I took a train from France to Italy
once through the sunflower fields -
acres of gold stretching
on and on;
but they were just
between sleep and conversation
and the rhythm
of the train
I married you in August
holding aster, nervous hands
I loved those golden circles
set in white
And we looked at us that night
in the soft candlelight,
looks we held in full
to hold in time
Now the days are moving
at time’s determined speed
and your kisses are so gentle and so firm
sleep and conversation
in the rhythm
of the endings
of the days
I think when people started telling me
I did believe them
I thought, I can see that, and
why wouldn’t I believe you
Over time, though,
as I kept hearing this story
of being pushed back
or not seen
or spoken for
I started to feel something other
than pity, compassion and guilt
I started to feel the hair
on my arms stand up
as I realized how
I move with
a wave of history
that carves away at
a rock made of spirits
crash against it
This is an analogy
Will it ever break at the breaking point?
I have so much
I know so little
Your words are hard here,
and here, and here —
but I cannot get you out of my mind
Your words are kind here,
more than kind —
and I cannot get you out of my mind
I couldn’t if I tried
(it’s the fear)
I heard a few sermons about hell
when I was young
so you will always be
at least a question
…but that fear is part
of the cloud
of anxiety and noise
that surrounds my mind
so I’d like not to focus on it
and I’d like not to focus on sin
or the groaning earth
I’d like not to focus
on the hatred
or judgement of man
or the Bible beaters
or the politics (on all the sides)
or the rulers who oppress
or the selfishness of lust
(theirs and mine)
I am trying now to focus:
to close my eyes and listen
because all I hear is noise
I remember the violets
in the grass by the baseball field
where my brother played
how bright and purple they were
when I picked them,
and I hear them
and if I am still,
I can hear my mother singing
and my father plucking strings
I can hear the kindness
of shared grief
I can hear, even, the prayers
for peace and healing
I can hear those believers
who tell me they don’t know
I can hear the quiet song
that persists in this dark world
— a prayer of love
that forgives —
of secret beauty
that fills the ocean depths
creating great blue whales
and all their friends and foes
it’s a thread of hungry beauty
that fills the galaxies
and lingers in the footprints
of all the tiny bugs
or slight —
whose strange smallness
fuel my curiosity
I hear you
…is it You?
in the flower shop
i cut and tie and curl
shiny paper ribbon —
bright strands of color
meant for twirling
— nothings, really but
they leave these little wisps of happy
in the edge of your mind
for a second
in the flower shop
i snip the broken blooms
from the African violets
and little rosebushes
a few good petals fall
with the bad, lingering
for a moment in my hands
I have been wanting to write this post for some time. I went to a lecture by scholar Robin DiAngelo on February 26th about something she calls white fragility, or the difficulty white people have when confronted with the topic of racism. She wrote a best-selling book on the topic, as well as other related works. You can find out more about her work here: https://robindiangelo.com. I had a lot of feelings as a result of this lecture, but for some reason, my thoughts have been pretty slow as I process the material.
DiAngelo has a lot to say. I guess she has spent a couple decades studying the topic of racism, so I cannot say she has one point to make, but the most persistent message of that particular lecture was that we (including her; she is white) are uncomfortable talking about racism, and our desire to retreat from this discomfort does a great deal of harm.
I went into this lecture thinking: I’m good, right? I mean, if you talked to me for a while and got to know me a little bit, you would probably give me at least a passing grade on this topic. The intentions of my heart are kind, even open, even humble. So…I’m good, right?
I would like to put one thing she said at the end of her lecture at the top of my discussion of it. She briefly mentioned guilt – she said she does not feel guilty. Guilt is not useful. However, she believes she is responsible for challenging the socialization she talked to us about. I found that helpful.
Anyway. This socialization she worked hard to make us see is one of white privilege and systemic racism – both terms that can make some people roll their eyes and feel skeptical about. It is worth entertaining the idea that those things are real, though. If there is a claim that a group of people are being hurt by something we are a part of, should we not at least take a second to hear the claim?
One of the most powerful things I took from her lecture was her critique of the common, perhaps-not-said-out-loud, definition of racism: an individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. I think when I am asked how I define it I use slightly more grown-up words, but my definition is usually kind of similar to that. Diangelo said this definition actually protects the system of racism.
I thought that was interesting. So, my definition of racism is part of the problem?
Racism is a system, not an event. It is not a matter of if I am racist as an individual, but how I am standing here in this world that gives me a host of advantages and how this came about and how I perhaps unconsciously or even consciously work to keep it that way. Not a matter of if – but how. She defined systemic racism as collective group (racial) prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control.
As a white person, I enjoy a healthy representation in the halls of power. Most of my elected officials are white. As a white person, I am looked at differently by institutions like law and education. These are aspects of the privilege I live in. It is interesting to me how some people hear statements like that and roll their eyes. This is not the days of slavery…everybody has the right to education and due process and the right to climb political ladders of success.
I just want to challenge that for a second. Human nature is habitual, both in action and thought. And human nature is particularly attached to the experience of power. So one social group at one point found it advantageous to exploit another (brutally) and use its people for slave labor. Years went by, and one day, after a long struggle, someone decided the injustice of this needed to be corrected, and slavery was outlawed.
But the truth is, one social group was used to thinking they were above another social group. And no matter what the law says, any social group that experiences power is going to be hesitant (to say the least) to relinquish that. So what the exploitative social group told themselves and their children for generations still had this message behind it: we are on top. We are on top. Maybe there is a virtuous message now: We should not be on top. Or we should treat the people who are not on top the same as we treat each other. Or some version of those things. But all that still says it: we are on top. This evil of above-ness has continued to assert itself, including in my mind and the minds of every other person I know in my social group, no matter how kind they are.
I went online and looked for some facts about systemic racism, because specificity is important. I found a good article from the respected US News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2015/05/06/institutional-racism-is-our-way-of-life). A few facts to consider are:
-Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults in the court system than white children.
-One study found that people with Black-sounding names had to send out 50% more resumes before they got a call back.
-A Black man is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, and six times more likely to go to jail.
-A Black person who kills a white person is twice as likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a Black person.
-Black people stay in prison up to 20% longer than white people convicted of the same crimes.
That is just a handful of the stats in one article on the subject…
DiAngelo asked the audience (primarily white people like myself) how our race has shaped us over the years. She did a thing in general during this talk which I like to think of as zooming out – she challenged us to take a break from thinking of ourselves as unique individuals and rather contemplate the power of belonging to a social group. Here are some ways she suggested race has shaped us:
-A general sense of belonging from birth to death. This might not seem like it is that important, but the more she talked about it the more I realized it is very important. She put some pictures up of classrooms and weddings, and everybody was white in the pictures. I thought about my own wedding pictures. Most people looked like me. I reflected on how interesting that was. Because really for most of my life, I have not had to feel the discomfort of being in environments where most people looked and spoke differently from me. That does give me a deep sense of belonging. It is odd how something that seems so superficial actually runs so deep.
-Representation in the halls of power — she pointed out that even though Congress is more diverse than it has been in the past, it is still primarily white. Most presidents have been white – one exception – and all VPs have been white.
DiAngelo defined white fragility as the inability to tolerate racial stress. Racial stress is triggered when our positions, perspectives, or advantages, are challenged.
She said that racism hurts – even kills – people 24/7. And it is worth feeling uncomfortable to do something about that.
A friend who does anti-racism work just sent me an article that I found helpful in answering the inevitable what-do-I-do question. You can find the article here: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ne95dm/how-to-be-a-white-ally-to-people-of-color
A few takeaways from this article about 100 ways white people can make life less frustrating for people color:
-Do not assume or guess the race of a person.
-Do not assume that a person of color knows everything about their country of heritage. We do not know everything about America, Germany, Sweden, etc…we should not assume others are walking encyclopedias. They are more than that.
-Regard people of color as autonomous, unique individuals, not as representatives of their race.
-Do not endlessly complain about how terrible white people are.
-Never try to tell a person of color what is or is not racist.
-Share articles relating to the everyday experiences of race and racism written by people of color.
-Support small businesses owned by people of color.
-Do not ask Black women if it is their real hair (I have done this).
-Confront your colleagues who say racist things at work.
-Commission people of color to make work about race.
-Commission people of color to make work that has nothing to do with race.
-Be cognizant of how your whiteness could be weaponized against Black people i.e. white women, do not play into stereotypes about Black men being inherently threatening to you. It gets Black men killed.
-Remember: Being an ally is a verb, not a noun. You cannot just magically be an ally to people of color because you say you are one, it is something you must continually work on.
You can find a lot more in that article. DiAngelo said one good thing white people can do is talk to other white people about racism. Maybe that is an easy takeaway…maybe it will prove harder than I thought.
So….now that I have written this post, I’m good, right?
I think this is a world that is more complicated than I used to think it is. It requires more of me than just thinking about important things once and leaving it at that. I think it is difficult in this modern world to know which things to value, which ideas to care about. After spending just a moment thinking about racism, it seems that it is an important enough topic for me to keep it open. Rather than close the book and put it on my shelf so people can see I have read at least some of it.
**I wrote this in October, when sunflowers were in season. Scott likes it better than anything else I’ve written.**
“Cut the sunflower a little lower – there!”
Jenny listens to her manager and snips the thick stalk
She nestles the bloom into a bed of seeded eucalyptus
Then picks up a stem of pale green hydrangea
And works it in, working, working, as fast as she can
The delivery driver waiting, watching, tapping his fingers on the counter
Trying not to think about the homework
He needs to do when he gets home tonight
Jenny’s hands are flying now, bringing in solidago, spiral eucalyptus,
And rust-colored mums
And she keeps moving the sunflower, which doesn’t seem to want
To stay in the right place
And she tries not to bruise the golden petals
Like the worker on the California farm
Who made the first assault
When she took her knife to the base of the stem
And swept up the bloom to
Add it to her growing bounty of gold
Her name is Ana and she makes less
Than Jenny’s supermarket wage of $9 an hour
When Ana made that first cut,
She was thinking about the milk in her breasts
That needed to be pumped before the day was through
And she was thinking about the sleep she didn’t get
When baby Anita cried all night long
And she was thinking about the petals
Bright, garish, and oppressive in their ubiquity
And yet relentlessly beautiful
And she was careful not to bruise them
As was the bundler in the packaging room
Whose name is Betty and whose wrists were tired
They are always tired
Vern, the Ameri-Cal Floral driver, knew that day
That he had a long night ahead
The road was not his friend, but it was
Always his companion
And he was not thinking about the petals
Of the sunflower, now wrapped and bundled in a long box
Vern was thinking of his favorite radio show,
“Night Figures,” a speculative show about aliens
That was just about to start
When he revved up the engine
And he was thinking about his next cig,
Which was nestled carefully in its soft box in his left pocket
Vern handed the flower box off to Josie at Floral Distributors, Incorporated
At 3 a.m. this morning,
And Josie, frazzled but hardened in her overnight shift
Handed it off to Steve, the driver, who didn’t like talk radio
But preferred top 40 hits instead
Steve was thinking about how he wanted to maybe go back to school
He was still young, he thought, and maybe he
Could make it in business
Steve was thinking about that when he handed the box of sunflowers off
To Jenny at 7 a.m., who smiled
And in her brown eyes he thought he saw the tiredness he felt
And he made a joke about coffee
And she laughed
But it wasn’t funny
And he knew it
The piece is finished now, the sunflower is set
“Just one moment, Alex,” Jenny says,
“And you’ll be on your way.”
She scrawls “You are my baby forever, hope this makes you smile”
On a tiny square of paper
And writes a name and address on a tiny envelope
Amanda, a tired mother of three, opens her door twenty minutes later
She emerges from a cacophony of childish noises
And brushes a blonde curl away from her green eyes
And she blinks at the sunflower
And the hydrangea, and the seeded eucalyptus,
And the rust-colored mums
And the tiny envelope
And she knows that the fight they had last night
Is over now
And she takes the vase
Careful not to bruise the petals
Of the flower she has always thought
To be a little garish, maybe a little too bright
But he can’t be expected
To know that