striving for awareness| 2019.02.17

So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo | Review

Oluo, Ijeoma_So You Want to Talk About Race

Publication: New York, NY : Seal Press, Hachette Book Group, [2018]

Genre: Intercultural Communication, Racism

Pages: 248

Formats: eBook, Audiobook, Paperback

Source: MCL

Based on her title, Oluo’s purpose in writing this book seems clear enough. Her text reads somewhat like a guidebook for people who may not have had many firsthand interactions with racial issues (or who haven’t been previously aware of the racial issues they have already been a part of), and who want to realize the title’s pretty direct implication. To help her readers with this goal, Oluo tells the story of race within this book by using her personal experiences growing up and living as a black woman of biracial parents in the United States.

The real-life examples she gives are powerful, even as some of the stories may wander into the territory of being a bit uncomfortable for the white reader. On the one hand, I found the stories of Oluo trying to answer her white mother’s questions and “revelations” (emphasis mine) about race endearing, in a way, as the effort of trying to get something right when we’re talking about sensitive topics like race can be embarrassing at first, and hopefully the effort leads to productive results. On the other hand, I think a large part of why Oluo wrote this book was to challenge her readers to look at issues of race and racism even when they may be uncomfortable topics to face head-on.

In reading this book, I felt that discomfort. I am a white (and therefore inherently privileged) cisgender (another privileged position, which society is currently set up to advantage) woman. And I am privileged in so many ways because of my whiteness and because of my gender identity, even with all the non-privileged aspects that that third definition of my being (the sex I was assigned at birth) brings to the table. Oluo calls this type of awareness (or striving for awareness) “checking your privilege.” It can be weirdly cathartic to carry the victim-label (thinking of the many mantras of self-reported “suppression experiences” from white supremacy groups as an example). But Oluo seems to be asking her readers to look at all aspects of what it means to live in our current society. Through this type of open awareness, she challenges her readers to be honest about the complexity that is individual human existence while recognizing how the color of a person’s skin plays into all that they have or don’t have because of the prejudiced way our society is currently set up to function.

So after I took stock of my inherent privileges and dealt with my uneasiness at realizing that a good portion of my advantages in life are not advantages I’ve actually worked to earn, what else did Oluo’s story bring to the forefront? Her story reminded me that anyone not immediately seen by others as categorically white have disadvantages I will never know because of society’s continued prejudiced practices, and that my whiteness will remain a part of this systemic problem as long as society (with myself included in that society) refuses to recognize the manifestations, however subtle, and the root causes of racial prejudices.

In short, Oluo’s book reminded me that we as a species have a very ugly tendency toward deep-seated prejudice against anyone and everyone outside our “tribe,” and that we need to step up onto the stage of admittance before we can even begin to think about taking steps toward change. I learned I have a LOT to learn about intersectionality, and how this concept can bring better understanding to the individual, their race, and the multiplicity of other identities a person can (and has the right to) claim. I learned that being uncomfortable about the structure of our currently inherently prejudiced society (even if you or I may not feel personally responsible) is a needed first step toward driving change forward.

Lastly, and probably most poignantly, this book reinforced for me that the categorical boxes—-the stereotypes, really—-that we wrap around ourselves and others are really just illusions of a neat and tidy perspective on what is in truth very complex and messy aspects of an interracial-transgendered-cisgendered-gay-and-lesbian-black-white-brown-religious-atheist-and-it’s-really-none-of-your-business world. People are certainly much much more than the color of their skin, more than any of the categories we might be tempted to assign to them (especially without their permission). With all this in mind, I’m hoping to be able to focus more on the individual, seeing people through whatever intersectional lenses they want to claim as their very individual and personal identities.

Please note, the last chapter in Oluo’s book may be especially discomforting for some readers who are trying to reject the “categorically-boxed society” model. Again, I think this discomfort may be Oluo’s point in this book so that we can work on extricating the societal-driven prejudices in our midst. I’ll let you read it, however, and decide on your own.

looking over the fence of hatred | 2019.02.06

Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of A Former White Nationalist by Eli Saslow| Review

Saslow, Eli_Rising Out of Hatred

Publication: New York : Doubleday, [2018]

Genre: Biography

Pages: 288 | Audiobook: 9 hours 2 minutes

Formats: Hardcover, eBook, Audiobook

Source: MCL

I have the Portland Book Festival (previously and ever-enduringly known to native Portlanders as Wordstock) to thank for putting this book on my radar. On first review, the aspect of this book that impressed me most was the author’s ability to show not only the divisiveness of hatred-driven beliefs like white supremacy, but also how discussions that demand accountability can lead to change.

Saslow’s book, at its core, is a journalistic account of how a young white nationalist, Derek Black (son of white supremacy leader Don Black and protégé of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke) escaped his white supremacy roots to see the light of equality and inclusion. The story also explores the inner struggles (and rightly so) of Derek’s fellow college students as they tried to decide how to react to Derek’s presence on their New College campus in Florida. Many of these individuals had every reason, by the fact of their categorically “non-white” heritages, to hate those, like Derek, who were working to further white supremacy ideas. Yet, a few of these same students made an effort (after very careful consideration of the risks they might be taking in allowing someone like Derek to feel comfortable in his daily life) to include Derek in their circle of friends and to see him as a person with the potential for individual thought that might push him toward curious development.

While I found this astonishing, as I continued reading Saslow’s description of Derek’s journey out of hatred, the term accountability kept ringing in my mind. For it can’t be denied that Derek’s work during the time he was still an extremely active part of the white supremacy movement helped to push the harmful rhetoric of white nationalism into the mainstream of our current “patriotic” American culture.

In his introduction, Saslow explains Derek’s initial reluctance to provide interviews regarding his personal journey out of his white nationalist background. Then, in the wake of the Trump election, Derek found himself needing to be more publicly vocal against the racial prejudices he knew his past life had helped introduce into the mainstream of American opinion. While it may be difficult to reject the mantras of one’s youth, which can masquerade as comforting truths, it is arguably ten times as difficult to stand up against them in a public setting such as this book provides, not to mention the multiple news interviews Derek has given since he renounced his white supremacy upbringing starting with a letter published on the Southern Poverty Law Center website in 2013.

After marveling at Derek’s conscious decision to publicly reject his past ideas of hatred, I began thinking again about the bravery of those who helped him toward this radical change. We live in a society so quick to align, so quick to say, “You’re the enemy.” Saslow’s book, however, seems to argue that standing at impassible odds forever with our “others” only strengthens the lines of division to the point that the “us” and the “them” have no chance to see over each other’s fences. I guess we have to ask whether seeing past one another’s prejudices and opinions is the goal. When there’s a clear wrong being advocated, how do we make room enough to converse with those advocating for that wrong?

As stated above, Rising Out of Hatred is as much about Derek Black’s coming to the realization that the goals of his white nationalist upbringing are harmful, as it is about the people who had the patience to walk him through his transformation. And these were college students, no less, protégés in their own right to the millennial changes of societal awareness that have continued to push forward such awakenings as the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT movements. These are the real rock stars of this book, I feel. For these individuals were willing to see Derek as a person beyond the lines of “the enemy” while still persistently demanding Derek reject his white supremacy ideas. Their persistence seemed one of the primary catalysts that eventually led Derek to his conversion, in a way.

Overall, reading this book made me realize I have some patience to learn in seeing my own ultra conservative family members (and all ultra conservatives, who I perhaps unwittingly equate with supporters of our current incumbent) in light of the people that they are and the reasons for their philosophical tendencies instead of as pure embodiments of an “evil other.” While I personally am not quite there yet, I hope that society will continue to learn from our up-and-coming generation the practice of constructive and open conversation as well as the power of daring to take accountability seriously.

ulysses’s evil twin | 2018.12.22

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany | Review

delany, samuel r._dhalgren

Publication: Bantam Books 1975

Genre: Science Fiction

Pages: 801

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Source: MCL

Last summer, a lowly, long-distance sci-fi book group picked this one out their usual scramble for fodder to inspire great, or at least amusing, literary and scientifically-charged discussion. At the book’s half-way point by late October, two out of the three members were ready to throw in the towel. This is not an uncommon response, it seems. A good number of the book reviews I found online that tackle Delany’s masterpiece (I’m just going to boldly put that out there) focus, much like my book group in our initial stages, on the difficulty of this book.

Yes, it’s 800 goddamn pages. Yes, the writing tends toward the experimental both in style and format. Yes, the sex is explicit and detailed without the familiarity of superfluous erotica expectations, and, yes, the plot is as shadowy as Bellona’s cityscape, which Delany describes with the repetition of a rower’s oar trying to surge its owner’s escape through a haze of on-the-verge-of-continuously violent friendships that seem to offer little to no edification. (That last one was a terrible attempt at emulation, by the way. More practice needed.)

By mid-December, my book group agreed (or perhaps we agreed to disagree after we’d quit towel-tossing and got back to the business of intellectual debate) that to ask, “What happened?” in the midst of this book’s circular-reasoning mire of philosophical quandaries was to miss the point of the book completely.

Instead, we found this is the type of book that pulled out all the stops, tackling race, sexual expectations, social norms, the sham of economics, the impenetrable fortress of humanistic religion (is there any other kind . . . really?), identity, gender, ageism, literary form, and every other stereotype imaginable. Perhaps there is a way to scale this type of philosophical mountain other than with experimental prose and plot structure, but in reading Dhalgren, I came back to my old prejudices about this topic. Clockwork Orange couldn’t have the same gut-punching impact if it used the language of the average Joe Schmo. It is in the poetry of language that the soul, or whatever you want to call the intangible element of sentient beings, finds its true voice–to be too clear is to put the potential of interpretation in a straitjacket.

Let’s not forget also that Delany was writing Dhalgren on the heels of multiple cultural revolutions that drastically changed the face of the United States, or at least that’s the story we tell ourselves over and over again. Reading Delany’s giant, which has been called “Ulysses’ evil twin,” made me wonder if the author had left the 1960s with bittersweet regard.

To say this book is a metaphor for the mayhem of American culture, with all its self-absorption, inescapably demoralizing money-grubbing, overly-concerned religious frittering, and endless identity crises, seems a bit on the nose. But to hell with it: I’m pretty sure this book is a fucking metaphor. If you’re not into metaphors or allegories or lyrically gorgeous philosophical wonderings, well, there’s always Rocky Flintstone.