Category Archives: Society

The World Is Not What We Think

China is poised to become the “most Christian nation” in the world:

Prof Fenggang Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the United States as the largest Christian congregation in the world, he predicted.

Muslim women get more dignity in Middle Eastern mosques than U.S. mosques:

As someone who has had the privilege of exploring mosques in many different places, I have to say that North American mosques are—with a few notable exceptions—among the worst I have seen in terms of the access and dignity afforded to women. The best? Iranian mosques. By a long mile. The world is never as black and white as it seems.

(That comment by G. Willow Wilson was also repeated at the Festival of Faith and Writing, where she gave an interesting rationale:  the difference in how a religion acts when it’s in the minority vs. in the majority.)

Diversity Is Not Enough

“We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism.” (“Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing”)

In many ways it comes down to white privilege (that phrase can be difficult to digest—this is the best explanation of white privilege I’ve found). The white establishment (i.e., people like me) doesn’t understand what people of color face.

People like me are blind to all the small things that are stacked up against people of color. Each one on its own seems small, but together it creates institutional racism. The result is things like the Noah movie using an all white cast as “stand-ins for all people” because “race doesn’t matter.”

If you don’t see anything wrong with that, that’s white privilege.

If you watched the Noah movie and didn’t think it odd that everyone was white, that’s white privilege.

Or any movie.

As G. Willow Wilson commented, “Where are all the black people in Middle Earth? The answer is ‘In Laketown,’ apparently.” Extras in the Laketown scenes in the second Hobbit movie were the first non-white human characters in the Lord of the Rings movies.

If you think it’s political correct garbage to want racial diversity in a fantasy movie, that’s white privilege.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

It reminds me of the book The Boy in the Striped Pajamas where the 9-year-old Bruno is oblivious to the German Holocaust, even though he lives outside the gates of Auschwitz. He befriends a Jewish boy, Shmuel, but is completely unaware of the ostracism and hatred his friend endures.

Bruno is not antisemitic. He’s not even aware of the German propaganda about Jews, and when he hears it he doesn’t believe it. But he’s blind to all the barriers Shmuel faces as a Jew in 1940s Germany.

It’s not an ideal comparison. But it feels familiar. When people don’t understand the need for diversity or insist that we’re beyond racism, it reminds me of Bruno.

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Searching Out Diversity

I keep coming back to the conversation about diversity in literature. I think it’s important. I heard it several times during the Festival in Faith and Writing and today I came across an article about how to get more diversity in your YA fiction.

That piece has some good advice. You have to actually search out diversity, recommend it and support it. It doesn’t happen automatically: Search, share, support.

Lately I’ve been trying to search out more diversity. If I don’t, my shelves are mostly full of white folks. It’s the same with my music collection. I don’t like most hip-hop, and the alt-rock and punk genres are pretty homogenous. So I’ve been working at it.

You also have to recommend it, and it’s something I need to be doing more. Though I should be clear this isn’t about simply recommending stuff because of the diversity, but because it’s good. So here are a couple recommendations, something I’ll try to do more consistently:

Books

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow WilsonAlif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
The hacker youth culture of a Cory Doctorow novel meets an Arab security state and slips into a fantasy world worthy of J.R.R. Tolkien. The mix of realism and fantasy was pretty great. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of fantasy, but I really enjoyed the glimpse into the Muslim world.

Bud Not Buddy by Christopher Paul CurtisBud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
This is a YA classic but somehow I’ve never read it. An orphaned boy goes in search of his long-lost father in Depression-era Michigan. An early scene of Bud being abused by foster parents made me physically angry, but the story moves to tenderness as Bud encounters more warm-hearted people on his journey.

Music

Music seems like it should be easier to find diversity. But I’ve always been a rock fan, and aside from a few big names, rock isn’t very diverse. I’m not a fan of hip-hop, so that leaves my musical horizons pretty limited.

Thanks to Spotify, I’ve been researching more diverse voices.

“You Can’t Be Told” by Valerie June
This foot-stomping single is a bit different from the rest of her album, but I love her rootsy voice, regardless of anything else.

“Sister Rosetta (Capture the Spirit)” by Noisettes
This one has a swing-dance style that’s just fun. The band has some more recent stuff, unfortunately it’s only available in the U.K.

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The Difference Diversity Makes

That whole ‘diversity in literature’ conversation keeps coming up and I think it might help some people to understand why it’s so important.

If you’re never confronted with it, if you’re always finding people who look like you in your entertainment, then it’s a question you might never think about. It helps to step outside of ourselves and see a different perspective.

I came across exactly that perspective in Deza Malone, a character in Christopher Paul Curtis’ The Mighty Miss Malone:

When I was in Gary and would read novels I used to put myself right in the middle of the story. I knew it was a great book when it felt like the author was writing about me. Some of the time I’d get snapped out of the book when I read things that I couldn’t pretend were about me, even if I had the imagination of Mr. William Shakespeare.

Words like “her pale, luminescent skin” or “her flowing mane of golden hair” or “her lovely, cornflower-blue eyes” or “the maiden fair.” I would stop and think, No, Deza, none of these books are about you. Continue reading

Illustration by Christopher Myers

Where’s the Diversity in Literature?

Illustration by Christopher MyersI read a lot. And in all that reading it’s apparent that diversity is lacking. I like to tell myself that’s because of my own tastes or my own white privilege.

But it’s not just me.

It’s a problem that pervades the publishing industry. Earlier this month I tweeted a story about how 93% of the characters in children’s literature are white. The New York Times has run a pair of opinion pieces on the issue, Where Are All the People of Color in Children’s Books by Walter Dean Myers and The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Christopher Myers, that gives some context and reality to the dry stats:

“In 1969, when I first entered the world of writing children’s literature,” writes Walter Dean Myers, “the field was nearly empty. Children of color were not represented, nor were children from the lower economic classes. Today, when about 40 percent of public school students nationwide are black and Latino, the disparity of representation is even more egregious. In the middle of the night I ask myself if anyone really cares.”

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Having a Conversation About Marriage

The ongoing marriage debates in our culture right now make me want to wave a flag and hide in the corner at the same time. I’ve talked before about this shifting conversation, and I think that shift is only speeding up. Even the Pope seems to be allowing that some form of civil union should be considered.

Many traditional marriage supporters may be wondering what’s happening as the ground shifts beneath them. That’s understandable. But from my admittedly biased perspective, it seems like the traditional marriage folks have clung to a dogma without having a real conversation. Again and again they talk about how they were for marriage, not against it, and were defending marriage from all the crazy redefinition that would include gays.

The problem with that is I never saw an actual conversation about what marriage is and how it’s working and not working. They would chant “one man and one woman” and ignore all the mess of collapsing marriages. People get divorced all the time. It’s not ’til death to us part,’ it’s ’til we no longer feel like it. I think that’s an important reality that’s been absent in the traditional marriage conversation.

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Lupita Nyong’o & the Shade of Beauty

I watched the Oscars last night (I know, what?) and was blown away by the poise and energy of the best supporting actress winner Lupita Nyong’o and her role in Twelve Years a Slave. She gave a moving acceptance speech with the line, “No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

She’s got quite a story, from nabbing an Oscar on her first film out (check IMDB, Twelve Years a Slave is her movie debut) to the incredible support from her brother Peter (he was her date for the Oscars, landing himself and his enviable hair in Ellen’s famous selfie). She even rocked the Oscar red carpet with that Cinderella dress.

But this wonderful speech she gave at the Black Woman in Hollywood Luncheon hosted by Essence is probably even better. The reality of how skin tone effects young women is something most of us never think about. Lupita’s dark skin plagued her own self worth and perception of beauty, but that perception was something she could rise above and embrace her true beauty:

“You can’t rely on how you look to sustain you. What actually sustains us, what is fundamentally beautiful, is compassion, for yourself and for those around you. That kind of beauty inflames the heart and enchants the soul. It is what got Patsey in so much trouble with her master. But it is also what has kept her story alive to this day. We remember the beauty of her spirit, even after the beauty of her body has faded away.

And so, I hope that my presence on your screens and in magazines may lead you, young girl, on a similar journey, that you will feel the validation of your external beauty but also get to the deeper business of being beautiful inside. There is no shade in that beauty.”

Putting the 1950s in Perspective

Lately I’ve been reading about the civil rights movement and it’s incredible.

Everyone knows that, but reading the details is something else.

I could probably write a lengthy post going into all kinds of details, but there’s just too much to say and that’s too hard to swallow. Instead I think it’ll be easier (for you and me) to just throw out random thoughts as they come.

Tonight I was struck by how a nostalgic view of 1950s America has to be completely blind to issues of race.

I imagine 1950s nostalgia is blind to a great many things. But race seems like the most offensive.

Viewing the 1950s as the golden age of America forgets that Jim Crow was in full force in the South. Even though court rulings had dismantled segregation, it still existed as a practical matter. Much of the civil rights movement was about claiming what had already been won in court and was being illegally denied.

It’s a shocking thing to consider. Comparisons don’t do it justice, but they help put it in perspective. The Supreme Court recently struck down California’s Prop 8, making gay marriage legal in the state of California. Imagine if gay people went to California to get married and were not only turned away, they were arrested, beaten and jailed?

It’s inconceivable today. Yet that’s what happened with the Freedom Riders in Mississippi.

The 1950s were hardly a rosy time of peace, prosperity and good morals. Especially for blacks in the South.

Thinking About Trayvon Martin: Let’s Listen

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was released Saturday night: George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

And the conversations exploded.

There are people on all sides of this issue and it can be difficult to talk about. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it. A lot of smarter people have said smarter things about this, so go read them.

Then I’ll throw in my two cents:

1. Listen
But one thing has become clear to me: A lot of black people, among others, are very angry about this verdict (and the case in general, regardless of the verdict). If you don’t understand why, then I think it might help to do some listening. The specifics of the case almost don’t matter—just listen to people. Even if their anger is misplaced (which I don’t think it is), I think it helps to understand their perspective.

At the very least it would promote some compassion. It would minimize the tone deaf comments.

After all, a kid is dead. A community is shaken. A man who took a life is walking away not guilty and free, though hardly free.

I posted last week about what LeVar Burton does to avoid getting shot. This is the reality for black families in America. Most of us are clueless about what they go through. And now there’s the Trayvon Martin case on top of it. You can only begin to understand that by listening. As one of those smarter people said:

“Black people, on the whole, experience a very different America than white people.”

If you bristle at that statement, don’t challenge it. Listen.

2. Expand Your Circle
Of course listening doesn’t do any good if you’re in an echo chamber. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who think like you, people who believe what you believe, people who look like you, people who vote like you.

It’s an easy place to find yourself. You might think that you’re a well-versed person, that you consider all sides and perspectives, that you’re well connected and plugged in. But maybe not.

As a part of our adoption training we went through an exercise where we were given a number of colored beads and a cup. The facilitator would name different people in various roles and positions, and we had to drop a bead in the cup every time one of those people was someone of a different race. So we’d talk through different people—doctor, dentist, barber, friends, family, boss, coworkers, neighbors, pastor, favorite author, favorite musician, favorite actor, etc.

You get the idea. As you can imagine, I didn’t have many beads in my cup.

Well, sure, I live in Minnesota where the non-white population is only 17 percent (up from 1% in 1960). Whatever. Don’t make excuses.

It was eye-opening. And I bring it up because if you’re not listening to a diverse group of people then you’re missing out. You can’t really understand the perspective of a group of people unless you know them. I had never heard of Karen refugees until they started filling up my church. Suddenly their story and the general persecution in Burma (highlighted by Aung San Suu Kyi, inspiration for the U2 song “Walk On”) became a lot more personal. It’s what makes InvisiblePeople.tv so effective: Allowing you to hear the stories of homeless people. In the Trayvon case, the raw wound within the black community becomes a lot more obvious—and you become more sensitive to it—when you actually listen to black people. As Jim Wallis said:

“If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”

Some article I read somewhere (and of course now can’t find) compared it to Democrats or Republicans who only talk to like-minded people and have a hard time seeing anyone on the other side as being a normal, sane person. It’s part of why politics is so poisonous today.

And of course expanding your circle isn’t just about having sympathy for people’s pain or better understanding where they’re coming from even if you disagree. You can discover a lot of cool stuff too.

So Start Listening to an Expanded CircleThe good news is that it’s something you can easily fix in our digital age. Start listening to people who are different from you, whether it’s race, gender, creed, age, socioeconomic status, location, politics, etc. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Here’s the key: When they say something that bugs you, don’t unfollow or defriend. Stick it out. It’s especially hard when it comes to politics or faith, but stick with it. And don’t pick fights. That’s definitely not why you’re listening.

I’ve been trying to expand my circle. I went to a small, Christian, mostly white, liberal arts college, so I get the bubble. I’m also an introvert who works at home, so my circle is pretty small.

It’s a small start, but that’s how we get anywhere.

On Saturday night, when the Trayvon verdict came out, I saw a lot of pain and anger. If I hadn’t been listening, I would have been clueless and tone deaf.