“Is the President Making Racial Tensions Worse?”

6 Jun

I’ve seen various media outlets asking this week whether Trump’s response to George Floyd “made racial tensions worse” or asking “should we be afraid of what happens next?” Let’s remember that this man started his presidential campaign in 2015 with these words:

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Immediately after the election of 2016, I remember three incidents in my area in Brooklyn:

1. In Brooklyn Heights, someone went into Adam Yauch Park and spray painted swastikas all over the playground equipment.

2. A woman (white, I believe) got punched in the face by a nearby patron at a restaurant in Cobble Hill for expressing distress at the election results during a private conversation.

3. While walking in Fort Greene, I was witness to a conversation among a group of African American people who were saying, “Now everyone is going to know what we’ve been dealing with.”

I also recall that a few months after this, an interracial couple was beaten in Coney Island by two white men. They were called n**gers, and they were threatened with lynching. I didn’t see it happen, but the attack was reported in several outlets.

These are just local anecdotes, and I can’t begin begin to list the hateful, racist words and actions of this man. If you feel you need to see a more substantial catalogue, this piece from The Atlantic is pretty compelling.

Trump did not create racism in this country. And removing Trump will not remove racism. But racism has been his primary organizing principle from the beginning, and he has the most powerful political position not just in the United States, but in the world. Let’s stop asking questions, let’s stop analyzing his words, and focus on what we do about that.

Are You White? Do You Think Racism Is Not A Problem? Read On

3 Jun

I grew up in a Catholic environment. When I was a kid, we learned at school that there are sins of commission and sins of omission. To put these notions into the context of racism, a sin of commission would be, say, to put the weight of your body on a person’s neck until they are dead. An act of omission would be to watch this horror happen in front of you, and to do nothing about it.

Now, I’m not religious in any traditional sense, and the word “sin” is not in my everyday vocabulary. But I do think that if it applies anywhere, it applies to racism. And if you still think that “sins” of racism are isolated incidents, or if you think that racism has nothing to with you or the environments you are in, I’d like to invite you to consider that casual, racist behavior happens all around you, every day. I’d like to invite you to consider that we are guilty of it ourselves, perhaps without knowing it. I’m going to give you a couple of examples I’ve observed in my life to illustrate this point. And I’d like to invite you to consider that these patterns help to uphold the racist systems of which we are all a part.

1. A couple of years ago, I was walking with a friend in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. The neighborhood is pretty mixed culturally, but it’s predominantly white. My friend and I had gone to a nearby park, and we were going home. I could walk back to my own apartment, but my friend lived farther away, and he decided to take a cab to get home. (Let me pause here and say that I am a 5’2″ white woman, and my friend is a 6’1″ African American man.) Cabs aren’t extremely common in my neighborhood, but there is a stretch where they’re pretty easy to find, so we walked towards that spot together, split up at an intersection, and both waited for cabs.

It just so happened that a cab came my way first, and so I hailed it, and the driver stopped. My friend came towards me, we said goodbye, and he put his hand on the door handle to get in. Just as he did that, the driver sped away.

My friend looked shocked, and I was immediately suspicious. Could this have been a coincidence, that when the driver saw that my friend was the passenger and not I, he decided to leave? Sure. And you might be thinking, “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” OK. We didn’t say anything about it to each other. We split up again and looked for another cab.

A second cab came by, again towards me. I hailed it. The driver stopped. My friend walked up again. We said goodbye. He went to get in. The driver took off.

It took us three tries before my friend could get into a taxi to get home.

2. This week, after a disaster of a speech from the Rose Garden of the White House, followed by the violent removal of peaceful protestors outside that White House so that the President could walk to St. John’s Church and hold up a Bible for a photo-op, a curfew was imposed on New York City. As the evening wore on, I was more and more alarmed about what was seeming to me like the imposition of martial law, and the creation of an environment that was becoming even more distressing for all of us, and more dangerous for African Americans. I spoke on the phone with a friend about the situation for a long time, and then I decided to go downstairs and check on my door person, a lovely man who has expressed to me how upset he is at the number of people suffering from COVID-19. I’ve been concerned about him and everyone who works in my building, you know, the “essential workers,” who continue to risk their lives so that they can look after  our homes. (Note: they are all people of color, and this particular individual is an African American man.) I went downstairs and found him sitting at the front desk. “Matthew,” I said (not his real name), “there’s a curfew beginning at 11 o’clock. How are you getting home?” (It was after 10, and his shift ends at 11.) He told me he was taking the subway. I asked him if anyone from the building, the property manager, the board, had talked to him about the curfew. He said no. He said no one in the building who had passed through even mentioned this issue to him.  We spoke for quite a while. I told him I would contact the board and the property manager immediately. I went back to my apartment, and I emailed them, asking what our plan was for the people who work here who have to travel during the curfew. I mentioned the person who was there on site specifically, and  asked: “How can we protect him if he is stopped by the police? What is our plan for the duration of the curfew?”

I sent the email and then grabbed a business card of mine, wrote on the back: “Owner”, and the address of the building, and went back downstairs. I said, “Matthew, who are you supposed to call if you have an emergency?” He told me he was supposed to call another staff member from the building who is currently living in our basement during the week because his commute is too difficult, and he’s concerned about COVID (!). While this other staff member is 100% reliable and I have no issue with him being in charge, it didn’t seem fair to them, or sensible from the point of view of “the authorities,” that there wasn’t an owner or manager taking responsibility in case of emergency. So I told Matthew that if he was stopped by the police, he should tell them where he works, and use me as a contact.  He told me that he should be fine, and I didn’t want to be overbearing. I said goodbye, and told him I’d check on him the following day.

Checking my email back upstairs, I saw one, very short response to my email, which basically said that essential workers are exempt from the curfew, and that our staff are all essential workers. The section of the executive order that spelled this out was also quoted in the email. I am guessing that eight to ten people received the email, but this was the only response I got.

When I read this response, I was fuming. I wasn’t worried about breaking the rules of the curfew. I was worried about the fact that we were asking people who protect and take care of us, who have black and brown skin, to move around during a curfew and in an environment where violence towards them is so easily inflicted by police.

I was more angry than I can describe, and I decided to pause before answering. I now believe this may have been a mistake on my part, and I believe it was also a mistake to not offer to get Matthew a ride home that night. But let’s move on.

The next day, I greeted Matthew and asked, “How did it go last night?” He told me that the overnight door person was stopped by the police and told rudely to get indoors when he told them he was going to work and pointed to our building (which was in view). They then trailed him in their car. He told me that one of the other owners of the building  came down and got Matthew a car. And he said that after that, the property manager had told him that he should take a car home every night and that the building would pay.

I’m guessing (although I can’t be sure, and ultimately, it doesn’t matter) that it was only when I sent that email that others realized the situation we were putting our staff in. And I’m not saying that I’m righteous, or that my neighbors are evil. But I am saying that our collective disregard for the safety and well-being of other human beings, who have black and brown skin, is a problem that inflicts damage every day. And until we can be more mindful of the actions that actively cause this damage, the “sins of commission,” and the thoughtlessness and neglect that lead to it, the “sins of omission,” we will never get out of the patterns of violence we are in, and we can never achieve justice for all.

 

 

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

6 Jan
On the Christian calendar, today is the Epiphany, which celebrates the story of a group of kings who bow down not to power, force, or wealth, but to a baby born in a shack because his parents were too poor to get a safe place to rest. The kings were confused, but they read the signs and knew they were in the right place. 

US Navy v. Lighthouse: A Parable

24 Jan

I recently heard a parable that apparently has been floating around for decades. Over the years, people have tried to pass it off as a true story, but as far as I can tell, it never happened.

The parable goes like this:

On a dark, starless night, a US naval ship encountered another party off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Their exchange was as follows:

US Ship: “Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a collision.”

Canadians: “We recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.”

US Ship: “This is the captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert your course.”

Canadians: “No. I say again, you divert your course.”

US Ship: “THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES’ ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS, AND 12 SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH. THAT’S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTER MEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.”

Canadians: “This is a lighthouse. Your call.”

Me Too

16 Oct

I’ve never been raped and my heart breaks for the millions of women (and men, and children) who have. But have I ever been physically assaulted or otherwise invaded and intimidated and threatened by men? Several times.

Here’s one story.

Several years ago, I hosted my first big fundraiser. I was very nervous and working hard to manage the event’s many moving parts while trying to remain sociable. Before the start of the event, when the venue was very quiet and the lights were up, I said “hello” to the manager and chatted with him. I didn’t know him well but I had met once or twice before, as he was a friend of some of my colleagues. At a certain point in the evening, we had a couple of people from our organization speak briefly, and then we had a performance planned. By that time, the venue was full of people, and it was difficult to move from one place to another. I was preparing for the speakers when I realized that the microphone they were going to use wasn’t working. In the meantime, the performers were ready to go.

I struggled to move through the crowd to the bar. The manager was standing behind it. The speakers and performers were waiting and wondering where I was. I tried to get the manager’s attention, but he couldn’t hear me over the noise of the crowd. So I edged my way behind the bar, hoping that if I got closer, he would hear me and help me.

When he saw me behind the bar, he charged at me. He grabbed me by both arms and lurched forward, forcing me back several steps. The heel of my shoe got caught in the mat on the floor of the bar and I fell to the side, slamming my upper arm into the bar.

I can’t describe how shaken I was, physically and emotionally. While he was shoving me back, I screamed at him multiple times: “I’m managing this event!” Apparently, he hadn’t recognized me and thought I was — I don’t know — robbing the place? It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now, because, as I’ve said, I had met him before, and had spoken with him at the beginning the evening. But whatever was going on, he felt it was wrong that I had stepped behind his bar, and so he felt he needed to remove me by force, without a question, without a second thought. In fact, he continued to make the point to me that I shouldn’t be behind his bar, even as he clued in to who I was and why I was looking for him.

I was so angry at him. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I tried to transition quickly from, “Why did you do that to me?” to “I need your help,” as the crowd was getting restless and my colleagues were waiting. I somehow got my message across and he got the microphone working. The evening went on.

The event was very lively and lasted for several hours. But the venue, as crowded as it was, was small, and I struggled to stay there and engage with guests while avoiding him. At first, he offered me ice for my arm (he was more aware than I was at the time, of how hard I had slammed into the bar). I refused his offers. Later in the evening, he insisted on giving me shots of tequila. I repeatedly turned him down, but he wouldn’t leave me alone until I took one and clinked glasses with him.

At the end of the evening, after everyone was gone, my colleagues said goodbye to him. At the time, I felt I had to keep up a façade and went to say goodbye to him, as well. But I was seething. He hugged me. He may have kissed me. I don’t remember.

The next morning, I had one of the worst bruises I’ve ever seen on my upper arm. It was large. It was black and red, with pooled blood under my skin. It was painful. It stayed for months. I told one of my colleagues what had happened. But I never told anyone else, including the people who worked with me who were his friends. Do you know why? Because I believed at the time that they would tell me I was overreacting about him, and laugh at me for being so sensitive. And if that happened, I wouldn’t have been able to keep working with them. So I stayed quiet.

Day 9,063

1 Sep

On November 8, 1992, I was 24 – to be exact, I had been alive for 9,062 days. I was lying in a coma at Toronto General Hospital. In the weeks leading up to that day, my liver had stopped working. The liver failure had happened so quickly that I was not aware that it was happening. In a matter of days, I had stopped thinking coherently, I had become weaker and weaker, and I had lost consciousness. My only chance for survival was a liver transplant.

Patients on transplant lists typically wait months or years before they receive an organ. Many die waiting. After I was admitted to the hospital in early November, my doctors had given me only a few days to live. But on November 8, 1992, against all odds, a liver became available for me. I was prepped for surgery and I received a new liver.

As you may have guessed, the surgery was a success. Within a day or so, I was wheeled out of ICU and my journey back to life began.

Which brings me to the reason for this post. I received my transplant 9,063 days ago. As of September 1, 2017, I have lived longer on this Earth with a liver that someone donated to me, than I survived with my own. Everything I’ve seen, everything I’ve done, everything I’ve accomplished since that day has been possible thanks to the gift I received from my organ donor and their family. I have finished a Ph.D., traveled to several countries, moved from Canada to the United States, gotten married, gotten divorced, switched careers, purchased a home … I have done a lot of living. And hopefully there’s a lot more to come.

Leaving aside the numbers on the calendar, I see many signs around me right now that my life as I know it is changing. I sense that a transformation is happening. I believe that this milestone (which is arbitrary, as all milestones are — we are the ones who choose to give them meaning) comes at an auspicious time. It’s one of three related milestones I’ll be marking in the next few months, as November 8 is the 25th anniversary of my transplant, and then January 18 is my 50th birthday.

Although many people around me know about my transplant, I’ve been a little reluctant to talk about it, and there are many people who have no idea. But I’ve decided to put aside my hesitation about letting people know, because here’s the thing: I’ve now been alive for a total of 18, 125 days. 9,063 of those have been gifted to me by an organ donor. I’m not religious, but I do believe there is a miracle in that. And that’s something to be celebrated … you know … out loud.

 

 

That Old Saying About Assholes

4 Jun

I was listening to an episode of the Dharmapunx NYC and Brooklyn podcast recently. At one point, the teacher, Josh Korda, referred to an “old saying”:

If you’re going about your day and you encounter one asshole, chances are that person was an asshole.

If you’re going about your day and you encounter two or more assholes, chances are … you’re one of the assholes.

I think that’s a saying worth remembering.

The Tug Boat Captain

29 Dec

The tug boat captain knows that size doesn’t matter.

She knows the things that count: finding the proper points; being confident; being consistent; exerting the right amount of pressure at the right moment.

No matter how many years have passed, no matter how much technology has changed, her job has remained the same.

And in doing it well, she can turn any ship around, no matter how large, and no matter how narrow the space for maneuvering.

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Crowning Miss Universe

21 Dec

All of my news feeds are clogged with headlines about how the host of Miss Universe (I won’t name him … I think we’ve heard enough about his very public mistake) crowned the wrong participant as Miss Universe.

What is much more shocking to me than one person’s error in a moment of pressure, is the fact that Miss Universe still exists.

Surely there are better things that sponsors can do with their money, and that supporters of the competition can do with their time, than to uphold this system of ranking human beings based on their looks and on other similarly superficial categories.

Let’s move on.

My Mother’s Eyes

4 Nov

My mom is blind.

Her eyes can’t see the things we see.

But they let her see things we can’t see.
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