My glasses! My glasses! I can't see without my glasses!

Category: Uncategorized

Unintended consequences

I never intended this blog to be a confessional. In fact I was desperate to keep it from being one. This was supposed to be a place to jot down my observations, to do more writing, and to occasionally indulge in some bon mots. But the road to hell is famously lined with good intentions, and I find myself writing more about myself – my boring, boring self. While this is solipsistic at best, I find that I can’t help it. The things filling my head are increasingly more introspective, and more crowded. They need to be let out, like insane children from a Victorian novel, free at least though somewhat likely to cause havoc. So much havoc.

I have paradoxically been a very private person, despite this blog. I have compartmentalized my life (for a variety of reasons, as you can see from the previous post) ,

I find my hands are unaccustomed to writing them down in my paper journals, and so I write here. It doesn’t feel as satisfying and I suppose that’s down to my own old-fashioned tendencies, and my pretension; and to my own laziness. Resigned to my fate, and uncharacteristically willing to “go with the flow”, I am pressing ahead. So … you’ve been warned. From here on, it may get messy. Be patient with me, because I’ve been patient with you all.

Passing

Looking at me, you wouldn’t think that I would be able to pass for white, but that’s something I have unknowingly been doing for most of my life. Listening to Phil Collins, wearing surfer t-shirts, dancing at 80’s nights at grungy college clubs; those things were only the outward indicators. I was surrounded by white kids, who I thought were my friends, who I studied to better mold my behavior to their own. I was white, wasn’t I?

In the 1980’s in NY, I lived in a midtown Manhattan apartment building, surrounded by white families. I smiled and waved at neighbors, and at the doorman and the receptionist. But I was clearly an outsider, clearly to everyone but myself. There were few black folks in our building. It was at the Catholic school I attended where I saw a lot of children that looked like me, riding buses and subway trains from the boroughs, to a safer place where their parents hoped would get a good education. I looked like those kids, but I wasn’t one of them, they made that clear. I was a foreign boy with a strange name, not Catholic. I spoke differently, ate different foods, hell I didn’t even play basketball or any other sport that they had heard of. I was suspicious, like liver hidden under peppers and onions by a parent trying to fool them. I did not belong. So I found a place among the other kids, at the margins. Ultimately, it was the benign neglect of the white kids vs the suspicion of the black kids. It was an easy choice really, and once the die was cast, I had marked myself.

My time in Sudan was an aberration in this regard. Surrounded by people who looked exactly like me, I was forced to face the fact that I was among my own people. That didn’t stop me hanging out with expats, and other folks, although that was mostly socioeconomic. I was also a little too soft, too foreign – or maybe that’s just how I felt.

It was in college that things began to change, ever so slightly. I was in America again, but not the America that I knew. I was in the South, but at the large school across town from the HBU (historically black university). The kids in my dorm were almost uniformly white. My black colleagues sensed my otherness and steered clear, although to be fair I had surrounded myself with white kids, and hence marked as “other”. I went to football games, clubs, coffee shops. I played table top and live action role playing games, more and more marginal. Graduate school more of the same, this time in the southwest. This is when I began to get curious, hanging out with the black graduate students, wondering if I could cross back over. I don’t want to say it was too late, but enough time had passed to make it difficult for me. I had formed my identity around this delusion I’d overlaid onto real life.

Of course, I wouldn’t have much choice. As the country has shifted right, my marginal “whiteness” has disappeared. The feeling that my blackness will be forced upon me in an encounter with the authorities has increased. The hostility towards the various aspects of me (black, Muslim, immigrant) has reached levels I could not have foreseen. My version of passing isn’t going to protect me going forward: not from my neighbors, or my in-laws, or some random person in the park. The only question left is who am I when I am not passing.

Ashen Rain

It’s fire season here in California, where the description of any day sounds like “the opening pages of a Cormac McCarthy novel” (as a friend of a friend said). The sun is red on the horizon and ash falls from the sky as we huddle in our overheated homes, afraid of the air and the death it carries on it. As it does, my heart is doubly sad to think of the places we are losing for at least a generation, with the large redwood stand at Big Basin apparently severely damaged, perhaps never to be the same. That is added to the loss of life, property and livelihood that is happening on a massive scale in the affected areas.

As all this happens, I can’t help but think of the culpability of our “leaders”, who have, at best, ignored or, at worst, exacerbated the underlying issues that have lead us here. The pandemic – while always bringing death – has had an outsize impact, due to the willful ignorance of the current administration, and petty and malicious response to anyone else trying to do something. Climate change has been ignored, and any effort to ameliorate it has been hamstrung. All in the name of a freedom which is essentially the freedom to die more horribly, and live on our knees.

All we want is to breath freely, and hold our loved ones close. It seems that ever more impediments to these simple desires are being arising everyday.

Cowardice: more investigation

Rather than post at length about the cowardice of others, I’m going to ask myself a question: am I a coward? If you’ve been following along closely, I asked myself that question after murder of George Floyd and the subsequent street protests. I did actually take to the streets after that, cautiously venturing out for the first time since the Muslim ban protests of 2017, but that hasn’t really answered my question. After all, I was being extremely cautious, returning before the curfew time that was imposed on the city, or taking part in “family friendly” protests where the likelihood of state sponsored violence was diminished by the presence of lots of little white children. So was I still a coward?

I subsequently listened to this episode of the Code Switch podcast episode (Why now, White People?) which, while it didn’t address my question directly, did give me something to think about. The title refers to why, with the overabundance of extrajudicial and summary execution of black people in America, have White People chosen this time as the time they would take to the streets. There is no pat answer, but there are several lines they follow, and one of them that interested me was the concept of “permission”. White people, by virtue of the sheer numbers of people participating, feel like they have permission to care about this. This made me irate, until I started thinking about it in terms of myself. Maybe it’s not simple cowardice, rather it’s my natural desire to not rock the boat, to conciliate. So I wait till I have permission to be angry, to protest, to speak up – or perhaps a certainty that I am not overreacting. This desire for confirmation/validation of my actions runs pretty deep and may undercut my ability to simply act. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s inherent to my personality, or part of my coping mechanism to deal with the white supremacist millieus that I have lived in. Where it came from, it has put the brakes on desire to act on issues that I care about for a long time. Now that I know this, what do I do?