Tag Archives: justice

Being color brave

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I had in mind to write a post today, because it’s been way too long. Then … I read this. And nothing I have the energy or the time to say measures up.

Please read it. Think about it. Click the links. Something has to change, and it starts with you – and you – and you – and me – and you.

Oh, and by the way, I am routinely stopped for traffic violations. The routine goes as follows: Cop peers into car. Sees apologetic middle aged white woman and a couple of cute dogs. Says, “Ma’am, slow down. And you have a nice day now.” The end.

The Monster in Your Closet

Sandra Bland was taken into custody after failing to signal a lane change.

She died in custody a few days later. Though she’d tried to post bail just two hours before and would soon be starting her dream job, she was reported as having committed suicide.

I would have taken this story at face value a few months ago, but something happened to change that.

I was between jobs a couple months after events in Ferguson, Missouri inspired a series of protests across the nation. While my children slept, I browsed Twitter, Instagram and Vine for firsthand accounts of both protests and police brutality. I became increasingly agitated by the stark differences between firsthand–yet somehow “unofficial”?–accounts and the secondhand news media accounts treated as official. To hear the secondhand accounts represented as truth infuriated me. I also felt guilty, because I’d never before thought to question reporting I’d more or less taken for neutral presentation of fact…

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Skin-deep storytelling

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I was just off visiting one of my favorite bloggers and her latest post got me thinking … and my thinking has got me all upset and bothered and pondering uncomfortable questions.

She wants to know, where are the kids’ books with non-white heroes? And she makes the point that, while there are books about black kids, in almost every case the fact that they’re black adds a whole chunk of extra Stuff to the story. Usually, it’s not just a story the way “James and the Giant Peach” is the story of a boy who has an adventure. The kid’s color almost always matters.

So my first thought, on reading this, was to wonder how much of the issue was inherent in the way these stories are written, and how much had to do with Stuff already floating around in the reader’s head. Could it be that when the main character is white, you don’t think about their whiteness because that’s the norm in Bookworld, so you simply identify with them, and focus on the action? Seems to me that might be part of what happens. Whether the reader was white or black (or whatever), the very fact that a hero or heroine was Not-White would make them unusual. You would notice. You would wonder whether there was another layer of meaning hidden in the Other-colored skin. You would be alert to cultural signals, speech patterns, other indicators of Not-Whiteness, and if the author got them wrong you wouldn’t like it.

When does the hero's skin start to matter?

When does the hero’s skin start to matter? (Source)

This got me to wondering when it starts to matter. White kids obviously don’t notice the whiteness of characters. Do they notice not-whiteness? And what do black kids think when they read book after book about white kids? If nobody points it out, do they care that Snow White is an unusually attractive shade of pinkish beige, while they are not?

I find myself remembering an incident that shocked me when the Girl Child was at preschool. It was a Montessori preschool – in other words, featuring parents with liberal opinions about matters such as educational philosophy – in an upscale neighborhood (the Girl Child fit right in, but my battered little no-name-brand car looked pretty silly when I pulled up between the Mercs and Beemers to pick her up). Maybe 10% of the kids were black, and they all played together just fine. And then one day when I picked her up, the sweet man who tended the grounds waved goodbye to her, and she stuck her nose in the air and refused to wave back. Because he was black.

It was a long time ago and I have forgotten just how I reacted, but I remember feeling nauseated, wondering where in Hell she’d picked up that ugly piece of nasty. I remember saying, “But some of your friends are black!” and how she just rolled her eyes and told me that was “different”. They were kids. He was black. The end.

So much for the real world. What do kids see when they read story books? Could we make Jack the Giant Killer black, and not change the essence of the story? Would the result be a politically correct version of an old European fairy story? Or would it be blackface?

Anyway, this got me wondering whether I could write an ordinary adventure story or fantasy in which the hero or heroine is black, and get it right. Because a kid is just a kid, right? That’s what I want to believe … and yet … we are all so much a part of our families, our neighborhoods, our culture. From our earliest days we are immersed and soaked and pickled in the worldview, assumptions, expectations, fears, beliefs of our family and community. Even if we consciously reject everything we are taught, I don’t know that it’s possible to climb into an Other-colored skin and know how to wear it.

I lived for two years as a teacher in a poor rural South African community, where the only white people were my daughter, another woman who lived separately from us, and I. We were fully part of the community. We shared an outside toilet with our neighbors, ate the same sort of food as they did, went in and out of each other’s homes, prayed, argued, worried, grieved and celebrated together. I remain in contact with several of my former pupils. Their children call me Granny, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call on them if I needed help.

Yet I really don’t know that I could write a convincing story from inside the head of a black African kid. And I don’t understand this failure of imagination and empathy. Can I imagine being a desperately poor, or fabulously wealthy, or superpower-endowed white kid? You bet! Can I give that white kid black friends who are also fully-developed characters each with a unique voice? No problem – in fact that’s an integral part of the book I’m working on at present. Can I imagine being a black kid growing up in an ordinary black home with the spoken and unspoken everything that generations of racism means to my family, my future, who I am, how I think – can I get out of my white head and into theirs? I don’t know, but I suspect – I fear – that I could not. And I don’t know whether that is because I am lacking, or because it really isn’t possible.

And even if I did – if I were to try – what would readers think of my story? Would they assess it simply as a work of fiction – well written or not, believable or not, enjoyable or not? Or would I face the hostility due to an ignorant trespasser on sacred ground?

And, you know, thinking about all this just makes me so. Damn. Sad.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

It shouldn’t matter.

But God help us, it does.

[UPDATE: I posted the link to this video of a white police officer sitting on a bikini-clad teenage girl to restrain her, while cursing and waving a gun at other teens. Apparently a party “got out of control” when a large group of black teens showed up in a predominantly white, upscale neighborhood. The video, taken by an observer, is out there somewhere but not where I could find it during a short search. I’m sure you get the idea, however … We’re talking about kids here, not hefty 18 and 19-year-olds, and a cop who thinks the best way to calm them down is to wave a gun. Not okay. I don’t care who did what, that’s simply poor policing.]

So now it’s your turn. What do you think? I really want to know.

How to help Rara

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Rara went to prison very shortly after I became aware of her, so I’ve not really followed her blog and I don’t know her. However, my heart goes out to her, and I want to help her. If you feel so inclined, please make a donation to help her.

The Monster in Your Closet

There’s this blogger whose words I’ve missed greatly while she’s been imprisoned the last year or so.

Rara has been especially prominent in my heart since I saw her at her husband’s memorial a week and a half ago.

Madame Weebles has created this GoFundMe account to help ease Rara’s imminent transition back to the world beyond prison walls, and boiled down Rara’s heartbreaking last year more succinctly than I’d have dreamed possible.

Please take a look. If you are able to set aside $5 or $10, you’d be helping “put a roof over [Rara’s] head and food on her table” in her new life as (so much more than) a widow and a felon. I’d be grateful.

Can’t send money? Not a problem. You can send her your words (and/or silly dinosaur images) of support, and would appreciate your thanks for those within the prison who’ve helped keep her going the last couple…

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The Day of the Chicken

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Yesterday ended with a chicken. I told you about her. To wrap up that story: she didn’t make it. I’m sad, of course – and became sadder when I saw my beautiful Mr. Roo calling and searching for her this morning. He knows one of his girls is missing, poor guy.

Mr Roo and his harem

Mr Roo and his harem

On the other hand, I did eat an omelet for breakfast this morning. How emotional can I get over the death of a creature whose unborn young I eat almost daily? Not very, to be honest! I love Mr. Roo, and I enjoy the kippies – watching them scratching in the dirt and crooning to each other is immeasurably soothing. I’m really happy that we are, at last, putting a dog-proof six-foot fence around our huge veggie garden (which contains the chicken run), because that will give them access to a much larger area for crooning, scratching and nibbling. But when it comes to deciding whom I’d rather cuddle – a chicken or a chicken-killing dog – I’m going to pick the dog every time.

So last night, after posting yesterday’s blog, I forgave Miss CeCe and let her crawl into her usual spot under the duvet. Snuggled up with her it dawned on me that yesterday began as well as ending with a chicken and a rescue dog, and I sleepily wondered whether there was some mystical connection between these two separate events.

The morning’s story started about a year ago, with a call from a vet who was poised to load up a big syringe of blue juice and inject it into a gorgeous German Shepherd pup. His name was Rip, and his owner had brought him in because he had killed a chicken. In our county that crime carries a death sentence.

A bit of history: Rip had been dumped out in the country on a cold day a few months previously. The people who picked him up didn’t actually need a puppy (contrary to popular belief, not every farm-dweller is in want of a dog) and they weren’t up for the hard work of training him – but he was a sweet, affectionate fluffball, and he needed a home, and they had room. So they kept him, and it was all happy-ever-after until the weather warmed up and their neighbor let his chickens out to roam.

None of these people had fences.

Fast forward through the inevitable, and there Rip was, happily washing the tears off Doctor A’s face while she tried to steady her hands enough to load the syringe. She couldn’t do it – it was just too wrong – so she called me.

I was in no shape to take in a wild child with a chicken habit. I had retired mere weeks before from running the dog rescue Himself and I established in 2008, and I was fully occupied in burning out like a Roman candle. On the other hand, saying no wasn’t an option, so we agreed to care for him for the few days the rescue needed to find a foster home. Problem solved – right?

Wrong. Some weeks later, a couple of sheriff’s deputies pulled up outside our house. They’d heard that we had a designated dangerous dog on our property. That’s right – the chicken-owner was making a case out of the issue, Rip’s previous owner was facing a fat fine for not having him euthanized – because, in terms of the county statutes, a dog that kills a chicken is automatically deemed dangerous.

Semi-random picture of the dangerous dog I keep on my desk.

Semi-random picture of the dangerous dog I keep on my desk.

Well, we told them he’d moved on and was in the care of a rescue that would rehabilitate him and keep him well away from chickens, and off they went. Until … a month or two later, when they returned and we did the same dance again. (Need I point out that their gas alone cost more than a replacement chicken?) And then a month or so later I received a summons to appear in court.

By that time, Rip was being fostered in a different state, and was on the point of being adopted to a home hundreds of miles away. I also had a file full of affidavits from the vet, a trainer, several fosters and my own self, attesting to the fundamental goodness of the dog, as well as my complete absence of personal responsibility for him in any capacity whatsoever. None of this made the smallest difference. A chicken was dead and, by golly, no matter what the cost (which I haven’t figured out, but this was one expensive chicken), they were determined to prosecute to the full extent of the law.

They just needed to figure out whom to prosecute … because everyone involved had complied with their demands. The chicken’s owner had been compensated, Rip’s original owner had been exonerated, and the rescue had removed the canine culprit from this jurisdiction. I was the sole itchy spot on the smooth skin of their butt cheeks. Because they were unable to articulate what they wanted me to do, I couldn’t comply. So they kept coming back, and the more I told them I didn’t own the dog, had never owned the dog, didn’t wish to own the dog, and didn’t even know where the damn dog was, the more determined they were to give the ghost of that chicken its day in court.

Eventually the new head of the rescue group and I met with the Assistant DA, who agreed to give Rip 12 month’s probation, subject to a bucket-load of terms and conditions. The probationary period ended yesterday, which is why I was seated in an otherwise empty courtroom shortly after the sun fumbled its way into the sky. Suddenly the doors slammed open. The judge marched in, her robes flapping like a crow’s wings, with the ADA scampering and chattering in her wake. “All riiiise,” intoned the person responsible for intoning. I was the only one there, apart from the legal folks, but I stuck my finger in my book and rose dutifully.

“Oh my goodness – I didn’t recognize you. You’ve changed your hair!” squeaked the ADA.

“Yes,” I agreed. “It’s been a while.”

The judge stared at me, stared at the ADA, and shook her head. “Case dismissed,” she said, flapped her wings, and left the courtroom.

The ADA assured me it was all over, but gave me no stamped or signed paperwork to that effect, so who knows. We’re short on criminals around here, apparently, and one must do something with those pesky Halls of Justice or the taxpayers get tetchy.

Or … do you think there might be more to this than over-heated bureaucracy? Could we, perhaps, all have been dancing to the inaudible piping of the chicken’s outraged ghost? Could the ghost have taken possession of a naughty mongrel (herself not much bigger than a chicken) in a final effort to have revenge? Could this, in fact, be more than a coincidence?

Nah, I don’t think so either – but, just in case, Argos and I have a date to take Miss Kippy up into the hills this afternoon and lay her in her final resting place. We’ll put her somewhere out of the way (but with a nice view of the river), where coyotes and crows can absorb her into their bodies and so end this unearthly cycle of events forever.

Something like that, anyway.

Well, yeah, we'll take a ball. We'll have some happies. Because life goes on, right?

Well, yeah, we’ll take a ball. We’ll have some happies. Because life goes on, right?

Tain’t fair!

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I was just browsing in a procrastinatory way through some of the blogs I follow, and I found this:

equality-does-not-mean-justice

First, it’s important that you see this picture as I did. What I see is a fence with a long horizontal brown strip across the top of it. That strip is part of the fence – okay? Fine. Thank you.

In scenario A, each kid has the same box but only one can see over the fence. (Unfair!) In scenario B, the boxes have been distributed such that each kid is equally unable to see over the fence. (Remember, brown horizontal strip = top part of the fence!) (Fair! {big smiley face})

Are you kidding me?

How about we posit some different scenarios. In these, the tall kid keeps his box and continues watching the game.

Scenario C: The littlest kid gets off his box, and the middle-sized kid takes it. Maybe Little Guy is bored with staring at the fence and wants to do something more suited to his level of ability and development. Or maybe the middle-sized kid kicks him off it. We can even imagine a scenario in which the the tall kid kicks the little kid off the box and gives it to the middle-sized kid. However it works out, you then have two kids watching the game, and the third one doing something else.

In scenario C, the little kid could run screaming for mommy, because “It’s NOT FAIR!” Or he could wander off and play with the puppy. (Yes, there’s a puppy. It’s off having fun and doesn’t care less about watching a game when it can chase/lick its own balls.) Either way, it’s important to remember that all the little kid has to do is wait a bit and, guess what, He Will Get BIGGER. Yes! In approximately the same amount of time that it took the biggest kid to grow tall enough to see over the fence while standing on only one box, the littlest kid will also become able to do exactly the same thing. All he has to do is continue to grow!

And then there’s scenario D, which is my personal favorite. In that scenario, the two bigger kids persuade the littlest one to give up his box. They then help the littlest kid get up onto the biggest kid’s shoulders, after which the middle-sized kid stands on two boxes. After a while, they all go inside for some ice cream, and then they play with the puppy.

Looking at this a different way … If conditions had been “fair” in the primordial sludge, do you think anything would have bothered to crawl out of it?

What do you think about politically correct memes about fairness and justice? Do you think there might me more than two options to choose from?