Tag Archives: racism

What will happen if I don’t?

Last Friday, on a Portland light rail train, a white supremacist verbally abused and threatened two nonwhite teenage girls (one of whom was wearing a hijab) and then stabbed three men who tried to intervene, killing two of them.

Since I first learned about this horrific incident, I haven’t been able to think of much else.

For me, public transportation is a space to feel and be a part of my community. And a crowded train in broad daylight is one of the safest places I can imagine. I am not naïve. I know that sharing space with others isn’t always easy or pleasant and that transit reflects all of who we are, including our ugliness. What happened in Portland last week was a reminder that the ugliness can surface at any time, even in broad daylight on a crowded train.

When I was in my teens and early twenties, I endured near constant harassment by grown men — on transit trips and otherwise. And, like every person of color in this country, I have experienced my share of name-calling and other forms of direct, in-your-face racism. I know that feeling of vulnerability, the stress of staying vigilant and alert for the entirety of every outing, so I can easily imagine the fear, rage, and humiliation those young women felt when an unhinged stranger loomed over them spewing hate.

I can also imagine what it felt like to be on the train when the incident happened. I understand the desire to turn away from conflict or confrontation, especially if you are personally vulnerable. Rachel Macy, a passenger on that devastating ride, described her initial fear in an interview with The Oregonian.

“I didn’t want to look. I was too afraid. It felt really tense,” said the 45-year-old Southeast Portland resident of Native American descent. “I’m a woman of color. I didn’t want him to notice me.”

She found her courage a short time later, when she rushed to the aid of one of the victims and comforted him in his last moments of life.

Of course, the perceived threat was not the same for the men who did step in. Most likely, they did not imagine that the encounter would end their lives. But certainly, it would have been easier to look away, to turn up their headphones, to wait for someone else to help.

Those men did not turn away. And their decision to act with compassion and decency did end their lives.

What happened to these brave people should not be a cautionary tale; it should be a call to action. We cannot turn away from the evil that is happening around us — in our schools or workplaces or in the adjacent aisle on the train. We must stand and face it. We must defend the dignity of our fellow humans. Standing up might risk our lives, but it will save our souls.

Thank you, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher.

“The question is not, ‘if stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘if I do not stop to help [the man] what will happen to him?’” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Parable of the Good Samaritan

I’m too damn tired to think of a title for this

Yesterday morning, I had to look my children in the face and explain to them that a man who was supported by the KKK is our new president.

A. Man. Who. Was. Supported. By. The. K! K! K! Is. Our. New. President.

We are no longer in the realm of politics or policy. This is about denying others’ humanity. This is about inciting violence. This is about evil.

I have never, at least not in my adult life, felt connected to any symbols associated with the “United” States — not the flag, not the anthem, not the Declaration of Independence — none of it. I see behind and beneath all of that, to the oppression and empire building. To the individual suffering of people who are considered afterthoughts or unfortunate casualties of this great American Experiment. And I just can’t drink the Kool Aid.

What I do feel connected to, however, is this city where I was born. Not the symbols or the culture, but the place. This landscape — the mountains, the water, the trees, the rain, even the way it smells — is deeply embedded in me.


I am a descendent of people from three continents. Nearly all of my ancestors – West African, Cherokee, Choctaw, Irish – share a history of displacement. This place, where my grandparents migrated over 80 years ago, is the closest I have to homeland. My father was born here. My children were born here. My people are here: dad, brothers, nieces, nephew, lifelong friends. My doctor, my dentist. My library. My neighborhood. My beautiful neighbors. The trees I planted. My church. My kids’ school. My mother’s ashes. My grandparents’ graves. My community. My memories. My history. I am as rooted as I can ever hope to be.

But on Tuesday, that was taken from me.

I am not safe here. This is not my home.


My Chicklet is a woman’s woman. Almost as soon as she could talk, she was proudly asserting her gender identity – and allegiance. Now she’s eight and a half, and for the last few months, she’s been talking about feminism and women’s rights in ways I hadn’t even thought to introduce to her yet. Her delivery is a bit on the self-righteous and unforgiving side – she comes by that naturally (ahem) – but she’s not wrong about any of it.

Chicklet’s newfound feminism has caused some sibling tension. Whenever she makes an assertion about men’s role in women’s oppression, or asks to participate in something that is for girls only, her little brother gets upset. Really upset.

In their most recent exchange, he burst into tears as soon as the subject came up. “Don’t say stuff like that,” he sobbed. “You’re making me feel bad about my gender!”

Some background:

Sweet Busling is one of the most open-hearted, fair, and inclusive people I have ever known. In his world, the power balance is clearly tilted in favor of his older sister, whom he adores and looks up to. And, though his dad and I have been proactive about teaching the historical roots of racism, we have kept most of our discussions about gender to general concepts of equality, which Busling has taken to heart. He simply doesn’t see sexism as something that hurts women. Instead, he sees any attempt to single out or exclude someone based on their gender as wrong. And, he is personally offended by any suggestion that there is something wrong with being male.

For months, I have struggled with how to handle Busling’s reactions to his sister’s gender-related complaints and assertions. My instinct has been to comfort him, to push aside my daughter’s very valid critiques in the interest of protecting his feelings. After all, he has no context for understanding women’s oppression. And he certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. Plus, he’s my baby! Every time I look at his sweet face, I want to reassure him that everything is OK.

But here’s the thing: Everything is not OK. Sexism and misogyny pervade our culture. If I avoid or dismiss or sugar coat the truth so that my child can feel good, I have done him – and all of the girls and women he will interact with in the future – a disservice. And really, we’ve had enough recent examples of self-absorbed, entitled young men who see their feelings as more important than someone else’s freedom or safety.

solidarityMy son’s perspective about women’s equality is my responsibility. (Actually, it’s mine and his father’s, but you get the idea.) He doesn’t have any context about women’s oppression because he is new to the world, so it’s my job to provide it. This doesn’t mean I should teach him to feel bad or guilty about being a boy. Instead, I must teach him that oppressive, hierarchical systems hurt everyone, that his freedom is bound up with everyone else’s, and that it is his responsibility to challenge systems that harm people.

Experiencing my own child’s inability to recognize sexism has helped clarify many things for me, including the refusal of many seemingly sane white people to acknowledge the existence of racism. In the past, I assumed that such people feigned ignorance to mask their hostility or indifference to black and brown pain. But now, I am starting to understand that they simply have no context.

Racism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy are facts of life in the United States — part of the very foundation of our country. And yet, it is possible for white children to make it to adulthood without ever being forced to deal with this reality. Schools do not teach the truth, and parents – even those who consider themselves anti-racist – often exacerbate the problem by avoiding difficult conversations or substituting platitudes like “skin color doesn’t matter” for substantive dialog.

Of course we want our children to feel good and have a pleasant life, but our children’s comfort cannot come at the expense of justice. Parents of white children must educate their families (starting with themselves) about racism. They must teach the truth about our nation’s history. They must point out examples of racism and give their children the tools to recognize and resist it in their own lives.

We are all born into systems of oppression we had no hand in creating. Sometimes, they benefit us (in an immediate, individual sense, though certainly not in a long-term collective one); often, they don’t. Either way, it’s our responsibility to help dismantle them. Even if it’s uncomfortable.

What he said

A few months ago, my friend Dawn gave me Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, Between the World and Me, for my birthday. I had placed a library hold on the book earlier in the year, but, as is common with popular new releases, the waiting list was dozens deep. I had resigned myself to a long wait, and in a way, I didn’t mind. I had read several of Coates’s magazine pieces, so I knew his words would resonate. And, in my fragile state of generalized rage, I wasn’t sure if I was ready to sit with the weight of centuries of injustice and misery visited on people of African descent in this country.

But then Dawn popped up with a surprise at a long-overdue gathering of old friends, and I no longer had a reason to put it off. After weeks of procrastination, I finally decided to read it. I am so glad I did. Between the World and Me is absolutely mesmerizing. It touched me on many levels. And it resonated more than I could have imagined.

As I grow in wisdom and experience, as I learn what I had never been taught and unlearn so much of what I had, I am beginning to understand the deep connections between the exploitation of human beings and the exploitation of our planet. The forces that drove the transatlantic slave trade, the centuries of forced labor, colonization, and genocide are the same forces that are responsible for the razing of hills, poisoning of rivers, and clear-cutting of forests. This material greed, this disconnection from cause and effect, this propensity to elevate Self to the highest status, is behind the belief that “property owners” have the right to do whatever they want to our shared planet. It is the source of austerity politics. It drives corporations’ obsession with short-term profits. And it created the concept of race.

The rise of the automobile is this warped world view now reaching its pinnacle. And, as Coates points out in this brilliant quote, all of us, even — in fact, especially — its chief victims, will suffer as it finally collapses upon itself.

No. I left The Mecca knowing this was all too pat, knowing that should the Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline.

Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the bodies of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.

Something more fierce than Marcus Garvey is riding on the whirlwind. Something more awful than all our African ancestors is riding with the seas. The two phenomena are known to each other. It was the cotton that passed through our chained hands that inaugurated this age. It is the flight from us that sent them sprawling into the subdivided woods. And the methods of transport through these new subdivisions, across the sprawl, is the automobile, the noose around the neck of the earth, and ultimately, the Dreamers themselves.