Ram Ram Ramy

Hi, y’all.

It’s been very hard to write this week. Feeling blah and everything I write seems to go nowhere and the post I’ve been working on for Out of the White Nest for months is just hard and sad. Not your concern; but I’ve committed to averaging a post a week in 2022, so this is why you’re getting…

a TV show review!

Sort of. There’s a vague spoiler or two in this, but nothing you couldn’t see coming once you jump into it. Ramy is such a good show, and so groundbreaking for Muslim-centered media, that I strongly recommend you give it a try. If you hate vague spoilers, go ahead & skip this in lieu of the show itself.

Is Ramy the first TV comedy centered on spiritual development? I think it’s the first I’ve seen. Of course there are sitcoms that deal with spirituality in an indirect manner – there are spiritual elements to some of my faves, like The Good Place and BoJack Horseman, but any centered on spirituality? Enlightened! Yes. Excellent show, but it wasn’t a sitcom. I’d heard good things about Ramy (awards, etc.) but it wasn’t until a friend told me that the spiritual quest was the plot of the show that I started watching. The Muslim focus was also intriguing for me, because I know so little about the religion, because I do have some Muslim acquaintancefriends, and because I lovelovelove irreverent approaches to any religion that outsiders perceive as arbitrarily rigid.

Ramy is a 20-something second generation (American born) Egyptian-American Muslim. Neither his mother nor sister wear hijab, no one in his family prays regularly, his parents drink wine and bother him about marrying a Muslim girl in the same way a high-holy-days-only Jewish family would harass their kid about marrying a Jew. Ramy dates lots of Jews. And others. But not Muslim women. Except his cousin. He’s admittedly fucked up, but not exceptionally so, and not in any exceptional way. He’s very American: hungry in the midst of plenty, unable to be satisfied with what he has, and looking for answers. What’s exceptional about him is his persistent attempt to not be fucked up, to do the right thing, to be a better Muslim.

This fixation doesn’t stop him from sleeping with married women, lying to his Imam, offending his parents, neglecting his friends, and compulsively masturbating. In fact, almost everything he does wrong is the result of a messed up attempt to do the right thing. Some of these mistakes are laughable, some have serious consequences. Almost all of them are understandable, even if you are shaking your head in frustration as he falls into yet another ironic predicament.

The show is very funny, very educational for the non-Muslim, and just a quality piece of work all the way around, but what has me so excited about it (enough to share it with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group, appropriate or not) is how the show demonstrates, again and again, that there is no Answer. The Ramy on the screen is ignorant of the lesson he is teaching (at least so far – I’m only partway into season 2).

His attempt to remake himself during Ramadan reminded me of my desires around meditation retreats. I feel for him when he tries to “do good” and ends up in a morally questionable situation. I, too, have tried to get the people around me to dwell on spiritual matters when they had no interest in doing so. I have thought myself both better and worse than my peers in focusing on spirituality more than other elements of life. I have thought that a change of environment would get me up the next rung of enlightenment, that a different kind of practice would move me forward, that deprivation would help, that the right teacher is all I need, etcetera. That’s all fine. In fact, it’s all good, but it’s not a solution. As the Sheik says, “Nothing in and of itself is haram [forbidden]. It’s a matter of how we choose to engage with it.”

Those of us with a spiritual drive so often hope for that One thing that will solve it all or us, or enlighten us, or make us less irritable, more focused, less egocentric, “better” people. But we know, and we are forced to see again and again, that it’s a continual process. It’s day in and day out practice, returning to the cushion again and again, returning to the present moment, returning to love and empathy again and again, the pausing and listening and letting go of our ego and recognizing our interbeing moment after moment after moment. It’s not easy. And I love how the relatable mess of young Ramy demonstrates that again and again.

Celebrity Deaths

Began to compose social media post about David Bowie dying then thought “the world doesn’t need to hear my thoughts on David Bowie dying”

This gets you +224 points on The Good Place

We, the social media generation, often react to the deaths of famous people (who are, in reality, strangers to us) as an order to sit in judgment over their lives. Often this is positive, sometimes it’s not. Either way, it seems arrogant. I have my own bubble, so I tend to agree with the final judgements passed on the formerly living, but regardless, I’m usually, like, “why?” What is the point of this? Is there anyone reading your post who doesn’t already know why you think Donald Rumsfeld or Rush Limbaugh is a bad person? What’s the motivation? To get more angry “likes”? Or dull hearts? I dunno. Even the generic praise seems boring and unhelpful. I can get interested in people’s artistic or spiritual connection to folks they don’t actually know: the Prince album that got them through their coming out period; the Joan Didion book that weirdly made them feel seen, but more often I just skip over these so-called tributes.

This is, of course, prelude to writing my own…

I rarely respond to celebrity deaths in writing – maybe 3 in the last 5 years – but quite a few hit the press in quick succession last week, and at this moment I feel inspired to celebrate the good they brought into the world, or into my particular little life, now that their active contributions have ended. Yay, humans! In that spirit, here is a tiny tribute to these guys:

  • Bob Saget
  • Meatloaf
  • Louie Anderson
  • Thich Nhat Hanh

Bob Saget’s reputation was huge among comedians, a group with which I’ve had perhaps too much interaction. Folks seem to agree that he was a good guy, and who doesn’t want to know that a celebrity is a good guy? Right on, Bob. I know little of his work, but I lovelovelove good standup comedy, and profane standup is typically my favorite standup. I believe pushing people out of their comfort box is not only okay, but important; that addressing issues and ickiness that people don’t want to talk about opens our minds and even our hearts; that finding the humor in the horror is finding light in the darkness and that nothing is “off limits,” if it’s done right. As Wavy Gravy said, “if you don’t have a sense of humor, it just isn’t funny.” The Comedian as Court Jester has probably never been more important than it is right now. Perhaps never less important, either. When is speaking comic truth to power unimportant? Saget followed in a centuries-old tradition of Jews and others who laugh to keep from crying.

Meatloaf. Ah, Meatloaf. Lots of folks have referenced his embarrassing show of Trump support several years back, but if you’re getting your political guidance from Meatloaf, I don’t know what to tell ya. Let me instead evoke the sweet, goofy, steroid-enhanced, testicle-free, ex-wrestler he played in Fight Club. Robert Paulsen is the most compassionate and lovable character in the movie, and admirable in a sea of toxicity: a burly man who holds space for other men to cry; a goofy and loyal friend; a person who can fight without anger, hatred, or guile; a character whose death is the warning light that things have gone too far, the trigger for the protagonist to battle back to consciousness and self-awareness. (Oh, and a friend in the music business who worked with him said he was a kind man, if you need that topper.)

Christine Baskets

I liked what I knew of Louie Anderson’s standup, though he wasn’t one of my faves. I heard good things about him personally once I moved to his home state (good guy!). But he really grabbed me in an interview with Terri Gross several years ago. I just fell for him. There was a sweetness, mindfulness, and openness about him that was so gentle and refreshing, and so aligned with how I want to approach the world. It was that, more than anything else, that led me to start watching Baskets. And Baskets is where I fell in love with Louie, as Christine Baskets, who is one of my favorite characters ever. She is subtly hilarious, but broke my heart repeatedly. She’s bold and strong and sensitive and loving and sometimes misguided; her vulnerability and strange generosity is beautiful and devastating. A less compassionate actor could have easily made her a joke; Louie made her an suburban American warrior.

And then there’s Thich Nhat Hanh. (I think I can leave out the character assessment for this one.) I can’t possibly begin to pay tribute to perhaps the most influential Buddhist monk of our time. (I know most would say the Dalai Lama, but in my spiritual world, Thay was more directly inspiring.) If you have a spiritual practice or inclination and don’t know him, check out some interviews or one of his scores of books. Although I am not a religious Buddhist, he’s been a huge influence on me. Not only through the many teachers I’ve learned from who started their journeys with this sweet-voiced little Vietnamese man, but because he lived the practice of and apparently invented the phrase “engaged Buddhism”, which I’ve been actively studying for the past year, and hope to commit to for as long as I’m still on the list of life. He stood up to conservative and monastic Buddhism before it was fashionable and spent much of his life trying to make the teachings understandable and accessible to the Western world, in a way our ilk could understand. He opened a path to liberation from our materialist, consumptive culture, our mindless anger, and our blind selfishness. To Hanh, mindfulness necessarily encompasses not only our own “selves” but our interdependent world, and right action necessarily includes the work to help alleviate suffering wherever one finds it. I know a lot of people have a hard time with death, and this post is, let’s face it, inspired by death, so let me close with this wise man’s words on the topic:

Our greatest fear is that when we die we will become nothing. Many of us believe that our entire existence is only a life span beginning the moment we are born or conceived and ending the moment we die. We believe that we are born from nothing and when we die we become nothing. And so we are filled with fear of annihilation.

The Buddha has a very different understanding of our existence. It is the understanding that birth and death are notions. They are not real. The fact that we think they are true makes a powerful illusion that causes our suffering. The Buddha taught that there is no birth; there is no death; there is no coming; there is no going; there is no same; there is no different; there is no permanent self; there is no annihilation. We only think there is. When we understand that we cannot be destroyed, we are liberated from fear. It is a great relief. We can enjoy life and appreciate it in a new way.

This body is not me. I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.

I have never been born,

And I have never died.

The Perfect Definition (Perfection, pt 4)

Let us first acknowledge that any idea of perfection was made by humans: specifically, almost always men, and usually White, European man. I’ll start with one of the most influential men: Jesus. (Depending on what culture and century you live in, he may or may not be White.) The religion founded in his name has had an immeasurable influence on European-American culture, though I’d argue that his actual message (even the distorted, subjective transcriptions of his message) is far more universal, far less anthropocentric, and far less judgmental than what Christian, European culture has chosen to latch onto. Still, there is definitely some judgey stuff in the New Testament. This one was occasionally thrown at me when I was a kid, from Matthew 5:48. This translation from the King James Version of the Bible:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your
Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Since I took up with Buddhism, I find echoes of that same nonbinary and compassionate worldview hidden in secret pockets all over Jesus’ rags. So what did he mean by perfect in that quote? It’s difficult and perhaps pointless to parse language in the Bible – the flaws inherent in multiple translations (in this case from Aramaic through however many versions before the English), the inaccurate memory of the people recording his words, their own bias that led them to that memory, etc. But I still think it’s valuable to interrogate the choices in the translation. From my beloved Shorter Oxford Dictionary, at the time the Bible was translated into English (1611), perfect had many different meanings, including

  • Completed; fully formed; adult
  • Having all the essential elements, qualities, or characteristics
  • Not deficient in any particular
  • Being an ideal example of
  • Of or marked by supreme moral excellence
  • (Rare, but thanks to our buddy Shakespeare): in a state of complete satisfaction; contented

All sorts of stuff going on there, but only one aligns with what I, and many of you, have hanging over us: the goal of being exceptional, without flaws, and lacking in nothing. Perhaps older definitions shunned that, because only GOD could be perfect. In our contemporary, more secular language, we have these Google-ready definitions:

  1. being entirely without fault or defect : flawless a perfect diamond
  2. corresponding to an ideal standard or abstract concept a perfect gentleman

Who decides when to apply those adjectives, and how? If we take a moment, we can surely all recognize that an ideal standard or abstract concept is a construct, that there is no universal, objective ideal. But the idea of without fault or defect is just as fraught, inviting all kinds of ableism. Who decides what a defect or fault is? If it’s a variation from the norm, would that also include instances of what we might consider excellence? What if someone is exceptionally fast, intelligent, or beautiful? Is that a defect? If perfect is ideal, what is ideal? Standard? Doesn’t that seem like a low bar? I’m starting to think there are at least two clear problems with the idea of perfection: the burden of the unattainable goal, and the limitations of the standard of ideal. Both too much and not enough.

The World English Bible translates Matthew 4:28 passage as:

Therefore you shall be perfect, just
as your Father in heaven is perfect.

I know I’m a word nerd, but this reads very differently to me. First of all, the structure seems to imply a precursor, something that led to the therefore, whereas “Be ye therefore perfect” stands more easily on its own. The prelude is the Sermon on the Mount, which is filled with mostly groovy stuff, the grooviest of which comes right before this statement. Matthew 5:38-5:47 is all about loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, giving to those who ask and those who don’t. I particularly like his critique of “love your neighbor,” which basically says: any asshole can love their neighbor; that’s amoral. Loving your enemies takes work, and is generative. Stop picking sides: God shines on everyone and rains on everyone. This is how you get to perfect – loving everyone and treating everyone without prejudice. Shall (all you lawyers out there know this) means will. It’s a commitment from Jesus, not a command. It’s already there. If you care for others as you would for yourself, you are already perfect.

Let me circle back to the “complete” definition of perfect. It could be the most fucked up or most forgiving option of all of them. In my monkey mind I have used complete as a standard for a painfully long time. Particularly when it comes to writing. I had to keep editing, keep refining, keep proofing until a work was complete, and despite never getting there, I never abandoned the quest. I was so thankful for deadlines in school or work, because I would eventually have to stop writing, imperfect as the piece always was. But as hard as it is to complete an essay, or painting, or symphony, it is exponentially insane to think of achieving completeness as a person. If at some point one becomes complete – when they have the spouse, home, and child/ren perhaps; or when they break the world record while winning gold in the Olympics, how do we characterize everything after that? Who are you post-perfection? We see people struggle with this all the time. What do you do when you’re “past your prime”? How do you find meaning if meaning is tied up in perfection/completeness and you’ve reached your destination with nowhere else to go? How much more liberating would it be if we held onto no ideals at all? Is that absurd?

In the Buddhism I hang with everything you need, including enlightenment, is available to you at all times because Buddha nature already exists within everyone, and perhaps everything. So we are already Complete, already perfect, with just a wee bit of really fucking calcified artificial frosting hiding all that nutritious goodness.

Ram Dass keeps returning to Completeness in How Can I Help. That is, recognizing that every person on the planet is already complete. When we seek to help people, we may be serving them food or companionship or understanding or shelter, but not because they are lacking in some way; rather because we have or have access to a thing that they need, so it’s only natural to transfer the resource to the area that requires it, like putting lotion on your own dry skin. In a sense, both giver and receiver are just fulfilling our parts as members of the ecosystem, and in that way we are perfect. If we approach others as lacking, imperfect, incomplete, we are not really serving them, we are serving ourselves and our own judgment and rules and fears and ideologies. That kind of help may give someone the calories they need to go on another day, but it can leave them with a feeling of inferiority, of insufficiency, and it doesn’t actually serve us as individuals or us as members of a human and ecological community, because it is reinforcing separateness and contributing to inequitable thinking and behavior. Recognizing everyone’s completeness, everyone’s perfection (as I can so easily do with Vicious) is a path to an equitable and multifarious world.

To be continued. Again. I could go on and on… and I do.

Next time: Creative Imperfection

Fionamism

bolt cuttersIt’s been years since Fiona Apple’s last album, as it usually is. She’s a hermit who hates giving interviews and rarely leaves the house, a protegee who released her first album at 19, back when that was unusual, and proceeded to make an award acceptance speech that marked her as a freak for as long as people decided that lasted. And she does seem to be a bit of a freak, as so many of us are. What does Fiona have to contribute to the latest, most conscious wave of feminism?

A strange kind of love.

She (the narrator – no presumptions) aggressively rejects the competition, shaming, and other sexist behavior encouraged in women against women, particularly women bonded by their relationships with men. Decades after being bullied and bored in grammar school, she is sustained through hard times by the words of classmate Shameika, when she said she “had potential.” There is no resentment around her lack of kindness or the fact they weren’t friends, just an appreciation of someone who reached out for no reason except to help her out. I wasn’t going to read any reviews for this, but the quote I just stumbled across is too perfect:

My middle-school experience is still so important to me. Mainly because that’s where my relationship to women started getting fucked up.

And that- the fuckedupedness of women’s relationships, is a dominant theme in the album, expressed with humor and raw honesty and emotion and vulnerability.

Newspaper mourns her inability to befriend a woman getting fucked over by the same guy who fucked her. Where they should be bonding over his abuse and gathering strength and recognition from their shared experience, the new victim has “made me a ghost to you” while the singer can only observe the repeated pattern. “I watch him let go of your hand, I wanna stand between you” makes me think of a kid putting herself between an abusive man and mother, no thought for herself in the attempt to protect the person she cares about.

In Ladies, composed like a kind of Jazz standard, with a chorus sung like a Vegas showman, she strives to get through to “good women like you” to share and love and conspire together and accept themselves as irreplaceable, instead of different failed versions of whatever it is that any random man has made up in his head. I’m just goo-ing over this verse – typing it without the music attached is an insult, but it’s just so great, I had to share:

When he leaves me, please be my guest
To whatever I might’ve left in his kitchen cupboards
In the back of his bathroom cabinets

And oh yes, oh yes, oh yes
There’s a dress in the closet
Don’t get rid of it, you’d look good in it
I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine
It belonged to the ex-wife of another ex of mine
She left it behind with a note, one line, it said
“I don’t know if I’m coming across, but I’m really trying”
She was very kind

This simple offering is almost heartbreakingly beautiful, handing down a dress like the man they shared: I didn’t fit in it, it was never mine, try it out, maybe it’ll work for you. And feel free to build on whatever useful things I contributed to him or his life. It’s hard enough getting through any relationship, any life; making enemies of the people who could gift you the benefit of their experience is a horrible way to try and move forward.

But women have been doing this to themselves forever. You think it’s an accident? You think women just naturally hate other women? They are taught to see each other as nothing more than competition from childhood, and it’s the curse that keeps on giving. Who do you think created those messages? Who could possibly benefit by women going it alone without acknowledging, appreciating, or learning from each other’s pain?

The #metoo era of feminism ripped open the Pandora’s box of a lot of bullshit I had buried away for as long as I can remember. But one of the most disturbing things to come out of it was the realization that I had bought into the sexism of the dominant culture, all the while thinking I was fighting against it. I’ve shunned or minimized the importance of bonding with women my whole life, and while the romantic competition aspect hasn’t been a big one with me, plenty of other antagonisms have. Turning this competition into a shared force cannot be anything but powerful.

So, yeah, this is a FEMINIST album.

It’s also just fucking rock your sox innovative and raw and fun and brutal and both plaguey and plagueworthy. Do it.

Harper’s Scary

Long Live Bad Puns!

harpersI’m afraid to open this month’s Harper’s magazine, which our mail carrier crammed into my mailbox a week ago, over the objections of a squirrel-deformed jack-o-lantern, a Día de los Muertos calavera, and the dog.

I’ve subscribed to Harper’s continually for nearly a decade, and periodically before that. It was a primary source when I was writing about forgotten female horror writers of the early 20th century in grad school. The Guy & I have a monthly ritual of quizzing each other on the Harper’s Index at breakfast, and the Readings section has provided some of my favorite hilarious lists, bizarre transcripts, and brief personal narratives of all time.

But the last year has made me question my loyalty. It started with the rambling, pathetic, not-mea-culpa by John Hockenberry, entitled My Life in Exile. Continue reading “Harper’s Scary”

Minnesota White

mnniceLast night was the last night of our 6 month, once-a-month, Unpacking Whiteness exploration at the Zen Center. I honestly got more out of it than I thought I would, and when we went around the circle to give a brief comment on our reaction to the process as a whole, mine was that I was surprised how much I learned from the White people in my group: that I’ve been exploring this topic for a while, unlike many of the participants, and hyper conscious of race my whole life, unlike (based on what they’d said) nearly all of the other participants, and I wasn’t sure I’d get much from the others in my little circle. But every week someone brought up something I hadn’t thought about, or hadn’t been able to put into words, or hadn’t been brave enough to confess to, and I deeply appreciated both what they gave me and the hope they gave me for the potential of other White people. Not that this group of Zen meditators is representative of all White people, but still, I’ll back pocket that optimism.

After we had all said something, anyone was welcome to pick up the talking piece and say whatever they were inspired to add. I didn’t think I had anything else, but a few people’s comments sparked (another!) revelation, and I decided to share.

So many Minnesotans I’ve spoken to talk about never having had Black friends, about having grown up in an entirely White community, about having no relationships with people of color, and it occurred to me that the very culture of Minnesota may in fact be racist.

I doubt that is the main reason why this state is still so white. I would but the biggest blame on the racial covenants that are just now coming to light, the people harassed out of their homes, the lynchings in Duluth, etc. But if you look at Minnesota today, how welcoming is it to people who aren’t White, Christian, and Mild? Minnesota Nice isn’t just about passive aggression and passing politeness. It means you made all the friends you’ll ever need in 5th grade, and there is no reason to let strangers into your life. It includes complaining about things to everyone except the people who can do something about it. It means not talking during a movie, but also not having the huevos to tell the person who is talking to be quiet. It means glaring at the person who laughs too loud; and calling the person at work who answers an emailed question directly, without copious smileyfaces and explanation points, “rude.” It means an inordinate amount of people who do not like to be touched, a preference I’d never before encountered. It means that social anxiety can go undiagnosed, because that’s just how people are here. If you are physically expressive, people think you are dramatic. If you are physically affectionate, people think you’re an artist. Or gay. (You probably are.)

I brought this up at work a few years back, when we were talking about culture. (This was before I was brave enough to bring up the fact that we were entirely avoiding a discussion of race.) Nobody was volunteering an answer to the HR Director’s question, so, like many before her, she went to me, because she knew I’d have something to say. I don’t really have a problem with that, except for that fact that in this workplace it is sometimes used against me. But fine. I decided to grab the spotlight and broach the issue of Minnesota culture.

Being indirect in speech, being passive, continually deferring to others is perceived as “normal” here. I know I am perceived as different or bold or whatever because I express opinions when asked, because I sometimes reveal what I know to be true, because I have the gaul to disagree with someone in a meeting where we are supposed to be giving feedback on a topic. You think this perception is normal, but it is not. It is cultural. My behavior was not unusual in Chicago or Los Angeles. It may have been slightly less typical for a woman, but it was not abnormal. You think it is abnormal because people do not typically behave that way in Minnesota, but your standard is not universal, and people who don’t follow that standard should not be Otherized.

Despite the reality that what I actually said was far less coherent, I had several people approach me in the days after that training to express how I’d opened their eyes. It was kind of stunning.

So my revelation last night was looking at this culture through a racial lens and finding even more that was unwelcoming. If I, a run of the mill middle-aged White woman, perceive this culture as repressive, what kind of impact does it have on various people of color? People who might culturally express themselves through spontaneous song or dance? People whose religion is built on argumentation? People who express trust and affection through touch? People who laugh loudly and look for friends across borders? So the Jews plant themselves in St Louis Park and surround themselves with other Jews. And then the Hmong came. And the Somalis. And they also tend to plant roots in neighborhoods that cater to their own culture. And why wouldn’t they? I don’t blame them, and I don’t think it’s all about the language or affinity bias. Minnesota, even Minneapolis/St. Paul, is dominated by a White, Christian culture in a way that Chicago and Los Angeles were not. Yes, the uber-culture in the US is always White, but there was too much of a mix of folks in LA & Chicago for any one cultural standard to dominate. I can’t define either of those cities by culture. When people do single something out, it’s usually an aspect of White culture, like the hippie laid back Californian, but that’s never representative. Minnesota Nice is far more accurate.

So it’s not just the poor transportation and the ridiculous rental  prices that keep the Twin Cities from becoming Manhattan. It is our culture of Whiteness and Christianity. It’s oppressive and it is inherently exclusive. And it keeps these goodhearted meditators from having Black friends and Latino neighbors. It makes me sad, but recognizing something concrete always inspires me because concrete can be broken up. I felt inspired when I broached this in the circle last night. I thought it was another eye-opener, another way in which life could be improved for everyone. Something else we could work on!

But no one talked to me afterwards. No one thanked me for this awesome peek behind the curtain. No one openly agreed with me. Of course, that may be because I headed straight for my Chacos and walked out right after I helped put chairs away. I’ve never felt entirely welcome in the Zen center, and that also makes me sad because I set admittedly high expectations for Buddhist communities. Too much ceremony & formality for my comfort? Too little magical ability on their part to reach past my defenses and psychically will me to stay and commune? Aren’t they all enlightened already?!

yeah.probably my own weirdness.

The 1A, Lizzo, Jordan Peele, and other things that scare white supremacists

key & peeleWhen we were asked, in our April Unpacking Whiteness circles, to talk about the ways in which white supremacy had hurt us (White people) the first thing that came to mind was my favorite NPR shows. I didn’t share that the group, in part because I was determined to let my answer be spontaneous once the circle came round to me and in part because, let’s face it, Capitalism is a more impressive answer than “Joshua Johnson.”

But I love Joshua Johnson. The 1A Friday news roundup has become my favorite news show, because of him. He brings on excellent reporters, from a variety of backgrounds, and they have real discussions about issues that matter to me. What sets it apart are Joshua’s humor and facilitation skills, his incorporation of cultural events, and the fact that he’s Black. A lot of the issues most prominent in my purview today are issues I’d just rather hear broached by a Black journalist (police shootings, reparations, Trump, economic inequality). And honestly, it makes me feel better hearing a Black man calmly discuss and laugh at the insanity of the world than it would a White man. It’s essentially meaningless when a White man laughs at the state of the world, because White men have pretty much always benefitted, whatever the swirling chaos around them. (I’m sure some of you believe we should not allow ourselves to laugh at the world, but I am not engaging with you on this. I get it, but you are not going to seduce me over to your side of the fence.)

But it’s not just Joshua Johnson, or Sam Sanders of It’s Been a Minute, or even the “Barbershop” segment on Weekend All Things Considered, where Michel Martin bounces the news of the week off of knowledgable POCs. It’s also the pure, off the chain joy of Lizzo, the cinematic depth of Jordan Peele, the all-around genius of Donald Glover, the breathtaking, brutal honesty of Claudia Rankine.

We have been fucking ourselves, people.

We’ve been looking at ourselves and our world with one eye closed for so long. The oppression of Black people has deprived all of us of inestimable riches. Some have always managed to claw their way through the muck and shine against all odds, but what would we have been privy too if all odds weren’t against them? What would we be blessed with now if the playing field had been equal?

We can’t just blame those who’ve shamelessly, openly worked to keep Black people down, whether through racial covenants, incarceration, strict White social standards, general dehumanization, etc. The “see no color” philosophy that was a big part of my childhood culture implicitly excused the exclusion of Black voices because we were “all the same.” You could have (and some definitely have) done the same with race theory: concluding that since race is a construct (true), drawing distinctions between races or calling attention to race as it exists today is meaningless (not true). Hell, everything we know is a construct. From the Buddhist perspective, there is no difference between me and the chair I’m sitting on. We draw distinctions because we need them to function (if I am the food, can I eat the food?) and we draw more and more complex identities in order to function in a human society. And the final, most visible glaze in that creation is the identities that society imposes upon us. They may not be permanent, but they are absolutely real.

My background is in theatre & literature, but I have never thought arts & culture so important as I see them today. So much of that is because of the way life as a Black person, particularly a Black person within a Black culture embedded in a White country, is being artistically expressed today, and particularly in popular media. What might have changed if Atlanta, Insecure, Blackish, and Empire (created by Black people) were all on TV when I was a kid, instead of just Sanford & Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons (created by White people)?

William Faulkner wrote this in a piece on desegregation in 1956:

The white man knows that only ninety years ago not one percent of the Negro race could own a deed to land, let alone read that deed; yet in only ninety years, although his only contact with a county courthouse is the window through which he pays the taxes for which he has no representation, he can own his land and farm it with inferior stock and worn-out tools and gear — equipment which any white man would starve with — and raise children and feed and clothe them and send them North where they can have equal scholastic opportunity, and end his life holding his head up because he owes no man, with even enough over to pay for his coffin and funeral.

That’s what the white man in the South is afraid of: that the Negro, who has done so much with no chance, might do so much more with an equal one that he might take the white man’s economy away from him, the Negro now the banker or the merchant or the planter and the white man the sharecropper or the tenant. 

Segregation, racist policies, and the history of slavery are still defining features of the United States, and POC are still thriving in spite of it. It’s hard to imagine how much farther along we might be as a country and a species if we had extended full citizenship to everyone, ever. That’s the funny thing about white supremacists. If they really believe in the superiority of the “White Race,” they should be the biggest advocates for levelling the playing field, in order to prove their point. I don’t see a whole lot of that going on.