22 March 2008

Typical White Person

I'm racially prejudiced and I'm not (that) afraid to admit it.

After this week's brouhaha over Obama's pastor and Obama's speech on race and Obama's comment that his grandmother was a "typical white person," I feel like beginning to talk about race, prejudice and our society.

Normally I don't have that much trouble writing posts. Usually it is keeping blog topics short and to the point that is my struggle. But writing about race is so painful and touchy that it has taken me days to get around to starting this.

Prejudiced, yeah, that's what I said. I don't mean I think my race is superior or that I deserve to be treated better than others. I just know that when I see someone, their race is one of the first things that I notice about them and that I make certain unspoken assumptions about people based on their ethnic heritage.

I was surprised to find out that some people took offense to Obama saying that a typical white person would be a little afraid when a black man passed her on the street. It seemed so normal to me. Yeah, more afraid of black men than men of other ethnicities, of course, isn't everyone?

Examining the evidence, I have no real reason to feel that way. I have lived in overwhelmingly white communities my whole life. A 5 percent black population would be high for places I have lived. No black man has ever menaced me in any way.

But because I live and breathe in this society at this time, I "know" black men are dangerous and I can't ever remember a time when that wasn't so. I would venture to say that it is almost impossible to grow up outside of black culture and see black men as whole, rounded human beings instead of caricatures.

It is to my detriment that I have not worked harder to root out my prejudices. Part of the problem is that race is such a charged issue that it is easier to keep smiling and pretending that everything is okay than it is to wade into the muck wrestle down those misconceptions. I'm also afraid that, no matter how hard I work or how much I learn, that there will still be those deeply buried subconscious bits.

I am awkward about -isms. I am eager not to offend and sometimes tie my tongue in knots trying not to say or do the wrong thing.

My hope is that, no matter what my deep-seated, hair-trigger emotions are, I can treat everyone I meet with the dignity and respect they deserve.

20 March 2008

The Screening Room

Cross-posted from Flawed But Authentic because I am still coughing too hard to write more today.

My sister Laura had a highly visible illness, multiple sclerosis. She spent the last dozen years of her life in a wheelchair, progressing from a non-powered one at the beginning to one she could steer with her chin at the end because it got so that the only part of her body she could move was her head.

She taught me a lot and I don’t mean in a “What an inspiration!” kind of way. Sure, she inspired me, but probably not any more than I inspired her. It was real life after all, not some made-for-TV movie where everything comes out fine at the end.

She was wicked and sarcastic and funny about her illness at times. She would say “I don’t know why they call it handicapped – it isn’t handy to me!” or “Don’t call me ‘differently abled’ – I prefer the term ‘gimp.’”

Then there were other periods where whole days passed in storms of tears, anger and regret. Being ill, chronically ill, is a grind like the last 5 miles of a marathon, except that it goes on for years, and it isn’t just the sick person that is running. It is the whole family, the whole tired, fragile group of humans surrounding them.

Because the illness was so visible, it acted like a living Rorschach test. I think the most frustrating thing for Laura was that people stopped reacting to her as a person. Because they saw her as a condition, a handicap, they approached her with their emotional baggage out in front of them, leading the way.

Most people wanted to know what she did to end up in a wheelchair.

“They want to know so they can believe it won’t happen to them if they just do everything right,” said Laura. “You should see how scared they are when I tell them I DID do everything right and I STILL ended up like this.”

Many, many, people wanted to “cheer her up” and gave her their fridge-magnet philosophy.
“Remember, God never gives you more than you can handle,” they would chirp. “Everything always works out for the best!”

This was always occasion for us muttering under our breath.

“God never gives you more than you can handle,” we would say. “Until He does.”

Others would grasp her hand, cock their heads to the side and blink back tears, saying “I’ll pray for you”

Prayer is a good thing, but being pitied is always unpleasant. It was only thanks to our mother’s good influence on our upbringing that Laura could be kind and gracious and not tell people where to put their pity.

“You are so brave,” others would say, making it sound like multiple sclerosis was a burning building she had rushed into.

It was fascinating to watch my sister be used as a projection screen for the fears and hopes of random strangers.

They only thought she was handling it because they wanted to believe they would handle it. They only wanted her to be brave because they hoped they would be.

The problem was that she wasn’t a projection screen, she wasn’t an illness. She was a human, a big, messy, fragile, funny, smart, complicated, miraculous human and she deserved to be treated as such.

It’s natural to want to run from our fears, or to try and fix The Bad Thing. But sometimes things can’t be fixed, can’t be outrun. Then it’s just a matter of getting through each day with all the grace, dignity and humor you can muster. Which isn’t very damn much, sometimes, but you do what you can.

18 March 2008

Goodbye Real World.

Seven strangers! Picked to live in a house! And have their lives taped...and if you don't know the rest, you are a better person than I.

True Suebob Confession: I watched season after season of the Real World, following each cast from NYC to LA to Seattle, New Orleans, Europe and points in between.

"Why do you watch THAT?" asked my friend Jack, since by then I was far past the age when someone should be interested in such juvenile brain-wasting crap.

"It reminds me of a time when everything seemed possible, when everything was so important and dramatic," I answered.

"You watch it because you are nostalgic for stupidity?" he shot back.

I had to admit "Well yeah, sorta."

After a while, though, the trick began to get old. Each cast became more and more aware that they were putting on a show, and it wasn't so fun once Oz popped out from behind the curtain.

"So which one are you?" they would ask as their roommates arrived to the fabulous new house in the amazing location. "Are you the gay one?" "Are you going to be the angry black man?"

The casting was a crucial part of the show's success in creating a story arc. You had to throw not just seven strangers, but seven diverse strangers, into the mix. That way each cast member would have Learned Something Important and Broadened Their Horizons by the final episode.

That was necessary for my continued viewing, because it satisfied my Pollyannish need to have everything come out right in the end. Something good had been done. I hadn't just wasted 12 weeks watching callow youth behave like idiots. I had been observing growth. It was practically a National Geographic special, so complex was the sociology. (Right! That's it! Complex sociology!)

In the beginning, the producers seemed to try to cast rather extraordinary people. Kids who had big ideas, big dreams, who wanted to try to launch careers - mostly in the entertainment industry - via the show.

But I hadn't seen the show for a few years. I guess I got busy being doing more important things. Like watching Wife Swap or something.

This week I spent 2 days feeling deathly ill, and, due to the lack of a TV in my home, I chose to watch ALL 24 episodes of Real World Season 19 - Sydney - in a row online. Yes I did.

It is not as bad as it sounds. Each half-hour episode, stripped of commercials, intros and teasers, runs something around 14 minutes. But 24 episodes was A LOT and it was made worse by the fact that, well, the Real World ain't what it used to be.

Am I going to waste valuable bandwidth actually serving up a critique of The Real World? Well, it's either that, or I can describe my cold symptoms or I can tell you all the ways I love Barack Obama (again).

Fine, I thought you'd see it my way. Here we go.

Crime Number One: The producers have apparently abandoned all pretense of casting diverse people. Previous casts did tend to have an annoying "United Colors of Benetton" quality, but this cast was all bleachy bleach white, with the exception of one lonely girl of Persian heritage.

There were even two skinny "blonde" (ahem-yeah-right) girls who were so identical that I was STILL confusing them 23 episodes later at the reunion show (is that the not-so-bright Christian girl or the one with the controlling boyfriend?)

Crime Number Two: while The Real World has always had more than its fair share (waaaay more, really) of on-camera hook-ups, that's all the 24 episodes of this show were about. Either people were getting freaky in the hot tub or they were fighting about who groped who first and who was entitled to grope and who wasn't.

There were about 10 minutes of them working at their fabulous Real World jobs (researching package tours for wealthy young people) and 2 minutes of any kind of introspection in the whole season. It made for a long, long two dozen episodes. If I hadn't been burning up with fever, I hope I would have abandoned the effort after half an hour or so.

I began to wonder at the editing choices. Is it possible that the cast went four and a half months without saying anything remotely interesting or intelligent? Without talking about hopes and dreams and life? Is it that 20-year-olds have abandoned that kind of youthful idealism, that MTV just wants you to think they have, or that people who watch this show only want to watch hot tub sex? I don't know which option disturbs me most.

I hope that, after all the casting hoopla MTV puts these people through, that they didn't just pick seven stunningly attractive complete idiots, but rather that the smart stuff they said was left on the editing room floor.

It's like they took out everything that made early adulthood interesting to me - the "How do I want to live my life?" questioning and searching, but left all the parts of that age that now seem so boring ("Who am I going to hook up with?" "Do they like me?" "I hate them!")

In the end, it was all quite wearying. I guess it finally hit me: what happened when people stopped being polite and started getting real wasn't more interesting than me taking a nap. Goodbye, Real World.

Do/did you watch The Real World? Who was your favorite cast member?> Mine has a blog.

17 March 2008

At least there is that

The good thing about me being sick is that I effortlessly retain my natural beauty and joie de vivre:

16 March 2008

March for Peace...in the rain

I have mentioned my protesting habit before.

Since I spent this weekend in my old town, where protesting is a way of life, what better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than marching?

My friend and I became honorary members of Code Pink, the women's peace organization, by donning our pinkest togs and heading out to the park.

We met all the usual suspects: poets, artists, Unitarians, grandmothers. It was like old home week. My old friend poet Kevin Patrick Sullivan was in fine Irish form, reciting poetry to anyone who would listen.

We were to march about 1/2 mile to the downtown area, make a 10-block lap around downtown, then gather at the government center for inspirational speeches and media coverage.

As we headed out, a few raindrops began to fall. It began to drizzle, then sprinkle (or is it the other way around?), then rain. And rain.

The line of several hundred people were in good spirits. We marched with Toni Flynn, who probably holds the title of Most Frequently Arrested Grandmother, since she makes a habit of going to jail fairly regularly for peace and social justice.

My friend and I ended up carrying a banner saying something about global women for peace for some older ladies who had grown weary along the way.

When we reached to government center we were soaked but happy. Someone with a bullhorn was yelling "What do we want?"
"When do we want it?"
But that soon got translated into
"What do we want?"

Confession: we didn't stay for the inspirational speakers, even though the MC said "Weather doesn't stop war, so it shouldn't stop us from sticking around here." The lure of hot coffee was more powerful than guilt, so we power-walked through the now-pouring rain back to my friend's apartment where we gently steamed and basked in the glow of a little social action.
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