Don't Believe Everything That You Think

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When Trump was elected, I was attending a weekly meeting for white folks who wanted to unpack their internalized white supremacy and do racial justice work. One person in the group, who had been in the medical field their entire career, offered the following metaphor one day for Trump’s election. In the metaphor, the rise of public nationalism and outpouring of hatred surrounding Trump is symptomatic of an untreated abscess—something that had been left to fester and rot for far too long without being directly addressed. This person’s point was that the United States has never grappled with its history of racism (true) and has never taken actual strides to address the structural inequality that racism set up (also true) and has instead just papered over the past while fixating on a mythical future (still true). 

White folks assumed that as segregation ended, the housing market opened up, and legal social restrictions relaxed, and so on, that racism would kind of automatically solve itself. In this metaphor, the United States treated the symptoms of racism (the most obvious social effects) without treating the underlying cause of the disease, thus creating an abscess that, over time, sickened the entire national body until it finally erupted in the 2016 presidential election. 

In this metaphor, the eruption is beneficial: it allows for the infection to finally get into the fresh air, to begin the real process of healing, which is painful and tedious, yes, but ultimately better all-around than letting the abscess continue unchecked—which would eventually kill the entire body. Early in Trump’s presidency, I saw variations of this metaphor often, all summed up by the idea that this kind of sharp shock was ultimately good for the country, that it would force us into reckoning. In a nutshell, the belief that it has to get worse in order to get better.

True confession: I freaking love a metaphor. I teach writing, for goodness sake—a good overarching metaphor is a thing of beauty! So when I heard this particular take on what felt like a terrifying and horrific situation, I breathed a sigh of relief. Here was something I could get behind, a way of understanding my surroundings that helped me fit things into place, to see a vision of the future in which the current pain was not only understandable, but necessary.

And that’s exactly where, in hindsight,

I should have checked myself.

That metaphor, as thorough as it is, only makes certain people safe. To chase it a bit further, it only helps those who aren’t in the wound itself, so to speak, being ravaged by the pestilence. If the abscess is in an arm, the metaphor helps those of us living in a toe. Of course it made me feel better—it absolves me of any culpability in the creation of the problem, removes me from the immediacy of the problem, and it lessens my burden in addressing the problem. 

When I, as a privileged white woman in the U.S., stumble across or create a version of reality that makes me feel safe, that I can easily understand, that feels like it “finally explains something,” I need to stop, back up, and check myself. Chances are, that version of reality, like the metaphor above, has erased the very tangible danger that countless people find themselves in, and therefore only serves to perpetuate and enforce white supremacy by giving white folks an easy out.

For white folks, things are packaged as “truth” that are, in reality, only intended to keep us comfortable and unquestioning the underlying systems at play that continue to marginalize and oppress people. As a white person, I need to question everything I believe, including and especially things that feel “right” or “true.”

So, white folks, when you feel a sense of “Oh yeah, that makes sense! That must be it” in relationship to an explanation for any social/cultural occurrence, here are a few things that are likely happening:

1.    Confirmation bias.

This is the tendency for people to latch onto “truths” that, consciously or subconsciously, confirm what they already believe. And this happens to everyone. In this situation, confirmation bias means that if you have any racist belief, anywhere in your subconscious (and we all do, here in the good old U.S. of A.)-- for example in the inherent inferiority of nonwhite folk-- you’re going to be more tempted to agree with “explanations” that posit that inferiority as somehow responsible for the differences in black and white communities. Simple as that. So when you’re thinking, “Oh yeah, that makes sense,” what’s actually happening is that little part of your subconscious is going, “Growth is painful! I don’t want to disappear or get worked on, so believe _______, because it will keep me safe!” Confirmation bias can be the racist part of your brain’s tricky way of preserving itself.

2.    Fallacy of the Easy Answer/Simple Explanation.

Here’s the tricky thing about metaphors: the bigger they get, the more they start to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy, which means the more you have to exclude in order to make them work. Same goes for easy answers and simple explanations. The reality is, as vast and complex as problems like institutionalized racism are, there is no one explanation or one solution that’s going to yield easy, simple, perfectly comfortable results for everyone. And chances are, people who are going to be most uncomfortable with complex, nuanced answers or difficult explanations are those who are experiencing privilege in that particular area… Like white folks, who are going to have to completely rethink their vision of themselves and their status in the world in order to truly address their complicity in institutionalized racism. The truth behind that discomfort is that liberation ultimately benefits everyone, but it’s hard to see that when to you, it looks and feels like you’re sliding down the social ladder.

3.    Vast and Vague versus Immediate and Specific.

I've noticed that a lot of these “ah ha” moments happen with huuuuuuuge ideas. The abscess metaphor is enormous—it keeps going and going—and the bigger it gets, the less tangible it becomes. For example, what exactly does “treating the wound” look like? Does that mean reparations, a truth and reconciliation commission, or what? Who has the responsibility of coming up with the treatment plans, and who has the responsibility of enforcing them? See what I mean? When you get specific the metaphor gets messy… but when you keep it vast and vague, my goodness how lovely it seems to be. Similar to the fallacy above, Vast and Vague allows people (white folks) to escape or bypass the hard work: we can theorize all day long without ever putting something into practice. Vast and Vague also allows us to stay in our ivory towers without ever building relationships with people who are being affected and doing the work of change. Immediate and Specific is hard. It’s messy. It’s not necessarily pretty as its happening. And it’s a hell of a lot of work. 

 

As always, this is a growth process for me—for anyone who is engaged in this work. My promise to myself and to you is that I will continue to check and examine my own brain, and to share this publicly as I formulate it into words. If you have places you’d like to engage with me in this post, please do so—I’m always willing to learn.  The vision of liberation I hold up includes us all, provided we can internalize the change that must happen to get us there.

Ideologies of Traveling

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley (view from the lookout)

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley (view from the lookout)

My background and childhood make traveling both a requirement for my mental health and a particularly fraught experience. I can’t stay in one place, but I’m also always aware of the privilege that allows me some measure of mobility and the impact my mobility has on the places I visit (not to mention the overall environment, etc.). 

On our recent trip to Hawai’i, one day my partner and I visited Waipi’o Valley. We’d done some research ahead of time, knew the valley is privately owned and that hiking is restricted to a few trails, each, according to our reading, more grueling than the next—but all promising incredible “rewards” for those willing to take on the challenge. Gazing out from the lookout point was incredible enough—the land alive and pulsing quietly. And as we stood there, reading the placards, watching mist roll through the valley, the whir of a drone started up behind us. Someone had broken from their tour group cluster and now stood twenty feet away from the lookout ledge, watching the screen in their hands as they steered the drone farther and farther into the air over the valley. Less than a minute later the attendant from the state park kiosk at the top of the hill came running down the hill yelling “What are you DOING?! Get that drone out of there NOW!” After a few minutes of petulance (yes, I’m ascribing a state of mind to the drone-flier based on their tone of voice), the drone finally touched down and was put away. The tour group left a few minutes later. The air around us stilled, but a ripple of unease continued to wash through my system. We’d been quietly discussing not doing our planned hike, after reading the placards at the lookout, and after the drone encounter we spent a few more minutes watching the valley before paying our respects and making our way back to the car.

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley with Placard reading, in part: "If not invited, please respect this sacred valley by enjoying its beauty from this lookout here. Waipi'o Valley is not a public park, it is privately-owned land. If you must descend, do not trespass!"

Image Description: Waipi'o Valley with Placard reading, in part: "If not invited, please respect this sacred valley by enjoying its beauty from this lookout here. Waipi'o Valley is not a public park, it is privately-owned land. If you must descend, do not trespass!"

 

Since we landed on the Big Island I’d been having a tumultuous internal experience: we were visiting, after all, as Madam Pele made it quite clear that her work isn’t over, and I couldn’t help but feel like we were in some way parasitic for being on vacation during a natural disaster. Several people told us that seeing the volcano and fissures in action would be a “once in a lifetime experience,” which felt dismissive, in a big way, of the reality of life on a volcanic island.

That attitude felt like an invitation to say we’ve been to this idyllized paradise, during an eruption series no less, like bragging rights, and that feels icky, like colonization-lite: We’re not going to permanently ravage your land and decimate your population, but we are going to come in, trample through and over everything and demand “unique” “authentic” experiences that are thrilling enough to raise some arm hairs but still in all actuality quite safe, and also easily accessible, please, because we want to work hard enough to feel like we’ve “earned it” but not hard enough that it reminds us of work. And then we’re going to go home and tell people “We’ve been to/done Hawaii!” And people will say, “That’s great! What a once-in-a-lifetime trip. What’s next?!”

The life-long process of decolonizing mind, body, and spirit certainly does make traveling an interesting venture. I think it’s worth examining our underlying attitudes and beliefs toward traveling. What is the purpose, the desire, that drives the experience? Are we going to experience? To collect? To explore? To check off? To give, to receive, to benefit, to serve, to learn, to grow, to rest, to test? How does that purpose or desire effect the place to which we’re are traveling and the people who live in that place, who are not tourists or travelers themselves? Likewise, what is the history of that place and its people? How does our purpose and desire for travel engage with local history as well as with that place and its people in the context of global issues? 

As I continue to digest and unpack the drone experience in particular, which I’m still doing nearly three weeks later at the time of this writing, I keep coming back to this underlying assumption that I observe in others as well as myself: that because we have tools and access, we have a right to use those tools or take that access wherever we want… As I mentioned above, to explore, to experience, to observe. To view the world through our camera lens, collecting photos as proof of our adventures.

More and more I’m wondering if morally this need to collect and document is a sign or symptom of the overall corruption of a Western colonizer’s mindset, of imperialism made flesh. “I can, so I will,”—no question of should I or may I or why do I feel the need to do/have/experience. 

I suppose a lot of travel could be seen through that lens: a consumptive exploitative engagement with the unfamiliar. The purpose to conquer and tame, or at least to satisfy curiosity. The sense of ownership that comes with easy access instead of the sense of belonging that comes with cultivation.

Maybe this is a place for a paradigm shift: instead of collecting places and experiences as you travel, that spirit of accumulation and possession, maybe the spirit has to be belongingness and reverence, paying respect to. And if you really want to leave something behind, i.e. get involved in some way, make sure it’s something that’s needed and that has been asked for—ask questions, do research, build relationships first. 

I know I’ll be pondering this for a long long time, and that it will affect the way I move through the world in a very literal sense. As always, I’m open to resources, thoughts, reflections, and challenges.

Jörmungandr

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The first time I remember seeing the World Serpent was in an illustration in a children’s book. There was a map, purposefully aged, and around the edges of the map a serpent, holding its own tail in its mouth, creating the boundary of a world on the page. Raised on the literalism of Southern Christianity’s interpretation of Biblical myths, I imagined the snake in the physical plane, wrapping around continents beneath the sea, the lines of its body echoing the tectonic plates, and I was captivated by the undulations of this body as border.  

In Norse mythology, Jörmungandr, later called the World or Midgard Serpent, was the middle child of the giantess Angrbo∂a and Loki, the infamous trickster. When Odin discovered the serpent child’s existence, he threw Jörmungandr into the sea, where he grew so large he encircled the Earth. When I tell myself this story as an adult, Jörmungandr’s growth is the result of his lineage: giantess blood running through his veins, fueled by rebellion against his grandfather Odin’s attempt to destroy him. The ultimate retribution for Odin’s act is Jörmungandr’s importance in the Norse mythos: when the World Serpent releases his tail, Ragnarök will begin. 

Since my childhood exposure to this story I have been fascinated by Ragnarök, the Twilight of the Gods, an apocalypse, unfixed in time, when the gods will die and the world will be immersed in water, only to surface, refreshed, ready to be repopulated and begin again its cycle, as eternal and tenuous as Jörmungandr’s fanged grip on his own tail.

 

Jörmungandr is an example of an ouroboros, one of those far-reaching symbols that appears in ancient Egyptian mythology, Renaissance alchemy, and even in Kundalini yoga. Ouroboros are symbols of eternal return, the cyclical nature of all things, constantly recreating the self, the infinite cycle of nature’s creation + destruction, life and death inextricably bound together. In this light the questions to ask are not When and If, but How do we see Ragnarök happening around us, our old gods crumbling, the snakes tail unleashed, the world birthing itself anew?

And in this space of destruction and creation, I’ve been feeling strongly that now is a time to examine the foundation upon which we build our temples. How are we in relationship to the earth beneath us and the cycles around us? If we are made up of all we take in, what is the material upon which our roots feed?

Walking Out

Photo by  Tim Mudd  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tim Mudd on Unsplash

For 17 minutes Wednesday morning March 14th a circle of people gathered in the quad of the university at which I teach. We stood as part of a nationwide phenomenon as students, faculty, staff, and administrators of our university left their classrooms, offices, and buildings to stand in solidarity with students, faculty, staff, and administrators around the country for National School WalkOut. On our campus, we huddled surreptitiously against each other in the cold as the wind snaked its fingers up our sleeves and down our necks and we listened to the names of the 17 people* killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida one month ago and we listened to the wind and our own low voices. We reckoned, each of us in our own way, with where we are, as individuals, as a school, and as a nation.

I teach on the campus of a public university in Western North Carolina. Like all college campuses, ours comes with its own unique cultural context and its own individualized set of issues that are in many ways reflective of the larger cultural context and set of issues we’re facing as a country. As an example, my campus is currently struggling with how to best support our students of color as they express the need for administrative consequences for overt racism on our campus, since last month some students yelled racial slurs out of a residence hall window at other students during the MLK Jr. Unity March. That is of course not the only instance in which our students of color have felt unsafe or unwelcome, but again: one symptom of a much larger sickness.

These issues we’re dealing with are unique in their expression, but they’re also symptomatic of a larger cultural reckoning, one that asks of us who we want to protect, when we choose to act, how far we’re willing to go to be that proverbial change. And as our campus most directly wrestles with these questions with regard to racism, it’s painfully obvious that another place where we’re being asked these same questions culturally is in the conversation about gun violence.

Wednesday morning, I stood in a circle of people, some of whom I know but most of whom I have no personal connection to and I thought: what happened in Parkland can happen here. May happen here. Every person in this circle has their own stories and experiences, their own hopes and dreams and fears and futures, and yet we are all united by the looming threat of violence.

Every day we come to school is a statement of hope, a commitment to pursuing a better future even under this heightened threat.

I find it telling that these shootings are playing out in spaces of education. There’s no doubt that the education system in the United States is rife with systemic issues itself, but still… these shootings happen, largely, in spaces where the pursuit of knowledge is paramount. What does that mean?

To me, this is an ethos problem: how does a college campus or a nation embody the values it claims to uphold? When necessary, how do we change our values? How can a campus or a national culture shift from one of division and threat to one of communion and dialogue? When will we be willing to face the fact that something is deeply wrong with our culture and needs to be directly addressed? How do we become the people we want to be, and how do we live, daily, knowing that who we are matters?

 

These are the resources I’ll be spending time with in the coming weeks as I continue to wrestle with my own complicity in this cultural mess. If you know of other resources, please feel free to email me or to add them in the comments. Let’s work together to create a better world for our students.

  • Isabel Fattal in “Another School Shooting—But Who’s Counting?” from The Atlantic :

“there is no comprehensive federal database on gun deaths, let alone on school shootings”

https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/02/another-school-shootingbut-whos-counting/553412/

  • Mother Jones open-source database of mass shootings

https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/

  • Education Week database that counts school shootings

https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/school-shootings-this-year-how-many-and-where.html

 

*Alyssa Alhadeff, Scott Beigel, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Aaron Feis, Jamie Guttenberg, Chris Hixon, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang

On Reading

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My memory is hazy at the best of times. When I’m stressed or under pressure it retreats completely, leaving behind the sensation I imagine a sentient computer would experience after having its hard drive wiped clean: lighter, freed somehow, but also bereft and void of meaning.

When memories start to return, they sneak up on my consciousness warily, like wild animals judging the intention of a foreign object in their territory. "Do we want to be seen?" They seem to question, circling the perimeter of my awareness. This dance, in which the sentient I, the thinker-about-thinking, must stand absolutely still, must not direct attention squarely at the memory, must wait to be approached, often results in the type of fractured image one gets from looking into a hand mirror in order to see the back of one’s own head.

In one of these tilted reflections, I am a young girl, maybe six or seven—old enough to be reading, young enough to be read to—and am apparently spending the night at my grandparents’ house. And because my memory functions much like my dream states, other details have been conveniently smudged, practical details now weighted in their haze with hidden portent: where my parents are, or why I am here, or how it came to be that we are reading what we are reading.

We are in my grandparent’s bedroom, just the two of us: my grandmother and I. It’s dark outside—the kind of inky, sweltering darkness that the deep South produces, and the darkness seems to seep into the room through the edges of the panes in the panel of windows behind our heads. We sit in my grandparent’s enormous four-poster bed, resplendent with sinuous snaking columns at each corner. The bed is open to the room around it, former hangings lost to age and neglect. The light from the nightstand is a warm glow that spreads beyond the columns, across the burnt-orange shag carpet leftover from a bygone era. Beyond the curved rim of the lamp’s glow there is more darkness, kept at bay temporarily, awaiting its imminent reunion with the hot pressing dark outside.

We are essentially sitting in a pool of light, my grandmother and I, hunkering down to read. In my memory I see us from above, small figures on a small island in a large dark sea. My grandmother holds a long narrow book in her hands. The cover is a swirl of black ink that twines around itself in languorous threads, shaping the looming and ominous figure of a bird like the ones that sit day in and day out on the telephone wire just outside her house. At the center of the mass of dark strands is a single, tight, red spiral, the ink so rich that even on the aged paper it shines like blood, like magic: the bird’s eye is so vivid that I shrink behind her shoulder to avoid its gaze. Her voice as she reads is soft, its cadence measured. She reads with the grace of years of practice, and I am drawn into the tale by the power of the words even as I am fixated by the raven’s stare. Nevermore, she intones, and I am swept away into the unknown waiting in the pages, knowing somewhere in my girlhood bones that I am lost, now, that words and the worlds they create are all I will love, forever and evermore.

Academic Honesty?

 
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Confession: I’m an academic skeptic.

There must be a better word for this, but in searching for it I am directed only toward a period of ancient Platonism, toward Cicero, and to academics who are specifically skeptical of academia.edu, a site I have never heard of and am therefore not inclined to think about.

I teach writing and rhetoric to freshmen and sophomores at a small public university in western North Carolina. Last week I assigned my students Patrick Stokes’ 2012 essay from The Conversation website, so excellently titled “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.” It was a great day; every section of my classes had a rigorous and lively debate about thorny topics:

  •  the process of validating an opinion,

  •  the difference between having the right to an opinion and deserving respect for that opinion

  •  questioning in which forums certain experts are most credible.

The day we discussed Stokes’ essay I felt confident, for the first time in weeks, in the human ability to set aside political partisanship and actually reason through an issue. In the days that followed, however, the familiar queasiness once again took up residence in my stomach. I want my students to develop their abilities to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information. I do not want them to accept claims at face value; I want them to dig, to form their opinions and base their beliefs on the best possible evidence available to them.

But here’s where I get stuck. It seems increasingly as though many of the things we have taken as fact, as credible, are in fact very much not so. And I increasingly notice a tendency in myself beyond skepticism, veering into cynicism.

Who can we trust, if so much of our information is… inherently flawed?

I firmly believe that some “experts” are simply misguided, but other are deliberately deceptive. I do think that the majority of social and cultural institutions are corrupt at their core, built on racist, sexist, classist principles that contaminate our daily lives. As one of these institutions, academia, with its desire to train students to evaluate but eventually have faith in the experts, seems designed to keep the masses in their places.

On the other hand, I also deeply and wholeheartedly believe that there are issues in which the truths we arrive at through dedicated, disciplined, rigorous scientific and academic research are crucial. Climate change, for example, is a very serious, maybe the most serious, problem we face as a global community and some people’s refusal to accept the scientific evidence supporting its existence has the potential to doom us all.

So how do I reconcile my deep and defining skepticism and distrust of authority with teaching people to evaluate, validate, and thereby accept facts, to base their beliefs on evidence rather than hearsay or stubborn opinion? And how do I reconcile that desire with recent revelations that reveal the cracked foundation:

How do I teach my students to do the best they can with the information available, when the signs are increasingly pointing to the idea that the “best available” may actually be the corrupt results of greed, rather than honest efforts in the pursuit of knowledge?