#CBR9 Review #66

What Does It Mean to be White? Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo

Lollygagger’s most excellent and comprehensive review of Robin DiAngelo’s What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy made me eager to read it for myself. I’m linking to the original review, which I will then build on. Back? Okay, let’s get started.

DiAngelo builds on concepts of racism with which we are all familiar and then talks about how being white constructs a specific racial framework through which white people see race, racism, and other precepts of culture and context. Specifically, she talks about whiteness as a racial construct, and she can do so because she herself is white and has worked in antiracism training for many years. I found this informative, because as an ally, I want to do better for my students and community.

There are two important takeaways that I personally came out with:

*The first is the definitions, in which DiAngelo unpacks bias, prejudice, racism, and oppression. It’s useful to understand why racism is systemic, and why we need to destroy the binary of bad =racist and good=not racist, because it’s never that simple. White people are so afraid of being perceived as racists, that when they do make mistakes, their fragility shows and they can become defensive. “What do you mean? I’m not racist! I have a black friend!” [tears] We need to understand the cycles of oppression that take place and how racism is a system into which we are all born and interact with differently. When we can identify how racism works, and how oppression works, we can better understand how to dismantle it thoroughly.

*The second useful component was the discussion of white silence. Something DiAngelo mentions is that white people are often silent or afraid to “connect” because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. I myself have been all-too-guilty of this and blurt out something stupid when I do say something, because I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. DiAngelo points out that if we’re just genuine and ourselves, we’re going to make mistakes, and we’re going to embarrass ourselves sometimes. BUT if we work on those mistakes, we’ll better ourselves in the long run.

This is a book worth reading, especially if you, like me, grew up surrounded by mostly white neighbors and churchgoers and schoolmates, etc. I never thought about race much until I saw the disparity in treatment between my best friend and myself. She comes from an immigrant Dominican family and is an American citizen, but because she is dark-skinned and fluent in Spanish, she is often treated as stupid or illiterate. It was highly uncomfortable to watch and forced me to realize that I needed to educate myself on race. Since I’ve become an educator, it’s a journey upon which I’ve gladly embarked, and I recommend this book to other justice-minded friends and colleagues.

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#CBR9 Review #64

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Because I’ve been reading about All The Cheerful Things apparently, I decided to pile on and read the Pulitzer-Prize winning Evicted about landlords and tenants in Milwaukee.

I’ve tried to remain fairly secretive about my origins, but I do think it important to note that I lived 17 years of my life in Wisconsin, 12 of those specifically in the Milwaukee suburbs. I did my PhD in Milwaukee, as well, though I commuted out-of-state for that, and Marquette, my school, was right at the center of three ethnic neighborhoods: the Latino neighborhoods, the white and affluent Third Ward, and the black-populated North Side. Therefore, a lot of the locations that Matthew Desmond mentions took on a familiar aspect, and made me connect to the material quickly.

Desmond focuses on eight different stories: tenants and their landlords throughout Milwaukee. He unpacks the reasons why low-rent housing is so profitable for landlords, why tenants get evicted, and why stable tenancy is so vital to moving forward in society. It’s a heartbreaking ethnography, not least because it examines and interrogates stereotypes of poor black and white families. There’s a line in there about a white couple who has been evicted from their trailer home, and the wife begs to live anywhere but the black-dominated neighborhoods. It helps explain the lack of stability and upward mobility if you’re poor and it also questions the lack of affordable housing in this country.

This is an issue that ticks me off where I live now (far suburb of a major city). Every time I see land being used for a new set of luxury condos (of which we have SO MANY), I seethe. We need affordable, safe housing for people like me and my husband, or those who are much poorer but have decent jobs and want a quick commute and access to great public schools. And guess what? They can’t get that, because they are forced to live in a bad house in an unsafe or deserted neighborhood. I live in the most affordable and most decently-kept apartment unit for several miles around, yet it takes over 30% of our rent, and the rent keeps going up. I’ve suspected that the landlord is trying to smoke out the immigrant tenants who live here, but the truth is, anyone who is wealthy is going to pay better money than what they’ll get here, and my landlord’s going to price out at some point, particularly with the lack of upkeep on the facility. Here’s my solution: KEEP THE PRICES AFFORDABLE. I personally have no problem living in a diverse building, and I welcome the stability of our neighborhood that allows our neighbors to settle and build a life here in this city. But it won’t happen if they can’t afford to live anywhere.

What I’m saying is, read this book.  4.5 stars.

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#CBR9 Review #63

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

I’ve been waiting for about two months for the library audiobook hold to come through, and it finally arrived! And then, of course, I was busy with podcasts and other listening flotsam before I made my way to Carrie Fisher’s final book. It was a bittersweet experience, partly because it was the last, and partly because it wasn’t the best.

Fisher discovered some old diaries that she had written while filming the first Star Wars film and decided to write a book about that experience, the life-changing three months that turned her into an international sensation rather than a celebrity brat. She talks about auditioning for both George Lucas and Brian De Palma simultaneously, for Star Wars and Carrie (can you imagine how trippy that might have been: Carrie playing Carrie in Carrie???), and getting the role of Leia. She also spends time unveiling a heretofore unknown three-month affair with Harrison Ford, her then-married costar. She unpacks the complexity of that affair and her feelings about coming of age through that affair. In the audiobook, her daughter Billie Lourd reads the diary entries to give us a sense of her youthful voice.

Because this focused on the more personal aspect of Ms. Fisher’s life, instead of the making of Star Wars itself, I was a little let down. Don’t get me wrong, I will take whatever Carrie Fisher I can get. But I was not particularly eager to read the sordid details about her affair with Ford (but I’m not a huge fan of him, to be honest, so maybe that’s where my lack of enthusiasm comes in). Anyway, rest in peace, Carrie Fisher. You are gone too soon.

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#CBR9 Review #62

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I have tried diligently to avoid trailers for the Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, because I wanted to avoid the hype and feeling disappointed (I’m *very* disappointed Hulu renewed it for a second season, because it should be a one-and-done deal. Like, where else are you going to take this story? ANYWHOO). I decided before I started the Hulu series that I needed to re-read the book, because it had been about 5-6 years.

HOLY SHITSNACKS YOU GUYS.

I told my husband that It Can’t Happen Here is the story of Trump’s presidency, but that The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of Pence’s, when it inevitably comes to fruition.

We’re so f**ked.

I’m no stranger to religious misogyny, as my own church has more than its own disgusting share. Our big fights right now are in the ordination of female clergy and how do we treat LGBT+ individuals, especially if they’re out and have children? [eyeroll] But this kind of religious oppression is based directly in the Bible and involves a few select passages with which to clobber women and minorities in a way that props up the “righteous” and punishes the dissidents. Women, of course, partake in it as well as men. That’s what makes this book so chilling.

What’s scary is that Atwood depicts so well the small slides into dehumanization of women that start with micro-aggressions and end with full-on sexual slavery. The flashes back and forward in time are effective at building this suspense, because you wonder “how did they get here?” and then when you realize how they did, you notice that it had been building for years.

The part that really struck me to the heart this time around was the scene where Offred finds out that she and all the other women have been let go from their jobs and look at each other in shame and confusion. I have felt this when I have been publicly demeaned or shamed but had no language for it. Atwood lays it open and makes you nod, because you’ve been there before.

I’m not going to talk about the show at this point, because I’m still processing what I’ve seen. Episode 3 is brutal.

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#CBR9 Review #61

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

Welcome to the book that ATE APRIL. I might be exaggerating a little bit, but it felt like it lasted forever. [Goodreads has rudely informed me that it was only nine days, but still. I have a triple cannonball to get through, and this DID NOT HELP] B chose this for our May book club pick, and I was intrigued by the story, having seen trailers for the film adaptation and heard whisperings from my family circle that it was “about abortion!” I come from a medical family, by the way, which makes the pearl clutching even more hilarious. I was daunted by the length, but decided to sally forth while my courage was high.

And now, I don’t know if what I read was good or not.

I mean, I like big books (and I cannot lie), especially when they are complex, rich, and engaging.
And this book had pieces of that intertwined throughout. Irving is a terrific writer, and A Prayer for Owen Meany takes you back to a few really crucial moments in the boys’ life and branches out only to come back to these pivotal scenes. I found that meaningful. The Cider House Rules just felt long and messy at points.

This is a story about Wilbur Larch, a doctor who determines to “help women” who are “in a bad way.” In 2017-speak, he’s the illicit Planned Parenthood who can actually perform safe abortions. He sees this, plus his orphanage, as his God-given duty. Homer Wells is one of his orphans, and the story is also about Homer. Homer believes that he should not perform abortions, even though he adores Dr. Larch and is really good at it. He’s an orphan at the cross-roads, unmoored from many of the societal traditions that kids grow up in. And it’s also about Melony, one of the orphans who has a fascination with Homer, even as she knows their paths will diverge. And it’s also about Candy and Wally, who come to the clinic and take Homer with them, where their lives intersect. There are also at least two or three subplots I have not mentioned yet, but I’m already exhausted.

There’s an interesting central ethical question here, but it gets buried and revisited and buried and revisited by the tons of subplots that make up this book. It’s also a SLOW and methodical read, which is not a bad thing per se, unless you have Cannonball ambitions. Which I do. I don’t know if this book will fare better on the re-read, but for right now, I give it three stars, because I’m perplexed by its construction (not the question that Irving is seemingly interested in asking of us).

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#CBR9 Review #60

Ruined by Lynn Nottage

I try to keep track of Pulitzer Prize winners, particularly in fiction and drama, because I like to have my pulse on what is winning awards and what I can teach in future classes. I saw that Lynn Nottage’s Sweat was this year’s drama winner and promptly went to my library. Of course, they don’t have it yet. So I decided the next-best thing would be to read her other Pulitzer Prize winner, Ruined.

In short, Ruined is about what happens to women before, during, and after a coup in a dictatorship. Set in the Congo, it showcases the complex and entrepreneurial Mama Nadi, who tries to keep both sides of the conflict at peace within her “establishment” (ostensibly a bar, but I’m also assuming unofficially a brothel). There, soldiers go to relax and often choose from a lineup of “ruined” women who are already prostitutes or who have been disinherited for rape (often by soldiers). We follow a few of these women and hear their stories, which makes the inevitable denouement of the play hard to read and process, particularly because Nottage developed much of this play from true accounts of the wars in the Congo.

This was an important read, but it’s a big concept, and one that felt difficult to translate to stage. I don’t know how you can bring a concept like rape to stage accurately and in a way that does not feel exploitative or invasive. I’d be really interested to see this play performed on stage, to see the choices the director makes in depicting this story. I’m also curious to read more of Nottage’s plays. I get tired of defaulting to white male playwrights, and a woman of color with bold storytelling choices is not something you easily forget.

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#CBR9 Review #59

The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf by Mohja Kahf

What I love about books is their ability to pull you in and make you feel empathy and imagination in instances where you don’t seem to have any connection with the situation at hand. And that’s the power in reading diverse books: you start to understand people who may seem “different” from you are actually not that different, and their struggles with faith have some alignment with your own. This was my experience with The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, which, in my opinion, is criminally under-read.

Mohja Kahf’s novel focuses on Khadra, a Syrian-Muslim immigrant who comes to Indiana in the 1970s as a child, stuck between American culture and the close-knit ties of her Muslim community. As she grows up, she struggles to reconcile her foremost identity—her faith—with her fading ethnic and national identity in the face of her continued life in America. Further, her own marriage seems to cement her as a Muslim woman even as it brings up questions she never thought she’d ask herself: “Is this what I really want?” “Am I this kind of Muslim woman?” “Who am I?”

This is a beautifully written story and one that resonated with me well. I grew up a person of faith and still identify as a Seventh-day Adventist. Because I am a minority religion, I grew up with a lot of niche cultural references and traditions outside mainline and Evangelical Christianity. Therefore, this question of identity struck me squarely in the face. Who am I, and what kind of woman am I within my faith? I asked myself these questions a lot as I read, and I nodded at some of Khadra’s own religious struggles, particularly when thinking about devotion and following certain codes that seem unnecessary or outdated.

I think Kahf’s writing really helps you get to know and empathize with Khadra as a person not unlike yourself. She is complex and not a Mary Sue. She is relatable, but also interesting and dynamic in nature. I highly recommend this book.

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