On Being White

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NEA stock photo


I have lived my entire life in a predominately white society. Growing up as a child I lived in a white community, later when going to college, more of the same, with a smattering of people of color entering my life gradually until moving to the Twin Cities in the early twenties. Even then, I still lived in an obviously white community, hung out with white friends, worked in places whereby most of my colleagues except for a few were white as well.

Along the way, I met people of color in various situations, college primarily, a few opportunities in the theatre and the occasional co-worker in hospital work. Actually, it was the workplace I met my first true black friend. He and I tested each other out for several months until we came to the conclusion we liked a lot of the same things, sports, politics and women. At work we became fast friends, and we supported each other through many difficult situations. We worked in a psychiatric hospital, where dealing with mental illness was a requirement of the job, skills learned taught us ideals of acceptance and tolerance in many tenuous situations. I think the importance of that relationship has a lot to do with how I would go on to treat people in all walks of my life, with an ultimate focus on respect and a desire to know about their lives and how they might impact my own.

So why do I choose today to speak of being white? I spent my morning and afternoon at the 2018 Conference on Racial and Social Justice, sponsored by the National Education Association, NEA. I knew well I would probably be a minority at the gathering, given the nature of the focus to be on its namesake, breaking down the barriers of racial injustice at the hands of a predominately white society, with a central focus being how educators handle themselves and treat their students in the classroom.

The irony of today’s session with the current events of the news is daunting in its clear connection to the atrocity of the recent Supreme Court Janus ruling and the immigration chaos happening on our border. In the conference which hosted over 800 attendees there was a general feeling of anger and frustration with the current focus toward public education, especially union driven ideals when it comes to protecting the interest of both the student and the teacher in the classroom. Couple that with the issue of racism as it permeates our society, and the break out sessions held much intrigue. I chose to sit in on a roundtable exploration of being a white teacher in a diverse classroom. This seemed readily appropriate because that is the demographic of my own classroom.

I specifically focused my day on sessions dealing with being that white teacher in a diverse setting. During that session I told a story of my own racial bias that blossomed into a heavy discussion of white privilege and the idea of whites needing to at one point, as called out by a member – figure out their own racism before they can address other issues. I immediately felt discomfort, but I was supposed to, this was all meant to be part of an all day learning session. The adage of how do you learn with disagreement and controversy holds well here. I wasn’t looking for a Kumbaya session, and it didn’t occur.

As the talk came to a close the moderators asked if everyone felt ok, and acknowledged hoping there were good takeaways. There were around eight of us at the table. I immediately said, ‘I’ve never felt more uncomfortable in my life.’ I meant it, but not in a negative way. I meant it as a moment of growth. People naturally asked why, and I told them that my feelings were that I am so wrapped up in my own privilege being a white man I have a long ways ahead toward figuring this out. My next statement then proved to be the pivotal learning moment.

I said to the group that this has been awesome, and I will take the next few days and process this, write about it, think about it and gradually come to terms with what my struggles are. A woman at the table then said to me, ‘I’m glad you’re uncomfortable. You get to go home and process this, and take a week, however long, and maybe write about it and feel better down the road.’ She then said, ‘I’m going to deal with it tonight, and in the morning and all day tomorrow, the next day, and every day as I have been my entire life.’ She was speaking from experience, she was African-American, and she was smiling, and I never felt more welcomed into a learning moment in my life. My whole pitch on what my takeaway should be, or needed to be, or ought to be, immediately shifted. I was grateful, and afterwards she and I had some time to talk and I shared a couple more stories, and so did she, and I walked away a little head blown by the moment.

So why am I suddenly having this revelation even though I’ve walked around thinking about these various aspects of racial discrimination and injustice most of my life and throughout all of my teaching career? My only answer is that I don’t experience it directly, and if I am going to be an ally for racial and social justice in my local and national society, I need to continue to listen in these moments rather than talk through my rationalizations.

This was one experience in a conference that filled me with a new knowledge of what injustice truly means to our society and our constantly changing world we live in today in both America and throughout the globe. There are many experiences ahead, and I do plan to keep listening.

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Looking The Part

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Wonder the curling fingertips,

the adamant task

drawing locks

security

in the presence of life.

 

Check austere provisions,

a smooth swiff,

filling jars,

a man pacing the room,

always in a wonder of how.

 

A picture of human interaction

“I’m going solo”

spoke a gentleman java guide,

off to the focal point

where lives intermingle alone.

 

Yet, interaction, a game,

or is it truth

that sets aside

an intellect

beyond the comfort zone.

 

The breeze outside

wafting wide open screen,

leaves, dance in

unison

the humanity of life.

 

Would one wonder,

if the hand swiping a sallow

brow

similar to their own,

a night before when alone.

 

A line of laptops

give quiet indication

we have all been here

before,

in certain wander we atone.

 

Sweet is the humanity

of discrete passion

for the moment,

the privacy

yet Vicinity wills love.

‘Speechless’ by The Moving Co.

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Last night we went to see the play ‘Speechless’ performed by The Moving Company at The Lab Theater in downtown Minneapolis. I wanted to see the show (Best Play of 2017 – StarTribune) because it is being produced by former members of Theatre De Le Jeune Lune, namely, created by Steven Epp and directed by Dominique Serrand. In reading a preview I was further intrigued by the premise, no words, only movement interwoven in the music of Brahms, Schubert & Tchaikovsky.

In reading the synopsis, “SPEECHLESS follows five brave souls as they navigate through grief, loss, and disbelief” -The Moving Company, I found I was immediately drawn by the history and creative nature of Jeune Lune and these players’ ability to demonstrate an avenue of experimental theatre often missed by many, but for those that dare, the reward outstanding. Last evening was no exception.

The night began with the company of players, five actors walking out into the stage, and intermingling with the audience while the lights slowly fade, their expressions all appearing earnest and welcoming, almost lonely in their need to connect, to only simply, say something. One actor as they centered, slowly opened his mouth for a certain utterance, and then simply backed away in pained disbelief. They all then lighted accordingly began their performance with the music moving their soul.

What transpired over the next 90 minutes was rather incredible in this relevant statement upon our society and its loss of ‘hope’ as would be one of the only tangible motifs I could easily draw conclusion upon. Throughout certain movement and precise acuity the actors then told the story of a society lost, grieving, finding relief, looking for motion, looking for someway to seek comfort inside a world of crumbling and disheveled chaos that only continued to unravel. Everything they touched seemed to fall away and even shatter in literal testament of the destruction their lives would now endure.

Yet, the beauty of ‘Speechless’ is that as their world tore apart, they kept finding ways to mend, even realizing that while the best of their world lay in fragments if they brought their energy together, there then, people could somehow find some new grounding to within the magic of the human condition piece together their lives.

Through a remarkable array of dance, acrobatics, layered meaning and finally the utterance of body and soul that had me imagining Pink Floyd’s ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ the players slowly found themselves together and with the meaning of hope, they did discover spring again, and planting seeds finished the night in a spectacular rainbow of meaning that showed the audience, once again, love is everything.

This is certainly a special piece of theatre playing through the 10th of June. If you are curious, I assure you, there is reason to find out why. Go.

How Will Society React

Justine

Justine Ruszczyk

 

In Minneapolis, a white, blonde woman, of means was gunned down by a Somali police officer. Let me say this a different way. A woman in a dark alley was recently shot dead by a cop on patrol in south Minneapolis. Or I could say, after making a call to 911, a woman in certain distress approached a responding squad car, and the officer in the passenger side, fired his weapon across his partner through a window, and she died in the alley of a fatal wound. How do the three descriptions differ from each other? One might wonder which context of this absolute tragedy will matter in the outcome.

Here is the truth. We live in a society that places priority on means. In other words, money does play a role in how situations of tragedy are handled. However, there are many other variables in play here. This isn’t about a white police officer gunning down a person of color, without explanation or cause. This is actually about an officer of color ending the life of an attractive blonde woman. Take the blonde out of the story, this is the story of a woman being gunned down for no apparent reason. Either way it is described, there will be no pleasant outcome. We don’t know there wasn’t a reason because both officers in the patrol had their body cams turned off, another variable.

We don’t know the motivation for the gunshot because it was dark, the woman approached the vehicle, there was no dash cam, and apparently no witnesses beyond the officers and the woman. We are as a society asked to appreciate the reasoning and risk, and thereby respect the duress of our police departments when responding to any call, in any circumstance. I was gently reminded of this weeks ago, when writing about the Philando Castile verdict, how an officer is clearly always walking into danger, whether it be a routine traffic stop, or an already identified point of threat. So this commentary is not about our police force and their right or wrong doings.

This commentary is about how our society is going to handle this current crisis. How is social media going to react? What will be the chain of priority when handling this investigation? Does it take more precedent than the string of killings that have occurred on our streets in the last month, not including the twin cities but across the country? How do we decide that one case matters more than countless others? God help us, that we live in a world that the color of our skin creates a definition of what we determine to be important.

The clear fact is that a woman died at the hands of our police force. The truth is no one knows why except for the officers involved and in circumstances of such terrible outcome, in the moment of haste, worry, concern, personal threat, even their hearts were certainly adrenaline driven in the moment. On the surface we can be quite sure there was a lot of tension and panic involved. In the end though, a woman is dead, and another police force is under scrutiny, and the twin cities has become national news.

So, how do we go forward? Some people might pray to help themselves find calm and balance and heal. Some are pragmatic and will return to their lives and this will be a sad afterthought. Some will move out of the neighborhood, change the locks, buy home security systems, take self defense. Some will remain quietly nervous for the rest of their lives.

We as a society need somehow to respond to one another, and recognize this isn’t a race issue, not a gender based issue, not an easily explainable issue. What is true is that a young woman has lost her life and the treasures of her future and her fiance, family and friends are forever altered. We can try to move forward. We can try to find understanding, empathy, and peace throughout the confusion. There is no easy solution, there is only reality, and the acknowledgment of horrific human error.

A Cold Reality

When I drive by the spot, I am immediately reminded of how painful the memory is; a moment in my life that I have never tried to discard, but only keep strong in my mind for the value of sentiment. To me, to speak of love is to know when everything I felt important in my life holds value. There are many times when I lose sight of what that is, and I simply plod on until the next time I can breathe and imagine how genuine a single truth is in my life. As I approach the anniversary of losing my cousin, Billy Grade, I am wracked with an aching void that I have either worked very hard to keep alive, or struggled to make sense of, always walking away with unanswered questions, often wondering with confusion whether forgetting was really acceptable.

The other night I was reminded that it is okay to remember, in fact, there is nothing I want to forget of the life of my cousin. I was driving home and as I descended into my neighborhood, I can call it that because I drift down a very long hill before I make my final turn to my home, I came upon my t-intersection and began a slide as my wheels engaged the black ice that had arisen from the arctic temperatures of a current cold snap. Whenever I come upon this intersection, I always imagine I could slide right up the little hill that the driveway on the other side offers. This would mean blowing right through a stop sign on a quiet road where in the summer you can often see children playing in the middle of the street, fully embracing a naive trust that drivers will always be aware of their presence. This night would be different.

As my tires grasped the icy road, I navigated to a stop at the proper juncture, and then noticed an Suv move unsuspectingly through the intersection at a moderate speed. I imagined what fortune to not have slid into the vehicle and become another statistic of a cold winter’s night, assuming only a fender bender and perhaps some forced commentary between both parties as we exchanged insurance cards. Neighbors creating a moment together as a result of inattentive driving. I was happy to not be a party to that outcome as the car continued up the hill. That’s when my heart took pause, and my eyes watched a young man on a saucer slide behind the car with a rope attached to the back end of the vehicle. In my amazement, I then noticed the tail door of the vehicle was open and I could see young bodies of teenagers sitting in the open vehicle with smiles as they watched their friend slide behind them, eager for their opportunity that surely lied ahead. The car came to a gradual stop, and the young man rode out the final few feet, stepping up with the saucer in his hand just shy of the rear bumper of the car, everyone in smiles but certainly aware of the witness in the vehicle facing the intersection.

I debated the moment, and suddenly realized this was how I lost my cousin Billy 41 years earlier on a hauntingly similar night. The moment felt so eery I would perhaps feel relieved to know that the time of night was probably almost exacting to this night. It was a Friday night, in December, during a seasonally cold snap that made the quiet roads of 53rd & Thomas Avenue in Minneapolis an inviting venue for skitching. I was in Wausau at the time, anticipating a family reunion in a couple of weeks where our Irish families would congregate and simply love one another. I looked at the car stopped, looked at the teenagers now fully aware of my long pause, and I drove into the intersection intent on speaking to the driver.

As I got out of my car, the young man with the saucer stood for a moment and then began to walk away. I yelled to him to come back and he kept walking. I yelled firmly and he turned and began to return. Meanwhile the driver had rolled down his window, and I glanced inside to see a half a dozen young and concerned faces wondering what this stranger had in mind. What happened then remains rather vague in my eyes except to say that I believe I was talking to my cousin as I spoke with an unbridled venom of how upset what I was witnessing made me. As I yelled at the driver I made sure the young man with the saucer was hearing my words, but as I recall, I couldn’t define the face of anyone in the car. I could only suggest they were all faceless images of the beautiful young man we had lost at such an early age during a time in my life, when the importance of the human condition had no real value to me except getting all of my material needs met and knowing I was truly loved by my family.

It was then I realized I was talking to Billy as I screamed at the innocent faces looking back at me with confusion, as I asked them to make good decisions … ‘Don’t be so stupid’ … as I heard myself reaching for any words I could to convince this young lot of teenagers that their actions would lead to a pain for their families no one should have to endure. I caught my breath and listened as the young driver said, “I’m sorry sir, I won’t do it again.” I wanted to reach out and hug him and every kid in the car, but instead I turned and walked back to my car.

For a moment my tires would not grab the ice, and I vainly tried to move away from the scene, conscious of another car that had pulled up nearby probably wondering what was happening. I took deep breaths, and slowly tapped the pedal of my car, and the wheels gradually began to move forward. I didn’t look back, only continued to my home more aware of myself and my pain than I had been in many years. As I pulled into my driveway, the tears came and remained in long sobs for quite some time as I walked into my home and reflected upon what I had just encountered.

This morning, after coffee, I came upon the intersection on my return home, and replayed the scene again, and found myself on 53rd & Thomas, for a moment, only to privately weep again.