We the people are (can be) the United States

I am so grateful to live in the United States. It’s taken me an extra day (past July 4) to post because I’ve wanted to write something meaningful about Independence Day as I’ve read and pondered on the experiences and feelings of those in marginalized groups. 

From Alaska

For me, I have always reveled in the amazing diversity of this country: the land itself features stark deserts, craggy mountains, rolling green hills and flat plains with marvels you have to see in person to really appreciate, and I have been able to do that all over the U.S. 

to Pennsylvania

More importantly, the people in this country are wonderfully diverse! I love to meet people from all over the world, and it’s so fun to be able to do that just living here in my own country (though I do love to travel outside of it too). Everyone looks different, speaks different languages, and brings rich cultures with them. My own family happens to be very American in that way: pretty diverse. White European, Filipino, mixed, black. I have a Mexican aunt and mixed cousins. 

I know racism exists, and it makes me sad. It can make me angry. I just don’t understand it. I think some people will never change: they will hold on to their prejudices no matter what. On the other hand, I think education, sharing experiences, and working with others one on one can change many people’s minds and actions (and re-actions). But it takes time and work. 

I am aware that in our country’s history, there have been atrocities. There continue to be horrible events resulting from individuals’ prejudices. Systems in our society do have some outdated practices baked in to them that continue to create gaps in equality. And on both of those counts, we all need to step up and speak out to create change. I think it’s also important to recognize that not all blacks or Asians or whites (etc.) think alike. Blacks have many varied opinions and experiences, as do Asians (etc.). People’s experiences inform their opinions and the conclusions they draw about action that needs to take place, and I’ve observed plenty of diversity in those conclusions. 

I respect the feelings of some blacks, for instance, whose experiences have led them for the time being to feel bitter about this country. That saddens me, but that’s where they are. Others have mixed feelings about the United States but ultimately love it and work for change to make it even better because they love it. That’s where they are. I won’t disparage anyone’s feelings but state simply that I see you and hear you and join with you in making things better that need to be better. I can say that it’s important to respect people’s feelings, and to listen to others’ opinions and experiences regularly. 

However, all of us, based on our individual diverse lives and experiences, will come to very different conclusions on the actions/changes we think need to take place in society, government and other institutions. Just because we may disagree about which things need to change and how doesn’t mean we don’t respect each other. (*Most of us respect each other, that is. I’ll say it again: some people will continue to be racist and have prejudices – and that can include people of any race; racism/prejudice is not restricted to whites, as my Asian husband can attest, since he has faced taunts from blacks in the South, for instance – we simply will not eradicate racism.) If I draw a different conclusion about some changes and how they should be made from some of you or some prominent thinkers, it doesn’t mean I haven’t considered their experiences and opinions; it simply means I have done so and have drawn different conclusions. 

And that is my long-winded take on independence and this great land. I love this country and believe it is a special place. It can be better, but we as citizens must do better because we ARE the United States. We should all a) get and stay informed, listen to each other with respect and carefully weigh all we read and hear from a truly diverse set of outlets and individuals, and b) elect representatives who will truly represent the people, all of them, and work with each other and compromise. We can overcome the division that is happening. This can be a truly UNITED States. 

Call me pro-people

We like to think our society in 2015 has made great strides in treating everyone fairly. Too often, however, we’re reminded that just isn’t the case, whether it’s in race or gender issues. And even saying you’re pro-whatever might brand you as something you’re not. For example, I guess I’m a feminist. I’m pro-life (anti-abortion), fairly conservative when it comes to politics or “values,” but I am a feminist. Pretty simple: I believe women should be treated with the same respect as men. Women should vote, hold office, run companies, raise families, … whatever they would like to do. Their opinions should be given the same weight as men’s. They shouldn’t be abused by men, they shouldn’t be raped. These are very basic principles. Goes the other direction, too, of course: women need to treat men with respect and kindness.

Same goes for color. I was raised just believing we’re all alike. Sure, we’re all different where it counts, in our personalities, our talents, our interests, etc., but how we look certainly has no bearing on those real matters of identity. Heck, I married an Asian, we have three half-Asian, half-white kids, and we adopted a black girl. I respect whatever cultures we bring to the table, but they’re not the defining things about who we all are.

I could go on and on. But I hope you get the idea: we’re all people. And all people deserve kindness, respect, civility, hope, opportunities, the chance to pursue happiness, and so on.

I’m always disappointed, however, when I see that other people apparently don’t see others of the human race that way. The latest story in the news is just that an 8th-grade girl’s T-shirt got Photoshopped out of a class picture because it stated that she’s a “feminist.” I’m still not quite sure what about that is offensive: like I said, if you believe women and men should all be treated with respect and have equal opportunities, it’s pretty simple.

It struck home because right now I’m angry (yes, I got angry about this!) because my daughters’ high school allowed sexist (insulting, demeaning) messages on posters at a pep rally a few weeks ago. The student government/leadership group (ASB) led the charge on a “Battle of the Sexes” theme that’s been going on for some years (at least all four years my oldest, who graduated last year, attended). Done right, could be fun. But done wrong: ka-blooey. Here’s what some posters said, according to some students: “Stay in the kitchen,” “Female president? Nah” and “You woke up ugly”. Here’s a photo of one.pep rally

Anyone think these are respectful, fun, kind? This school and all the others in this system are always stressing how they are trying to instill character in the students, such as respect. The principal’s official online message even says this: “To help provide a safe and secure learning environment for everyone, staff members require students to treat every person at (our school) with respect, both in and out of the classroom.”

Hm. Curious. So in this situation, where the student “leadership” group’s members actively wrote and posted for the whole school to see messages that were disrespectful (and ridiculously antiquated: what decade IS this?), staff members who are required to be in place as overseers and advisers OK’d these messages.

I complained to the principal about this situation as soon as I could. We had a good conversation. I told him these messages were anything but respectful, and I said it would be a good opportunity for him and other staffers to use this as a learning situation for the students involved. Teach them what kind of messages we do want to send to others, whether it’s of the opposite sex or other races (can you imagine if the posters had been talking about race?!). Then have them take some responsibility for their poor choices and apologize themselves to the student body at the next rally.

Well, the next rally came and went last Friday, and the principal did none of these things. He stood up for three minutes and talked about how great the ASB is, how more students should be involved in it, and that some posters at the previous rally had bothered “some people” and he took “full responsibility.” The ASB teens were, after all, just 15- and 16-year-olds and didn’t really know what they were doing entirely. He pseudo-apologized and that was it.

This isn’t news because it’s unusual, just like the Ohio girl’s “feminist” message being censored from a class photo. It’s news because it reminds us just how much we still accept or gloss over disrespect to others, even when we know in some part of our brains that it’s “wrong” and we even get regular, “packaged” messages about respect. In practice, though, we treat people of other races differently and “less.” We accept all kinds of ridiculous messages in the media about how women should behave and look; we’re all about image, and the vast majority of us who don’t fit a certain image feel less than. Weight shaming is still tolerated. Commenters still somehow feel they’re perfectly entitled to comment online about how fat a certain celebrity is getting (see Pink or Kelly Clarkson, just in the past few weeks). In what universe does this all really seem OK? Ours, apparently.

When is this stuff going to stop? When are we going to put our collective foot down and say, “This is NOT OK!”? It’s not OK to body shame, it’s not OK to call names because of gender or race? It’s not OK to insult. Kindergarteners know this. Why do teens and adults seem to have forgotten?

When will we all just be people: people with all kinds of fascinating diversity of backgrounds and interests and talents and personalities, people who happen to look different because of color, because of disabilities, even?

I was hoping that day would come much sooner. In the meantime, I am putting my foot down, and I am saying loudly that respect to all matters. People matter.

‘White bias’ hits ‘favorite teen books’ list

A friend drew my attention to the voting for NPR’s “best ever” teen books some months back, and I gleefully voted. Then I wrote a post about the final picks. Now a friend has alerted me to the latest “buzz” about the NPR list: it’s the “whitest ever.”

To be completely honest, I suppose my first reaction as a white person was: “So?” I think that if this list is what the most enthusiastic readers (who were aware of the NPR poll in the first place) voted for, then so be it. Can we not talk about race all the time? I am not going to say that our society has evolved to a level at which race is no longer an issue. In fact, I can say for sure that it’s not. If we were at that wonderful place where we could say race just didn’t matter anymore, we wouldn’t ever have to talk about it. It simply wouldn’t be an issue anymore. (For instance, when Barack Obama was running for president and then elected as president of the United States, everyone talked exultantly about how wonderful it was that our country was open to a black “leader of the free world.” It was talked about a LOT. Right there, I felt confident in saying, No, we’ve made strides, but we have not reached that ideal point yet because if we had, no one would have talked about his race AT ALL. It would never have been brought up. Merely stating that it was great we were electing a black president showed that it was still an issue.) So that’s my take on the race topic in general. Someday we will truly be color-blind as a society, and that will be the day when no one even thinks about someone’s color or ethnic background, let alone talks about it in the media.

Let me also clarify this point: I am white, but my husband is Asian, and my three older daughters are half-Asian. The youngest is black. And they’re just people to me. It just never occurred to me that my husband’s race could be any kind of topic. He just was and is who he IS. But from the things we talk about now and again, I do appreciate that he feels somewhat of an outsider sometimes in our culture at large, especially in certain areas of the country.

But on to the actual “best” list. The list was compiled in a non-scientific manner, and it was answered by NPR readers/listeners and those who heard about it from readers/listeners. NPR is clearly known to have a white, older audience. For its poll to skew white was a “duh” to me. If it had been otherwise, I would have been surprised.

I also observed that probably half of these books are from years back (one to two generations), and the diversity in books representing more of the American experience wasn’t there decades ago like it is now. So if we were to post a list that just contained new and current books, that wouldn’t skew quite as much to the white past.

I should also note that I am not an “expert” on YA. I just love to read anything; I remember with great fondness the books I read when I was young and still want my daughters to read because they just hold special meaning for me; call it nostalgia. And I do read a fair amount of newly-published YA, but I also read a lot of “adult” fiction and nonfiction. I don’t specialize in YA. But from what I can gather, it is still true that a lot of the most popular books even now in the YA market have white protagonists. Yes, there are lots of other books that have non-white protagonists and are well written, but they’re simply not getting the attention. Look at the best-seller list: Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter. The main characters are all white, with some sprinklings of other ethnicities as secondary characters.

Which brings me back to my earlier point about our society and color-blindness. We’re not there yet. While definitely pretty well mixed in terms of diversity, our society is not thoroughly past a white-dominated era. This is reflected in media. I think as we continue to move forward, that will slowly change and diversity will be better reflected in all media, including the best-sellers in YA. It’s still good to have conversations about race and how we as people view it, but I do think that these kinds of large tectonic shifts just take time. Maybe in twenty or fifty more years this list will look much more diverse. In the meantime, this is a reflection of our society as a whole (and, again, just the white-skewed NPR; the source is not diverse, and the methods for gathering the “top” picks were hardly geared toward getting diverse answers).

What do you think?