Tag Archives: racism

Not a Slogan, but a Lifestyle

Faced with recent events around the country in Ferguson, on Staten Island, and elsewhere, Stoneleigh-Burnham students are raising their voices in protest and in solidarity. During lunch yesterday, a group of students stood in the center area and suddenly yelled “I can’t breathe!” and then clearly and firmly shared their thoughts on racism and the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases as they held “Black Lives Matter” signs. Several faculty made a point of telling them they were proud, and Shawn Durrett, Dean of Faculty, added a note on the school’s Facebook page.

Last night, Seniors emailed their Little Sisters to ask them to wear black today to signify that black lives matter. Those faculty who happened to have been aware of the event joined in. One senior followed up with an email to the whole school community in which she spoke of the power of that sea of black and the importance of choosing to stand up to racism and inequality.


As it happens, I was at the March in Washington on Saturday, Dec. 13 (the title for this article is a quote from one of the speakers). I woke up at 4:00 the next morning unable to sleep, picked up my phone, and wrote the following reaction to the experience:

The man about ten feet away from me bent his head and laughed as he put up his hand. He was not alone in laughing, and certainly far from alone in putting his hand up. All black men present at the March on Washington had just been asked to raise their hands if they had ever felt nervous when stopped by the police, and in a crowd where it could safely be assumed most everyone present if not every single one of us knew in advance that every single hand would go up, it was possible to laugh at that question.

My wife and I had arrived at the March early in the afternoon, when the podium was being shared by member after member of families whose husbands, fathers, sons had been shot to death, taken too soon. And while I felt some of the same crushing weight I’ve been feeling ever since the accumulation of news about Marissa Alexander, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, there was also a sense of healing. These families were grief-stricken, and they were equally determined that we could not rest until no one else, ever, had to go through what they did. Many opened by saying “No justice,” and the crowd responded, “No peace.” And maybe it’s just because I’m a pacifist, but to me it came across as a feeling our souls could not be at peace until true justice was achieved for all in this country.

Meanwhile, on my Facebook timeline (as I would discover afterwards), some of my friends and family were posting messages in a sort of counterpoint. Two guns aimed at the viewer with a caption asking which one is the cap gun and which one is real, noting that making the wrong choice could lead to your death. A picture of a police officer captioned “Police Lives Matter.”

The thing is, I don’t think most if any of the people in attendance at that March would argue that police lives don’t matter. Of course there were signs all over that Black Lives Matter. But to say that is not to minimize the value of other lives (any more than saying Police Lives Matter). It is simply to affirm that when black people are many more times likely than white people to be shot during a tense situation, that is wrong. That is not justice as it should be. That is not how our country should and can be. Indeed, several speakers followed “Black lives matter” with “All lives matter,” and that seemed to be what our collective soul was feeling.

One speaker noted our goals have to extend beyond working with police departments to learn about community policing and building relationships. They have to extend beyond reforming our justice system so that people can expect police misconduct, should it occur, will be handled fairly. They have to extend beyond the elimination of racial profiling (all of these goals, it should be noted, held by many police officers as well). They also have to include equal pay, equal job opportunities, equal schooling, and more. Regardless of race.

My Twitter timeline spoke of the immense numbers present in New York and elsewhere, of signs people were holding seeking peace through unity, of arrests and people being beaten up. I couldn’t bring myself to look at the media’s version of the day, fearing it would focus on the negative, on anything that would create and exacerbate tension.

I am writing this at 4:00 in the morning on Sunday, and I know I will have to dive in to media reports later today in case my students bring up events of the weekend, tomorrow or later on. I don’t believe for a second teachers should be telling students what to think, but I do believe we owe it to our students to be able to guide them in thinking critically. And if what I saw and felt can contribute to that, I will not hold back. I won’t pretend for a second it’s the whole story. I won’t pretend for a second that my voice matters more than anyone else’s. I know and recognize this can not and must not be about privileging white voices yet again. But if using my voice helps students see nuance and layers of complexity, I will not hesitate to do so.

As the final speakers were coming to the podium, a black woman near us turned to my wife and asked if we were from around here. My wife shook her head and said, “No.” A few moments later, a blonde white woman stepped up and asked if she could help, and gave directions to 7th and Independence. The black woman gave the blonde women a hug and thanked her for coming, and then did the same for my wife, and me.

Somebody on Twitter wrote that evening that for them, the day was about a movement finding its soul, and my own experience mirrored that.

Black lives matter.
All lives matter.
No justice, no peace.

Not yet.

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No One: Reflections on Ferguson

It’s about an hour since the grand jury’s decision in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson was announced, and I’m still feeling sucker punched despite being among the millions who had anticipated the decision and the millions more who could tell it was coming once prosecutor Robert McCulloch began his bizarre preamble to the announcement. Besides sharing their own anger, anguish, sadness, or frustration, teachers on my Twitter and Facebook timelines have also been wondering what on Earth they’re going to tell their students tomorrow.

We’re on Thanksgiving vacation, so I don’t have that immediate worry, but I do need to think about what we might do upon our return in December. As it happens, one of the six students in my Humanities 7 class who still has to present on her second Focus Question after break wrote her essay on racism and white supremacy. She had been unafraid to tackle difficult questions, including white privilege. And her essay included a powerful moment when the white resident of a predominantly black neighborhood, made the statement that “There’s no need to be careful if you treat people as human beings.” At that point, she saw a black woman emerge from a nearby house and added, loudly, “As long as you don’t have a gun in your hand, I’m okay with you.” (Huber)

Okaaaaaaay then.

That alone should generate a fair amount of discussion in this class!

Today, we are also mourning twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by Cleveland police officers while he was carrying a toy gun. Today, we are also reacting to the news that Marissa Alexander accepted a plea deal under which she will serve out the remaining two months of a three-year sentence, all for having attempted to defend herself when she feared for her life.

I may be sickened and saddened by all of this, but I also hold in my head and my heavy heart the realities that our justice system would treat me very differently if I were a person of colour and that white privilege may be, in the words of my student, “an unfair thing as it is something that is decided by something you can’t control,” but it is no less real for all that.

Leslie Carole Taylor, one of my friends from high school is a UCC minister, and she was posting an incredible series of quotes and thoughts on Facebook through the evening. As a Black woman, she no doubt was experiencing today’s events differently than I was, yet everything she wrote resonated with me. Among her posts was this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.” I wrote back, “I share that belief. And I share responsibility for bringing that final word about.”

In meeting that responsibility, I would simultaneously be working toward my student’s vision: “Your race shouldn’t affect how people treat you or see you. In the end, I feel that no one should be judged because of their race.”

No one. Not Marissa Alexander. Not Michael Brown. Not Tamir Rice. Not Eric Garner. Not John Crawford. Not Ezell Ford. Not Trayvon Martin. Not Jordan Davis. Not Renisha McBride. Not…

No one.

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Nuance Matters

(an address to the school on Columbus Day)

“Why do we celebrate Columbus Day anyway? Weren’t there already people here when he arrived?” One of my Humanities 7 students several years ago looked up at me expectantly, but as I took a breath to answer, someone else jumped in and said, “Yes, and he was really cruel to them.” Someone else quickly said, “And he didn’t even come here.” A brief but passionate discussion ensued, following which I said, “I can just add that all the facts you’ve brought up are absolutely true, and they are nothing at all like what I and many thousands of people my age and older were taught when we were in school. And maybe if the full story was more widely known long ago, whenever Columbus Day was declared a national holiday, it wouldn’t have been.”

Which raises the question – how did Columbus Day get to be a national holiday? According to History.com, Tammany Hall, an influential (and, to some, notorious) political organization in New York, organized the first known celebration of Columbus in 1792, to honor the 300th anniversary of his voyage. One hundred years later, President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation that said “On that day let the people, so far as possible, cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life.” (History.com) Fifteen years later, Colorado became the first state to make it an official holiday, and in 1937, 445 years after Columbus’s voyage and only 77 years ago, within the lifetimes of many of your grandparents, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially proclaimed Columbus Day a national holiday, “largely as a result of intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus.” (History.com)

Recently, the city of Seattle took an important step in the opposite direction, officially declaring the second Monday in October to be “Indigenous Peoples Day.” David Bean of the Puyallup Tribal Council felt it affirms the city values tribal members’ culture and history, and Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, echoed his sentiments, stating, “This action will allow us to bring into current present day our valuable and rich history, and it’s there for future generations to learn.” (quoted in The Guardian) On the other hand, many Italian-American residents of the city felt that the day should not have been scheduled opposite what they see as a day to celebrate Italian heritage. In the face of the controversy represented by these perspectives, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, Bruce Harrell, said that that while he understands the concerns of members of the Italian-American community, he feels that the city won’t be successful in its social programs and outreach efforts unless and until it recognizes the past. (The Guardian)

Our past does inform our present and thus influences our future. City Council member Nick Licata, himself Italian-American, captured this sentiment in expressing the hope Indigenous Peoples Day would become a tradition in which “Everyone’s strength is recognized.” (The Guardian)

In that Humanities 7 discussion, one of the students asked, “But wasn’t Columbus still brave to set out on that trip? Couldn’t they all have died?” I responded that of course they could all have died, and that arguably that meant Columbus was in fact brave to set out on that trip. And I pointed out that just as Columbus wasn’t necessarily the paragon of virtue that had been presented to me in school, neither was he all bad. He was, in the end, an imperfect human, sharing that trait with all of us.

Nuance matters. Perspectives matter. Respect matters. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the moral universe is indeed bending toward justice.

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Making Feminism Cool

“Bra-burning. Man-hating. Angry and unattractive. Such stereotypes have shadowed the women’s movement over the past few decades — and a slew of young, fashionable celebs are working to clarify feminism’s true definition.” (Fairchild) Setting aside for another day the question of why such a stereotype may have come to life and remained, in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary, so persistent, Caroline Fairchild raises a good question in her article “Will young celebrities make feminism ‘cool’?” Besides noting Emma Watson’s epic speech at the UN launching the “He for She” campaign, Ms. Fairchild mentions Taylor Swift’s recent realization that she has been a feminist all along and Beyoncé’s performance at the VMAs backed by the word “feminist” in huge block letters.

Feminism, many analysts note, has been waging an uphill battle for years to define itself as being in general far more inclusive than it is typically portrayed. I’ve certainly seen many students over my three decades here echo Ms. Swift’s sentiment when she said, “As a teenager, I didn’t understand that saying you’re a feminist is just saying that you hope women and men will have equal rights and equal opportunities. What it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means.” (Swift, quoted in Thomas)

Certainly, many of my students admire Emma Watson (both for who she is and for having played feminist icon Hermione Granger in the “Harry Potter” movies), and certainly students in rock groups down through the years have proposed Taylor Swift songs. But more and more every year, my students have also been raised with a healthy skepticism for the media. I wonder to what extent that will limit the effect that these, in effect, celebrity endorsements will have on them – granting, too, that I want them to be individual, critical, free-thinkers in the first place. Time will tell on that point. But if Ms. Watson’s speech, Ms. Swift’s declaration, Beyoncé’s performance, and other such examples of celebrities embracing feminism can lead to further conversations, that’s a great place to start.

Themes of equality, equity, and justice will of necessity run through those conversations. Statistically, equality is of course the easiest to measure: when females and males each make up approximately 49% of any profession where size and physical strength do not matter (intersex people making up the remaining 1-2%), when people of all genders receive the same pay for the same job (assuming the same experience), and so on, we will have statistical equality. Whether that’s achievable without working explicitly for equity (fair not necessarily being equal) is another question. And given historical oppressions, working toward equity must go hand in hand with working for justice (see Rutgers Professor Brittney Cooper’s outstanding article in Salon for a thought-provoking examination of this). Through that lens, it’s easy to see that not just diversity of genders but also diversity of race, sexuality, class, age, abledness, and more come into play, along with the continuums of support and oppression, privilege and marginalization that come with each of those axes of diversity.

In short, as I wrote the other night during a Twitter chat, we have to fight relentless hierarchies (and associated binaries).

All are welcome.

n.b. Thanks to Jane Mellow, Director of our Learning Center, for introducing me to the “Crafty Girls” font, which adds an extra layer of fun to drafting blogs on feminism!

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Filed under Feminism, Gender, Women in media


written on May 3, 2014, the day of Northampton’s annual Pride celebration

A year ago today, I decided to stop at McCusker’s and grab a coffee and vegan raspberry bar for the road. I ran into one of my old coaching friends, and while we were talking, I noticed that one of the people in the store was looking me up and down, disgust on her face. It didn’t exactly put me in the mood to continue on down to attend the Northampton Pride March as I was planning, but I had promised the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society I would walk with them, and I didn’t want to let them down. I also realized, deep down, that she didn’t care one bit where I was going, and I should not let her spoil my day.

Still, when I got to the parking lot, I stayed in the car a long while, checking my phone repeatedly, circling through Twitter, Facebook, and email over and over. When a car pulled in near me, and four members of the Pioneer Valley Gay Men’s Chorus jumped out, wearing their t-shirts, and took off toward town, I had to admit I was probably being overly paranoid. I unplugged my phone, pulled on a skirt over my shorts, and followed after them. It was far from the last moment I would feel unsure of myself on the day, but it was the last time I would let it get to me.

This morning felt completely different. I didn’t just stop through McCusker’s, I sat down and had a bagel there (while working on narrative comments for the progress reports which were due in two days). Several people smiled at me. While I did check email and Twitter when I got to the Pride parking lot, I didn’t linger. I even went and hung out at the Haymarket coffee shop in Northampton before meeting up with Dakin at the staging area.

One of the Leverett staff members came up and hugged me, and another introduced me to her daughter. I met the cat in a stroller, Honeybun. I talked to the guy with a beautiful handmade stuffed armadillo. A volunteer from Springfield I recognized from last year showed up, and we chatted until it was finally Dakin’s turn. I held my sign, a picture of my cat with the slogan “My cat is open and accepting,” and stepped out.

Turning the corner onto Main Street, I saw one of my student’s moms and her little brother. I smiled and waved as the mom waved back and we both tried, with some success, to ease the clear sense of concern and worry off the baby’s face. About halfway down the parade route, a teenager sitting in a wheelchair finished petting one of the dogs, and she looked up, face glowing, and said, “Thanks,” with a tone that brought tears to my eyes. One of the other Dakin marchers leaned toward me and quietly said, “This march gives me goosebumps every year.” “That was an amazing moment,” I said.

It’s easy on days like this to get caught up in the excitement of all the smiles and rainbows and cheers. And of course, that’s part of the point of Pride celebrations in the first place. Yet, as one person noted to me almost in passing – you don’t want to dwell on such things on days that are meant to be fun – what brings you those smiles and good wishes during Pride can get you verbally attacked, beat up, even killed in other contexts. And even at Pride itself, I ran into an old friend who strode toward me beaming, shook my hand, and then took a second glance and recoiled and turned away. Reacting instinctively, I turned and walked away without looking back. I may never know whether or not he turned back to me.

Still and all, despite such moments, it’s true we as a culture seem to be steadily headed, however slowly, toward increased awareness and acceptance of the full diversity of sexualities and genders. I was talking to a colleague the other day, and we agreed that kids are light years ahead of many adults. At SBS, according to students to whom I’ve talked, the climate in general is more positive, welcoming, and supportive than what I hear about many schools. That’s not to say we can’t improve, and indeed the administrative team is following up on ideas that emerged from last March’s inservice training. Toward that end, Ellen, the School Counselor, and I are about to attend an AISNE conference on “Understanding Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: What every pre-K-12 Educator Needs to Know in 2014.”

As the Dakin contingent who were marching today turned the final corner into the fairgrounds, another teenager leaned forward urgently, trying to catch my attention, and motioned to her friend’s t-shirt, which said, “Smash patriarchy.” I gave the two of them a thumbs up and, as the second girl looked momentarily startled, the first girl looked like all was right with the world.

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Other People’s Kids

Last fall, when one of my advisees was given the chance to write about what she liked about this school, she focused on growing up with a bunch of annoying brothers and how great it was to be in the dorm and feeling sisterhood. When shared with other people, the line always draws a laugh, but it can also cause a moment of introspection.

This isn’t to say my advisee doesn’t love her brothers deeply, of course. When her mom came for Family Weekend, even in occasional moments of exasperation at their unquenchable energy, she was clearly proud of them, and when she came back from winter break, she spent a while in my office showing me pictures and telling me about all they did together.

She and her family have been on my mind nonstop lately, ever since the moment I first heard that the jury in the trial of Michael Dunn had somehow, inexplicably, found him guilty of attempted murder but had been unable to reach a verdict on the actual charge of murder. Now, I’m smart enough to know the difference between what seems obvious and what is provable beyond reasonable doubt in a courtroom. But I still don’t get the logic here. He tried to kill people, and should go to jail for that. Moreover, he actually killed someone. But the jury couldn’t agree whether or not he should go to jail for that.

Some people say the Florida prosecutor overcharged; even there, my understanding is the jury could have found him guilty of a lesser charge. But they didn’t. Jordan Davis is dead, Michael Dunn killed him after initiating the confrontation, the only real justification offered is he became scared, and that is somehow enough to get him off on the charge of murder. In Florida, someone who commits an act of crime on a black person is three times as likely to be acquitted as they would be if the victim was white. And you can’t blame just Florida, either – the general principle behind those statistics holds up nationwide.

My advisee, her mom, and her brothers are all black, as of course are others of my students. And the notion that the same thing could happen to their families one day sickens and terrifies me and leaves me feeling helpless. Yet, being white, in the immediate aftermath of the learning the news, I found myself at a loss for what to say and do. Experience told me that some people in my timeline would want white people to shut up and listen while others would be calling on us to speak out. You want to be a good ally, you don’t see your way clear to what to do, and it just adds to the feeling of being overwhelmed and sad.

Well, poor, poor, me. José Vilson put it perfectly when he said, “The temporary sadness of understanding white privilege as a white person is nothing compared to the existential melancholy of understanding racial oppression as a person of color.”

Often, people who write on situations like this (and they do seem to recur, don’t they?) refer to the notion of “other people’s kids.” The implication is that non-black people feel some sort of distance from the victim because, well, they’re not black. Far, far too often, that is the case. But when it’s true, it’s because people focus in on them being “other”. They don’t focus on the “people” or, God save us, on the “kids.” That’s got to change. It’s only in understanding our common humanity that we can hope to rebuild our society.

Embracing our common humanity doesn’t mean pretending we’re all the same, of course. Differences exist, some surface, some deeper down. Embracing our common humanity also means acknowledging, understanding, and embracing those differences. That requires looking honestly not just at our culture but also at ourselves. And furthermore, as Mike Thayer noted in last night’s #PubPriBridge Twitter chat, it “[requires] seeing the other in yourself.”

And in so doing, finally be able to embrace not only the “people” and the “kids” in “other people’s kids” but also the “other.”

P.S. While she is not quoted directly, I need to acknowledge and express my thanks for the caring and thoughtful conversations @teachermrw has been holding with me. Her thoughts are deeply infused into this blog.

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Three years ago, when working on my annual Martin Luther King Day piece, I wanted to connect his dream that children in the U.S. might “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” to similar dreams for social justice for other axes of diversity. As it happened, once we had published the piece and I had spoken in housemeeting, a discussion emerged on Twitter about whether or not these very kinds of connection were appropriate or appropriation. Concerned, I wanted to seek out opinions, and seized on an interchange between two of my friends, John Spencer and José Vilson, to bring up the question. I emerged from that short discussion believing that I needed to focus more specifically on racism in any future Martin Luther King Day speeches, and I believe I have done so for the most part (20122013 (less so) – 2014). But in the process of reacting to that 2011 post, I added another cringe-worthy moment to a long and ever-growing list.

However much I might have tried to disguise it to myself at the time, what I did was unfair to José and John, and perhaps especially to José as a person of colour. Through my actions, I was making them responsible for teaching me rather than going out and educating myself. In the process, in other words, I was not being an effective ally in the anti-racist fight for social justice, however well-intentioned I may have been. I’ve tried never to do that again – which is not to say there haven’t been other cringe-worthy moments since. Hopefully, though, they are at least becoming fewer and further between.

Recently, Piers Morgan invited Janet Mock, a trans woman of colour, onto his CNN program to talk about her book Redefining Realness: My path to womanhood, identity, love, & so much more. The Tuesday night interview, in his mind, went well, but when Ms. Mock saw the final version (they had pre-taped the interview four days previously), she went on Buzzfeed to air her concerns. This ignited a brief but intense Twitter war which ended up with her agreeing to come back on the program Wednesday. On that program, Mr. Morgan asked her the following question:

Here’s what I want to learn. I don’t want this to be an ongoing issue that I have with the community of which you’re such a great spokesman and advocate. I want to learn why it is so offensive to actually just say that you grew up as a boy and you then, because you’ve always felt that you were female, you had surgery to become a woman, to become a real woman, as you say in the book. Why is it offensive?

“Why is it offensive?” Well, Mr. Morgan. Let’s break down your question. First, you refer to Ms. Mock as a “spokesman.” Then, you state she grew up as a boy. Then, you characterize her surgery as the moment she became a woman. Finally, you rephrase and say “a real woman.” In other words, first you misgendered her, then you misgendered her again, then you characterized her surgery as a “becoming” rather than a stage along her life path, in the process focusing attention on her genitals rather than her personal sense of identity, and finally you implied that everything she did and felt before her surgery was somehow fake.

Beyond all that… Mr. Morgan could have avoided every single mistake in that question simply by consulting the readily available GLAAD Media Reference Guide – Transgender Glossary of Terms. That, too, is part of the problem. It only would have taken him a few minutes, and could have changed the entire tone and direction of the interview. But – as I had done with José – when someone who professes to be an ally places the onus for their education on the oppressed person, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person focuses on their personal hurt at being accused of having been (however unintentionally) insensitive, that is not being an effective ally. When someone who is trying to be supportive of an oppressed person repeatedly interrupts and talks over that person, not really seeing or hearing them, that is not being an effective ally. When one repeatedly states – during and following the interview – that the oppressed person should be grateful for being allowed a forum for her voice, that is not being an effective ally. And when one tweets, “As for all the enraged transgender supporters, look at how STUPID you’re being. I’m on your side, you dimwits,” well, that too is not being an effective ally.

One of the moments when Piers Morgan talks over Janet Mock without really hearing her is when he brought up an article that appeared in Marie-Claire about her life’s journey entitled “When I Was a Boy.” His point was that he should not be blamed for using a similar phrase when those were her own words. Her point, which he never once acknowledged, was that those weren’t actually her own words as she didn’t write that title. Furthermore, when I Googled “Janet Mock” and “Marie-Claire,” I quickly found an article written by Ms. Mock reacting to the piece and stating in part, “But I do wish I could change one thing in the piece: the term “boy” which is used a few times. Overall I’m fine with it because I was born in what doctor’s [sic] proclaim is a boy’s body. I had no choice in the assignment of my sex at birth. I take issue with the two instances in the piece: The first instance proclaims, “Until she was 18, Janet was a boy,’ and then it goes on to say, ‘I even found other boys like me there…’ My genital reconstructive surgery did not make me a girl. I was always a girl.” Had Mr. Morgan taken the time to type four words into a search engine, he would have been able to avoid that egregious mistake.

Or, again, had he actually listened to her saying “Those were not my words.” rather than repeating back at her “Those were your words.”

What could have been a learning opportunity for Mr. Morgan appears to have been thoroughly squandered through his focus on his own feelings, his sense of being personally wronged, his sense of being in the right regardless of what anyone else says. Whether or not he likes it, that is his privilege speaking. Male privilege. White privilege. Class privilege. I don’t entirely blame him – our culture incorporates and inculcates an embedded sexism, racism, and classism, and he can’t help but have been shaped by it.

But he can help how he chooses to react to it.

That’s something we all can help. As we work together, each of us absolutely unique individuals, to build a better world, examining our reactions to our culture needs to become part of our work.

Even – perhaps especially – including the cringe-worthy moments.

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