Sunday, July 29, 2012

Playing with Weapons

I think about all the victims in Aurora, and I realize there are many more than originally counted. Think about all the people in the theater who were not physically injured but who are mentally and emotionally wounded. Think about families and friends of the victims – they are suffering, too.  The suffering is like the rings created in a body of water after an object has broken the surface, moving out wider and wider.
Sales of guns have risen in Colorado since the shooting.  My home state, with 10% unemployment, didn’t have a spike in sales but a spike in interest in purchasing guns. I say, smart thing, pay that mortgage or buy some food instead. That will help you survive better than buying a gun.
I asked Ronald what he thought would have happened if other people in the theater were armed. Remember, he is a certified pistol safety instructor. He said, “A lot more people would have died.”
Visibility was almost zero. People were running and diving in all directions. The noise must have been deafening. Holmes wore riot gear. In such a situation, who would have been able to pull off a shot that hit the one vulnerable area, the neck, of the assassin? No one but the best-trained sniper, a rarity, could have made such a shot. But someone else with a gun might have shot wildly into the crowd and killed even more people.
Another “joker” was arrested for threatening his boss and employees in Maryland. He was going to be terminated from his job. He made two threatening phone calls and the company contacted police. They found an arsenal in his home.
“If you asked me who the Joker is, I’d say a face card or a character in the Batman comics,” Ronald said as we were eating breakfast yesterday morning. “Why do people use something like that to hold up like a banner?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and I really don’t. I watch all the superhero movies and the action/adventure movies, and I have never wanted to hurt a single person. I can’t understand why people need arsenals or why they want to shoot people. I see shooting as a sport, target shooting or hunting, though I am not a fan of hunting just for the sake of killing. My husband shoots at circles, not silhouettes, and he doesn't hunt. Today’s paper had a column about gun control and featured a photo from a local shooting range. The photo was of a shooter at the range aiming at a life-sized photo image of a man. Many people buy assault weapons, and they talk about shooting people.  See my post about my husband’s experience as a pistol safety instructor Profiling Fatality 3 and last week's post on the Aurora shooting: Tired World.
Gun violence is mainstream and accepted. People are afraid so they want to get guns, and they want to use them. What are we so afraid of?
A four-year-old was shot and killed in a park in the Bronx by a stray bullet. A person on Facebook wondered how a parent could have let a four-year-old out to play at 9:30 in the evening. 
I know why that child was out in the park. When we still lived in Syracuse, I remember driving through the poor sections of the city on warm nights, and everyone was out – the streets were teeming with people. The houses and apartments were not air-conditioned and were stiflingly hot.  That’s why fire and police personnel check on the elderly during heat waves. They can’t get out, and the inside temperature can be twenty or thirty degrees higher than outside. The inside temperature can be deadly.
That child was out because that was better than being in. That mother couldn’t have known that a group of teenagers who were playing basketball would be armed and willing to use their weapons.
Mental illness is stigmatized and access to mental health care is difficult even for those with health insurance. Even if an individual is seeing a psychiatrist, as Holmes supposedly was, it is difficult to predict when one might descend into thoughts of harming oneself or others. Already people are predicting that Holmes is mentally ill, but we don’t know for sure. Maybe that helps people make sense of the senseless violence. We have to be able to explain things, even the seemingly unexplainable.
Here’s my explanation: we live in an increasingly divisive society that tends to isolate individuals instead of creating community. The rich are getting richer while everyone else is getting poorer. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else. It is making us a fearful and violent society.  The push for personal freedoms has caused people to act on those feelings. Many people feel isolated and disenfranchised, not a part of mainstream society. I wonder, is anyone really part of the mainstream or are we all islands in the ocean?
There is so much we need to do to calm the situation. The first thing is to take assault weapons and riot gear off our streets, except in the hands of qualified and trained police and military personnel. Why is it easier to buy an assault weapon than it is to register to vote in some states?
The second thing is to stop this trend where most of America, the 99%, is plunging into poverty. We are a better country than this. Corporations have to be better stewards of the people who live where they do business. Our government needs to step in. It’s not socialism, it is the right thing to do, and it levels the playing field for everyone.
The third thing is to accept our diversity. It is our strength, not our weakness. We can come together, if we would just be more tolerant and more accepting of our differences.

Here’s the latest story from the golf range:
This week Ronald climbed the stairs to the front porch after hitting balls. He figured he’d spend a little time chatting with the white guys on the porch. He keeps trying to get along, because they are the people in his social sphere.
The golf club repair guy said, “You want that driver fixed, you better get it to me.”
“Not [Jacob],” Ronald responded.
“What? He thought you were [Jacob]?” I asked. I remembered that Ronald had told me [Jacob] had broken his driver the week before.
[Jacob] is a half-foot taller than Ronald, about ten years younger, very dark, and thin as a rail. The two men couldn’t look more different.
“Oh,” the golf club repair guy said, “I don’t see that well.”
“And he wants people to give him their golf clubs to repair?” I asked, laughing. I was still incredulous.  Let me remind you that Ronald’s been going there for five years. [Jacob] covers the shop for the owner sometimes, and he is there hitting balls almost as often as Ronald. How could the man not be able to tell them apart?
Then I remembered that back in Syracuse, Ronald and his friend Michael, who also played golf, were often mistaken for one another. Ronald had about three inches on Michael, and Michael had that small, long-muscled gymnastic body – he was a gymnast for Syracuse University back when we were students until an injury knocked him off the team. Michael’s eyes turned up at the outer corners and his nose was pointed. He wore glasses. This was in contrast to Ronald’s large, round eyes and broad nose. Yet people used their names interchangeably.  After it happened often enough, both men gave up and answered to either name.
Not only did they get mistaken for one another, but many times in the almost twenty years they were club members, they were reported at the pro shop for “sneaking onto the course.” One day a new white member marched into the pro shop and demanded someone get the black guy off the course. The club pro, who jokingly referred to Ronald as “Walter Hogan” because of his accurate drives, said, “Ron’s been a member for a lot longer than you have. He should have been in here asking about you.”
Change is very slow. But we need to try harder. We need to fight against social isolation. We need to see one another clearly. We need to stop being so fearful. We need to make people feel part of something greater than just the individual, and we need to include all Americans and celebrate our diversity.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Work in Progress: Chain-blogging Ten Questions

Belinda Nicoll (My Rite of Passage) tagged me in this challenge to answer ten questions about a work in progress. Here are my responses.  Thanks for tagging me, Belinda!
What is the title of your WIP?
I don’t have a title yet. I’m not done writing, and a title hasn’t made itself apparent, nor have I concentrated on discovering one.
What is your WIP?
A book of short stories about women and personal power.
Where did the idea for the WIP come from?
I write non-fiction about race and culture, and I have always had a special interest in women and power or lack of power. Once a psychic told me I am a very feminine soul, and I believe that. I always felt very feminine.  I don’t consider that a weakness but a strength.
I am of the generation of women who entered the workforce in large numbers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I saw and experienced so much sexual harassment. One of my undergraduate professor’s wrote a reference letter that said, “Dianne will be a pretty addition to any office.” Someone in the career services department was smart enough and progressive enough to clue me in, and I had the letter tossed. We didn’t have a name for sexual harassment back then, but we knew it when we experienced it, and we persevered in spite of it.
I think about the power we own as women: the power of procreation, the power to choose what we think is right and best for us and those we love, the power to make choices about our bodies, and the power to make societal change. I think of feminism and what we hoped for, how we envisioned it, and I wonder how to interpret and view the backlash I see in a very sexualized, object-oriented culture where both women and men struggle to define themselves and their roles. I wanted to play with all of those concepts and see where they would take me.
What genre would your WIP fall under?
It is feminist fiction.
Which actors would you use to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I love movies and actors – I could watch movies all day and not get bored.  I know because I’ve done it many times. It would be hard to choose amongst so many actors and I would be honored that anyone of them would choose to play one of my characters. I’d like to be in on the auditions. Maybe I could throw a few lines at them.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your WIP?
These are stories about women discovering their personal power and how to use that power to develop self-love and acceptance and to negotiate their way in life and society.
Is your WIP published or represented?
No, I have ambivalent feelings about the state of publishing, a capitalist endeavor. I think it’s become like reality TV.  It’s all about marketing and what sells, not necessarily about the writing or the message. I am strongly considering self-publishing. I’ve never been a joiner, and I can feel myself pulling away, feeling uncomfortable with the whole process, not wanting to compromise my personal ethics and values for a publishing contract, and wanting to have control of the process. Self-publishing may be the great equalizer for writers, but I'm not sure about that either. 
How long did it take you to write?
Literally years, because I wrote two of the stories a long, long time ago, took them out recently, dusted them off, and revised them. The other two are new, one still very much in the works and the other at the revision stage. I may write a fifth – a kernel of a story is germinating. My process is very “inside my head” and then when I am ready to write, the whole thing pours out as fast as I can type. Then I go back, revise, build, and restructure.
What other WIPs in your genre would you compare it to?
I hate to compare myself or my work to anyone else or his/her work. I’m too insecure for that, but I also think that we should not place more value on any one piece of art over another anymore than we should place different value on individuals. Every story is valid and has a place in the human collective. Writing ability varies, and so do personal aesthetics and the leanings of mainstream culture, but should those things make any one story less worthy of being told than another?
Which authors inspired you to write this WIP?
Surprise, I love detective, police, and mystery novels: James Kellerman, Walter Mosley, Michael Connelly, and James Patterson are favorite authors in that genre. I enjoy very visual and visceral writers, too. Toni Morrison comes to mind. I can read her books over and over. I’m reading Craig Johnson’s Longmire novels right now – I just love his characterizations, his word choices, how he is miserly with his words, but they are so rich, and how his writing is sensual. I like how he delves into cultural differences and how two different cultures interact, especially when they’ve had a violent, distrustful history.
Really, I enjoy just about every book I read, because I love being in the moment of the story, wrapped up in it, experiencing it through another’s eyes. I enjoy the unique way the writer has chosen to tell the story. All of the written and oral stories I’ve heard over the years have inspired me. Stories and reading were my ways of escaping as a child, growing up in an alcoholic, interethnic home where there were many arguments and lots of chaos.
Tell us anything else that might pique our interest in this project.
I think it’s time to assess how far we’ve come in this new age of feminism. In some ways, we have regressed, and I worry about young women.  In other ways, young women demonstrate strengths I certainly feel I never had.  We have a long way to go, though, in so many ways. We need to acknowledge that there are many ways an individual can live a feminist life. We need to accept and embrace those disparities that can arise due to class and cultural differences as well as individual temperaments and personalities. We need to be inclusive rather than exclusive. We have a long way to go, too, in the areas of access to education, career opportunities, childcare, health care, and reproductive rights. 
I also believe a lot of young men today are distracted and unmotivated, and maybe a part of it has to do with the fact that feminists did not consider in a meaningful way how to help men redefine and adapt to new roles as women changed or expanded theirs. I don’t think we did enough to help couples navigate and build relationships as equal partners. I don’t think we came to terms with the fact that it’s okay that men and women are different, whether it is nature or nurture that creates the differences, but we can still be equal. Equality does not mean being the same, and we need to root for equality and self-actualization of all people.
There is a long continuum of gender identification, and an individual can fall anywhere along that continuum from very masculine to very feminine. We can work to understand and change socially defined gender roles and embrace the complexity of gender individuality. That way, everyone, no matter how one self identifies, can feel comfortable instead of feeling societal pressure to change inherent traits in order to feel “normal” and accepted by others.

I'd like to tag:
 Angela Haigler
Sarah Meinel
Lacey Lyons
Heather Magruder
Karen Celestan

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Tired World

“Do you ever get the feeling the world is tired, Walt?”
~ The Cold Dish: A Walt Longmire Mystery by Craig Johnson

I had to call the driving range a couple days ago. I needed to get hold of Ronald, and he has taken to leaving his cell phone in the car. “Why carry it? No one ever calls me,” he says in explanation. I don’t call him often. He’s retired, and I work from home. We are constantly in each other’s space and have little need for additional communication tools during the times we are apart. I’ve had just a few emergencies since working from home in which I felt the need to call him: 1) the rabid coyote rolling around our yard; 2) the escaped cockatiel hopping toward me when I took the dog out; and 3) a couple days ago when the sub-contractors were burying the neighbor’s cable, and it was possible they were going to bury it on our property. They had it wrapped around one of our trees and across our yard.
When he didn’t answer his cell phone, I dialed the range.
“Hello, is Ron Hagan still there?” I asked. He’s been going there for the five years we’ve lived here, almost daily, at least weekly. He must have handed his debit card across the counter thousands of times. The white guys on the porch, including the owner, talk to him regularly, as you know, because I often write about their conversations.
“Do you mean Ron [Maverick]?” the man on the phone responded. That was one of the white guys who sometimes works there but mostly just sits on the porch. Once he asked Ronald if he could see a sample of my writing because he considered himself a writer, too. Ronald handed him a copy of my essay, What’s Race Got to Do with It? The next time Ronald showed up at the range, the guys on the porch were passing it back and forth, and the pristine sheets were dog-eared and creased. “Um, do you mind if we read this?” one of the guys asked Ronald as he stepped onto the porch.
“No, Ron Hagan. He was hitting balls. I need to speak with him,” I continued on the phone.
“Oh, black Ron,” the range owner said.
I paused. I took a breath.
“Yes, that’s him.”
Ronald picked up the phone a few minutes later, and he came home to check and see if the sub-contractors had buried the cable correctly.  I had already gone up and checked after I got off the phone, and they had done it correctly. If there had been a problem, though, I prefer Ronald to take care of it. He’s much more assertive than I am, and he knows code enforcement from his career as a firefighter.
When he got home I said, “You have a new name, black Ron.”
He screwed his mouth in disgust. “Figures,” he said.
All the white guys had read my essay. They know I’m white.
“He knows I’m white, but my voice didn’t match what he thought I’d sound like, and he couldn’t make the connection.”
“That’s it, exactly.”
Later I told my mother-in-law about it.
“Really? That’s terrible!” she said.
Maybe many readers are saying, “What’s the big deal? Skin color is an identifying characteristic.”
Yes, it is, but after five years of almost daily contact, that’s the only way to describe someone? I’d feel more comfortable about it if the owner of the range described the two men named Ron as “white Ron” and “black Ron.” That makes sense, if you are distinguishing between the two and you don’t know last names.  But if one is Ron [Maverick] and the other is black Ron, I am offended, and so was Ronald. Don’t get me wrong. We laughed about it. But see how deeply race is ingrained in people’s perceptions and how they categorize and recognize others? Not as individuals but as a color or a race, and it apparently doesn’t go away by close association and the passage of time.
It’s the same reason I am offended whenever a reporter, or anyone for that matter, identifies President Obama as the black president or Tiger Woods as the black golfer. What is the need for the additional qualifier? I realize it’s about firsts and minorities – for a long time men who became nurses were called male nurses. Women dominated the nursing field, and men were few and far between.
I hope that’s changed by now, and I wish we could move forward with the added description of race that is used to describe people of minority races only. If race is not used as a descriptor, usually a person is describing a white person, a “race-less” person.
People have mentioned to Ronald and me at different times that we should tell people who we are married to, as in, “My black husband Ronald is mowing the lawn,” or “My white wife Dianne expects me home early so we can go out to dinner.” Maybe we should start by identifying everyone by race: conservative white radio host Rush Limbaugh; Asian basketball player Jeremy Lin; retired black basketball player Charles Barkley, white actor George Clooney; black singer Patti LaBelle, or white presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Do you think people would tire of it? I know I am tired already.
I’m tired and scared of how dangerous our country is, too. James Holmes, dressed in riot gear, smoke bombed an Aurora, CO theater during the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, then systematically shot an AR15 and a Glock into the crowd of movie goers jam-packed into the theater. Latest numbers are 12 dead and 59 injured. He told the police he was the Joker, one of Batman’s enemies.
The Joker is a dark, evil character voiced in animation by Larry Storch and Mark Hamill, among others, and portrayed on TV and film by Caesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger. Ledger’s portrayal was particularly dark, psychotic and remorseless. Ledger worked hard to stay in character, and he had trouble sleeping during the shoot. Some say the portrayal contributed to his depressed mood and death caused by accidental overdose in the months before the movie was released.
Here is an excerpt from an article in the Daily News titled Jack Nicholson warned Heath Ledger on 'Joker' role that talks about the role and the effect it had on Ledger:
Jack Nicholson, who played the Joker in 1989 - and who was furious he wasn't consulted about the creepy role - offered a cryptic comment when told Ledger was dead.
"Well," Nicholson told reporters in London early Wednesday, "I warned him."
Though the remark was ambiguous, there's no question the role in the movie earmarked as this summer's blockbuster took a frightening toll.
Ledger recently told reporters he "slept an average of two hours a night" while playing "a psychopathic, mass-murdering, schizophrenic clown with zero empathy.
"I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."
Prescription drugs didn't help, he said.
Holmes may be mentally ill or maybe not, and we don’t know his motives. What we know is that he was able to obtain weapons, body armor, and a gas mask. He booby-trapped his apartment with explosives.  How did he get these weapons and explosives?
Here’s what I got off about James Holmes:
Suspected Colorado movie theater gunman James Holmes purchased four guns at local shops and more than 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet in the past 60 days, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates told a news conference this evening.
"All the ammunition he possessed, he possessed legally, all the weapons he possessed, he possessed legally, all the clips he possessed, he possessed legally," an emotional Oates said.
Colorado is a state that strongly supports the second amendment. The NY Times said this about Colorado gun control in the article Colorado Gun Laws Remain Lax, Despite Changes after Columbine:
As a mountain state, Colorado has a history of broad support for Second Amendment rights. But in the years since the Columbine tragedy, the state’s lawmakers and voters passed some gun restrictions, including requirements governing the sale of firearms at gun shows, a law regulating people’s ability to carry concealed weapons and legislation banning “straw purchases” of weapons for people who would not qualify to buy them legitimately.
Despite the changes over the past 13 years, Colorado law still prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in several significant ways. Moreover, gun rights organizations have successfully fought other efforts to restrict access to guns, including blocking a University of Colorado rule prohibiting concealed weapons on campus.
People in Colorado are allowed to carry firearms in a vehicle, loaded or unloaded, as long as the gun is intended for lawful uses like personal protection or protecting property.
Carrying a concealed weapon requires a permit, but Colorado is among those states whose rules on permits are relatively lax, said Heather Morton of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado is one of 38 “shall issue” states. She explained that this meant “if a person complies with all of the requirements, then the state must issue a concealed weapons permit.” (By other measures, the number of states whose laws amount to “shall issue” is closer to 41.) Factors that might keep someone from being able to get a permit generally include felony convictions, mental illness or protective orders.
Other states have a slightly tougher “may issue” law, which gives discretion to withhold a permit to an authority like the local sheriff or department of public safety.
We live in a diverse, divisive, and increasingly polarized country. Race, class, ethnicity, gender orientation, political views, and religious beliefs divide our country, and it seems that violence is often a threat against those who disagree or who are different. I am reminded of some of the horrible things that were said of homosexuals in my home state before the passage of Amendment One that defines marriage in the state constitution: hateful things, violent things. How can anyone hate another individual that much?
Just as we live in a country that has strong views on gun ownership, we also live in a culture that promotes celebrity at any price. What lengths will someone go to in order to obtain fame? From sexually explicit YouTube and Facebook clips to mass murder, it’s anyone’s guess.
Fears are also prevalent in our culture. They range from insecurities about looks, exposure to germs, and what the Joneses own that you don’t to the loss of white dominance, terrorist attacks, and changes in the country that are more pro-socialist than pro-capitalist. There is the constant fear of an uprising: will it be a class uprising, or a race-motivated uprising? These fears are fueled daily through the media, especially on the Internet, and through the words of politicians who use fear to drive votes. This horrible, unimaginable killing spree was primed to occur, there in Aurora, CO, or anywhere in the country.
I can only imagine the backlash this tragedy will inspire. People arming up and carrying to the grocery store, the movie theater, the park, out to eat, at the kids’ playground, on a walk through the neighborhood. I’m more concerned by the prospect of frightened and skittish Joe America shooting me than I am of a mentally ill person opening fire in a crowd. The Aurora tragedy is huge, but the percentage of such an occurrence happening again is small.
More likely to happen is a child finding a parent’s firearm and shooting himself or a sibling, a domestic violence incident or murder, a homeowner mistaking a stranger as a threat and shooting the person, or a neighborhood watch president like George Zimmerman, trying to play hero, trailing and shooting a person who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, even though he belonged there, like Trayvon Martin. I see the possibility of people, who consider themselves good, law-abiding people, ending up in a shoot out over a perceived offense, a moment of road rage, or a moment of self-righteous judgment. Suddenly everyone in the crowd pulls out his gun and everyone is aiming at everyone else. We’ve all seen that scene in movies. I love those kinds of movies, because of the total improbability of it ever occurring in real life.  But is this what we’re coming to?
We need better gun control, similar to what states like New York have. We need to take assault weapons off the street by re-enacting the Federal Assault Weapons Ban originally passed under the Clinton administration in 1994. It expired in 2004 under the law’s sunset provision. Although there have been attempts to renew the ban, a new vote has never reached the senate floor.
The only reason someone would purchase an assault weapon is the intent to kill another person. It’s the drive to achieve a level of protection that puts the owner at the top of the food chain while the rest of us dwell on a link below. What other motive could s/he possibly have? Do we need that kind of personal protection when we have police forces, security everywhere, and the military? I don’t think so.
Maybe we are all tired.  I know I am. I am tired of being offended and feeling afraid, not of the rare mentally ill person who commits a tragic act, but by the reaction of everyone else left to experience the aftereffects. I wish we could learn to love ourselves better, so we could begin to love our neighbors. Then we would be better stewards of this tired world and allow it and us to rest and heal.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Passionate Martyr

I remember my parents taking me to the Buster Brown Shoe Store when I was little, maybe four or five. It was in downtown Albany, probably on or near Central Avenue, and I’m not sure why they brought me there as usually my shoes were bought at the nearest big box discount store, not Wal-Mart back then, but similar.
The shoes we bought were Mary Jane’s, and they were for Easter. The salesman walked behind the counter to ring up the shoes, and he told me I could come on back and choose a plastic egg with pastel beads inside of it from the glass case beneath the counter.
I squealed, ran behind the counter, pulled out an egg with a clear top and blue bottom, and clutched it to my chest. My excitement and urgent determination made the salesman laugh, and I felt my cheeks warm, embarrassed that I had shared my emotions with a stranger.
Today, I’m that same person, shy of temperament but teeming with emotion. I can’t help but communicate it. When I speak or write about race, culture, injustice, and the human condition, I feel the urgency, and I want to share it in spite of my fear of strangers. Afterwards I feel different emotions: remorse for burdening others with our sometimes painful experiences; sadness that I cannot reach more people; hope that I’ve opened the eyes of even one person; frustration that change is slow; anxiety that I’ve revealed too much; desire for solitude; longing for connection; doubt feeding my insecurities; and fear roiling my insides.
If I listened to my fears, I would not have accomplished one thing in life. They scream at me. They predict failure, danger, and death.  I cover my ears, try to calm my breathing, focus only on the next moment in time, and keep going.
I used to tell myself that I could do anything temporarily, for seconds, then minutes, then longer, and that helped keep me going, too. I keep my goals in site: go to college even though neither parent graduated high school; don’t go back home where I feel abandoned and unloved; meet and marry a man whose race is different from mine and know this fact will cause many people to question my sanity, directly impact our life through racism (affecting our economic and quality of life opportunities), and socially spurn us; have children when others express the irresponsibility of bringing mixed race children into a racist society; choose to leave the comfort of academia and move into the corporate world to grow my career, contribute substantially to the family finances, and become well-known in my field as an expert, leader, and trainer; speak up and fight when injustice, racist actions, or prejudice affects our family or others; choose to be dissatisfied with middle-age weight gain, lose 50 pounds, and keep it off for over ten years; start a master’s degree at 45 and finish a second one at 53; move to another state where we know no one; and start a blog that relies on personal experience to talk about race, gender, and culture.
Every person has stories of triumph, failure, and moving through fear to obtain goals. I love hearing people’s stories. Usually within a short time of meeting people I’ve asked enough questions to learn what stories are important to them and define who they are.
In a marriage and family counseling class that I took during my first master’s degree, the professor asked us to introduce ourselves in a few sentences.  I said, “I live a multicultural and interracial life. I’m Italian and Irish-American. I bill myself as a passionate martyr.”
It was a nod to my interethnic upbringing and how it shaped my view of the world and my place in it.
My introduction caused many classmates to laugh. Pretty good for a woman who had a panic attack outside the classroom of the first counseling class I registered for a few years before then.  Back then I wondered why a middle-aged woman, secure in her career and job, would think about going back to school with students who were about the same age as my daughters. Could I contribute anything of value to the classroom discussions? I discovered I wanted to know more about myself, about our multicultural world, and about people in general, and this was one way to gain the skills to do that.
I am that passionate martyr.
(Excerpt from essay Creating a Cultural Context in American Memoir)
Many Americans are not aware they are surrounded by a cultural context that uniquely molds them and colors their perceptions of their experiences and of others. This is particularly true of white Americans. They may say, “I’m not ethnic, I’m white,” for example, but what does being “white” mean? Every individual has an ethnicity, the heritage and social/cultural customs, beliefs and values of a particular group, and has also been influenced dramatically by “social class, religion, migration, geography, gender oppression, racism, and sexual orientation, as well as family dynamics (McGoldrick, Giordano, Garcia-Preto, p.1).” Add personality and temperament to the mix, and no two people are exactly alike.
Every American came from somewhere else. Some traveled over a strait that connected the continents thousands of years ago. Others traveled to escape oppression in their home countries. Some were brought here by force. People settled in areas they felt comfortable in, maybe choosing to live with people like themselves, or near places of worship, or certain topographies that felt familiar, or a particular climate, or where the jobs were. Some people were forced to live on the plantations they labored at, or on reservations, or in urban ghettos, or in rural isolation. These circumstances created a cultural context in which people lived and developed and learned about themselves and others.
Monica McGoldrick emphasizes in her book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, how important the legacy of migration is when she says, “All Americans have experienced the complex stresses of migration. And the hidden effects of this history, especially when it goes unacknowledged, may linger for many generations. Families’ migration experiences have a major influence on their cultural values (p.19).”
The legacy of ethnicity is passed from one generation to the next, sometimes clearly, as in speaking a native language or practicing traditions. Other ethnic clues are passed down subtly: maybe the turn of a phrase or an unattributed tenet or a story shared from one generation to the next. Sometimes traditions and language are lost over the generations, perhaps through forced or voluntary assimilation into a dominant culture or through physical distance from one’s origins.
Stereotypes are negative generalities that become internalized by the people they are about and by the people who construct them. Their intention is often to hurt, oppress and segregate ethnic or cultural groups. They may be grounded in a bit of truth, but their intent is dishonest and disingenuous.
But there are generalities about ethnicity, race, culture and gender that can enlighten and normalize. These generalities are never meant to define a person, because so many forces in life shape a unique individual, and each of us is unique. Yet knowing that a certain ethnicity or culture tends to think in similar ways, shares a common belief system and historical legacy, or acts in collective synergy, can lend understanding or the ability to step into the shoes of another and experience the world through his or her point of view. The more an individual can learn about the unique lens through which he or she views the world, the more such knowledge can engender tolerance for other perspectives and people and a better understanding about oneself.
McGoldrick describes stereotyping this way:
Although generalizing about groups has often been used to reinforce prejudices, one cannot discuss ethnic cultures without generalizing. The only alternative is to ignore this level of analysis of group patterns, which mystifies and disqualifies the experience of groups at the margins, perpetuating covert negative stereotyping, as does the failure to address culture explicitly per se, considering socioeconomic, political, and religious influences more important. Others avoid discussion of group characteristics altogether, in favor of individual family patterns maintaining, “I prefer to think of each family as unique” or “I prefer to think of family members as human beings rather than pigeonholing them in categories.” Of course, we all prefer to be treated as unique human beings. But such assumptions prevent us from acknowledging the influence of cultural and group history on every person’s experience (p. 13).
As a memoir writer, I think it is even more important to understand one’s cultural legacy. A memoirist is writing a particular story from a particular point of view and a particular perspective. The story is singularly unique yet it resonates beyond the writer.
I do not believe every story must be written from a cultural perspective, but acknowledging that it is one lens through which a life is experienced enriches the depth of story. For example, I was raised in a bicultural family. My father was a first generation Italian-American, and my mother was a war bride of Irish descent from Australia. Being raised in a family with recently immigrated parents definitely had an impact on how I experienced mainstream American culture. In fact I often felt on the fringes, an outsider, with many of my peers.  When I first began to study the ethnic tension in my home life, I did not account for the legacy that my Irish heritage contributed. I only thought about the cultural aspects of being Australian and Italian, but a deeper search revealed that my mother being Irish-Australian mattered just as much to my story.
When I read the following in McGoldrick’s book, Ethnicity and Family Therapy, as I studied toward a master’s degree in counseling, I felt a sense of understanding for my mother I had not experienced before:
The Irish people are a people of many paradoxes. While having a tremendous flair for bravado, they may inwardly assume that anything that goes wrong is the result of their sins. They are dreamers but also pragmatic, hard workers… They are good humored, charming, hospitable, and gregarious, but often avoid intimacy. They love a good time, which includes teasing, verbal word play, and sparring, yet are drawn to tragedy. Although always joking, they seem to struggle continuously against loneliness, depression, and silence, believing intensely that life will break your heart one day (p. 595).
This simple paragraph, perhaps feeling stereotypical to some, felt as if it were specifically talking about my mother.
When my husband and I met freshman year of college, a new cultural and racial construct contributed to the perspective through which I view the world. My husband is African-American. His family is descended from Africans brought here against their will to be used as slaves. It’s important to note that his historical legacy sets him apart from African-Americans who immigrated to the US by choice, and how new they are generationally to the US. His family also migrated from the South to the North. This had a cultural impact as well. Interracial marriage, though more common, is still statistically rare. “Factoring in all racial combinations, Stanford University sociologist Michael Rosenfeld calculates that more than 7 percent of America’s 59 million married couples in 2005 were interracial, compared to less than 2 percent in 1970.”[1]
McGoldrick has this to say about intermarriage:
Although, as a nation, we have a long history of intercultural relationships, until 1967 our society explicitly forbade racial intermarriage, and discouraged cultural intermarriage as well, because it challenged White supremacy. But traditional ethnic and racial categories are now increasingly being challenged by the cultural and racial mixing that has been a long submerged part of our history. Intimate relationships between people of different ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds offer convincing evidence that Americans’ tolerance of cultural differences may be much higher than most people think (p. 26).
She goes on to say, “Couples who choose to ‘marry out’ are usually seeking to rebalance their own ethnic characteristics, moving away from some values as well as toward others (p. 27).”
When we had children, we created yet another cultural, racial and ethnic dynamic. My daughters straddle race and culture in a way neither my husband nor I ever could.

[1] After 40 Years, Interracial Marriages Flourishing,

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Brick in the Wall

We don't need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers, leave them kids alone

Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.
~ Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
I’ve been en route and then busy with visiting family for the last couple of weeks, but I am home again, in my quiet house where I can cogitate without interruption, and I am ready to write.  Lots of words and ideas, jotted down so I wouldn’t forget, are pushing to break free, and I warn you, this post is lengthy and random, but it’s all connected in my mind.
Though most people don’t want to recognize racism or consider themselves a part of a racist society, it is integral in our societal structure, one brick laid on another and another, made strong with individual prejudice and what I’ve come to call willful or knowledgeable ignorance – the refusal to acknowledge what is right before one’s eyes, a denial of the truth.
There was a front-page story in the Winston-Salem Journal two Sundays ago: Separate worlds. The article begins with the following:
Many of Forsyth County’s public schools have resegregated over the last 40 years as national court decisions, and local political ones, favored neighborhood schools over racially and economically balanced ones.
It goes on to say:
Past Winston-Salem Journal and Associated Press reviews of the U.S. census data from 1980, 1990, and 2000 have shown Winston-Salem and Forsyth County to be the state’s most segregated major population center. In focusing just on Hispanic population data from the 2000 census, the Associated Press determined that Hispanics here are more segregated from whites than in any other city except Oakland, CA.
Can anyone deny the racism that exists in the town I live in? I’ve already warned Ronald that he will be responsible for selecting the next city we move to. Some people say everything happens for a reason; some think God has a plan and puts you just where you need to be to fulfill a purpose. I think I just made a poor choice, and yet, this may be the last place I call home. I think every place is similar, anyway.  Racism exists everywhere in this country.
I didn’t see the wrinkles and imperfections of this city when we used to drive down to the dance conservatory to see Cara and Mackenzie perform, or to spend time watching their classes, or to pick them up to take them home for the summer. The Carolina blue sky must have blinded me. Every day we live here teaches me that this town has plantation mentality. Every day I see that although we experienced racism in the North, here racism runs deep and true. It’s a part of the lingo and the philosophy that gets passed down through the generations. There is no denying it. And I’m not even out there talking to the citizens as Ronald is.
One white guy told Ronald that his great-grandfather owned slaves, and they were treated right. They even had doctors look after them when needed. He averred that they had a good life, better than what they might have faced in Africa.
“Do you know how much my great granddaddy paid for just one slave girl?” he asked Ronald. He had found his grandfather’s bookkeeping logs.
“Don’t know,” Ronald said.
“Eight hundred dollars. That was a lot of money back then. You wouldn’t abuse your slave when you paid that much for her,” he said, proud of how he had proven the humanity behind slavery.
“Oh, just like you wouldn’t mistreat the oxen or the other farm animals,” I said as Ronald finished up the story.
“Just like that,” he agreed.
“Never mind that you consider them animals and property, not people.”
“And they still want to believe it.”
“Take back America,” I said. “That’s where they want to take it back to.”
Ronald had been called a Yankee again and told that Yankees came down here for the weather but hated the people. Ronald told the white man that while he didn’t like the opinions of a lot of people he had met, he had never been rude or called them names as he had been since moving here.
“Did you remind him that the Civil War is over and that they lost?”
“Sometimes I want to,” he said.
I’m not perfect. My emotions are strong and deep and not always appropriate. There they are like banners, displayed for all who care to look, snapping in the wind on a bright day, hanging wet and limp in the rain, or rendered stiff and immobile in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t and won’t apologize for having them.
When we moved to the South, it was a big adjustment. Ronald lived his entire life in one city, and that was the same city in which I spent most of my adult life. We had always struggled to find a few close friends, mostly, I think, due to our being interracial. People, even when we could tell they really liked us, just couldn’t compute how to fit us into their social network. I had lost my aunt, with whom I had a close relationship, a couple years before.  (Ronald and our daughters had changed her mind about black people and interracial relationships.) Then I had gone through a rough patch with my siblings as I settled my aunt’s estate. The unresolved issues dampened my skin like fine, misty rain, and I wanted a big change. Moving was the big change we chose. I hoped we could run away and lose the past.
In the South we knew no one but our daughter, and we weren’t ones to think our children were obligated to entertain us. So I imagined we’d make new friends, and I would entertain a girlfriend or two on long Saturday afternoons spent drinking hot tea and eating scones, settled around a Scrabble board. We didn’t make any new friends. And most of the old ones never visited as they had promised.
I always thought I was strong and resilient, but the move knocked me down for the count. That surprised me. I didn’t realize how attached I was to our old home, the one we raised our daughters in, and to the city that I always thought looked dirty, worn, and gray. The doctor said my serotonin was low. She prescribed something to increase it.
It worked, kind of. I stopped having panic attacks, the kind that caused me to pass out in the shopping mall and crack my head open one humid August evening just months before we made the move.
Then I noticed something after taking the medication for a couple of months. My emotions were neutral. I didn’t cry at movies. I didn’t feel pleasure, displeasure, angry, happy, joy, or despair. I was completely and utterly devoid, empty. I imagined my soul had oozed out of my body and left behind an empty vessel. I thought, “The world could crumble around my feet, drop away, leave a void as big as infinity, and I would feel nothing.” I stopped taking it.
Within a few weeks, I was sniffling at movies again, loudly enough to disturb other moviegoers. Laughing out loud at commercials. Wearing my love like a hot pink blouse and my anger and sadness like itchy woolen leggings. I truly missed feeling, and I embraced all of it: the good, the bad, the best, and the worst. You can’t know one emotion without experiencing its opposing emotion.
I’ll never cede my emotions again.
was an emotional rant, most likely addressed to the wrong person, but warranted, valid, and real. It was as honest and authentic as can be.  I’m not afraid to show my humanity with all its imperfection.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be wearing dresses that show my knees,” I said to Ronald this past week as I stared at my reflection in the hotel room full-length mirror. I was traveling for work, and he came along because we were bringing his parents back with us for a visit.
“Why?” he asked. I know he appreciated how well the dress fit over my curves and the way my heels elongated my legs. Later that evening when we returned to the hotel, I watched a man back up so he could watch me walk down the hallway, my walk slower, more languid, than it was thirty years ago, but my hips still rolling in that sensual, feminine way. I like that kind of attention, distant and non-threatening.
‘My knees show what age I am,” I said. I think fifty-five must be the magic number. Rest my elbow in the car window and turn to see the skin above it fold and crinkle. Straighten my arms and look at my elbows, and the flesh covering them looks like tiny elephant knees. Glance at my hands, and notice how the skin is thinner and losing its elasticity. Stick my hands under the dryer in the restroom and watch the force of air swirl the skin in skittering patterns. I keep applying lotion, believing I can hydrate myself to twenty-something. Staring in the mirror, I noticed the skin above my knees looked crepe-like, spidery fine webbing etching my flesh. My once smooth and flawless skin has texture.
“Some women’s knees are like that their whole lives,” Ronald said. He’s always trying so hard to make me feel better, and I laugh at his attempts, not meanly, but sweetly and thankfully. I know, though, that his artist’s eye has wandered and explored every new crevice and crinkle. I think it must be painful to see the woman he pursued, photographed, plastered, and painted enthusiastically fade before his eyes like an old Polaroid snapshot. Even I, devoid of the sharp vision he has, noted how his eyes sit deeper in his face, the skin on his forearms, backs of his hands, and ankles is textured, and the bald spot on the crown of his head is growing. Disbelief rises. I think I don’t want to know, but why deny the truth? I refuse to practice willful ignorance.
I have to embrace aging the same way I’ve come to embrace my emotions. The alternative doesn’t appeal.
Neither does the alternative to speaking out about racism. My voice in the matter will be heard. I don’t want to shut others down, but sometimes their willful ignorance rattles my sensibilities.
A couple weeks ago the guys at the golf range told Ronald that President Obama stole his identity by assuming a dead man’s social security number. His grandmother aided and abetted Obama when he was fourteen and perhaps wishing for his first summer job. I got my social security number at fourteen for the same reason – to obtain my ready to work papers.
Apparently the conspiracy to turn us into a socialist country was born years ago by a conniving mixed-race child and his power-hungry white grandmother. The agencies of government that vet candidates for office were too dumb to discover the complex scheme, or perhaps they were in on it. But not the Tea Party and “Take Back America” conservatives – they were on to his masterful and evil plot to displace and disempower D. Whiteman.
“Snopes debunked that myth back in 2010,” I said to Ronald as he told the story, and I typed in a quick search. “Don’t they have the internet?”
‘They don’t want to know,” he said. “If not that, then something else. They just can’t say the truth. They don’t want a black man in office.”
Then my disappointment in humanity was further fueled by an experience we had this past weekend. We drove my parents-in-law back to NC to visit with us for a few days. Every place we stopped along the way garnered stares.
“Dianne, they’re just looking at you. They can’t figure out why you are with us,” my father-in-law said several times during our travels.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
“They think you’re our social worker or something,” my mother-in-law said at dinner in a Ruby Tuesday’s in Maryland. I had ordered my father-in-law’s dinner for him and then asked the waitress to bring him another soda as the first one had too much ice and was shades paler than the usual Coke products.
We had to turn in early. The drive is arduous for two octogenarians, so we pulled over at a Holiday Inn Express in West Virginia at around 7:00 p.m. I went in to book the rooms. That’s something Ronald and I figured out a long time ago. It’s using that white privilege I’ve spoken about in past posts. I’ll get the lowest rate. Why shouldn’t we get the white people rate? There should only be one rate.
We know this because one time when we went down to visit Cara and Mackenzie while they were at the dance conservatory, we stopped into a nearby Comfort Inn. I booked the room and got a really nice rate. Ronald was back a couple of weeks later by himself, I can’t remember why, but when he returned to the hotel, they quoted him $30 higher.
“I stayed here a couple weeks ago with my wife, and that’s not what we paid,” he told the clerk behind the desk.
“Impossible,” the clerk responded.
“Look it up,” Ronald said.
He did.  “They made a mistake,” he told Ronald, but he gave him the rate I paid. How could he not?
We chose the Holiday Inn Express because my parents-in-law have used them in their travels for the last fifty years and feel comfortable there. The reason my parents-in-law like the Holiday Inn is because back in the mid-twentieth century that was one of the few hotels that would let blacks book rooms. I guess there’s no way to know if they gave them the same rate as white people.
That kind of memory stays with a person. It’s like Dillard’s. A long time ago, they did not welcome black shoppers. My in-laws have never forgotten, and they refuse to shop there when they visit the South. Though I love the store, I understand why they don’t, even if it happened fifty years ago.
I booked two non-smoking king rooms, asked for the AARP rate (he never even asked me for my membership card), and told the clerk, an Asian Indian man who spoke broken English, that my parents were elderly and needed to be close to us because they had health issues. He gave us rooms across the hall from one another.
I returned to the car, we parked, got our luggage, and piled into the hotel. The clerk stared as we passed the desk. I had a bad feeling from the start. I’m not psychic, but I use my intuition, and nothing felt right. I chalked it up to a long day on the road and the worry that clutched at me because I knew this trip was going to be awfully difficult for my parents-in-law to make. As soon as we got up to the rooms, the evening slid into chaos.
The clerk did not give us two rooms with king beds as I requested. One room had a king and the other had two doubles. No problem, Ronald and I took the one with the doubles (we slept in a single dorm bed together for three of the four years of college), but the one with the king bed had a broken A/C unit. Ronald and I trudged back down stairs to tell the clerk. His uncle, a small man the same size as my father-in-law, stood behind him with a toddler in his arms. Ronald explained the situation. Then I added that if the A/C could not be repaired, we would have to move on to another hotel.  “You understand that my in-laws are elderly and have health issues. They cannot stay in a room without air.”
The desk clerk said he’d be up in twenty minutes. A half hour later, he still hadn’t come.
Ronald went back down while my in-laws propped open their door with a chair. I was trying to get them into our room to wait, but they didn’t want to miss the clerk. There were white people filing past us down the hall with dogs, lots of dogs. There must have been a dog show in town. They all stared as I stood with my in-laws, my father-in-law growing more upset as the minutes ticked by.
Downstairs the clerk told Ronald he was rushing him. Ronald explained, again, that his parents are elderly with health issues and the temperature in the room was well over 100 degrees. Finally the clerk agreed to come upstairs with him. The clerk’s uncle tagged along.
As soon as my father-in-law saw them, he wanted to explain the situation, but already tired and not feeling well, he was agitated and emotional. My mother-in-law made him sit down as the two men stooped around the PTAC (that stands for “packaged terminal air conditioner”) and examined it. Ronald stood nearby them. I waited in the hall.
After several minutes, the clerk announced the PTAC needed a new circuit board and maintenance would be there in the morning.
“Unacceptable,” Ronald said.
“Open the window,” the clerk answered. Even though it was evening, the temperature was still in the low 100s.
Ronald went into fire lieutenant mode. When you’ve managed fire scenes, you learn to communicate clearly, succinctly, loud enough to be heard, and with no room for interpretation. He did not curse. He did not lose control of his voice. He stood inches from the man’s face, his finger in his chest.
“You’re done. I gave you a chance to make it right,” Ronald said as the clerk backed out of the room, Ronald in close pursuit.
The clerk said, “Let them sleep in your room with you or take them to a different hotel and you stay here. You have another room.”
“Why don’t I call the police and they can help us sort this out?” Ronald said.
“Okay, okay, I have another room.”
“Too late.”
I jumped in. “I’ll see you at the front desk to check out. I already told you we’d be leaving if you couldn’t fix the air.”
Downstairs, my voice shaking, I said, “I explained to you that they have health issues. You see they are elderly. I better not see one cent charged on my credit card.”
Then he argued with me about the room numbers. He said we were in 320 and 322. We were not side by side but across the hall from one another in 320 and 321. I didn’t want 322 charged to my card.
“Really?” I asked. “Weren’t you just up there?”
“The computer doesn’t lie.”
“I don’t either. We are in 320 and 321. I want documentation that you cancelled the rooms.”
He said he had none and I took a business card from the desk and told him I would be checking to make sure he didn’t charge me. There was a white woman standing at the counter during our exchange. She stood with her mouth open and her wallet in her hand. As I stood waiting at the elevator to go back upstairs, I mouthed to her, “Don’t stay here.”
She excused herself from the desk and came over and whispered, “What happened? He was so rude to you.”
I explained. She said, “Oh, God, we prepaid.”
“Good luck,” I said.
I took my in-laws to the car while Ronald gathered the overnight bags, and the white woman and her family were parked next to us. It was the first she knew of our interracial status. She and I spoke again.  She offered the understanding that I wish for lots of times and don’t get as I navigate this interracial world.
I don’t think every white person hates black people. It’s the way our culture operates silently behind the scenes. Racism is institutionalized and systemic in how we live, work, and socialize. It’s about power and privilege and the oppression of others. Most people don’t realize it. They think racism is an individual thing, but it isn’t. That’s just plain bias or hatred. That white woman was kind and understanding, but in our society, she is still part of the majority race and benefits from that membership, just as I do. Until we eliminate the unwritten racism hidden in our social structure, it will remain, and the majority will continue to enjoy power and privilege while minority groups continue to suffer their status of “less than.”
Later, lying in bed with the lights turned off in our king room at the next hotel we found along the route, Ronald and I chuckled as we recapped our day before dropping off to sleep. We talked about all the people who stared and wondered what our story was. Then I mentioned the look on the hotel clerk’s face, how it went from arrogant to fearful, when Ronald went into lieutenant mode and told him we were leaving. We didn’t know if the man was stupid, rude, prejudiced, acting superior, or all of the above, but it had made for a very bad evening, one that we’ll talk about for years to come, no doubt.
“I guess all the white folks with their dogs were worried that the niggers were going to turn out the place,” Ronald concluded. He keeps a sense of humor about these situations.
“Yup, it’s always an adventure,” I said, laughing.
I told Ronald the story of the white woman who nodded to me one last time after I had pulled our car up to the front door to wait for him while he imparted a last warning not to charge our credit card to the clerk and his uncle. The woman tilted her head and smiled, and I smiled back at her and shrugged my shoulders.
We are all just another brick in the societal wall, but I hope that together we can modify the structure so there will be true equality. I’m talking about the kind of equality where everyone pays a better rate at the hotel and the clerk aims to please all of the hotel guests. We can’t run away and lose the past. Instead we have to shake up our willful ignorance and face the undeniable truth.