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Archive for the ‘good neighbors’ Category

I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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The Undoing Racism training I’m attending is two and a half days. Ours will also have a day-long follow-up session next month. It’s been really interesting so far. In part, because the information and the way it’s shared is great. In part, because the facilitators are strong. In part, because I’ve met people I’ll definitely want to keep knowing after tomorrow’s session ends. In part, because some of those people are people I’ll get to work with, and it’s great to know they’ll have the same anti-racist foundation/vocabulary I have as we work on policy and programs. And in part, because two of the group members have had the courage to open themselves and be vulnerable in front of the group.

There’s the brave honesty of one of the white men in the group who is struggling with much of what he’s been hearing. I’m impressed with this man because I think other people reacting as strongly as he is would already have left the room. But he stays. He gets red in the face, and he’s having a hard time, but he stays.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not giving this man some kind of approval cookie for sharing his anger/pain/guilt-manifesting-as-frustration/whatever. I have no cookies — other than the snickerdoodles I bought for the group this afternoon. This man will have to deal with his feelings — or not — on his own. He’s clearly challenged and uncomfortable, and he’ll have to work out what to do about that.

No. I have no cookies, but I so appreciate him because, with his decision to be open in his resistance to the training, he gives the rest of us so much to talk about. There are other people in the group who seem equally challenged — a young white woman who has shut further and further down in her inability to express her discomfort, a biracial man (European and Asian) who seems conflicted about claiming an identity — but they are much more quiet in their struggles.

When I mentioned this training Tuesday, I said I was afraid that I’d walk into the room and see only people of color. I’m quite happy that didn’t happen. Yesterday we were a group of about 30, split almost equally, POC and white. We lost a couple of people today, but were still pretty evenly split. And maybe the evenness of that split makes talking up easier for that struggling man. I don’t know.

Our second brave one is a Black woman who talked about recognizing herself yesterday as a person who protects white people, who soothes and reassures them so they will feel comfortable, so that they can know we’re not (heaven’s forfend!) talking about them when we say all this stuff about implicit bias and white privilege.

I appreciate her for her own sake but also for mine, for the fact that I recognized myself as a protector, too, but chose to process that in my head and not aloud. While it’s true that I haven’t been much of a protector of late, the pull is still there. As soon as I hear the hurt in someone’s response to what I’ve said or written, I want to reach out and let them know how great I think they, individually, are. I’ve mostly been able to refrain from doing that. And hearing the facilitators talk directly about that yesterday was a harsh spotlight for me. And a necessary one.

I knew before I’d gone through a full hour of yesterday’s session that I would want to take this training again. Today cemented that knowledge. People often take it more than once — one of the men in our group has been six times already! — but I hadn’t expected to be ready to re-up so quickly. There’s a lot to learn about how to have these kinds of conversations from watching the ways our facilitators guide conversations and push people out of their comfort zones. And the conversations change each time because, even though the training stays the same, the facilitators and groups change each time.

So curious to see what tomorrow’s work will be. And what our one-month-later session will be in April.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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Oh yes, because there are things I want, things you will need to give me to ensure our easy interaction. And yes, I could say that respect is what you need to give me, but I’ve been saying it for years and have finally accepted that it doesn’t mean the same thing to you as it does to me.

So I’m making my demands known. Demands, making me sound like a hostage-taker. Maybe I am. My hostage is this moment, this moment that has flipped a switch for me, for so many people. I’m holding it and holding it. Holding it as if there’s a forever-fermata hovering overhead just now. Holding it and holding it, stretching it and myself. Will I post other things? Of course I will. At the very least, I’m only halfway through my 30-stories run, so there will be stories. But for today there are demands. Listen up.

1. Stop telling me slavery ended in the 1860s. Stop. Because, obviously, I know that. But — and this is the big bit — slavery’s end doesn’t mean slavery never happened, doesn’t mean all of the social and institutional constructs that were put in place to keep me down never existed, don’t still exist.

2. Stop telling me your family never owned slaves. Mostly you should stop because there isn’t ever a reasonable context for telling me this, and you just sound ridiculous. But also, it’s likely that you don’t know this for a fact, so you should just stop. I know you want to tell me this maybe-fact about your family because you think it explains something. You think it will help me see that all this “racism stuff” doesn’t have anything to do with you. You never owned a slave a day in your life. Yes, well …

2b. I am no longer going to do your homework for you. Go look up “white privilege” for your own self.

3. Stop telling me I need to “get over” slavery/Jim Crow/racism. Let’s play pretend: You have debilitating arthritis that causes you pain nearly every day of your life. Every once in a while, the pain is so severe, you complain. And when you complain to me, I say, “Oh Lord, not with the arthritis again! Can you give that a rest already and get over it?”

Wasn’t that a fun game? Didn’t you feel heard, valued, cared for, understood? No? Well, get over it! (See what I did there?)

Racism isn’t something to “get over,” like a cold or a broken leg. Would that it could be so simple. And, even if it were something to be gotten over … I’m actually not the one who needs the cure. Just let that sink in your mind for a minute.

4. From this point forward, I will no longer entertain any sentences that include the words, “not to be racist, but …” or rephrasing of same. You and I both know that when you say these words you’re thinking they excuse whatever racist thing you’re about to say. They don’t. Period. My hand is up in your face as you try to defend yourself. Stop.

5. Just as I will no longer do your homework for you (see item 2b above), I am no longer willing to be your understanding of the monolithic body of Black People. I represent myself. I talk about things that piss me off. The things that piss me off may also piss off other black folks, but I don’t speak for them. I don’t need you to listen to what I say and then follow up with some nonsense about how you “didn’t know black people felt that way.” I want you to fix this, but I’m willing to understand your confusion. You may be thinking of “black people” as a collective noun, and we all know that collective nouns are singular. Absolutely correct. However, collective nouns — the glee club, the army, the prom committee, the senate — are made up of individuals. Individuals who may all be part of that collectively described group but who rarely think and feel the same way about all things (please refer to, ahem, the senate). So you are welcome to be surprised that I feel some kind of way about something, but you need not assume that what I think is what all black people think. After all …

5b. I am equally unwilling to listen when you try to convince me that what I feel and think is somehow wrong or invalid because you’ve heard of some other black person who doesn’t agree. I can easily accept that there are plenty of other black folks who don’t get pissed off by the things that piss me off. When I tell you that something is irking the crap out of me, when I tell you that a particular comment is racist, I don’t need you to hold up for me some random other black person you know (or know about) who disagrees. Do you agree at all times with every other person in your particular racial or ethnic group? In your family group? I’m guessing not. Also, please refer to item 3 from the grievance list. Those folks may be singing the song you’d rather hear. That’s on them. That’s on you. That has nothing at all to do with me and what’s on my mind.

Maybe you think pointing out what you perceive as dissension in the ranks is just some friendly Devil’s Advocate playing, helping me see perspective. You got no takers here. And the devil? Already has more than enough advocates. You need to sit down. Maybe read something while you’re keeping your mouth shut.

6. Stop telling me that police officers have difficult jobs. You’re right, of course. They do have difficult jobs. That’s one reason most of us can’t and don’t want to be police officers. That’s also why police officers all went to the Police Academy to be trained to do their very difficult jobs. By telling me how hard it is to be a cop, are you saying police work is so hard that it’s impossible to properly train officers? Are you suggesting that police officers have no ability to assess the stressful situations they find themselves in while doing their difficult jobs? Are you saying that the situations which have led to numerous armed, actively-violent white people being arrested and not killed were somehow less difficult than being faced with an unarmed black person? Again, I have to tell you to take a seat. Take several.

7. Stop telling me you’re colorblind, that you don’t see color, that you don’t see me as black. No one believes you. Even you don’t believe you. Being colorblind isn’t even desirable. If you can’t see color, you can’t see me at all. If you can’t see color, you’re negating all the work people of color have done to make this country. And maybe that works for you, but I’m not interested. Seeing color isn’t the problem. Seeing color and deciding that mine is “wrong” or “bad” is the problem. Seeing color and telling me the job is already filled, or the apartment is no longer available is the problem. And really: the idea that you don’t see me as black? Come on, people. Let’s never, ever go there again.

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It’s a lot all at once, isn’t it? And this is only a piece of the list! But we’re at a good moment now, a chance for you to step into the national conversation, to listen rather than jumping in with your convo-killing, “We need to stand together,” business. Maybe you really want us to stand together, but remember what I told you last time: all of us standing together to face racism means you coming to stand over here with me, not vice versa. That’s not up for debate. For many of you, it may also mean keeping your mouth shut for a while.

In this moment, you have an opportunity to have what may be your first real conversation about race in America. You can do this. And you have to.

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Yeah, so the whole Paula Deen mess.  I don’t want to talk about it.  Instead, I’ll invite you to read Cassandra Jackson’s Huffington Post piece.

Dear White Folks who are freaking out over Black Folks’ use of the N-word:

I realize that it is disturbing to think that there might be one privilege that black people have that white people do not. Therefore, I am going to set the record straight. I have compiled a list of things that black people cannot say. This list is by no means complete. I am hoping that readers will add more items in the comments section for your further edification.

I love the challenge she throws out, and have spent much of my free thought time today thinking of my own list of things black people cannot say.   There are other things to talk about, of course (there’s Rand Paul, there’s how race affects whether or not online daters will respond to a message from you — see, I knew when I wrote about that nonsense, it wasn’t just about me!).  Chief on my mind lately has been the ugly, annoying fact that it has taken reporters and news anchors this long to stop saying, “the Trayvon Martin trial,” that it’s taken them this long to hear themselves, to acknowledge that they need to say, “the George Zimmerman trial,” that saying the first phrase is saying that Martin is the one accused of a crime … of course, we all know he has been accused (convicted, sentenced, and punished) of the dread crime of being a young black man minding his own business, but that’s a conversation for another day.

For today, I am disappointed that the comments section beneath Jackson’s piece is full of people arguing about the use of “the N-word,” not offering up additional items to add to her fine list of things black people cannot say.  So I’ll offer up one of my own:

A black person attending a King Day celebration at the senior center where she works cannot say to the frail, elderly white man who has just gotten up to sing his tribute to MLK that singing “Dixie” and “Mammy” isn’t actually a fitting tribute.  She can start to approach the confused singer, but she will find herself slapped down by her boss who will tell her to understand that the singer comes from a different time and that she should just accept the well-meaning intention.

Oh, is that too specific an example?

Never mind me.  Read my friend Samuel’s excellent piece instead.

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It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!
See what the other slicers are doing over at Two Writing Teachers!

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And, just to show that my bad mood isn’t all-encompassing …

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Every so often, we plan a happy hour hang out for all the people I work with — staff from my agency and staff from all of our partner agencies, too.  Tonight, “happy hour” was bowling.  We had a bit of a crowd, a couple dozen of us showing the rest of the alley … just what we didn’t have!  I love bowling, but I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t bowl to save my life.  I’ve always said that, as long as I can hit my age, I’m happy, but that was easier 20 years ago.  We played two games.  I beat my age by 33 in the first game, and in the second game (after the margaritas) I beat my age, but only by 3.  And now we know: Stacie + tequila + bowling = not a good plan.  Fun, as was the goal, was had by all.  Next up? Karaoke!  That should be very interesting …

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Pick up a spare slice over at Two Writing Teachers!

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Today I had the pleasure of going to a great workshop hosted by the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective.  The workshop was about writing proposals for creative projects.  The workshop was led by a lovely, lovely woman with whom I’ve taken two online writing workshops.

I was interested in today’s session because I want to get more serious about applying for writing residencies.  I’ve applied in the past and always run into the wall of the artist statement, having no idea how to write one: what should I include, what shouldn’t I include, how do I talk about myself and my work in a way that is compelling but doesn’t sound arrogant, and on and on.

The workshop was led by Minal Hajratwala. One of the things I love about her workshops is that she always pushes you to develop next steps at the end so that you walk out with a plan for how to proceed.  And today was no different.  I have a pre-next-steps step to take, however, which is to decide what residencies I want to apply for this year.  So that’s my task to complete by the time I go in for my surgery.  That way I can be working on my applications as I recuperate.

I love having my brain switched on in new ways.  I love intelligent, gentle, funny people.  I love honest sharing and empathetic listening.  I love facilitators who know how to create safe space.  I love feeling welcome.

This afternoon was my compassionate give-back from the cosmos after Friday night’s ugliness.  And I offer up a hands-over-my-heart, head-bowed “Thank you.”

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See all of the day’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.

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Today I woke up thinking about last night’s concert. One tiny bit in particular was stuck in my brain, playing on a loop. One of the choruses sang a medley of American folk songs called “Country Dances.” Deep into it, buried among harmless things such as “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” and “Buffalo Gals,” I was surprised to hear: “Look away, look away, look away, Dixieland,” a relatively harmless snippet of “Dixie.”

I guess I don’t think of “Dixie” as a folk song, but I also guess that that’s a mistake on my part.  Some inside part of me bristles at hearing it in the middle of a classical music performance, sung by a chorus of college students, validated by a conductor in tails.  A quick review of the lyrics forced me to admit that they really are harmless, but my automatic reaction persisted.  And worse — thinking so much about the song put it in my head all day long!  Every thought-pause was filled with it.  Not ideal.

But then I remembered this story and had to smile:

About a thousand years ago (when I was 20), I went to London.  I was traveling with my friend Eva, and my mother had arranged for us to stay at the home of a man whose daughter she worked with.  He lived in a pretty suburb of London and had a big old house that he was rattling around in mostly alone.  Eva and I were more than happy to have free lodgings complete with a housekeeper and a cook.

The housekeeper, in my memory, was a very tall, very buxom, very blond woman with a big voice and laugh.  She was helpful with mass transit directions and ideas for how to spend our time.  As we prepared to leave for our first day out of the house, she made a big show of introducing us to the doorbell.  It was a crazy doorbell, a really large contraption that played music when you rang and had a selection of something like 50 songs to choose from.  Eva and I read through the list and set it for “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” … and when we got back to the house that night, it was — yes, of course — playing “Dixie.”

We thought that was weird, but we reset it for “Twinkle Twinkle” and went on with our evening.  Same thing happened the next day.  And the day after that.  We set the bell for another song, thinking maybe there was something wrong with “Twinkle Twinkle.”  Same story.  We got back to the house that night, rang the bell and heard the tinny, anonymous wish to be in the land of cotton.

This went on for several days.  Finally, the housekeeper noticed us messing with the bell.

“I think it’s broken,” she said, waving us away.  “I keep setting it to play “Dixie,” and it keeps changing the song.”

Yeah.  We all had a laugh when we realized what had been happening, but I asked why she’d been setting it for that song in particular.  She looked truly surprised by my question.

“I wanted you to feel at home!”

Oh.  That.

Dixie.   It doesn’t go away, doesn’t get lost, keeps circling back.

And then I remembered the amazing short story by Percival Everett called “The Appropriation of Cultures.” It’s a great story. In it, Everett pushes us to take a different look at the song. (You can hear it read wonderfully on NPR’s Selected Shorts. It’s truly fabulous.)

Hearing that bit of “Dixie” last night was a push for me, a reminder that — as with all things — I need to stop looking away and unpack my own reaction.

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You can read the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers.

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