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Posted on 26 July 2015 (0)

Welcome to my blog, which I use as a website, not for daily blog entries, which are not my style. I prefer conversation in person or via the printed word. Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries, my third collection of personal essays pondering everyday racism (including my own) is now in print. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books will distribute it starting this fall. Check out www.cddbooks.com for their full list of books including my two earlier booklets in what has turned into a What Was I Thinking? series. Or contact me at (BeckwithB@aol.com).

My review of The Beiging of America

Posted on 30 August 2017 (0)

In my local cafe the other day, I watched a customer order a coffee and then boldly put in a second order. ”What are you?” he quizzed the server. “Black and Cambodian” she replied, handing over his latte without visible flinching. But who knows how she felt about “The Question” that the contributors to The Beiging of America: Personal Narratives About Being Mixed Race in the 21st Century constantly face?

The 40 narrators recall schoolyard taunts (“you look like burnt toast!”), jokes (“If you mama was white and your daddy a Negro, you’d look like a zebra!”), challenges (“If there were a race war, what side would you be on?”), and compliments like “exotic” that don’t feel complimentary (“the word stuck like a burr in my mind”).

Early on, they learned who would or would not protect them. Nadine Knight was forced to stand up in 8th grade biology class so that the entire class could observe her “negroid nose.” Timeka Drew was asked, when she was just a first grader, why her white mother was “a nigger lover.” She ran to a white mother, who comforted her with a hug but didn’t report the insult to a teacher or the principal. So she learned at age five, “I was not safe. I knew I would never be safe in a space run by a white person. Race seemed to be a game I could not win. I was constantly on guard, wondering how others saw me.”

Most painful for a person who can “pass as white” is that, as contributor Carly Bates writes, “You are the product of interracial love, and every day you are witness to interracial hate.” Charles Snyder writes that “Because I look ambiguous, I got a keen insight on how white people view black people in our country, and also experienced black neighborhoods that viewed anything white as enemy, evil or a system of oppression.”

Words can hurt and words can help. As Jackson Bliss writes: “Until there’s a word for you, coined by people like you, it’s like you don’t exist in the world. In a very literal sense, you need language to sanctify your struggle. It wasn’t until I discovered words like happa [Hawaiian pidgin for mixed race], multiracial, and Nikkejin [people of the Japanese diaspora] much later on in my life that I felt real in an existential sense.” Carlos Adams takes on an identity similar to “gender fluidity”: “I am not biracial because I’m trying to balance two competing selves. Nor am I mixed race because I’m trying to heal the split between two opposing sides. I am interracial, trying to understand the fluidity of my identities.” Anthology co-editor Sean Frederick Forbes has at different times in his life identified as Latino, Colombian, Black/Afro-Caribbean, and now Afro-Latino, even though he says “Afro-Latinx-Anglo-Scot” would more accurately describe his multi-diaspora heritage.

And Jewel Love now embraces both lifestyles that come with her mixed race heritage: “Forever I will have a sense of the calmness presented at our white grandparents’ house and the fun of my Black grandma’s home. “Both pieces add to my personality: boisterous and stoic, formal and loving, boundaried and eclectic.”

As the number of biracial/multi-racial individuals continues to grow, Abra Mims is hopeful: “We will become a more visible part of the population, and that it will become easier for us to be our whole selves, completely seen, in whatever ways we identify.”

The server in the coffee shop may have been okay with her curious customer’s double order of latte and racial identification, but I wish that white customer had read this anthology, and heeded Diane Tsuchida’s advice: “No one will write a handbook telling you the correct questions to ask when you’re curious about someone’s racial background.  So perhaps the key to your curiosity is to silence it.” www.2LeafPress.org

Honoring Black women activists

Posted on 16 January 2017 (0)

On Martin Luther King Jr Day, I want to honor these young Black women:

  • 3 young women, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors (two are queer), who started #Black Lives Matter, launching the BLM movement
  • 2 young women leading Black Lives Matter in Boston and in Cambridge – Stephanie Guirand and DiDi Delgado
  • 2 students, Meggie Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau whose video is changing Boston Latin School
  • 2 Black high schoolers (and 2 white men) who chained themselves to the Cambridge City Hall front door to insist on expanded affordable housing
  • Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback, a bi-racial man, who knelt during the National Anthem to support Black Lives Matter’s protests, and those that followed, including high school athletes
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley, who leads Community Change Inc
  • Bree Newsome, who responded to white supremacist David Root’s slaughter of 9 Black worshippers at a prayer service, by scaling the 30-foot flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse to take down the Confederate  flag – the flag was permanently removed the next month

Posted on 11 October 2015 (0)

Everyday Racism: Questions & Quandaries – 3rd in What Was I Thinking? essay series (2015)

Table of Contents

Who’s Beautiful? Who’s Not? Who is attractive? And who decides? A news article about “jolie laide” still grates on me.

What’s Behind the Power of a Stare? When is a “long look” okay, simply rude, or even racist?

Why Read Slave Narratives? My students borrow my racism-related books, but never select a slave narrative. Why?

In the Face of Resistance: A Lay Facilitator’s Experience: What to do when students in my anti-racism class resist its basic premise?

It’s My Job, Not His, to Counter Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: My husband, who is Jewish, doesn’t fret over lingering prejudices, while I need to unravel each one.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves About the People Who Came Before Us: I heard one family story growing up, then discovered a truer story.

Is Racism Too Entrenched to Be Defeated? Can we end racism? If not, should we keep trying?

Racial Justice Books Worth Reading: Here’s Why: These eighteen books are about looking at our lives through the lens of race, examining deeper dimensions of racial justice pioneers, getting our facts straight, learning from collective experiences, and imagining lives through fiction.

My Review of Books I read on our Aug 2015 Reading Weekend, Great Barrington, MA

Posted on 08 September 2015 (0)

Novel

The Meursault Investigation, by Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud (The Other Press, 2015; first published in 2014 in France). Stunningly told in the 2nd person, from the perspective of Musa, the brother of “the Arab” killed by Meursault in Camus’ novel L’Etranger. Musa  talks to whoever will listen in a bar, Ancient Mariner-like. He is haunted by what he sees as the acclaimed French Algerian author’s  ignoring the humanity, even the name, of the man he killed for no reason.  The reviews I read after our reading weekend talk of Daoud’s “revenge” plot but ignore (except for Irish Times) what I saw: the confusing conflation of Camus as author and Camus ‘s character Meursault. […]

My 2nd booklet on race-related essays is out

Posted on 23 October 2012 (262)

My 2nd booklet of personal essays, What Was I Thinking? Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism is just out and available from my distributor. The racial justice publisher Crandall, Dostie and Douglass Books sells it for $8.95 at www.cddbooks.com. In them, I re-examine my high school textbook; view (and misjudge) my mother’s racial views, and learn how to show cultural respect. I also struggle to “see” institutional racism, rebel against the current “bloodlines” craze, and reconcile myself to anti-racist jargon. A final chapter gives capsule reviews of 18 new books that I recommend to anyone concerned about racial justice. And if you missed my first booklet, What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2010), it’s also available at www.cddbooks.com. […]

Lillian’s Last Affair – book review

Posted on 25 May 2014 (0)

The characters in Sue Katz’ Lillian’s Last Affair and Other Stories, may be 65+ in age, but after reading these six stories (www.suekatz.com), you’ll never again assume that you know what a “little old lady” is thinking or doing. These fictional characters face challenges anyone may encounter, from gold-digging lotharios to neighbors who block shared hallways, plus challenges that mostly come with age: ingrown toenails, chemo, widowhood, arthritis, Meals on Wheels, and grandchildren you’re expected to devote yourself to, but which one character sees “small people trying to climb up and colonize her.” Katz’s characters are also always aware of class: from how easy it can be for a rich woman to divorce a boring husband, to sympathy for the tough job of a driver given a lousy van to transport seniors. These women aren’t simple-minded: as one says, “Life never gives you a chance to feel one pure emotion at a time.” One character’s annoyance at her partner’s habits vies with distaste or her own petty irritation. They may say “please” but think fuck you” when those in power patronize or ignore them. They value honesty (“there was plenty of chatter, mind you, just no candor”) and are not above engaging in power games. They also often encounter unexpected lust: one gets “shivery and hot” at a mere pat on the hand. Being from a generation that rarely talk about experiences involving their “privates,” they can be surprised by who and what turns them on. The six stories manage to cover a variety of sexual proclivities, and the sexual scenes are wonderfully elliptical (“he zeroed straight to the most sensitive crevices”) Sue Katz, as a seniors dance and exercise teacher, knows what seniors are capable of, and lets it all hang out in these six delicious stories.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Posted on 24 May 2014 (0)

Earlier this month, on the National Writers Union book forum, I wrote that that all blog tours seemed to be expensive scams. I was mistaken: Sue Katz author of Lillian’s Last Affair, available on Amazon, responded that she was participating in a writer-organized Writing Process Blog Tour that is no scam; nor does it involve money.

A week later, Leslie Brunetta, who’d been invited by Katz to post on this tour (Katz also invited prolific writer/editor/publisher, Ken Wachsberger) and Adina Schecter to join the tour.

I of course agreed: Leslie’s quirky, essays inspire me, especially the way they spin philosophical and scientific insights together via metaphors that charm and clarify. One essay led to a book, Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging and Mating, co-authored by spider scientist Catherine L. Craig (Yale University Press).

So what am I working on?

I’m struggling right now to convey my experiences with and thoughts about anti-Semitic stereotypes. It will be the final piece for my third booklet of essays. I started the series started with What Was I Thinking? Reflecting on Everyday Racism (2009) and then What Was I Thinking: Digging Deeper into Everyday Racism (2012). They’re distributed by the racial justice book publisher, . www.cddbooks.com.Crandall Dostie and Douglass Books

Why do I write what I do?

Because I’m white. Because racism is a white problem. Because I grew up never talking about it, and not until the 1980s did I act to counter it.

My essay topics come out of the issues raised in the workshop I took and now co-lead in Cambridge (MA) called “White People Challenging Racism: Moving From Talk to Action.” The course galvanized me to action in every sphere of my life. It also made me look back at my life as a white person (“Growing Up Oblivious”), and explore my failures of mind, heart and deed, with angst laced with humor and, hopefully, insight.

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

My essays ponder more than probe. When a question nags at me, I write to resolve it. One essay is about “aha” moments, when I’ve caught myself stereotyping. Another admits to misreading my mother’s attitudes toward eugenics, race and foster care. A third tackles the question: why read slave narratives? Others are about anti-racist jargon, nosy questions, and the power of a stare. One asks a question I continue to struggle with: as I listen intensely to others’ experiences, how can I stay honest to my own, although possibly flawed, understanding of reality?

I’m inspired by writers like Lois Mark Stalvey, who back in 1970 wrote The Education of a WASP, and more recently by Peggy McIntosh (Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack); Mab Segrest, (Memoir of a Race Traitor); Tim Wise (White Like Me), and Bernestine Singley (When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories); and most recently, by Debby Irving (Waking Up White) and Lee Mun Wah (Let’s Get Real: What People of Color Can’t Say & Whites Won’t Ask About Racism).

How does my writing process work?

My ideas most often come to me in the midst of everyday life: as I drive in traffic that’s going 20 mph over the speed limit, as I race around a court with my racquet, pursing a ball, or as I stare into space at a noisy café. I jot down my idea fragments, and when enough snippets accumulate around a particular topic, like iron filings to a magnet, I freewrite. Then quickly, before my penciled scribbles become unintelligible, I type out my gangly sentences, ironing them out as I go. Then I revise. But since, in my view, cut-and-paste editing doesn’t give an essay a chance to “regrow” and deepen, I try to type each draft from the start. I never know how an essay will end: I write to find out.

Now, I hand off this blog tour to two writers I want you to know about:

Lisa Braxton is a kindred essay writer. I met her at a Meet the Agent event that my National Writers Union Boston Chapter co-sponsored with the Women’s National Book Association, and saw that she writes the kind of relationship essays worthy of The New York Times’ Modern Love column. We swapped essays via email and liked our mutual no-nonsense feedback. We’ve continued to run our essays past each other, and offer submission ideas. You can read some of her essays and short stories at www.lisabraxton.org. On her blog, she shares writer’s life experiences (with embedded advice), from planning a book party, to being part of a book club, to holding a book signing, to promoting your work, to the importance having a writing space of your own. Thanks to Lisa, I’ve learned about the indie bookstore, Frugal Books in Roxbury.

Terry Farish writes fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Her most recent book, The Good Braider, is written in free verse and in the voice of a Sudanese girl, but reads like a dramatic novel. Terry, who is white, has a long-term relationship with the Sudanese community in Portland (ME), and bases her story on their oral histories. “The Sudanese don’t talk about trauma, but I was a witness to it, and wrote this girl’s story as a way to honor her life.” She also produced a bilingual folktale, The Story of a Pumpkin, with Nepali-speaking refugees from Bhutan, and her next book will be a picture book about a Dominican family. Her blog www.terryfarish.com shows her commitment to community. On it, she invites students to write “the next chapter” to The Good Braider. She recommends other writers of “verse novels.” She also writes for the social justice and children’s literature blog, www.thepiratetree.com.

Speaking of community, participating in the Writing Process Blog Tour has made me feel part of a community of writers willing to share what, why and how we write, in the spirit of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” I now pass that pleasure on to Lisa and to Terry.

Misremembering Dr. King

Posted on 18 May 2014 (0)

Jennifer J. Yanco’s Misremembering Dr. King – Revisiting the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is out from Indiana University Press. Don’t be scared off by her academic publisher: Yanco writes in clear, non-jargon language how “we” (she includes herself) so easily forget Dr. King’s core beliefs. It’s easy for us, she says, to remember Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience, which justice movements have used ever since. But it’s harder to remember […]

Read This Memoir on Understanding Whiteness

Posted on 28 February 2014 (55)

If you’ve been enlightened by Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, or intrigued by my white privilege-related essays, do read Debby Irving’s memoir, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race, just out in 2014. The book’s cover is of a happy little girl at dinner, surrounded by silver, crystal, and gauzy curtains. The word WHITE stretches across the width of the book’s cover; the subtitle makes clear that although race isn’t real, biologically, the stories we tell ourselves about “race” result in powerful and damaging realities. Irving looks back at incidents in her life from age five on, as a way to understand her own race and class privileges, of which she was unaware until well into her 40s. When she did learn about race and class privilege, she didn’t do so entirely on her own. Throughout her memoir, she acknowledges the range of people she learned from, and profiles each in the mentor section of her website, www.debbyirving.com. She’s frank about her stereotyped thoughts; even as an adult she catches herself feeling mistrustful of her new chiropractor when she sees that he is a person of color. She examines her racial and class privilege in every area of her life but also learns that, since “nearly all of my thoughts are born of the culture in which racism is embedded,” it makes no sense to wallow in guilt. Irving manages to be witty about her own shortcomings, including missteps in speaking up against another’s racism: “I got all puffy and angry like I thought an anti-racist activist should.” As for class privilege, she learns most from her husband Bruce: his “talking to the nuns” story is particularly both funny and apt. She’s a great story teller, writing as if she’s talking directly to you. Her metaphors are as illuminating as Peggy McIntosh’s image of an invisible backpack full of unearned privileges, which white people carry wherever they go. Irving compares her years-long avoidance of authentic interaction with people of color to the electrical fencing systems people use to “zap” their dogs to train them to stay in the yard. “For decades the racially charged Zap sent me scampering back to my comfort zone. Rather than examining the source of the social tension I felt around people of color, I retreated to my social comfort zone – other white people.” I couldn’t put her book down because her stories made me think about similar incidents in my life. She ends each chapter with questions, in effect, asking the reader: “I’ve showed you mine, now you show me yours.”