Tuesday, February 21, 2012

This Above All: To Thine Own Self Be True

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!

                          Hamlet, Act I, Scene 3

My friend Kym and I seem to be creating quite a little echo chamber of sentiment this week.  She incorporated my recent post on the Tragically Hip into her thinking about her life and where it would and should take her.  She  is in the process of thinking more about who she is and who she wants to be, and this, I think, is when you really know you're going to be okay: when you're able to look at the good and bad of your life and face it all with an understanding of who your past makes you and just how much freedom you have to choose who you will be.  I loved how Kym understood my babbling about nostalgia, and the way she was able to use it as a lens through which to consider herself.  It can be hard to figure out how to balance a longing for former glories with the need to direct your life forward.

Kym's considerations of her life and future reminded me of something my Mom did for me.  When I was young, I was really freaked out by going to the bathroom at my elementary school, and this meant that I would often come home having walked a mile while desperately having to go to the bathroom.  Mom had a talk with me about listening to my body (presumably while thinking "this is just great, my child is going to make her bladder actually explode. Why did I have children, again?"), and the next day I opened my lunchbox and found a note that read "This above all: to thine own self be true" and this:
That's a little cat from a Red Rose Tea box.  Red Rose has been including these little things - called whimsies, adorably - in their tea for decades, and we used to have a lot of them.  I've kept this little cat since then, and it's probably the possession I've held onto the longest; I've had it since I was 6 or 7.  It reminds me of several things, first, of course, being of how amazingly lucky I am to have a mom who not only thought it was appropriate to counsel her elementary school daughter via Hamlet, but also knew she was correct to do so, since my reading level was such that I could figure out that older diction and not get thrown by "thine."  It also reminds me that listening to myself is what will keep me on the right path, and that it takes continual reflection.

I bring this little cat with me whenever I'm feeling nervous or trying something new.  It was with me at my high school and college graduations, with me at American University and Assumption College.  It was with me at orientation when I started my Ph.D at Boston University.  It was with me when I debated the Cambridge Union Society and when I sang the National Anthem for the first time at the DCU Center.  It was with me when I went to Obama's Inauguration and when I was inducted into Phi Sigma Tau, the Philosophy honor society.  I was with me at my book release parties, at opera recitals, and next to my computer when I sent articles off to journals and conferences.  It will be with me at many other key intersections of my life, because it will never stop being the most useful reminder I have.

This above all: to thine own self be true.

You'll Never Walk Aloooooooooooneeeeeeeee

Sometimes I have bad days and I'm cranky or sad or fighty, but I know in the end that I'll be okay.  I know this because every now and then one of my friends will text me something like this:

And the text "Hi! What is new? I miss you and this reminded me of you haha"

My friends rule.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Are You Tenderheaded?"

I just finished Baratunde Thurston's How To Be Black, which was hilarious, poignant and biting, and is officially the first book I actively regretted not buying in hardcopy, because the cover just says "HOW TO BE BLACK," and I feel like I'd get a lot of mileage out of my white ass reading that on the T.  I've been thinking a lot about race, not only because of Thurston's book, but because I am a political scientist and political wonk, and if you're thinking about politics in the age of Barack Obama's Presidency, you are thinking about race.  Race has been so visible in the past several years; it's always been there, obviously, but it feels like racism has really edged its way back into active, visible political discourse since Obama was elected, and I find that supremely disappointing.  Maybe this is my liberal elitist white girl perception, but I thought we'd reached a place where, despite having what I believe is referred to in very professional academic circles as "a metric fuckton" of work to do, a majority of people kind of got that racism was not acceptable and that you should at least attempt to keep that shit to yourself.  Not that racism was fixed, mind you, or even close to being fixed, but that we were at least moving vaguely in a positive direction.

I've also been reading the very funny "Yo, Is This Racist" tumblr, which does exactly as advertised - you ask if things are racist, and the tumblr tells you what's up (hint: usually the answer is "yes").  There was one person who asked "are peas racist," and just got a straight "No." which had me laughing uncontrollably for some reason.  I mean...peas. It occurred to someone to ask if peas were racist.  That is magical.  Anyway, some of them are funny and some of them take a turn for the serious, and some are both, like this one from today:
If you read around about race a bit, you'll run into this idea, which is...really something.  Basically, this person is saying that by identifying racism, you are the real racist, because you are insisting on defining things by race.  I...look, this is a stupid argument.  You cannot will racism out of being.  Moreover, this is a variant of the "we should all just be colorblind!" concept.  For those who might not have thought about this, that's a nice idea that is completely unrealistic and misses the point.  Regardless of whether we feel like race should be a factor in our judgments of individuals or groups, race to this point has translated into enormous social inequities.  These things need to be addressed, not just magicked away.  Ignoring them ignores now fundamental inequalities and is a further injustice.  It would be lovely if racism was merely a matter of people thinking bigoted thoughts, but those thoughts have manifested in very real physical, political, social and economic injuries to people and communities of color.

This is also an idea that can only come from people who are able to opt out of racial considerations.  I don't think it's exclusively limited to white people, because I think there are people of color who have reached different places of privilege that allow them to shed some of the weight of racism, but I'm comfortable saying it's mostly white people.  The word "privilege" gets tossed around a lot here, and it's accurate, though I think some people use it as an insult, and that's not quite right.  Having privilege doesn't mean you are somehow bad, but is instead an understanding that your particular experience as a member of a certain group gives you a certain limited perspective even as it gives you an elevated stature in society.  There's nothing you can do about it, just like there isn't anything you can do about being born without privilege, but you can acknowledge it and work to see what you might be missing in your consideration and arguments as a result of your privilege.    It comes down to this: a straight, cisgendered white girl from Massachusetts like me doesn't need to think about race unless she decides to.  The first time I heard about the concept of privilege, I thought immediately of one particular incident, and I thought of it again today when I read the comment from Yo, Is This Racist? today.  Here's the story.

When I was living in DC and attending American University, I was on my own for the first time.  I needed a haircut and I was over by the Metro; I needed to meet someone on Wisconsin Avenue, I think.  I remembered seeing a hair salon in the area, and being in an adventurey kind of mood, I wanted to try it out.  I walked down to Brandywine and strolled into the salon...which specialized in black hair.  I cannot remember a time when I felt more visible and out of place in my life.  All at once, I realized how fucking white my life was, and how reliably I could count on at least some other white people being in any group I was a part of, because there was not a single white person in there, and the place was packed.  A super nice lady asked me what she could help me with, and she was able to get me in for a haircut, which was sweet.  I went over to the shampoo place, where this giant, awesome guy asked me in this mumbly, quiet voice, if I was tenderheaded.  Well, first he asked me, "'r'you tndhrphmmer?" which I didn't quite catch, but when I asked him to repeat it, I still didn't know what the shit "tenderheaded" was, so that didn't really resolve anything.  I went with "not really," figuring I could hedge my bets, and then quickly learned that he'd asked basically to figure out how hard he could yank my hair around and how hard he could massage my scalp.  (Note: I am, in fact, tenderheaded as hell.)  After that, I went over to the chair and got a great haircut.  It was actually a great experience for a variety of reasons, but I was never unaware of being white.

That's why I feel like it's my job to be aware of race and to listen to people of color and work to resolve racial conflict in our society; for me, that was one haircut's worth of continually being aware of my race, but for people of color, that's continual.  My race, in that shop, was my defining characteristic, and I had no say over that.  It wasn't that way because I'd come in and been all "CAN A WHITE GIRL GET A HAIRCUT, BLACK PEOPLE??" or something I did to call attention to it - it was the simple, visual context for me by dint of everyone else being another way.  When I left that shop, I could return to my white world.  It's worth noting that everyone there was super nice, and my being white carried no particular penalty, but this, as we know, is not always the case for people of color.  The project is NOT to make sure everyone can go to their white world, their black world, their brown world, etc., but rather to create one world that is devoid of racial penalty.  This means accepting that people look different, and their appearances call up certain cultural contexts.  It means recognizing those cultural connotations and adjusting our worldview so we can eventually take people as they are.  But we cannot get to that place without recognizing and considering race.

Friday, February 17, 2012

It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken

Every Tuesday and Thursday I take the Framingham/Worcester commuter rail from Worcester to Boston. This ride takes me through a corridor of industry past and present - through the burgeoning CSX rail yard in Worcester, past the Dennison factory in Framingham, then into the houses of rich people in the Bostonian suburbs. Threaded through all of this is the rough nature of Massachusetts, with its brown grasses and naked limbs, following the curves of scrubby streams. There's a pair of swans I look at, usually in the pond next to the pump house at Framingham that I sometimes imagine living in. In the spring, skunk cabbage rushes up everywhere. The whole landscape is littered with tires, trash, the occasional sofa. I don't see a lot of nearby animals, which is a funny contrast to the regularity with which I see mice scurrying around on the tracks while I wait inside for the red line train at Park Street. Inside, life by the third rail; outside, not a creature stirring.

When I make this trip, I'm usually listening to the Tragically Hip. Several years ago, my friend Ben asked me if I wanted to go to a Hip concert in Boston at what used to be the Avalon and is now the House of Blues. I'd never heard of them, but I went anyway. It was one of those beautiful nights where you get out of the T station and feel the air wash over you like it's thrilled you could make it. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees, so I had to wait three trains before I could elbow my way into the sea of red and navy. I wound up squished next to the only other four people on the train who were going to the concert, Canadians who followed me out of the T station yelling to each other, "come on, come on, she KNOWS," which was great - here I am being credited with mystical navigational skills, and the only real secret was to follow everyone else. The concert was one of the first I've enjoyed as an event. I usually like concerts fine, but wouldn't necessarily say they're a thing I like to do. I came home and started listening to the Hip.

In the beginning, I responded to the sound of the Hip, rather than the specific lyrics, because I simply didn't KNOW enough of the latter to get all that excited about them. Even that sound, though, speaks of a particular kind of experience. There is a gentleness to their music, that I think is an admission that we all need it. We need some softness in our lives because we are always in transit and always about to fall. That this should be so evident even in the sound of their music speaks quite clearly to my experience of Canadians themselves. While I have met some really remarkable Canadians, I've also met some real assholes, people who I truly wanted to punch in the face. Still, this quietness rests in all of them, a quiet strength that comes from something shared.

When I started listening to enough that I learned the lyrics, I decided two things: that the Hip might be too smart for me, and that they pull from a deeply enviable kind of nostalgia. I say they might be too smart for me because their references - historical, literary, hockey related - are so various and occasionally so subtle that I feel I could study them for years and still not be able to hang them all together in a frame...or else study them for years and find some kind of epic blueprint for Canadian world domination. I'm sure that people who have loved the Hip longer and better than I have tried this; I have a long road ahead.

But that second point, I think, is why I listen to them on the train so often.  Nostalgia for nostalgia's sake isn't always good; there are a lot of people in America right now desperately striving towards the past in the name of a misplaced nostalgia for a simpler time, as though the political conflicts and worries that we are staring down today didn't exist back then, forgetting that there were even bigger problems and yet more injustice.  This points to a fundamental misunderstanding of what politics are.  Politics are the navigation of our law through the stormy seas of human interaction.  Whatever form they take, political discourses are an attempt to sort out how to let each person be human.  That doesn't change.  But there is a nostalgia that fits with these shifting tides, and this is a sense of what was good and what was achieved, and the soft, glowing pride that attends those things and pushes us towards the future.

Right now, I think this nostalgia attaches itself most often to our thoughts about industry in America, and in Canada as well.  We are linked together whether we like it or not.  We are brothers, with all that entails - the competition, the cross-purposes, the conflict, the conspiracy, the love.  I think we conceive of industry in the same way as well.  These are nations built on industry, and now industry is fading, to make way for new economies.  While we want to succeed in these new economies, I think we see our work in old industry as being fundamentally about being Canadian, being American.  This is the industry my train passes through, and it's particularly poignant to see how some industry is continuing on, wearing a mantle of rust, and some has been reconstituted into the new world, like the Dennison building by Framingham.  It's still a giant heap of brick, with a massive window sporting an ornate blue Dennison "D," through which light once shone on a paper milling floor.  The window is still there, though the machines have quieted and changed.  This is how the Hip feels to me.  Their songs feel like fondness for making things on the strength of our backs, and standing on shifting sands.  Their songs feel like a reminder that things are good, even if they're not the same.   They're songs about working men, and about quiet strength.  I love those songs for that.