fun with de-centering whiteness

For example - talking to Amy's sons Gabe and Sam over dinner the other night, and Gabe, who's studying Norse culture, is telling about how when Viking sailors built a settlement in North America they turned the native Americans there against them by giving gifts of milk, yogurt and cheese.

Seems the indigenous people got sick, supposed they'd been poisoned. Not a good intro to neighbors. Of course, neither group knew about lactose intolerance. But what I didn't realize until Gabe explained it is that the ability to digest cow's milk is a genetic mutation. Handy if you have cows around but otherwise, as in the Americas for example, not a survival aid.

I'd always thought of it in reverse. I mean, I thought most everyone had this ability to digest cow's milk. The human norm. And then there were a few subgroups who for some reason did not have that ability. They had a condition, a flaw . . .

But it's lactose tolerance that's the aberration, the mutation. I am in the subgroup. In the U.S. though, European descendants are the dominant majority (I almost wrote "happen to be in..." but no "happen" about it). So their way can seem like THE way. The center.

Thanks Gabe! Not just for the interesting history piece but for telling it in a way that de-centered whiteness. And Sam, younger, is studying a period he calls "The Conquering of the Americas."

Can you guess they're home schooled? And they can cook like the dickens, too. With or without dairy products.

Here's a map, not a great one, but gives some idea of the cultural distribution.

graduation and baseball and a good neighbor named Kevin

Tahija leaves a message while I'm down in the basement loading the woodstove. "I want to tell ya'll about my graduation date so ya'll cam come because..." and there's another ya'll or two in there.

To say, ya'll are family.

I'd asked awhile back about graduation. Was she going to go? That's for the Associates degree she's been working toward the last two years or so. In the past, she hasn't liked public events like that. I remember they had a dinner when she finished the CNA program I talked about in the book (last chapter), but it was a pretty dismal affair.

But she's going this time. June 13th. I could tell she was walking when she called, walking fast, the way she does, to the market or someplace. To the future.

And Kaki, who's down there doing AVP workshops, stopped by and got to watch 2/3 of the triplets riding their new bikes (Mahddy was on punishment). Well! I can't tell you how happy that makes us. Yes I can - it makes us happy enough to erase, in retrospect, days and weeks of toddlers with no room to toddle, little boys with no place to run.

And--gift upon gift--their report cards were good enough, dad said, that they could join league baseball this summer. God bless the man who's organizing the league. Kevin. He's a white guy who used to live around the corner from T and J but is still close enough, I guess, to stay involved. He came by the house when Kaki was there with info about the league. They can walk to the ball field. I hope they have practice every night and many games. I hope they love baseball and that loving it opens them to more new activities. I hope there's more people like Kevin to organize safe fun. Because believe me, there's people enough organizing the unsafe sort.

Well, that's the news from Philly. If you want to send a graduation card email me and I'll give you the address.

friends don't let friends pretend privilege is a good day

These names are changed.

My white friend Ellen’s in grad school, Penn State. I helped her on a paper a few months back, a rough with a loose firehose of a thesis. She took my critique a bit hard, seemed undermined in her confidence, her sense that she could do the work to get this degree she wants.

So, 2nd paper I was gentler. I didn’t need to be really. She’d worked on it more and the thesis shone laser-like, the style more authentic sounding, more her. “But I don’t think you want ‘celebrant’ here," I said – "for someone who celebrates another’s success? I think 'celebrant' is a priest celebrating, or conducting, mass.”

Her face went from calmly confident to fearfully uncertain. Someone, I thought, several someones early in this person’s life made "correct" language the measure not just of success but of self worth.

Enter Jackie (I’ll call her), another student, black, a study friend of my friend. First paper, the professor, in conference with Jackie, says of some grammatical problem (I paraphrase) – that’s a mistake African Americans tend to make. The professor is a white woman.

Ellen reported this to me. I was shocked and wondered what it meant to Jackie to be stereotyped that way right at the start of her graduate career. Jackie, by the way, does common English just fine, Ellen reports. Sounds like she's from the midwest. But her first paper, Ellen thought, was pretty all-over-the-place.

But it’s not the professor I want to talk about here, it’s Ellen. Her insecurities, and how they drive her racism. Just like mine drive my racism.

She goes to class with the laser-thesis rough of the 2nd paper, 'celebrant' perhaps changed to 'celebrator,' perhaps not. During peer review, she reads Jackie’s rough, and comments, playing the role with Jackie that I played with her. Except I’ve worked years as a part-time English prof who’s critiqued maybe 4,000 college papers. She, Ellen, is Jackie’s peer, struggling like her with the writing demands of this tough course. (Peer review is meant to give student writers a real audience, not an editor, grader or arbiter of "correct" English. But it's hard to get some students to just react, not evaluate. Particularly hard, I've found, for white students working with students of color. The male to female match-up can also be a problem.)

Here’s the report I get on how class went (paraphrased): I read Jackie’s draft and showed her a lot of what she needed to do. We had a really good interaction.

I translate that this way: Instructing Jackie, I feel better about that really embarrassing mistake with 'celebrant,' and my writing in general, and more confident in my ability to excel in this competitive program.

And does Jackie feel more confident? I don’t know. I do know that after class Ellen approached the professor and asked if the two of them — Ellen and the professor — might collaborate on the revision and co-publish the final in an academic journal. The professor said yes. Ellen was thrilled.

But puzzled. The professor hadn’t read the draft yet.

The privilege of being assumed competent. What level of confidence do we have to reach before we are willing to let that privilege go? Can we reach that level and ground ourselves in healthy self-esteem with that privilege still intact and unexamined? And here’s the biggest question, one this writing has helped me arrive at – Is that privilege the very cause of our low self-esteem?

We suspect we didn’t earn it. We’re not challenged and toughened as we grow up. If Jackie survives this class and program intact, she’ll know she sure earned it, and some. Despite professor and classmates, not to mention what all is in the reading.

I celebrate those who step off the smooth road of privilege and take an honest look around. It’s not simple – what to do next. But we’re not celebrants at a Mass, following a set ritual. We’re free beings. We “go by going where we have to go,” as Roethe writes. Justice compels us to go off the road of easy yes's.

making a point (or tryin)

They come, but I don't always know from where. My answers, I mean. That very shiny green shirt though I know for sure came from The Metropolitan Opera thrift shop in Manhattan. My East Side host, and an early supporter of the book, Ilene Wagner, snatched it off the rack just as it arrived. Thank you, Ilene.

CC Inc's director Paul Marcus' gift is this photo. I like "What Changes" above my head there, like text in a cartoon bubble. I change, we change, we all change our communities. Let's get going. If you're near Boston, at least you've got Community Change, Inc.. Horace Seldon founded it after Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated. A sprout that's grown into a great tree. I felt privileged, in the good sense of the word, to be sitting in its shade sharing my story.

at Community Change, Inc. in Boston

The reading at Community Change, Inc. was unique in that much of the small audience was drawn from the tiny sliver of the U.S. population - white ant-racists. We discussed more than I read, with Community Change, Inc. director Paul Marcus sharing insights about how this personal story fit into the larger anti-racist context. Amazing to find such a good match for the book, especially since I knew little of the theory and history when I was writing it.

So where is the director? Well, he took this photo, but the ones I took I deleted by mistake before I could make it to a computer. Borrowed camera (my only excuse). Visit their site. A LOT going on (the site's being revamped though so come again later).

My niece took off from classes at Simmons College to attend the reading. It was a thrill. She's on the left, rear (really small, sorry Jen). And we did the tour of the Black Heritage Trail led that day by none other than Community Change Inc. founder Horace Seldon. More about that soon.

looking out on a lake of faces

...was going to write "sea" but there weren't that many faces. The room was full though and some of those faces bore the light of recognition. Yes yes yes, they nodded, that's just what it's like, I can see it, yes. A writer wants nothing more, at least this writer does.

Some stayed after to look at photos of the family today.

the tazmanian devil & me

Lamarr and I started blog of movie reviews: freestyle, playful, but serious too. Because he loves movies and knows them well.

Our angle is a sort of Siskel-Ebert thing - two very different people volleying opinions: old(ish-young, white-black, Quaker-Muslim, pacifist-fighter. TAZ is Lamarr's nickname, for the Tazmanian devil cartoon character, and EKG is my initials, so we call it Flipside: TAZ & EKG movie reviews. We've only done two movies so far, but I'm glad for the peep into his world. I'm an old sci-fi fan and that's been something we share. So this is good.

Stop by and say hello at Flipside. His use of language is more skillful than you might think at first if you're used to common English. It's quite hip, or, as they say now, dope.

A big sweet 80

Tahija just got the results of her final - 80%. With that, she earns her Associate degree and moves on to the Bachelor's program. She's majorly psyched (you can translate that as joyful). I asked her what her overall grade was but she says she didn't look. Soon as she got her test score she just called. Then she went out the front door, still talking to me, to see what was happening on the sidewalk.

What was happening was her friend's baby was chewing on a wet soggy biscuit he had been chewing on the last time she looked out. She laughed lightly, and I heard others laughing . . . the joy of her success already rippling outward.

She mentioned the friend's name, Lamarr, and for a disoriented moment I thought she meant her little Lamarr, as if we were ten or so years down the road and some percentage of the triplets were fathers, and one of them was visiting her, his baby, her grandbaby (my great godbaby or is that greatgod baby?), sitting on the stoop gumming a soggy biscuit, her, near forty (!), telling me about it on the phone, me past sixty straining as always to hear her and the sounds around her and the implications of her tone and her every choice of word.

Or maybe we'll be living close again (but not too close). Maybe by then she'll have a Ph why the heck not D!

Pi's pretty cool

Tahija takes her math final today. This is the third time she's taken math. It's the one course that remains between her and her first ever academic degree - the Associates. I've been on the phone with her all week, dredging up my very limited math skills. But what she needed more than my skill was my encouragement. To walk through the harder problems with her, complain with her, as we used to do about social workers, nurses, teachers -- any officials she felt were in her way. The complaining is a kind of venting, and me complaining with her is a way of being an ally. Then comes celebration, when she gets a tough problem. And in between all this is the boys coming and going, Jamarr, Jamarr's friends. I'm amazed she can get any studying done. She worked yesterday from 6 am till evening. She wants to pass this class. She says she'll give up if she fails, and I believe she will.

I think she'll pass the final. I helped yesterday with basic geometry, looking things up on line (to review and in some cases learn). The good old Pythagorean theorem still works, and I still don't know how to find the square root of a number, besides guestimating and then multipying till I come to it (as I remembered doing on tests, knowing there was an easier way). And Pi is quite elegant. Good to know there really are a few constants in the world. In the universe.

Tahija complains that she'll never need any of this stuff "so why do I got to learn it?" Of course she will need it, has already, and the process is also a product. She can't deny the satisfaction she felt in working out a difficult problem, the confidence it engendered. And I don't know about her, but it reassures me, seems a shadow of the Divine, that the ratio of every and any circle's circumference to its radius is 3.14... No matter what, no matter where.

We need constants in this life, especially ones we can measure.