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Activism, Guest Posts, Mental Health

Exercise, Weed, Sex…Nothing is Easing My Anxiety

December 23, 2020
people

By Andrea Askowitz

I used to feel like I could make a difference in the world. I used to march in the streets. When I was a kid, my mom took my brother and me to March on Washington three times. For fifteen years after college, I worked full-time to help homeless people find jobs, working-class people make a livable wage, and queer youth who’d been bullied out of their schools or homes. I volunteered for Democratic candidates all my life. My candidates didn’t always win, but I always felt like the world was moving in the right direction.

Four years ago, I dragged my kids to phone-bank and canvass door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. Then the most qualified candidate that ever ran for president lost to the most absurd candidate. And the world went dark.

***

Now, at 52, I have never been this panicked by what’s happening in the world. I can’t sleep. I know I’m not alone because when I wake up at 3 a.m. and check Facebook, half my friends in my same time zone are awake and posting.

I’ve been living with low-grade depression and anxiety since Trump took office. When coronavirus started to scourge the world six months ago, my anxiety amped up. My iPhone screen time went up 20% to four hours a day. I knew it was a problem, but I was scared, so I let myself be distracted. I did yoga on Facebook live, enjoyed a friend’s daily piano concerts, learned how to braid challah, and watched a man in France run the length of a marathon on his 10-foot balcony. None of this helped to lessen my panic.

For 20 days in a row, I danced with my kids—my own little way of reducing stress. I created the hashtag #coronavirusdanceparty and posted on Facebook. I’d dance, post, then check my feed every half hour to see what others had to say. Finally, my kids said, “Stop.” They knew the dancing wasn’t helping.

When George Floyd was murdered, I watched that video over and over. And then I watched the reactions of people protesting in the street. My daughter and I put masks on and went to one protest. But, mostly, I quarantined inside and watched the news.

I’m not a very good swimmer, but this summer we found a public 25-meter pool that lets 10 people swim at a time and I’ve worked my way up to 64 lengths. That’s a mile. When I get out of the pool, I’m dizzy and exhausted. That kind of physical exertion used to relax me for the rest of the day; help me sleep. Not now.

Now, wild fires are ravaging the West Coast. I wanted to reach out to a good friend in San Francisco, but the orange-sky images she posted were so apocalyptic, I couldn’t. With coronavirus threatening people’s lungs and headlines like this one from the Insider: “An Ominous Map Shows the Entire West Coast with the Worst Air Quality on Earth,” all I could say was, “Holy shit! You must be freaked out.” So, I said nothing.

Last year, before coronavirus and the fires and before white people were reminded of our roles in subjugating Black people, my mom, my brother, and my business partner—three people closest to me—beat cancer. Back then I thought my world was sick. Now, I see that the whole world is sick.

***

I have several friends with prescriptions for medical marijuana. One has been on the phone with me enough lately to know I need a chill-pill. A few weeks ago, she dropped off her remedy. She said, “Two puffs before bed.”

I know people smoke weed to get their mind off things. But as soon as the weed kicked in every scary thought I’d ever tamped down rose to the surface. My wife and I lay there in the dark. I said, “My mind is flooded with scary thoughts…Flooded.”

Hurricane Laura and then Sally had just flooded the Gulf Coast, killing at least 13 people. Tropical Storm Vicky brewed in the Atlantic. Vicky is my wife’s name. The World Meteorological Organization has already gone through the whole alphabet naming storms, which has only happened one other time, and we still have two months left in this hurricane season.

All of this anxiety is rising up with the presidential election in the backdrop. And then Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.

Sex usually puts me right to sleep. I mean after sex. But now there’s a gaping liberal hole in the Supreme Court. Now, it’s hard to think about anything else, but I’m desperate for sleep, so I locked the bedroom door and lit the candles and after, instead of spooning my wife and peacefully nodding off as usual, I was wired for hours.

***

I called my weed friend and told her the weed wasn’t working. I said, “When corona hit, I increased my screen-time; when Floyd was murdered, I got in the pool; the fires, weed; RGB, sex. Nothing’s working.”

She said, “You know what? Maybe you should get your ass out of bed and do something for someone else.”

That same day, my sister-in-law, who works 24/7 for the Democratic Party, asked me to write postcards to encourage people to vote. She said they need people to hand out slate cards at the polls, starting with early voting. She asked me to get other people to write postcards and work the polls too.

I said, “Whatever I can do!” Then I emailed 20 friends. Ten wrote back immediately: “YES!” “Count me in!” “Whatever I can do!”

Other people needed something productive to do too.

Why didn’t I think of this? I know helping others can help a person get out of their own head. When did I stop helping?

I know the answer. I let myself wallow in my own misery when it all started to feel so bleak; when democracy itself felt threatened. But I also know that Democracy is government by the people, and I’m one of those people.

I’m hoping this is the turning point.

Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, The New York Times, Glamour, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Salon, The Writer, and other publications. She’s also the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio.

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Activism, Guest Posts

Put Karen To Bed

December 6, 2020
karen

By Diane Gottlieb

No one likes Karen. She’s loud and obnoxious. Entitled with a capital E. When she was just an annoying Soccer Mom, we could roll our eyes and move on. But now that racism has been added to the mix, the stakes are much higher—sometimes life-and-death high. So, white women who don’t want to be identified as Karen have upped our game too — we’ve moved from eye rolls to spewing outrage on social media.

Instagram posts call Karen out. There are several Facebook groups set up specifically to bring her public shame. One Twitter account @KarensGoneWild has just under 40,000 followers and new videos posted daily—a modern version of flogging in the public square.

But the biggest problem with Karen is that she lets me off the hook. Labeling someone Karen immediately makes her the other. I hold her at a distance, express fury at her behavior — while breathing sighs of relief that she is not me.

I harbor a fantasy of wearing a sign exclaiming, I AM NOT KAREN. But this fantasy is just another flag of privilege, the right to claim my individuality without repercussion. Maybe I have more in common with Karen than I think.

Still, my feminist brain rails against the fact that Ken, Kyle, or whatever social media has named Karen’s male counterpart, has dodged the spotlight. But my heart aches when I witness the ways Karens use their perceived gender weakness to their advantage regarding race. Karen plays the 21st century damsel in distress, calling on her new knight in shining armor—the man in blue—to come to her aid against people of color, simply because she can.

Take the San Francisco Karen, aka Lisa Alexander. She accused James Juanillo, a Filipino homeowner, of defacing another person’s property because he’d written Black Lives Matter in chalk on a retaining wall in front of a home. Alexander didn’t believe Juanillo when he told her it was his home. She called the police. Then there’s the North Carolina Karen, an employee at Hampton Inn, who called the police on Missy Williams-Wright, a Black woman with her two young children, for trespassing at the hotel pool. Williams-Wright and her children were guests staying at the hotel.  And, no one can forget the poster child for Karen—New York’s Amy Cooper.  When Christian Cooper, a Black man birdwatching in Central Park, asked her to leash her dog (dogs are required to be on-leash in that section of the park), Amy pulled a no-holds-barred Karen: “I’m going to call the cops and tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” She did. Luckily, Christian videoed the whole interaction.

Karen memes that go viral often lead to serious consequences. All three offenders–Alexander, Ms. Hampton Inn, and Cooper were fired. (Cooper was also charged with filing a false police report.)

It’s not the distressing amount of public shaming that I object to in the Karen meme. Attention must be drawn to those who use their power to harm others.

But when white women use the meme Karen, it’s as if they’re wearing my sign, telling the world She is Not Me. That’s not exactly true. Doesn’t some aspect of Karen live in every white woman in our country? Given our socialization, can any white woman claim she’s totally escaped Karen’s insidious grasp?

There have been many times I’ve heard racist jokes and kept quiet. I wanted to avoid being dismissed as a killjoy, judgmental, or holier-than-thou. I’ve told myself, at least you didn’t laugh, and patted myself on the back for distancing myself from those friends and family. But that’s walking the coward’s path, evading confrontation or even a dialogue.

If I’m too afraid to call someone out at dinner, then directing my rage at Karen is ridiculous. I can retweet all I want from the comfort of my home, but had I been in Central Park during the infamous Karen episode, would I have seen the encounter for what it was? And if I had, would I have viewed the conflict as my problem too? I hope that because the stakes were so high, I would have stepped in, stood up for Christian and stood up to Amy, but I’m not sure I would have seen the injustice as my fight.

That’s what happens when we make Karen the other. It relieves the self-identified non-Karens among us from taking responsibility.

“Some are guilty. All are responsible.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in 1963 at a conference where he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Unfortunately, we have not learned the lesson of his words. While most white women are not personally guilty of explicit racist actions, our indifference and/or unconsciousness to how our whiteness benefits us on a daily basis is a responsibility we all must bear.

The last time I was in Florida, I shopped in Walmart on several occasions. Each time, I passed employees posted at the exits, who checked customer receipts, making sure no one walked out with unpaid merchandise. I had my receipt in hand but was waved off with a smile and a “have a nice day.” I noticed, however, that every person of color I saw leaving the store got no such pass. Their receipts were examined.

Karens have long been denigrated for their entitlement, for their demands to “speak with the manager.” My Walmart experiences presented me the perfect opportunity to talk to store managers about racial profiling. I should have used my privilege to stand up for what’s right. But I did nothing. Maybe there should have been a video uploaded on Twitter of me.

Racism and injustice can only thrive in the soil of indifference and inaction. It’s time for white women to consider our actions—and inactions—and make changes. It’s time to put our own Karen to bed.

Diane Gottlieb, MSW, MEd, received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The VIDA Review, The Hedgehog Review Blog, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Entropy, among others. You can also find her bi-weekly musings at https://dianegottlieb.com.

 

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Activism, Guest Posts, Racism

Thoughts From A Concerned US History Major

October 20, 2020
white

By Rita Serra

Imagine it’s October 17, 1989

The decade marked by Rubik’s Cubes, Ronald Reagan, Pac Man, and shoulder pads is rounding to a close. This was the year that brought Lean on Me, Field of Dreams and Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing to the silver screen. Perms rule the hair waves, while rock and pop still rule the airways.

You are cruising down the highway in your Honda Accord when the DJ’s deep, satin voice says, “Hot off the presses here is Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The song is a snapshot series of headlines that chronicles 1949 to 1989. Before Joel lunches into the first chorus he stamps out the syllables, “Santayana Goodbye.” George Santayana was a poet, novelist, and philosopher who left the world with a slew of notable words including,

“those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Reason, 1905

I was raised in a small, coastal town in North Carolina. Before I’d grown tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, I was spellbound by the music of the 1960’s and 70’s, despite the fact that I was born in 1994. Seriously, in fourth grade I was baffled when the rest of my girl scout troop wanted to listen to The Scooby Doo soundtrack instead of The Who’s legendary rock-opera, Tommy, on our way to the aquarium.

I developed a strong interest in the collection of stories that comprise our nation’s history. Each fact, figure, and historical antidote I was taught felt like a puzzle piece. Together these treasured pieces, with their smoothed edges, inflated bubbles, and concave voids, formed the present-day picture. They explained why America is the way it is and helped me better understand my place in the world.

In my adolescent years, I believed the 1960’s were a magical time, only abound with love and guitar circles, capped off by Woodstock as the ultimate emblem of unity. But as I came of age, I sensed that something was off and ran to the books like a moth who caught sight of flickering candle through a cracked door.

I directed my core university studies to the social and political movements of 20th century America. I was riveted by the sheer volume of audacious political activism that marked the 1960’s with its mixed overtones of social commentary, call to action, and peaceful ethos.

By 1969 the American Indian, Anti-war, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation Movements were all in full force. These marginalized groups of citizens showed they had, had enough through; boycotts, burned flags, flower power, marches, legislative changes, long hair, occupied federal land, overtly-politicized music, protests, rallies, speeches, strikes, strategic violence, sit-in’s, and walkouts. They were met by vehement opposition and faced arrests, bombings, beatings, death threats, hate mobs, police brutality, fire hoses, tear gas, and K-9 units.

It was not until I studied history on the university level that I came to the stunning realization; the curriculum taught during our most formative years in primary schools is a whitewashed version of history that omits critical pieces of the US history puzzle, especially regarding black citizen’s plight to obtain equal rights.

As I peeled back the layers, I uncovered that Woodstock’s idyllic legacy of, “three days of peace, love, and music” overshadowed the reality that this was the most divisive, violent, and socially-volatile decade in our nation’s history.

My quest for knowledge culminated to a twenty-five-page history thesis entitled, “Shattering the Myth of Woodstock” in which I discussed all of the ways this event was the antithesis of the decade it came to symbolize and discovered the path to revolution has many lanes.

The first time I sat in front of my Victrola and listened to a vinyl record after I submitted my thesis I nearly cried. I took this event, this hopeful idea, this guiding principle that I had shaped part of my belief system around, and marred it. I took something I regarded as a beautiful and holy and made it ugly by ripping off the mask and uncovering the truth.

However, I have never regretted my decision to shatter Woodstock because I gained solace and an emboldened sense of security knowing that I possessed the truth. I came to the realization that knowing and seeing the truth is more beautiful than the vision we create.

The era I once loved for the music was now the era I deeply respected for the courage it took to change the world on societal, cultural, and legislative levels. Most people believe that after a law is passed, the problem is solved. The unfortunate truth is that changing the law does not change society’s views or instantly alter cultural biases. Generations of black citizens learned first-hand that legal “victories” were often followed by languid change, staunch backlash and a slew of new hurdles to overcome.

America’s current state of domestic affairs is rapidly becoming an ominous echo of the late 1960’s. Race relations have reached a critical boiling point. Every day people are spilling onto the streets with ardent resilience, refusing to be silenced. In order to understand how America has gotten to the point it has today, it is helpful to unpack history like a recipe for homemade soup, and go back to the point that the pot was set down and the stove-top was turned on.

“My skin is black, My arms are long, My hair is woolly, My back is strong,
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again”
-Nina Simone, Four Women, 1966

Let’s take a page out of Santayana’s notebook and follow the stories that have led us to today.

Voting: In 1870 the 15th amendment was ratified, stating, “a [male] citizen’s right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race, color, or servitude.” In response, the former Confederate States immediately coded discriminatory voting requirements into law, such as poll taxes, property ownership, and literacy tests, designed to prevent black men from voting. They would have stopped many poor white men from voting had it not been for a set of loopholes. “Grandfather Clauses” stated that if someone’s ancestors had been registered to vote before the Civil War, then that person was exempt from certain voting requirements.

It took well over a century for the majority of citizens from the southern states to accept the fact that people of color were their fellow citizens who had the right to vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Acts was passed, doing away with discriminatory voting requirements, and the 24th amendment was ratified, eliminating the poll tax. Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) resurged when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950’s and 60’s. The KKK employed violence and sever intimidation tactics, including murder, to repress black votes and white sympathizers. The group’s fearsome reputation combined with generations of prejudiced views, made it unnerving for white America to collectively wrap their minds around sharing power.

“Southern man, better keep your head, don’t forget, what your good book said
Southern change, gonna come at last, now your crosses, are burning fast”
-Neil Young, Southern Man, 1970

Housing: In 1934 the National Housing Act was passed in an effort to stimulate the housing market during the Great Depression. Agents from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) took maps and drew red lines through neighborhoods they claimed to be, “high risk” in a practice known as Redlining.

 In every major city, the only redlined neighborhoods were the ones populated by blacks and other minority groups. FHA agents felt that the people in these areas could not be trusted to pay back a loan, thus they denied their applications for the government-sponsored, low-interest mortgage rates.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned housing discrimination on the basis of race. However, by this time the government was no longer offering these low-interest mortgages and there was the issue of cultural bias. The inability to buy homes for decades, a top way of accumulating equity and generational wealth, has put the black man another century behind the white man.

It is estimated that three out of four neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930’s are still struggling economically today. These neighborhoods often lack adequate resources such as banking, healthcare, public transportation services, affordable produce, job opportunities, and have underserved education systems due to local funding stemming from property taxes.

“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The Mafia’s getting bugger, like pollution in the river, And you tell me this is where it’s at?”
-Sixto Rodriguez, This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues 1970

Education: In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs Board of Education that segregation was unequal which made this a landmark case. A year later the court ruled in Brown vs Board of Education II that the lower courts and local school boards would be in charge of implementation desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” This last clause gave white supremacists all they needed to continue the unlawful practice of segregation.

One of the most disturbing and flagrant acts of defiance took place in Prince County, Virginia. Here county officials, with the aid of state officials, closed public schools for five years after Brown vs Board’s original ruling and opened “private academies” for only white students that were funded by the state’s tax revenue.

It is estimated that a decade after Brown vs Board of Education ninety-eight percent of black students still attended segregated schools. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act finally gave the federal government the power to enforce integration. The North Carolina high school I attended opened in 1972 with the specific purpose of integration. Eighteen years after the highest court in the land said segregation was illegal, county officials finally got around to upholding the law.

“Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway,
Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’, Will soon shake your windows, And rattle your wall”
– Bob Dylan, The Time’s They Are A-Changin’  1964

Systematic Inequality: In 1967 President Johnson formed “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” to determine why America had experienced over 150 race riots from 1964 to 1967. The eleven-member committee headed by Otto Kerner submitted their findings in March of 1968 in a report entitled, “A Time to Listen a Time to Act.”

More commonly known as the Kerner Report, it concluded that the extreme economic and social disadvantages of black Americans, coupled by the racial attitudes of whites caused the riots. The report was highly critical of the federal government and their outdated, failed policies.

“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” -Kerner Report, 1968

The commission recommended that the federal government create legislation to improve housing conditions, education systems, job opportunities, and social services in black neighborhoods. They felt it was imperative to remove the discriminatory practices that inundated employment practices, police forces and the criminal justice system.

The commission deserves a round of applause for their candid conclusion and detailed solution strategy. However, Johnson never publicly endorsed the committee’s report and congressional action ranged from abysmal to meager when it came to implementing the committee’s recommendations.

“Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation, And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’, This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”
-Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction, 1965

This was the moment for America’s governing power to make a significant change, to right the wrongs of the past era, and to admit that America had a serious problem with racism.

The following month, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, over 100 cities erupted in protest, yet the Kerner Report was ignored. Six months later, on November 5th, Nixon won the Presidency on a platform of more heavily armed police forces and cracking down on inner city crime. Rather than taking steps towards peace, America entered the war on drugs.

Today a statement from the Kerner Report reads like an eerie premonition come true: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

I realize it does not matter how many books I’ve read, history lectures I’ve attended, or the number of times I found myself in the minority while traveling aboard. I will never know the experience of being black in America. However, I believe we can learn from the past. Knowledge leads to new perspectives and understanding which creates empathy. Greater empathy is the key to creating a positive, fundamental change in our fractured society.

To those who are white, if you were never told the full story of America’s institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, that is not your fault, but it is also not an excuse. We must do better than those who came before us.

The human mind is wired to see a full picture even when some pieces are not present. Instead of realizing there are gaps, the mind will stretch the pieces of the picture it has been given to fill in the blanks, or simply invent new pieces that match their pre-existing opinion. Now that some blind spots have been replaced by missing puzzle pieces, it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths, and work to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.

Let’s come together and tirelessly work to ensure if, ten years from now, someone wrote, We Didn’t Start the Fire Part II, it will not be marked by Santayana’s ill-fabled irony. We must listen to our fellow brothers, sisters, neighbors, and citizens that have been marginalized for centuries, and stand by their side in order to forbid history from repeating itself.

“When the power of love, overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”
– Jimi Hendrix

Rita Serra backpacked around the world for two and a half years, world, often solo, on a quest for human connection, cultural enlightenment, historical intrigue and nature’s wonderment. After her period of Rolling Stone embodiment, Rita found herself in Northern California where she currently spends her days writing prose, crafting poetry, photographing nature and farming. Some of Rita’s other work has been featured in anthologies by Flying Ketchup Press, Train River Publishing, and Wingless Dreamer.

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Activism, Guest Posts

An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

The “Last” button on my remote is wearing out. I’m pressing it every four seconds, hopping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, popping in on my local Spectrum 1 channel because they supposedly focus on pressing news happening in my city. Maybe I have to check the networks. Did I see a “City Channel” in the guide? Back to CNN, then MSNBC, rinse, repeat… all in the hopes of finding some shred of coverage of the protests in our streets. I’m pressing, I’m hopping, but I’m not finding anything.

After fourteen days, the news channels have tired of reporting on the Black Lives Matters protests. Or at least they did until yesterday, when another black man was shot and killed in a public Atlanta parking lot. The protests are interesting once more now that their peacefulness teeters on the brink. But that will slip from the spotlight again and give way to the novel coronavirus, the un-novel and preposterous antics of Donald F-N Trump, unemployment, graduations, online yoga tutorials. And it’s finally summer. The beaches are open. The trails are packed. The ice cream truck is serenading your hood once more. No more homeschooling. No more cooking. No more hoarding of toilet paper. You finally have your lives back, and you intend to make the best of them. And your hair needs cutting, your nails need painting, the hedges need trimming. And look at what my cat just did! And this Black Lives Matter business doesn’t really affect you, anyway. The curfews are over, and if they’re not, they really don’t apply to you. Maybe your town never protested. And now you see protestors holding signs in German, the only words decipherable being “George Floyd” and “Defund the Police,” and if Germany cares, then everything must be in good hands. (Because, really? Germany? They don’t have their own problems?) But you don’t know about defunding the police. What about noise complaints and suspicious people in the neighborhood? What about people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? Besides, you have your sign in the yard that supports science and feminism and—mixed in somewhere—black lives. And there’s still that “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in the window collecting dust from 2016. But there are other things going on. Like the bats. Did you hear about the bats? What about the bats in your attic?

I get it. There’s a lot to process in your world, other priorities besides black lives mattering. And you haven’t been hearing from me. You’ve noticed that I haven’t been on social media much these days. Maybe I’m upset about all things “Black Lives Matter” because I’m black. But you don’t see me as that kind of black, and I have a lot of white friends, like you, so maybe I don’t feel involved. Is it offensive to ask? And everything is just really depressing, so you’ve been taking a break—maybe didn’t even notice I wasn’t being vocal. If I was really upset, I would say something, right? I’m not shy. So if I’m not making noise, I must be fine, right? Right?

I am not fine.

There have been so many voices raised already, so for a while, it felt like mine could wait… that there would be a time when different voices would be needed. But the more conversations I have with my friends, black and white and everything in between, the more I realize how much you still don’t understand, and the more I realize it might be important for you to hear from someone like me: someone you know and care about. Someone who is not the first person who pops into your mind when you think about police brutality against black people—me, that light-skinned, sharp, friendly aspiring writer who just earned her MFA and can frequently be spotted laughing over cocktails with her white friends. Someone who grew up in white middle America. Someone who a friend once asked, “What did your parents say when they found out you were black?” Maybe if you hear it from me, a true understanding of how black people are experiencing this moment might occur, because I don’t want these issues to slip into the constant background noise of Everything Else. Because using my voice now may help keep the focus on racism from drifting away like it always, always does. Because black Americans don’t have the luxury of detaching or checking out. We can’t simply turn off the TV or pop in a movie (most likely a movie where no one looks like us anyway, which is another issue—one that is important to me and I’m actively working to change with that MFA I’ve worked hard to earn). We can’t turn away from the movement or the moment because we are “overwhelmed.” And, more importantly, I don’t want to.

To those of you who have reached out to me personally to see how I’m managing through all of this: thank you. I know you don’t always know what to say or how to say what you mean or maybe even what you are supposed to mean, but your making the effort is acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is, I haven’t been doing well. At all. But today, I’m finally on the other side of a lot of the pain and grief I’ve been struggling with the last two and some weeks—my emotions have balanced out to some degree, and my spirit has been lifted by the domestic and global response to this call for justice—and so, although my anger is constantly triggered by the continued violence against blacks and all the damn “Karens,” I feel heartened just enough to finally reach out. But please don’t think this slight uptick in hope obscures my daily reckoning with how to get through each hour. How to manage my sadness and anger. How to manage my resentment of the silence I still see so much of from so many of you. How to manage knowing how to break my own silence. How to navigate my grief and guilt over not being able to be out there fighting all day every day. Yes, I braved the virus and went out protesting more than once last week, and this week, I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t know if it’s the virus or a common cold or a physical manifestation of emotional grief, but regardless, I don’t regret protesting. It was important for me to add my voice and my body to this movement. It gave me a direction for my emotions, and it allowed me to fully engage in a fight I dearly believe in. I am being responsible and watching my symptoms, but make no mistake, if I am physically able, I will be back out there again.

What I really want to say to my would-be allies is that this movement is about justice for black people, absolutely. But it’s also about changing society in general. Because BLM isn’t just about police brutality. It isn’t just about the outrage we collectively feel when another black person is killed on the street, in their yard, in their own home, or in prison. It’s about the social ideology of race perpetuated in our homes, relationships, schools, jobs, parks, and minds. It’s about the divides we put around ourselves as individuals and groups to feel safe… to stay comfortable. It’s about changing our perspectives so black people can leave the house without having to calculate the risks involved in having black skin in white society. It’s about not having to feel unvalidated when our non-black friends tell us we’re being “too sensitive” or “judgmental” or “aggressive” or “angry” about our experiences with racism. So we’re not constantly having to explain why something is offensive or justify our right to be heard or assuage your discomfort or white shock that racism still exists. So we don’t have to resist the temptation to scream when we’re complimented for being educated, intelligent, polite, caring, successful, articulate, and [fill in with any positive attribute] because “good on you for rising above your blackness.” So we don’t have to keep fighting for the recognition and support enjoyed as a matter of course by those of you not living in black bodies. So we don’t have to keep telling people that “not seeing color” is not enlightenment—that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let me state this unequivocally: If you know someone who is black, regardless of what other racial composition they possess or neighborhood they grew up in, realize that they—that we—have experienced all the things you hear about. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been followed by police in aggressive ways for doing nothing. We’ve been pulled over for “a burned-out license plate bulb” in broad daylight and forced out of the vehicle. We’ve had people clutch their purses. We’ve had people warn others about watching their purses around us. We’ve had people move seats when we sat down. We’ve been assumed to be employees at sporting events, music festivals, department stores, and grocery stores instead of patrons. We’ve been followed around clothing stores. We’ve been asked where we live and what we’re doing here while standing in our own front yards. We’ve heard friends tell offensive jokes in front of us and tell us to “lighten up” because “funny is funny.” We’ve been called the “N” word. We’ve been treated worse than our white counterparts in school and at work. We’ve been accused of ridiculous things by bosses. We’ve felt our skin crawl because of a single look from across a restaurant or party. We’ve wondered if we’re in danger of getting beaten or killed simply for existing. We’ve felt our idea of home taken away because of a renewed and emboldened uprising of prejudice and racism in our country. We’ve questioned whether to attend events out of fear for our safety. We’ve struggled to find our voices and learn how to raise them. And for so many, we’ve been killed by those who knew they could kill us and get away with it.

This list is just the tip of the black experience. This list is just the tip of my experience.

So let me set some things straight, because there’s been some confusion in my world, and I know harm is not what was intended, but nonetheless… here are some truths:

  • I have no desire to get away from the protests. This fight is not bad or inconvenient or oppressive. It is necessary, hopeful, and inspiring. I turn toward it, not away from it. I don’t want things to calm down so I can forget and “go back to normal.” There is no forgetting, and there is no more normal. And, honestly, what passed for normal for you was never my normal to begin with.
  • Your support is appreciated, but please understand that our experiences are not the same. I know many of you are suffering, too. You’re dealing with your anger at the world. You’re reckoning with our country’s history and your place in it, large or small. You fear what’s next. You’re sad about everything that has happened. It is an exhausting situation for everyone. But the exhaustion we feel as black people is not the same. We are viscerally exhausted from dealing with racism for as many years as we’ve been alive. We are dealing with the trauma, pain, depression, and fear of decades and centuries of being treated as less than. And the damage from generations of trauma has altered many of our physiological beings to the point where we can’t even imagine who we could be in the absence of trauma. We are tired of swallowing the hateful words of racists and misguided words of those who fail to stop and think before they speak. We are tired of the silence of the rest of society, especially the silence of those who say they love us. We’re tired of trying to make people listen. We’re tired of having to defend our pain and outrage and anger. We’re tired of having to dampen our pain and outrage and anger to make you feel better. We’re tired of seeing just how much our lives don’t matter: in the inequities experienced by predominantly black schools; by the lack of support and assistance for black-owned businesses, even during a pandemic; by the disproportionate number of black deaths from COVID-19; by the disproportionate treatment of black men and women within the justice system; by the disproportionate number of felony convictions for black men and women; and by the degree of force relied on by police when dealing with black Americans, even when they are unarmed. You can’t truly get it, and that’s not your fault. But please know we are not suffering in the same way. No, we are not awesome. No, we are not all right. We are pissed. And we are ready for change.
  • If your gut reaction is to challenge my experiences or feelings about these issues or exonerate yourself from my message, please save it for someone who cares. It’s not me. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my black experience or how I feel about racism in this country or the movement to end it.
  • If you haven’t done anything to me personally that you can speak to specifically, don’t tell me how sorry you are. I don’t want your condolences or pity. It’s an earnest sentiment, but it’s not action.
  • Please don’t thank me for sharing my story. I didn’t do it for praise. Again, nice sentiment, but not action.

My white friends and aspiring allies: what I would love instead is conversation. This movement is forcing some solid policy shifts and new laws to be enacted, but that does not equate to sweeping change. Laws were enacted to give slaves back agency over their lives. Laws were enacted to desegregate our cities and schools. Laws were enacted to give blacks the right to vote. And yet… here we are. Here, where more than 40 percent of black men and women 20 and older suffer from hypertension, black men are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of police than white men, black communities have unequal access to health and community resources, and black women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and make almost 40 percent less than white men and roughly 20 percent less than white women. Laws are great and necessary, but nothing is really going to change unless we change voluntarily on a societal level.

We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our prejudices and ask why we have felt as we have and been who we are and what we can do to move forward better. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our experiences and those of lives we don’t understand. We have to be willing to ask questions and risk sounding stupid or awkward. We have to be willing to bring down our walls and see each other. We all have prejudices. And I mean all of us, whether you’re aware of them or not. And it’s not just across race lines; it’s also within them.

A simple adjustment in awareness is not the answer. We must have a fundamental paradigm shift about how we think of each other as human beings. We have to find a real way to break the psychological divides that create “us” versus “them.” We have to talk. We have to talk. We have to talk!

What would happen if, today, every single one of you said something to spark that conversation? I don’t mean just on social media. I mean in person, in our real lives. Say something inspiring or supportive of the BLM movement. Tell a friend about a moment when you felt prejudiced against someone and why. Talk candidly about what you felt, why you felt it, and how you feel about it now. Explore where you think that feeling came from. Read up on and talk with other white people about what you can do to feel differently. If you are a non-BIPOC, talk about a moment where you’ve felt prejudice from another. Tell a white friend or a black friend how it felt. Tell them how it affected your perspective of life and society.

We all have to start being honest about how racism exists in our lives, even at the micro level. None of us are immune, and that’s okay. We can still do the work to come together to make sure that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC lives matter, so that we can truly stand up one day and celebrate all lives mattering equally.

This is my wish for us: communication and honesty. We have to change on a base level to move forward with integrity. We have to start listening and believing. We have to be brave.

So here’s my story:

I made a quick judgment about a conservative-looking white couple I saw in France last summer. They were wealthy, had southern accents, and fit every box on my list of people to blame for Trump. I assumed they were prejudice against me, which made me want to talk to them… yeah, it’s like that. I was overly polite when I asked them what part of the States they were from and was not surprised to learn they lived near Mar-a-Lago. I was surprised when they turned their chairs and started a lively discussion about how terrible things were back home and how much they looked forward to the next election. In that moment, I knew I had committed the same crime I’d accused them of. I’d judged them and held prejudice against them because of what they looked like. I was humbled by that experience and promised to be better at walking my talk. And I realized the reason I’m often quick to judge people who look like that is because it provides safety for me. If I assume the worst and fortify myself against it, when I’m proven right, it won’t hurt as much. The fact is it always hurts no matter what, and I’ve probably misjudged a lot of people along the way and missed out on enriching conversations. The talk we had with the couple was amazing. The wife even caught our French waiter trying to overcharge us. My heart opened a bit more that day. It really doesn’t take much.

I am so tired of being tired. But I will be back out there anyway, and I will keep talking, and I will keep listening.

Now… your turn.

Start the conversation in your social group. Use the hashtag #mytruecolorstory to start the conversation with the world. I’ve challenged some of you to engage in these discussions already, and I’ve been heartened by your willingness to be vulnerable and lay your experiences on the table. But it’s not enough. We must do more. We must keep the conversation going.

And if you don’t know me, you know someone like me. Reach out to them. Offer your support. They’re waiting for it, and they’re wondering where you are.

Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor. She received her BA in English from the University of Kansas and MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Low Residency program. When not writing, she can be found playing volleyball, her fiddle, and one-sided fetch with her dog, Jacopo. 

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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Resources for Change because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Activism, Guest Posts, Owning It!

A Female Fighter

December 12, 2019
fighter

By Debra Des Vignes

As I drive from Indianapolis to the boxing gym, I feel my anger rising. My son’s farm accident is still fresh in my mind. And friends, I don’t even want to think about friends. At the gym, I’m one of only three female fighters. I’m 45, not old, but old for a fighter. Today, I’m headed to the gym. Working out, boxing, is how I alleviate my anger. While driving, I reminiscence.

Things happen in life, I know, even to the innocent, that we have no control over and that we can’t explain. No one knows why. It’s just life and its unexplainable ways. My son, Simon, was four when the accident happened. That morning, my husband and I were invited to have an early dinner at a friend’s horse farm, but first a tour of their beautiful property was suggested. I recall my son’s big, brown eyes, and his friend’s blonde ponytail. They held hands while the mother of our son’s friend rubbed the horse’s side. Suddenly, the horse spooked, no one knows why, and Simon’s body was flung mid-air. A child’s pained cry has a high, shrill, piercing sound that no mother wants to hear. Blood splattered the grass, the wooden fence and Simon’s ponytailed friend. Thank God that she wasn’t hurt.

My thoughts continue to revisit the accident as I pull over for gas and get back on the highway. It’s early evening and many are sitting down for dinner.

I remember sitting in the ICU – trauma – with my husband. Over the course of seven days and nights, I watch eye, throat and facial surgeons rush in and out to check Simon’s vital signs. I become numb, staring at a blank, white wall, day in and day out. I sit slumped at the edge of a chair, silently screaming inside, afraid to move. I feel empty. My thoughts are non-cohesive. I eat at the hospital cafeteria and shower in the room near where he lies in a medically induced coma. My anger is growing.

I become accustomed to the sounds of the trauma unit as I wait for the next doctor’s report. The sounds of feet pitter-pattering up and down hallways, alarms beeping, bells ringing, wheels of a carts squeak as they roll here and there, the hum and buzz of everyday hospital routines, are forever embedded in my mind. I realize the cold-heartedness of the world outside. Where are my friends?

On the radio, the broadcaster is talking about salmon invading nearby Eagle Creek Park and its 1300 acres of reservoir. I’m not interested, and I turn it off. Today, I’m only interested in getting to the boxing gym. I can feel the anger leave my body with each jab, hook and uppercut. Why do people find it strange when I tell them my idea of a good workout is boxing? Boxing is my passion and it entered my life at a time I needed it most. I was angry and wanted to hit something; anything in my path. The gym is my sanctuary.

As I drive, I think to myself, maybe I expect too much out of friends, but I don’t think so. I expect a friend to have my back in times of tragedy. After all, that’s what friends do. When Simon’s accident happened, his facial plate (maxilla) broke in half. I was devastated. After the accident, sadness gripped my heart. I worried myself sick about my son. I was completely overwhelmed as surgery after surgery had to be scheduled to repair his injuries. I had my husband, but I needed a motherly friend to lean on, to help me, to tell it would be OK. It was one of my darkest hours, and the friends I thought had my back deserted me. When I needed them most, they were off doing their own thing. That’s how it goes, but that is not how it’s supposed to be because I believe a true friend should have my back ‘til the bitter end.

A truck carrying livestock, cattle, passes me. He is going over the speed limit. I have never understood why people blatantly break the law.

I remember that I’m from the “easier” side of the tracks where dogwood trees give off the sweet fragrance of their white and pink flowers; a place where one doesn’t worry about the next meal or whether the power will be cut off, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of hard knocks because I have. Hard knocks have made me who I am. As a child, my mother’s alcoholism ruled the household and my father was strict. As an adult, Simon’s accident has dominated my life. Nevertheless, I’ve still managed to build a creative writing program for the incarcerated. Yes, I sometimes feel I have the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I’m a fighter who doesn’t give up a fight.

I remember my early days as a former reporter covering crime and courts for local TV affiliates NBC, CBS and ABC. I was filled with enthusiasm. I wanted to make a difference. As a reporter, I covered many stories involving prisoners, but often the prisoners’ side of the story was left out. I wanted to know those stories, so I got involved and became a prison volunteer. At first, it was a little intimidating.

I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the prison for the first time. The stereotyping of prisons and prisoners left me wondering, “Would I be robbed, raped, or stabbed with a handmade shank?” The clinking and clanking of metal gates sent cold chills up my spine. I moved through several layers of prison guards. Their keys jingled and jangled as they unlocked gates and doors. At every entry, I had to flash my prison volunteer badge. I began questioning my sanity asking myself, “What the hell have I gotten myself into?” I could be killed, I thought.

***

When I arrived at the designated location, it was nothing like I expected. The classroom was like any other classroom, and its occupants, although prisoners, like any other group of students. All my fears had been in vain. One of my first classes was a victim-impact class. I wanted to know how prisoners felt about victims. Amazed by the raw talent in the room; I laughed and cried at their answers to questions. I didn’t know any victims of a violent crime but I’d hope he or she would show remorse like the men did in the room that day. I was so moved that I worked to build a creative writing program for prisoners inside the facility. I remind myself that that writing program is now in three Indiana correctional facilities.

Another truck passes me as if I’m standing still. It is carrying frozen foods. I look at my speedometer. I’m going the speed limit.

I remember that I’m an older fighter who constantly needs ice packs for pain and old wounds. Today, I brought frozen, green peas because they were convenient. In a fight, it is imperative that a boxer controls both physical and emotional pain. Physical pain can be controlled by frozen peas, but emotional pain brought on by life (people), well, that is a whole different matter. As a fighter, I know that thoughts can create emotions that impede performance in the ring. Reason has it that if I can’t control my thoughts, I cannot win the fight. Emotions originate in the mind where vital nerves alert spirit and soul to feel one way or another. Consequently, as a boxer, I must be the gatekeeper of my mind’s door, keeping everything negative out, otherwise I’m a dead duck in the ring. It took me years to learn that.

The yellow Shell gas station sign ahead tells me I’m nearing my destination. I have about ten more miles before I reach the turn that leads to the boxing gym.

I remember one day at the gym several male fighters took an interest in me. They asked me where I was from and where I went to school. I’m about 5’5 with curly, short, hair, and I wear little make-up. At first, I thought it was innocent chatter, but then I sensed resentment in their demeanor. I was a female fighter in what was traditionally a male dominated sport and they didn’t like sharing “their” ring with a female. That resentment was later confirmed when a fighter in the ring treated me as if I were wounded, stray dog too injured to be worthy of his time. I got the message and they soon got mine because I’m a fighter, and I don’t back down because resentment rears its ugly head.

As I turn off the main highway onto the dirt road that leads to the boxing gym, I dread this road because it’s filled with deep potholes. I believe that someday this road is going to be the fault of me being stranded out here to fend for myself. Off to my left, I see glowing, red embers from a small trash fire outside a rarely seen house on this road. As I pull into the parking lot, I notice puffy, gray clouds that hang over the gym, a bad omen, but I hope not. The gym building is unmarked and ugly. It’s a dreary looking place on the outside. I park my car and gather my gear.

I approach the gym’s front door and hear yelling from a coach within that alarms even the birds resting in the nearby spruce trees. I enter and look around to observe the pecking order. Amateur fighters can be territorial. They lay claim to everything: punching bags and lockers. One can tell the elite boxers by the way they carry themselves, moving with purpose after years of discipline. They are admired by most in the gym. I hear fans suck out recycled, damp air. Rap blares out of a stereo. The heavy punching bags hang in unison. They are the only signs of order in the gym.

I find my place and prepare to fight as I wait to be paired with a sparring partner. I tuck my hair in and tighten my glove straps. We will fight six rounds. Each round will last five minutes. I’m ready to release some anger. I hear distant war cries of ongoing matches and the sound of ring-side bells.

Today, I’m going to kick somebody’s ass or I’m going to get my ass kicked. Either wayas a female fighter getting a good workoutI win.

Prior to establishing a prison writing program, Debra Des Vignes had a 10-year career as a journalist in Television News getting her start at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, California before traveling across the country working at various TV stations covering crime. Creative writing is her passion, especially flash fiction. She has served in various leadership communications roles for nonprofit organizations across the country and her story pitches have garnered national media attention in U.S. World & News Report, CNN, Miami Herald, The Washington Times, and more. Debra received a degree in political science from California State University Northridge.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

#metoo, Activism, Guest Posts

When your 79 Year Old Mother is Raped

May 23, 2018
raped

Barton Brooks is a dear friend of mine, and his mom, Carla, was my English teacher in high school. My heart hurt when I learned she had been assaulted, and it sang when I learned how she is refusing to let the assault define her. Instead, she is using this experience to advocate for other victims. I couldn’t be more humbled and proud to know these two humans. Read Bart’s words below, and I dare you not to be inspired. Learn about Carla’s spirit, and help if you can. -Angela

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

By Barton Brooks

In the middle of the night on April 17th, a man entered my mother’s home, crept into her bedroom, and started stroking her hair.  She awoke to this stranger looming above her and began a fight for her life – absolutey terrified as he gagged her, slammed her head against her headboard, and held her down as he brutally beat and sexually assaulted her.  My beautiful mother – who turns 80 in less than a year – violently joined #metoo at age 79.

I can’t type any more of the horrific details, because even though it’s been a month since it happened, my heart and eyes continue to weep for her.  My fellow adventurer, my kind, dignified, and resilient mother – we’ve cried more tears in the past month than we may have cried ever before.

Instead, I want to focus on her strength, because my God, this woman is strong! Continue Reading…

Activism, Grief, Guest Posts, motherhood

“17”- A Poem Plus an excerpt from “Good Cop, Bad Daughter” by Karen Lynch

March 14, 2018

By Karen Lynch. 

17

When you were born, I nestled you in my arms and nursed you on demand to help build your immune system and keep you safe from disease.
933 breast feedings

When you were 18 months old, I cut your grapes in half to keep you safe from choking.
3,406 grapes sliced

When you were 2, I bought you the bicycle helmet ranked highest by Parenting Magazine.
5,327 miles peddled

When you were five, six, seven, I let you watch only PBS kids to keep you innocent of the violence in the world as long as possible.
1,273 episodes Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood watched.

When you were 12, I let you ride your bike across town and prayed for your safety as I waited for your call.
17 petitions offered up to the universe.

When you were sick and no one knew why, I took you to a faraway clinic and found a doctor to heal you.
522 miles driven, 4 doctors seen, 18 bottles supplements purchased.

When you were 16, I found the best driving instructor in the county. I told you to call me for a ride anytime, no questions asked.
2 speeding tickets, 1 fender bender, 0 calls for pickup.

When you left for school today, I gave you an organic Fuji apple with your whole wheat almond butter sandwich. I reminded you to eat fruit and veggies in college next year.
2,367 Fuji apples washed and sliced.
1 Valentine slipped into your backpack.

When the deputy called this afternoon, I was selecting your senior picture.
17 dead. 15 wounded. 152 shots fired.

Continue Reading…

Activism, Guest Posts

Interdependence Day: A Letter on the Occasion of my 37th Birthday

April 12, 2017
independent

By Chris Shorne

I have been loved from the time I was small. Before my sight was unblurred I was seen and touched. Someone picked me up. Then another. Lips kissed my forehead. Before I knew what was forehead what was mouth. Before I knew there was a body and its inextricable parts and that this part was mine, I felt the sensation. Something new, something already. All the organic wires of a body were firing and firing together when eating came with touching, with the warmth of another human body spreading through this that I would come to know as my own, separate, human body.

It is not my mother who is the writer, but me. Still, she writes some abstract things in the form of dark lines on a white page and it aches me. That center spot of my chest—what is that?—grips. And so, compelled, I write. And I’m not sure it is me who is the author here. I’m not sure there has ever been a singular author. It hurts a little, to be loved like this. I don’t know why. Everything I’ve ever learned has led me up to this: I don’t know why it is I who have been so blessed. But I’ll take it.

Here I go. Yes, this is the biggest thing I’ve done. Being an international human rights accompanier in Guatemala. Standing alongside people walking into harassment and threats and jails, walking anyway, to maintain their land, to claim their culture. It is my big and it is so much less than the work the Guatemalans are doing. But I get to stand with them, walk alongside them for a little while. And, for me, it is big. “This is huge, Chris,” my ex-girlfriend used to say. I loved that. Even when it wasn’t huge, I loved it, because it meant what was happening with me was important. It meant she saw me as important. Continue Reading…