Tag Archives: activism

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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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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Representation Matters: People with Disabilities Are Done Being Your Inspiration

 

 

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Photo of a version of the American flag with the stars configured to look like the symbol for disability. (Photo credit: money.cnn.com)

We need a long, hard examination of the way we’re representing people with disabilities on our stages and screens. We talk a lot about equity and inclusion, but almost always ignore people with disabilities in those discussions, leaving our industries far behind where they should be on this issue.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs as PwDs is controversial. Able-bodied people fight hard for their “right” to cast able-bodied actors to play us, then shut us out of every aspect of the process. Able-bodied people insist they’re doing “extensive research,” yet portrayals of PwDs are more often than not astoundingly inaccurate, more about how you see us than how we really are.

We’re still so far behind that casting PwDs has been called “exploitative,” as if our physical presence must always be measured by the gaze of able-bodied people. It reminds me of the way sexist writers claim women are “flaunting” their bodies by simply appearing in public. Our physical presence in the world as PwDs (or women, for that matter) is not about you. Our physical presence as PwDs is so deeply othered that any public performance is automatically suspect– it must mean something. Add to that the relentless infantilization of PwDs by able-bodied people, and our every appearance as actors results in a flurry of pearl-clutching about how we’re being “displayed,” “used,” or “exploited,” as if PwDs are children who need protecting instead of actors who need jobs.

It’s “exploitative” when we play ourselves, but ennobling when you play us.

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During preproduction for the film The Upside, released in January 2019, producers refused to consider actors with disabilities for the role of Dell Scott, a quadriplegic character, instead first casting able-bodied actor Colin Firth, and then replacing him with Bryan Cranston, drawing criticism from disability rights activists. (Photo by David Lee/The Weinstein Company depicts Cranston seated in a wheelchair on a busy city street, laughing as actor Kevin Hart stands on the wheelchair behind Cranston, leaning down and laughing.)

We’re still so far behind it’s considered a special kind of acting triumph when an able-bodied actor plays us because, like actors who gain weight or allow themselves to be made “ugly” for a role, they’re working hard at lowering themselves, appearing less glamorous, less desirable, less perfect. The actor is ennobled by their humility, by the sacrifice it took to present themselves pretending to be what we are every day of our lives. 

We’re still so far behind that the types of stories we tell about PwDs all center around our difference: inspiration porn, tragedies, the Manic Pixie Sick Girl (and as she’s lowered into her grave, he realizes he has finally learned how to live), and the DEI Sidekick (Hi. I’m here to make the producers look inclusive and the protagonist look sympathetic oops time to die to provide motivation for the protagonist). There are more (so many more) but you get the idea.

Please note that all of these are almost always played by conventionally beautiful, thin, able-bodied white people, and that these issues are intersectional. While this piece focuses on PwDs, bear in mind that people of color with disabilities are facing two major hurdles; female-identified and genderqueer people of color with disabilities are facing three, etc. Women of color are in fact the vanguard of disability rights activism.

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Writer and activist Imani Barbarin, who runs the blog Crutches and Spice, is the force behind #DisTheOscars, an advocacy campaign around disability representation in the media. (Photo by Madasyn Andrews depicts Barbarin, a Black woman with long, thin dreads, smiling in a garden setting, wearing a blue flowered dress and a black jacket, with one of her crutches visible on her arm.)

In the United States, between 13 and 19% of the population are PwDs. That’s a sizable population, yet we are aggressively shut out of every aspect of visual narrative, our stories stolen from us and told by able-bodied people, for able-bodied people.

This begs the question, “What are our stories?” It’s an important question, because the answer is: ALL OF THEM, KATIE. We’re a massively diverse population occupying every race, gender, sexuality, age, belief, and socioeconomic status. The vast majority of our stories are not “disability stories.” We are people with disabilities– people first– and the majority of our lives are spent wrapped up in the same issues everyone else has. Yet nearly every film, play, or show that hires an actor with a disability is doing so specifically to tell a “disability story”; when that narrative is over, the actor is released. We’re rarely allowed to tell any other kinds of stories. Disability is only represented when the story is about disability in some way.

Because we are hired far less frequently than able-bodied people, even with similar training and experience, we’re seldom in the room when these stories are developed, and if we are in the room, we’re one voice– often brought in late in the process as a low-ranking temporary hire (“disability consultant”). It’s no wonder that stories about PwDs are so often about the impact the PwD has on an able-bodied person.

Lack of representation is a vicious circle. Because we are so seldom represented as anything but life support for able-bodied inspiration, PwDs are almost never considered for “straight” roles. It never occurs to producers and directors to cast an actor with a disability in a story not specifically about disability, because they, like the rest of us, live in a world where PwDs are dramatically under-represented throughout all of our media and have come to see that under-representation as “normal.”

Our industries create fantastic, imaginary worlds, but we can’t imagine a Juliet with a mobility device? Our imaginations can comprehend time travel, dragons, talking animals, alien cultures, telekinesis, and 500 different kinds of afterlife, but a disabled Hedda Gabler is incomprehensible? You think that if you cast a PwD, the narrative becomes about the disability because those are the only stories we allow PwDs to tell. 

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Marilee Talkington, a brilliantly talented actor, has a long career of playing both blind and sighted characters. Talkington has played blind characters on several TV shows recently, drawing praise from the National Federation of the Blind and their #letusplayus campaign. (Photo by Cheshire Isaacs depicts Talkington from the shoulders up: a white woman with curly red hair, blue eyes, and coral lipstick, wearing a wine-colored sleeveless top.)

Allow people with disabilities to tell all kinds of stories, including our own. The right to portray someone different than you is not the exclusive province of the able-bodied. Able-bodied people defend their right to play us with “It’s called ‘acting'” without ever once considering that we can do it too.

Hire people with disabilities at every level, from conceptualization to casting to audience management, not just in temporary positions meant to shield you from controversy. When you talk about “inclusion,” remember: we’re here, and we are not going away.

 

 

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“We Shouldn’t Rush to Judgment” on the MAGA boys? Who Does That Serve?

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Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips.

The response of some of my fellow white people to the jeering mob of MAGA boys mocking a group of Native people (including Omaha elder and Vietnam veteran Nathan Phillips, pictured above) after the so-called “March for Life” anti-choice rally in Washington DC on Friday, has been less than spectacular. I’ve had all I can take of “let’s not rush to judgment” and “let’s avoid knee-jerk reactions” and “the media is playing to extremist assumptions.” 
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When you label people of color pointing out racism (or women pointing out sexism, or people with disabilities pointing out ableism, etc) a “knee-jerk reaction” or an “extremist mindset,” who does that serve? 
Whenever people of color discuss an incident of racism and we respond with “Let’s not rush to judgment” or “There could be guilt on both sides,” we’re deliberately ignoring every scrap of sociopolitical context. Who does that serve?
Let’s start with “let’s not rush to judgment.” We can all see in the video that their behavior is appalling, so what, precisely, is the white defense of the MAGA boys against people of color labeling their behavior “racism”?
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The white defense comes in various flavors of “we shouldn’t rush to judgment because we don’t know the whole story” and “They were just [standing there, dancing, smiling, etc] and did nothing wrong.” If you believe that there’s some important context that needs to be applied to this in order to fully understand it, you’re right. If you believe that there’s any context that could be applied to this to justify the actions of the MAGA boys, you’re wrong.
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If you believe knowing “the whole story” could exonerate the MAGA boys, you’re stating that the racist behavior of these MAGA boys could somehow have been earned by the Native elders. You believe that, at least some of the time, people of color share some blame in racism against them. That argument is, at its core, racist.
If you believe that the boys were “just standing there” or “just dancing” or “just” anything, you’re ignoring the entirety of the sociopolitical context, as if this incident happened outside of our culture and time; as if a white mob swarming a small group of people of color, MAGA hats, or chants of “build the wall” are minor details that have no cultural meaning or bearing on understanding this encounter.
Who does it serve to ignore the fact that the actions of the MAGA boys happened within a pre-existing framework of white supremacy? Who does it serve to ignore that MAGA gear is a symbol of racism, an implied threat? Who does it serve to ignore that high school racism in the US has been widely accompanied by students shouting “TRUMP” and/or wearing MAGA gear? Who does it serve to ignore that mobs of white males, especially displaying racist symbology, have a long history of terrifying violence in the US? 
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It’s Privilege 101 to excuse racism by scraping away the context and keeping focus on the actions of the moment, so that the person wielding their privilege is framed as just innocently doing X. “All he did was say she looked nice,” “All he did was stand there and smile,” “All he did was say that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood,” “All he did was use the OK sign.” It’s a well-worn trick to protect privilege.
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So when we pretend that the sociocultural context of this incident just doesn’t exist, who does that serve? It serves white supremacy.
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Racist pro-Trump graffiti found on a Spanish teacher’s door at a high school in northern California. Racist pro-Trump graffiti and other expressions of pro-Trump racism have risen to alarming levels at US high schools. While the election of Trump has clearly emboldened young racists and contributed to the frequency with which racists express themselves openly, Trump’s election is a result of longstanding systemic racism, not the cause of that racism.

 
Perhaps even worse than “let’s not rush to judgment” is the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction” rather than a reasonable response. When we make the claim that people of color are having a “knee-jerk reaction,” we’re insisting that people of color don’t know racism when they see it and are just reacting emotionally, without thought. We’re insisting that our “thoughtful” reaction that does not “rush to judgment” is superior, and should be deferred to. We’re insisting that there are ways in which people of color bring racism upon themselves, and that they are required to test all events thoroughly against white-created standards to satisfy us that they did not deserve the racism we gave them. We’re insisting that people of color require our consent to identify our actions as racist.
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“But we don’t have the whole story.” While white people have no business telling people of color what is and what is not racist, let’s set that obvious fact aside for the moment to entertain the possibilities around “the whole story.”
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Look at the statements conservatives are making in the MAGA boys’ defense:
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“He drummed right in that boy’s face.”
“He walked over to them before they swarmed him.”
“There was a group of Black people there calling the boys racist and homophobic slurs.”
“That Native elder has a history of instigation.”
“One of the Natives told the boys to go back to Europe.”
“The Natives were just using the boys for a hateful political stunt.”
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Even IF conservatives are correct and every one of those statements is true, none of it excuses the way the MAGA boys behaved, none of it erases the sociopolitical context that gives cultural meaning to a swarm of MAGA gear-wearing white boys surrounding a small group of Native elders and jeering at them.
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People of color are not “rushing to judgment” or having a “knee-jerk reaction.” They’re identifying something they’ve learned to identify through generations of experience.
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Taken from the video.

There’s a reason the smug smirk on the featured MAGA boy’s face has instigated such a visceral reaction from everyone who is not white or male.
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Speaking from personal experience, every woman knows what that smug smirk means. Every woman knows what it means when a privileged white boy blocks your path and stands inches from your face with a smug smirk. Even most white men know, if they’re honest, the face of the smug, taunting bully. We have all been victimized by that boy, watched as the adults excused it, watched as their mothers lied– as this boy’s mother has apparently done— to make us the aggressors.
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To quote Ruth Graham from the Slate article I linked in the first paragraph:
“Anyone who knew the popular white boys in high school recognized it: the confident gaze, the eyes twinkling with menace, the smirk. The face of a boy who is not as smart as he thinks he is, but is exactly as powerful. The face that sneers, ‘What? I’m just standing here,’ if you flinch or cry or lash out. The face knows that no matter how you react, it wins.”
To the widespread knowledge of what entitled bullying looks like, add generations of racism and genocide against Native people. Add the daily grind of being a person of color in the US and having “TRUMP” shouted at you as a taunt as you’re just trying to go about your business, having “Trump is deporting all of you!” shouted as you as you’re walking down the street. Add generations of having to carefully scrutinize white behavior, learn its signs and symbols, merely as acts of self-preservation. White people, we have no evidence that people of color are “rushing to judgment” here, and plenty of reason to trust the judgment of people of color when they tell us that something is racist.
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Most importantly, no one is asking white people for a ruling on whether or not this is racism. That is not our role here. Our role is to ask ourselves what our level of complicity is in allowing this to happen and what we can actively do to ensure that it never happens again.

 

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I Can’t Go On. I’ll Go On.

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Photo: Associated Press

Desperate refugees are being teargassed at the border for having the audacity to take the Statue of Liberty at her word. The economy is slipping badly due to Trump’s mismanagement. The (putative) President of the United States praises the people who financed 9/11 while disparaging the Navy Seals who killed Bin Laden, praises convicted criminals while attacking law enforcement and judges, praises dictators and white supremacists while insulting US allies, disrespects the rule of law, American tradition, American values, and the Constitution, and lies, and lies, and lies again.

Meanwhile liberal lion Nancy Pelosi’s speakership is being held hostage by conservative Democrats who are insisting she hand power to House Republicans in exchange. Climate change is poised to ruin our economy on its way to ending our ability to live on this planet and somehow– insanely– this has become a partisan issue. A new study rolled out that confirmed the findings of multiple studies over the past 18 months: people support Trump due to “white anxiety”– we used to call this “racism”– a fear of people of color “dominating” the US and “displacing” white people.

And that’s just the past few weeks.

That’s a tenth of what has happened in the past few weeks.

The US is being held hostage by a minority political faction hostile to the rest of us. A Republican recently told me, “Republicans aren’t interested in democracy. We’re interested in freedom.” Freedom to oppress, freedom to discriminate, freedom to defraud.

It’s a lot.

In the theatre community, I’m seeing a lot of despair. What good is art while racism and sexism are gleefully celebrated throughout our society? What good is art when 40% of the nation supports open hatred, open ignorance, open rejection of science, knowledge, and basic facts? Why are we fiddling as Rome burns? How can it ever be enough?

Yet we MUST GO ON. Because we are more than enough. We are the most powerful tool in the resistance.

There is no way to overstate the power of art. There’s a reason this whole destructive cycle began with the establishment of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative “infotainment” in the 90s. There’s a reason it ends up here, with Trump’s lying showmanship and conservative propaganda given more weight than actual journalism, science, or expertise.

The Cambridge Analytica papers showed that Steve Bannon invented the concept of the “Deep State” as propaganda, and that revelation had exactly zero impact on the people who believe in that lie. Why? Because art is more powerful than any one piece of factual evidence. The person who controls the story controls the truth.

Art matters. Representation matters. Art creates culture. Conservatives know this and are using it to promote the racist, sexist panic that preserves their political power.

When Donald Trump goes on television and insists that Mexicans are “rapists,” he knows that’s not true. When he claims white supremacists are “very fine people,” states that non-white countries are “shitholes,” says that Central American refugees are “terrorists,” “diseased,” “child grabbers,” or “Middle Eastern,” he knows that’s not true. When he insults prominent Black Americans, he invariably uses classic white supremacist language: Maxine Waters is “low IQ”; Don Lemon is “the dumbest man on television”; Andrew Gillum is “a thief”; Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis “does nothing” for his “burning and crime-infested” district, and many, many more. Of course he knows none of it is true.

Sure, it’s lying, but more importantly, it’s THEATRE. He’s performing for conservative white Americans who support him primarily due to “white anxiety” and “racial resentment.” He’s putting on a show for them that may as well be entitled You’re Right to Feel Superior to Black People. It runs in rep with You’re Right to Be Afraid of Brown People, Women Exist to Be Decorative and Obedient, and I Don’t Care What the Constitution Says and Neither Should You: Give Me Unrestrained Power to Shut Down The Black and Brown Infestation and Make America Great (and White) Again. It’s running eight shows a week on the Great White Way along with Fox News’ Everyone Who is Not White and Conservative is Bad, InfoWars’ The Sky Is Falling and It’s the Jews’ Fault and Mike Pence and Lindsey Graham’s experimental dance theatre piece, Hate Keeps the Closet Door Shut.

Very few people actually believe Trump’s lies. They’re just fans of the show.

You don’t fight theatre with facts. That’s why facts and logic aren’t working, why Trump’s base will swear they believe his lies over their own eyes and ears.

You fight theatre with better theatre. You fight narrative with better narrative. And we are much, much better at this than they are.

It’s hard, I know. It feels at times like all is lost, like every scrap of progress we’ve made against evil since Civil Rights is being encinerated, like every step forward we’ve made for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities, Muslims, Jews, everyone is being dragged back to the 19th century. But they’re not winning every battle. And THEY WILL NOT WIN THE WAR.

We outnumber them. And we are better at this than they are.

You, the theatremakers, filmmakers, TV writers and producers, all of you making art: YOU ARE THE VANGUARD. Fill your stages and screens with stories that fight this evil. Celebrate difference. Hire and promote women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities. Fund that show written and directed by Black women and promote the hell out of it. Cast a trans lead. Put three nonbinary people with disabilities on your story team.

Be deliberate. Go on. Your art is your activism, and there is nothing more powerful on this earth.

Keep pushing. They will not prevail. This moment in history is temporary. They will NOT be the ones who tell the American Story. We will. We are.

Go on.

 

 

 

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What Does it Mean When Trump Says He’s a “Nationalist”? Ask the Man Who Just Shot Up a Synagogue

 

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A candlelight vigil outside Tree of Life Congregation yesterday evening. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

Am I surprised a man opened fire in a synagogue yesterday during a baby naming, murdering 11 people while yelling “All Jews must die”? No. Jews have been a favorite target of violence– political and otherwise– for two thousand years. But open hatred of difference has now gone mainstream, and is present at the highest levels of our society. The extremist right wing, which always feared and hated Jews, people of color, and LGBTQ people, is now dominating conservative media and directing the tenor of the national discourse. Open hatred has become fashionable.

“I’m not politically correct,” goes the refrain, as the speaker defends sexual assault, racial slurs, transphobic violence, on and on. The extremist right has framed this as “truth” vs “the perpetually offended,” as if bigotry represents “truth” and those opposing it are just comically “offended,” like a schoolmarm shocked to find “FVCK” carved on a desk. Opposition to racism, sexism, transphobia, and all abuses of power is strenuously belittled and mocked by the right as “political correctness” and “virtue signaling.” They have made it fashionable to mock opposition to bigotry. 

So it comes as no surprise that part of this fashionable bigotry is hatred of “globalists,” a longstanding euphemism for “Jews” repopularized in recent years by the Nazi-sympathizing alt right. “Globalist” is a reference to the very old antisemitic conspiracy theory that Jews have no allegiance to any one nation and seek to dominate the globe as a whole, usually through banking (look for references to the Rothschilds) and skullduggery. Trump himself, just days before the shooting, decried the danger of “globalists” to a Houston crowd that roared its approval. In claiming to be a “Nationalist,” Trump is using alt right terminology that means he opposes “Globalist” Jews.

The extremist right believe “Jews,” as a nebulous, evil consortium (often said to be headed by philanthropist and frequent Democrat donor George Soros), are somehow “selling out” the US to other nations for personal gain– including the destruction of the “white race”– and global political power. “Nationalist” means “white Nationalist”– someone fighting for the preservation of a white-dominated, Christian America against Jewish Globalists. One of the things white Nationalists believe Jewish Globalists are plotting is the “destruction of white America” through the left’s “support of open borders,” which fosters “white genocide” by creating an “invasion” of Brown people. These Brown people are all “criminals,” “rapists,” and “terrorists,” an “infestation.” When the right claim that “the left” is funding “the caravan,” they mean that Jewish Globalists are funding it as part of their plan to destroy white domination in the US. This is why it makes no difference to these people whether immigrants are asylum seekers fleeing horrors or people seeking the American Dream. The operative for Nationalists is whether immigrants are– or are not— white. 

Black people– the lowest of the low to Nationalists– are portrayed as witless fools, “duped” into voting Democrat with offers of “free stuff.” “Welfare” encourages them to “outbreed white people.” This is what the “welfare queen” slur has evolved into– a subhuman tool of Jewish Globalists encouraged to breed with free food, free phones, and subsidized rent as Jews cackle over the impending destruction of the white race. One wonders what Nationalists make of the thousands of Black Jews in America or of African Jews.

Do I think Trump knows any of this? No. Would he care if he knew? Also no. Do the roaring crowds who approve this rhetoric know? Many of them, sure. And some are just along for the ride because they love the bullying, the anger, the hate. They love that the bigotry and hatred they call “patriotism” is now at the highest echelon of government. It’s why they elected him and why they remain faithful as the rest of the nation– and the world– looks on in horror.

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The chapel in the Tree of Life synagogue. (Source: tolols.org)

The mainstream right refuses to address– or even acknowledge– the popularity of white Nationalism in its ranks even as their leaders defend its principles and actors. This is a battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and an utter lack of any serious effort apart from some weak statements decrying “racism” (even as they campaign for the racists) is their admission of defeat. They’re all rushing to prove to conservative voters how loyal they are to Trump even as he screeches racist conspiracy theory rhetoric at rallies. Against that behavior, who believes mealy-mouthed tweets about being “against racism”?

Compounding this moral cowardice, the right consistently refuses to accept that anyone on the right can do any wrong. They have already begun pretending this synagogue shooting is a “false flag,” just as they are pretending the recent mail bombs are “false flags,” just as they have pretended that every murder and attack by far right extremists in recent years are all somehow orchestrated by the left. They claim the left has somehow planted every shooters’ right wing social media posts, evidence of membership in right wing groups, photos of the shooter clutching Confederate flags, giving Nazi salutes, and wearing MAGA hats– even claims of planting Nazi and pro-Trump tattoos.

The right will pretend there’s “violence on both sides” and point to an antifa kid setting fire to a trash can.

I tell you what, Tucker. I’ll GIVE you my trashcans if you BRING BACK THESE LIVES.

The false equivalency of “both sides” is dangerous, because it equates violent racist rhetoric with the rhetoric opposing it.

I agree, wholeheartedly, that there should be no rhetoric advocating violence, period. But it is dangerous– and I mean that literally, as in more people will die— to pretend that approving of a politician’s physical assault against a journalist, or popularizing lies like “Democrats are a violent mob” and “[If Democrats win, they] will overturn everything that we’ve done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence” are in any way equivalent to accosting right wing politicians in restaurants with protests against their actual policies, or statements calling attention to the very real rise of white Nationalism in conservative politics. Republicans are even equating putting googly eyes on a campaign billboard with Nationalist murders.

White Nationalism and the racism, antisemitism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment underpinning it are not new to America, not by a longshot. But it’s undeniable that over the past 50 years, the US has made some small gains in the fight against it, and it has come roaring back, rearing its ugly, violent head and insisting on its dominance. This is the “movement” that caused 74% of white voters to vote for Trump as opposed to just 6% of Black voters, 26% of Jewish voters, and 28% of Latinx voters. That divide is no accident. It wasn’t “jobs” or “the economy” unless you mean the relentless drumbeat of “your taxes pay for Democrat handouts to Black people and immigrants” or “immigrants come here to take our jobs.” Much of the rhetoric on the right was racially charged in 2016, and it has only escalated from there, emboldened by what they see as a white mandate. Nine GOP midterm candidates have open ties to Nationalist or Nazi groups as the bulk of the party continues pandering to Nationalists either with dog whistle racism or open allegiance.

When we say “we must come together as a nation,” unless we’re coming together against Nationalism, all we’re doing is enabling it. At the barest minimum, we must all immediately and vociferously stand against the racist, antisemitic, anti-LGBTQ rhetorical violence spinning out of control in our political discourse. Better yet, we should stand firm against the dangerous policies such rhetoric is designed to enable.

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Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace

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Only 2% of K-12 teachers nationwide are Black men, and just 4.5% are Black women. Black teachers are 50% more likely to leave the profession than white teachers. Just 4% of university faculty are Black. (Photo: teacher.org)

This piece is the second in a three-part series about education in the US. The first is Back to School: How to Be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color.

A few years ago, when I was the senior lecturer at [name redacted] university, the only time my “senior lecturer status” was ever mentioned was when the department chair offered me a class in Black theatre because they “had to” due to my “status.” I told them to hire a Black colleague instead. My “status” as “senior lecturer” had never come up before and never came up again. In fact, that same year I was roundly scolded for “assuming” I had a particular class just because it had been offered to me. They suddenly announced at the last minute they were hiring a white man, lecturing there for the first time, and when I brought up the fact that the job had already been offered to me, I was sternly rebuked. So much for my “senior lecturer” status. I was scolded again by senior staff for later refusing to assist the new hire without pay.

My story is not unique. It’s not even particularly unique in my own academic career. White educators, especially white male educators, experience enormous privilege in the workplace, whether they know it or not.

White men are over-represented in all academic leadership roles. In public high schools, 70% of principals are male, almost all white. Independent schools fare no better; 90% of school heads are white and 64% are male. Over 86% of public school superintendents are men and 92% are white.

White men also enjoy a host of privileges as teachers. In an era when student test scores have become a (mystifyingly) critical marker of teacher performance, white men are assigned high-performing classes more often than women and people of color. Men are given better evaluations than their female colleagues and colleagues of color, even when teaching online classes with literally identical, copy-and-paste content. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in non-union independent schools, men are paid a full 32% more than women. Even in unionized public schools, men are paid 12% more than women. This may sound impossible given the codification of pay scales in teaching positions, but schools have a great deal of flexibility in determining which step on the pay scale a teacher begins when hired and what kinds of classes, certifications, and degrees they will accept for pay-raising post-graduate education. Educators of color are less likely to be retained, and Black teachers’ expertise in both subject matter and pedagogy is routinely downplayed or overlooked.

In short, discrimination is rampant in academia, and, although this piece focuses primarily on race, it’s not limited to race alone. Teachers with disabilities are routinely refused accommodations, and in most areas of the country, transgender, non-binary and gender-nonconforming teachers are deeply discriminated against. Shockingly, half of transgender teachers report being harassed by colleagues and administrators.

White educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for educators of color. Male educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for women. Cis educators, we can create a more equitable workplace for transgender, non-binary, and gender-nonconforming educators. Able-bodied educators, you can create a more equitable workplace for educators with disabilities. While this piece focuses on race, there is much work to be done in all areas of inequity, and the techniques described below can be used to create diversity, inclusion, and equity for all.

EXAMINE RETENTION RATES. A site’s retention rates are key to understanding the experiences of those who work there. Is your site able to retain white people, but struggles to retain people of color? Are men retained longer than women? Has your site lost a number of women of color all within a short time frame? Examining your retention rates will provide valuable insight into whether your site is truly welcoming and equitable. If your site utilizes exit interviews, perhaps compiling the answers of the people of color who have left your site within the past few years will prove enlightening. Believe what people of color tell you about working at your site, and pay careful attention to trends in the compiled exit interview data.

ENCOURAGE DIVERSE HIRING AT YOUR SITE. Diversity in the workplace, both in teaching staff and in leadership, has numerous benefits. Although our student population is now “majority minority,” US teaching staff is 80% white, with many sites lacking even a single Black or Latinx classroom teacher, even in diverse areas, while evidence continues to mount that students of color have better outcomes when they have teachers of color. A 2015 Stanford University study showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly for the same infractions than white students. The odds of being assigned to a “gifted” or advanced program are 66% lower for Black students and 47% lower for Latinx students than they are for white students, even with high placement test scores. Non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers do, even when evaluating the same students. Non-Latinx teachers have negative perceptions of Latinx students, especially when they’re EL students. A more diverse teaching staff is the first step in creating a more equitable education for students of color. White staff will also benefit from working alongside educators with diverse perspectives and experiences.

Is your site hiring? Spread the word to colleagues of color. Post on social media and ask your friends to keep an eye out for candidates of color. Mention to administrators the critical importance of a diverse staff. Advocate for candidates of color when they apply. When you have the opportunity to invite guest speakers to your classroom, look for people of color regardless of the topic. Both students of color and white students need diverse role models.

SUPPORT YOUR COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. It’s not going to do much good if you hire educators of color and then dismiss, minimize, or contest everything they have to say. This is diversity without equity—hiring people of color and then relegating them to a voiceless underclass. Practical ways you can support your colleagues of color (and remember that all of these can be extrapolated to colleagues with disabilities, LGBTQ colleagues, etc):

  1. Educate yourself. Read writers of color and believe what they have to say about whiteness. If you’re uncomfortable with their critiques, work to change the impact of whiteness on their lives rather than fault writers of color for telling the truth of their lived experiences. A better understanding of the experiences of your colleagues of color will increase your effectiveness as an ally.
  2. Listen and believe your colleagues of color. Do not argue with people of color about their lived experiences of racism, especially if your argument is about intent (“I didn’t mean it that way!”). Impact is much more important than intent. If a colleague of color trusts you enough to educate you about something racially problematic happening at your site, or something racially problematic that you’ve done or said, listen to them. Your colleague of color is taking an enormous risk by discussing this with you. Honor that by listening sincerely. Then support your colleague if further steps need to be taken, such as bringing a proposed policy change to administration, or requesting administration reverse a racially charged decision.
  3. Work with administration to get diversity and equity training for the whole staff, and approach the work sincerely by educating the staff about white fragility beforehand. I’ve been through many diversity trainings, and I honestly think most white people imagine diversity training will just be a lengthy affirmation of our cherished belief that we are “not racist.” We imagine that we will sit for a few hours shaking our heads in dismay about “those racists over there” while congratulating ourselves for being “not that.” White people in diversity trainings become enormously fragile, defensive, and even angry the moment they realize that diversity training is actually about combating our own implicit racism and the ways in which we support systemic racism. White people will angrily or tearfully insist we’re “not racist” and “a good person,” insist we “don’t see color,” insist the trainer is incompetent, crow about our resistance to the training (such as boasting about “stumping” the trainer with whataboutism or examples of “reverse racism”), state that we feel “attacked,” dismiss accounts of racism by people of color as “exaggerated,” and more. Staff-wide education around white fragility could provide some tools to mitigate those all-too-common negative reactions to the work. Until white staff are past fragility and defensiveness, little progress can be made.
  4. Work to create clear policies and procedures. When we leave decisions to “case-by-case bases,” more often than not, implicit biases create inequity. Clear policies and procedures, applied equitably, can insure that decisions are as untainted by implicit biases as possible. For example, it’s startlingly common for white male administrators to plan privately with white male educators, securing the most desirable classes and assignments for the white men and then offering the remainder to the women and people of color on staff. “We didn’t know you were interested!” is always the excuse, an excuse created by keeping initial planning secret so the question is never asked. Codifying equitable policies would avoid the resentment that such favoritism breeds, increasing retention.

DIVERSIFY LEADERSHIP. In the US, the vast majority of educational leadership is both white and male. Such homogeneity not only reduces effectiveness, but perpetuates itself in that white males are far more likely to hire and promote other white males, minimize or discount their errors and failures, and assume competence even with extraordinary evidence to the contrary. (We’ve all been in situations where a white man who failed spectacularly at another site is hired for a position of leadership at ours.) Homogeneity in leadership leads to the implicit biases common to that group running unchecked through the industry as a whole. Leadership– from department leadership all the way through the superintendent and school board or board of directors– must reflect the diversity of the surrounding community if it is to effectively serve that community.

Diversity without equity is not effective. Hiring women and people of color and then refusing to pay them equitably, promote them, or even listen sincerely to their input is not reflective of a true “commitment to diversity,” a phrase every school and university across the nation displays proudly on their websites. We have much work to do in our industry– and in our culture at large– to live up to that promise. Let’s get to work.

Next: Back to School: How to Fix the “Broken Education System”

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Back to School: How to be a White Teacher, As Taught to Me By Students of Color

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Image: JSTOR Daily (daily.jstor.org)

This is the first piece in a three-part series about education in the US.

I taught for many years as a lecturer at a state university in the Bay Area. Once, after the first day of class, a young Black student stopped me to ask a routine question. He was a freshman, at the start of his college journey. We walked together to my next class for a bit and chatted. I asked him what I asked many of my students when we had a chance to chat: What did he want to do with his life? What were his dreams and goals? He stopped in his tracks, turned to me, and said, “No white person has ever asked me that.”

This was very early in my teaching career, and was a formative moment for me. In one comment, this teenager had given me a master class in being a white teacher, and in whiteness in America. No white teacher– no white PERSON– had ever cared enough to ask this young man the ubiquitous, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That broke my heart and changed my life as a teacher. I began to think hard about how white teachers serve– or do not serve– students of color. I began to think hard about the many ways in which living in a society flooded with racist messaging has influenced the way we teach, the expectations we have of our students, the material we teach, and our classroom cultures.

While many assume education is extremely diverse– I’ve had white people tell me they believe their whiteness is a liability on the academic job market– 80% of public school teachers are white, and 90% of full-time professors are white (but when you include underpaid lecturers, that number drops to 79%). A full 77% of K-12 teachers are women  (but of course just under a quarter of full-time professors are women). White men are given school leadership roles at all levels– K through grad school– at astonishingly higher rates than anyone else, even though they are underrepresented in K-12 education. The more prestigious the educational institution, the more likely white men are chosen for leadership roles.

Most American teachers are white, and most of us are teaching under some form of white male leadership, while the US student population is more diverse now than ever before. Yet we’re also confronted with the reality that white fragility around conversations about race and white resentment are both at a fever pitch, making support around these issues from parents, colleagues and, most importantly, administrators uncertain and often conditional.

How do we support all our students whether leadership is on board or not? How do we create a curriculum and a classroom culture that support the needs of all students using the tools available to us, with or without outside support?

EDUCATE YOURSELF. Read writers of color, and not just when they’re writing about race. Seek out writers whose lived experience differs from yours and learn what they have to say about a wide variety of topics. Believe what writers of color have to say about whiteness. If you begin to feel uncomfortable with a writer’s criticism of white people, lean into it. This is where the growth happens. Don’t allow yourself to pretend that your own resistance, defensiveness, or anger mean that the writer is “wrong.” Defensiveness, resistance, and anger are far more likely to mean that the writer is discussing an uncomfortable truth you do not want to confront. Do you want your students to give up the minute something gets difficult? If we’re asking for that kind of disciplined effort from 14-year-old students around algebra problems or essays, we can certainly give that disciplined effort ourselves about the systemic racism that has destroyed lives for generations. If you’re unhappy with the way writers of color critique whiteness, work to change the impact of whiteness in their lives rather than dismiss the writers for telling the truth.

BUILD A DIVERSE CURRICULUM. Don’t worry about being a white teacher teaching material by people of color. Just don’t present yourself as an expert in the race-related material. It’s enough to be the expert in, say, novel structure; you do not also need to be the expert in Black lives to teach a novel by a Black writer. Read the work of Black scholars when prepping Black material. Present the material to your students as something you are exploring together. Tell students why it’s important to read writers of many different perspectives. Model humility; model the desire to learn about people different than yourself, to learn from people different than yourself. Demonstrate to your students that material by people of color isn’t “Black history” or “Latinx literature” but “history” and “literature.” “History” and “literature” are not naturally white, requiring modifiers to demonstrate distance from the natural whiteness of the fields. All work comes from specific perspectives, including white-written work. We just pretend white-written work is “neutral” and “universal.” White work is heavily influenced by the writer’s whiteness, not “neutral,” but we read whiteness as “neutral” and everything else as defined by its distance from whiteness. All work is both specific in perspective and universal.

Scholars invented “the canon” and we can reinvent it to include writers of color. Writers of color are not temporary diversions from “important work,” existing solely to speak specifically about people of color for a moment before we return to work about more universal themes. Writers of color are firmly enmeshed in the same web of influences and references, and handle the same universal themes, as “canonical” writers. But because scholars privileged white work and relegated, for example, Black work to a “Black lit” or “Black history” sidebar, we’ve been taught to see it as an extra, a detour, a specialization. American writers of color are only considered “canonical” when writing about their identity, while we deem white writers the only people capable of writing work that speaks to the human experience as a whole. Does that seem exaggerated to you? Look for the American writers here, here, and here. Works by writers of color about identity are critically important, and of course do indeed contain universal themes, despite generations of white academics ignoring that. But works by writers of color about other topics are also important and also deserving of inclusion in curricula. Any list or syllabus that includes Orwell and Bradbury but not Butler is broken. Academics invented the broken canon, and we can repair it. Start with your syllabus.

If you’re a Humanities teacher, diversifying your curriculum is easy, especially if you’re already seeking out diverse writers and educating yourself about diverse perspectives. There are literally thousands of articles and lesson plans available online. There are social justice-focused lesson plans, lesson plans about writers of color, lesson plans based on primary source material written by people of color throughout history, and so much more. If you’re a STEM teacher, this might seem more complex. How do you “diversify” an Algebra 2 curriculum? The website Teaching Tolerance has sample lessons for all subjects and grade levels, and is a great place to start. They also published a useful article about diversity in STEM teaching called “Planting Seeds, Growing Diversity.”   There are many resources online for STEM teachers looking to create diverse curricula.

EXAMINE YOUR IMPLICIT BIASES. Implicit biases are unconscious responses to internalized cultural messaging. In a culture rife with systemic racism, we encounter racist messaging every day of our lives. (The same goes for misogyny, transphobia, ableism, etc.) Our implicit biases are not consciously racist, but rather a reaction to our understanding of our culture shaped by a lifetime of racist messaging. All humans have implicit biases and must work to uncover what they are before working to counteract them. I won’t lie to you; it’s difficult work and it’s never-ending, but the results are critically important for teachers. What are your expectations of your students? Do you unconsciously expect white boys to be “better” at some things? Do you allow a Black girl’s math errors to slide because “that’s the best she can do”? Do you see rowdiness from Black students as “inappropriate” and requiring consequences, but rowdiness from white boys as “high spirits”? Do you make up nicknames for students when their names are “too hard to pronounce”? All humans have implicit biases, and all Americans, especially white Americans, have a host of implicit biases about race that we must examine intentionally in order to overcome. Not sure where to start? Take a look at this article from the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning, “Awareness of Implicit Biases” and NEA Today’s “When Implicit Bias Shapes Teacher Expectations.”   This is a life-long project with no finish line, so don’t look for quick, easy answers or a bullet-pointed “to do” list for the classroom. This is about examining our own thoughts and behavior over time.

RESPECT STUDENTS’ CULTURES. One of the most frequent mistakes we make as white teachers is around the usage of English dialects such as AAVE (African American Vernacular English). What we call “correct” or “proper” English is just one style of communication students will need to use as a tool in a few, very limited settings. Even in the business world, most communication is done in a slang-y, jargon-y English that is nowhere near “correct.” While formal English skills can indeed open doors for you as the lingua franca of many aspects of our culture, it’s just one style of English communication. When I mark something on a paper as “incorrect” grammar or syntax, it is “incorrect” for formal English, not for all English communication. “Correct” grammar and syntax are always changing. Case in point: Americans insisted on using “momentarily” incorrectly so persistently dictionaries now include “in a moment” as an “alternate usage” along with the original “for a moment,” which quite frankly galls me, but language evolves despite my personal feelings about it. White people complain bitterly about various dialects but don’t know how to use “whom” properly and can’t tell the difference between “every day” and “everyday.” I see white people writing the utterly incorrect “I drink coffee everyday” while sneering at the usage of “ax” for “ask,” a pronunciation that goes back 1200 years. Learning to code switch from AAVE, Hawaiian pidgin, or Spanglish to formal English is a skill, and a deeply useful one. When teaching, emphasize that you’re using one style of English—formal English—in your classroom, not that you’re using “correct English.” No one dialect is always “correct” for every setting.

Think about when formal English is required in your classroom and when it isn’t, and be certain that you’re monitoring that equally. During class discussions, too many teachers allow white slang while “correcting” students who use AAVE (even though the vast majority of “white slang” was appropriated from AAVE). If you’re using “cool,” “hang out,” or the prepositional because (“because science”) but “correcting” students who use “finna,” “ax,” or “I got out the bed,” you’re creating a classroom culture where random white slang is acceptable but a longstanding dialect with its own grammar and syntax–AAVE– is not.  We need to teach formal English to our students, but we can (correctly) recognize that code switching is a complex and useful skill rather than denigrate one dialect while teaching another. You don’t need to denigrate other English dialects to teach students formal English any more than you need to denigrate English to teach Japanese.

LISTEN TO STUDENTS AND COLLEAGUES OF COLOR. Most of what I’ve ever learned about serving students of color as a white teacher came from listening to students and colleagues of color. But in order to listen to colleagues of color, you need to have colleagues of color– and you need to have colleagues of color who are able to speak out without consequences. In the next piece, I’ll examine our role as white allies in creating diversity and equity in the academic workplace.

Next: Back to School: Creating an Equitable Workplace.

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Jeff Sessions Does Not Know His Bible

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Jeff Sessions. (Source: Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Today, speaking in Indiana, Jeff Sessions used Romans 13 to justify the Trump Administration’s brand new policy of stealing children from their parents at the border and locking them in detention centers. He said, “Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”

Sessions does not understand Romans 13.

Time for Bitter Gertrude Bible Study!

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Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

It appears that Sessions has not read the full chapter. For example, Romans 13:6 tells you to pay your taxes, yet the Trump Administration changed the law so wealthy people would not have to pay their fair share. Romans 13:9-10 states that all God’s laws boil down to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and that we should therefore “do no harm” to our neighbors. It says that love itself is the “fulfillment of the law.”

So I think it’s clear Sessions has not read Romans 13 in its entirety, or he would not have called attention to it.

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No, Sessions got no further in Romans 13 than Romans 13:1-5. I won’t quote the whole thing here. (The full chapter is linked above if you’re curious.) Romans 13:1 gives you the basics of the text and the basis for Session’s quote:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

Romans 13:1-5 tells us to obey the law. Using this to defend the brand-new policy of the Trump Administration is an egregious– and deliberate– misuse of the text.

“Obey the law” does not mean “the law should never be changed.” If it did, Sessions and Trump would be in a Biblical bind because they very recently changed the policy to order border agents to steal children from parents at the border. This policy change was ordered specifically for its cruelty, as Trump and Sessions believed that people considering coming here to seek work or asylum would reconsider if they knew their children would be stolen from them and locked in cages. The Trump Administration has  snatched infants at the breast. They’ve pulled screaming toddlers away from weeping mothers. These stories are being witnessed, recorded, and retold every single day. Those appalled by this horrific human rights violation are demanding the policy itself be changed, not that individuals disobey the law. It is not against Romans 13 to demand that an immoral law be changed. If anything, it’s required by 13:9.

“Obey the law” presents a serious Biblical problem for the Trump Administration, as border agents are stealing children from legal asylum seekers as well as from undocumented workers. It’s the law of our nation that people can come here, claim asylum, and live under US protection while their cases are being considered. The Trump Administration itself is in violation of US law by stealing the children of legal asylum seekers, in addition to being in violation of Romans 13:1-5.

“Obey the law” and “authorities have been established by God” do not give those authorities carte blanche to commit whatever cruelty they please as punishment for disobedience to the law. Undocumented people crossing into the US are breaking US law, but the Bible—and basic human decency—forbids us from torturing children simply because their parents brought them here. In fact, Romans 13:9 is very clear that cruelty is forbidden, and the Bible specifically forbids cruelty to strangers in our land repeatedly throughout the Old and New Testaments. In Matthew 25:37-46, Jesus himself damns those who did not “take in strangers.”

An infant cries as U.S. Border Patrol agents process a group of immigrants in Granjeno, Texas, outside of McCallen on June 25, 2014.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. — Matthew 25:41-46        (Photo source: Jerry Lara/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma Press)

Romans 13 does not support what you’re doing, Jeff Sessions. The Bible is abundantly clear that what you are doing is wrong, which is likely why so many religious leaders– even (finally) conservative religious leaders – have spoken out against it and against the Trump Administration’s denial of asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. If Senate Democrats do not succeed against the Republican majority in their attempt to reverse this policy, it will not be long before the other world powers issue sanctions against us for it, as indeed we have done for similar human rights violations in other countries.

Jeff, as you pointed us to Romans 13, I point you to Isaiah 10:1-3. If Trump cared about the Bible in the slightest, I would ask you to read it aloud to him (since he won’t read it—or anything—himself):

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

I’m no Christian—I’m even a bad Jew– but I do know how to interpret text. Jeff Sessions, you lied about your own Bible to defend an unjust policy that breaks numerous Biblical precepts and US law. If you truly believe you will one day stand before your God on Judgment Day, you should repent—and quickly, before more people get hurt.

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