Tag Archives: racism

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The Headwinds of Change

Sailing is like wizardry, computers, or electricity to me. No matter how many times people have explained how it works, how much I’ve read about it, or how many times I’ve seen its observable reality as a means of movement and transportation, it’s still an utter mystery and I’m stunned it actually works. I acknowledge that the words used to describe the forces at play make a kind of sense, but in the inner part of my mind, let’s be real – it’s an amazing superpower we’ve discovered and pretend is normal (c.f. consciousness, the taste of tomatoes and cheese together, music, and the way we feel when making eye contact with animals).

One of the few things I understand intuitively about sailing is that it is a balancing act of precision and flux. When sailing into the wind, to move forward as efficiently as possible, you often have to find the place to put your sails that is as close to being straight into the wind as you can get, without going too far to the other side and having the wind blow back around behind the sail. It is a process of finding and creating the perfect arc, which depends on all kinds of factors including wind speed, temperature, water conditions, drag, but ultimately, magic. When you find that sweet spot and hold it, the boat snaps into place and literally sings – you can feel it soaring just-there, like humming in exact resonance with a pure pitch in music. It is as exhilarating as if you suddenly took flight because, in a lot of ways, you have.

When learning to sail into the wind, it takes a Sisyphean process of trial and error. You edge closer and closer, then hit a wake in the water or jerk the tiller a little too far and get a gust of wind that makes all your sheets blow around like mad (luffing), so you have to pull back. It is enormously tempting to overcorrect and pull back so far away from the wind that you fall off from it entirely, sometimes even accidentally making a tack and spinning in circles, so you not only lose ground but become convinced that the direction you were headed was impossible anyway. With perseverance, patience, and confidence in the boat and the particular variety of magic in the universe you’ve chosen to recognize, you can not only learn to sail into the wind, but find it is one of the fastest and most exciting ways to move forward.

I use sailing as an analogy all the time for vastly complex experiences of being human that I struggle to discuss in their own terms. Love, and our ability to care for other people (even those we’ve never met) is another form of magic that we often take for granted. I have never been able to fully explain the overwhelming emotional response I feel when I read about terrible things that have happened, cruelties and hurts inflicted on innocents, and injustices in the world. That visceral, raw feeling is a scary and seemingly too-powerful headwind, and I recognize that my inclination (and I suspect most people’s) is still toward self-preservation, to turn away from it and to adjust my course to something easier, if slower-moving or regressive. A nice distraction by switching to an article about fashion or a quiz about what 1980s movie boyfriend I might have had often eases me out of it.

This week we have been at the confluence of some dizzying, terrifying winds. So many times I have literally closed my eyes and said, “It’s just too much,” before retreating away from reality. That is the path of cowardice and selfishness, so I know I need to come back and face it.

I have not been able to wrap my mind around the scale of terror experienced by the residents of Grenfell Tower in London, nor the intense coupling of helplessness and rage that the families of the fire’s victims must feel. It is beyond trying to put myself in their shoes and imagine how I’d feel because they are occupying a headspace that no person should ever have to. To know a loved one’s life might have been spared if the building owners had sprung for the fire-resistant cladding, a sprinkler system, or repairing the faulty refrigerator that seems to have started the whole disaster is a scope of cruelty and dehumanization beyond the conscionable. In the decision between human safety and cost-saving, it was ultimately decided that these lives were not worth enough to justify the extra expenses. How can a person ever reconcile that fact with the unutterable scale of grief?

The targeted shooting of Republican members of Congress at an early morning baseball practice in Alexandria this week was not just a senseless act of violence by a delusional man. He was intentional and calculating in attacking what he believed were the advocates and crafters of inhumane policy. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s A+ NRA rating and open advocacy of unrestricted Second Amendment liberties is not ironic or coincidental, but it is also by no means a reason why any such act of violence should be seen as anything but the horror it is. The shooter was not lashing out against the system, but is rather a product of it, the inevitable extension of increasing tolerances of cruelty, hatred, and dehumanizing violence being perpetrated daily.

Put more directly, I am deeply concerned with the erosion of the social contract of the sanctity of life. In many conversations about escalating police violence and extrajudicial executions, I am flummoxed by those who are able to justify these warped and brutal actions with thinking along the lines of, “The rules of law and order are clear, and if you break them, your life is forfeit.” (That is an actual quote from last summer that made me physically ill with disgust.) I guess on the very surface it seems like sound or defensible logic, and it gives people comfort to believe that the system is fair and those who die at its hands broke the rules, but… that is not actually what our society stands for. The deal is not “Follow all traffic laws or you may be executed.”

Last summer, I was shaken to my core by Philando Castile’s death. Everything I read and saw about the traffic stop – from both sides – had me honestly shocked that a man could do nothing wrong but end up shot seven times in front of his girlfriend and her child then left to bleed out and die. I asked those among my friends and family who are the strongest proponents of Second Amendment rights and responsible gun ownership what he could or should have done differently. We debated it for an uncomfortably long time, and the best rationalization one person came up with was that sometimes police officers just get “jumpy” when they are afraid. I don’t want to alienate everyone I know who disagrees with me, but I was so frustrated that our conversations kept turning toward the loss of police pensions or reduced pay as a reason why less qualified officers are on the force, or how maybe the media is actually to blame for constantly portraying men of color as the bad guys in fiction. And yet, I don’t think I successfully convinced anyone that a police officer killing an innocent man should be as alarming to them as it was to me.

No one enjoys confronting the ugly realities of racism and prejudice in America. We are a nation that was built on the massacre of Native Americans and the mass enslavement of African and Caribbean people. There is no history of America without subjugation, violence, and dehumanizing cruelty. We can’t pretend that’s not what happened, we can’t attempt to justify it by saying, “Yeah, but lots of people had slaves then,” or the most bafflingly racist argument I hear a lot, “You know there was slavery in Africa before white people, right?” The ongoing violation of the sanctity of lives of people of color is undeniably real, and it can be traced in a direct line through reluctant abolition, Jim Crow laws, desegregation, and our current iterations of institutionalized racism.

I realize that the deflection tactics and denial I see around me (and in myself) are driven by fear. It is easier to believe that people who lose their lives because of implicit racial biases had a failing of personal responsibility or behavior than to confront such a massive and terrifying headwind of normalized racism and violence. We want to believe that our system is set up fairly to protect people and respond with justice to crime because it allows us to feel basically safe and sleep at night. If we (white people here) don’t do anything obviously wrong, then we should not expect to be shot dead in our cars or in the street. We tell ourselves that we’re not criminals in the capital-C sense (a little jaywalking, some underage drinking and weed in college, or low-level white collar crimes aside), so when people of color are killed in extrajudicial executions, they must have done something wrong, they must be criminals, and there must be more to the story. Facing full-on that our society treats the bodies and lives of some as lesser, or that the system was established to protect property over lives, or that the militarization of police forces is a cynical scheme to maximize profits for weapons manufacturers that has nothing to do with public safety, or that so many of the forces that are endangering our fellow Americans are in place out of greed, and not humanitarianism – that’s a gale-force terror.

I don’t need to have been in the courtroom to know what went wrong in the miscarriage of justice that acquitted the man who killed Philando Castile. I already know what happened and why, and I am once again outraged and disgusted at a soul-level. It hurts my heart that his is another name to add to the list of lives taken carelessly for no reason, with no justice. But it just plain breaks my heart that people of color are told once again that their lives matter less than others. I will never stop fighting against this reality – but that means facing it first.

I have taken to heart something a friend said when I was texting him tearfully in the middle of the night last November wondering what was wrong with my country. “If you didn’t even talk to your own friends and family about the issues you’re so upset about, who should have? I know you didn’t want to get in fights, but was it someone else’s job to help them see another perspective?” He was not born and raised in America, so maybe he is able to see it more clearly than we can, or maybe he is just way smarter than me, but his words echo for me often. I live in a city where the majority of the people I encounter every day share my values and espouse more progressive, humanitarian ideals. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that this same city is one of the most culturally and racially diverse on the planet, so I have had countless opportunities to know and understand people with different experiences in life than me. New Yorkers are generally solidly good, kind, and fair people, no matter what fearful tourists may feel, and I think it comes from living harmoniously with such a vibrancy of beliefs, backgrounds, and sheer volume of interacting with others that we have to learn patience, tolerance, and compassion. So how do you bring those lessons and that respectful open-mindedness to people who have never met a Muslim or Jewish person in their lives and genuinely believe they are evil? How do you help people who live in economically, racially, and ideologically segregated areas of the US understand the commonalities of experience and humanity that bind us all worldwide? How can empathy be cultivated where it’s lacking?

I similarly do not believe it’s merely coincidence that a greed-driven mass loss of life in London, a terroristic shooting in Virginia, and the acquittal of an innocent man’s killer should all fall in a row in the same week as the two-year anniversary of the Charleston church shooting, one of the more grotesque modern-day hate crimes. The universe is not ironic, but purposeful here, and the winds are gathering force. We are at an inflection point in history, where we can choose to face them head-on, to confront the harsh and unsettling realities of the erosion of the sanctity of life in the face of greed in our society. We can decide to make massive and essential changes in forward progress because we are unified in our common humanity and belief in the sanctity of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. Or we could turn away from the wind, retreat into partisan squabbling and the distractions of constant corrupt administration scandals, declare we are exhausted of politics or “divisiveness,” and lose ground.

I am not giving up on America or the sanctity of life. I am not letting the people I love avoid reality or accept unjust inequality rooted in hate and ignorance. We can’t close our eyes or look away, and we must not abandon ship.

All human life is sacred. No human life is inherently better or more valuable than another, especially on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, or ability. Human life is more important than profit, property, or power. We need a new social contract that unifies us in the sanctity of life; this change only truly happens in the hearts and minds of our fellow humans when we can see each other as equals. I will never stop facing into this wind and steering as hard as I can toward positive change.

Learning racism is present-tense




We were about this age.

I vividly remember when I learned that racism was not just an historical problem. We were driving from New Jersey to Virginia to visit family for Thanksgiving. After several long hours in the car, we stopped to get gas in Manassas at a station with a market attached. There was a queue for an available pump, so my mother took my brother and me into the market to get snacks and drinks. We were elated when she said, “Get anything you want, but just one thing,” and we took our time carefully selecting packets of cookies and chips, with the plan that we’d split them and effectively each get two snacks (we were in first and second grade, this was the height of cleverness for us). As my brother hemmed and hawed over whether he actually wanted chips (which he knew I did) or maybe beef jerky instead (yuck) my mother got drinks and hustled us along to the register queue about a half dozen or so people deep.

“Ma’am, you come on up here, I can ring you up,” the cashier said, waving my mother ahead of everyone else waiting. She looked around confused, and it slowly started to sink in that he was waving her ahead of all the Black customers waiting. She shook her head, said, “No, I’m not next.”

I saw a shadow cast over my mother’s face as she realized what we hadn’t yet, as the cashier insisted, “Oh yes you are, come on up.”

Another customer turned to my mother and said, “Just go. He’s not going to ring any of us up until he’s done with you.”

My mother was aghast, grabbed everything out of our eager hands, and plunked it all on the counter. “I don’t want any of this anymore,” she said in a measured tone, “and I don’t want to do business with anyone who treats their customers like this.” She gestured toward the queue and finished, “You should be ashamed of yourself, man,” then pulled us out the door.

We caught up with my father just before he was about to start pumping gas and she insisted we leave. He protested that he didn’t want to stop again in holiday traffic, and she gave him that hell-hath-no-fury-like-an-Irishwoman-scorned look we all know so well. We all got back in the car and left, stopping at the next exit we saw for by then badly needed gas.

My brother and I were perplexed and tried to make sense of what all that had been about, when my father said quietly, “I just can’t understand racism. What a hateful thing.” I remember piping up, “Daddy, what do you mean racism?” and my parents started a conversation that has been going on in our family ever since. He is a big Civil War buff, so he started with a refresher crash course on slavery and how some people in the South or other parts of the country still mistreat Black people.

“Because they were on the other side of the war?” I asked naively, and he backed up to clarify that no, the abolitionists in our family fought against slavery, that it was never white people versus Black people, and my brother asked, “Then why did we make them slaves if they weren’t our enemies?”

God bless my parents, they kept on unflinching through our onslaught of questions and confusions for the rest of the car ride, tackling white supremacy, the KKK, the Civil Rights movement, and Affirmative Action, which was all over the news in the early 1980s as people were bitterly calling it “reverse discrimination.” We kept coming back to the question that started it all for us, “So why was that man waving Mommy ahead of everyone else?” We literally couldn’t wrap our minds around the idea that he was showing preferential treatment not because my mother was young and pretty with small children – as there were Black mothers with even younger children than us waiting – but he wanted the Black customers to know he thought less of them than us. That he wasn’t being polite, he was being pointedly hostile because he had hate in his heart. We were appropriately stunned.

Once our eyes were open, we started to actually see racism around us, to notice the way people of color were treated compared with us, to hear the names they were called and the way people spoke about them or made them feel threatened. We were raised to have empathy and recognize people of all races as just like us, but we were also made aware of the unfair privilege we sometimes had for being white and how that was used against other people. We tried to follow my parents’ example of speaking up and not supporting people who were racist, and I wish I could say it was easy, but I still fail to do enough to this day. I’m trying a lot harder now.




© Michael Galinsky, Malls Across America, via RUMUR

Later on that same trip, my mother took my brother and me to a shopping mall to get school clothes at the post-Thanksgiving sales (this was before Black Friday was such a huge thing as it is now). As we approached the entry to the mall, we saw a Black woman with a stroller and two small children, struggling to get through the door without letting go of the children’s hands. A parade of white customers walked by her through another door without helping, some pointing at her, laughing, and talking to each other about her. A mall security guard stood nearby looking on with amusement. As we got into earshot, we saw two women shove by, sneering loudly, “If she can’t manage them all, maybe she shouldn’t have so many children,” then letting the door slam on the stroller.

“That woman looks like she needs some help,” my mother said, and we rushed over. My mother helped pull the stroller through while my brother held the children’s hands to keep them close by. The woman looked sadder than I’d ever seen an adult look in public and said to my mother with her eyes downcast, “Thank you, ma’am. You didn’t have to do that.” My mother just said breezily, “Oh come on, every mother needs help sometimes. I can’t believe everyone else was ignoring you.” “Oh, I guess you’re not from around here,” the woman said. They shared a meaningful glance and wished each other a good day.

As we were walking away, I said something cheerful and self-congratulatory like, “I’m glad you stood up for that lady, Mommy! And I’m glad we held the door for her because she’s Black.”

My mother was quick to correct me, “No, baby, we hold the door for other people and help them when they need it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Complacent is complicit

A few years ago, I wrote about what I believed to be a racist incident on the bus in Staten Island. When I got home, I made a formal complaint with the MTA, I wrote that blog post, I posted some things on Twitter, and I gave further details through several follow-up phone calls with the MTA. But I was deeply ashamed of myself when someone asked me if I said something while it was happening, and I had to admit no, not really, I sort of made an upset face and grumbled a little along with everyone else. My objection was obviously so opaque that a fellow rider mistook me for being complicit in supporting the bus driver’s almost certainly racially-motivated mistreatment. I haven’t forgotten the shame of knowing I should have done more.

Later that summer, Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, and Eric Garner was killed by police a few blocks from where I lived. I saw my neighborhood erupt in protests, and it was the first time I heard “Black Lives Matter” being chanted. I happened to be moving out of Staten Island the weekend of the biggest demonstration, and I had to keep begging my way through barricaded streets with a truck to get between my building and a storage locker I’d rented. I supported the protestors, both in their message and their right to peacefully protest, but I didn’t stop to join them in solidarity because I had too much stuff going on at the time. And back then, I foolishly wasn’t sure if it was “safe,” if I’d be seen as an ally or as part of the problem.



As the number of black Americans who died through extrajudicial executions and lethal force by police escalated, I didn’t know what to say or do. I felt like maybe it was pandering or lip service if I posted hashtags or articles, I worried it would appear to be some kind of self-promotion (on Twitter especially), and I thought I didn’t have anything to say that wouldn’t be insultingly banal and potentially damaging to the message being spread by friends who were better educated on the issues and more directly affected by the systemic racism threatening black lives. It was a feeling of paralysis, where I didn’t know if I should apologize on behalf of white people, start calling out friends who went the #alllivesmatter and #bluelivesmatter route, write letters to my representatives, or just cover my head with a pillow and cry.

I think a lot of people didn’t know how to respond, and the tone was guarded, if not outright defensive in the early days, when it was still possible to believe these were isolated incidents. I understood that response because I was raised to believe with all my heart in egalitarianism and to stand against racism and other forms of bigotry. I didn’t want to believe it was really happening so brutally. And in my mind, if I wasn’t racist, how could I be part of the problem?

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me after I got back from India the next summer, when my personal life was imploding, and it became viscerally, painfully real to me. The threats to black lives were not just abstractions of systemic racism, and the violence done against black Americans and other people of color didn’t just start in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered. Coates argued – and I agreed – that the violence is built into the system, and some people are so stuck in the system that they can’t even see the everyday, depersonalizing violence anymore. To continue in the system with complacency is to be complicit in perpetuating the violence.

I realized that not speaking up and not joining in the protest against extrajudicial executions, cover-ups, falsified evidence and reports, and systemic racism while it’s happening is not okay. For as talkative as I am with my friends, I can be shy and tend to clam up in public. I would cling to the WASP prerogative of minding my own business, but I realized that letting people say racist things in front of me on the subway or in my neighborhood gave the message to my neighbors and fellow riders that I agreed and was complicit in the racism. It has not been easy, but I’ve been making myself speak up in the moment instead of just posting the ugly things that were said on Twitter or Facebook (or, let’s be real, tearfully texting them to my mom). I recognize that as a white woman I have undeserved privileges, and I’ve been trying to use them to intervene or deescalate situations in person, or at the very least reintroduce humanity into interactions where someone is being mistreated because of race or perceived religion. I know that’s not anywhere near enough, but I do think it’s important to show people they have an ally and an advocate in me, that I will try my best to help them if they need it, and I will be an honest witness if anything bad happens.



A well-meaning friend suggested to me, when I was particularly upset about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, that dwelling on it wouldn’t change anything, and I should focus on my art and my own life. I have asked myself often, as I imagine a lot of people have in this election cycle, how I might have responded to Hitler’s rise to power and the beginning of the Holocaust. Would I have gone about running my business as usual, meekly trying to stay out of the Nazis’ way and hoping it all blew over? Would I have rebelled, protecting the Jewish members of my community and other persecuted groups and helping them escape, or would I have focused on keeping my own family safe and been afraid to speak out or take risks? If I were alive in 1968, would I have marched for civil rights and equality, or would I have quietly enjoyed a white suburban existence and hoped for the best?

It haunts me to think of the consequences of complacency, so when I was once again reeling from the shootings of Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, I asked myself these questions again. I came across a quote from Desmond Tutu, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” I couldn’t get that idea out of my head, and I couldn’t stand sitting at home passively wishing things were different. I decided to go to a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Manhattan last week, and as unfoundedly nervous as I was, I reassured myself that my role was to listen, and to show solidarity and support. I abhor the idea of anyone feeling like they are seen as lesser or even hated in our society because of their race, so it was important to me to take a stand for what I believe in.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the very first sign I saw as I approached the group in Union Square read, “White silence is complicity.”



When I got home that evening I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail, which I strongly recommend as a relevant and worthwhile read on injustice and the spirit of the Civil Rights movement. In a passage that feels like it could have been written yesterday (save for the anachronistic term “Negro”) Dr. King expressed surprise and disappointment that the group who most let him down were the white moderates:

“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

He continued to challenge the idea that “law and order” means anything if it is used to reinforce or deny injustice and inequality:

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

(Seriously, give it a read.)

In recent weeks, I’ve noticed an increasingly ugly backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and the inherent bias at work is so glaringly obvious it’s nearly blinding. People exculpate their ignorance by saying the media is biased (for example only showing looters in Charlotte, but not the hours of peaceful prayer ceremonies and nonviolent protest before), they cling to absurd alt-right theories that Black Lives Matter is some kind of terrorist organization trying to incite violence (literally the opposite), they lash out at football players and fans who protest by kneeling during the national anthem and claim it is an insult to veterans and the military (ugh – that will be probably become its own post), and they twist and turn through every conversation to reframe the narrative as one where the issue is exaggerated or imagined, and no matter what, it’s certainly not their fault. I’ve been losing a lot of respect for friends and family lately, I’ve been unfriended, I’ve worn my thumbs down texting, and I’m starting to feel exhausted and like there is little hope for substantive change in my lifetime. I am still trying to argue with people that an historically oppressed group of Americans has the right to feel oppressed when just about every week they see a black man extrajudicially executed by police, and they are still trying to justify why it was that man’s fault. Or to be woefully ignorant and interpret critiques of the use of excessive force as condemnation of the police at large, or any of a host of other deflection tactics.

But I keep wanting to ask: What do you have to lose by listening and considering an experience other than your own?

I refuse to live quietly and complacently anymore in a country that would rather let innocent people die or people of color question the value of their lives, than to examine and try to change their inherent biases. I refuse to let fear or self-centeredness rule my decisions, and I will not let injustices go by without comment anymore. Like many white people, I could have the luxury to be passive and pretend these issues don’t affect me, claim I just want to stay out of the fray and mind my own business, but that will never sit right with my conscience because, to quote Dr. King again, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The climb is steeper and more uphill than I thought. So my goals in engaging my friends, family, and self will now start a little simpler.

  1. Listen with empathy and compassion.
  2. Think critically, do research, question the media, and examine your biases and those you see in others.
  3. Acknowledge there is a real problem, and that it’s your problem too.
  4. Recognize that complacency is complicity, and that if you don’t stand up for what’s right, you are standing on the side of oppression.
  5. Ask: what can I do to help raise awareness, fight injustice, and make life better?
  6. Do the work with joy and pride, in a spirit of love and compassion.

I need to believe humanity is capable of improving, and that eventually we’ll all get on the right side of history. But I see it starts one person at a time.