Category Archives: society

treading water

water.jpg

Here we are, one month past the US election. I’m still not over it. I don’t plan to get over it.  What I am trying to figure out is how I can play a role in protecting the social progress this country has made, and to push back against the racism, bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia and all the other flavors of closed-minded, small-minded fear of the other that this president elect has shown and encouraged in others.

I am still working to find my voice. I am working to strengthen my resolve, and bracing myself for a long fight. I’ve felt like I’ve been treading water, just focusing on keeping my head above water enough to keep breathing. I plan to take action soon, but the truth of the matter is that I am not a strong swimmer. (This is true literally as well as figuratively. I think this metaphor comes to mind because being in deep water brings me a sense of dread and near panic. Much like the coming change administration.)

So I continue to post here daily, as part of my commitment to speak out. It may seem odd that posting photos of leaves and trees serve any function towards my goals of addressing issues of social justice, but they are functioning for me as a way to keep the communication lines open. (Or perhaps of keeping my toe in the water, if I want to stay with that metaphor. But if I am treading water, it’s more than my toe in the water.

the little gray hoodie on the hook

We wear hoodies in our family, all 4 of us. I am the mother of 2 young children, one a little boy. He probably has more hoodies than the rest of us, in a range of colors. He even has a gray hoodie, one that we got during our visit to my husband’s high school for a reunion a few months ago. Each day when we send him to his pre-K class, we have to send him in with a sweater or sweatshirt. Even on hot summer days, since New England weather can turn quickly, or the air conditioning inside can be excessive. This past week, I have found myself consciously avoiding that gray hoodie. I see it hanging there on the hook on the back of a door, along with the yellow hoodie and the blue one with the prints of cars.

I look at that little gray hoodie, and my heart hurts. I can’t even bear the thought of posting a photo of my little boy in his gray hoodie, because of the association with the vulnerability of being a target. Because of the association with a boy who lost his life, and a mother who lost her child.

One day my little boy will be the same age as Trayvon Martin was that night last year. He will be a teenage boy, with the range of moods and sometimes unpredictable behavior that come with that stage. He may be an honor student, or a rebel, or a little of each. He may choose to behave exactly as Trayvon did, buy the same candy and sugary drink. Want to walk out in the rain to get away from adult company. He may be the same height and build as Trayvon. He may choose to dress exactly as Trayvon did. And yet I also know that he will never be a target in the same way that Trayvon Martin was. The privilege of white skin will give him license to wear that hoodie, to walk in an unfamiliar neighborhood, to shop in a store, without being profiled by default as a potential threat.

The discourse of the past 2 weeks reminds me of the privilege that I have and that my family has. The fact that I can be reminded of my privilege is itself a hallmark of privilege: I have the luxury to be able to regularly forget. Where I live, I can drive around my town, I can walk through my neighborhood, shop in any store, without once wondering if the color of my skin will attract negative attention. I know that I don’t entirely fit in where I live, and my hairstyle and clothes mark me as a bit different. But never in a threatening way. I can dress like a slob without worrying that it reflects badly on my heritage. I can drive a nice car without raising any eyebrows, or drive a beat-up car without people assuming that I am poor. As a white female, people make lots of assumptions about me, which may or may not in any way reflect who I am. But none of the assumptions put me at higher risk of being stopped by the police, or worse, someone like Zimmerman: highly armed but poorly trained, full of anger and self-righteousness and fear.

I have been feeling heartsick since Zimmerman’s acquittal. The messages I read from that verdict and some of the ensuing discourse just drive home to me how far our society has yet to go to achieve equality. I have the sense that this country is divided: those who see the systemic inequity and the harmful biases, and those who are unwilling or unable to see them. I know that I live in a society that continues to have systemic racism. I am ashamed to sometimes see evidence of that racism in my own thoughts, my own assumptions. Much as I sometimes find my thoughts reflecting sexism, ablism, agism, classism and so many of the other isms that are part of our society. But I call myself out. Sometimes I even have the courage to call out others when I see it.

I have had conversations with close friends and family members, and feel lucky that those closest to me see things much as I do. But I am realizing that these private conversations with like-minded people are not enough. I need to make a public stand, even if in my small way, by writing here. I know that people who are blind to what I see, to both systemic racism and the privilege that allows them that blindness, are not necessarily bad people. I know people, some of them even friends or family members, who fit into these categories. Even thinking about starting conversations with them about race and privilege exhausts me. But I am thinking about these things, and with this post, I am showing that I am willing to be part of this conversation.

I have been reading posts and articles every day since the news of Zimmerman’s acquittal. I have spent a lot of time reflecting. I have felt outrage and deep sadness, but also great hope that this conversation will continue, and will bring progress. I am busy and am protective of the time I need to spend on my work and family obligations. However, this conversation is too important to me. I need to be part of the conversation because I want my children to grow up in a world where no child’s life is cut short by others’ assumptions about race.

I want to live in a world where a mother’s worries about her son’s choice to wear a hoodie when he goes out on a walk will never be about anything more weighty than whether that hoodie will be warm enough.

I have recently read lots of post relating to the death of Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s acquittal, and privilege. Here are some of the ones that have stuck with me:

If you have written things about these topics yourself, or read things that moved you, please feel free to share links in the comments.

The February Just Posts

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Welcome to the latest edition of the newest incarnation of the Just Posts, a monthly Social Justice roundtable. Holly and are pleased to serve up a bounty of fabulous posts from around the blogosphere on topics of activism in all shapes and sizes.

I confess that I am currently swamped, sandwiched between work and family obligations, and smothered in mixed metaphors. As such, I don’t at this moment feel like I can write a post that does justice to a topic of social justice. Instead, I had a brainstorm that each month I would feature a song that speaks to some of the issues that affect our world.

I’m not sure why it popped into my head a few days ago, but I have lately been listening to and thinking about the song “Black Boys on Mopeds,” by Sinead O’Connor. Sinead sings of her sadness and frustrations about poverty, racism and social injustice. What has really struck a cord with me, at this time when I am continually adjusting to motherhood, is her longing to protect her child from these harsh realities:

England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses
It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds
And I love my boy and that’s why I’m leaving
I don’t want him to be aware that there’s
Any such thing as grieving

If you have a few minutes I invite you to listen to the words. (You can also read the full lyrics.)

And now for our roundtable:

This month’s nominators:

Please also pay a visit to Holly, as she is writing about an interesting proposal.

If a post of yours has been included in the list, if you have nominated posts, or if you would just like to show your support of the just posts, we invite you to display a Just Posts button on your blog with a link back to here or to the list over at Holly’s.

For more information about the Just Posts, please visit the Just Posts information page.

hungry

I’ve been thinking about food these days. Look at me with my bagel here, and my veggies there. And not to mention the stash of chocolate, what with trick-or-treating almost at my doorstep.

Today was a day of eating and running, or running and not eating. I had to go into Boston, and I try to take the train in when I can. There’s a 9:00 train I can catch if I head to the station by 8:30. But what this usually means is that, once I get Phoebe bundled off to daycare, I can barely get myself together in time to, for example, eat breakfast. So since I didn’t have a scheduled meeting till later in the afternoon, I decided to catch a later train. To give myself time to for breakfast, for one thing. Most important meal of the day, and all that. I tend to be hungry in the morning, and if I don’t eat, I get cranky and less than fully functional. So I had my breakfast before leaving home.

It was a bit of a crazy day for public transportation in Boston today. Unbeknownst to me, there was a freakin’ parade scheduled, so I shared my commute in with a trainload of exhuberant teens in party mode.

I figured that by 5:30 or so, when I was heading back towards home, the post-parade chaos would have cleared up. Not quite. As I headed to the train station, I realized I was getting hungry. I thought I’d stop in at the convenience store to get a snack, since I wouldn’t be home till after 7:00. But the train station was mobbed. They had passengers waiting for trains corraled off into lines. I didn’t want to risk being bumped to a later train, so I joined the pen for my train, and missed my window of time to grab something to eat.

It was a long ride home. The train wasn’t as crowded as I’d feared, and I got to sit down. I did a bit of work, but found it hard to concentrate. For one thing, my rumbling stomach kept interrupting my thoughts. It’s hard to focus when you’re hungry.

Of course, my hunger was only temporary. I got to go home, and get something to eat.

Not only did I get to eat, I got to eat foods that I chose. I make efforts to eat well, to eat high quality whole-grain foods, and lots of fruits and vegetables. I find that when I eat well, eat healthily, I feel better. I have more energy, stay healthier, sleep better, work better.

What I find unsettling is that there are so many for whom real hunger is a daily obstacle, and poor nutrition is a regular detractor from health and productivity. Even in the US, where food is plentiful for so many. How can it be that in the same country, where millions are “watching what they eat” in order to lose weight, that others still struggle to even get adequate quantities of food? Restaurants serve up obscenely large servings of food, and we eat more than we should or want, and often waste the rest. Some of us have too much food, while others of us can’t get what we need. Eating healthy foods, especially fresh produce, costs money. And takes time.

Jen at One Plus Two wrote a compelling post reminding us that among those who aren’t getting adequate healthy food are lots of children. 13 million children…in the US alone.

Poor nutrition leads to poor health, poor performance in school, and even impaired cognitive development.

Recent research provides compelling evidence that undernutrition — even in its “milder” forms — during any period of childhood can have detrimental effects on the cognitive development of children and their later productivity as adults. In ways not previously known, undernutrition impacts the behavior of children, their school performance, and their overall cognitive development. These findings are extremely sobering in light of the existence of hunger among millions of American children.

Poor nutrition is one of the many ways that those who live in poverty are denied the opportunities to get out of poverty.

On the bright side, there are things we can do.

We can let our politicians know we find the current state of affairs unacceptable. We can give to food banks. There are organizations who are active in fighting hunger, and advocating changes that will prevent hunger. You can learn more about hunger, and hunger in the US and around the world, from a variety of groups, such as Second Harvest. In Massachusetts, there is Project Bread, a group that organizes an annual Walk for Hunger. (Don’t worry, though. The walk is not actually in support of hunger, but in support of efforts to eradicate hunger.)

some of my best friends are Republican

It’s true, you know. Even though I myself am a granola-eating, tree-hugging bleeding-heart liberal.

I like to say this is line as a bit of joke. Some of my best friends are Republican.

It reminds me that much as I try to fight bigotry, I still am susceptible myself. I have my own prejudices. Perhaps I nurture my bigotry against conservatives. But there are other subtle prejudices are more disturbing when I become aware of them, as they are bigotries that I actively fight. Religious intolerance. Racism. Classism. Even sexism. It’s good to remind myself that I am still a work in progress.

I also like to say it because it’s true. Some of my best friends are Republican. And I’m actually proud of this. Much as I disagree with their political views, these friendships are important to me. Both because I care about the individuals, and because I think it is productive to find the middle ground. And while the ground I’d like to reach eventually is far left of the middle, I can’t imagine us jumping right over as a society. I think we’ll get there by persistence and by hard work in lots of arenas. I think that part of the process is to keep the discourse productive, as it makes it easier for us to recognize the common ground.

Extremists on both ends of the spectrum are guilty of distorting the discourse. There is a tendency to over-generalize, throw blame, call names. To call all those on the other side of the fence stupid. Insane. Barbaric. Evil, even. Hell, I know I’m guilty of mucking things up when I get angry. (And there is a lot that I’m angry about.)

One of my closest friends is a conservative Republican. We’ve now been friends for about 20 years, startling as that seems to me. Even early in our friendship, back in high school before either of us was particularly interested in politics, we realized that we landed squarely on opposite sides of the political spectrum. The only times we fought were about political subjects. Education. Welfare. Taxes. Class. The death penalty. So-called family values. We discovered that political topics had to stay off limits if we were going to stay friends.

Over the years, we’ve talked about many things that brush up against the more directly political topics. Likewise with other friends and family members who lean far rightward into the spectrum.

I’ve learned that a person who can hold opposite political views, who would vote so differently from me, can also have many qualities that I value and respect. I’ve noted a high level tolerance and acceptance on a personal level, loyalty, kindness, and a complete lack of malice, even while supporting policies that I consider inhumane.

Being close friends with people with quite different political views has helped me to learn tolerance and a better understanding of those viewpoints. I’ve come to believe that our core values are not always so different, but that sometimes we differ in how we define them. For example, family is important to me. But my definition of family is perhaps only broader and more flexible than the traditional middle class American one.

And perhaps my friendship has also broadened the perspectives of my more conservative friends, and nourished their own tolerance. I know that at the very least they know that it is possible to sit down at the dinner table, share a laugh, and have a friendly conversation with someone whose political views are as unabashedly liberal commie pinko as mine.

throwing blame

As I headed out from an appointment on Wednesday, I walked passed a recently delivered newspaper on the ground outside the office building. It was folded up inside a clear plastic bag. The following headline jumped out at me:

ICE¹ sweep nets 5 local immigrants
Officials say those who commit crimes deserve ticket out of town

I bent over to get a better look, and to read the portion of the article² that was visible through the plastic. I was disturbed. The headline and the article seemed to suggest that immigrants are criminals.

A closer reading of the article revealed that in fact the individuals who had been arrested were charged with various crimes, some of them more serious than others, and in addition were immigrants. (Well, actually, they were tracked down because they were immigrants who had committed these crimes.)

At the same time, the article did contain various subtle and not-so-subtle suggestions that illegal immigrants are somehow menacing. Take this section about the reactions of a local police chief:

“I don’t have a problem with them going around and trying to round up these illegal immigrants,” said [town] Police Chief […]. “Illegal immigration just can’t be tolerated.”

With two convicted criminals from his town arrested, the chief said it’s high time the government start getting illegal aliens off the streets. The group has largely been overlooked in the past, “creating a problem on a couple of angles that people don’t want to look at,” he said.

[Town] Police are seeing some crimes increase with illegal immigration, particularly unlicensed automobile operation charges.

One overarching problem I have with the article is the way the discourse is framed. A careful reading of the article shows that the particular individuals arrested had been convicted of crimes. But let’s face it. Not everyone takes the time to read articles closely. It would be all too easy for a reader to be left with the impression that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, and that illegal immigrants are particularly threatening. Consider this phrase, taken out of its context:

crimes increase with illegal immigration.

No discussion of the complexity of the issues and no contrary viewpoints were offered. The tone of the article is congratulatory towards the ICE. A casual reader would have the impression that the general public attitude towards this ICE sweep is of approval. That the issues are clearcut. Even that the arrest of these individuals is just the surface of the festering problem of “criminal aliens”.

The article, as well as many ostensibly neutral reportings of issues relating to immigration in the media, reflects a subtle undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment. (And don’t even get me started on the venomous hardcore anti-immigration set.)

This increased xenophobia quite honestly reminds me of other dark times in our world’s history. When things look dark, whether it’s because of plague or economic depression or threats of war, people look for someone to blame. When the issues are complex, it is hard to pinpoint the source of the problem. What it is easy to do is pick some group to shoulder the blame. Communists. Gypsies. Jews. Witches.

Our country is at war. Gas prices and living expense are rising. Homelessness and unemployment rates are high. Many people are finding it hard to make ends meet. People want answers. People want solutions. But because these are not quick or easy to achieve, people want to blame. It’s so much easier to blame the other, because blaming those that are too close to us seems not to accomplish anything. Lately, immigrants, especially those that have violated current immigration laws, have been offered up and targeted for blame.

The issue of immigration is one that I think about often, though I have not yet ventured to write on the topic. It’s been hard to work myself up it, even though I have many thoughts I’d like to write down. For the most part, though, I write about fairly lightweight topics on this blog. This is because I write primarily for my own amusement and for the potential entertainment of others. I like to write with humor, even when the topics touch on seriousness. But I just can’t find anything funny about the growing hate and intolerance evidenced in the discussion of immigration issues.

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¹ US Immigration and Customs Enforcement

² Note: The online headline reads: Immigrants face deportation³

³ Note (added later): I forgot to mention that I stopped to buy my own copy of the paper on my way home, so that I could read the article more closely. Which is how I noticed the two different headlines.

a tale of two buildings

I’m a grad student at a large urban university in the American Northeast. This school has many buildings. Some big, some small. Some old, some new. This is the story of two buildings.

Building A and Building B are neighbors. They live on the same major street that runs through the center of the university. Between them runs a small street.

Both buildings are academic buildings, filled with classrooms and offices for faculty and staff.

Building A is an older building. It’s of a moderate size. It’s got character, mind you, but it’s a bit run down. Well, in some ways it’s quite run down. The heating and air conditioning are quirky, so it’s usually too hot or too cold. The stairways are narrow, and the elevators often on the fritz.

Building B is a newer building. Taller. Concrete. Modern. When you walk in, you are greeted by a cavernous entryway, tiled in marble. In the center is a large metallic abstract sculpture, somewhat evocative of a globe. Everything is expansive and expensive. Shiny.

When you walk into Building A, the space that you enter is a bit dimly lit. There’s a somewhat dingy carpeted sort of lounge area with some cushioned seats in front of you, and to your right, there’s a an area with a linoleum floor and a few cafeteria-style tables and chairs. Building A has a few vending machines: a soda machine, a candy and snack machine, and one of those hot beverage machines that can give you a watery cup of hot chocolate or a cup of coffee that you might turn to in a fit of caffeine desperation, but would never choose to drink.

In Building B, though, you can stroll up the sweeping double stair case with its wide marble steps to the second floor, where you can buy a scone and a caramel macchiato at a Starbucks. Or you can opt to get a more substantial lunch, or perhaps a light salad, at the gourmet soup and sandwich shop next to the Starbucks.

Building B is a showcase building for the university. Higher ups in the administration have installed their offices in part of the building. Building B often provides venues for important guest lecturers and other high-profile university events.

Building A is a respectable building, but next to Building B, it looks downright shabby.

These two buildings have in common that they house academic departments and graduate programs that focus on investing in the future. One of these two buildings is called the School of Management, and houses the business programs. The other building is called the School of Education, and houses teaching programs. Do I even need to tell you which building is which?

I’m really not making this up. The two buildings really do face each other, often seeming to me as some sort of concrete and brick manifestations of the very attitudes and trends of our society. Education programs are underfunded, schools are underfunded. Meanwhile, the focus of society is on the business of making money.

So many of our schools are struggling to make do. Many classrooms are overcrowded, many schools are short of up-to-date textbooks and resources. But a good school is not just about the size of the classroom and the quality and quantity of materials: a good school needs good teachers. It’s saddened me over the years to learn of so many bright and idealistic people who enter teaching, only to suffer burnout. The public schools, and especially the city schools, lead to the fastest burnout. Among many factors that contribute to this problem is that teachers get the short end of the stick in our society in terms of pay and prestige. In spite of the difficulty of the task, the need for commitment, the knowledge, patience and strength required to do this incredibly important work, public school teachers are typically not paid well. Certainly, they are not getting the sort of income that those who choose to follow career paths laid out in business professions.¹

Those who enter education programs, who choose to become educators, are often considered impractical dreamers. Sometimes it’s assumed that they aren’t motivated enough, or even bright enough, for other career options. It is taken for granted that teachers will not get paid particularly well.

Let’s face it. Our society values money. And pay is often a reflection of prestige. And teachers are just not getting as much of either of those as they deserve for their contribution to society.

This is just to say that I hope for a day when the pride that universities show in their education programs equals that of business programs. But in order to see that shift, our society will need to re-evaluate attitudes towards education professions.

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¹ From the U.S. Bureau of the Census
Earnings for “Management, professional, and related occupations”

  • Median: $45,620 Mean: $59,139
  • Earnings for “Education, training, and library occupations”

  • Median: $31,555 Mean: $34,553
  • ² I seem to be developing an addiction to using footnotes in my posts.