Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Re: Contemporary Racism: Carefully Taught

My Dear Reader,

PetiteSouer wrote a quite excellent blog post about contemporary racism, and I found that I had too much to say on the subject to fit it all in a comment box. So, I'm putting it here. I highly encourage you to read and comment on PetiteSoeur's post before reading what I wrote, because otherwise, it won't really make sense.

I remember being in second grade when a new girl moved to our school. It was during the winter, and the entire class had their coats hung up at the back of the room. At the end of her first day, I thought it would be a nice if I went and got her coat for her. You know, as a way of welcoming her. I had no idea that she would think that I was stealing the coat from her, and I certainly did not expect her to think that I was stealing her coat from her because she was black. But she did, and was extremely offended by the gesture. We were enemies after that, and there was very little I could do about it. As a kid, I drew the conclusion that no matter what I did, I was going to somehow be racist.

And I hated that about myself.

As PetiteSouer says in her post, race was not really something that was talked about in our home, because it really wasn't an issue. My Madre and Padre didn't care if the kids I brought home were white, black, or whatever. But I lived in a predominantly white area, so most of the kids who came over were white. That's just the way it was. The only times I ever really came in contact with racism in my home was when I would go into my parents' room and slip their South Pacific soundtrack into their CD player. I've always loved that music, but one song called "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" popped out to me, and I used to play it over and over again until I had it memorized. Here's the song, and the lyrics are as follows:

You've got to be taught to hate and fear
You've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught

You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught.

I've listened to that song, literally, over a thousand times. I still listen to it, and sometimes hum it to myself while I do the dishes. This song and it's message of tolerance, is a very important part of my life.

During the same period of my life, I was exposed to two other songs that addressed the race issue, but this time, they were songs I sang in church. The first is called "We Are Different."

I know you and you know you know me
We are as different as the sun as the sea
I know you and you know you know me
And that's the way it is supposed to be

I help you, and you help me
We learn from problems and we're starting to see
I help you, and you help me
And that's the way it is supposed to be

I love you, and you love me
We reach together for the best we can be
I love you, and you love me
And that's the way it is supposed to be

The other is "I'll Walk With You."

If you don't walk as some people do
Some people walk away from you
But I won't, I won't

If you don't talk as most people do,
Some people talk and laugh at you
But I won't, I won't

I'll walk with you, I'll talk with you
That's how I'll show my love for you

Jesus walked away from none
He gave His love to everyone
So I will, I will

Jesus blessed all He could see
Then turned and said, "Come follow me"
So I will, I will

I will, I will
I'll walk with you, I'll talk with you
That's how I'll show my love for you

Yes, they're cheesy, but they're for kids. And I realize that none of them talk directly about racism, but in my mind, that's always what it was about. Why? Because in the songbook, "We Are Different" is right below a picture of a black kid and a white kid playing together, and because a lot of people of other races talk differently than I do.

So, I guess you can say that I've been carefully taught, but to the opposite effect described by Rogers and Hammerstein. But that doesn't mean that it solved the problem of racism for me. It doesn't mean that some kid isn't going to think I'm stealing her coat, and that I don't still fear that all black people are going to hate me no matter what I do, or that sometimes, I want to avoid black people altogether so the issue will never come up. That's still something I have to grapple with.

Because it's true that racism is still around, just different. It comes from the natural impulse to stay away from what's unfamiliar. But I very much despise the idea that it only occurs in white people, and doesn't just affect people of different races. It affects people with disabilities, people who have "strange" beliefs, and etc. We have our own "tribe," and we naturally fear or try to avoid people who aren't in the tribe. This is all natural. It's a defense mechanism. We're programmed to avoid conflict, so exclusion is very human. It's the hate that has to be learned. Both have to be overcome. Of course, this all completely relative. It depends on where you grew up and what you consider your "tribe" to be. If you're like me, and you're a white girl who grew up with lot of Asian people, it's easy to consider Asian people as just part of the tribe. When I talk to Asian people, I don't have a constant dialogue in the back of my mind where I'm asking myself if the slightest slip of the tongue will make them hate me. I do have that in the back of my mind around black people until I get to know them.

In fact, I find that the best way to overcome racism is to find similarities with people in a group that you have an aversion to, and befriend them. It's amazing how well this works. When you overcome your fears and start to trust someone who comes from a background that's completely different from yours, your entire worldview changes. But you generally don't dare to try unless someone has taught you that you should.

And if you're like me, even if you've been carefully taught, you still have to continue to teach yourself how to be a better person.

Regards, best wishes, and a continuing education,

-Cecily Jane

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Of Idea Babies and Rope Bridges

My Dear Reader,

So, you know how a month ago, I told you that things were going to go back to normal? Yeah, sorry about that. I feel awful. I've just been writing so much fiction lately that by the time I get to personal non-fiction, I'm little writing-ed out. Just ask PrimerGemelo, who has yet to receive a letter from me the whole time he's been a missionary. (If I've been a bad blogger, I've been an even worse sister. But worry not, Gentle Reader, for I am turning to repent.) Anyway, since this fiction I've been working on isn't quite ready yet, I thought that while you can't see what I'm writing, I'd share with you a little bit about how I write it.

There really is no right or wrong way to write, as long as whatever you're doing is working for you. That is, you spend more time putting words on the page than you do pulling out your own hair. I've heard of some published writers who always put on a playlist of orchestral background music, or who light a candle with a specific smell designed to tell the brain that it's Writing Time.* There are others who always write at certain times of the day, while others always write in certain places. These are all mechanisms that people use for consistency and motivation, but I don't really do any of that. Sometime I have music on, sometimes I don't. Sometimes it's four in the afternoon, sometimes it's four in the morning (lately, it's been more of the latter). Most of the time, I write at my computer desk, but sometimes I write in the kitchen, or while I'm waiting in the car, or I scribble down notes while I'm in church.** For me, it's not really about having a system as much as it is about having a good idea.

Whenever I get a good idea, and I mean a really good idea, it's kind of like how it feels when you've just eaten something really tasty, and then realize that you have to throw it up: this thing is awesome and it must needs come out of me! I usually try to find the closest writing instrument and put that thought down on paper. But normally, it doesn't come that easily. Most of the time, instead of coming to me like a lightning bolt, an idea will sting me in the back of the head like a small dose of static shock. Sometimes the sting is just a fragment of a plot, or maybe it's a single line of an unwritten argument. Whatever it is, it's really just an infant that needs a little mothering before it can stand on two feet. So, I find that I must do whatever it takes to help that baby grow. (Grow baby! Grow!)

This usually means a set of behaviors that kind of seem strange, because people don't know that when it comes to idea babies, the perfect baby food is drama, and plenty of it. How do you add drama to an idea, you ask? You act it out. Oh, yes. I do it all the time, and I am not ashamed. You have to do what works, and this helps somehow. I'm not exactly an Oscar winner or anything, but I find that if I say the dialogue fragment out loud, or I try to act out the partial scene, the rest of it just starts coming. Also, it's really fun. It's like I'm feeding my idea baby and my inner child all at the same time. That's what I call efficiency.

Eventually, the idea baby grows into an idea toddler, and when the idea toddler tells you that it's not a baby anymore and it wants to play with the big kids, then it's time to sit down at the keyboard and turn the idea toddler into a story.

Wow, that sounded a little barbaric. I'd change metaphors, but I thought that one was exceedingly clever, don't you?

Anyway, the old saying goes that it takes one idea baby to make you look like an idiot, but it takes an entire play group full of idea babies to create a story. The longer and more complex your story is, the more idea babies you need. But like real babies, I find that idea babies don't always come in the order you intended. It would make the most sense to start a story at the beginning and write it all the way through, but I find that it's pretty rare that I can do it that way. Most of the time, I get an idea baby that goes at the front of the line, and then one that goes halfway to the end, until I eventually have a word document that is more like a pile of boards, that if I strung together with rope, would turn into a very nice rope bridge.

Did we lose anybody on that train of thought? The idea babies just turned into a rope bridge. Yes. Full steam ahead.

You see, a rope bridge is kind of like a story in the sense that it's made up of a lot of different, distinct pieces that all need to be woven together in order to facilitate a journey.*** If you were trying to build a rope bridge out of a bunch of rope and a pile of boards, it may not be very obvious at first which part goes where. Sometimes, it may not even seem to matter which board goes at the beginning, and which goes at the middle or the end. After some experimenting, however, you figure out that even though there are limitless combinations, only one or two work the best. You then choose which of the better ways appeals to you personally, and voila! you have a nice, juicy story.

Are you confused about my writing process? Well, so am I. Half of the time I have no idea what the heck I'm doing. All I know is that most of the people who read my stories don't end up hating me forever, and that's all the encouragement I need.

So, in conclusion: when your brain gives birth to an idea baby, do whatever it takes to turn that baby into a rope bridge. Remember, you heard it here first.

Regards, best wishes, and scores upon scores of idea babies,

-Cecily Jane

*I tried that, by the way. Didn't work for me. I had a really hard time finding a scent that would be unique enough to signal my brain, and yet not annoy me. At the time, I was also limited to the candles sold anywhere within walking distance, so the selection at the dollar store was less than satisfactory.

** Yeah, still fell guilty about that. I try not to do it anymore, and sometimes it's a real struggle.

*** Oh yeah, I totally just wrote the awesomeness of that sentence.