White supremacy doesn’t love you

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you.”
and we believed.
we wrapped ourselves in that cocoon of love
how good it felt to be so valuable, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you because you are not black.”
and we trembled if for a moment,
for now we knew love rested on all that we weren’t,
and yet we had no idea what it was that we were.
the waves lapping at that line in the sand, so firm and so fuzzy
how good it felt when the cool water splashed between our toes, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i love you, but do you love me? i need you to show me.”
and we sobbed and we grasped at its ankles,
admonishing ourselves for our failed devotion.
we’ll do anything, anything.
and so we entered the arena, swords sharpened and armor tight
ready to face the adversary that made our beloved question us.
imagine our surprise when the lions looked so much like us
hands feet breath face heartbeat just like us.
we must have imagined, then, the lions had swords too
but the red dust stung our eyes as we kicked up clouds of gravel
we dropped our visors and charged into the blur—
we should do anything for love, we thought.

when it looked at us and saw that we were white, it said
“i loved you once but you’re in my way.”
and we spun around to find a landscape of suffering unraveling behind us
that we had never before turned to face.
and there in the thick of it all
a gleaming marble throne
or a mausoleum, we could not tell.
we basked so long in the splendor of our beloved’s promise
we did not see that what it loved
was just beyond us
the chaos, the violence, the pain
that circled around the seat of power like a whirlpool.
and our beloved looked at us with a hand outstretched
beckoning us to ride the rising sea of bloodshed
or get tossed aside like ballast.

and we watched our brothers and sisters climb aboard
clinging still to that shaky promise of deliverance
and we had to decide
whether we believed
that what doesn’t hesitate to kill you could ever really love you.

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Under the moon.

There is always something to mourn these days. In 36 hours in New Orleans this week, two Black trans women were murdered for having the audacity to proclaim to the world that their lives, on their terms, demanded to be seen, loved, and cherished. Over and over again, we fail to see, and if we finally do, we fail to love and cherish. And now that we have a federal government that acts in accordance with the belief that trans kids don’t need or deserve protection, what can we possibly do to create a world where all trans people, but especially trans women of color, live full, safe, and healthy lives?

Sometimes it feels like donating to an organization is a surface-level solution (and indeed, it’s incomplete), but considering that trans people are more than twice as likely than the general population to live in poverty, moving money is a crucial start. The Trans Women of Color Collective (TWOCC), the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and Youth Breakout (which is based in New Orleans) are three organizations I recommend familiarizing yourself with, though there are many more.


Less often now does it feel like there’s much to celebrate, but this week there was a little something. A $1.5 million movie about a queer Black boy navigating the constraints of masculinity, the ravages of poverty and trauma, and the fragile but fruitful possibility of loving another person took home the Academy Award for Best Picture (and Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay). Moonlight  is the first movie with an all-Black cast and the first movie centered on the experience of a queer person to win the top prize. I don’t want to overstate what this win means in terms of “progress” in Hollywood, but I do believe that getting closer to a world in which pop culture tells the story of the U.S. as it actually is, and not solely how it exists in the white racial imaginary, is an important and necessary step toward artistic justice.

You can rent or buy Moonlight on Amazon if it’s not currently playing in a theater near you.

And now, onward.

Read

Trying a different format this week, cribbed from all my favorite newsletters. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Attention liberals: free speech doesn’t entitle you a platform, especially when that platform is giant and lucrative. When tolerance is a paradox. Mapping the Appalachian Trail, using Black literature. Warsan Shire and Beyoncé are the artistic superheroes we need. Behind every great woman is…another woman. Oceti Sakowin camp comes down, but Standing Rock still stands. Civics needs a serious comeback, and what it means to take education into your own hands. White men do not use their power for good, but they do use it for: manufacturing terror, exploiting social malaise, and monopolizing the internet. Inhumanity depends on ordinary Americans. Marriage will not cure wealth disparities for families of color. Planned Parenthood–and women’s health in general–is in great peril. The dark edge of reason. “I was a Muslim in trump’s White House.”

Listen

If you’ve never really “gotten” Prince, Anil Dash has you covered.

My mom learned about Gil Scott Heron this week. His whole body of work is relevant as ever, but this week we were struck in particular by “Whitey On the Moon.”

Watch

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater pays homage to Moonlight.

I really liked the Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time” and cried multiple times while watching it, though that is also true of my experience seeing commercials for “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” so take everything I say with a grain of salt.

Until next time.

 

To breathe free.

This post has been a little while coming. Like many of us, I suspect, I’ve been filled with a frenetic, unfocused energy for the past few weeks. It feels like trying to put out a house fire with a bucket, except the house is the whole world and the bucket is a thimble. Sometimes I consider, if it feels this exhausting to merely keep abreast of the news coming down the pike, what will it feel like when everything truly begins to unravel? For so many people, living in the United States is and always has been a constant unraveling. Where do they turn when the spinning gets out of control? What does shelter from the storm look like, and how can we build more safe harbors where the huddled masses yearning to breathe free (to breathe at all) show up at the door with nothing to prove, no one to answer to? Where being human is always already enough?

I’ve long considered the work of social justice to be two-fold. Fight the bitter, divisive violence of oppression, and build structures that support the kind of world we actually want to inhabit. It seems to me that much of the new left has been focused for too long on the first line of defense, though not without reason. The opposition is steady, patient, and singularly focused on one goal: the consolidation of power and resources in the hands of the few by whatever means necessary. They are not interested in building or creation. Destruction is faster, cheaper, and more effective because it leaves the rest of us scrambling to claim whatever piece of the wreckage provides some semblance of security, of familiarity. It keeps us distracted from the long slog of putting together something new. As the adage goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it sure did burn in one (well, six).


A good friend of mine recently sent me a tarot deck. I’ve had my tarot read several times in the past, but I’d never tried my hand at reading the cards myself until a few days ago. The book she sent to accompany the deck suggested diving in, familiarizing oneself with the cards, and getting comfortable with the storytelling that comprises the heart of tarot’s utility. As I was playing around with the cards for the first time, I asked the question weighing most heavily on my mind: what do I need to foster, nurture, and encourage to face the new political reality?

The first card, Seven of Cups (reversed), signifies anxiety in the face of a powerful adversary. Looking at the card, I saw chalices brimming with all sorts of things, some positive and some negative, upturned and spilling their contents as an onlooker merely beholds the spectacle from the shadows. It was a perfect metaphor for my general mental state — overwhelmed by the onslaught of horrible federal policies and state-sponsored violence, and unsure where to place myself in the context of the efforts to resist.

That’s where The Magician comes in. In this context, magic is less about illusion and more about that wonderful alchemy of creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. How do we make the best use of our emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and physical power as individuals, and come together to build collective power? The Magician calls for adaptability, cunning, wit, and concerted effort to translate ideas into reality. This is the card that demands that we build, even and especially when the world is turned upside down.

The Hermit (reversed) reminds us of the value of stepping back from the endless, out of control news spiral, to the extent that we can, to reaffirm and recommit to what we believe in. To me, when reversed, The Hermit looks like he’s staring directly into his lantern, rather than past it to the path ahead. This suggests a need to focus anew on what guides us, whether the tools we use to propel ourselves forward are up to the task. What is the promise that lights our way to a better future? Does it need rekindling? It’s not lost on me that The Hermit bears striking resemblance to Lady Liberty, and her promise is currently being torn asunder. Now more than ever is a time to summon our greatest assets to make magic together, guided by the notion that the world we envision, where everyone breathes free, is a beacon and not a mirage.

Do

Did you know that the Bronx–home to 1.4 million people–doesn’t have any bookstores? This Afrolatina is trying to fix that, and she needs donations to make it happen.

Read

In times of distress, I often turn to writers to make sense of the mess we find ourselves in. Language is a powerful tool for laying bare the stark realities of oppression and inequality, while simultaneously creating new possibilities for being in community with one another and plotting a road map for the journey that lies ahead. A lot of the pieces I’ve linked to this week consider the role of language, lip service, and words-into-action in the context of regimes new and old, and how we might get ourselves on the same page to forge onward.

Lessons on language from Eastern Europe, during the pre- and post-Soviet eras:

On giving a lucrative platform to white supremacists under the guise of “free speech”:

On being forced to leave, and come to, the United States:

On talking about what we’re really talking about:

And finally, #BlackWomenDidThat:

Listen

If you’ve been waiting for the featured artist on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” to drop his LP (!), the day has arrived. Time to listen to Sampha’s Process.

If you love The Internet but were secretly yearning for a solo album, that day has also arrived. Check out SYD’s Fin.

If you thought “Consideration” was the sleeper hit on Rihanna’s ANTI, then put on SZA’s newest single, “Drew Barrymore.”

Look

In 1988, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played a concert in East Berlin to a crowd of approximately 300,000 people. Springsteen delivered a shaky speech in German calling for the wall to come down, 16 months before it actually happened. Then, as now, there is no place for walls between countries, families, people. Here, they perform Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”

Nationalism Is Strange and Unnatural, a graphic essay by Thi Bui

And because we could all use some comic relief, crank up your oven and get your Totinos ready.

Until next time, y’all.

In search of a different kind of power.

It happened. I wish I could say that I’m hopeful, but history tells me otherwise. We are not immune to the exploitation of our fears. We are not always so discerning as to parse fact from fiction, especially when the fiction soothes our egos and makes us feel powerful.

We need to find new ways of becoming powerful. If you’re white, like me, I recommend looking in your hometown or your state for the Black and Native women leaders who have been fighting against the worst of state-sanctioned violence for centuries, and then taking your cues from them. Trust me, they’re there. I encourage you to reach out to your friends and families to do the same.

For so long, white folks have only felt power through grinding our boots on the necks of people of color. But power gained through subjugation is an illusion (why else would so many of us continue to feel so impotent?), and it’s our duty to break that illusion. It is our duty to find power in humility, in serving the movement for collective liberation. This is about standing up to a president, yes, but also to the violent history that birthed him and made his hostile takeover possible. It is about standing up against the apparatuses that enable state and/or corporate violence and surveillance against people of color, from the prison-industrial complex to pipelines.

What could be more powerful than disrupting and dismantling the systems that do not serve all of us, and thus cannot truly serve any of us? What could be more powerful than heeding the call of our sisters and brothers on the front lines and saying, “Enough is enough. We are long past due for justice, and now we will take it”? What could be more powerful than building a world where everyone belongs?

Do

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

Aristotle

I never did like Aristotle much, but I have thought about this quote often as I’ve considered what it means to engage in activism or, more broadly, to refuse to collude with systems of oppression. It sounds inane, but the world we live in is held together by billions of small actions every day, most of which feel second nature to us. We have laws and institutions and social norms that dictate our actions, like where we live and who we socialize with and what kind of work we do, and these are steeped in notions of white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. These systems, while institutionalized, would not function if we forged new pathways for action, built new habits rooted in justice, equity, and democratic participation. We can make the world we want to live in by practicing it, every day.

Sarah Kendzior is an expert on authoritarian states, and she rightly predicted the Nectarine Nazi‘s rise when others were casting him aside as a laughable candidate, incapable of winning the presidency. I suggest you heed her words on how to be your own lighthouse so that when it gets harder–and it will get harder–you remember what that safe harbor world you wish we lived in looks like and how to get yourself there.

Community organizer @prisonculture has been sharing invaluable advice for those of us who might be newer to activism, or anyone feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the task ahead. She recommends choosing 1-2 causes you’re committed to and working as hard as you can on those issues, be they the environment, abortion rights, health care, prison abolition, immigration, etc. There will always be calls to mobilize around issues that might fall outside of your specific area of focus, but are still important to you, and we should remain poised to respond to emergency situations as needed. But if we all have our issues and we commit to fighting, and we commit to encouraging our loved ones to fight for their issues too, we might stand a chance of winning after all.

If you’re looking for guidelines on how to actually do activism and what it looks like, here are a few resources:

  • I’ve posted it before, but the Indivisible Guide is a great blueprint for putting pressure on your senators/representatives. It was written by several former congressional staffers and draws from the disruptive tactics the Tea Party used to stymie President Obama’s agenda (though the guide’s authors disavow, you know, the awful hatefulness of the Tea Party).
  • Here, another former congressional staffer offers advice on how to get your elected officials to listen to you.
  • The folks at Stay Woke/Campaign Zero, including DeRay McKesson and Johnetta Elzie, both organizers in the Movement for Black Lives, have released a Resistance Manual that allows you to track specific issues in the Minute Maid Mussolini policy agenda and includes some state specific resources.
  • Most importantly, keep showing up. Once you’ve decided what issues you care most about, find the people and organizations in your community that are working on those issues. Pay attention to who is in leadership positions–are they white? Male? Cisgender? If you fall into one or more of those categories, consider how you might seek out leaders of color, particularly women and trans/non-binary people, to whom you can offer support. Don’t expect a warm or welcome reception, but listen and show up. Remember that the world we live in requires a lack of trust between communities. Practice being trustworthy to create a world where we can actually rely on each other.
  • Finally, here’s a plug for a concrete action you can take today. While millions of people were out in the streets on Saturday for the Women’s March, several women and girls were unable to attend because they are currently incarcerated, many of whom for defending themselves against domestic abuse. Consider buying a gift from this wishlist to let those women and girls know they’re not forgotten, that part of marching in the streets means carrying them with us.

Read

On how quickly institutions and politicians can fall:

On creating an action plan:

On the  53% of white women who voted for the Tangerine Terror, and their sisters who didn’t stop them:

Speaking of cognitive dissonance:

On calling it as you see it:

On telling better stories:

On protecting our digital communities and online information:

Listen

To Black women. Angela Peoples in conversation with Brooke Obie (not actually a recording).

To Bryan Stevenson, an attorney who fights against the death penalty and mass incarceration, in conversation with Paul Holdengraber.

To the most appropriate track of our times, “Fuck donald trump” by Og Swaggerdick. Or maybe you want to listen to a version by Billy Da Kidd? The Sikc One? Rich $PIXX feat. Play n Skillz?

Or to the track that is permanently etched in our hearts, no matter what happened on January 20, 2017.

Watch

Sarah Kendzior tells us how to understand trump’s power plays.

Omg little kids in China recreating “Honor to Us All” from Mulan. A sweet salve for weary hearts.

Until next time, y’all.

Keep getting up when you hit the ground.

This week has been painful. You know by now, of course, that the Senate met under cover of night to vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act along party lines (with the exception of Rand Paul, R-KY). Protests in support of the ACA have been popping up across the country, including here in Colorado, where roughly 600,000 people will lose coverage gained through the state exchange and Medicaid expansion, key hallmarks of the federal law. The fear over how to pay for your medical bills, especially when you have a preexisting condition, is what economic anxiety looks like (despite what you may have heard).

Do

I suggest you find a protest in your city or town, flood your elected officials’ phones with calls in support of the ACA, and show up at in-person district events to let your senators and representatives know we won’t be returning to a time when people with preexisting conditions couldn’t get health care (looking at you, Mike Coffman).

We are staring down the inauguration of a deeply loathsome man. It is worse than any horror movie. We will have to fight and resist every day he sits in office, and likely for many years and lifetimes to come. Let’s start with a march, and then carry on from there. As you know, the Women’s March on Washington is expected to draw up to 250,000 women to the National Mall next Saturday, January 21, to mobilize in support of gender, racial, and economic justice (meet the women who are organizing the march). If you can’t make it to D.C., there are dozens of Sister Marches being organized across the country. Please go!

Read

I’m about seven pages into Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen, love of my life. My reading pace has slowed since finishing In the Darkroom, which I mentioned last week, in large part because I’m still reeling from that book’s discussion of the rise of Hungarian fascism/nationalism that’s now firmly taking hold in the country’s parliament.

One of the key components of Hungarian identity, as Faludi describes it, is the constant postulating of Hungary as a historical loser, rendered impotent and maimed after the Treaty of Trianon. That notion of perpetual victimhood leaves Hungarians to reach into the past to crystallize a mythic, nostalgic, “true” Hungarian identity, based in Magyar ethnicity, that prospered before outside forces (read, Jews and immigrants) supposedly contributed to the country’s economic decline in the 20th century. The deep anti-Semitism and hostility to Syrian refugees that pervade Hungary’s current sociopolitical landscape suggest a chilling return to the country’s fascist past, where the project of Making Hungary Great (Again?) was carried out largely through ethnic cleansing. The simplest way to cast your country as a winner? Get rid of everyone you deem a loser.

Which leads me back to Springsteen. If you’ve heard even one Bruce Springsteen song, then you’ve heard a kind of homegrown lore about the blue-collar white Americans who are just trying to make ends meet, do right by their families, and have little bit of fun. These are the types of people, we’re told, voted for trump after getting fed up with feeling like losers. Nevermind, of course, that trump represents the billionaire elite that orchestrate and profit from the white working-class’s continued economic despair. White elites have spent centuries stoking such pervasive racial animus in this country that it doesn’t sting white folks to lose to a white billionaire. It stings to lose–or think you’re losing–compared to someone who isn’t white.

What’s always gotten me about Springsteen is that embedded in the mythology of the down-on-his-luck everyman are clear villains: the shrugging VA liaison; the ruthless factory foreman; a corrupt and vengeful judiciary; hell, even American militarism itself. Springsteen has always used his music to empathize with the people he grew up around, and even to reckon with his own past, but he does so without scapegoating the people of color who often fare much worse in real life than the antiheroes of his vast body of work.

All this is to say, if you’re trying to win, you better be sure who your real enemies are.


Here’s some more stuff to read this week if you, like me, want to be extremely sad:

On the fracturing of the 20th century’s global geopolitical structures:

On the incoming regime’s conflicts of interest:

On the depressing parade of clowns that are the cabinet confirmation hearings:

On the questions feminism should make us ask:

On the too-little-too-late stance of the established left:

On a Sisyphean struggle against police brutality:

And finally, on why we can’t go back:

  • Abortion’s Deadly DIY Past Could Be Its Future by Rebecca Traister.

    “That the right wing’s focus is not simply opposition to abortion but also reducing women’s access to contraception gives away the game: Theirs is an effort to keep women from making decisions about when, if, and under what circumstances to have children, and thereby to keep them from exerting agency over their families, their work, their partnerships, their sex lives, and their bodies. That the restrictions on access most profoundly affect those with the fewest resources means that abortion is not just about women’s equality; it is at the very heart of economic and racial inequality.”

Listen

If you’ve spent every day since November 8th needing to give yourself a mirror pep-talk: Never Give Up” by Sia.

If you’ve sworn off man-children for 2017 and also forever: A double-feature of “Guys My Age” and “Fuqboi” by Hey Violet.

If you’re ready to stick it to someone who doesn’t appreciate you: Tired of Talking” by Léon.

If you’re all about embracing your imperfections and are also a little bit of a Francophile: Tilted” by Christine and the Queens.

If you wish you had caught the first half of the Formation World Tour: Sugar Symphony EP by Chloe x Halle.

Look

I’m going to go see Hidden Figures this week. Maybe you will too!

Amita Swadhin Testifies Against Jeff Sessions, reminds the world that far too many children continue to suffer from abuse with little to no structural support from the state.

Shea Diamond sings an a cappella version of “I Am Her” in front of a backdrop featuring Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. I’m not crying, you’re crying.

You should absolutely watch the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro, constructed from James Baldwin’s writings and narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.

Jeanine Michna-Bales takes us Along the Old Underground Railroad, One Photo at a Time.

 

Until next time, y’all.

Let’s try something new.

At the end of every year, my brother sends a long email to an ever-widening circle of friends and family recapping his year in music. He lists his favorite albums, tracks, and concerts, sprinkling in discoveries from another time or era that made their way into his musical lexicon in that particular year. It’s been a delight to read for the past seven or so years, and in 2016 he finally inspired me to tackle a similar challenge. I’ll spare the greater internet (ha) what mostly ended up being a 3,000 word treatise on the joint sublimity of the Knowles sisters and try to do something a little different here.

At the beginning of every year, I tell myself, “This will be the year I finally listen to new music/watch the hip new TV shows/see a single movie!” With the exception of a massive cramming session during December 2016 where I listened to approximately 25 new-ish albums, I fail miserably at this task each time. I also tell myself that I’ll finally start writing in that long-neglected blog I’ve let languish in some far off corner of the web, my memory jolted by a form email from WordPress that managed to pummel through my spam filters.

I’m a person who does things in fits and starts, but as my late 20’s lurk around the corner (shudder), I’m going to give my best effort to becoming one of those fabled people who do things consistently, for longer than six months. I had such a good time writing that long 2016 music email that I realized perhaps I could join my goal of becoming a more Cultured Person™ with that of writing anything at all, and so the idea for this series was born. In many ways, it’s a riff off of the Ann Friedman Weekly (to which I encourage all to subscribe) in that I’ll be making some recommendations based on what I’m reading, watching, and listening to in a given week, with some of my commentary interspersed. Maybe there will be other sections too! Who knows. This is all an experiment at making myself engage more consistently with art, others’ as much as my own. I’ll make it up as I go.

Without any further ado, let’s get into it.

Do

Turns out as I was writing this, a bunch of activist-oriented stuff floated to the fore. Go figure! Here’s some stuff you can do if you’re feeling extremely blue that there are only 11 short days until the incoming administration begins to rip our already-in-shambles democracy asunder.

If you have 5 minutes:

  • Check out the Sister District Project and sign up to volunteer. The new organization aims to mobilize activists and voters in blue districts to support their comrades in red districts to build progressive power at the local and state levels.
  • Consider how you might participate in the Anti-Inauguration. Might I suggest heeding The Call from the Movement for Black Lives as a place to start?

If you have 15 minutes:

If you have 30 minutes or more:

  • Get up to speed on effective political advocacy. I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the Indivisible Guide, a clear, straightforward outline for how to engage in defensive activism against a racist, neo-fascist policy agenda.
  • Follow Rewire Media’s legislative tracker, which documents, among other things: proposed legislation restricting reproductive justice; so-called “religious freedom” bills that allow businesses exemptions from complying with nondiscrimination laws; and nefarious “bathroom bills” that enshrine social and economic discrimination against trans and gender-non-conforming individuals.

Read

If you’re looking for a novel:

  • I recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It’s a sweeping chronicle of the interwoven lineages of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of whom marries an English slave trader and the other who is sold into bondage. This book is stunning in its scope and complexity, and Gyasi’s matter-of-fact prose is at once nuanced, compassionate, and unrelenting.

If non-fiction is more your speed:

  • Check out In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. On its surface, the book is about the author’s Hungarian Jewish father who undergoes sexual reassignment surgery in her 70’s. But deeper than that, Faludi grapples with what it means to forge an identity at the nexus of gender, religion, and nationalism, and what relationship (if any) our present selves have to the past or the “truth.”

If you’re more of a multiple-browser-tabs-open kinda person:

Listen

If you’re a girl who likes girls (romantically or otherwise): Citrine EP by Hayley Kiyoko.

If you’re into sexy, smooth-talking, and kinda minimalist hip-hop: Ego Death by The Internet.

If you want to honor the late, great Carrie Fisher’s give-no-fucks attitude about mental illness: Out of the Garden by Tancred.

If your entire life is one big ’80s dancehall illusion: “Nothing’s Real” by Shura.

If you want a back-to-basics lesson on how to holler: Your Number” by Ayo Jay.

If you’ve been meaning to brush up on your seductive witchcraft skills: Potions” by SEE.

If you’re glad (like me) that someone finally wrote a song celebrating the A+ combo of little titties and a fat belly: Tomboy” by Princess Nokia.

Watch

If you were wondering what all this Golden Globe fuss is about: Moonlight, which is so gorgeous that it almost renders all other movies meaningless (I kid, kind of). I’ll be honest: I don’t really like movies that much. But occasionally I feel compelled to see something (in theaters!) and it just blows me away, makes me wonder why anyone allows anything that isn’t up to the same caliber to get produced in the first place. Moonlight was one of the few movies in recent memory that’s done that for me. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Bonus read: this interview with André Holland, who plays adult Kevin with an astonishing level of care and tenderness.

If you just finished setting up your monthly recurring donation to Planned Parenthood: BoJack Horseman, season 3, episode 6. (If you don’t have Netflix, I am sorry. Please enjoy this hilarious link to bojackhorseman.com instead.)

If you’re still using “password” for all your passwords: The Basics of Internet Security.

Until next time, y’all.

Empathy is a muscle

I wrote this post about a year and a half ago, but decided to publish it anyway. Might as well start 2017 by pushing the start button, right?

My family has had a book club since I was 15. Over the past 11 years, we’ve meandered across genres, from novels (The Color Purple, Ceremony, Go Tell It On the Mountain) and novellas (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Black Water) to historical non-fiction (Overthrow, How Music Works) and autobiography (Clapton). The rules started out simple: none of us can have read the book previously; the book must be less than 400 pages; the person who selects the book will rotate; and we must all agree on the selection before diving in. My mother, who got through approximately 50 pages of Watership Down before exclaiming I am NOT reading a fucking book about rabbits!, amended the rules to include non-fiction books only (we have since broken that rule many times).

And so our book club went for its first two years, a golden period when everyone in my immediate family lived in the same city. Our proximity made it easier to stick to, or at least to attempt to stick to, a monthly reading schedule. I memorized the digits of my library card and could recall them like my own birthday.

We read and read together, though we all kept up with our own reading on the side. Left to my own devices, I mostly chose to read books by women. My mother had taken great care when I was a kid to fill my bookshelves with stories about girls and women, both real and imagined. I spent childhood afternoons poring over tales of our heroism, cunning, tenderness, and wit, spanning endlessly through space and time. And yet, when I hit high school, gone were the girls and women I’d grown to love and aspired to be. In their wake, a sea of books, plays, poems, and memoirs by, for, and about men flooded my classrooms. In those budding halls of academia, the message I heard was: It’s time to get serious about real literature, and only men write real literature (oh, and Jane Austen).

At 17, fresh out of high school and weary from the erasure of people like me from the annals of literature, I was finally back in control of my own reading list. And so I decided to throw my family a curve ball.

Shortly after reading Assata, I told my family that I was not going to read any books by men for a whole year, including for the book club. They protested slightly, then shrugged and elected to move on without me. They read Things Fall Apart and Heat while I sulked in my room, thumbing through The Autobiography of Angela Davis but feeling too slighted to give it my full attention.

As combative and unrelenting as I was at 17, I don’t blame my family for charging ahead without me. But it did sting. It seemed like making the investment to find books by women simply wasn’t worth it, which surprised me. Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that hard. Furthermore, the men would always be there. Why couldn’t we simply wait?

There’s something uniquely thrilling about reading a book by someone who reminds you of yourself, across all dimensions. As a child, I remember the subtle, sweet sense of affirmation that came from reading about girls as I knew them—daring, provocative, hilarious, self-conscious, angry, compassionate. It helped me to understand that the parts of my personality that often felt at odds with each other and with what others expected of me were, in fact, perfectly normal. The girls and women I got to know on the page each contained myriad versions of themselves, were constantly shifting and stretching into spaces both new and familiar. They were at once my refuge and my inspiration to grow, to fail, and to try again.

Reading whisked me across time and space, forming implicit and imagined friendships with people I might never know firsthand. Like most white kids, I grew up predominantly around other white people. There was a structural limitation, created decades ago through racist housing policies and predatory financial practices that persist to this day, that placed strict but unstated boundaries around who I could interact with; my family’s choice about where to live reinforced, however unconsciously, those boundaries.  My mom attempted to challenge these structures in some ways, predominantly through the types of media she brought into the house. I would flip through books she’d collected and magazines she’d subscribed me to, their pages filled with stories of girls around the world whose lives were at once notably distinct and similarly mundane as mine. I began to see the edges of my tiny corner of the universe in stark relief, and reading gave me a small opportunity to reach beyond them. As a young white girl, I learned that if we all contain multitudes, à la Walt Whitman, then our differences themselves are part of what comprises our shared humanity.

A few years ago, I was at a bar with my boyfriend, my best friend, and her boyfriend talking about Harry Potter. I had read the first two books as a child and gave up on the series, bored to tears by what I thought was too much work for too little payoff in terms of plot development. I suggested that maybe another reason I couldn’t stick with Harry Potter was because my mom had always bought me books about girls, and a book about a boy wizard just couldn’t hold my interest the way a book like Island of the Blue Dolphins could. (I have since read Harry Potter in its entirety and love it. The Chamber of Secrets is still boring, though.)

I also mentioned that I didn’t really like fantasy novels as a child, preferring historical fiction, and had only discovered classics like The Golden Compass as a teenager. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series had the added benefit of being about a deceptive, arrogant, and sensitive adolescent girl who runs away to the arctic to lead an inter-universal war against an oppressive god. What’s not to like?

My friend’s boyfriend quipped back that he didn’t like The Golden Compass, largely because it had a female protagonist. He felt he just couldn’t relate to her, and then gave up trying. On its surface, it sounded like he was mirroring back what I had said about Harry Potter, only in reverse. But not until that moment had anyone challenged him on his admission that he couldn’t empathize with a female book character; I had been hotly chastised for my relative apathy toward Harry Potter since I was a child. As a young girl, my inability to connect with the male protagonist of the world’s most popular book series was a personal flaw, a sign that something was not right with me. As a young boy, my friend’s boyfriend’s inability to connect with the female protagonist of the book series that topped Harry Potter in the U.K. sales charts was simply the status quo, and thus, wholly unremarkable.

Our society takes for granted that marginalized people can and do see themselves in white, male protagonists, too. We often have to by necessity, given how male-and white-dominated school literary curricula are, both in terms of subject and author. We expect girls, women, and people of color to relate to boys, men, and white people because we assume that the latter are always the standard-bearer, that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are universal. We do not, incidentally, expect boys, men, and white people to relate to girls, women, and people of color whose thoughts, feelings, and experiences are too often seen as ancillary or fringe (particularly for girls and women of color).

There has been some research done on the unique power of narrative to generate empathy, particularly for people who belong to a social “out-group” (back to Harry Potter!) because it can challenge our prevailing notions of what “other” people are like. On a physiological level, reading creates new neural pathways that continue to build even after we’ve put down a book. Our brains are constantly at work processing, analyzing, and making connections between new information and that which we already know. They will stretch to encompass unfamiliar or novel ideas and concepts so that we may understand them better the next time we encounter them. In other words, empathy is a muscle and it becomes stronger the more we use it. But like any muscle, we must regularly find new ways to exercise it lest we plateau or go soft. Ask anyone if you can get and stay fit simply by doing sit-ups forever and they’ll laugh in your face.

If we only ever ask children to read books by and about men, or by and about white people, we are demanding the intellectual equivalent of bicep curls and nothing else, ad infinitum. We are robbing girls and kids of color of the opportunity to have their experiences heard and validated. We are denying all children the opportunity to grow both as thinkers and as human beings who are empathetically attuned to others’ experiences, whether they look the same or not. We are, in essence, rewarding children for becoming lazy.

Focus on strengthening one muscle in isolation and you automatically begin to favor it. Your body will start following the same patterns unconsciously–that’s what muscle memory is. If we only exercise our ability to empathize with men and with white people, we will reinforce the notion that they are the standard-bearers of human experience. We will reflexively view their opinions as more credible and trustworthy, sometimes in spite of our own first-hand experiences.

There is, of course, a structural and material component to all of this, too. Teach children that only books by men and white people are worth reading, and they will become adults who only buy books by men and white people, however unconsciously. That translates to bigger book deals, higher paychecks, better publicity, and more critical acclaim for men and white people, which in turn convinces us that these writers are, naturally, the best of the best. And so we choose, once again, to read their stories.

It should come as no surprise, then, that white people and people of color view racism through dramatically different lenses, or that men and women have vastly different perceptions on issues like sexual assault and abortion. People in positions of relative power are not taught a complex, nuanced version of the world around them, and consequently tend to lack the social-emotional skills to interpret other people’s experiences as inherently valid. This has dramatic implications beyond the classroom; despite comprising only 31% of the population, white men hold 65% of elected offices in this country. If they don’t have the muscle to relate to the remaining 69% of the U.S. population, how could we expect policies that prioritize, let alone take into account, the needs of women and/or people of color?

Reading works by women and/or people of color is not about becoming an “expert” in anyone else’s lived experiences, creative processes, or perspectives on society. Reading also does not replace the immense value I place on interpersonal relationships with people whose lives diverge from (but often, delightfully intersect with) mine, nor the need to dismantle the institutions and structures that maintain racist and sexist oppression. But, it is one way to celebrate the talents and experiences of people far too many of us, by and large, have been taught not to care about.