could be (part 3)

This post is part three of a four-part series on my song, “could be,” from my album my anxious age. You can read part one here, on the importance of knowing and honoring the stories of the ones we love in order to know them fully, and you can read part two here, on the hard and necessary process of letting ghosts go in order to live whole.

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Neighbors or Nothing (Pt. 1)

As an undergraduate, I interned with several youth groups in local churches. When I started my first internship after my freshman year of college, I was 19. On the first day, the youth minister overseeing me and the other intern informed us he took a job in another state. He’d be gone in a week.

Most 19-year-olds are not given the responsibility of 50 teenagers on summer break (and rightly so), but there I was, learning the ropes of youth ministry with the other intern who also had little experience with leading youth before this.

I look back on that summer and laugh often, how many mistakes I made, how much I got right by chance. I still call most of those teens (now adults) friends. I’m in graduate school with one. Another is my girlfriend’s best friend. One leads worship at the church I just started attending.

Lately, though, my mind wanders to one night that summer that could have gone wrong. Before the reader (aka my mom) worries, this story has nothing to do with the teens, and more with the aftermath of poor logistical planning on my end. Toy Story 3 released that summer, and many of the teens wanted to attend the midnight premiere. Most of their parents would not allow them to go to the movies that late without an adult, and somehow 19 years on earth qualified me for the role.

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Be More for Baltimore: 5 Things You Can Do

Sometimes I feel like I should keep my political opinions to in-person discussions where my words are less likely to be misconstrued and more likely to actually be heard and discussed rather than ‘liked’ or trolled. With all that is going on in Baltimore right now, however, I do not feel as a writer or a white ally that I have the freedom to remain quiet at this time. As Ray Bradbury writes in Farenheit 451, “I did not speak and thus became guilty myself.” My two cents may not be worth much, but I cannot keep them in my pocket and pretend they don’t count for something.

There are a lot of opposing opinions being tossed around (or thrown) about the racial unrest in Baltimore. I want to steer clear of focusing on my opinion and instead offer five pieces of advice that I believe white allies, or people generally seeking to be more empathetic, should all be employing at this time. Please understand that these are tips I as a white person think other white people should be doing; I want to speak from my experiences and not others’.

  1. Be Your Own Devil’s Advocate

When my students need to talk to me about any problem, I do something very simple: I listen. As long as they are talking, I listen. When they are done talking, if there is something I want to understand better, I ask a question. Then, I continue to listen. I only share my opinions when the student explicitly asks me for one.

The problem with many white people right now is that we are not listening. Instead of hearing the other side of the issue and trying to understand the frustration and anger that people of color are experiencing, we are playing the devil’s advocate to an issue we have not tried playing the advocate to. The approach of the devil’s advocate is best used when you are on one side of the issue and want to see the other side. Instead, we see one side and then try even harder to support that side.

It is like looking at the optical illusion that shows a picture of a rabbit and a picture of a woman and refusing to see the woman. She is there, she can be perceived by many, but we are convinced the world can only be one (read: our) way.

If we are to truly be allies to our friends of color, we need to start playing the devil’s advocate to our own viewpoints and listen harder to the other side. Don’t play the other side of the argument unless you are asked to. It is—at best—disrespectful, and—at worst—very harmful. A little self-reflection could go a long way right now.

  1. Be Careful About Your Hashtags (And General Statements) 

Here is a hashtag that is doing more harm than good: #AllLivesMatter. A few months back I posted a blog about Kanye and racism at the Grammys and used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Some people told me to be careful about using hashtags that boost one group at the expense of others.

A large percentage of the minority population believes that their lives are not worth as much as white lives because people of color keep dying in situations where they should not. Now, think about the percentage of the majority population that believe their lives are not worth as much as black lives because they are excluded from a hashtag. Regardless of whether you think police brutality and systemic racism are a problem, a hashtag does not hold as much weight as a life. They are incomparable.

You don’t have to think that people of color are dying because of police brutality, but you do need to stop making general statements about who deserves what. I continue to see posts like “maybe if you weren’t doing anything wrong…” or “you are defending a man who did x, y, and z.” Here is the glaring problem with this argument: the white male who murdered people in a Colorado theater lived, the white male who openly carried an AK-47 around Ohio was not perceived as a threat to police, and the white male who murdered his entire family in Oregon not only lived, but James Franco just played him in a movie and he contributes to the New York Times from Death Row. He may be in prison for life until he is executed, but American society has deemed his voice still worthy of hearing.

This is not an argument about who deserves to die. If we deem that white people who do wrong deserve to live, we cannot excuse the death of black people who do not even make it to court to speak for themselves. Do not turn America into the Wild West and uphold your Constitutional right to bear arms but not someone else’s right to a fair trial. We are not cowboys on the Western frontier.

  1. Be Balanced

As an eighth grade English teacher, one of the state standards I am required to teach my students is to recognize and dissect bias in news articles. Every day when I visit Facebook or Twitter, I am reminded of why it is so important to teach children this seemingly simple concept. There are older adults who purport to be much wiser than me, and yet they believe they are right about issues simply because everything they read seems to tell them they are right. It is easy to be agreed with when you only seek out what agrees with you.

I do something in my class called a Socratic Seminar. Students read articles from opposing viewpoints and then dissect them by asking questions, debating the issue, and coming to new conclusions. If I notice that their conversation is starting to become an echo of each other, I stop them and say, “I didn’t ask you to sit here and pat each other on the back, saying, ‘Good opinion, bro.’ I asked you to debate an issue. Somebody disagree before I split the credit for one opinion amongst all of you.”

Too many of us have grown up to not recognize confirmation bias when we are playing right into it. We read the articles that confirm our opinions, watch the channels that affirm our ideas, and hang out with the people who allow us to continue believing what we already believed when we met them. It is a great way to maintain the status quo and never grow. In a satirical speech by Mark Twain, he tells children that if they try hard enough to build their character on the advice he has given (such as only lying if you’re good at it), they will “be surprised and gratified to see how nicely and sharply it resembles everybody else’s.” Stop trying to remain who you were when you got here, or like all your one-sided friends. Listen to a different opinion and refer to #1 before you disagree with it outright.

  1. Be an Activist, not a Slacktivist

Social media has power. If it weren’t for social media, our attention to these issues might have fizzled out a long time ago. Social media gives us a chance—if done right—to discuss the hard topics with people all over the globe.

That being said, it is just as easy to believe that sharing an article or opinion online is the same as doing something for the betterment of society. A voice is a powerful tool, but it needs hands and feet to do the work it preaches. I’ve a friend who has been at what seems like every protest since last summer. He goes to protest, but he does even more than that: he goes to be there for the people in need. This week alone he raised money to feed over 500 children in Baltimore.

In an age where we confuse liking a post with being an advocate for an idea, we need more people like him, the ones who will stand by cities amidst their turmoil. Whichever side of the issue you fall on, you can support the people in these cities who need you to do more than comment on their situations from afar. I am starting to wonder if we should have a rule in place that only allows you to state your opinion about an issue after you have done something beneficial for the people affected.

  1. Be Aware of and Uproot Racism 

The argument that we are a post-racial society is (and has always been) a myth. It is ignorant to deny it at this point. It is also ignorant to pretend to be an ally by acting like you are above racism. Statements like “I’m not a racist,” “I have black friends,” “I don’t see color,” may be well-intentioned, but are ideas that only seek to protect yourself from guilt or self-reflection.

We have all been raised to hold prejudices, whether we learned them from our families, our environments, or mass media. Let’s drop the holier-than-thou act and stop acting like we have somehow personally conquered something as massive and complicated as racism. Our society is not above or beyond racism. We are in the thick of it. What we need is not people who proclaim to have overcome racism, but ones who recognize their prejudices, address them, and actively seek to be more anti-racist every day. It is better to acknowledge our racism and work against it than to uphold our racism without challenging it.

Celebrating the black mother who scolded her son for being at the protests can be perceived as agreeing with a person of color because they are using physical aggression toward another person of color, the very thing we swear the police are not doing. Criticizing people of color for violent riots and ignoring the Bloods and Crips who called a truce in order to maintain peace in Baltimore is an awfully unfair way to uphold stereotypes.

If I could offer a sixth piece of advice, I think that we should strive to be more for Baltimore, for Ferguson, for Chicago, for Freddie Gray and Jason Harrison and Terrance Kellum and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Walter Scott and everyone else who is taken from this world too soon. Be more empathetic, be more loving, be more supportive, be more aware of what you are saying and how much you are listening. We owe that much to these and countless others. We owe it to our future.

Ears > Mouth

As a blogger with a tiny following, I fully understand that my voice only carries so far. But it does carry, and it does mean something. Why would I write if I did not believe that my writing impacts someone?

Despite this, I have remained silent on all social media on the recent happenings in Ferguson, New York, ad absurdum. It is not that I don’t have a strong opinion on these events. However, with everyone throwing in two cents (plus some), I wasn’t sure if mine counted for anything.

The great thing about social media is that everyone is allowed to express an opinion; the worst thing about social media is that everyone is allowed to express an opinion. I have seen some serious ignorance on my Facebook news feed in recent weeks. It has served as a great reminder for why I am required to teach my students how to analyze sources and differentiate fact from opinion and commonplace assertion.

It has also caused me to fall silent in a time when perhaps we can no longer afford to be silent. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.” As small as my voice is, I don’t want to deny its power—however small—and not speak up.

I have thought and thought about what to write on the racial tensions mounting in America. Plans have been made and scrapped and made again to conduct a discussion with my students. Blog posts have been written, trashed, recovered, rewritten, and trashed again.

But recently, I have recognized the reason for my pause in commentary and my hesitance to speak. And I actually think it is a good enough reason to be silent for just a bit longer.

Sidestep leading to the larger point: I am a good writer. There is plenty of room for improvement, but I know that people read my writing and appreciate what I have to say, in part because of how I am able to say it.

People sometimes ask me how I became the writer I am today. My dad claims he is responsible; my mom claims she is responsible. They are probably both right, and I don’t feel obligated to say that just because they are faithful readers of my blog.

But I actually attribute most of my writing skills to one simple trick: I read. A lot.

For every piece of writing I create, I have read at least 5 articles a day leading up to it. I am always eyeballs-deep in a book. I study song lyrics and good pieces of dialogue in television and movies to understand what made me connect to them. I read and read and read and read. Then—when I take a very brief break from reading—I write.

I write well only because I read well.

Tragedies are occurring in our nation. Whichever side you take in these racial debates, human beings are dying. Nothing constitutes a lack of sympathy for the loss of human life.

As a heterosexual white male who experiences privilege on a daily basis, I am in no position to understand the plight of minorities. I teach 110 students, 109 of whom are students of color, and I still have no right to pretend to understand the oppression they face in our messed-up system. I can see it, my heart can break for them, but I will never experience it firsthand.

In times when I am not the victim or part of the victimized group (whether you believe it is perceived or real), my opinion matters far less than my compassion.

To Be A Teacher
Blackout poem by Austin Kleon

It is in times like these when my ears are worth more than my mouth.

If I am to be a good writer, I must read.

If I am to be a good speaker, I must listen.

If I am to teach my students well, I must also learn from them.

Here is a simple test to explain my point:

Do you feel injustice has recently occurred in the Ferguson and New York cases?

Do you feel that racial intolerance is present in America?

Do you feel that you or your racial group is being oppressed in the current system?

If you answered NO to any or all of these questions, now is not the time for you to speak. The most important, humane, and right thing you can do is to listen.

Here’s something that may surprise you: Your opinion doesn’t always matter. Someone may have told you that growing up, but it isn’t true. Sometimes what matters more is your ability to lay down your perceptions, preconceptions, and news articles from your favorite sources and just hear someone else out.

I am not saying that your voice doesn’t matter. But sometimes, your voice matters a lot less than your hearing.

Here’s another test:

Have you listened to the other side of the argument recently? 

If you answered NO to this question (or defensively answered YES), please stop talking for a minute and hear someone out. Far too many people are speaking and far too many people are not being heard.

We are not living in a post-racial society; we never were. We are very much entrenched in outdated systems that need to be updated or completely thrown out and replaced. We cannot afford to be silent, but we also cannot afford to be so loud that we don’t hear what our brothers and sisters are saying.

I recently read a quote from Jonas Salk that struck a chord with me: “Are we being good ancestors?” For the sake of our descendants, we must come together before we fall any farther apart.

I feel like I have already said too much. I need to get back to listening before I assume my voice is the most important one in the room right now.

The Race

For the better part of 23 years, I never thought about being white. There were times when I may have considered it, perhaps while laughing at the truth to the blog Stuff White People Like or being laughed at when sharing that I am a rapper. But a laugh was all it ever was.

Then I started teaching in a school made up of 95% African-American students. Needless to say, I think about being white all the time now.

There are certain stigmas that are attached to every race, for better or worse. When you are white, you don’t often have to consider the stigmas attached to your race because they’re either not very negative or they’re easy to ignore when you are surrounded by people who look just like you. It’s a privilege, to not have to worry about how the color of your skin might make people perceive you.

For most of my students, they will never have access to that privilege. My students are 12 and 13 years old, and they already think about the color of their skin. Every day. One day a few weeks ago, my students were learning the various poetic devices. They took a ‘gallery walk’ through the room, with devices like imagery and metaphor defined and exemplified on the walls.

While taking this gallery walk, I overheard one of my students say, “Why do we have to learn English? We’re black.” The rest of the students erupted in laughter.

And I froze. I didn’t know what to say to this “joke”. The student said it in jest, but there is an old adage about how all jokes are rooted in truth. Was what he said a joke to him and the other kids, or was there something about his words that deep down he and the others really, truly felt?

Since becoming a teacher, I have developed the superpower of recognizing teachable moments. There is a sixth sense that comes with being a teacher, in which you are able to recognize off-handed remarks and offensive jokes as moments where you should stop the entire class and drop some knowledge about life on your younglings.

I knew this was a teachable moment, but I have yet to fully master the superpower of having the guts to talk about what I haven’t experienced. Don’t get me wrong: the poetry unit we just wrapped up used rap music with social messages about race and overcoming discrimination, hardship, or circumstance to be successful in a world that often tells young black children that they cannot be. But that doesn’t mean I have figured out exactly how to address these issues with my children in a way that will mean something to them.

I recognize this divide between me and my students daily—a bridge that often feels grueling to cross, even impossible because of the missing boards that our nation has failed to replace over the years. A few days ago, a teacher told me that some students say they don’t respect me because I’m white. My students have literally said the words, “I don’t respect him because he’s white. What’s he going to do to me?”

What am I to do with this? What are we to do with this?

I have students that are expressing that they don’t fear me because of an actual, deep-rooted and long running fear that white and black will never mix well. It breaks my heart to know that these preteens have already developed a mistrust of the other, because the other cannot possibly be similar or even the same.

A different story, but related: a few weeks ago, a controversy sparked over the rap category at the Grammys. Out of the four categories covering the rap genre, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won three. They also took the Best New Artist award.

In most categories, their debut album, The Heist, was competing against Kendrick Lamar’s debut album. There is a widely-held consensus (to which I subscribe to) that Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city was obviously the better album. There was even a debate over whether Macklemore should be eligible for the rap category, perhaps being a better fit for the pop category. And yet, he went home with four Grammys and Kendrick none.

Afterwards, the internet was abuzz with the racial undertones of one of the few white rappers in the music industry beating black artists, especially the one (Kendrick) who many consider to be the best thing to happen to hip-hop in years.

I got caught up in it for a minute. I love all of the artists nominated, but I couldn’t help but feel there was an injustice to Macklemore winning almost everything. My students wanted to talk about it and—once again—I froze. “Yeah, Kendrick deserved to win,” was all I could manage to say.

I kept thinking about the Grammys long after people stopped caring—after all, it’s just one show in a lineup of spectacles, and the Super Bowl replaced it in headlines only a week later. But you’re talking to a guy who watches the biggest football game of the year just because some of his favorite sitcoms come on afterward. What do you expect from me?

I have been listening to Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar for about the same amount of time. I started listening to them both around the same time that I decided to become a teacher. I don’t really consider them factors in that decision, but both of them have taught me about important issues that I have taken to heart in my few months of teaching.

Macklemore’s and Ryan Lewis’s album The Heist deals with crucial and relevant issues like alcohol addiction (“Neon Cathedrals”, “Starting Over”), American materialism literally causing the death of children (“Wing$”), and the consequences of our hookup culture (“Thin Line”). (I think “Same Love” is also an important conversation, but I don’t want you to tune me out because of your opinions about something irrelevant to this post.)

Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid, m.A.A.d city also deals with crucial and relevant issues, as the entire album follows a teenager through a day on the streets of Compton as he deals with peer pressure, gang violence, drug use, insecurity, alcohol addiction, and the death of loved ones. The whole album, to me, is telling kids just like the ones I teach that they can avoid the “fate” assigned to children living in poverty and make better lives for themselves.

Do you see what happened when this race debate raged over Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar? America missed a really good chance to notice that two artists are trying to be lights in a world of darkness. We wanted to talk black and white instead of positive and negative messages. We wanted to criticize Beyoncé’s sensual performance and Katy Perry’s “Devil-worshiping” act. We gave the highest honor to Daft Punk for an album that says what to influence our children?

Few people who were unaware of what Macklemore and Kendrick Lamar rap about became aware that they are saving kids’ lives with their positive words. Few people who reel against rap as a negative, moral-less genre realized that two young artists are going to make sure it never turns into that mostly untrue stereotype.

And I think it is this inability to talk about what really matters that has caused a few of my students to mistrust me. It is this attention to the wrong details that has made my kids think about their blackness more than their potential to change the world in positive ways. It is this ignorance that has affected my ability to cross a bridge with my students and show them that we are different but ultimately the same.

I visited a school last summer where a student told me that his teacher had taught him that “the only race is the human race”. I want my kids to celebrate their race and never ignore that it is an important part of who they are, but more than that, I want them to celebrate their humanity and how that connects them to everyone else, regardless of skin color.

I want them to not let their race be the thing that separates us.

I want to tell them that the only race that can pull us together is the race to spread a little light in the dark before our time is up.

We aren’t long for this world; we can waste our few years mistrusting each other and letting our differences hold us back, or we can stand next to one another and make this world just a little bit better than when we arrived. I don’t need to think about my color or your color to know that we can’t do it without each other.