Saturday, November 30, 2013

Uh, Nuthin'

We only saw my paternal grandfather a few days a year, mostly on Christmas and Easter for a painful hour or so of silence at his home, punctuated by the ticking of the grandfather and mantle clocks. When the grandfather clock struck the hour, I was relieved by the way it cut through the tension in the room.
Dad began each conversation with his father the same way, “How are you, Pop?
My grandfather responded each time in the same way as he paced the floor in shoes two sizes too large, which caused him to slide his feet across the carpet.
“Uh, I feel like a bum.”
I wondered if they were the only English words he knew, though he had lived in the US for over fifty years by that time. Dad spoke a funny broken Italian with English words liberally thrown in to communicate with him. I didn’t understand most of what was said.
Ma would sit uncomfortably on the edge of the sofa, her purse in her lap, and her ankles crossed. I think she must have been poised for a hasty exit. Named by my paternal relatives as an outsider and a foreigner, she was not welcomed by my grandfather.
Aunt Josephine would place a dining chair in the arch between the living and dining rooms, where she would sit primly, her apron the symbol of her familial role as caretaker. She took care of her father, then three of her brothers over the course of her life. Her resentment was a fine mist on her skin.
We children were to be seen and not heard. I was a shy child but rambunctious, too, and sitting silently with my hands in my lap did not sit well with me. I hated the smell of the place, too, like the whole house was preserved in mothballs.
My grandfather died when I was around eight. I remember the phone call and my parents getting ready for the funeral a few days later. Ma would not let us attend. She did not want us to be exposed to a funeral, or grief, or death. Maybe she recalled attending her own father’s funeral when she was but four. Maybe we weren’t invited.
I remember not feeling anything except a tug of sadness for my dad.
For Aunt Josephine it was a brief time of freedom to do some of the things she wanted to accomplish in life before she had to take on the care of her brothers. One of those things was to travel. She started going on vacations with another single woman named Judy. One year, well into her seventies, she traveled to the Liuzzi family’s home country of Italy and visited with cousins.
Aunt Josephine didn’t speak to me for years after I brought Ronald home to my father’s funeral (for new readers, I am white and my husband Ronald is black). There would be no sitting on the edge of the sofa for him, waiting to make his hasty exit. As soon as he felt the discomfort of not being welcome, he took a brief nap, and got right back on the road to Syracuse. My father’s funeral was my first, and I can only say that Ma’s idea of protecting me from death and grief had failed.
Aunt Josephine started talking to me again shortly after the birth of our twins. Perhaps her drive to Syracuse when they were five months old was to verify that they had indeed not been born as one white and one black baby, like the twins she had read about in her weekly tabloid.
After that we stayed in contact. She carried on the tradition my grandfather had begun with a little twist. Every time I called her and asked her what was going on, she’d respond, “Uh, nuthin’.”
My daughter Cara carries on this same tradition. When she calls, I’ll ask, “What’s up?”
“Uh, nuthin’.”
That same malaise crawled on me. I feel like a bum. I’m too tired and too useless to do anything about it because this world is exhausting sometimes. I feel silent and invisible. It’s not the big things, the death of so and so, the surgery, the illness a close relative suffers from, or the lack of funds to do the desperately needed repair. It is the lack of humanity, the murders perpetrated on the innocent, the endless erring on the side of selfishness and greed rather than on the side of the greater good. Blindness and denial cloud the obvious. I feel that same discomfort I felt at my grandfather’s house – not being welcome and not wanting to be there anyway.
As individuals we can hope to make change for the positive, but at the end, the machine of mankind easily erases the path of one.
We’ve been watching Henry Louis Gates’ African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Each week I have to steel myself emotionally to hear much of what I already know. Each week finds me weeping anyway. I am too sensitive not to be moved by the images of injustice and hatred.
Ronald feels angry, validated, and hopeless. That makes me weep, too.
I feel like I don’t belong here in America, because I don’t want to belong to a society that raves about living in a post-racial world when racism is kicking and slapping minorities every day while making the divide larger and more impassable. It’s not good enough that a few have escaped the institutional and systemic racism that is woven into the fabric of our society. It’s not good enough that some people feel they aren’t racist and therefore are not part of the problem. It’s not good enough when white people and some black people say that bringing up racism is what perpetuates it because they are in denial on every single level and don’t care to be educated otherwise.
I’ve cried watching each episode of African-Americans, but none more than the episodes that focused on my lifetime – the awful events that shaped those of us growing up in the mid-twentieth century. The fire hosings, the lynchings, the inequality of our criminal justice system, and, later, the return of Jim Crow after Katrina and the election of our first mixed race president. I am ashamed, and I don’t want to live in a country like this. Not a single person should be accepting of this divisive state in which the value of lives is measured by the color of one’s skin and gender.
I felt the surge of the movements for civil rights, black power, and women’s rights, just as I came of age. Now, in mid-life, I see how all those advances have been engineered out of existence. We cannot be silent. We have to fight. We cannot sit idly by. We are as guilty of doing nothing as if we were the ones, like George Zimmerman, wielding the guns that slay black men and black children every single day or the cops that use profiling and the justice system that uses stiffer sentences to incarcerate black men.
I worry about the new generations and their acceptance of what is; how they are in denial in more ways than one; how they don’t think the erasure of equality (before we truly reached the final goal of a post-racial and post-sexist society) affects them and their wellbeing. But it does in wages that do not equal a living wage; in the removal of benefits including pensions and healthcare; in the closed avenue to upward mobility; and in the expanding definition of what constitutes poverty and who is ensnared by it.
African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross ought to be mandatory viewing for all school children, at every college, in every workplace as part of diversity training, in every religious institution that purports to teach that one should love one’s neighbor as you love yourself. Every parent should be required to watch it and learn to understand what white power and privilege mean to this country in which its very history and success are built on the backs of those considered less than.
Maybe then I can uncross my feet, relax a little, enjoy the conversation, and feel welcome to be part of this country, along with all the others who have been disenfranchised due to their race and/or gender. Right now, when asked what are we doing to fight for equality, I have a single answer, “Uh, nuthin’.”

I was eleven when this historic show of black power was broadcast across the world. I still feel it's impact and sadness that our new generations seem to have no sense of its importance.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Gray Matters

I run my fingers through my hair as I stare into the bathroom mirror, and there it is, the gray beneath the dark brown, the truth beneath the lie.  Many people think I look young for 56, but would they say the same thing if they saw the true color of my hair?

This is what my hair looks like when I lift it up. See that gray?

A few weeks ago, I got tired of the lie. I had thoughts of chopping off my two-foot-long hair and going with a pixie cut. Growing out gray is not easy. The infamous skunk stripe lies as much as dyed hair does. Maybe it shouts, “I don’t care about my looks,” or “I’m too cheap to cover my gray,” or “I am sickly,” or “I am old, and it doesn’t matter anymore.” I don’t think it would ever announce, “I’ve taken control of my emotions, and I am not ashamed to be me.”

This is what the world sees.

Ronald and I talked about my hair. We’ve talked about it a lot over the years during complicated, emotionally wrought discussions. How can they not be when each cares so deeply for the wellbeing of the other and yet has needs that also require attention?
Ronald, an artist, has captured me in photos, in oil, in plaster, and in the love letters he sent to me when I had to return to Albany for the first two summers after we met freshman year of college. Most men are visual when it comes to attraction to the opposite sex, but there is an aesthetic that further defines Ronald’s attraction. Flawless skin of certain hues that range from palest white to deepest brown but share a certain luminescence of tone. Large eyes, downturned mouth, and a small chin are other features that speak to him, as do a tiny waist, shapely legs and hips, and small breasts of a certain, perfect shape. I can see a woman with those features and know before he does that his head will track in her direction.
I don’t feel threatened by his looking, but validated.
I’m a feminist. I have been since I can remember. I want equal status. I want a career. I want to earn my own keep and not be someone’s property. I don’t want to be sexually objectified. I want equality in my marriage where I can contribute as an equal partner. My beliefs make my strong feelings about my hair and my tolerance of Ronald’s visual attractions seem out of place. My need for validation seems antithetical.
Yet they exist inside me, clashing and melding at once, seeming like a good mix that lends balance to the whole.
So after we had talked about my hair for the umpteenth time these last few years, I decided definitively to go gray, as if it is a journey to a destination. Part of what made it so definitive is that I’m having surgery at the end of the month on one of my feet, and hope to have the other foot done next month. It’s a huge undertaking that includes breaking and resetting bones. Painful, I’ve heard, but worth it, after bones shift and grow crooked and render one unstable while walking or standing. A welcome life change, so why not clean up all the things that are disabling?
Ronald agreed. I’ve been dyeing my hair since I was in my mid-thirties. He had been against it then. He loved the color of my hair, a mixture of browns, reds, golds, and the occasional grays, so much that he couldn’t imagine changing it. He didn’t think a bottle could ever capture the beauty he saw.
“If you dye a single hair on your head, I’ll know,” he averred.
I dyed it anyway. The hairdresser used a semi-permanent dye, very close to my real color. It took Ronald six months to notice. After that he was good with it. Close enough, I suppose.
Twenty years later, the ruse is tiring.  First it was every 8 weeks, then 5 weeks. Now I go every 4 weeks, and, even then, I feel anxious after week 3. Over the years I’ve gone from semi-permanent, to permanent, to demi-permanent after the permanent hair color nearly ruined my hair with its harsh chemicals.
I used to perm my hair in order to give it the body that fine, straight hair is lacking. Lots of people thought the unnaturally curly hair suited my Italian ethnicity. I guess curly hair is expected on a woman whose maiden name is Liuzzi, but I had to give up the perms in order to color – too many chemicals, my hairdresser up in Syracuse told me. It seemed a grand sacrifice at the time, but I’ve grown to enjoy my fine, straight hair, and I don’t miss the bottled curls.

Ronald and I celebrating our marriage. My hair is permed, not dyed, in this photo taken when I was twenty-six. 

Now I’m wondering if I will miss my “coffee bean” colored hair or if I will soon wonder why I ever stopped nature from taking its course.
I wanted to find out quickly what I thought about my real color. Hence my thought of “chopping it all off.” Hair grows back, after all, and mine grows quite quickly. One daughter, Cara, the one with very short hair, applauded my choice. The other, Mackenzie, the one with hair to the middle of her back, was silent.
I texted my hairdresser: “Don’t bother buying dye. Don’t freak out, but I want you to cut my hair short, a la Cara, as I decided to go gray.” She immediately dialed Cara to see if I had lost my mind.
At the bathroom mirror a week ago, I looked at Ronald using the straight razor to trim his salt and pepper mustache and beard, and I said, as I applied makeup, “Say good-bye to my hair. This time next week, I’m chopping it all off so I can skip the skunk stripe.”
He held the razor poised in the air as my statement sunk in. He said nothing then, but later that evening he said a lot.
“I support you going gray,” he said, “but I don’t understand why you want to cut your hair, too.”
‘The skunk stripe,” I said. It was so obvious to me. I couldn’t believe he didn’t get it.
“How bad can it be? It seems more drastic to do both.” Will he feel that way when his growing bald spot cries out for a total buzz? I’ve promised to let him know when it is time.
I had been so sure. I had photos on my laptop of cuts I thought would look good. Of course, they were on women all 30 years younger than I. When I drudged up a photo of Judi Dench sporting her pixie cut, I shuddered and promptly deleted it.

One of the photos I saved on my laptop so I could show my hairdresser how I wanted my hair cut short.

Here is Judi Dench. I think she is stunning but maybe I am not ready to admit that I look closer to her age than the age of the model above.

The next day I texted my hairdresser again, telling her I needed other suggestions because Ronald was emotional about the thought of short hair and going gray at the same time.  I respect his need to take one step at a time.
We had a text conversation, my hairdresser making suggestions such as highlighting, and I texting to say I’d think about it and finally suggesting I’d like her to cut my hair to the tops of my shoulders.
Yesterday Cara and I showed up for our appointments, and, as I sat in the chair, my hairdresser ran her hands through my hair, and the three of us talked about it.
“You are about 100% gray in front, about 50% at the crown, and a lot less in the back.  You won’t really know what it looks like until you grow it out.”
“I know,” I said.
Cara thought my new cut was adorable even with a luminescent crown of gray around the edge and through the part.
Ronald still hasn’t said a word about it, but sometimes that’s how we communicate in our equal partnership, through silence. It isn’t a condemnation; it’s a slow adjustment to change, not at all out of character. I've stunned him into silence on more than one occasion in our almost 40 years together, oftentimes with a dramatically different hair cut and just once with the announcement that we were having twins. I sit comfortably in the pocket of that silence, knowing that I am validated and he and I will be just fine even when the skunk stripe takes up residence on my head.

Let the skunk stripe begin! More on my journey to gray in future posts.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

There I Was, Being Black All by Myself

The government shutdown was inevitable. The extreme right, the Tea Partiers, the “wacko birds” were going to make it happen. They are holding the country hostage. They say it’s because of the debt ceiling, and they want to defund the ACA, or what they refer to as Obamacare. But that is just rationale for the true reason.
Why is it that D. Whiteman feels perfectly comfortable walking up to my husband Ronald, who is black, to start up a conversation that generally begins like this? “I don’t like your president. I’m not racist, but I hate him.”
It happened just yesterday at the golf range. I’ve written about the white guys at the golf range before. The owner calls Ronald “black Ron” and Ronald regales me with stories of the things all the old white guys feel perfectly comfortable saying to him.
Yesterday Ronald was talking to another black guy while they hit balls. The guy had been a college basketball player. Now sixty, he is just a few years older than Ronald. They had talked for some minutes and were enjoying the conversation and hitting balls side by side. Then D. Whiteman, who was down on the other end of the range, couldn’t take it anymore. He walked over and broke into the conversation.
“Why did he do that?” I asked Ronald as he recounted more details of the story this morning.
“Because two black guys were talking, and white people can’t stand it. They think we are plotting. They can’t help themselves.”
I’m white, but I know it’s true. What’s the thing a lot of white people dislike about Hispanics or Asians who are new to America? They speak a different language. And when one is bestowed with societal privilege, it’s easy to believe that the only thing people who speak a different language could possibly be talking about is the white American who can’t understand them. The whole goddamn world revolves around them. And that’s what the white guy was thinking when he walked down the range and got into the conversation between the two black men.
Ronald and the other black guy gave each other a look, but let the white guy talk. Soon it turned bad.
First, the white guy was instructive about golf.  Ronald’s been playing for almost 40 years, and he takes his practice seriously. With the range owner’s permission, Ronald sets out targets at certain distance intervals. Then he goes through a series of exercises. Hitting high, medium, and low; moving the ball five yards left or five yards right of his intended target; landing on the target or making the ball roll up to the target. He is retired. He goes just about every day. He’s better than good. He’s a single-handicapped golfer. He’s studied the sport for all the time he’s played, in depth, and took lessons with some of the finest teachers. A lot of people ask Ronald for golfing advice, and he generously gives of his time and knowledge, not asking for anything in return. He loves the game that much. Why would this white guy believe he could teach Ronald a damn thing, especially when he wasn’t asked?
Because he assumes he knows more and that Ronald knows less.
Then the white guy changed topics and started in on gun control and Obamacare. Ronald disagreed with him. The white guy said, “You don’t understand the concepts.”
Why did the white guy think Ronald was not capable of understanding the content of the conversation?
Because he assumes he is smarter and Ronald is dumber.
Ronald looked at the other black guy and said, “Excuse me, I have to take care of this.”
“Do what you have to do,” the black guy said.
Then Ronald went there, deep into the darkness of anger – where he recalls the countless times he put his life on the line as a firefighter to save the life of someone who thought Ronald wasn’t his equal or who said he didn’t want the black guy in his house even though it was burning down or to perform CPR on his wife even though she was dying – and he blasted the guy, called him a motherfucker, and asked him who he thought he was. Back in the seventies, when we met freshman year of college, he would have said, “I hooged out.”
He was silent when he got home. He went straight up to the man room.  When he came out he went straight to our bedroom, sprawled sideways across the bed, and pulled a blanket up to his chin. I cooked dinner, called him to come eat, and we ate in silence. Told him after I cleaned up that we could go to Lowe’s and buy a new cabinet mounted microwave because ours broke. We drove over in silence. I knew something happened, maybe not one incident, maybe something cumulative, but it was something.
I was glad Lorne was working in the appliance department. He’s a black guy from Pittsburgh, and he and Ronald talk a lot, sometimes for hours.  As he showed us the microwaves, Ronald started talking.
“There I was, just being black all by myself, and along comes D. Whiteman,” he said.
Lorne laughed. “I hear you, man.”
Then the story came out, a detail at a time. I didn’t say much. I let him talk. He needed to. He needed to be understood by someone who had experienced the same thing over and over.
Finally, I spoke up. “This is why just about every middle-aged black man I know suffers from depression.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Lorne said nodding.
You’re a black male in America. You survive childhood and your teenage years where your chance of dying jumps into double figures. You go to college and graduate. You survive your twenties, which include numerous run-ins with the police like DWB (driving while black) and you don’t end up in jail, at least not for more than a night. You get a decent job serving your community. You get married, have children, and raise them with love and compassion and warnings about what it is to be black in America. You stay with your wife, even when the job is killing you and your white colleagues are trying to drive you off the job because they think blacks don’t deserve to work there and you try like crazy not to let that darkness creep into your marriage or cause you to fail on the job. You hang in. You put up with the bullshit. One day you retire. You reach that age where you think the bullshit shouldn’t happen anymore.
But it does. It happens every time you step out the door and some white yahoo wants to tell you what time it is. It happens every time you turn on the news and watch the Congressional bullies try to knock down President Obama because they know and you know that they can’t stand a black man in the highest office of the land. You start wondering how much longer you have to put up with it – the racism, the contempt, the hatred, the paranoia, and the sense of entitlement that white Americans walk around with like it’s a badge of honor. You’re sick of it but you get bombarded with it every single fucking day.
That’s what it is like to be a middle-aged black man in America.
It pains me to witness. I feel hopeless, helpless, and outraged. I want to become a recluse, give up on humanity, and just wait till this life is done because other people make life suck, and I am unable to make it better for the person I love with all my heart and with every bone in my body.
Then I think that President Obama must feel very much like Ronald and millions of other black men. Why are they attacking him? Why are they attacking laws that the majority of Americans support? Because they think he doesn’t understand the concepts. Because he will never achieve whiteness, as if he ever aspired to, as a mixed-race individual. Because they are confident whiteness makes them more capable, smarter, and better.
I don’t know how he has put up with it as long as he has without losing it, without taking care of it, and without calling them motherfuckers. He’s been careful to keep race out of the conversation except when absolutely necessary, because he would be accused of pulling the race card. But the race card was already pulled from the deck by the GOP and the racist crazies who rant and rave about the president and who feel perfectly comfortable letting every black person they see know what their opinion is of the president, your president, and what they think of you, because their opinion matters and yours doesn’t. They are entitled to have an opinion, entitled to tell you what it is, entitled to tell you how it is for you as a black man in America and that you are wrong, and you don’t know how it is, and you are to sit and listen to them because they are better.
Ronald tries to make me feel better when he says, “I know you try hard. I know you understand a lot of it, but I am the one out there being bombarded, and I am tired. I can’t do it anymore.”
I know. I feel that way, too. That’s why I don’t break the silence when he doesn’t want to talk. It’s why I can barely write because I’ve been through it over and over, and I’ve written about it this way and that way, but nothing changes.
President Obama must be feeling it while the extreme whites are yelling for his impeachment: “There I was, just being black all by myself, and here comes D. Whiteman.”
 President Obama is one of the millions of middle-aged black men in America who waded through the bullshit and danger, only to discover they are still trapped by white entitlement and privilege.
I know the real reason for the government shutdown.

President Obama

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fixing to Do No Harm

As an adult child of an alcoholic (ACoA), I often find myself fixing situations, helping people, and also continuing relationships even when I know no good will come of it. Sometimes my attempts backfire, and I come away hurt and discouraged.  Other times I make a clean break and then suffer the guilt for it. It’s happened on more occasions than I wish to remember, and it happened again last week. My saving grace was that I acted with good intent, with a sense of doing no harm, even as I witnessed events unravel around me.
Many ACoAs go into the field of counseling and others become writers. My first master’s degree was to be a counseling degree, but I switched programs just before the last step: a full time internship. I was awarded a degree in Professional Education Studies with a concentration in multiculturalism, but I still completed all those counseling courses. Then I pursued and completed a master’s degree in writing.
I found a presentation on alcoholism I delivered for a marriage and family counseling class. Here’s the slide about the characteristics of an ACoA:

•Guess what normal behavior is
•Have difficulty completing things
•Lie when it is just as easy to tell the truth
•Are self-critical
•Have trouble having fun/are overly serious
•Are overly responsible or irresponsible
•Have difficulty with intimate relationships
•Over-react to changes they have no control over
•Seek approval/affirmation
•Are extremely loyal
•Are impulsive

I display many of the above characteristics. I’ve spent a lifetime wondering what normal is and dissecting how far off the grid I am. Sometimes I feel planets away.
I’ve lied to make people feel better or to make the story have a happy ending. After all, why do harm or make matters worse with the truth? And even though I am estranged from family, I’ve been known to keep people in my life that I never should have let enter in the first place, but I accept them because I often feel unacceptable. I don’t want others to feel that.
I’m also a hyper-responsible person, enough so that in many ways I raised myself as a child by creating limits and structure, at times adult-like, other times in childish ways. Collecting things and organizing them was one way I imposed structure in my chaotic childhood. That ability served me well in my career.
I learned some things in my counseling courses, perhaps not what the professors were hoping I’d learn, but what spoke to me about mental health and how we measure normal. For example, I fear abandonment, being left behind, being lost and never found, and the people I love not bothering to look for me. The fear haunted me as a child and galloped alongside me into adulthood. Some people might think, “You ought to get that fixed,” as if it is a broken bone or a cut. Doctors suggest the same thing. Feeling down? Feeling anxious? Take an anti-depressant.
But I disagree with that. The anxiety I feel about being abandoned is part of who I am. I am the sum of my heredity, ethnicity, culture, environment, education, temperament, and personality. My coping skills developed just as my resilience developed in specific ways in reaction to what was going on around me. I both survived and prevailed. What should I change? What should I fix? And why would I fix it? It’s who I am; it’s how I navigate my way through the world. It has not prevented me from doing anything I set out to do.
And I’ve found out something else really important, and it is that there is no normal. Normal is simply a point on a continuum that measures human behaviors. It is simply the average or middle of the range that stretches to extremes on either end. Each one of us falls on that line somewhere, and though there may be some individuals out there who fall exactly at the mid-point, who are exactly the average of all the possible human behavior combinations, I don’t think there are many, and, in all likelihood, it doesn’t seem like a great place to end up. If we all resided at point normal, life would be a very boring stretch indeed.
So the very things that sometimes backfire on me are the very things that assist me in succeeding in life, in finding love, in bearing and raising children, in creating a career, and in being creative. And my search for where I fall on the grid of humanity barely matters because my position on the grid will not shed any light on who I am. The process of changing behaviors and moving along the grid can sometimes help a person cope better with life and its complexities. Sometimes a person is paralyzed by certain behavioral aspects and really does need assistance and change. But, for most of us, those who are navigating through life and don’t feel paralysis or who don’t exercise undue impulsivity, changing certain attributes about oneself is not as rewarding as one might imagine, and change can actually backfire.
I think it is much more productive to be aware of who one is, and to acknowledge, accept, and work within that framework through life, knowing that it isn’t going to be perfect because no one is perfect, no one sits at the absolute center of humanity.
That’s why I have spoken in past posts about swimming in the muck of my emotions and relishing the process. It’s my way of knowing and experiencing all that I am. Understanding who I am, in all my imperfection, allows me to be open to other people and who they are and to not pass judgment about where on the grid they may fall and if that means they are good or bad people. We are so much more complex than that. In wondering about the difference between good people and bad people, I come up with one word: intent. Is the intent to hurt or exploit or shame another or gain at another’s expense or is the intent to live one’s life while doing no harm to others?
Creativity is like that, too, complex and layered like the minds in which it is born and nurtured and developed.  I had the pleasure of seeing Cara’s 2013 Faculty Concert at High Point University. Three works-in-progress were performed and then the three choreographers discussed their pieces and creative processes and took questions from one another and from audience members and also asked the audience questions.
One of the questions to the audience was did the audience need to “get the piece” in order to enjoy it. I didn’t raise my hand to answer the question, because I hate being “mom participating because she wants to show how much she supports her daughter.” Cara and I talked about it the next day, and I’ll answer the question in this post as well.
Each audience member will be affected in some way by a live performance but it doesn’t matter if the individual gets it or not. The choreographer’s intention matters only to the choreographer during the creative process of making a dance. How the audience interprets the movement during the performance is separate from that intention, and even though some may in fact interpret the intention and concepts of the choreographer, most times each individual is affected uniquely through the lenses and perceptions that individual brings to the performance.
I watch dance much like I read or listen to music: for pleasure and for the visceral, emotional, and intellectual experience. Sometimes learning the intention of a piece of dance or an essay or poem causes me to close off other possibilities and therefore diminishes my experience.
Writers, composers, and choreographers have a need to share their creative output, but it is asking too much when one expects acquiescence or consensus on the part of the audience. In many ways creative work is more complex and multidimensional than even the creator can realize.
Like performance, one can’t always know another’s intentions because we see those intentions through our own lenses and perceptions. This letter appeared on the reader’s page of my local paper yesterday.

Several probable reasons
I would like to offer several probable reasons why some Christian churches have severed their connection with the Boy Scouts and why many other Christian churches should also do so.
First, practicing homosexuality is condemned not only in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (see Romans 1:18-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; and Jude 7).
Second, the Bible doesn’t mention whether or not Jesus Christ ever encountered a practicing homosexual, so we don’t know for certain how he would have dealt with such a situation. However, since other passages in the New Testament condemn homosexual practices, there is no valid reason to believe Jesus would have condoned such practices. I believe that if Jesus had encountered a homosexual who had been engaging in such practices, he would have shown that person love, but told them to “sin no more,” as he told the adulterous woman in John 8:11.
Third, I believe it is highly probable that some – perhaps, many – Scouts who are practicing homosexuality will attempt to get other Scouts to do likewise.
Fourth, if there were such an incident in a church-sponsored Scout troop, there would be considerable negative publicity, which could seriously hinder the future ministry of that church and, perhaps, others.
Nevertheless, I think homosexuals would be welcome to attend even churches that have severed their connection with the Scouts, provided that the homosexuals are truly seeking to worship God and don’t flaunt their lifestyle or attempt to get other attendees to engage in homosexual practices.
What is the intent of the writer? How does one practice homosexuality and convince others to engage in the practice? What does he mean by that? How does qualified acceptance work in our society, and is it fair and just?
My perception of this writer’s intent reminded me of Jim Crow, the intention of which was based in fear, hatred, power, privilege, violence, and control.  Do no harm played no part in that chapter of our history.
I gasped when I read this letter. The writer questions the intention of others, and I question his intention in doing so. Is he a good man or a bad man? Is his intention to do no harm? Do I get it? Does it matter if I perceive his intention as different from what he believes his intention to be?
What was George Zimmerman’s intention the night he had a fight with his wife, pursued Trayvon Martin through his neighborhood, and then shot and killed him? Through whose eyes do we view his intention? His? Trayvon’s? Is he a good man or a bad man? As we learn more about George Zimmerman, including the latest domestic violence 911 call, do we understand his intentions? What motivated him? Did do no harm play any part in his intentions and actions?
My intentions may be for the right reasons and in the quest to do no harm, but I’ve learned there are some things I can’t fix and some things I have no business trying to fix. I accept my need to try. That’s who I am.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Biased Much?

The following letter appeared in my local newspaper today. It was titled Racism.
In response to the letter (‘a terrible message” July 28) criticizing the woman holding the “We’re racist & proud” sign, I am an American with European heritage. Because of my political and social views, many would label, and have labeled, me a racist. I would argue that I do not deserve that label.
My great-great-grandfather shed blood to free an enslaved people and my family and I have always opposed any measure that would promote one race over another. For example, I think it would be an outrage for a group with European heritage to promote advantages for themselves and call their group the National Association for the Advancement of Anglo-Saxon People. That would be offensive to many of non-Anglo descent.
A European History Month would be similarly offensive, as would an event celebrating White Repertoire Theater. If 12 million Europeans or their families had gained illegal entry into the country, resulting in a drain on the public treasury, I would be opposed to granting them amnesty without consequence.
Again, because of those views, I will be labeled a racist by many screaming racism, because of? Racism. There is no way to escape the label and I am proud of my views promoting equality for all people who obey the law.
If the Rev. Al Sharpton were to call me a racist, I’d never convince him that he is wrong. All I can do is to tolerate, even embrace, the label and proudly continue to hold and express my views.
Here is a reminder of that photo:

This is the problem. This letter writer and many, many others don’t get it. They are acting as if everyone, no matter one’s ethnic or racial heritage or the color of one’s skin, is treated the same and experiences social interactions and situations in the same way, and enjoys equal protection under the law; that we all have the same experience as citizens of the United States of America. But that is an assumption, and it is wrong, dead wrong in many cases.
Let me illustrate. Male teens of all races dress a lot alike. That’s part of adolescence – they are rebelling against the older generations but conforming with their own generation while claiming they are fiercely independent. They like hoodies and pants that are way too low at the waist or below the butt for my taste. I’d like to start a campaign to “put a belt on it,” but I digress and I seem to recall not too many adults of the generation above me liked the short skirts, platform heels, hiphugger bellbottom jeans, and midriff shirts I wore back in the ‘70s like everyone else my age.
That same uniform takes on different meanings depending on whether the person wearing it is white or black. A white teen might be described as finding himself and sowing his wild oats; it’s what ALL boys do, all white boys, anyway.
Put that same uniform on a black teen, and he is a criminal.
Subconscious racial bias and racism are alive and well.
And that’s scary, because when a stranger is sizing you up and subconscious racial bias is operating, a black teen may find himself in a fatal situation just as Trayvon Martin did, and Darius Simmons, aged 13, who was shot and killed by his neighbor. No one should discount the enormity of racism and racial bias. It is deadly!
So when I read a letter like the one above, or someone writes a comment on my Facebook page, or says something in a conversation that diminishes or denies the effect of racial bias, I react strongly. Because I have seen how dangerous it is and not just in the news but in my life.
Examples of dangerous or life transforming racially motivated occurences in my life (for new readers, I am white, my husband is black): the seller of our first house decided not to honor our contract after she found out we were an interracial couple; forty white men jumped Ronald because they didn’t think he should be able to date me; two white men rammed our canoe with their motor boat because they didn’t like seeing us together; a car of twenty-something white kids hurtled toward us as we left the movie theater and one kid yelled a racial epithet as they sped off; a white cop held a gun to Ronald’s head as he unlocked his car door because “blacks don’t own foreign cars”; a white guy sucker punched Ronald because he mistook him for an Arab; Ronald was fired from his first job because his boss didn’t like seeing us together; Ronald was arrested for walking down the street. I could list hundreds of more situations, and we are just one couple.
I am saddened by it, too. Because racial bias is insidious in so many ways. When I see a black male child, I see a child. I don’t see a person who has evil intent, or who can physically take me, or who wants to rob me. I see a child.
When our daughters were in first grade, we separated them so they would be able to develop independently. Mackenzie was shy at school and relied on Cara to speak for her, and Cara would have forgotten her head at school every day if Mackenzie wasn’t tracking behind her picking up her lunchbox and gloves and books and boots.
Cara came home each day to excitedly tell me about her new friend. I went to school one day for a special class project, and, as we waited for the kids to return from a school function in the auditorium, I started a conversation with another mom. We were each delighted to discover the other was the mother of the child who was our daughter’s new friend.
The kids returned, and Cara ran over to hug me. I guess Cara's brown skin against my white skin was too much. The white mother physically backed away from us. During the class project she and her daughter sat at the same table as we did, because the girls wanted to sit together, but she avoided speaking to me, and I could tell she was comparing her daughter’s artwork to Cara’s artwork and pushing her daughter to do better. I was saddened by the way the afternoon unfolded.
The next week Cara came home from school crying. She said her new friend had left to go to another school.
I asked the teacher what happened, and because we had known each other for quite a while, she was honest with me when she told me the mother said she was removing her daughter from the school because there was not a single child in the classroom she considered a peer to her child and there were too many black boys in the class.
I knew the black boys she talked about, and I thought they were wonderful, like I think all children are. Their eyes gleemed with the excitement of learning. Their bodies moved with energy and passion. They were friendly, and funny, and engaging, and creative, and smart. I never saw them as different from my children, but she didn’t like my child either.
I wonder if I had been more like that mother, would I have been frightened, too? I don’t think so. I learned from an early age about being open to who other people are. Maybe I learned it because I felt like such an unlovable being, and I hoped others would be open to seeing me if I were open to them. Maybe I always had deep empathy for others, that rare ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. I wish I could endow others with that kind of compassion.
I would travel the country with my magic wand and touch the foreheads and the hearts of people everywhere, so they, too, would see, not through the lenses of hatred and paranoia, but through the lens of acceptance.
So I have to wonder about someone who can look at a 13-year-old boy and see an enemy, especially when so many white middle class children seem to have extended childhoods that last into their mid-twenties and sometimes even later. How, then, can a black boy be assigned adult power and wherewithall and prowess? Racism and racial bias.
There is a a story in the New York Times about Missouri schools where white parents are upset that black parents are transferring their children to better performing schools. Wouldn’t you want that for your child? Why would you be upset that someone else desires it?
One mother who chose to transfer her daughter from a school that had the worst disciplinary rating in the state to a predominately white school watched a televised town hall meeting about the school where the “parents angrily protested the transfer of Normandy students across the county line, some yelling that their children could be stabbed and that the district’s academic standards would slip.”
The mother said, “When I saw them screaming and hollering like they were crazy, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is back in Martin Luther King days. They’re going to get the hoses out. They’re going to be beating our kids and making sure they don’t get off the school bus.’”
Can you imagine thinking that? Wondering if you made the right decision to put your child in a better school and worrying about her safety?
The irony of the white parents thinking the same thing is not lost on me. But I have to wonder how their thinking got to that point. Why are they assuming that having black children in their school, in particular, lower socio-economic black children, will put their own children in danger?
That’s the same kind of thinking George Zimmerman had when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. That’s the same kind of thinking John Henry Spooner had when he shot and killed Darius Simmons. He said, when the judge asked him if he felt bad for killing his next door neighbor, “Not that bad.”
When he was questioned on the stand he said, “I wanted my guns back. I just, you ever want something so bad…yeah.”
What? His guns were worth more than a child’s life? A child who did not steal his guns? A child who was his neighbor and known to him? How does anyone come to this? Racial bias and racism.
I can’t see us having a conversation on race when the very people who need to be active listeners in the conversation shut it down with their disbelief that racism exists. The truth is in the news every day, and in the lives of millions of people of color. How can it be denied?
The reason most white people think there is no racism is that they have not experienced it,  and they cannot imagine that such horrible things could happen in a country where they feel safe and free to live their lives, until someone of color moves into their neighborhood or attends their child’s school.
I’ll leave you with this video of James Baldwin, activist and writer, describing racism to Dick Cavett fifty years ago. Some things don’t change, and his words are as true today as they were back then.

Saturday, July 27, 2013


This week has driven me to distraction. As the right continues to murder Trayvon’s memory, pass laws that are constitutionally questionable, and make fun of President Obama’s impromptu talk on race in America, my sensibilities are electrified by disbelief and outrage. I’ve put together a list of things we can do to become a rational, compassionate nation that supports the equality of all its citizens.
1.              Stop. Stop hating. Stop blaming. Stop thinking some people, like you, are better than others.
2.              Learn empathy. Everyone will face adversity at some point in one’s life. Money will not save you. Smugness and superiority will not save you.  God will not save you. So you’d better learn to feel compassion for the person who is down and out, because you might be next.
3.              If you are white and you think racism goes both ways, the most important role you can play in the conversation about race is that of listener.  You’ve already given your opinion one time too many, and it was off base, offensive, ignorant, untruthful, and dangerous.
4.              If you think you know what it is like to be black in America, and you are not a person of color, stop right now. You have no idea what it is like to be black in America. I have spent almost forty years of my life with a black man, and my children are interracial, yet I do not know exactly what it is to be black. I will never know, because I will never be black. Period.
5.              If you are a minority, any minority (black, Hispanic, female, LGBT), even though it may feel scary and difficult, speak up when someone is being offensive. Let people know, as kindly as you can, that what they said is damaging to you, to them, and to society. If you don’t tell them, they’ll only keep on doing what they are doing and tell the next person that their [black, Hispanic, female, LGBT] friend doesn’t feel that way, so s/he must be wrong. Be the first to let them know their thinking is wonky, and then offer to help them understand. And if they don’t want to speak to you after that, that’s their loss.
6.              Report abuse, harassment, discrimination, and favoritism to your employer, the business you are paying for goods and services, at school, at church, or anywhere else it happens, else how will it ever stop? This is for every person, even if you were not the receiver of the action. Peer pressure can positively affect people, too.
7.              If you do not consider yourself a racist, stop voting Republican. The party has been recruiting racists since Nixon, and they are more and more blatant in their appeals to hatred and paranoia to keep the country divided and advance their agenda that benefits the wealthy and creates a plutocracy.
8.              If you do not consider yourself a misogynist, see number 7.
9.              If you think LGBT citizens should be treated equally under the law, see number 7.
10.          In fact, if you believe all people should be equal under the law, see number 7.
11.          If you are a fiscal conservative, stop lying to yourself. History shows that the Republicans tend to grow government and increase the deficit. See number 7.
12.          If you are truly a Christian, stop supporting laws and policies that hurt the poor and the underserved. See number 7.
13.          If you are pro-life help the children who are already here and give women equal access to quality reproductive health. See number 7.
14.          If you know for sure that corporations are not people, see number 7.
15.          If you are female or identify as an ethnic minority in our country, see number 7. They only want your vote, but they will not represent you.
16.          If you believe socialism is scary and dangerous, you need to think again. The roads you drive your vehicle on, the sewer system your home is connected to, the police department, the fire department, the military, social security, the Center for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits are all socialist programs. You benefit from those programs, as should all citizens.
17.          If you believe the Affordable Health Care Act is a socialist program designed to assist people who don’t deserve assistance, see number 16 and number 2. Also know that it is good for society overall that people receive proper health care, because it will prevent the epidemic spread of diseases such as TB and people will be healthier overall and not be a burden to others.
18.          Vote. Vote in every election, including local elections. People died fighting for the inalienable right to vote, so the very least you can do is read up on the issues and the candidates and get your ass to the polls. If you vote, you have a right to complain and ask for representation. If you don’t, shut up, because you are part of the problem.
19.          Help someone else to vote. Drive people who don’t have transportation to the poll. Hold their place in line if they are too old or too tired or too infirm to stand there and they need to sit down.
20.          Do not be a one-issue voter. Nothing is more dangerous or insidious, because if you only vote on one issue you are ignoring all the other issues and voting in candidates who may have terrible agendas and they are relying on you to be ignorant and fervid for your single issue.
21.          If you hear anyone speak disparagingly about another, whether it is about our President, or the black child walking home from school, or the Mexican family waiting in line at the grocery store, or the little girl who is overweight, or the gay or interracial couple who want to enjoy an evening out, tell them you do not agree with them and ask them why they are so mean spirited. Then wait for them to answer.
22.          If you think murder is wrong, stop supporting Stand Your Ground laws, and let people all around you, including your gun monger friends, know that Stand Your Ground is simply a legal get-around to commit murder and you are going to expend your energy getting the laws repealed and fighting for more stringent gun control laws. Then run before they shoot you.
23.          If you believe your child deserves to be safe at school, at home, and in your neighborhood, then support the same for children who may live in neighborhoods and go to schools that are different from yours. Every child deserves that right. Find a way to personally support that belief.
24.          Do not paint a group of people with a broad brush based on one attribute, like skin color or socio-economic status. Every person is an individual, and if you want to be treated as an individual, you ought to treat others the same way. All white people are not the same, and that is true of everyone of every ethnicity, race, gender, and socio-economic class.
25.          Understand that this is America, and that all Americans have the right to be where they are: walking down the street, standing on the walkway of a community, buying Skittles at the convenience store, and going home to watch the second half of the game. Stop thinking some people are more deserving of our freedoms than others. We should all enjoy the freedoms we share as Americans, and you should fight hard for that concept or one day you may find yourself on the wrong side of freedom.
26.          If you are a man, treat women as your equals, not as a sex objects, property, or a baby vessels. Stop supporting legislation that controls women’s reproductive rights. Fight for equal work for equal pay. Don’t support the sex industry because it exploits young women.
27.          If you are here in America because your family migrated here sometime in the last 600 years, support immigration reform. If you don’t support it, you are a hypocrite, and perhaps you should follow your own advice and go back to your country of origin if it will take you.
28.          Do not spend one dime to support the economy of red states that pass laws that are constitutionally questionable, let businesses buy their politicians and political leaders, treat some of their citizens as less than equal, and allow their citizens to be irresponsible gun owners. Your children will grow up just fine if you don’t take them to Disney World.
29.          Teach your children to care for others and to have empathy and compassion for people who may be different from them. Empathy is our greatest equalizer because it opens the mind and squashes irrational judgments.
30.          If you identify as a white American, teach your children about race and ethnicity. Talk to them about white privilege and tell them that it is unfair and that everyone should be treated equally in every circumstance. Teach them to challenge privilege when they benefit because of it. The world will be a better place.
31.          Stop watching Fox News. They are not a news station; they are an entertainment station paid by the likes of ALEC and the Koch brothers to spread the lies and the agenda of the extreme right. Not one word uttered on that station is truthful or newsworthy, so protect your brain cells.
32.          Stop thinking that you are more American than the rest of us. We are a country that willingly took in people other countries didn’t care about. Let’s celebrate our diversity and understand that America has many different faces and perspectives that make us a great country.

Moral Monday at the North Carolina Legislature.

A photo from my local paper depicting counter demonstrators at the Trayvon Martin rally in Winston-Salem, NC.