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What It Means to Stay Awake

What It Means to Stay Awake

As a white girl riding on a whole lot of privilege, I sometimes come late to the party of awareness. I get some curiosity, learn something, then try to join the mission. One that might not be mine and may have been a Movement long before I decided to head to Washington last Saturday.

#StayWoke has been around a while but I just happened to notice it last year. #StayWoke wasn’t my hashtag in 2008 when Erykah Badu said it first. It wasn’t mine when Black Lives Matter spread it in 2013. Nor is it part of my sarcastic repartee with others when some people use it now for mundane moments. Check out Charles’ Pulliam’s history of the term.

So I don’t think I can start using it today in 2017 and somehow be hip, be with it, join the crowd I think might find me a little bit more of a member for knowing it.

Seen at the Women’s March. Photo by Lyn Fairchild Hawks.

This is not political correctness but just basic respect. Who said it first? Why’d they say it? How’s it said now? Know the history.

Years ago I spent a week of my teacher summer in Jackson, Mississippi, learning about The Movement and how to teach civil rights history. I learned so much. And one of the first messages was “Um, the Movement was a round a long time before Rosa sat down and Martin stood up.”

Ask. Learn. My new habit of mind for 2017 is Fill my daily life with questions. About people’s interests, actions, days. About the issues and events around me. Read and ask. Then read some more.

 Tell me more about that thing you love.

Tell me how you came to believe that.

What is the source? How do you know?

What are several other sources saying?

How can I help?

How was your day?

The other habits of mind will flow from this behavior. If you ask, and then you know, you might just act. With some wisdom about which actions might actually get results.

Just because I heard it/saw it/now you know it doesn’t mean it’s mine. Step carefully. Listen. To what others have to say. And instead of chattering, act on the sentiment. I can let the heart speak through the action.

Actions like these.

It’s not lost on me that “stay woke” sounds so much better than stay awake. Rhythm and cadence; speech that punches and stays. It’s why America adores black culture. Then borrows, co-opts, appropriates, plagiarizes, steals so much of it with an airy blitheness, blindness, and greed that can’t be denied.

Even up to the work of the First Lady. I’m waiting for the new one to steal “When they go low, we go high” for her anti-bullying campaign.

The time is gone for saying “Obama’s got this” and ignoring the hate and harm that Republicans like Mitch McConnell have perpetrated on this country with their blockades, their denials, their destruction. All the while Obama fought, I stayed quiet and restful, sleeping my days away. McConnell and Ryan and their compatriots, the You Lie Boys of Joe Wilson ilk, they’ve now been given all the keys to the kingdom, and it is white privilege at its worst.

Curiosity, research, awareness. New daily practice. For everyone I encounter. This goes for Trump supporters, too, by the way. They aren’t monolithic. Even as some of them—not all of them—but some of them treat others as subhuman, we must remember this. Because they, some of who claim to follow Christ, are not representing Christ well. Jesus listened. Jesus hung with everybody. Jesus said, Love everyone. #notalternativefacts

The new America I must awaken to help build has space for everyone, someone. Unless you belong to what Aziz Ansari calls “the lower case kkk.” That will be not be tolerated.

The walk of empathy is part of the decision to wake up white every morning to my privilege. To wake up middle class. To wake up healthy and physically able, with health care. To wake up educated. To wake up supported by a network of family and friends.

Rest when you can for the next four years. But stay awake, Lyn. Stay awake.

 

Why I Will March

Sometimes you have to find a way to get in the way…or get in trouble…good trouble…necessary trouble.
—John Lewis

“Tell me why you are marching,” a friend said.

My heart is full of so many reasons. Crafting a poster is hard.

Diane Nash and C.T. Vivian lead a demonstration in Nashville. Credit: The Nashville Tennessean.

Black leaders march down Jefferson Street at the head of a group of 3000 demonstrators and heading toward City Hall to protesting the Z. Alexander Looby bombing. Leaders are Rev. C.T. Vivian, front row left, Diane Nash of Fisk, Bernard Lafayette of American Baptist seminary, Curtis Murphy of Tennessee A&I, back row center, and Rodney Powell of Meharry. (Jack Corn / The Tennessean) 4/19/1960. Image found here.

I have carried these reasons with me for a while.

This Saturday I will march

  • For survivors of sexual assault silenced by misogyny
  • For my Muslim brothers and sisters who worry for their safety
  • For the Black Lives Matter movement
  • For Diane Nash and John Lewis and their repeated, courageous ACTIONS
  • For my Latina sisters and their families who are immigrants and those who have been here forever, all of us making this country great every day
  • For my friends and family with pre-existing conditions, i.e., health concerns and challenges that shape their daily lives
  • For my LGBTIQA friends and family whose wonderful selves, voices, and expressions must be seen and heard
  • To say yes to the beautiful diversity of this country
  • To say yes to the respect, civility, and grace that the Obama family embodies
  • To say no to the FearMongerer in Chief
  • To say no to the Republican majority, who are repealing health care and are abandoning our citizens once again
  • To say no to propaganda and fake news that destroyed one of our first female candidates for President and that infects our public discourse
  • For journalists out there doing the right thing every day
  • Because facts matter
  • Because words matter
  • For democracy

For integrity, eloquence, and inspiration, please see the Women’s March Guiding Vision and Definition of Principles.

#WhyWeMarch

Racism Is Over…Right?

What bothered me a bit with the world building was I just felt like the school Wendy attended was racism central. I know that racism is a huge problem is some places, but it just felt a bit over the top in the beginning of the book. Luckily, about a third of the book in, the over the top racism thing stops, and the world building becomes more believable.

— from a review of my novel, How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought.

How well did my novel capture race relations in a North Carolina high school? An author can fail at making a setting real or at making readers care about a character’s situation. The reviewer didn’t buy my portrayal of a world where white girls at Wendy’s school would say:

“This place has gone goth, ghetto, and Mexican.”

“I don’t see race. I think the people who always talk about it are the racists.”

Also unbelievable to the reviewer is an English class that would debate whether the n-word should be censored from a Huck Finn text—or debate whether the school itself is racist.DSCF1143

Perhaps the issue is characters talking about race too much. Maybe the reviewer’s point is that racism can be seen and heard but not necessarily discussed with the frankness or detail my novel uses.

Perhaps the issue is subtlety. The argument this reviewer makes against my fictional school, “racism central,” is that I should have captured the more subtle ways racism plays out.

But is it subtle if it’s your race that feels the discrimination? I’ve had few experiences with prejudice, and 99% of the time, it’s not been because I’m white.

Read Chapter 2 of my novel and see what you think.

Then ask yourself: What was the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic composition of honors classes at your high school? What happened in your class when you talked about any literature where race relations were depicted? Which authors did you read in English class?

Who got suspended at your high school? Was it a mix of genders, races, and economic classes, or did it tend to be certain groups?

I wonder where this reviewer grew up and the demographics of the community. I wonder if there are any schools in the area that are desegregated but not integrated, where “separate but equal” lives on in its 2014 manifestation. Many schools are no longer Little Rock’s Central High School of the 1950s, but listen to today’s Central High students speak on the lack of integration:

Nearly Six Decades Later, Integration Remains a Work in Progress

A black side and white side of the cafeteria. If we aren’t truly integrated yet, what is the work left to be done?

When I read a book that touches on race, I might find my critique saying, Dear Author, Racism is still a real issue. Please render it more believably. I’m less likely to say, Racism is over. Please let’s talk about something else.

I see racism every day. Any racism is “over the top” to me. And as easily as we want to wish away a book’s portrayal of social injustice, I also wish it could stop so easily in real life.

Obama’s election didn’t solve racial hatred or resentment. It didn’t stop the fact that your grandparents survived Jim Crow or your grandparents helped keep it alive. It doesn’t change the fact that some institutions, run by certain cultures and genders, keep certain myths and prejudices alive. I’ve seen racism in my workplaces—white people confusing black people with one another, faces I can’t imagine could ever be confused. I’ve heard patronizing statements or questions asked about the education and competency of people of color, despite an excellent track record of performance. I’ve seen people make decisions–I’ve helped make decisions–that are ignorant of certain constituencies needs because I assume every grew up and thought like middle-class, white me.

Even last night’s playoff footage–the interview between black Richard Sherman and white Erin Andrews–can’t be seen without the racial lens all Americans bring. Why else would Twitter go wild with such racially-laden language that Erin Andrews had to step up and tone things down? Perhaps we could talk about football and sportsmanship only…but we can’t, because this is America, and we have a racial history in all things. I like how blogger Tommy Tomlinson takes a wider, athletic view of the landscape as he discusses the behavior–and context–of Richard Sherman, my fellow Stanford grad.

These small stresses every day—what is the long-term impact of these judgments and barriers on people reminded daily they wake up black or brown or yellow, not white? Does it become “over the top” after years of facing different treatment? I can look at the rate of heart disease in some communities and wonder how those trends happen. Is it purely genetics? 

The point is to ask.

Acknowledging white privilege is not about browbeating whites or white people’s self-flagellation. It’s not about lumping all whites into one box. As a grandchild of immigrants who struggled hard to survive in the United States, who escaped war and privation to reinvent themselves here, I have some opportunity for sympathy, to better understand stories of those families who had fewer choices or life-and-death choices. (You can read about Katherine Schlegel Fuoco, my grandmother, here.) I don’t empathize with enslavement, but I can try to imagine. Acknowledging both the points of commonality and the points of difference is where I can begin. I can face facts of my ancestral privilege and wonder why.

A white person’s job isn’t to sound the gong of how horrible whites are. My job is to resist prejudicial habits and grow sensitivity and empathy. It’s my job to examine the tape of judgment playing in my head when I recoil at something, feel superior to anyone with what King called “the drum major instinct,” or want to separate people into categories. Ask why, right away, and wonder if my judgments are sound. Ask if I would treat someone of a different gender or race or sexual orientation differently in this same case. Ask. Think. That’s a start.

Racism is over, right?

Racism is over? Right on. Thank you, Dr. King, for articulating so well that dream we pray one day shall come to be, this dream that needs time, love, and labor still.

See my other posts on the topic of race relations in America.

Thoughts on Seeing Dr. King’s Memorial

My Grandma is a Racist?

How The Help Helps

 

 

 

 

How The Help Helps

“I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, and so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.”


— Author Kathryn Stockett on writing THE HELP


It was 2004 and I was teaching 10th graders. One white male, 15 years of age, informed me in no uncertain terms that racism was over, kaput, and certainly not worthy of discussion.


The next day I came in and drew a timeline on the board: a civil rights timeline.


It featured the highs and lows of the Movement’s struggles from 1900 through 2004. Among many other events, it included the scary fact lynchings continued unabated throughout the first half of the 20th century, and the happy fact that our armed forces, our lunch counters, and our schools desegregated in the second half.


Then I asked students: when were you born? When were your parents born? Your grandparents? We filled out the timeline with these happy events. I also included my and my family’s births.


Then I gave students a recap. “So, (insert name of student who thinks racism is nonexistent), when your parents were in grade school, our schools were desegregating. So, when I was born, Dr. King was shot…” And on, and on, and on.


The argumentative student suddenly had very little to say when he saw his life and ancestry coinciding with the indisputable events of history. That he and his family were not so far removed from relatively recent events that shook our nation’s segregated society to its core.


It’s for this reason I can’t help but like The Help. It reminds us we have a complicated, painful history, and that past doesn’t go away simply because of someone’s opinion it no longer matters.


I also appreciate how well author Kathryn Stockett walks in someone else’s shoes. She crafts the characters of black Aibileen and Minny as deftly as she does white Skeeter and Hilly. Every character is complex, flawed, and full of possibility and surprise.


Yet she has obviously spent sleepless nights full of guilt for making this choice.


I’ve meditated on this topic in a former post, A Right to Write? I’ve been challenged by others when I wrote from the perspective of an African-American woman. As one wise friend put it to me,

“(It’s) something about the audacity/privilege of a white woman to imagine she could speak for a black woman when the white woman couldn’t (by definition) have experienced some of the episodes the black mother did. . . I do have concern about the perspective, however, as presumably, it is projection. I sit here asking myself if this story challenges white supremacist norms and consciousness by taking the reader inside this situation – or if it perpetuates white supremacist norms and consciousness in a subtle, complex way.” 

I am a white woman saying I find Aibileen and Minny complex. Is that because my lens only allows certain options for black women, and Stockett’s characters happened to fit just so into my view?


No doubt will I be challenged again when (I say when, not if) my novel HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is published. In my novel a white girl and a black girl befriend one another in 2010. I’d like to think that’s not such a rare event, but in Chapel Hill, NC, I wouldn’t call it “common.” Let’s try “possible,”which is better than “unlikely” but not as good as “common.”


I’ll admit that THE HELP frustrated me sometimes. I don’t know if the writing felt weak in places due to structural flaws or more because of issues with character development, but I did want to ask if Skeeter really was that clueless about the danger she embraced. Maybe I should chalk her obliviousness up to youthful idealism and the absolutely distinct worlds blacks and whites lived in back then, that she would rush so headlong into an expose of abuse of black domestics that was rampant in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi society.


Then I remember what I used to be like, embarking on my first years of teaching, assuming as a young white woman in a diverse school that all my students were similar and that together, we could easily learn and grow. That I could treat all students exactly the same (my same, remember) and expect the same results. I also remember the boy I began this post with, the one who couldn’t see that our society still has any true inequality whatsoever, and that if any does exist, it’s merely because of some lack the will, drive, and sweat. Like it or not, we who are white walk in a world where we are the background, the default, the mainstream. As author Marcia Mount Shoop writes in her post, “Waking Up White,” those of us who are Caucasians aren’t truly ready to deal with our race:

We don’t have time to think about and talk about whiteness.  We’ve got better things to do; and perhaps, less disruptive things to do.  It is more comfortable to reach out to the people who are less fortunate to us than for white middle/upper class people to name how we are complicit in the systems of racism. 

Indeed, whiteness is an intimidating thing to think about in this country.  If we think about whiteness, that means we have to think about blackness, too. More to the point, if we think about whiteness then we have to think about how we benefit from the racism that whiteness helped to create.”

In my story, a black girl named Tanay talks about how white people always need to be “the entree.” If you’re always the star of the show, and that’s your norm, and as that celebrity you are relatively safe and secure in your societal status, why would you meditate on the race that brought you that privilege?


Class must inevitably be part of this discussion, too. The boy who questioned racism in today’s society was sitting in the classroom of an upper middle-class, suburban school, and I, his teacher, am the product of a similar background. Just like Skeeter.


Stockett writes an apology and an explanation at the close of THE HELP. She titles it, “Too Little, Too Late.” I disagree. Every story is something, an effort to tell our truths and bring struggles to the light. You tried, Stockett, and you succeeded in reminding us of past anguish and horror. Skeeter would be 70 today, and last time I checked, that’s still within the realm of white women’s life expectancy. That past is not yet dead.


Aibileen and Minny with worse odds against them–the stress of potential violence, the humiliation from employers, unchecked racism, and poverty, would not be so likely to make it to 70. They might not still be alive, but their children would be. Their past is not yet dead.


Stockett seems well aware she rode into this publishing fray on the same horse of benefits I can claim, too: enough food and safety to grow up confident, enough love to grow up happy, and enough belief in self, that one’s words should be heard and can indeed help. How about time to write?


Of course there’s an amazing family in my back story and so many other heroes who light my way; I don’t discount these facts. Yet I will not ignore that particular intersection of race and class helping Stockett and me get here, or wherever we believe we deserve to go. We had lots of help along the way.


 P.S. I’m headed to see the movie this weekend and even more intrigued to see another way of telling this story after some very interesting reviews by Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman–“Is The Help a condescending movie for white liberals?” and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s assessment (MSNBC interview and tweets while watching the movie).


Writing and Discussion Prompts:


— Does THE HELP help? Why or why not?
— Does Stockett walk well in others’ shoes? Where does she succeed? Where does she miss the mark?
— When you have used the word “racism” in a sentence recently, how did you use it? Record that sentence, then define racism.
— What events in American history to you illustrate the story of racism in the United States?
— In his interview of Professor Harris-Perry, Lawrence O’Donnell asks about artistic judgment. As a work of art, does THE HELP offer us redemption, realism, and art? What criteria do you use when judging literary works?
— Are some points of view off limits for certain groups? Or should we all write from any point of view?
— What points of view do you need to understand better? Which points of view do you not want to understand better? Which ones will you trying walking in?