Saturday, September 26, 2020

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (Takeaways)

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

I am grateful beyond my ability to express to Ijeoma Oluo for writing this. It is truly a gift to white people who want to learn but are sometimes/often afraid to ask because, as she points out repeatedly, it is not the responsibility of the black person you are talking to to educate you. She breaks down everything from what racism is and isn't, how deeply ingrained it is within all of our psyches, and how it's intrinsic in basically every single facet of American society and culture. From checking your privilege and the importance of interesctionality to police brutality and the school-to-prison pipeline to cultural appropriation and microaggressions all the way down to why hair is such a huge and illustrative issue showing how deep the roots (no pun intended) of all this brainwashing goes.

SO MUCH came out of my reading of this. For one, I will never again say "I'm not racist" because, as she points out "if you are white in a white supremacist society, you are racist. If you are male in a patriarchy, you are sexist. If you are able-bodied, you are ableist. If you are anything above poverty in a capitalist society, you are classist. You can sometimes be all of these things at once." And recognizing, as she states several times, that none of this has anything whatsoever to do with being a good or bad person but simply everything to do with being American. That's something a person like me who is prone to violent storms of self criticism needs to hear, and I'm grateful to her for pointing it out as often as she does.

For another, the importance of distinguishing systemic racism from racism not only because of what she pointed out above, but because "We can get every person in America to feel nothing but love for people of color in their hearts, and if our systems aren't acknowledged and changed, it will bring negligible benefit to the lives of people of color."

And from that, the single most important take-away of the whole thing, that the power of being white is that we get to be, as Hamilton taught us "in the room where it happens" and subsequently we have the power to ask questions, point out mistakes, and speak up for the people who aren't in those rooms. Because "Racial oppression starts in our homes, our offices, our cities, and our states, and it can end there as well."

On the whole, I can't possibly recommend this book highly enough. It is not, by any means, an easy read for a white person. But it is written by a woman who seems to genuinely want to educate, assist, and share with people on the outside looking in. She is not harsh, she is not chastising, she is not trying to shame white people into change. She is human, often identifying her own privilege and how much that has made even her blind to, and she is funny in ways that do not soften the blows of the things that need to hit hard. Again, what a gift.

*Quick note: I've written all this from my perspective as a white person and not even mentioning how useful it would be for a black person to read because if this has taught me anything it's that I can't even begin to imagine what a black person (or any person of color) would think of it. While she does speak directly to the black reader on certain topics, mainly to legitimize and defend their experiences, I think the bulk of the book really is for white people who want to learn. And that is so desperately needed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (Takeaways)

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott

This is one of the core literary sources for my church; it gets referenced often. Though Anne Lamott is clearly Jesus-centric in her beliefs she came about it the best way: through pain, addiction, death, failure, and the loving devotion of humans who refused to give up on her. Though I tend to be Jesus-phobic (and really scared of anything echoing classical Anglo-Saxton sensibilities) I could relate to most of everything else. It’s a great reminder that whatever you call it- spirituality, faith, religion, even Jesus- it’s all the same thing. Which is, of course, how I got to join my faith in the first place.

And, side note, but I'm not sure I've ever heard such an equally charming and accurate description of UU: "Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus." Of course, she's not actually referring to UU there. Well, at least not consciously. But it describes my faith pretty damned well so I'm taking it.

This was my first exposure to this author and I can understand the praise I've heard for her from several different sources. Her prose is beautiful. At times poetic, other times purely perfunctory. Alternately achingly painful and hilarious. Deeply personal always, in a way that lets you sit right next to her through these encounters and stories of hope. She never sells herself as someone with answers- she confesses to being a deeply flawed, perfectly fucked up human being. And that is, of course, what makes her lovable. And what lets you feel as close to her as you end up feeling by the end.

She shares stories of everything from her bohemian childhood to her early dive deep into addiction to alcohol and substances. Her eating disorder. Her first exposures to church. Her unplanned pregnancy and the child that ultimately saved her. Her deep, deep grief over the loss of her father as well as the pain she inflicted on herself by trying to fit every man she ever loved into the hole his death left in her heart. She lays everything bare with humility and acceptance. It's inspiring to see someone own up to so much without shame. Or rather, having come through the shame with a new owned sense of identity and acceptance that only comes from looking the darkest parts of yourself straight in the eyes and saying 'thank you'.

Which isn't to say that she doesn't have a lot of deeply poignant and powerful insights about spirituality. She does. But in my experience most of the powerful insights about spirituality come from humanity- not from the heavens. And sure enough, all of hers come from her own deeply flawed and perpetually imperfect existence.

For instance, her thoughts on grief: "I'm pretty sure that it is only by experiencing that ocean of sadness in a naked and immediate way that we come to be healed- which is to say, that we come to experience life with a real sense of presence and spaciousness and peace." Or on Grace: "Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there." Or failure: "it breaks through all that held breath and isometric tension about needing to look good: it's the gift of feeling floppier."

While clearly contained within the timeline of her own life the bulk of these stories feel timeless. Or at least, the wisdom within them does. I can see myself going back to these pages again and again searching for that one highlighted line that perfectly and gorgeously sums up a thought or an insight or a desperately needed reminder during dark times. It's an encyclopedia of pain and wisdom I can easily reference: a gift. And I'm grateful to myself to have finally read it.