Back to School in the Era of Covid: The “Managed Risk” of Student & Educator Deaths

Pictured: The hand of a Black child raised in class.

As educators enter summer “break” each year, we begin planning for the fall. Never in the history of education in the US has that planning been more critical than it is now. The main concern in every other year has been delivering equitable, high-quality education. For the first time, the main concern for the 2020-21 school year is minimizing the number of students and staff who will die (while delivering equitable, high-quality education).

When we believed that white people and people of color would suffer and die in equal proportions, we shuttered all school buildings and sent everyone home. Now that we know that communities of color have higher rates of infection and death, we’re suddenly fine with reopening schools. It’s suddenly “safe” to reopen. Safe for whom?

THE PUSH FOR IN-PERSON CLASSES

School districts all over the country are deciding what to to about the upcoming school year right now, and there’s been a vocal push to reopen schools for onsite classes. On June 18, Texas announced that its public schools statewide will be returning to onsite classes in the fall. Texas governor Greg Abbott also announced that families with “health concerns” would be allowed to make arrangements for remote education. Texas has furthermore announced that masks will not be required, temperature screenings will not be required, and the details around how any of this will be handled (or funded) will be left up to the individual school districts.

Texas has over 5.4 million students enrolled in its public school system and employs close to 400,000 adults. While Covid-19 appears to be less dangerous for people under 18, it’s still dangerous. Even with schools completely shut down, over 90,000 children have been hospitalized nationwide, and the current surge in cases has seen a marked increase in infections among younger people. In California, for example, 44% of new diagnoses are in people under 35.

We know that indoor, in-person gatherings greatly increase infection rates, as we’re seeing with record spikes in areas that are re-opening. As cases rise, the death toll mounts, with many states posting record Covid deaths. If just .001% of those 5.8 million people in the Texas public school system die from Covid-19 contracted as a result of in-person classes, that’s 5800 people in Texas alone.

CDC has recently, due to expanded testing, discovered that about a third of cases are asymptomatic, which has reduced overall mortality rates to 0.5% of confirmed cases, but reveals how the virus is able to spread so rapidly in even brief gatherings in indoor spaces like churches, choirs, and classes. The only way to keep the death rate down is to slow the rate of infection. Yet here we are, proposing to force children and educators into in-person classes knowing full well that infections will spike as a result.

Infections and deaths won’t stay confined to school sites. Families of schoolchildren will see increased rates of infection and death after their student brings the virus home from school, and parents will spread that infection into other workplaces before they even know they’re infected.

How many deaths are we willing to cause to avoid the inconvenience of online classes? And why is it “managed risk” when the suffering and death will disproportionately impact people of color, but it was an intolerable risk when we believed white people would suffer and die in equal proportions?

Here’s the thing: We have a perfectly good alternative. Unlike a restaurant or a nail salon, education has a functional distance option. Is it perfect? No. Are in-person classes perfect? Also no.

If we decide right now to continue with distance learning in order to save thousands of lives, we can spend the summer preparing and addressing the problems of distance learning. And if we do, we will be beginning the 2020-21 school year far more prepared to address inequities than we ever have been in the history of American education.

Pictured: A Black high school student, pictured from behind, raises his hand as his Black teacher calls on him. (Photo: Getty Images)

INEQUITIES ONLINE AND ONSITE

The primary problem facing American education is inequity, whether classes are held in person or online. We have been, as a culture, singularly uninterested in addressing the inequity issues attached to in-person, traditional K-12 education.

You only get answers to the questions you ask. And the questions we, as a culture, have asked so far are all, in effect: How can we do something to address inequity in education without tackling inequity in society at large?

We’ve been content to pretend that failure to successfully address inequity in education is due to “bad teachers” or the lack of the “right” programming rather than systemic inequity in every aspect of our culture.

We’ve been content to accept that school funding is tied to property taxes, and that one child attends a school with state-of-the-art equipment while another comes from an underfunded and understaffed school with broken windows, no heating or cooling, outdated books & broken equipment (and not enough of either to go around), and daily police violence, both in school and out.

We’ve been content to accept economic inequity as part of a larger good– “American freedom” and “capitalism.” We’ve been content to shrug our shoulders about the fact that economic inequity hurts children. “What can we do about it?” We’ve been content to accept that a wealthy family can purchase higher SAT scores and better grades with expensive test prep classes and tutors while poor students don’t even have a local library, and have to race home after school to take care of younger siblings while mom is at her second job.

If that student is Black, they have to worry about whether they’ll make it home at all, whether they’ll successfully avoid police or get beaten, shot, or choked out in the street for “looking suspicious.” If that student is Black, they are many times more likely to be living in poverty due to years of aggressive economic disenfranchisement. If that student is Black, they are at higher risk of health complications from all sources due to the stress of racism.

And if that student is Black, they learn at a very young age that white people are more than content to gaslight them about these realities, mock their concerns, viciously condemn their peaceful protests, use state-sanctioned propaganda to dismiss racism and demonize Black people, and use state violence to silence them.

The impact of systemic cultural racism on students and on education is widely known, yet we have always lacked the political will to do anything about it except Make. It. Worse.

That’s our current reality. That’s the “ideal” we’re willing to sacrifice student and staff lives to return to.

Online education is inequitable, but it is not more inequitable than in-person education. And we have the opportunity to address equity in online education as we invent widespread online public schooling.

Pictured: A Black student works at a desk.

The inequity issues with online education are immediately apparent, and many of them are the same inequities that onsite education has: lack of equipment, lower rates of reliable internet connectivity, higher rates of reliance on older children at home to watch younger children (due to excessively high-priced childcare). If we start now, we can work to resolve many of those issues before mid-August and start school with less inequity than we would have if we just simply reopened in-person education.

We can (continue to) work with tech companies to supply districts with laptops at cost and wifi hotspots. We can provide federal funding to states to subsidize high-speed internet for families in need. We can require businesses to allow parents to work from home, and we can extend wage subsidies to cover those whose jobs don’t have a remote option, effectively extending paid parental leave to cover the 2020-21 school year. We can increase parent education around learner needs, and create a commonsense truancy oversight system run by trained specialists who can identify the problems and work with the families to correct them, connecting them to needed resources. We can increase funding to SNAP and make qualification faster and easier, ensuring our students are fed.

We could provide teachers professional development around distance learning, and create resources based on what we already know from years of pedagogy around remote education. It’s not like distance learning is an entirely new concept; the clunky rollout last year was due to the lack of preparation and planning. Teachers were given just a few days to turn their in-person classes into distance learning right in the middle of the year. None of our classes were designed to be distance learning from the start. Remote education requires a different pedagogical approach, but now we have the opportunity to prepare classes as effective distance learning from the start.

Yes, this will all require a significant increase in funding. No one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to give corporations and the wealthiest 1% a massive tax cut; no one ever asks where the funding will come from when we want to increase police or military spending. But when we pit money against children in America, money wins every single time. It’s time to make a different choice.

BUT WHAT ABOUT HYBRID CLASSES?

“Hybrid” classes are perhaps the most popular approach amongst politicians. The type of hybrid education being proposed for social distancing means half of the students are onsite on any given day while the other half are at home in online classes. Students rotate from onsite to online, back and forth, to maintain onsite attendance at half capacity. Hybrid proposals also usually provide an option for parents to choose online education for their child all year if they have concerns about the safety of onsite classes– and they should.

The “hybrid” model is not new. It hasn’t been put into widespread use, in part because it requires a deep restructuring of every aspect of K-12 pedagogy. And while hybrid models are a fantastic idea for high school and college, they rely heavily on deep parent involvement for younger children. We often hear “our economy can’t reopen until our schools reopen” because schools provide the vast majority of the childcare in the US. But there’s no safe way for schools to fully reopen, and the hybrid model still requires an onsite parent/caregiver for most students.

Additionally, hybrid classes will only work with a massive influx of new staff at a time when most states are facing staff layoffs. The pedagogy of distance learning is different than the pedagogy of in-person learning. What this means in practice is that Mr. Nagel would have to create the same lesson on apostrophes twice– once for the in-person students and once for the online students– following different pedagogical approaches. Teacher prep time would double, which is– trust me– physically impossible to execute with the current workload. Most teachers are using the majority of their “off” hours doing prep work already.

Most people think that “instruction” is all we do. Graphic from weareteachers.com shows that teachers work more hours per year than average full-time employees for less pay.

And what, specifically, will the students at home be doing? Teachers who teach an online class are available to teach lessons in real time via Zoom, answer questions, and work with students online during class. Teachers who teach an in-person class are available to give the lesson, answer questions, and work with the students in their classrooms during class. But a “hybrid” teacher is supervising a class of in-person students who are working on the necessarily different in-person lesson, and no one is there to support the online students doing a different online lesson unless you hire twice as many teachers. No one can supervise 16 students in a classroom and 16 students online simultaneously.

There are proposals wherein online students are meant to work independently, with no teacher-led instruction, supervision, or assistance. That’s not even worth considering as a national K-12 model. That model will work very well for some students in some classes– heavily weighted to older students– but for every student? Of every age? In every subject?

There are proposals wherein all students meet onsite for four days and then everyone is home for ten. The thinking goes that the ten days at home will be enough time for those who were infected to show symptoms and isolate. Given that families of color will be disproportionately impacted by the ensuing suffering and death, this “solution” is also not worth considering. It’s especially trying my patience that people are not considering how many of those infected people will be teaching staff and how difficult it will be to replace 10 STEM teachers in a single district during an era wherein it’s difficult to find even one. Unsurprisingly, the national shortage in STEM teachers also has a disproportionate impact on communities of color— the exact demographic that will see the most teacher infections and deaths if we hold in-person classes.

The hybrid model posits that the online portion is made up of “online activities”– recorded lectures, educational games and videos, online worksheets. Who will create these? How will we fund their creation or pay for existing EdTech products? Educators need to be creating these materials and creating hybrid structures for them right now. We need access to professional development right now. Instead, funding is being cut, and– you guessed it– communities of color are always disproportionately impacted by budget cuts.

Pictured: The word “EDUCATION” stenciled in red on a yellow wall, partially covered by graffiti. (Photo: Harvard.edu)

BUT AT LEAST THE HYBRID MODEL IS SAFER, RIGHT?

LO– and let me be perfectly clear about this– L. The cornerstones of the hybrid model for 2020-21 are maintaining social distancing and sterilizing classrooms between classes. Both are completely, laughably impossible.

Even if students could be convinced to maintain social distancing– and they will not reliably follow the rules because they are children— there’s just not enough square footage in most classrooms to allow for it unless we break classes up into thirds or even, in higher populated districts, fourths. It’s not physically possible in most schools.

Students in a classroom on Hempstead, NY. (Photo: CBS2)

And remember that students spend a great deal of time outside the classroom in passing periods, at lunch, on their way to and from school, in the bathroom. Social distancing for the 50 minutes they’re in my classroom does not matter if they’re on top of each other everywhere else. If you think students won’t sit in each other’s laps, draw on each other, share food, or kiss each other, you have never met a teenager.

In addition to the impossibility of enforcing social distancing, there’s not enough time between classes to sterilize the desks, equipment, door knobs, window ledges, and other surfaces, and even if there were– even if we shortened every class by 15 minutes to make that time– schools have been so inadequately funded prior to the proposed 2020-21 budget cuts that teachers have been forced to purchase basic equipment like pencils and paper out of pocket. So who will be paying for all this disinfectant? Have masks and gloves been purchased? Hand sanitizer? What happens when a classroom supply runs out? Where is this funding coming from when schools are so strapped for cash they’re sending out pink slips?

There will be no social distancing and the classrooms will not be sterilized, period. Oh, the states will protect against liability by wringing their hands and saying, “But we told you that you had to have social distancing and sterilize classrooms!” But they have no current plans to provide enough equipment or funding to do so. Instead, they’re telling us, “Do more with less.”

Students will get sick. Teachers will get sick. And some will die. The families who will be protected from this are the ones who choose to keep their students home full time, and without state and federal subsidies, that will become more and more weighted to the wealthy.

When those students and teachers get sick, when death begins to stalk our schools, will we shutter them all and send everyone home, moving to online education anyway, but without preparation? Or will we see that the burden falls much more heavily on people of color, and continue to see that as a “manageable risk”?

That brings me to the bottom line.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Do you think the people in power don’t already know everything I’ve said here? If white people died in equal numbers, the risk presented by returning to in-person classes, either full time or in a hybrid model, would be considered intolerable. We’re considering in-person classes to be a “manageable risk” because the bulk of the suffering and dying will be done by BIPOC children, families, and educators.

Does your school district claim that “Black lives matter”? Here’s your chance to prove it.

Keep the school sites closed. Flood schools with increased federal and state funding for everything I’ve discussed above, plus partnering with special education teachers to create safe solutions for students with disabilities. It can be done. But we have to start now.

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Trump Is Unwell. How We Talk About That Matters.

Donald Trump’s obvious physical and cognitive decline over the past few years has been thoroughly documented.

His slurring and difficulty with language:

The worsening weakness on the right side of his body:

2017:

2020:

His inappropriate behavior:

His problems with balance:

This has led to a great deal of concern. The man with the nuclear codes clearly has a serious neurological problem that the White House is hiding from us.

Part of Trump’s brand, however, is his narcissism and self-aggrandizement. He’s not just healthy; he’s the most healthy president ever. He’s not just smart and level-headed; he’s a “very stable genius” with “unmatched wisdom.” This insistence on presenting himself as an Übermensch when he is very clearly frail is an irresistible target for his critics. In the past few days since Trump’s alarming performance at the West Point graduation, hashtags such as #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers and #TrumpIsUnwell are burning up Twitter.

This is a tricky issue. On the one hand, mocking someone for being unable to walk or run is ableist. People with difficulties in mobility, speech, movement, and bladder/bowel control are full human beings who should not be mocked for their disabilities. When we use disability as a club to beat a politician we dislike– even a monstrous one like Trump– the people who bear the brunt of that cultural ableism are not wealthy white men. Systemic ableism always falls hardest on people experiencing other types of systemic bias– racism, sexism, transphobia.

We cannot both be horrified at Trump’s mockery of Serge Kovaleski and also gleefully mock Trump’s physical and neurological decline.

And yet.

Some people have equated this with people in the LGBTQ+ community leaping on the “Lady G” story about Lindsey Graham. and some of my fellow PwDs are leaping on the #TrumpIsUnwell trend. When a man with extreme cultural and political power lies about belonging to a marginalized group, people notice that hypocrisy. And when that man repeatedly and aggressively uses his power to harm the marginalized group he pretends he doesn’t belong to, the hypocrisy moves from a personal foible to a public danger. Distancing yourself from something by attacking it is the oldest of old tactics.

Graham (along with every other virulently anti-gay political and religious leader like this man, this man, this man, this man, and these people) will not firmly establish himself as “straight” by working to demolish LGBTQ+ rights, although he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt. Likewise, Trump will not magically become young and healthy again by mocking people with disabilities and crushing disability rights and funding, but he will continue to try, and real people will continue to be hurt.

Men like Lindsey Graham and Donald Trump, stuck within toxic masculinity, will do anything to avoid appearing “weak.” Trump has, through his words and actions, very clearly demonstrated that he associates being disabled with being “weak.”

The belief that a gay man is “weak” or a man with disabilities is “weak” is bound up in sexism as much as it is bound up in homophobia and ableism. Toxic masculinity labels certain things traditionally “feminine,” like sleeping with men or needing help with physical tasks, and therefore sees them as minimizing masculinity, as weak and laughable. Toxic masculinity’s homophobia and ableism are inextricably bound to its sexism and misogyny.

But in all the public discussion of “Lady G,” people were careful to point out that there’s nothing wrong with Graham hiring male escorts, and nothing wrong with being gay or even closeted. People were not mocking his actions. They were mocking his hypocrisy in lying about his sexuality while using his status as one of the most powerful men on earth to oppress LGBTQ+ people.

Trump refuses to admit that he’s a person with disabilities because he thinks we’re all “weak” and he doesn’t want to appear to be one of us.

This hypocrisy reveals a weak flank that presents an irresistible target. “You hate and attack who you are,” the thought goes, “so we will never stop mentioning it.”

To mention it, however, does not necessarily mean to mock it. 

It’s horrific to mock someone for needing help down a ramp, slurring words, or being unable to lift a glass. You think I don’t know I can’t run, or that I have difficulty with stairs? I KNOW. So the sudden onslaught of “lol he can’t walk lol look at all these videos of able-bodied people running because people who can run are better than people who can’t lol” was like a gut punch.

And yet some of those people are PwDs, claiming that we “get to” mock Trump’s physical/cognitive disabilities due to his hypocrisy. That the hypocrisy is, after all, what we’re mocking.

But are we mocking his hypocrisy– the fact that he insists (and forces his mouthpieces to stand before the press and insist) that what we can all see and hear is not, in fact, true? Are we mocking the Trump cultists who celebrate imaginary Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi “senility,” who celebrate cutting funding to programs for the disabled, who celebrate the mockery of Serge Kovaleski, who celebrate the mockery of a disabled child, but have an endless appetite for upholding an obviously frail Trump’s Übermensch self-image through gaslighting and lies?

Trump is one of us, but he pretends he’s not because he thinks we’re worthless and disgusting. Is that hypocrisy really what we’re mocking with hashtags like #TrumpWearsAdultDiapers?

If your answer is “yes,” then is it worth the possible collateral damage to the rest of the PwD community?

It’s overwhelmingly evident that Donald Trump– the man with the nuclear codes, the Commander in Chief–  is indeed unwell, and the White House is attempting to hide a worsening health issue from the American public. But it should also be evident that the majority of disabilities, neurological or otherwise, would not in any way impact someone’s job performance as president. The very fact that the White House is attempting to cover this up with awkwardly transparent lies is, in itself, alarming, and leads to speculation that whatever this is does indeed impact his job performance and will continue to grow worse. Trump is already much more visibly impacted by whatever this is than Reagan ever was by Alzheimer’s while he was in office. Continuing to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with the president of the United States when we can all see that there very clearly is remains the center of the problem here.

The American people should be informed of the truth about Trump’s declining health. Criticizing the lies and the coverup– and the ableism behind them– are fair game. It’s not fair game, however, to mock the impairments themselves. Trump will never see your tweet, but your friends with disabilities will. Your anti-ableism shouldn’t stop the moment you think you can get away with an ableist joke by using “punching up” as a shield.

These are attempts to minimize a powerful man by pointing out his disabilities.

Talk about the cover-up. Talk about the hypocrisy. Mock them both! Trump is ableist and sees disability as minimizing. That does not mean we need to confirm that ableism in our mockery of him. There’s plenty to mock without mocking disability.

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Diversity Training Will Not Save You

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Pictured: A smiling Black child in a pink flowered tank top stands on a green lawn holding a sign that reads, “We said Black Lives Matter. Never said only Black lives matter. We know all lives matter, We just need your help with #BlackLivesMatter for Black lives are in danger!”

Every company, every school, every nonprofit is scrambling to hire a “Director of Diversity” or relying on their current one to navigate them safely through this crisis. Nearly every organization has felt the need to respond in some way. White-run organizations– including police departments all over the country– are promising further “diversity training” for their staffs. The problem is: Diversity training doesn’t work.

Why it doesn’t work is not the fault of the DEI professionals working in the field. Quite the opposite. The problem is how we– especially white people in positions of power–approach the issue of racism. We think of it as “a problem” that can be “solved.”

White supremacy is not a workplace issue that a diversity specialist can “solve” for you. It’s a systemic cultural issue that manifests in the workplace in the same way it manifests everywhere else.

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A group of young Black people wear masks that say “I CAN’T BREATHE” as they attend a protest in Chicago. Photo by Nam Y. Huh.AP. Source: “Do the Work: An Anti-Racist Reading List” by Layla F. Saad.

Upper-level management is almost entirely white across the US, and white people don’t think of ourselves as “racist”– we think racism always lies somewhere else, with someone else. We think of it as a relatively simple issue– we’re “not racist,” so Jerry in Legal can just stop being racist by following a few simple guidelines and the problem will be “solved.”

We think this issue is about how individual white people treat individual people of color, and while that is absolutely one aspect of this, it’s not everything. You can fire a racist cop or a racist politician or a racist investment manager, but the replacement is just as likely to be racist– intentionally or unintentionally– if you don’t address the underlying issue of systemic white supremacy, and you can’t do that if white people aren’t willing to do the hard work involved.

Diversity training is an invitation to begin that work, not a “solution” to racism in the workplace or otherwise.

White people– especially white liberals who consider themselves “woke”– imagine diversity training will be our moment to stand up and denounce the racism of those bad people somewhere else while our Black colleagues clap. The moment we realize that this work demands examining our own complicity and the ways in which white supremacy has shaped us as white people, we react defensively, even angrily.

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What white people imagine diversity training will be like           (Pictured: A white woman with blond hair and a bright blue dress [Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s Game of Thrones] is held aloft by a crowd of people of color dressed in earth tones, all reaching for her.)

Let me tell you two brief stories about diversity training.

I once worked in an extremely liberal workplace in an extremely liberal area. The org, despite its progressive identity and location, had never done any DEI work in its history, and there were some resultant problems. Three women of color & I co-founded its first DEI committee. I believed most of these progressive white people would embrace the journey ahead and we would Get Things Done. I was spectacularly wrong.

Most white staff were defensive; several were openly hostile. Many were offended at the very idea they might need diversity training. One of the worst offenders flat-out refused to attend; in staff meetings, others crowed about their hostility to the trainers (“I really got her!”) or pointedly stated that the “ideal community” was “homogeneous.” White leadership protected and defended the bad behavior. Eventually, the hostile work environment forced us all four of us out.

What a child I was. This was before Robin DiAngelo’s book came out, and I was still under the naive impression that progressive white people would “be better.”

Those employees (with one exception) sat through those diversity trainings. They sat through every single one. And it did almost nothing. The average retention there of Black staff is two years.

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Pictured: A tweet by comedian Ziwe Fumudoh that reads, “Right now every employer in America is terrified that their Black employees will be honest about their work experiences.”

You may have already heard my second story:

A few days ago at a protest, police in San Jose, CA shot their own diversity trainer at point-blank range with rubber bullets for daring to try to stop them from continuing to fire on peaceful protesters. They illegally aimed for his groin and ruptured his testicle. Witnesses captured the moment on camera, confirming that the trainer was standing, hands up, in broad daylight, speaking calmly. And they shot him.

I don’t doubt that this man, Derrick Sanderlin, is an excellent diversity trainer. What I doubt is that the cops who shot him had any interest in taking that work seriously. Yet the SJPD, just like the org in the first story, just like almost every company and organization in the nation, have “diversity” listed as part of their mission.

“Diversity” isn’t the same as “equity.” A “diverse” culture can still be a white supremacist culture. Whatever you think the presence of Black people will do for your org, it’s not going to happen if they know you’re hostile to their truth.

A universal truth of teaching is that you can’t teach someone who doesn’t want to learn. Diversity training  is useless if white people are not willing to accept that we’ve been just as impacted by white supremacy as people of color. We have to be willing to accept that our culture relentlessly produces and promotes racist ideas, and we have to be willing to fully accept that people of color are far more adept at identifying and defining them. And while this post is about racism, please remember that the same can be said for women and sexism, trans people and transphobia, people with disabilities and ableism, and so on for all marginalized groups.

White people must listen and believe when people of color identify for us the impact white supremacy has had on them. After that, cleaning up our mess is our responsibility. People of color, diversity trainers, and anyone else can suggest solutions all day long but it’s our individual responsibility as people– not just as working professionals– to act on those solutions.

Overthrowing systemic white supremacy is a revolution that starts in your own heart and mind. It’s a lifelong process of anti-racist work. Each new day will bring a new realization of a racist concept you have been taught that you need to confront, examine, and work against. That feeling of defensiveness is your clue that you’ve hit paydirt. Whenever there’s a discussion of race or racism, and you feel defensive, you’ve found an area that needs work. It’s your job to stop yourself from reacting defensively and do the anti-racist work required.

There’s no Certificate of Completion. That Certificate of Completion you got for doing your workplace diversity training is nothing but an invitation to reconstruct your own humanity, and that work will never be done.

The work is all there is. It’s one foot in front of the other, and you will fail. We will fail. But we must keep trying. To pretentiously quote Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The stakes could not be higher. Lives are counting on us to do this work, and those lives matter.

 

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The New Boston Tea Party

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Anonymous 18th c. painting. Unless otherwise indicated, all art posted here is from the BBC collection, “The Black Figure in 18th c Art,” curated by by David Dabydeen.      (Pictured: A Black man in a red waistcoat and vest with a white high-collared shirt. His hair is in a stylish queue. He looks directly at the viewer with a penetrating gaze, his forehead lit as a symbol of intelligence. He stands before a rich reddish-brown background.)

My fellow white people: The protests you are witnessing now– that you have been witnessing for years– have a long, storied history in American patriotism. What you’re witnessing is a 21st century Boston Tea Party. 

It’s important to understand that police brutality is not new– it’s just newly on video  Black people have, for generations, spoken about police brutality and most white people have minimized or outright denied the problem. Now we have the video evidence to prove Black people were correct all along.

It’s important to understand that this cannot be solved with “just obey the police and you’ll be fine.” Again, we have the video evidence to prove that that is not just untrue, but cruelly, horrifically untrue.

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“Portrait of Ignatius Sancho” by Thomas Gainsborough, 1768.     (Pictured: A Black man with lightly powdered hair gazes off to his right, his face illuminated. He wears a green waistcoat with gold buttons, a gold-trimmed orange vest, and a white high-collared shirt. He stands before a brown background.)

Black Americans have been victimized by violent oppression and police brutality for generations. We have the video evidence to prove that we should have believed Black people when they told us about their own experiences. These are undeniable facts.

We have allowed the violence and brutality to happen, even encouraged it, and continue to do so. These are undeniable facts.

When Black people stage nonviolent protests, we respond by ignoring the reason they’re protesting and denouncing the style of protest. We excoriated them for taking a knee. We excoriated them for using a Broadway stage to speak politely to the incoming Vice President. We excoriated them for wearing shirts. We excoriate them regularly for writing articles, books, and even social media posts. Statements as mild as “Black Lives Matter” and “Please Stop Killing Us” draw howls of indignation from white people. We have made it abundantly, indisputably clear that nonviolent protests are not only ineffective, but hated and ridiculed.

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“A Black Servant,” Anonymous. 1760-1770. Source: medievalpoc.com     (Pictured: A Black boy holds a full wine glass in his left hand and an empty plate in his right with a red serving cloth draped over his right arm. He’s looking straight out and slightly smiling, as a small back and white dog sits on the table, looking up at him sweetly. The dog’s front paws are on the plate, giving the impression that the dog wants the boy to stop serving at table and play. The boy wears a blue waistcoat with a red collar and a blue vest, both with tan buttons. He wears a high-collared white shirt with a vertical ruffle.)

We aggressively minimize Black oppression by smearing and defaming every victim of a police murder. “He was no angel,” we say, as if a Black person needs to be perfectly angelic to earn the right to live. As if we ourselves live up to that standard. As if perfectly angelic behavior protects unarmed Black people from being murdered by law enforcement. It didn’t protect Aiyana Stanley-Jones. It didn’t protect Botham Jean. It didn’t protect Ahmaud Arbery. We work so hard to smear innocent murder victims we point to the misdeeds of family members and even wholly unrelated people.

 

Think about this: The violent oppression is real. Nonviolent protests have been ignored, denounced, and mocked. Reports of police brutality have been met with stony silence, victim-blaming, and deflection. When American colonists began violent protests against the British, most of their ire centered around financial aspects of British rule they deemed unfair, like taxes and trade policy. American culture has enshrined “taxation without representation” as the centerpiece of British tyranny, and modern Americans passionately revere the bloody war we fought in protest as the pinnacle of patriotism. Yet white Americans angrily denounce protests over the murder of unarmed American citizens by our own police. 

“Not all white people,” right? Most of us seem to fall into two distinct groups:

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock all Black protests against police murders, no matter how mild or nonviolent;

The white people who valorize a bloody war against “the tyranny of taxation without representation” but denounce and mock Black protests against police murders that include property damage.

We can do better. We must do better. This revolt is a fight for justice against tyranny.

Is there any more obvious example of “tyranny” than the murder of unarmed citizens by police? “Taxation without representation” pales in comparison.

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“Study of a Black Man,” Sir Joshua Reynolds, c.1770     (Pictured: A young Black man gazes off up and to his right, his face illuminated. He looks determined, resolute, and radiant. He wears a white waistcoat and a white high-collared shirt. The background is a cloudy blue sky.) 

These aren’t “terrorists.” These aren’t “thugs.” These are Americans using the time-honored tradition of protest to fight against tyranny. These are Americans demanding that we live up to the promise of “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all,” promises we have, for generations, failed to keep.

Black people cannot do this alone. If they could, it would have been over long before we were born. This is a problem made by white people, and we need to solve it. It starts by seeing these protests as a cry for justice. It starts by listening and believing Black witness, Black truth. It starts by examining our complicity, our failures, our willingness to believe the racist lies we were taught. It starts by understanding that there’s no difference– none– between throwing tea into Boston Harbor and throwing a brick through a Target window. The only difference is that these people aren’t fighting unjust taxes. They’re fighting for their lives.

 

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You’re Not OK? Glad to Hear It.

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Thanks, ableism! I’ll get right on that. (Picture shows a staircase with the words “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs” placed on the steps.)

Our culture is flooded with supposedly “inspirational” messages framing nonstop work as heroic. “Never let anything hold you back,” “Go harder and achieve your dreams,” and similar platitudes permeate our culture. People with disabilities are often the targets of it– “The only disability is a bad attitude,” “Don’t call yourself disabled!” and the whole “differently abled” and “handi-capable” nonsense. The worst of these are “inspiration porn”– people with disabilities used as props to inspire able-bodied people.

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Oscar Pistorius is famous, so I feel comfortable using this, but there are numerous memes just like this using images of children and everyday people. (Picture shows Oscar Pistorius, wearing his specially designed prosthetic legs and a yellow and green racing uniform, running in a race in a packed stadium. Emblazoned in large white letters across the picture is, “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” in all caps.)

Who does it serve to pretend that any admission of limitations is a sign of laziness, personal weakness, “giving up,” and moral failure? Who does it serve to frame pushing through limitations without asking for help as the highest possible good? Who does it serve to pretend that success is the natural end result of relentless work?

Who does it serve to tell people with disabilities that the highest good we can achieve is to live as if we are not disabled?

Who does it serve to pretend you are OK when you are not, in fact, OK?

I haven’t posted since July. That’s an eight month hiatus. In that time, my husband and I bought our first house. Just before closing, my mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly, collapsing in front of our son as she was taking him to lunch.  While we were moving, I was bit by a venomous spider, leaving a large, blistered wound that took weeks to heal. I had a stalker, angry about something I had written, track down and contact a number of co-workers. Five days after that, I got a call from my husband’s workplace telling me he had collapsed with chest pains and was being rushed to Kaiser in an ambulance. Shortly after he recovered, our daughter had surgery, and had complications that resulted in her calling me at work and sobbing into the phone in pain and frustration. Then I had an extremely painful back injury. Then I lost my job.

That’s not even everything, and this was all before the virus. Today is Day 11 of shelter-in-place with no real end in sight.

The past eight months have brought me the greatest turmoil and upheaval I have ever experienced. The blog has taken a backseat to all this, and I hate myself for it.

I have constructed my entire adult identity around being reliable, hardworking, and extremely productive. I have been proud of my lack of work/life balance. Even in the midst of the turmoil and upheaval of the past eight months, at a time I was hiding in the bathroom and sobbing at work, barely able to get through each day, I took just two days off. I have answered work emails in line at Disneyland. I have answered work emails at midnight. I have answered work emails from a hospital bed. Our culture is awash in “Never Stop,” “No Excuses” propaganda, and I am clearly as susceptible to that as anyone else.

Yet the price we pay for that is brutal. We shorten our lives, spread dangerous viruses, and live lives that are less full. We work 70 hour weeks for companies that lay us off without a second thought. We take on punishing “fitness” regimens that drain our time, wallets, and health. We pretend that leisure is just laziness if we’re not using that time to work on a project. We even have to make our downtime about goal-setting and achievement. Meditation apps give rewards for achievements. Level up! Get those stickers! NO EXCUSES.

Even in the midst of this horrific pandemic, there’s pressure to ACHIEVE. What are you writing? What new language are you learning? Which of the 10,000 online events are you attending? How many online events are you offering to your community? What are you DOING? Don’t just sit around online, you lazy jerk! What are you DOING?

I ask again: Who does this serve? Who benefits from the propaganda that claims that smashing our bodies, minds, and lives against the rocks of relentless labor is the greatest moral good, and that any less is a moral failing?

Who benefits from a culture that demands we never admit to limitations?

When we refuse to accept our limitations, we prop up an ableist culture that sees any physical, mental, or emotional limitation as a moral failing. We prop up a culture that centers the bodies of able-bodied, neurotypical people and defines all others by their distance from that “norm.”

When we refuse to accept our own limitations, we are propping up an ableist culture that demands that others refuse to accept their own limitations, that frames limitations as laziness– as moral failure.

When we pretend that “anyone” can be wealthy, thin, or healthy with “hard work,” and that any lapse in relentless work is the “reason” we aren’t wealthy, thin, or healthy, we prop up an ableist, classist culture that serves only the wealthy and powerful. And while there are some wealthy people who “worked hard” to “get there,” they did not work HARDER than poor or middle class people. If hard work = wealth, every nurse and teacher would be wealthy. Most wealthy people inherited their wealth anyway.

Our culture supports the lie that anyone can be wealthy, successful, thin, and healthy through “hard work” because it benefits the privileged when those of us who are not privileged are fooled into believing financial privilege, thin privilege, and healthy privilege are merit-based. We are complicit in this lie when we refuse to challenge the idea that constant, unrelenting labor that ignores physical, emotional, and psychological limits is the highest good, and anything less is a moral failing.

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(Picture shows fluffy pink clouds and the words, “It’s OK not to be OK.”)

 

We are in the middle of a global pandemic worse than any we have seen in over a hundred years, and I say this as someone who had H1N1. I’m not going to list the many reasons people who live in a nation ruled by an incompetent, vindictive, childish narcissist have to be anxious. Suffice it to say: We are anxious. We are not OK.

Ableism demands that we never allow ourselves to be seen as “not OK”– not fully able. Because being dis/abled is a moral failing.

You don’t need to have a blue placard or a medical diagnosis to be dis/abled. You may not be a person with a disability, but the extreme emotional and psychological demands of this crisis– or of life in general– can leave you dis/abled. Unable to continue at the pace at which you’re continuing.

Those of us who identify as people with disabilities are right there with you. We understand. And we all need to agree together that it is OK to be disabled or dis/abled. It is OK not to be OK. Because the alternative– limitations = failure– is at the core of the ableist culture that oppresses us. We need YOU to be OK with not being OK to help us shift the culture toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities.

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Stella Young, 1982-2014. Photo credit: crippledscholar.com (Picture shows Stella Young, a woman looking cute as hell in a long-sleeved red shirt, red lipstick, and a light brown bob haircut, sitting in her wheelchair and looking into the camera with a slight smile and her eyebrows raised. The quote appears in red on a yellow background: “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ the reason that’s bullshit is . . . No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”)

People with disabilities aren’t inspired by posters of athletes with disabilities emblazoned with “What’s YOUR excuse?” or the label “handi-capable.” We don’t need “encouragement,” or a lecture about “You’re only disabled if you allow yourself to be” or “Don’t let your disability stop you from reaching THE STARS.”

What we need is cultural acceptance of limitations. And whether those limitations are physical and permanent like mine, or temporary and emotional like ::gestures broadly at the quarantined world::, the cultural function is the same. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to need help, whether that’s an elevator or a day off.

Every time you publicly chastise yourself for skipping a workout, taking a day off, getting takeout instead of cooking, allowing the kids to watch TV so you can have a break, or otherwise acknowledging your limitations, you are building cultural support structure around ableism. You are supporting a world that sees limitations as failure rather than as a fact of human existence.

Take that break. Take all the breaks. And refuse to apologize for it.

You’re not OK? Glad to hear it, because it means you are creating cultural space for people with disabilities by using your able-bodied cultural privilege to claim space for limitations, to show that we all still have value– and can still achieve plenty– within our limitations.

It’s important to fight for the idea that limitations and accommodations are not admissions of weakness. PwDs are not “weak” or “lazy” if we don’t do wheelchair basketball or if we need to work from home. You are not “weak” or “lazy” if you need a day off or if you don’t learn quantum mechanics during shelter-in-place.

Accommodations are not burdensome. I cannot “work hard” or “positive attitude” my way out of my physical limitations. Accommodations level the playing field so that we can achieve as much as able-bodied people. The accommodations able-bodied need for their limitations are similarly not burdensome. The more space we create in our culture for acceptance of limitations and the natural and obvious need for accommodations– the natural and obvious need to allocate resources for accommodations– the more inclusive our culture will be.

“What’s your excuse?” I don’t NEED an excuse to have human limitations. And neither do you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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For Gilroy.

From where I sit, I can be in Gilroy in about an hour and a half. Gilroy, like so much of our state, is deeply diverse, and the Garlic Festival is one of the best-attended events in the state. If you wanted to find a huge, densely packed crowd of diverse Californians, you would be hard pressed to find a better place than the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

We know very little about the shooter, but we all knew who he was, because it’s an old story, one we’ve heard many times before.

We know little about the specifics of this particular one as yet. We have a name, one I will not repeat here. And we have the inevitable far right radicalism in his online profiles.

One of his last Instagram posts– again, I will not link to anything that publicizes his name– was a picture of Smokey the Bear holding a sign saying “Fire Danger High Today” with a caption exhorting people to read a well-known white supremacist text, a hate-filled screed that advocates for endless war and the need for white men to rule over everyone else. After making that “Fire Danger” joke, the shooter went to the Garlic Festival and killed three people, including a six-year-old boy, Steven Romero. Fifteen others were injured before police killed him.

As I’ve said, it’s an old story, one we’ve heard repeatedly, relentlessly in the past few years.

The extremist ideology– primarily white nationalism– that created and sustains the radicalized far right has spawned these shooters over and over, and the mainstream right feverishly works to protect this extremism wherever it is discussed. They disingenuously wish to separate the racism and white nationalism of Trump and Trumpism from the iteration of white nationalism just one step to the right in violent hate groups. Trump/Trumpists and many of these groups claim they “deplore violence” while repeatedly signalling that violence is just fine when it’s against the “right people.”

Some far-right extremist thinking supports Trump, but others hate him because they believe his racism does not go far enough. And it’s this tiny wedge, this nitpicking, that the white nationalist mainstream right of Trump and Trumpism often uses to distance itself from white nationalist shooters. It also uses the “lone nut job” and “mental illness” lie, a lie they are only willing to extend as a shield to white male shooters. The facts are clear in this: people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than to commit acts of violence. If there’s a mental illness that ties all these shooters together, it’s right wing extremism.

This is the end result of “send her back.” This is the end result of “Mexicans are rapists.” This is the end result of “build the wall.” This is the end result of Trumpism in America. And the right is in paroxysms of joy.

It’s not that America was never racist or sexist. It’s that the right found a Golden Calf who would tell them their racism and sexism was good, right, and, overall, FUN. Of course they love him. He gleefully transgresses and anoints their own transgressions. Then he tells them that all those bad people over there– all those Democrats, “globalists” (Jews), “illegals,” Black activists, feminists, Muslims, etc– want to take all their fun away. 

There’s been white supremacist violence in this country for the entirety of its existence. What’s different now is easy access to high-powered weapons, combined with the internet age– the right-wing extremist propaganda machine in a new 24-hour news cycle, combined with the new ability we have to find like-minded people who create the bubbles in which our ideologies are concentrated and intensified. Add a president who is gleefully, openly racist and sexist, who whips his crowds into a hate-filled frenzy so intense that hate crimes spike wherever he holds rallies, a president who winks and grins and says, “Isn’t hate fun?” and here we are.

While I don’t think most conservatives in the US are happy with the idea of killing children in the abstract, there are endless examples of conservatives mocking the suffering of Latinx children at the border (this, this, this), and there are numerous conservatives who defended and even celebrated the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, who are now surely celebrating the death of little Steven Romero because they think he’s “illegal.” Conservatives don’t want to hurt “people.” They want to hurt the “right people.”

Conservatives are horrified and offended when anyone correctly associates the hatethink ideology of Trumpism with the violence it condones, both tacitly or openly.

Everyone says they want to stop these mass shootings, but the right blocks every practical measure to reduce them, instead offering the weakest and most namby-pamby of responses: Just give more people guns. This isn’t a policy white conservatives enact in their own homes– when Jayeden is hitting Traxxx and Payzleeigh with a stick, they take the stick away; they don’t hand Traxxx and Payzleeigh sticks and allow their preschoolers to re-enact Battle Royale.

And of course, by “people,” they don’t mean people of color.

We all know what the practical solutions are, but the right is in a frenzy to stop them, dumping billions of dollars into preventing even the most common-sense legislation, even those measures supported by a majority of their own rank-and-file. They won’t even allow solutions to their pretend causes of this violence, screeching with anger whenever anyone tries to expand health care coverage. Trump himself revoked Obama-era restrictions on people with mental illness purchasing guns.

So where we are is: Conservatives say the shooting is caused by mental illness, but have worked assiduously to prevent people with mental illness from getting proper care and to ensure that people with mental illness have free access to guns. What conclusion are we supposed to draw here?

We need to end hate- and fear-based propaganda. The brave Sandy Hook parents have successfully sued Alex Jones for defamation. We need to similarly hold other hatethink propagandists accountable. We’ve been tracking the toxic impact of conservative hatethink since the first Black president threw its racism into overdrive: 2014, 2019. We need to stop giving aid and comfort to white nationalists by boycotting advertisers on their shows. We need to demand that journalists call racism what it is, and that they stop pretending that “both sides” always need to be consulted. When one side is “racism is bad,” do we really need to consult “both sides”?

We need to enact sensible gun-control legislation. Most gun owners support stricter gun control measures. A full 69% of NRA members are in support of stricter background checks, and 78% of gun owners who do not belong to the NRA support them. There’s a tiny minority of people in this country who are so weak and fearful they believe any common-sense legislation is the Deep State coming to take their guns– usually because The Jews are beginning the Globalist Takeover. THOSE are the people who are controlling gun legislation in this country, with the help of billions of (probably laundered Russian) dollars poured into propaganda. “The right” in this case are the wealthy and powerful who are funding this propaganda and determining which legislation gets passed and which does not. When you ask people if they want stricter gun control laws, most say “yes.” When you ask people if they like any specific liberal policy proposal without labeling the idea as “liberal,” they say “yes.” But conservative hatethink propaganda has taught them to loathe and fear anything labeled “liberal” or “left.” They’ve been whipped up by hatethink to value hatred of the left– the “hordes” of non-white people “infesting” the nation– more than the concrete policies they actually want.

Too many wealthy and powerful people owe their wealth and power to both conservative media and the gun industry, and will fight us every step of the way. But what’s our alternative? When conservative media instructs its followers to oppose every possible solution, even the solutions to their fake reasons these shootings happen, what’s the alternative? The only way forward is to fight against the propaganda while we fight for the sensible gun control the vast majority of the country– even gun owners– want.

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The White Case for Reparations

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This photo was found in an attic in 2010. It depicts an enslaved child named John next to an unidentified enslaved child, and was stored with a bill of sale for John. Historians have dated the photo to the early 1860s. John is believed to be the ancestor of the man in whose estate the picture was found.

In June 2014, the brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates published his landmark piece, “The Case for Reparations.” This should be required reading for all Americans. In it, Coates lays out the ways in which Black Americans have been systematically shut out of the generational accumulation of wealth through multiple, simultaneous avenues that include things like redlining and denying mortgage loans, predatory lending, gerrymandering, under-funding schools, wage theft, and outright terrorism through bombing, lynching, and the legal slavery of the 13th amendment.

Most white people strenuously reject the case for reparations. This is for several reasons: 1. We do not, on the main, understand what reparations are;

2. We reject the idea that white America owes Black America anything, insisting that the harms of slavery ended when slavery itself ended, and even if they did not, financial compensation is not appropriate. This is a deeply misguided viewpoint.

We as white people need to start viewing reparations as a white issue, a debt we chose to incur that is no more avoidable to white people in 2019 than the national debt.

Coates details the ironclad, undeniable evidence that the harms of slavery and anti-Black racism have had devastating economic impacts on the Black community in America, and continue to do so. He advocates for the passage of HR 40, a bill that calls for the study of the possibility of reparations. John Conyers had introduced the bill– again, a bill calling for just the study of the matter, not for any actual payment of reparations– in every Congress since 1989, and it had been denied a vote every single time.

That Coates is calling for Congress to simply agree to study reparations is, in itself, a testament to the ongoing stranglehold white supremacy has on the levers of power. We have refused to even discuss the possibility that Black America is owed reparations for generations of deliberate economic oppression.

White America freely admits that deliberate economic oppression has happened. It’s all a matter of the public record. Most white Americans are also well aware that race-based economic oppression is still ongoing. For example, the Senate voted in 2018 to eliminate protections against auto lenders from discriminating based on race, a policy that was just five years old. Hiring discrimination against Black people has not changed since 1989, with white applicants still 36% more likely to receive a callback than Black applicants. Black people are almost three times as likely to be denied a mortgage loan as white people. Black people are treated much more harshly at every level of the criminal justice system, and are far more likely to be wrongfully imprisoned. The legacy of slavery continues in its innumerable injustices, and it’s nearly impossible to live in America without being aware of that.

Yet white America has long refused to even discuss reparations. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee has taken up Conyers’ mantle and, together with the Congressional Black Caucus, reintroduced HB 40 in January in the hope that we will finally establish a governmental commission on reparations. The bill has just 90 sponsors, all Democrats. Establishing a commission just to study the possibility of reparations is still, in 2019, controversial.

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Enslaved Black women were routinely forced to nurse the infants of their enslavers. Imagine having to nurse the infant of the people who sold your own children away from you. 

No one is denying that Black Americans have been, and continue to be, aggressively and deliberately oppressed. The facts speak for themselves. What white America is arguing is that Black America does not deserve any kind of redress for that oppression.

Let’s think about that for a moment. White America feels perfectly justified in seeking millions of dollars in damages for “pain and suffering” in lawsuits over uneven carpets and spilled water. We are perfectly happy with a system that takes millions of dollars from a family business due to “negligence”– not direct, deliberate responsibility, but negligence. Yet any reparations for the extreme, horrific, deliberate racist violence and oppression that disenfranchised generations of Black Americans, that caused immense pain and suffering, permanent damage, and loss of life– and continues to do so– is not even worth discussing.

White Americans have a litany of excuses. We claim that we “don’t have a racist bone in our bodies,” that we never personally enslaved or attacked anyone, that our families came to America after the Civil War, that we ourselves are poor and disenfranchised. And even if all that were true, in every case where white Americans claim– true or not– that we have not deliberately inflicted pain and suffering, there is no denying that we have been, by any measure, deeply negligent.

White people sulk about reparations by pretending “reparations” means “poor white people will be forced to make personal cash payments to LeBron James.” Let’s take a closer look at what reparations are actually being discussed. This is a partial list, but it will give you an idea:

Creating government subsidies for home ownership– for example, setting up a fund that pays a 20% down payment on behalf of Black first-time home buyers.

Decoupling school funding from property values and distributing per-student funding equally.

Student loan forgiveness; government subsidized tuition reduction programs for Black students.

Re-asserting and strengthening the Voting Rights Act; requiring Congressional districts be drawn impartially; making partisan gerrymandering a federal crime; requiring districts to maintain a certain number of voting machines per 1000 residents; making election day a federal holiday.

Extensive criminal justice reform, including restoring the right to vote to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

Expanded government-funded studies into racism in health care; health insurance subsidies.

And yes, cash payments.

This is by no means a comprehensive list and I am by no means an expert. There is a wealth of information out there about what reparations can mean.

What’s important to remember is that this is not about assessing whether or which individuals deserve to benefit– a favorite complaint of white people when discussing reparations– but redressing injustice we either caused directly or allowed to happen through our negligence.

The first step, of course, is studying the issueHB 40 would do exactly that. Why is this controversial?

White Americans are terrified that a study will daylight what we already know: that we are complicit in the violent, ongoing oppression of Black people. We identify so strongly with the idea that America is the “land of opportunity” and that we are the “good guys” that even the thought of studying the ways in which we already know we have not always lived up to that promise terrifies us. Reparations terrify us because we don’t know exactly what payout is owed, but we know it is a lot.

What’s startling to me is how obviously everyone in the nation would benefit. Reparations would boost the economy into a golden age of prosperity for everyone, not just Black people. The money spent for reparations goes right back into the economy, paying salaries, buying goods and services, investing. There’s no down side for white America but admitting that we were not, in fact, the good guys. While that will be difficult, taking a good, hard, honest look at ourselves is not a down side in the long run, but a step towards a more just society. Reparations benefit white people financially, emotionally, and ethically. But we do not pay reparations because we will benefit. We pay a debt because it’s owed.

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Another image of an enslaved Black woman with a white infant. It was fairly common to have your child photographed with their enslaved Black nurse, evidently to show off your child and your wealth simultaneously. 

How do we pay for all this, you ask? Who cares? No one is asking Rosie’s Bowling Lanes if they can afford the pain and suffering payout when they get sued for “negligence” because someone spilled a beer on the approach to lane 17 and Phyllis Cardstock in the Senior League slipped and broke her hip. White people aren’t angrily demanding “How do we pay for this?” when the issue is a bloated military budget, a tax giveaway to the wealthy, or a wall to keep out non-white immigrants. It’s only when Black people might benefit that we start fretting about the cost– reparations, “welfare,” “Obamaphones,” Head Start. White people would vote to detonate the sun if we found out Black people were getting daylight for free.

Of course there are some ideas about how to pay for reparations (pay it out over time; use eminent domain to acquire former plantation land and gift it to Black historical nonprofits and HBCUs; reallocate funding from the aforementioned bloated military budget; stop paying Trump millions of dollars for food and lodging for government personnel at his tacky golf resorts every single weekend; raise taxes back to Reagan era levels; establish a marginal income tax rate of 90% for every dollar over $10M earned per year from all sources). But the point is:

You pay what is owed because you owe it, not because you decide you can afford to pay it. It’s not charity; it’s a debt. 

Passing HB 40 is, quite literally, the least we can do. All Black America is asking us to do is to read the damn bill. We can discuss a payment plan later.

Find your Congressional Representative here

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Black Ariel: Casting Controversy Under the Sea

 

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Halle Bailey. (Photo: Leon Bennett/Getty Images for Essence)

By now you’ve heard that Disney cast someone called Halle Bailey, a young singer, as Ariel in a live-action Little Mermaid. While I was stuck trying to figure out why they would cast someone in her 40s as Ariel and then discovering that it was not, in fact, Halle Berry but someone else entirely, because I am #old, don’t watch TV, and have no idea who anyone is, the rest of white America was, evidently, freaking out.

Twitter exploded in a #notmyAriel campaign/Klan rally. It’s exactly what you would expect– a lot of emotional displays about how the fictional character of Ariel is “supposed to be” white, and that “little white girls deserve to see themselves represented.”

“They’re subverting Andersen’s original intent!”

As soon as the rest of us began pointing out that this is a film about a mermaid, and therefore a fictional story about a fictional creature who isn’t “supposed to” look like anything, they switched to this– Hans Christian Andersen’s supposedly inviolable intent.

Disney made many changes to Hans Christian Andersen’s original, but the only aspect the #notmyAriel hysterics care about is the mermaid’s skin color, described in the original as “white.” Yet Disney changed the most basic aspects of the story, remaking the plot entirely into a love story. In the original, the mermaid (who isn’t named, let alone given the name of a male Shakespeare character), is far less interested in the young prince than she is in obtaining an immortal human soul so she may go to human heaven when she dies. Her grandmother gives her the idea of marrying a human as a way of obtaining a soul:

“Why have not we an immortal soul?” asked the little mermaid mournfully; “I would give gladly all the hundreds of years that I have to live, to be a human being only for one day, and to have the hope of knowing the happiness of that glorious world above the stars. . . . Is there anything I can do to win an immortal soul?”

“No,” said the old woman, “unless a man were to love you so much that you were more to him than his father or mother; and if all his thoughts and all his love were fixed upon you, and the priest placed his right hand in yours, and he promised to be true to you here and hereafter, then his soul would glide into your body and you would obtain a share in the future happiness of mankind.”

Souls being, evidently, sexually transmitted.

In the end, she doesn’t marry the prince after all, but leaves him to his bride– who is not the sea witch, but a human princess– and flings herself into the sea to die without an immortal soul. She is then carried into the sky by the “daughters of the air,” who promise her an immortal soul for her continued good deeds and self-sacrifice, and assure her– and all the children in 19th century Denmark, one assumes– that good, obedient children shorten the lives of the “daughters of the air” and therefore bring them to the “kingdom of heaven” more quickly, but bad, disobedient children add time to their “probation” on earth.

Andersen’s happy ending isn’t a wedding, but 300 years with Sky Lesbians ending in Danish Christian Heaven.

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The original 19th century illustration of the “daughters of the air” by Vilhelm Pedersen. (Robarts Library, the Internet Archive)

Fealty to Andersen’s original is a ruse, of course. The one and only change white people care about is that, in one of the many retellings of this story, the mermaid will have dark skin.

Note that none of these white people are demanding that a Danish actress be cast in the role; just a white one. In all other respects American white people, who voted for Trump and continue to support him, despise Denmark and the entire Nordic Model. They despise democratic socialism; they despise single payer health care; they despise unions; they despise “big government” and the social safety net. They despise everything about Denmark, but they feel entitled, by virtue of their whiteness alone, to claim ownership of Andersen’s story and demand that its heroine not be representative of Denmark but representative of themselves– of white Americans.

“Little white girls deserve the see themselves represented! Does this mean we can cast white people in Black roles?!” 

It’s preposterous to say that this one casting decision is a problem because white girls “deserve to see themselves represented.” The original white Ariel will continue to exist both in the animated film and in the mountain of related merchandise. And of course, white people are dramatically overrepresented in the media in general.

White people know this. The issue is not that white girls need representation, or that the integrity of Andersen’s original needs to be preserved, or that live action Ariel needs to look identical to animated Ariel, with her inhuman proportions. The issue is that white people believe they are so much better than Black people, so different than Black people, so deeply connected to norms of representation, that it’s an affront when a Black person is cast in a “white” role. This is hardly the first time this has happened. Michael B. Jordan as Human Torch, Idris Elba as Heimdall, the Miles Morales Spider-Man, Noma Dumezweni as Hermione, and just the consideration of Idris Elba as James Bond spring to mind. Even Amandla Stenberg as Rue in The Hunger Games despite her description in the books as having dark skin and hair.

“Then why can’t we cast white people in Black roles?” is right up there with “Why isn’t there a White History Month”? and “Why can’t I wear a White Pride shirt?” This is an obviously disingenuous question, but just to be clear: WE DO. All the time.

Whitewashing is one of the most common practices in Hollywood, and often entire eras and areas of the world are whitewashed. One of the knights of the Round Table, Sir Morien, was Black; one of the most feared and successful Revolutionary War fighters was Colonel Tye, an escaped slave who led an entire regiment of Black soldiers for the British, attacking Rebel slaveholders and freeing their slaves; Moses’s wife is described in Numbers 12 as a Cushite– an Ethiopian– and God punishes Miriam for complaining about it; one of Henry VIII’s best court trumpeters, John Blanke, was Black, and was so valued the king gave him a handsome raise in pay; there were Black Puritan clergy (Lemuel Haynes) and Black Puritan women who were landholders (Zipporah Atkins). I could go on. These aren’t contested stories or theories by amateur historians. This is all part of the established historical record, all routinely overlooked in film depictions.

We so deeply believe that white is the default, it’s common for white people to complain about the inclusion of characters of color at all. “But why does he have to be Black?” or “Why does she need to be Asian?” are common critiques, as if one needed a specific reason to be anything other than white. White people consider white to be “generic human,” and any other type of character must therefore be some kind of specific racial commentary. The only reason to cast a Black actor is if you’re speaking specifically about Blackness within a white context. If you include a Black character who never specifically discusses Blackness within a white context– explaining what it means to be Black in a white world, talking about the struggles of being Black, absolving white people of racism by offering easy solutions like “Just be my friend”– white people demand to know why that character is even there. 

Diversity in casting, for these people. is about white people graciously scooting over to allow people of color a small amount of space that we define for them and that exists only in relation to us. It’s therefore a massive affront and highly offensive when Black people “take” something that’s “rightfully” ours because it’s something we did not define as set aside for them to use to explain their lack of whiteness to us.

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Super cute piece by artist Alice X. Zhang of Halle Bailey as Ariel

People angry about Black Ariel are shrieking all over the internet right now, “Why don’t they just find an African story to do instead of ruining our stories?” Sure, except you get angry about that as well, Ashleighee. Apart from the fact that The Little Mermaid is not “ours” and a Black actress does not “ruin” it with her Blackness, these are the very same people who get angry when Black stories are produced by mainstream studios. Those studios are “pandering” and “too PC.” Black Panther, Dear White People, and Luke Cage were all “racist,” with too few white actors and white characters who weren’t shown “positively.” When Black films are confined to Black spaces, they’re fine, but when Black films come into the mainstream, the culture we define as “white space,” we demand that our needs, stories, and visual representations be centered.

So let’s be clear: This isn’t about one remake of The Little Mermaid with a Black American instead of a blue-eyed Dane. This is about white anger about any story being told in which white people are not the heroes, the center of the narrative, and the posited audience. They’re perfectly fine with a colonial New England, ancient Rome, or Tudor London with zero Black people on screen; they’re perfectly fine with white Europeans playing ancient Egyptians; they believe it makes perfect sense for a “galaxy far, far away” to have enough racial diversity to sustain Wookkiees and Hutts but not enough for humans to be anything under 99.77% European, yet they are absolutely livid over one Black mermaid. It’s not about character or narrative integrity and it never was. It’s about preserving the vision of a white-dominated, white supremacist world.

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If You’re Angry That Harvard Rejected Kyle Kashuv for Using a Racial Slur, It’s Because You Don’t Know Anything About College Admissions

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Kyle Kashuv. (photo: Getty Images)

Recently a young man was denied admission to Harvard. That’s not much of a story, but this young man is famous because his conservative viewpoint set him apart from his fellow survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, which made him a conservative media darling. This young man, Kyle Kashuv, had his offer of admission rescinded from Harvard after it came to light that he had used the racial slur “n****r” multiple times in school-related shared googledocs and text messages in his junior year, when he was 16 years old.

Kashuv showed no remorse about his actions until he learned that someone was planning to make screenshots of his repeated use of “n****r” public. Knowing this would jeopardize his admission to Harvard, Kashuv contacted Harvard in advance and pled his case. That’s “not who I am.” He says he’s “changed” in the “years” since then, as if he turned 16 in May of 1977 instead of May of 2017.

When Harvard denied his appeal, Kashuv went public, posting everything on Twitter, hoping to create a controversy and pretend that Harvard was singling him out because he’s a prominent conservative voice. That ruse has worked, and it’s worked because most people have no idea what the college admissions process is like. I’ve been teaching for years. Here are the facts they’re missing.

Universities rescind acceptances all the time. This is by no means unusual; what’s unusual is that Kashuv is a celebrity. The other students whose acceptances were rescinded this year by various universities are not celebrities, and are not being invited to talk about it on radio and television. All rescinded offers are rescinded due to new information coming to light. Academic dishonesty (cheating and plagiarism), lower-than-expected senior year grades, and dishonesty in your application materials, including falsifying transcripts, lying about extracurricular activities, or, oh, I don’t know, pretending you’re not a huge racist, top the list of reasons offers are usually rescinded. Harvard has rescinded applications of students for similar racism in the past, yet for some reason Kashuv expected to be treated differently. Anything other than special treatment is “persecution of conservatives,” according to the many conservative pundits currently in hysterics over this.

“But he was only 16! How can they judge him so harshly for something he did at 16!” Everything on a college application is something students did at 16– or younger. When do you think they earned those grades, took that SAT, played that cello, or wrote that college essay? Every scrap of information on a university application represents a student between the ages of 14 and 17. If you believe universities should not judge students for their actions at 16, you believe universities should not judge students at all.

Almost all university applications are due in the fall semester of senior year, before any senior year grades have been posted. The entirety of the application represents the student in 9th – 11th grades. Kashuv turned 17 at the end of his junior year. Why should Kashuv’s repeated acts of racism be excused due to his age when literally everything else about him at that age is precisely what universities are judging for admissions? His repeated use of “n****r” is the one and only thing about him that should not be judged for university admissions?

Are conservatives advocating for universities to stop rescinding offers when students are caught cheating or plagiarizing as teenagers, when their senior year grades drop as teenagers, or when it’s discovered students lied on their applications as teenagers? If not, then we know what they’re actually protesting.

Conservatives love to talk about taking personal responsibility, but they only believe that applies to people of color, poor people, and liberals. (Will Laura Ingraham condemn Kashuv’s posts about this as “whining”?) All the very same people who vigorously complained that teenager Michael Brown, teenager Trayvon Martin, and literal child Tamir Rice were “no angels” and should bear the responsibility for their own murders are now upset that a privileged white boy will have to take personal responsibility for his actions in the weakest and mildest way possible– having to choose a different university than Harvard. That “denied opportunity” is angering conservatives, but denying a Black teenager literally all opportunities, stealing his entire future, is absolutely right and just in their eyes, because when a Black teenager is “no angel,” murder is justified, but when a white teenager is no angel, even when he rapes someone, no punishment, no matter how mild, is justified.

Harvard rejects 95% of all applicants. Conservatives evidently believe that white teenagers belong in the top 5% and must commit atrocities much worse than racism or rape to lose that place while Black teenagers must be perfect in every way just to retain the right to draw breath.

People are more concerned about the kid who repeatedly used “n****r” than they are about the Black students and staff who would be forced to sit in classrooms with him. Harvard is rightly considering the health and safety of its current students and staff in its decisions about who they add to their community. It’s telling that people are more worried about protecting this celebrity from the consequences of his own racist actions than protecting the Black members of Harvard’s community from racism. They’re worried about Kashuv’s future, but not at all concerned about the grad student who would be forced to teach his freshman Comp class, knowing full well that Kashuv would take to Twitter with a whining rant about “reverse racism” and “persecution of conservatives” if he earned a B on an essay.

In the application process, elite universities are just as concerned about character as they are about grades and SATs. Applicants must submit a personal narrative and letters of recommendation that attest to their character as hardworking and community-minded. Elite universities are very picky in their decision-making around who they will add to their learning communities, and a student’s character– again, at 16, just like everything else on the application– is a large part of the consideration. It is not at all surprising that Harvard rescinds acceptances from students when racist acts come to light. The examination of applicants’ character during the high school years is precisely what the application process is designed to do. It’s preposterous to imagine that the best way to go about this is to examine everything about a student BUT racism.

I’m writing this on Juneteenth, a time when many people reflect on the brutal racism Black people have suffered, and continue to suffer, in an America dominated by white supremacy. Do we really wish to continue being the kind of nation that believes it’s too much to ask white people who were born in 2001, who grew up with the internet, and who are supposedly academic superstars devoted to the betterment of society to avoid repeatedly using the word “n****r”? Several conservative pundits I refuse to link here have stated that Harvard is setting an “impossible standard” by weeding out students who have used racial slurs, which reveals far more about those pundits than it does about Harvard.

I’ve spent the last six years teaching 16-year-old students after 25 years as a university adjunct. They are magnificent, brilliant human beings perfectly capable of understanding that racial slurs are harmful and why they are harmful. We expect them to take personal responsibility for literally everything else right up until a white male student must face consequences for words or actions harming a woman or a person of color. We expect 16-year-olds to be responsible enough to drive, to work, and to carry the enormous academic workload that college-bound students now must undertake. It is completely and obviously disingenuous to pretend that 16 is too young to understand the harmful nature of racial slurs. We all know that Kyle Kashuv absolutely understood what he was doing and felt no remorse for anything but being caught. What they’re arguing for– what all of Trumpism and modern conservatism is arguing for– is the right to use racial slurs without consequence.

Free speech means freedom from government interference, not freedom from social consequences. “Free speech” means you can say “The President sux” without going to prison. It does not mean that social media companies must host your racist speech, that TV shows must not fire you, or that Harvard must allow you to attend. Actions have consequences, conservatives. Yes, even for you.

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A Conversation with Christopher Morrison about his Film, The Bellwether

Filmmaker Christopher Morrison recently released his film, The Bellwether, a psychological thriller about the sociocultural pressures women face. The film, written and directed by Morrison, is almost entirely a solo piece for the remarkable Alex Reid, whose performance in it is masterful. I’ve known Christopher for many years, and know his work as an advocate and ally, so I had a keen interest in this project. I spoke with Morrison from his home in Brussels. 

Bitter Gertrude: One of the strengths of male allyship in gendered oppression is that cis men will listen to other cis men and take their opinions and analysis far more seriously than they do the opinions and analysis of everyone else. How do you see this film working as part of your advocacy for human rights?

Christopher Morrison: First of all, one big hell yes in agreement that that is such a problem. I see it in action on a daily basis in so many spaces, and have been guilty of that myself for sure. I did try to make a film where a woman always had center stage and was making her argument, and we had to take both the characters and the arguments seriously. I, personally, see so few films doing that, especially content written and directed by men. So as an advocate, that was something built into the film from the jump– simply providing uninterruptible space for women’s voices to be heard. This was also what the gender parity on the crew was about as well, consciously giving those artists a voice in this particular production and story. And, I suppose it is unfortunate that this needs to be said (but these days it does), I was interested in not just a positive abortion story but a story that made it very clear that abortion needs to continue to be talked about openly and the shaming around it needs to be addressed.  

BG: Say more about the film’s gender parity. Was that a deliberate choice? 

CM: Hugely deliberate choice. We fought for parity so hard on this movie. On set it was exactly even, but we fell out in post, unfortunately. But was close, something like 45 to 55%. And they were deeply involved co-creators. The executive producer, Ioana Matei, was involved every step of the way from concept to post, providing her input. Our editor, Stephanie Sibbald, was given carte blanche for the first two passes at the edit. Our great DP Gabi Norland and I worked together on every shot. Many, many shots are Gabi’s creation and her concept, and she made the film better with her obvious talent and experience. There are so many more; the film would not have been possible without their input and expertise.

BG: In the film industry, the male voice is undeniably the most prominent, and most films are made envisioning a male audience. I think part of the strength of Bellwether could be in a man speaking to men about the reality of the societal pressures the rest of us are under. 

CM: I think it’s still amazing and sad how few men take time in their life to just listen to what most women have been through. We see our own lives reflected back on us constantly in the media and it makes us assume that everyone’s experience is the same. In The Bellweather, the audience is spending 70 or so minutes with a woman who is struggling to make her voice heard and just how frustrating and institutional that push-back is in the world. I tried to make the institutional misogyny very present in the Conspiracy.

BG: Films that show women abused or tortured have become controversial. I know you’re very aware of these issues, so it must have been a difficult decision to show her torture. What was that decision making process like for you, and why did you ultimately decide in favor of showing her torture?

CM: I must admit I’ve made a pledge to myself that this will be the last time I show a woman’s torture as main plot, as essentially entertainment. I’m a huge horror fan and I believe that time is up for that trope. When I was writing The Bellwether, I decided that was needed to physicalize what I mentioned above, trying to drag institutionalized misogyny into a very present and physical form that could be a genre film’s antagonist.

BG: One theme that feels prominent to me is humanity as represented by bodies and sensory perception, with a lack of humanity as its opposite. Joanne’s torture is aural, her story is shown to her through visual images, she’s intent on the woman working for “them” to speak to her face-to-face. There’s a lot of screen time given to breath. Her breath is a constant marker of where she is emotionally, and when she’s speaking about her abortion, she’s leafing through a huge Bible, which immediately made me think of the lines in the Bible where life is said to begin at first breath. “They” attempt to reduce Joanne to one function of her body. 

CM: Thank you for noticing the breath! I tend to use that in everything I direct and/or write. I find it so visceral and a way for a flat medium to reach us physically. I have a physical background and finding ways to give a physical experience to a film audience is always something I’m interested in. Everything you point to is an attempt to remind the audience that there is a physical person on screen experiencing this physically, and to remind the audience of their own bodies. 

When I sat down to write this I wanted to write a positive abortion story. Having been the male counterpart to two abortions and the friend escort to two others I saw first-hand the pain and the relief and the questioning and how physical it is in terms of recovery. And as it is still a taboo, particularly in America, I really wanted that in the fore. I wanted to highlight the physical recovery of an abortion along with the mental issues that can come along with it, mostly pushed on women (and some male partners) from the outside. But I wanted the abortion in her past so a lot of the torture had to be physicalized in the present through the Conspiracy. Attacking her aurally is my equivalent of all of the societal talk about how ashamed women should feel about their abortions. 

BG: Tell me more about creating the shell personalities device. As a woman, I understand deeply what it means to create different personalities for different situations. Women in meetings can’t just say, “No, that won’t work”; we have to say, “I wonder if we could think about considering this aspect.” I’ve known a ton of women, myself included, who have been in hot water with management, labeled “aggressive” or “too challenging,” just for forgetting (or refusing) to put on that fake feminine shell personality when dealing with men. I wish men could be a fly on the wall to see what happens when they leave the room. Women drop that shit so fast! So the idea of having a shell personality over your “real” personality is something with which I am completely familiar. What’s unfamiliar to me is the idea that those personalities don’t interact or know about each other. What’s the metaphor there? What do you want people to take away from that?

CM: It first started as a way to make the script watchable and to make it interesting to a high caliber of actress. But once I settled on the concept, the thematics became very obvious. The metaphor was one I feel very keenly in my own personality separations and my struggles to integrate them and feel whole. I would want the audience to just see the basic idea: what parts of you are in control and when and where do they come from in your life and your past? And is that a good thing? 

I did want this film to be something active. As it is said in the art world sometimes, “you might only get this one ‘x.'” I wanted my one feature to say something. I feel it does say something. It doesn’t do everything right, just like I’m an imperfect ally and advocate, but it’s my attempt and it’s out there and I’m proud of that.

Learn more about The Bellwether here.

 

 

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