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When Is Appropriation Appropriate?

I’ve learnt not to post anything controversial to Facebook. I’m conflict-averse, like any good native-born Midwesterner, and I also think that the medium of Facebook is inappropriate to debate. It’s not well designed for it. Kittens and puppies, I always say.

Close-up of two pale-colored puppies roughly three months old, possibly Labradors, kneeling side-by-side in green grass.  The hindquarters of a third puppy are visible in the upper left of the photo.

I’ve given you kittens before, so this time, have some puppies. Photo by Lisa L Wiedmeier via Flickr.

But sometimes it seems I can’t help myself. And so today I posted an article about belly-dancing that struck a chord with me. You see, one time I saw a performance as part of a larger event that appalled me. I didn’t know going in that the belly-dancing would be part of the evening’s festivities. And when these white women swiveled out onto the stage, not in haremesque attire associated with the art form, but in kimonos and geisha makeup for a “kabuki-inspired” performance, I raged out of the auditorium. I had fooled myself into thinking that we had somehow got beyond yellowface.

Now, this Japanese take on a minstrel show was beyond the bounds of decency. But it made me think. what about belly-dancing itself? Many performers are not of Middle Eastern descent. Is it okay for them to practice this art?

To answer my question, I just started paying attention to what my friends of Middle Eastern descent had to say on the subject. Not that belly-dancing came up in conversation all the time, and not that I broached the subject with them. But on occasion, a snippet of opinion surfaced, and, over time, I pieced the snippets together.

And the consensus was that it was not okay.

And this is the sort of thing that often has creative types like myself up in arms. An aesthetic can’t be owned by one culture to the exclusion of all others, so the argument goes. If so, we wouldn’t have English-language haiku, or the Asian influences present in Impressionist art. And without the intermingling of European and African influences, we wouldn’t have jazz or rock. So much would be lost, as the argument goes, if we all held to some strict, politically correct standard of artistic segregation. Besides, the artist should be completely free to use whatever methods or aesthetic she wants; creativity is paramount.

I argue that there is something more important than creativity–yes, even for artists. For there is an identity more fundamental than “artist”: human being. And for human beings to survive, let alone thrive, they must be able to live and work together in community. Our social nature, our ability to think in terms greater than the individual, is one of the chief reasons we have evolved to this point, and is key to our continued survival.

Respect is also the key to understanding the concept of appropriation.  And the key to respect is listening.  Simply put: if the consensus of a group to which you do not belong is that it’s okay for others to make use of an artistic expression originating in or representative of that group, go for it! Have fun.

But if the consensus of that group is that an expression is not okay, knock it off.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been an upswell of discontent from Japanese people about speakers of other languages using the form of haiku — even as the form is sometimes stripped of its original intent as a meditation upon nature.

The presence of East Asian influences in Impressionist art came out of the larger European movements of Orientalism and Internationalism in the late 19th century, which developed as a direct result of European colonization in East Asia. It’s important in the study of the Impressionist era to bear this troublesome history in mind. However, to the best of my knowledge, there have not been any recent calls from Chinese, Japanese, and other East Asian artists to dismiss Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Starry Night in the way we now do, say Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer or Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. (Though we might want to talk about Gaugin’s objectification of Tahitian women in his work.)

With regard to the musical examples I offered above, jazz and rock, it’s important to bear in mind that artistic movements do, indeed, develop organically. Cultural cross-pollination created jazz, rock, and many other movements musical and otherwise. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a consensus from African American (and in the case of jazz, also Jewish) communities that those who do not belong their communities shouldn’t perform these genres — even as the audience for both jazz and rock over the decades grew increasingly white. An academic critique of, for instance, Elvis Presley and his complicated history with African American performers is worthwhile, but there has not been any great advocacy from the African American community that whites should quit listening to his music (though I half-wonder if some younger readers could list five of his songs — even Kings get dethroned eventually.)

To go back to my initial example, one could argue that the performers I saw that night were simply artists practicing a form of artistic syncretism. But the Asian American community has been resolute in its unacceptability of yellowface performance. And a growing number of people of Middle Eastern descent are decrying the appropriation of belly-dancing.

Even as I declared a certain black-and-white rubric regarding what to do and what not to do, notice that I’ve presented my examples with nuance and exceptions. Human beings are by nature complex, their histories, both personal and collective, tortuous and at times torturous. No one’s going to get all of this right 100% of the time, and group consensus also involves those who dissent. But the goal is not perfection, or “correctness,” but respect.

It’s tricky business. And it’s very much involved in what I do with my life. I’m a creative person across a few media. For instance, I designed this ballcap.  (Sorry for the shameless plug.) I’ve been interested in sports branding for most of my life, but it wasn’t until I discovered the online sports-concept community (and the existence of graphic-design freeware) about four years ago that I took up my hobby in earnest. And as I engaged with my fellow designers, I discovered a sharp divide within the community regarding the use of Native American imagery in the branding of a team, whether real, (like the baseball team in Cleveland or the NFL team in Washington) or fictional (I imagined my ballcap for a baseball team in Charlotte.) And as some designers like myself decry, for instance, the questionable moves of the Washington NFL ownership, others not only state that the branding is intended to honor Native Americans even as Native Americans claim otherwise — exactly what the ownership maintains — but persist in using such imagery in their own fictional concepts. On which point, I will simply say it doesn’t matter what you believe if that belief is contrary to fact. And the fact is that the consensus of Native Americans — with, yes, a bit of dissent, an issue meriting its own essay — is that such branding is disrespectful, full stop. So, to my fellow designers, I simply want to say: stop.

I also design jewelry. Mostly, I practice what is called assembly, meaning that I put together manufactured pieces in original designs — I don’t smelt metal or melt glass or anything like that. (Another shameless plug for my work is here, though at this exact moment the work is not for sale.) Another popular and lucrative style of jewelry design is bead-stitching, much of which was first developed by Native Americans. It’s a style I’ve thought about doing, though I wonder if I’d have the patience for it. But I’m not going to take it up for the time being, for the simple fact that I presently live in a community with a large Native American population, many of whom practice bead-stitching as a source of livelihood. I have decided that to do so right now would be disrespectful to the Native American community in that I would be using my hobby to undercut their ability to earn a living — in spite of the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, the local Native American community has not come out against white people making and selling bead-stitched jewelry.

And, really, that’s what all of this comes down to: personal decisions. But none of us live alone; the personal decisions of all of us over time aggregate to build a culture. And it behooves us all to build a culture that edifies rather than destroys, on a foundation of respect rather than of selfishness.


I find myself terribly depressed right now. There are a few triggers  specifically associated with summer — the lack of structure that school provides, the lack of nighttime in Alaska (which I won’t see for about two more months.) It’s a struggle just to get out of bed, or to shower, or to dress, or to make myself something to eat or drink. I’m trying to be kind to myself, trying to find some way to help me out of this funk. But nothing is working so far. Many days I can only accomplish the tasks that require the least mental work, because even my brain is fatigued. In fact, I’m having to write this relatively short blog post in several sessions because that’s all the brain power I have today. But I couldn’t not write this post, so here I am.

Anyway. My laptop is an easy distraction for my depression. I can run a marathon of some sitcom I’ve seen before on Netflix with little effort of my brain. I can play a simple game of Boggle or Bejeweled. And, perhaps most importantly, Facebook gives me the ability to talk with those most dear to me about what I’m going through.

Three grey striped kittens a few weeks old, sitting in a row on a light blue blanket.

I’ve long held that Facebook is best suited for sharing kitten pics anyway. Photo credit: Mathias Erhart via Flickr.

But Facebook is a double-edged sword Read the rest of this entry

Random Thoughts on Race

The issue of race has shown up in a number of news stories the past week or so: the Paula Deen case, the George Zimmerman trial, and Supreme Court cases involving voter rights, affirmative action in education, and the rights of Native Americans. I’ve ended up in a few debates about them. However, I am not a debater, for a lot of reasons. Yet the points that I would like to make to those I have been in discussion with are very close to my heart, and I think it may be worth it to put those points in the public record. (Just a note, the perspective I’m offering here is from an American living in America, though I’m sure most, if not all, of the principles here are transferable to any culture.)

There is such a thing as white privilege. White privilege means that you have been afforded special opportunities through life merely by the color of your skin. In many cases, this affects what you don’t have to go through in life, for example, police and security-guard harassment, and employer mistreatment. The list goes on.

The thing with white privilege is that, if you are white, you can navigate life successfully without once ever having to think about privilege. I’ll talk later a bit about how to overcome one’s own white privilege.

There is such a thing as institutional racism. This has to do with the cumulative effects of centuries of racism. For two centuries, natives of Africa were forced away from their homes and into ships, on which many died, and driven into grueling labor and abominable living conditions. They were stripped of their names and their culture, and afforded absolutely no legal rights whatsoever. The United States fought an ugly civil war for four years in which the issue of the personhood and equality of these abused millions was one of the driving forces.

None of what I have said to this point is not anything you’d find in the average high-school history textbook, though the more gruesome details are usually glossed over. The trouble is that our history books don’t detail what happened after, only little bits if at all. There was a brief bright point during the Reconstruction after the Civil War in which the newly free made gains economically and politically.

Many white folks did not like this, so they started enacting laws to curb the gains African Americans had made. We hear about the separate-but-equal laws that were put in place–African Americans were forced to go to inferior schools, and were to use inferior restrooms, water fountains, bus seating, and so on. This was all intended to send that message that the black man had better know his place.

But the story is far uglier than all this. First, we isolate these stories as a Southern narrative, ignoring the history of racism in the North, where it played out more in housing and employment. This wrongly absolves Northerners of their subculture’s role in perpetuating racism in America.

Second, our textbooks touch briefly on “sharecropping” without ever explaining what it was. In sharecropping, African Americans were allotted land on which to raise crops. The white landowner collected a (large) share of the crops raised as a form of rent. Sounds like a good deal, right? Until you find out what the history books don’t tell you–that it was against the law for the sharecroppers to leave the land, often unless they paid a large sum of money to the landlord. You’ll notice that the sharecroppers didn’t earn money; their payment was crops. Sounds an awful lot like slavery to me.

Then there was debt peonage. Suppose a sharecropper decided to escape. Or suppose an African American citizen who owns his own land crosses a white person. Then the African American could easily find himself in court on trumped-up charges that he owed the white man some money. Much of the court system was structured more informally a century ago–today, we would see some of them as “private courts” without legal standing and with huge conflicts of interest. And thus the African American was ushered into the debt peonage system, in which he would “work off” the debt. This brought about the “chain gangs” working the roads, and also, less commonly known, the vast majority of the mining labor that brought about the steel-industry boom in the South. Prisoners under debt peonage were forbidden any contact with their families, not even letters, and many died from the back-breaking work.

And we like to think that we wiped all of that away with the civil-rights movement in the 1960s. But, just as people looked for ways to worm around the Thirteenth Amendment that abolished slavery, so too today the law works against African Americans and other minorities. We structure our school financing such that those in minority communities have nowhere near even the basic resources for their community schools. If they are lucky, they live where the law allows them to travel far from home to a school with no connection to their neighborhood or their culture. If they aren’t lucky, their school–often lacking even basic resources like functional plumbing and enough textbooks for each student–has draconian security measures in place such that students serve jail time for offenses that would merit a suspension in a white school, what is popularly known as the school-to-prison system.

Then we set up our legal system so that it favors whites. One of my Bible-college professors was a sort of guru when it came to race relationships, and he deeply influenced my understanding of race. In a lecture, he related the story of a racial-reconciliation conference he attended. The speaker asked all of the white attendees to raise their hand if they had ever been driving and the police pulled them over for no reason at all. Not only did no one raise their hand, they were astonished as to why the question was even asked. Then the speaker asked the African Americans in the audience if this had ever happened to them, and every single one of them raised their hand. And then they shared their individual stories of how this had happened to them. (I’m going to touch on this later, as well.)

For another instance, powdered cocaine and crack cocaine have identical effects on the body. The only difference is that powder is primarily sold by whites and crack by minorities For a long time, the punishments for selling crack were far more severe than those for selling powder. Only last year were these laws changed. Similarly, minorities face much stiffer punishments than whites for marijuana possession.

And so we have all these ways for minorities to enter the criminal-justice system, and then we make it so that it’s harder for ex-convicts to find employment and education. Job applications require you to indicate if you have a felony record, and though there is the statement that a record cannot solely bar you from employment, it is also generally accepted that an employer can avoid hiring someone for any reason not covered by law. So an ex-con can have an exemplary record otherwise, but the employer can look at the application and decide she doesn’t want to hire him just because he “smells funny” or what have you, and doesn’t ever have to give the reason why she’s not hiring him.

And then there is the issue of higher education. If you have a drug offense, you are not allowed to file a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which virtually all universities require for entry. You can be convicted of murder and go to college just fine, though. And, as I already indicated, if you are in possession of or are selling drugs, you are more likely to face felony charges as a minority than as a white.

And so it all feeds into itself. Minorities have trouble accessing the sort of education that increases their chances of attaining higher education and thus improving their employment prospects. In fact, there is a chance that even being at school will mean jail time. They are more likely to face prison time via an unequal legal system, and once out of prison, struggle to attain gainful employment. Thus you have a generation stuck in a socioeconomic class where the goal is to survive, not to thrive. Without good jobs pushing a community to the higher tax bracket that will ensure a better-funded school, the choice is to either stay in the community school or take a chance at bussing or open enrollment–if those are even legal options in that state.

And that may sound like a simple choice, but to choose a school that is not a part of your community or culture can look like an act of treachery. There are also more complex sociological considerations. Consider the neighborhood I grew up in. When I was thirteen, my mother, three siblings, and I found ourselves in a public-housing complex. It was not a good place. You had the option of going outside and getting in fist fights all the time or staying inside all the time. Very few people graduated from high school. More commonly, you’d drop out of high school, have a baby, and apply for your own apartment in the complex, thus ensuring three generations knowing little outside that environment. My mother did not consider this the life her children should have, so ultimately, we stayed inside all the time, worked hard on our schoolwork, and worked to graduate from high school. And almost everyone in the neighborhood, even property management, looked down on my mother for raising her kids to think they’re better than everyone else. My mother thought everyone was better than that place and didn’t understand why people weren’t trying to get out. Oh, and did I mention that, in a city that was nearly 90% white, the percentage of whites was considerably lower in our complex?

And it’s all far bigger than all these legal issues. Look at our media. How often do you have a positively-portrayed minority main character? Why are shows featuring African American casts–a group that makes up 12% of the United States population–relegated to secondary networks and get little notice even when they are well-written? The days of The Cosby Show seem so very, very long ago. Why are Latinos, nearly 20% of the United States population, barely on television at all, and it they are, they are cast as either maids or criminals? One of the main answers, of course, is that these decisions are made based on which populations have the most buying power–and a big reason whites have more buying power is all the reasons I described above.

And did you notice that in the amazing year of 2002, when African Americans won Oscars for both best lead actress and best lead actor, they were for the role of the wife of a prisoner, and the role of a corrupt police officer? And, I’m sorry, but you’re not going to convince me that if that’s the only way you ever see people who look like you portrayed in the media, that it will have absolutely zero effect on your self-image as you grow up.

And throughout all of this, I’ve primarily portrayed the experiences of African Americans. I have not really even touched on the experiences of Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans, all of whom have had to deal with racist barriers in society unique to their own groups. You can see how long I’ve gone just describing one group, and frankly, I don’t have enough time today to get into all of them.

Quite simply, we have to undo five centuries of white supremacy in the United States, and we are fools to think that one swipe of a legislative pen or one march will undo all that damage. It will take a hell of a lot of work for many generations.

[Much of the content in this section came out of the fantastic documentary, Slavery by Another Name, which I highly recommend you watch. It’s worth all 90 minutes.]

There is a difference between prejudice and racism. The trouble with using such loaded terms as “prejudice” and “racism” is that we are not all always on the same page in terms of their definitions, and this causes all sorts of problems in trying to discuss these very real issues. So, in discussing these issues, I rely on definitions that are commonly accepted in academia. Yes, I’m going to trust people who have dedicated their lives to the study of a subject in which I am not an expert (and I am indeed an expert in precious little, if anything).

So, using this rubric, prejudice has to do with preconceived notions about a group that cannot possibly be true for every member of the group. “Blacks are criminals”, “Asians are freakishly intelligent” and “Whites can’t dance” are all common prejudices, and all are easily dismissed. There are, of course less common prejudices. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, we are all prejudiced in some way. I know that one of my biggest prejudices is assuming that, if I see a random white person on the street, that they are relatively well off, which, not only isn’t true, but is also kind of bizarre when you consider that I am a white person without a lot of money.

Racism, however, is when a group takes advantage of prejudices and uses them as justification for the creation and justification of laws, both in government and in culture, that ensure that one group cannot advance, over a long period of time. This is why it is said that nonwhites can’t be racist. It cannot possibly be said truthfully that nonwhites have, over a long period of time, asserted their authority in both government and culture to assure that whites are collectively lower than nonwhites.

It’s okay for blacks to say the N-word but not okay for whites to do so. When whites say the word, they are recalling a history in which that term was used by whites towards African Americans as a means of ensuring that African Americans “knew their place”, that they were inferior to whites.

When African Americans use the word in reference to themselves, they are doing what has been called in sociology circles as “reclaiming the word”. I have a ready parallel in my own experience. The F-word that is used to denigrate gays and lesbians is one of the ugliest words I know, and has been used for very much the same purposes as the N-word in terms of pushing people to second-class status. However, I know some gay men who use the word on occasion in reference to themselves or to other gay men. When they are doing this, they are making a statement. They are denying the power that the word has had in demeaning their lives. They are taking the torch meant to incinerate them and turning it into a celebratory bonfire. But a person who is not gay or lesbian cannot possibly use the word in this way, because they have never had their feet held to the fire.

Not all gay men believe this, or use the F-word in this way (for example, I don’t). Likewise, not all African Americans believe in using the N-word this way. However, it is the general standard as it has evolved in American culture. Which leads me to my next point…

If I don’t belong to a group, I do not have the right to determine the standards of that group. I have got into numerous debates about the use of Native American names and imagery in professional sports. (It’s a big issue in collegiate sports, as well, but I’m better versed in the issue at the professional level.) I’ve done some study particularly around the name of the NFL team in Washington, a name so offensive that it’s on par with the N-word and I refuse to say or type it. If you dig into the numerous court cases surrounding the use of the name and imagery, the arrogance is shocking. What it comes down to is that Native Americans confront the white owner of an athletic team that uses an offensive name and a stereotypical image that is meant to symbolize their entire set of cultures. (News flash: Native Americans in the past dressed lots of different ways. They covered the entire continent and collectively were as diverse if not more so than Europe.) The white owner says, “But I am honoring you!” The Native Americans say, “If you were honoring us, we would feel honored, and we very much do not.” The white owner’s reply: “Well, I just don’t understand why you don’t feel honored, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.”

And you know what? As I am not a Native American, I really don’t have the right to an opinion about how Native Americans should feel they are represented. To assert otherwise, to insist that another group must think and feel differently about themselves is, guess what, an exercise of white privilege.

And, to cut off this inevitable train of thought at the pass, this same standard does not apply to, say, the Boston Celtics or the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish. As an American of about one-quarter Irish descent, these depictions do affect and reflect me. I don’t find them offensive, and the consensus of Irish Americans is that they are not offensive. And though there is a nasty history of oppression against the Irish in America’s past, an argument that such oppression is happening today, let alone that these depictions have in the recent past been used to denigrate and disparage Irish Americans, is most difficult to support.

The word “cracker” is not racist. Go back to my previous explanation of the difference between prejudice and racism. The word “cracker” has not been used to denigrate European Americans over an extended period of time to ensure that they will be subjugated in society. Whether the word reflects prejudice is another matter, but perhaps might best be taken on a case-by-case basis.

A racist action does not equal a racist person. The charge of racism is so loaded that the one action you can be certain will shut down any change is to call someone a racist. I argue that, in order for a person to be racist, they must exhibit focused acts of racism over an extended period of time. By this definition, there are indeed racists, but I would argue the vast majority of people are not racist.

On the other hand, I think most white people commit acts of racism. Many of these acts are unintentional. We mirror attitudes and behaviors that racist cultural artifacts have handed down to us. But if we do not correct our actions, we contribute to the continuation of racism.

So the next time someone tells you did something racist, I suggest you follow this course of action: Stop, apologize, consider how the act was racist, and work to avoid doing the act again. It takes a measure of humility and effort, but the long-term benefits to society are immeasurable.

The people who can provide the most honest account of a group are the people who belong to that group. If I want to know the views of women, I ask many women. I don’t just ask one, because no one person should ever be expected to represent an entire group, but I can gather a general consensus if I ask many. The same goes for any group, majority or minority, whether by race, sex, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, religion, disability, politics, on and on. No group is homogeneous. We are, in the end, all unique.

The converse is also true. I don’t want white people telling me what African Americans or Native Americans think or feel. I don’t want men telling me what women think or feel. On and on. For someone to assert an authority voice for a group to which they do not belong is the height of arrogance and, often, privilege.

Overcoming white privilege takes much time and effort but is worth it. First, you have to recognize it exists. This is not easy since, as I said before, if you are white, you can go through life just fine without ever having to think about it. To recognize it means upending some paradigms that have been handed down to you in your culture.

Then you have to identify how it works in your own life. As you go about your day, think about what you don’t have to deal with as a white person.

Next, you have to be willing to listen. Like I said, the only people who can bear proper witness to a group’s experience are members of that group. Again, this will upend some paradigms, and you must remember that listening is just that, not contradicting, not arguing. Later you can suss things out, on your own. For example, a neighbor of mine railed against public education not teaching that the Greeks stole their entire culture from Africa. On an objective level, not only would he be hard-pressed to provide verifiable evidence, but the statement expresses a misunderstanding of what culture is. But on the subjective level, he was rightfully pissed off that the African American perspective gets cut out of our history textbooks.

Then consider what you can do to disrupt the racist structures in society. Only you can say what you can do–whether it is a small action or a big action, it will contribute to the betterment of society. But inaction equals compliance, so goes the activist creed.

All of this has been milling about in my head for a long time. They are issues I am passionate about and are close to my heart. It’s just that they all spilt out today.

Among the Leaves

Tonight I have a wonderful professional opportunity. I will be one of twelve poets (yes, on occasion I write poetry, too) reading at Minneapolis Central Library as part of the city’s Pride Week. The readings will be from two books: Among the Leaves: Queer Male Poets on the Midwestern Experience and When We Become Weavers: Queer Female Poets on the Midwestern Experience. [I have absolutely no clue why it’s not letting me link the full title there–must be a bug.] I have six poems in the former book and will be reading two.

Now, it is a very funny story how I ended up in this anthology. This time last year, I was in Introduction to Creative Writing, taught by G.E. Patterson at Metropolitan State University. As is typical of many such classes, the course was broken down into three units: poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. I wanted to get done with the poetry unit as soon as possible because I did not like poetry, contemporary poetry in particular. I thought contemporary poetry was sloppy, no structure, no reason to it. Lines were broken randomly, and all the classical features I had been taught in high school were tossed to the wind. Besides, I think like every high schooler, I didn’t think that damn wheelbarrow meant anything.

But Mr. Patterson opened my eyes to poetry. Seemingly random breaks were used to emphasize words and to create new meaning. A poem was not meant to tell a story, but to capture a moment. A poem must be read multiple times before you can catch all of its meaning and intention. And, of course, he had me writing poetry that fit this new paradigm.

At about the end of the poetry unit, I went to the launch party of couplets for a shrinking world, a poetry collection by my friend John Medeiros. The party was to open with a reading, and as is typical of everything in the creative world, it was getting a late start. So, being an extrovert who was there by myself, I got to talking to strangers around me. Behind me was a gentleman named Raymond Luczak, who, upon hearing that I was writing poetry, said, “Well, I thought I knew every gay poet in the Twin Cities, but I guess I didn’t. Listen, I’m publishing an anthology of poetry from queer male poets. The deadline for submission was two weeks ago. But, if you can submit to me eight poems germane to the Midwestern experience within 24 hours, and they’re good, then you’re in. I’ll publish six, but I want eight to pick from.”

I’m not one to pass up opportunities like that, so I agreed, and after the festivities, headed home and pored over my poetry–all of which at this point was school assignments. I figured out what might fit the theme, and came up only with five poems. It was getting late. I went to bed, thinking I could write poetry better after a good night’s sleep, with a fresh mind. (To this day, I prefer to write in the morning.)

The next morning, I looked through some of my prose work and found a piece that could be reworked into a poem. After I rewrote that piece, I pulled two more poems out of thin air. I e-mailed the poems to Raymond with about five hours to spare.

He contacted me straightaway, and said that he liked the work, but that one piece needed to be tightened, and that another was poorly expressed and came off unintentionally racist. (When I do something unintentionally racist, I want to be called out for it so I can contemplate how I could have done things differently, and correct course in the future. The surest corrective of white privilege is humility.) So I tightened the first piece, and wrote yet another new poem to replace the accidentally offensive work, resubmitted, and got the okay.

And that is how I got my first publishing credit. I think there are some lessons in this story:

If you’re a writer, go to literary events as much as possible. It pays to keep your big yap open. Strangers are some of the coolest people–you never know who you’re talking to. Write enough so that you have a healthy backlog of material–you never know when some finished work will come in handy. Pressure can produce creativity. You don’t have a say about how something should affect a group you don’t belong to–to believe otherwise is a cornerstone of privilege. Keep your eyes open: opportunity can pop up in the strangest places. And to have strangers read your work is one of the most awesome and humbling things in the world.

Oh, yeah, if you’re reading this and live in the Twin Cities area, consider dropping by for the reading this evening:

Gay Pride: Poetry Reading
Minneapolis Central Library
Pohlad Hall, 300 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, MN, 55401
Tuesday, June 25, 7–9 p.m.

Listen to local GLBTQ authors who contributed poems on the Midwestern experience in two Squares & Rebels anthologies: “When We Become Weavers” edited by Kate Lynn Hibbard and “Among the Leaves” edited by Raymond Luczak.
This project is funded with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund.
Presented in partnership with Queer Voices Reading Series of Intermedia Arts.

[Despite what the library website says, registration isn’t necessary.]


I have issues with my appetite. It’s not apparent from my waistline, but that comes from my lack of exercise. I get hungry but don’t feel like eating. It’s difficult to manage. When I do get the urge to eat, I do whatever I can to make sure I eat something.

So I’m out running errands this morning when I need to eat. Having just checked my bank account, I know there’s only one option for me close by: Taco Bell. I know, I know–they use bits and parts and call it ground beef, but it’s cheap, and that’s often my number-one measure of the desirability of food.

So I go to the Taco Bell in Minneapolis’s downtown skyway system. I come in at the very beginning of the lunch rush. The cashier, a friendly African American woman, takes my order. I get my cup for water, since I try to avoid soda–the cashier said she wished she could have some water–and await my order. The manager, a middle-aged white man, barks out the names of the line staff. I’ve been to this Taco Bell enough to know that I only know of one other white person to work on the line. As I await my meal, the manager hands me a soda cup. He says I get a free soda because his staff is “annoying” him.

I was in shock. I’ve worked enough in the public sector to know that his behavior was thoroughly unacceptable. When I worked at Minnesota Children’s Museum, we talked about “on-stage” and “off-stage” behavior–when working in clear sight of the public, you are “on stage.” What this manager did was abysmal on-stage behavior, and pretty lousy for off-stage behavior, as well. Finally, one of the line staff–a young African American man–calls out my order number.

I am not a confrontational person. When I am put into the position to speak up, my right leg shakes, my heart pounds, and I struggle to get my voice above a whisper. But I told the manager, “I’m not taking my meal, you don’t treat your employees very well,” and rushed out before he could say a word to me and I turned into a quivering mass of passivity on the floor. He made me lose my appetite, anyway.

All of this came on the heels of my catching a story in today’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune (front-page in the print edition, buried in the online): Minnesota has the widest racial gap in home ownership in the United States.

This divide in housing does not surprise me at all. I’ve lived in a number of neighborhoods across the Twin Cities. Most of our neighborhoods are divided by race. I don’t have my picture posted on my blog, so you don’t necessarily know until I tell you that I’m white. (Technically, I’m white-skinned–my racial background takes more explaining than I wish to do here. But society treats me as white, and that’s what matters as far as the line of reasoning I’m developing here is concerned.) And I’ve felt far more comfortable in neighborhoods where people who look like me are a minority. I often say that I blame it all on Sesame Street, that the show taught me that living in a racially diverse community is an inherently good thing. And I think that’s part of it. But I also think that I’m not often comfortable in large groups of white people because I associate being white with having money, which I can’t relate to.

Earlier this week, a most remarkable thing happened. A man named Charles Ramsey rescued three women who had been kidnapped a decade ago. (I’m not going to link the great many reports of the incident here. If you don’t know about this, Google it.) It was simple as noticing something wasn’t right and calling the police, but it’s the sort of thing a lot of people don’t do. When there’s drama in our neighborhoods, many of us tend to look the other way, not wanting to get involved. As the product of an abusive household, I am well aware of the phenomenon. Mr. Ramsey’s quick thinking saved these women’s lives.

Rightfully, the press hailed him as a hero. Unfortunately, the attention didn’t stop there. People were quick to mock Mr. Ramsey’s working-class values and African American vernacular. Out rolled the stills from the TV interviews, with sophomoric jokes dutifully typed out in Impact font.

Not everyone was in on the joke. Some have pointed out the layers of privilege and racism that have been uncovered this week, most notably in this spectacular blog post. Mr. Ramsey’s statement that a white woman rushing into the arms of a black man can only mean trouble is an ugly truth we in America ignore. Or, rather, we whites in America ignore. Because perhaps the ugliest thing about privilege is that if you have it, you never have to think about it in order to successfully navigate life. Mr. Ramsey pointed out that America really hasn’t progressed since the days of Emmett Till, as much as we whites would like to pat ourselves on the back and convince ourselves otherwise.

Mr. Ramsey has revealed the tiniest bit of his Story in interviews, only to have it mocked by people who weren’t raised to have empathy. It is only by earnestly listening to each other that we have any hope as a species.


Edited to add (I meant to say this originally and forgot): I think it so funny that, from what we know, Charles Ramsey could probably be the best neighbor someone could have: hardworking, amiable, watchful. And yet how many of my fellow white Minneapolites would avoid living next to him.