So I constantly skim over subject-matter. Never getting deep enough into any of it for it to be relevant or stick or just be interesting because there's always something else they "need to know to do well on the test."

Because our society loves tests. We love to do surveys and quizzes that tell us what our personality type is. We try to come up with formulas that can match the "perfect mates" based on multiple-choice questionnaires. We talk about people's high IQs as if that has any bearing on common sense or people skills. And we measure academic skills based on how a student did on a test without ever really bothering to find out if the kid actually understands any of it.

And it's especially frustrating to me because I know just how little these kinds of tests demonstrate true knowledge or understanding. A conversation demonstrates understanding. Being able to teach somebody else demonstrates understanding. A multiple-choice test usually just demonstrates your socio-economic background mixed in with some rote learning.

And it's not like the other subjects I teach aren't broad topics. They're vast. But it's up to me to focus my curriculum and classroom activities based on relevance, the kids' interests, etc. I actually get to take into account who my kids are, what my particular strengths as a teacher are, and what the desired end result is. And trust me - in none of my non-math classes do the kids finish up with a test. They debate topics of their choice in Public Speaking. They design their own Psychology experiments and run them. They produce their own cd with their own music in Music Production (obviously). All demonstrating true understanding, all relevant, all self-directed, and all great learning opportunities even if they don't go perfectly (especially if they don't).

And that's true education. That's how learning should happen. And that's kick-ass teaching.

Too bad the current system doesn't allow my math students to experience that.