This Week in “Help Me Not Be Such an Ass”: Feb 9-16


Here’s what I’ve turned to for help being not such an Ass this week:

Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen”  : A book you could read in one sitting, but you can’t, because you have to keep putting it down to breathe, and you have to let each section take root in you before you encounter the next. This is the best thing I have read in so long and I’d say give yourself the gift of it if you possibly can. (Thanks, Anne.)

Ai-Jen Poo: The head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance has a new book on caregiving and the elderly (The Age of Dignity), and poking around about it led me to all sort of helpful things, things I hope will help me be not such an Ass about and to older people. Like this on what we should know about care for the aging and don’t, and lots more at the site for the book. I’ll let you know once I’ve read it.

The Coup/Boots Riley: I LOVE THE COUP (may I suggest this song as a starting place?), and I found out that Fox News interviewed Boots Riley without knowing what they were doing and it’s AMAZING. 1 min video where Boots takes down capitalism to the standard-bearers! Amazing. Their new album “Sorry to Bother You” (click on “Magic Clap”) radicalizes my long drives. Also, is there a better example than this hoodie of celebrating the sacred in the profane? (please don’t click if “the profane” rubs you the wrong way. Please do click if you’ve been finding me hard to shop for.)

Al Sharpton telling a story on The Moth.  I recognize in myself a one-dimensional impression of Al Sharpton, and second-hand, something like “historically important…and also it seems like current racial justice leaders don’t embrace him” (like this). It’s good to hear him tell his story. (Thanks, Jill.)

Jocelyn Bell: Discovered pulsars, and her (male) supervisor got the 1974 Nobel prize instead of her. (Thanks, Erin Blakemore).

Alabama: Honestly, I need help not being such an Ass about Alabama. It’s hard, because cops there beat up older Indian gentlemen…but also there’s Steven L. Reed, a probate judge in Montgomery County, who is speaking publicly and awesomely about why Roy Moore can shove it. Some nytimes quotes, mishmashed from a couple of articles… Judge Steven L. Reed of Montgomery County Probate Court, the first black elected to that position, said his decision to issue marriage licenses seemed “clear cut” based on Judge Granade’s order. But Judge Reed, a Democrat, spoke of how the civil rights era gave him a “heightened respect for federal rulings.” He said he was also wary of Chief Justice Moore’s arguments about federal overreach. To Judge Reed, these were “codes” and “dog whistles” reminiscent of segregationist arguments tapping a vein of thought here that “goes back to the Civil War.” “I don’t want to see judges make the same mistakes that I think were made in this state 50 years ago, where you have state officials not abiding by federal orders,” said Judge Steven L. Reed of Montgomery County, who added, “The legacy always hangs over us until we show that we’re beyond it.”

Ok also, we went to Birmingham’s science museum recently…you know, the Reuben H. Fleet-y, Exploratorium-ish kind of science museum. And I encountered two things I could hardly believe:

There is a season, tern, tern, tern.

They have a box where they keep a dead thing so you can track its decomposition, and this box is right next to, you know, the place where you push a button and hear bird calls of winter. Amazing! Go Alabama.


And, in the gift shop, the gift shop of the science museum, there’s a whole wall of princess outfits, and the princess outfits are right next to, you know, the astronaut ice cream and fake fossil digging kits. Holy crap, Alabama. Get it together!

And…. I don’t need to solve “Alabama.” It just helps me be a little not such an Ass to have to countenance how complicated it is.

Janet Mock interview: Mock is a trans woman of color writer and she offers clear points about not being such an Ass about and to trans people. A taste: “It’s a good thing for allies—people who are for gay marriage, who think they support all of the LGBT community but don’t understand those nuances—to listen and learn, and sometimes to be quiet, observe, and take it in. Then educate yourself instead of defending something you did wrong, because you have blind spots. When disability-rights people say that I said something that may be ableist, I shut up and listen. We all have experiences, because of privilege and oppression, and we all have blind spots that get in our way. We make mistakes.[…] I think the number-one thing is to go online. If you want to know something, take that education upon yourself and don’t look for the, quote unquote, marginalized person in your life to answer questions for you.”

Colorlines’ and The New Yorker on the Chapel Hill murders. Whenever a person excluded from the defined norm* (which, in the United States, is “male, white, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able-bodied, youthful, and has access to wealth and resources”) is murdered, we better take a moment to notice, and ask, and think systemically as well as individually. (“Is murdered,”… or is imprisoned, or is not hired, or is assaulted, or is legislated about). Philip Gourevitch in The New Yorker: “And yet with law-enforcement sounding like Hicks-family spin doctors, we are being urged to consider this murderer as a figure of all-embracing American assimilation—a man who did not care who they were but hated them as he would hate anyone and everyone, equally and without fear or favor, for the way they parked. Far more Americans are killed each year by the shooters in our midst like Craig Stephen Hicks than have ever been killed by all the jihadist terrorist outfits that have ever stalked this earth. That’s the price, or so the rhetoric goes, of our wild freedom. But maybe to understand the Chapel Hill murders better we need to imagine how it would be playing out if it were the other way around—if some gun-toting Muslim, with a habit of posting hate messages about secular humanists, took it upon himself to execute a defenseless family of them in their home.” (Thanks, Rachel).

Gordon Parks’ “A Segregation Story” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Parks (whose accomplishments are almost innumerable) was a Life staff photographer in 1956, and he photographed a Black family in near Mobile, AL. for a photo essay called “Restraints: Open and Hidden”– the first time the basically conservative magazine showed the harm caused by segregation. The photographs are in color, and so are immediate and arresting, and look like they could have been taken yesterday. It’s worth going to see if you are nearby; you can see several prints at the link above, too.

* “Defined norm”: Going to quote at length here from Suzanne Pharrs “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism” because it’s worth it–she explains in a measured way what I am usually too sputtery and still an Ass to speak well.

To understand the connection among the oppressions, we must examine their common elements. The first is a defined norm, a standard of rightness and often righteousness wherein all others are judged in relation to it. This norm must be backed up with institutional power, economic power, and both institutional and individual violence. It is the combination of these three elements that makes complete power and control possible. In the United States, that norm is male, white, heterosexual, Christian, temporarily able-bodied, youthful, and has access to wealth and resources. It is important to remember that an established norm does not necessarily represent a majority in terms of number; it represents those who have ability to exert power and control over others.

It is also important to remember that this group has to have institutional power. For instance, I often hear people say that they know people of color simply do not have institutional power to back up their hatred or bigotry or prejudice and therefore cannot be deemed racist. In the same way, women do not have the power to institutionalize their prejudice against men, so there is no such things as “reverse sexism.” How do we know this? We simply have to take a look at the representation of women and people of color in our institutions. Take, for example, the U.S. Congress. What percentage of its members are people of color or women? Or look at the criminal justice system which carries out the laws the white males who predominate in Congress create: how many in that system are people of color? And then when we look at the percentage of each race that is incarcerated, that is affected by these laws, we see that a disproportionate number are people of color. We see the same lack of representation in financial institutions, in the leadership of churches and synagogues, in the military.

In our schools, the primary literature and history taught are about the exploits of white men, shown through the white man’s eyes. Black history, for instance, is still relegated to one month, whereas “American history” is taught all year around. Another major institution, the media, remains controlled and dominated by white men and their images of themselves.

In order for these institutions to be controlled by a single group of people, there must be economic power. Earlier I discussed the necessity to maintain racism and sexism so that people of color and women will continue to provide a large pool of unpaid or low-paid labor. Once economic control is in the hands of the few, all others can be controlled through perpetuation of the myth of scarcity which suggests that our resources are limited and blames the poor for using up too much of what little there is to go around. It is this myth that is called forth, for instance when those in power talk about immigration through our southern borders (immigrants who also happen to be people of color). The warning is clear: if you let those people in, they will take your jobs, ruin your schools which are already in economic struggle, destroy the few neighborhoods that are good for people to live in. People are pitted againstone another along race and class lines. Meanwhile, those who have economic power continue to make obscenely excessive profits, often by taking their companies out of the country into economically depressed countries occupied by people of color where work can be bought for minuscule wages and profits are enormous. It is not the poor or working class population that is consuming and/or destroying the world’s resources; it is those who make enormous profits from the exploration of those resources, the top 10 percent of the population.

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