Category Archives: Society

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.

How LeVar Burton Avoids Getting Shot

The host of Reading Rainbow and star of Star Trek: The Next Generation, LeVar Burton, has a specific ritual to keep from getting shot by police:

We like to congratulate ourselves on our black president and pretend racism doesn’t exist in America.

LeVar Burton’s story says otherwise.

It’s insane. But it’s common sense for Burton. The way everyone else in the video responds is a good indication that Burton’s little ‘don’t get shot’ ritual is the norm.

It’s one of many things I’ll have to teach my son, the kinds of things I don’t normally have to think about because I’m white.

Gay Marriage: It’s Time for Christians to Move On

As last week’s Supreme Court decision and the ensuing reaction highlight, the conservative church is losing the debate over gay marriage.

Frankly, I welcome it.

For much of my life I’ve noticed the conservative church taking an approach to social issues that basically tells other people how to live. It’s judgmental, it forces beliefs on others and it denies people basic rights. I’m sure they don’t see it that way, but I think that’s how it’s coming across in the wider culture. What’s worse is that it gives the impression that blindly following a bunch of rules is what makes someone a Christian, that what is good and right and lovely in the eyes of God is wearing long skirts, not drinking beer and making sure people don’t get gay married.

I don’t get it.

I think it’s time for the church to stop expecting the world to follow our beliefs. You can’t legislate people into Christians. That’s not the great commission.

The church claims to be about love, but when all we do is argue about cultural issues and try to make people do stuff they don’t believe, we’re exhibiting the opposite of love.

It’s time the church figured out how to live in disagreement. It’s time churches figure out how to be the minority. Because guess what—that’s where we are.

Where this gets especially interesting is that the church itself is in deep disagreement. I used the phrase ‘conservative church’ above because not all churches condemn the LGBT lifestyle. Some churches are LGBT affirming and it’s interesting watching both sides try to navigate these waters. I think it’s time for the church to recognize the disagreement, let other people live how they want to live, and move on as brothers and sisters in unity.

Some other people have more eloquent things to say about faith and LGBT issues than I do:

Reading stories like these (and also browsing my social media feeds and seeing a lot more joy than dismay) gives me hope.

Love Runs

Love RunsI love it when things come together. When different concepts merge into a brilliant idea and when overlapping people start working together toward the same goal. That’s good stuff.

That’s what is happening with Love Runs. It’s a remote 5K that’s happening on Saturday to raise money to build a classroom in Uganda. What’s a remote 5K? It means you can do it anywhere. You don’t have to be part of any official run.

I’ve been running lately. Some days it’s horrible and I hate it and (less frequently) it’s awesome and I love it. But every time I feel good. Even when my feet hurt or my knee is acting up or I’m just exhausted, it feels good. So I keep doing it.

Then Allison Vesterfelt comes along and wants to celebrate her 30th birthday by raising $30,000 to build a classroom in Uganda. That’s the kind of crazy thinking I like. Allison has been kind enough to support my recent book by letting me write for her blog and for Prodigal Magazine. I kind of owe her. I wanted to support her effort, but I wasn’t sure how. Then I saw she was doing Love Runs.

Things come together.

Now I can do my run and support a good cause. Plus I can help out a friend. Plus, the school in Uganda that Allison is helping is supported by Bob Goff, the author of Love Does: Discover a Secretly Incredible Life in an Ordinary World, a book that’s been on my reading list for a while. I saw Bob speak last fall and he’s the kind of ridiculous guy who puts his phone number in his book and urges people to call him. (He genuinely wants to talk to you. So of course his phone rang while he was speaking. Awesome.) It should come as no surprise that when Bob saw I was doing the run he thanked me on Twitter. When I responded and mentioned that I needed to read his book before Saturday, he offered to send me a copy. The guy’s got heart. So yesterday I picked up Love Does from the library (yes, I should probably buy it—it’s good stuff) and I’ll probably have it done before the run on Saturday. I get bored with nonfiction books, but this one is captivating. Bob loves people so much that he’s just crazy. I think that’s kind of the point.

Things come together.

So Saturday I’m doing this run for all the reasons I just said. Want to join me?

It’s a remote run, so you’re welcome to take part. Pony up some money to Allison’s cause and let’s do this. Strap on your shoes and go! You can walk if you want. 5K sounds like a lot, but it’s only 3.1 miles. Go 1.55 miles from your house, turn around and go home. Done. Take a picture and let’s celebrate with Allison.

If you don’t want to run (or walk) but still want to support Allison’s birthday project, you can make a donation here.

Things come together.

Support Homeless Documentary & Game

I’ve been a big support of Mark Horvath and his work with InvisiblePeople.tv for a while. His passion and resolve to fight homelessness is inspirational.

Mark always has cool stuff up his sleeve. Now there’s an Indiegogo project to fund a documentary about Mark’s work and a social game to help fight homelessness. It’s a cool concept and more than just a movie about Mark, there’s a smartphone game that can get people involved and push them towards real activism.

They’re trying to raise $100,000 in 37 days, which seems like a tall order. They’ll need to raise $2,700 a day. Yesterday they raised $396. So they need your help.

It’s also backed by a nonprofit, so it’s tax deductible.

Check it out and consider supporting the @home campaign: