Monday, 30 November 2020

Learning to Listen #21 - The Hate U Give

 This week I read "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas. This fictional story tells about teenage Starr straddling two worlds: her white, suburban school across town, and her home in a poor black neighbourhood. As Starr navigates who she needs to be in each setting, her worlds collide when she witnesses her best friend shot and killed by a police officer. Starr then struggles with how to stand up and let her voice be heard, and to be a voice for her friend who can no longer speak. Angie gives a voice to her protagonist that jumps from the page as if she was sitting in the room with you.

The real coup d'état in the writing, and the difficult truth to navigate personally, was that I had to keep reminding myself this is a fictional story. The heartbreaking tale rings so close to the news stories that have filled the airways these past years. I know that the mothers, sisters, brothers and friends dealing with the tragedy in the story represent real people dealing with real heartbreak.

Angie gives voice to the inner thoughts of Black people experiencing racism and police violence. The reader gets to hear what it is like to walk through a white world and question yourself, doubt your actions, and guard your thoughts. The story is a reminder to someone like me (white, middle class) that the world I enjoy is not enjoyable to all. It's hard to imagine someone walking the halls of my high school may have been dealing with the poverty, racism, and violence portrayed in this story. My naivety is painted across my face and every time I feel it is scrubbed away it only reveals another layer.

In the author's own words:

"Black Jesus, watch over my babies today," [Daddy] says. "Keep them safe, steer them from wrong, and help them recognize snakes from friends. Give them the wisdom they need to be their own people. Help Seven with this situation at his momma's house, and let him know he can always come home. Thank you for Sekani's miraculous, sudden healing that just so happened to come after he found out they're having pizza at school today." I peek out at Sekani, whose eyes and mouth are open wide. I smirk and close my eyes. "Be with Lisa at the clinic as she helps your people. Help my baby girl get through her situation, Lord. Give her peace of mind, and help her speak her truth this afternoon."

"I get out the car. For at least seven hours I don't have to talk about One-Fifteen [the police officer]. I don't have to think about Khalil. I just have to be normal Starr at normal Williamson [school] and have a normal day. That means flipping the switch in my brain so I'm Williamson Starr. Williamson Starr doesn't use slang - if a rapper would say it, she doesn't say it, even if her white friends do. Slang makes them cool. Slang makes her "hood." Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she's the "angry black girl." Williamson Starr is approachable. No stank-eyes, side-eyes, none of that. Williamson Starr is non confrontational. Basically, Williamson Starr doesn't give anyone a reason to call her ghetto."

Monday, 16 November 2020

Learning to Listen #20 - Between the World and Me

 This week I read "Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates. This book is a letter from the author to his son about his experiences, thoughts, and feelings about being a black man in America. Ta-Nehisi stumbles through thoughts of how black bodies have been and continue to be owned and exploited by white people. He tries to find how history and the present collide and what to do with the mess it has created. His letter explores all the current issues we are thinking about, but painted with the passionate palate of a father's love.

As a mother, I can feel the urgency of every word on every page. As my own children come into adolescence, I have an urgent desire to make sense of this world for them, and to share every hard-learned lesson with them. I want to pour into their minds what I know, and bind up their hearts before they break. Every second ticks toward the time when they leave my nest and I panic at times that there isn't time enough. And it is with all this emotion that Ta-Nehisi approaches the topic of racism. There are times when I cannot follow his thought process, when I can tell that the ideas run so deep that words are completely inadequate. And yet I do not fault this weakness, for I know that it means the feelings are true and deep. While it means I cannot access that depth, it reassures me of their importance. 

In this book, I feel like I understand less of the subject than ever before, and yet it solidifies how necessary the confrontation is. It is a strange feeling as an intellectual, as a reader, to come away from a book feeling lost and yet knowing what I read is true yet unattainable.

What has left the biggest impression on me is Ta-Nehisi's attempt to convey how he feels his body is not his own. He describes feeling that he must make decisions about where to go, how to walk, how to express himself, and how to talk based on white people and white standards around him, or risk injury, incarceration or death. He shared a story about watching a white couple with their young child "own the sidewalk" as they walked down the street, their child careening around on a tricycle. Their attitude was being subconsciously passed onto their child: there is nothing to fear, we are in charge, we have a right to be here, no one will challenge that. He compared that to the message he gives his son when he leaves the house: be careful where you walk, keep your distance if you think it might get you in trouble, eyes down if you see a police officer.  I liken this to the adjustments I make as a woman if I walk alone, go out at night, or find myself in an unfamiliar area. I feel a hate growing for the "adjustments" people have to make to live in a white man's world. It is unfair and I do not know why we are still in this place. We have come so far and yet we have so far to go.

This book more than any other I read truly brought the issue back to the individual level. There is no more intimate relationship than a parent to their child. When your literal flesh and blood stands before you and you would jump in front of a train to save their physical body. In this way, Ta-Nehisi is throwing his mind in front of the racist systems of our day in an attempt to explain, apologize for, and change the way we live for his son.

In the author's own words:

"A society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the bluc of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker."

"The truth is that the police reflect America in all of its will and fear, and whatever we might make of this country's criminal justice policy, it cannot be said that it was imposed by a repressive minority. The abuses that have followed from these policies - the sprawling carceral state, the random detention of black people, the torture of systems - are the product of democratic will."

"So I feared not just the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give the police a reason."

"The forgetting is habit, is yet another necessary component of the Dream. They have forgotten the scale of the theft that enriched them in slavery; the terror that allowed them, for a century, to pilfer the vote; the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs. They have forgotten, because to remember would tumble them out of the beautiful Dream and force them to live down here with us, down here in the world. I am convinced that the Dreamers, at least the Dreamers of today, would rather live white than live free...To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, faillible, breakable humans.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Learning to Listen #19 - Sulwe

This week I read the picture book, Sulwe, by Lupita Nyong'o. This semi-biographical account of coming to terms with a young girl's skin colour is so poetically told and marvelously illustrated it could be a stunning art exhibit.

I want to dwell on the heartwarming, magical, beautiful elements of this story. I want to sit with the characters of night and day as they explore the idea of light and beauty within. But instead I have a painful twinge of the necessity of this story. From my most recent readings, I have a greater understanding that Black is only Black because White is White. The hierarchy we created that to have light skin is better than black skin is a terrible legacy. To be faced with the reality that all these centuries later little girls still grow up hearing and believing that white skin is superior to black. My 21st century self gapes in disbelief, not understanding how such an arbitrary physical scale could ever have been created. But my 21st century self also now understands exactly how such an arbitrary physical scale was created. The ugliness of economic greed, of laziness and selfishness, of the 60/40 rule (which was actually a 100/0 rule). Our ancestors wanted land and profits and exerted force over those who stood in their way, or those they sensed they could exploit. What a shameful history we have. What a farce this "land of the free," where rights were determined by skin colour. How absurd to assign value to my red hair, or to the colour of my eyes, or to my height (or lack thereof). How is it that the White Christian religion, designed to be the great equalizer of humankind, was instead a crutch to prop up racist systems? How did we get here, instead of down the other path of community and service and lifting all of us together?

I feel more anger and shame on my journey now than ever before. Shame to be connected to such a past, and anger for the consequences of that past that won't seem to be altered.

But Sulwe - just as in this story we hear the story of night and day, the light and the darkness and the gifts each gives us, I see the two paths the white and Black people are walking. This book was written to help Black children see that they are beautiful too (oh the ugly lie we have told and they have believed!). But it is also written so that I may acknowledge the ugly reason a book like this had to be written and work even harder to change the narrative.

In the author's own words:

"Night returned and the people rejoiced. 'We need the darkest night to get the deepest rest. We need you so that we can grow and dream and keep our secrets to ourselves.' The stars chimed in, 'Brightness isn't just for daylight. Light comes in all colors. And some light can only be seen in the dark.' While Day had a golden glow, with Night everything had a silver sheen, elegant and fine. Day told her sister, 'When you are darkest is when you are most beautiful. It's when you are most you.'"

From the Author's note:

"The journey I went on was very different from Sulwe's nighttime adventure, but the lesson was the same: There is so much beauty in this world and inside you that others are not awake to. Don't wait for anyone to tell you what is beautiful. know that you are beautiful because you choose to be. Know that you always were and always can be. Treasure it and let it light the way in everything you do."

Monday, 2 November 2020

Learning to Listen #18 - Just Mercy

 This week I read "Just Mercy" by Bryan Stevenson. This book is Bryan's account of his astounding legal career in the fight against the death penalty, life in prison sentences, the unfair trial history of Black men and women in the US, and the racist judicial system created hundreds of years ago that continues to evolve and stand today. Within its pages, he movingly tells stories of the many children condemned to live out their days in prison (50+ years). He recounts horrifying miscarriages of justice where white law enforcement tunnel vision their way to wrongful convictions. And more than that, he advocates for mercy and reform, with the notion that redemption is possible and that justice and mercy are not exclusive or incompatible ideas.

When I read stories like Bryan's, I feel woefully inadequate in my own life. I imagine what sort of spirit lies within a man like this, that he spurs himself onward to fight tirelessly for good. I wonder what gifts he has been given that ideas become reality in such tangible ways. I know within me I have a deep desire and a flood of inspiration for change, and yet for some reason I have never been able to bring these ideas to fruition. If only all people with desire and inspiration could be equipped to action I wonder how marvellous our world would be.

Bryan's legal legacy feels very much like the story of the boy walking down a beach ladened with starfish that have been washed up in the tide. He picks up one sand-covered starfish and lays it back in the water. Over and over he returns the starfish to the ocean. A wondering bystander asks "There are thousands of starfish on this beach. You can never return them all. Why even bother? What difference does it make?" The boy looks up and replies "Well, it makes a difference to this one." Bryan's work did have some sweeping legal effects, like eliminating death sentences and life in prison sentences for children. But mostly his work was about one case at a time, one person at a time. At one point, he writes that he and his organization helped free over 100 prisoners. That number seems dishearteningly low, and yet, what a difference it made to each of those 100 people.

Mass incarceration is a terrible legacy of racist attitudes. When slavery was abolished and the Jim Crow laws struck down, white people very "nobly" said to Black people "You are free! Go be what we are!" and walked away with the false notion that everyone was now equal. But decades of oppression do not disappear overnight. The inability to get fair loans and mortgages, the prejudiced practices in job hiring, and 200 years behind in wealth and power accumulation meant the playing field was never equal. The undeniable and heartbreaking ties of poverty to drug use and crime mean that we have very, very, very far to go to undo 400 years of oppression.

In the author's own words:

"We've institutionalized policies that reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them "criminal," "murderer," "rapist," "thief," "drug dealer," "sex offender," "felon," - identities they cannot change regardless of the circumstances of their crimes or any improvements they might make in their lives."

"We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity."

"I began thinking about what would happen if we all just acknowledged our brokenness, if we owned up to our weaknesses, our deficits, our biases, our fears. Make if we did, we wouldn't want to kill the broken among us who have killed others. Maybe we would look harder for solutions to caring for the disabled, the abused, the neglected, and the traumatized. I had a notion that if we acknowledged our brokenness, we could no longer take pride in mass incarceration, in executing people, in our deliberate indifference to the most vulnerable."

Monday, 19 October 2020

Learning to Listen #17 - White Fragility

 This week I read "White Fragility" by Robin Diangelo, a white woman who works as a facilitator for anti-racist training. I believe this is the first book I've read on the subject by a white author, which gave me pause, as part of my unlearning journey has been to focus on amplifying Black voices. However the book had lots of press (good and bad) and I wanted to dive in and see for myself. There is an important place for race conversations among white people; I have learned that it is important not to expect a Black person to educate me. As a facilitator of these conversations for a while, Diangelo brings a certain amount of experience in race relation conversations.

The strongest point I took away from the book was not so much about white fragility, but about the insidious and evolutionary nature of racism. It is so common to hear the mantra "racism is something of the past" or "racism doesn't exist anymore". We look upon our society as enlightened, our eyes opened to the horrors of slavery, and our laws struck down that kept Black people in metaphorical chains when real ones were no longer acceptable.

But Jim Crow was years ago, before my time. Racism is struck down then, and exists only as a prejudicial feeling, right? No - the racism will not die so easy a death. It began in the western world as slavery, then evolved into Jim Crow laws. And when those laws were abolished it evolved into incarceration, red-lining, white flight, income-disparity - behaviours that are not law but nonetheless hold back any possibility of equity. Charles Baudelaire quoted "the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he doesn't exist."

Racism, when viewed simply as prejudice, makes us squirm, fight, and get defensive. But I fully embrace the new definition: prejudism + power, because it is that definition that reminds us the racism is still here. In the 1940s people looked back at slavery and said "thank goodness we aren't racist like that." And in the 2020s we look back at Jim Crow and say "thank goodness we aren't racist like that."  Well in 50 years I have no doubt people will look back and say "thank goodness we aren't racist like 2020." Because they will look back and the systems that hold Black people and people of colour back, that give privilege to people born with white skin, that send messages through media to the world of the supremacy of white concepts of beauty and cultural norms, and they will see with clear eyes the traumatic reality of the system in which we live. My only hope is that in knowing and acknowledging the devil we can finally terminate it before it evolves to yet another disguise.

(In order to stay true to my desire to amplify Black voices, I have chosen not to include any excerpts from this book. There are many quotes that stayed with me, and if you have the chance to read the book I'm sure you will find many that resonate with you, too).

Monday, 12 October 2020

Learning to Listen #16 - Alma and How She Got Her Name

 This week I read "Alma and How She Got Her Name", a picture book by Juana Martinez-Neal. Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela has a very long name, but as her father unlocks the history of her ancestors by whom she is called, Alma starts to see the generational gifts her grandparents have given her through their names. But her father also tells her that her first name, Alma, is her very own name, one that Alma will use to make her own story.

At the end of the story, author Juana Martinez-Neal gives the story of her own name, and then poses the question to the reader: What is the story of your name? What story would you like to tell?

The idea of names always fascinates me. My own name has a unique story behind it, a story that I love even though the name itself has always given me trouble. With so many letters in both a first and (now married) last name that are impossible to spell on their own, I have spent my whole life spelling out my names to people. I also always yearned for a middle name, left conspicuously blank (I firmly believe it should have been Elizabeth, after both my grandmothers).

Having a compound name has meant that over the years I get any number of combinations as people try to remember: Terry-Lynn, Kerri-Ann... Tara-Anna. My reaction was usually to ignore it and answer anyway - too much trouble to get people to get it right.

Now, as a teacher, I see it differently. I see the opportunity to honour a person through their name. International names are often difficult because the syllables are unfamiliar, the letter combinations unusual, and the rules for long or short vowels different than in English. Now, as a teacher, I make a point to ask for pronunciation, to show that it matters to me that I say their name correctly.

We have created language to communicate, and the nuances of pronunciation are an integral part to effective communication. Getting it right matters. And more than that, I can teach my brain to understand the nuances of other languages, to learn patterns in Hindi names, or how letters are spoken different in Spanish, or how to roll new sounds in my mouth. We are not as stuck in our ways as we think we are.

From the author's words:

"My name is so long, Daddy. It never fits," Alma said. "Come here," he said. "Let me tell you the story of your name. Then you decide if it fits."

"Sofia was your grandmother," he began. "She loved books, poetry, jasmine flowers, and, of course, me. She was the one who taught me how to read." "I love books and flowers...and you too, Daddy!" I am Sofia."

Monday, 5 October 2020

Learning to Listen #15 - When I Was Eight

 This week I read "When I Was Eight" by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton. This picture book is Margaret's story of coming to a residential school in a desperate search to learn how to read. Her triumph is the direct result of a resolve like none other, and she is the victor despite the educators who try to beat her back.

Stories like these break my heart a someone who has been a teacher my entire adult life. That anyone could hold someone's education hostage, that anyone might believe it is a power only for some, that anyone might think they have the right to bestow or deny as they wish - these are the very worst poisons in our society. We are only beginning to purge the scourge, and we have so very far to go.

It was the very first paragraph, though, that stayed with me all week. Margaret write about all the things she knew when she was eight - sled dogs and caribou and the sun cycle and fur trading. She knew. She knew. She had knowledge at eight that I don't have now as an adult. In my search for understanding, perhaps my greatest enlightenment is that the white centering of importance is an ignorance that must be dug out from deep in ourselves. White people have decided what knowledge is worth learning. They have defined what it is to be educated. They have decided what family should look like and what foods and customs are better than others. White people have placed themselves at the top of the pyramid, and while we might tolerate difference there is no doubt that we have still placed it in a hierarchy. Consciously and unconsciously we look down on different from the top of the pyramid and rate it in terms of its closeness to whiteness, or its value in its exoticness, but never do we embrace it as equal.

I find as I walk through my days now, I open my eyes to the multicultural tapestry around me. I listen to a different lilt in the English language and I will myself not to hear "broken" English but instead a beautiful variation. I see the shift of a colourful fabric draped in an unfamiliar style and I wonder at the feel and freedom it might give. I smell a new spice and wonder at the hands preparing the dish and the comfort it gives of home, and marvel at the thousand flavours that dot the earth.

It is a conscious shift in thought - like the practice of gratitude when we must will ourselves to think each morning of what blessings we have, big or small. This practice is willful right now, but I hope as I continue that my mind will gradually adopt this new way of thinking.

In the author's words:

"I knew many things when I was eight. I knew how to keep the sled dogs quiet while Father snuck up on caribou, and to bring the team to him after a kill. I knew the sun slept in the winter and woke in the summer. And I knew that when the sun-warmed Arctic Ocean shrugged off its slumbering ice, we would cross it to trade furs with the outsiders."

"I pulled the handle. It was locked. A scream built in my chest, but I held it in. I closed my eyes, pulled up my stockings, and breathed deeply, until I could feel my father's presence. He wrapped his arms around me in the darkness and I spelled out my Inuit name to him, whispering, O-L-E-M-A-U-N. His proud smile made me stronger, so I worked through the name of my distant home, B-A-N-K-S- I-S-L-A-N-D.

"I felt a great happiness inside that I dared not show. I quietly took my seat. I was Olemaun, conqueror of evil, reader of books. I was a girl who traveled to a strange and faraway land to stand against a tyrant, like Alice. And like Alice, I was brave, clever, and as unyielding as the strong stone that sharpens an ulu. I finally knew this, like I knew many things, because now I could read."