The Year of Non-Fiction

I’ve always been a voracious reader, primarily of literary fiction. I’m the type to have multiple books going simultaneously via different formats. In recent years I’ve set myself a yearly book goal on Goodreads (a great site) and worked to meet it. My all time highs are 54 books read in 2012, and 48 in 2013. I used to have a book blog where I wrote just book reviews. Reading was a major way that I learned about and made sense of the world.

But ever since we moved to Atlanta, and especially since the election, I’ve had a hard time focusing enough to read a book. I can partly attribute this to the fact that I wasn’t very engaged in the last three fiction books I tried to read: Harry Potter and The Cursed Child (such a disappointment I can’t even talk about it), The Heart of the Matter and The Little Friend.  In the past I would have found a way to push through just to check a book off the list, or at least switched to something else. But this fall I just couldn’t make it through a book. And I know why.

With all the craziness going on in the world it felt somehow irresponsible to escape into fiction.

Since the election I’ve felt a responsibility to read and listen to everything I could get my hands on related to Trump, his family, his cabinet, his staffers and his shady business deals. I felt like I just had to read as much as I could so I could be appropriately knowledgeable about each new staffing change/political decision/executive order. Reading anything non-politics related felt like giving in to what was happening.

Each day I would read the news of the day, various commentaries on the news and then listen to podcasts with more commentaries on the news. Pretty quickly, however, this got to be too much. I felt emotionally exhausted keeping up with all of the bad. My tolerance level for Trump-related news was reaching its breaking point.

So I have backed off, to a point. Let’s say I’m reducing my Trump consumption for Lent (an idea I got from a blog post that I can no longer find, so sorry for no link). I’m still reading the news every day, but I’m no longer listening to news podcasts in addition. For the sake of my sanity I’m also trying not to seek out more and more and more commentary related to Trump.

I deleted my podcast app and switched back to Audible during my commute and while puttering around the house. I still don’t have a desire to read fiction. Instead, I’m reading non-fiction books on a regular basis for the first time in my life.

I’m working from a list on Goodreads called “The Post-Trump Big Questions Canon.” It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. Regular readers know that the election was earth- and faith-shaking for me, as I know it was for many. These books are helping me hone and reshape my view of the world in the new America of Trump. (Or perhaps it has belonged to people like him all along?)

In 2017 I want to come to a more nuanced understanding of history, politics, race, class, gender and the intersection between faith and all of the above. So far, I’ve read:

Getting back to reading is helping me feel like myself again. Long live books!

What are you reading these days, dear reader? And have others felt the same desire to learn more about the forces that created our current political moment?

 

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U.S. History, the Arc of the Universe and a Trump Presidency

One of my favorite parts of this school year has been teaching social studies to my third grade ESL kids. I have this class first thing every morning. This instructional delivery method of English is what is called sheltered content instruction, meaning that I teach the grade-level content that all third grade students learn, while providing language support and extra vocabulary instruction to make the content comprehensible. (This is a little teacher-y but hang with me for a moment.) I love history, and I’ve never gotten the chance to teach it before. It’s a great way to start the day.

The third grade curriculum focuses most units of study on a historical figure. Students learn about each person in depth while learning about the surrounding historical context. It goes in chronological order, so we’ve done Paul Revere, ancient Greece and the foundations of U.S. democracy, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and next Mary McCleod Bethune. By the end of the year we will also learn about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Caesar Chavez, among others.

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image via Pixabay.com

It’s so interesting to trace the story of our country for children. One thing that I’ve been reminded of this year is how much of the story is about people’s triumph over systems of oppression. My spiel at the beginning of each new unit of study goes something like this, to tie everything we’ve learned together:

“So we started the year talking about Paul Revere. Remember that Paul Revere and the American colonists wanted to be free from England because they wanted a democracy, where people could choose their leaders and everyone would be treated equally. But we’ve learned that America wasn’t free and fair for everyone. Who wasn’t treated equally? (Black people, women, etc.) The next person we’re going to learn about helped to make America a more fair country for everyone, and that person’s name is ________.”

(I’m not injecting my personal opinion here, by the way. This is literally what the standard says to teach: “Students will discuss the lives of Americans who expanded people’s rights and freedoms in a democracy.”)

Children are so clear-eyed about what’s right and what’s wrong. These kids don’t have  much background knowledge about U.S. history, so they’re hearing everything basically for the first time. When I taught them about the institution of slavery in the United States they were a) horrified and b) surprised that it had been allowed to happen. The same for women not being allowed to vote.

History is speaking to me a lot right now as we are going into the Trump presidency. In many ways it feels like we are taking a big step backward. Unprompted by me, my students have made this connection as well. “Mrs. Love, Donald Trump doesn’t think that black people and people who speak Spanish are as good as white people like him. It’s just like it was a long time ago.”

A Trump presidency hurts partly because it disrupts the narrative that so many of us have always believed; that our current president up until now has seemed to believe. “The arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice.” U.S. history seemed, until now, to show this. Gradually, painfully, slowly, our country really has become a more free and fair place for everyone. Not perfect, certainly, but better. Does that “bending toward justice” stop now? And what should our response be? As citizens? As thinking people? For me, as a teacher? A white person?

I think the big, unsettling question right now is about whether DJT is a four-year aberration or a signal of fundamental change in the arc of the universe. I don’t think anyone can know the answer yet.

Why Do My Son’s Books Contain Only White People?

The other day while reading to Jonah, I noticed something that really disturbed me.

We were reading Policeman Small by Lois Lenski, a classic for toddlers and preschoolers.

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See it?

I noticed the same thing in a Curious George book.

Crowds of people, and all of them white.

All of Jonah’s books aren’t like this, but too many of them are. And I’m not ok with that.

Part of the issue is that we have a lot of classic children’s books, written decades ago by white authors. Policeman Small was originally published in 1962, and the Curious George series was published in the 1940s.

There were plenty of black Americans and other people of color living in this country during that time, so that’s not an excuse, of course.

What bothers me the most is when I start thinking about the reasons why an author/illustrator might include only pictures of white people in his book.

Was the illustrator’s ideal of a perfect little town all homogeneously white? Did he just not think to include black characters in even the smallest way? Was this an intentional, racist decision? Did these illustrations reflect the reality the author saw around her?

As a parent I start to feel pretty troubled when I delve down deep into these issues. If as a rule my child’s books contain only white people, what lesson does that teach about what the world is supposed to look like? About what kinds of people should be included in a neighborhood, school, church or city?

Am I participating in systems of oppression by reading my child books that look like this?

In my mind this also harks back to the election, and the unsettling discovery of just how divided the U.S. electorate is right now. A quote:

“The biggest difference between the two parties is the urban-rural divide…Politically, that translates into race and identity as the main political dividing line. Rural and exurban America is very white, and generally inward-looking. Urban America is very diverse and cosmopolitan.” (Source: NBC )

Many Trump voters live in places that look a lot like these books, and that they want to keep looking a lot like these books. Or perhaps used to look like this and do no longer. We see where, and to whom, that attitude has led us.

And that’s not an image I want to present to my son as an ideal.

I’ve written before about the fact that my childhood did look a lot like these books. I experienced essentially zero racial or cultural diversity until I was about 13 years old, when I switched from private to public school. This is one area where I feel that my parents really fell down on the job. (Love you Mom and Dad.) I am determined to do better.

Jonah’s external environment is already going to be very different because of living in a diverse urban city. But Jonathan and I are committed to exposing him to diverse examples of all the different ways that people can look through the media that he experiences at home.

Jonah is going to be getting The Snowy Day , a masterpiece of children’s literature featuring a black main character, and a few other books by this same author for his birthday. My goal over the next year is going to be to diversify his collection to include more books featuring diverse characters.

Easier said than done, perhaps: Children’s books, particularly fiction books, are overwhelmingly white.

Do you have a suggestion for a diverse children’s book or series that is appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers? I’d love to hear it!

 

For Those Who Are Not Ok

This post was also featured on Patheos’ Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Well.

Donald Trump has been elected the next president of the United States.

How is that sitting with you today?

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image via pixabay.com

As regular readers know, I teach ESL to 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th graders at an “inner city” elementary school in Atlanta. My 45 students are all Latino but one, primarily 2nd generation Mexican-Americans. And this week has been, by far, the worst since I began teaching seven years ago.

I’m not sure which was the worst moment this week:

  1. On Wednesday, when 2nd graders who can barely speak English asked me why Donald Trump and other white people in America don’t like them, and one boy said brightly, “Mrs. Love, I’m white too, look!” as he held his arm up next to mine to compare our skin colors.
  2. On Wednesday, when my 5th graders asked me very detailed questions about when and how their parents (and possibly they themselves) would be deported. “How do we get papers for our parents? Is it too late now?” “What do we do when the police come to our house? Do we try to hide or…?”
  3. When I tried to offer reassurance that everything would be ok, these same students said, “You keep saying it’s going to be ok but it won’t be. It will be ok for you, but not for us.” And they are right.
  4. On Thursday, when multiple 4th graders told me their families were planning to preemptively move back to Mexico or Honduras before January 2oth. These are places these children have never known except through brief visits, if that.

As a reminder if you’ve been living under a rock, Donald Trump has promised to deport anywhere from 2 to 11 million illegal immigrants, and has said that citizen children of illegal immigrants could also be deported. Don’t believe he said this? Look here and here.

Every single one of my students is a U.S. citizen. Though I do not know the details, I suspect that some/many/most of their parents may not be. (Do you see how the upcoming Trump presidency is already making me scared to be definitive in writing?)

What I am hearing from my children is twofold: 1) We are scared of Donald Trump and what he wants to do to our families and 2) We are shocked that people in America, the only home we have ever known, are ok with this happening to us.

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image via pixabay.com

It is worth noting that I suspect my students haven’t encountered much racism in their lives up to this point. This part of Atlanta is overwhelming inhabited by people of color, and I had already guessed that that I was one of the only white people these children have known in real life. (Read more about that here.) Our school has two white students in it and three white teachers, including me. So this feeling of being an outsider in the place that is their home is entirely new for these children, and strange.

I watched the election returns in horror on Tuesday night. I will never forget the feeling of what a horrible, awful shock that night was – like a punch to the gut. I thought about *Maria, my 3rd grader who was so excited at the prospect of a woman president. I teach sheltered content 3rd grade Social Studies to Maria’s group, and our current unit happens to be on democracy and the three branches of government. Maria always draws a woman when asked to draw a picture of the Executive Branch. I thought about how disappointed she would be.

The nausea stayed with me for the rest of the week until about Friday afternoon. I had a hard time eating and sleeping. Wednesday was particularly bad. I cried off and on throughout the day.

And why was that? I know not everyone gets it. I’m seeing a lot of complaining on Facebook from conservative friends about “whiny safe-space liberals” and people being overdramatic. Even my husband, who is basically apolitical, bless him, encouraged me to try to relax and not tear myself up prematurely over something that hasn’t happened yet. I appreciate that.

But this is my response to those who can’t or choose not to understand why people are upset: If you have nothing to fear you don’t get to say that everything will be ok. Like my student said, we know everything will be ok for YOU. That’s not the point.

As a side note, I continue to be embarrassed by many of my fellow evangelical Christians, who overwhelmingly supported Trump. I just don’t get it. If a presidential candidate’s racism, sexism, misogyny and xenophobia are minor character flaws that you are able to look past, you are a) very privileged indeed and b) not at all looking out for the least of these as we are called in the Bible.

(Feel free to rail at me about how abortion is the worst evil our country has ever known. I am pro-life, for what it’s worth.)

So now what? That’s what I’ve been pondering since Tuesday night. I will be an ally. I will advocate for my students, their families, and the millions of others like them across this country. I will speak for them. I will write for them, starting with writing to my Senators and Congressmen this week. I will get more politically involved. I will be all in.

I will also hope and pray that everything will be ok, because I have this luxury. But I will work on behalf of those who fear things won’t ever be ok again.

*Name has been changed.

 

What I’ve Learned from Being White in a Black World

I am a white woman. All my life, I have been surrounded by people who looked just like me. Though I have lived in many different places, starting when I was a child the one constant I could be sure of was that when I walked in to a space, I would find many people who looked and talked like I did. This affected how I carried myself, my comfort level and my confidence. No matter where I went, I felt like I belonged and like I had a right to be there. This was true of my schools, churches, workplaces, stores, etc. You name it.

I have never been the minority. Until now.

In my new life in Atlanta, it is common for me to walk into places (especially in and around where I work) and be one of only a few white people there. At first I felt uncomfortable to stand out so much. I felt like I was being watched or judged for being different when I just wanted to blend in. My own voice sounded strange and awkward to my ears. At work, kids had lots of questions about my eyes and hair, because most of them had never had a white teacher before.

And then it hit me…this is how life is for people of color EVERY. DAY. Times about 100.

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Atlanta. image via pixabay.com

When we first moved, I felt some trepidation when I entered a space as the only white person in the room. Now I’m more used to it. I’m making friends and fitting in. I have been treated with respect and kindness everywhere I have gone, but it has taken some getting used to, this feeling like maybe you don’t quite belong. Even if no one says anything.

So what I’m realizing in a whole new way is how much harder it is for a person of color in a white environment, when unfortunately white people often DO say something. When white people often perform microaggressions upon people of color on a daily basis and think nothing of it.

I’ve also seen how, as a white minority, I still benefit from white privilege everywhere I go. I can go into a sketchy-looking gas station with bullet-proof glass around the cash register and not have to worry about anyone bothering me, or about the cashier staring at me to make sure my hands are visible at all times. Instead, people tell me I look like a teacher and thank me for what I do. True story. (More than once.)

When I see a cop, I don’t have to worry too much about being stopped by him or her, and about what might happen if I did get stopped. Even though I have a tendency to speed and my car tag is out of date. (Oops.) I don’t have to be scared of an interaction with the police.

So I am thankful. I’m thankful for this experience of life as a minority, and I wish I could have had it earlier. I lived in a comfortable, sheltered suburban white Christian bubble for far too long, and one of the reasons I’m happy we moved to Atlanta is that my son’s experience is going to be different.

Jonah will learn early that there are lots of different kinds of people in the world and that white is not the “right” way to look and act. He will have classmates and friends of different races from an early age. He will learn that diversity is beautiful, that the world does not look like an evangelical church on Sundays. He will learn that as a white, privileged person he can be a voice against society’s subjugation of black Americans and other minority groups.

If you as a white person have never been in the minority anywhere, I suggest you try it. White people can never truly understand the daily experiences of people of color, but flipping the script and engaging in an environment that’s not all about you is a good place to start.

My News Feed As a Sign of Changing Times

I currently have 1,008 Facebook friends. Approximately 90% of them are Southern Evangelical Christians from my hometown and/or my college. I have always been able to rely on my Facebook friends to provide a slice of conservatives’ opinions about the current news cycle. In the past, I have usually disagreed with most of them most of the time.

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Image credit: pixabay.com

Take the 2008 election, for instance. My Facebook friends were figuratively frothing at the mouth when Obama was elected. I saw lots of posts about “Praying for this country in these dark days” and “Remember, our first allegiance is to God’s kingdom, not rulers on this earth,” and the like. There was some birtherism, too–“Everyone knows Obama isn’t a legitimate president,” “Show me the birth certificate” etc. I’ve written before about how I came to vote for Obama in 2008. As I appeared to be in the vast minority at the time, I was afraid to publicly disagree and start an argument, so I stayed silent.

The passing of healthcare reform in 2010 was more of the same. “Great to know that now our healthcare system will go down the toilet like Canada’s” and “This will ruin my doctor husband’s career” etc. But I was a little bolder this time. I remember I posted this funny graphic and then got some pushback about it. I didn’t want to get into an argument, so I took it down.

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Still funny. (Image credit: Pinterest.com)

So I have normally been able to count on most of my Facebook friends to make political comments that I don’t agree with, sometimes gently and sometimes in a more inflammatory way. Election years have always been particularly bad, and that’s with me deleting the most obnoxious posters, including the mom of a close childhood friend, because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

But I have noticed a change over the last six months that I believe is reflective of how many conservatives’ viewpoints may slowly be shifting, just a bit. First of all, a very small number of my Facebook friends openly support Donald Trump–I’ve seen maybe two pro-Trump posts. This is reflective of the views of prominent Evangelical leaders like Russell Moore, who has been very openly never-Trump. I don’t agree with Moore on many political issues, but I respect his integrity, disavowal of bigotry and nativism, and adherence to biblical values in the face of opposition from many other Evangelical leaders who are falling in line behind Trump. Most of my Facebook friends seem, like Moore, to fall into the “choice between two bad options” camp when it comes to this election: anti-Trump and anti-Hillary. I can respect that.

That brings us to the events of the past week. I have been so, so surprised to see the reactions on Facebook. What I expected was what I have seen every time before: all the reasons why Alton Sterling and Philando Castile deserved it, all the reasons why the killing of the cops in Dallas was much worse than the other shootings of the week, all the reasons why #BlackLivesMatter is wrong and #AllLivesMatter is right. And there has been some of that.

But overwhelmingly, I am finally seeing my conservative, white Facebook friends acknowledge the reality of systemic racism in American society, particularly American policing. They are posting about how #AllLivesMatter is hurtful and hateful to a community in pain. People who I disagree with politically on almost every issue are acknowledging that the shootings of Sterling and Castile were unjust, and that the Black Lives Matter movement is not to blame for the shooting in Dallas, either.

This seems to reflect something real that has happened in America this week. White conservatives are, just maybe, getting it. This is reflected in comments from unexpected sources, such as conservative leader Newt Gingrich, among others, who made this statement:

“It took me a long time, and a number of people talking to me through the years to get a sense of this. If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively under-estimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.” (source: Slate.com)

Back on Facebook, I have also noticed many more people refusing to stay silent. Rather than just ignoring an ignorant post on their newsfeed, or quietly deleting someone, many of my white Facebook friends are speaking up and becoming allies to the black community in very powerful ways. This is something I am trying to do, too. I’m ashamed I stayed quiet for so long, and I’m trying to fix that. This week when I have seen ignorance and hate, I have said something. Have I done this perfectly? No. But I am done with being quiet, even if it would be more comfortable to be so. I don’t like debates. I don’t like arguments. I don’t want to be seen as a Facebook troll who is looking for attention. All I know is that this issue is too important for silence. Black Lives Matter.

How Should We Respond to Our Privilege?

“Just because I’m privileged and other people aren’t doesn’t mean that’s my fault.”

This. This was said to me last weekend, word-for-word, in the context of a conversation about some people being unprepared to go to college due to poor literacy skills. I was trying to explain the root causes behind low literacy. (Ya know, because I work at an adult literacy agency and all.) When I stated that people like us who are born in middle-class families with long histories of educational success have a leg up in life, my conversational partner made the statement above.

What d0 I mean by privilege? “Privilege exists when one group has something of value that is denied to others simply because of the groups they belong to, rather than because of anything they’ve done or failed to do. Access to privilege doesn’t determine one’s outcomes, but it is definitely an asset that makes it more likely that whatever talent, ability, and aspirations a person with privilege has will result in something positive for them.” ~Peggy McIntosh. If you are white, if you are middle-class, if you are straight, you are privileged.

I walked away from the conversation, and I kicked myself later when I thought of all the things I should have said.

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I should have said, you’re right, it’s not your fault that you’re privileged, but it’s also not other people’s fault that they aren’t.

Rather than being merely a difference in where you happened to be born, attitudes that blame the less fortunate for their misfortune say this: You have a hard life because something is wrong with you. You (or your family) did something wrong and you deserve what you get.

I should have said that just because you, like me, happened to be born a white girl in an upper-middle class family doesn’t mean that you are somehow better than those who struggle.

I should have said that this statement ignores the existence of structural inequities in society that are oppressive to low-income people and minorities.

The”pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story that Americans idealize is a myth, most of the time. Ours is often not a country of equal opportunity, and to say otherwise is to ignore reality. For example, the gap between the rich and and poor is larger right now than it’s ever been. It’s much easier for people who are born with tremendous privilege to succeed than those who are born below the poverty level. This is just common sense.

I should have said that this statement absolves the fortunate from any responsibility to advocate for the less fortunate.

As Christians, we have a biblical responsibility to work for a just society. For racial justice, gender equality, equity of educational access, and in general, equal opportunities for all no matter the circumstances into which they were born. For gun control, so that people who are known to be troubled can’t walk into clubs and movie theaters and kindergarten classes and kill large numbers of people with freaking assault weapons.

Fellow Christians, we’re falling down on the job. Rather than saying, “I’m privileged and those other people aren’t, lucky me,” why not use that privilege to help those who don’t have it? To make the world better during the time that we are here? To tell people about Jesus, sure, but also to act like his hands and feet by making lasting changes in society?

I just can’t with the world right now.