Access to Opportunity-Rich Neighborhoods Requires More Than Just a Good Job

Image: TJ Gehling via Flickr

Victory by TJ Gehling via Flickr

When we look at our metropolitan geographies we see a lot of patterns. One of those patterns is the persistence of pockets of poverty, particularly racialized poverty. Many people know something about America’s history with discriminatory housing policy, like the redlining that kept good loans out of communities of color. But decades after the end of those practices, aren’t most of the poor neighborhoods still left simply accidents? What people really need now are just better jobs to be able to move to opportunity-rich communities… right?

I recently had the privilege to listen to Professor Richard Rothstein of UC Berkeley pose and then debunk this very idea with a case study local to the Bay Area: Richmond, California. Rothstein explained how the existence of continued separation between neighborhoods of opportunity and poorer areas is directly related to wealth generated by white families from the WWII era, and that this segregated wealth generation was deeply supported by the government.


The Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid (Review)

The Autobiography of my MotherI was about halfway through The Autobiography of My Mother when I realized the main character really bugged me. It was several more pages before I realized the value of an unlikeable protagonist.

Xuela — Kincaid’s main character — isn’t nice. She’s not trying to be your best friend. And she’s pretty unapologetic about it. She’s a woman who marches to the beat of her own drum and shuns love in all its forms. Sex to her is just a form of physical pleasure, which she experiences no shame in fulfilling.

I started the book thinking I’d see a lot of myself in the main character’s development and story, but no such luck. Yes, there were some aspects to Xuela I understood – she was considered inferior by white people and she was not seduced by material wealth. But Xuela’s lack of emotional response to other characters – such as her husband of many years – was something I couldn’t relate to:


Can Photography Help Lead Us to Justice?

Ruddy Roye

As much as good writing enchants me, I also love when I am reminded of the power of photography to capture a person, a moment, an idea. This week I was fortunate to come across Ruddy Roye’s Instagram account, when seeking out professional photographers to follow. A self-described “photographer with a conscience,” Roye’s street photography is fantastic by itself, but he often adds commentary to the photos that makes them even more interesting, talking about why he took a particular shot or giving some facts or a quotation each one. It seems that his work brings an important lens to black America and working class America.


How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-Founded a Million Dollar Company by Varun Agarwal (Review)

How I Braved Anu Aunty and Co-Founded a Million Dollar CompanyWhen you’re jobless, the pace of time becomes very slow. Like excruciatingly slow. I was getting more and more addicted to Facebook and that had become a serious problem. During those days, Farmville was at its peak and people were going crazy sending each other pigs, horses, dogs, and what not.
-Varun Agarwal

This was quite a unique read for me. Varun’s story is a book straight out of Bangalore, India, and so it feels different from the U.S.-published books I read almost exclusively. It doesn’t quite read like the memoirs and autobiographies that I’m used to, and it took a minute to adjust to the super-casual language and frequent interjections of Varun’s thoughts.

Varun wants to start a company, but he feels trapped by the expectations of his family that he get a steady, well-paying tech job and make a good impression on the aunties in his mother’s social circle. Then he and a good friend get the idea to start a clothing brand company for alums of prestigious local high schools. The book is a mixture of self-exploration, business strategy, and cultural analysis.

I liked that Varun’s book took me into a different side of the world, and through the first-person narrative of a current resident, rather than that of a non-native or an expat. However, at the same time, I have to say that I wasn’t always riveted by the story he has to tell. Maybe a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m not really interested in starting a business right now, and I don’t quite relate to his focus on making the most money possible. Or it might have to do with my observation that the book has a distinctly “bro-ey” feel to it — Varun is often hanging out with his male friends talking about drinking or the girls they think are hot. Also, the chapters sometimes feel too short (many are just a couple pages), with not enough material to get into the interesting relationships in Varun’s life, and while he strives for a light, whimsical tone the comedy was hit-or-miss.

But I do think that Varun’s story could be particularly appealing to the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial types or anyone else starting up a small business. The one thing you take away from the book is that it takes a lot of creativity and persistence to get any business up off the ground.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Respectability Politics Won’t Free Us of Police Violence

Photo:  fischfosser via Flickr

Photo: fischfosser via Flickr

I am reminded of what I have always known, but what some would choose to deny: that there is no way to work your way out — earn your way out — of this sort of crisis. In these moments, what you’ve done matters less than how you look.
-Charles Blow

The article that really gave me chills this week was Charles Blow’s account of his son having a gun pointed in his face at Yale for being a suspected burglar (aka, walking while black). Blow’s post isn’t particularly long or one of his more purposefully eloquent pieces of writing, but you can just feel the sadness and anger coming across the page that he can’t protect his son from the discrimination one experiences as a black person in the U.S.

He agonizes about what could have happened if his son had made a “suspicious” or panicked movement in his surprise and distress at having a gun pointed at him. He laments the fact that he had to have a talk with his son in the past about what to do if this very situation were to happen, even as he rejoices that he did.

Most of all, I’m thankful that Blow took a clear shot at respectability politics by pointing out that no black kid is safe from this harassment and violence. No parent of a black child is free from the specter of losing him or her through the perception that this child is a threat.

Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer by Antonia Murphy (Review)

Dirty ChickOomph. I have some real complicated feelings about this book. Here goes nothing.

So, Dirty Chick has a pretty fun and interesting premise: a woman from San Francisco moves her family to a small town in New Zealand called Purua, where they quickly surround themselves with a cluster of farm animals to raise. There are endless quirky discovery stories of the challenges of animal farming, growing cheeses, and staking out a life in general in Purua, many of which are pretty funny and engaging. I particularly liked her stories about the goats, who would often use her car as a makeshift playground, jumping onto the roof and sliding down the front windshield for fun.

There’s a human and serious element to Murphy’s memoir in that her son Silas has a learning disability. Murphy and her husband are constantly worrying about him and trying to figure out how to help him grow and thrive with other children. In fact, he’s part of the reason they move to slow-paced Purua in the first place — there’s a one-room schoolhouse there where he can get the personal attention that he needs.

Alright, so all that is fine and dandy, but my real issue with Murphy’s memoir is her language about people of color, and some of the implicit messages she’s sending that go completely unchecked. This showed up pretty early in the book, when she describes Richmond, where she was living in her sailboat before moving to New Zealand as “a sketchy part of the Bay Area just east of Marin County.” Woah. Pretty hard not to interpret “sketchy” here as not meaning “black and brown.”

In another place she writes, “Richmond was poor and shabby, plagued by gang violence.” It’s not that Richmond doesn’t have challenges with violence. It’s that the perception of not being safe is all she took away (or at least chose to share with us) from living there. There is so much more to Richmond’s community, and I wonder how much of the city she actually got to know living on her sailboat? How much did she ever step outside of her comfort circle of white friends to try and get to know residents of color?

Another example I had a really hard time with was her description of a friendly indigenous man who volunteers to come to her house and cook a sheep for a party she’s throwing. So, recap: this guy that her friends know and have recommended is coming over to her house all day to cook for her for free. And her first thoughts about him are, “Despite the nice eyes, this guy didn’t look safe. I made a mental note of where my kids were.” Later, she goes on to ask her friends why the kids don’t find him scary.

I was tempted to gloss over those unsavory bits in my review, but it’s really just inexcusable. Dirty Chick has some great parts, but it’s also got a serious white privilege problem that merits a much more thoughtful examination. I’d love to see more of her work as she matures as a writer and hopefully addresses some of those issues.

Note: I received an ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

2Stars22/5 STARS

Racial Justice Roundup, MLK Edition

SelmaMartin Luther King Jr.’s day of remembrance seems to have arrived at a particularly opportune time of the year, given the heightened dialogue around black lives and race relations in the U.S. I watched the Selma movie this past weekend to put myself in an even greater mode of reflection about where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed when it comes to race. I’d definitely recommend the film.

In the social justice world I often hear talk about how society has made much progress in racial justice throughout the years, but that we have a long ways to go. This is still true. We have to acknowledge both the past and the present.

With regards to the latter, here’s roundup of racial justice links I found interesting this past week:

  • Organizers took MLK day as inspiration for a weekend-long set of actions in various cities across the U.S. Here’s what went on in just the Bay Area, for example.
  • The best long-form article I read last week was on the making of Silicon Valley with respect to race and class. An important read, given the high intensity economic pressure that Silicon Valley and the tech sector exert on low- and middle-income residents throughout the Bay Area.
  • Speaking of income and neighborhood change, this video by a young man named Kai about the changes he’s seen in his home community of the Mission District in San Francisco is quite well-done.
  • As most people heard, the Oscars were pretty white this year. I’m also particularly surprised looking down the list of past non-white actor nominees to see very few Asian/Pacific Islanders.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (Review)

A Clash of Kings‘The thing in the sky is a comet, sweet child. A star with a tail, lost in the heavens. It will be gone soon enough, never to be seen again in our lifetimes. Watch and see.’
-George R.R. Martin

Whew, this one took me a while to get through — 969 pages is no small feat. I think one recommendation I have for someone picking up A Clash of Kings after a year or two away from the A Song of Ice and Fire series that it’s a part of is to recap the first book (A Game of Thrones) before digging in. I spent the first hundred pages remembering who the heck all the various characters are. NOTE: Anyone looking to avoid spoilers about A Game of Thrones should probably stop reading here.

To Martin’s credit, he picks up pretty much where the last book left off. The realm is in turmoil, there are multiple “kings” vying for the Iron Throne, basically your ideal setting for a long story of battles and journeys — which seem to be key components of all good fantasy. Martin continues with the alternating POV style that he began in A Game of Thrones, where each new chapter switches the character telling the story. For the most part, I think that strategy works well for Martin, since he has so much geographic area to cover with his tale. It’s like a giant, narrative game of Risk.

When I read the first book in the series I actually didn’t think that I would read the second, not because I didn’t envision myself enjoying it, but because I planned to watch the TV show instead (I know, I know, book people don’t hurt me).  But in starting the second season of the show I got the sense that I was missing a lot of back story, so I turned to other Netflix disks while I gave myself a chance to read the second book.

Unfortunately, I kept picking the book up for a few days and then putting it down again to finish other, shorter books. While I love the depth and nuance that Martin creates through his works, sometimes they do get just a tad… long. When I got to the last three or four hundred pages though I really gave Clash of Kings the attention it deserved and got more firmly sucked into the story.

One aspect not unique to Martin’s work that I took issue with throughout Clash of Kings was the depiction of women as weak and powerless. My frustration is complicated, because I do think Martin is trying to depict a time similar to our Middle Ages, where women really didn’t have much power at all. Even so, the frequent portrayals of sexual violence against women, related in a very casual manner through the eyes of the male characters got a little challenging to accept. I would have loved to see a few more “strong” female leads. Catelyn Stark arguably plays this role, but her pieces of the book are surprisingly uninvolved — there is no place where she really carries a pivotal impact on the plot. Arya, another potential strong female role, is a child and that identity seems to trump her feisty nature and brains when it comes to power. I hope that both their roles grow in later books.

As I said, this phenomenon of normalizing rape and sexual violence in fantasy books seems to extend to many other authors outside of Martin’s work, and I can’t help but wonder if the prevalence has something to do with the fantasy writer playing field, which to my knowledge seems fairly white and male. I used to read a lot more fantasy when I was younger, and I think the skewed demographics, along with the sheer length of many of those books has led me to step a little away from the genre. I’m happy to have dipped a toe back in with a solid work like Clash of Kings, but I also think I got my fix for a while.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Colorism in Literature

Color Eye

Photo: Andreas Levers via Flickr

Over the past year I’ve been thinking more about the ways that colorism (or the valuing of lighter skinned people over darker skinned people) comes into play in literature just as much as in film, modeling, and other more visual industries. Amit Singh, in a recent Media Diversified article does a great job of highlighting examples of colorism for the latter and why it is such a big problem. As he notes, “there is one set type of attractiveness that is sold to us and resold to us on a daily basis through popular culture and advertising.” He discusses how even the actors and models “of color” that are allowed to succeed are the lighter-skinned ones and the ones with more Caucasian features.

It’s not just on screen and in magazines though that we experience colorism — it happens in literature too, even though we might not get shown a literal image. In reading science fiction and fantasy, so often the darker-skinned characters are the ones with the evil magic or the worst intentions — the assassins and kingdom-takers. And in less-fantastical books the darker characters are still often looked upon with suspicion and fear, or at the very least called apart as different because of their dark and/or non-Caucasian features. How many times have we read “The Asian nurse did such and such” or “The guy with dreadlocks told me blah blah blah?” In each of those situations an author is choosing to define his or her characters by how far they deviate from whiteness, rather than choosing some other way to describe them.

I’m the first one out there to jump up and down cheerleading for authors that write diverse characters. But it’s very important when we call those characters onto the field not to be using whiteness as the standard of beauty. Authors have just as much responsibility as magazine editors and television producers to not be recreating the color value spectrum for consumers.

The Isolation Door by Anish Majumdar (Review)

The Isolation DoorThe first memory I have of my mother is her straddling an open window, pink sari bunched about her waist like a protective cushion, shouting she’d jump.
-Anish Majumdar

I love when fiction clearly comes from the heart and from personal experience, and that’s exactly the sense I got from reading Anish Majumdar’s The Isolation Door. The work is the complicated story of a young man, Neil Kapoor, trying to deal with both his mother’s schizophrenia (plus the family dynamics that go along with her care) and the challenge of starting a rigorous acting program while falling in love and making friends with his classmates at the same time.

Neil’s mother has been in and out of the hospital ever since he can remember, and his father and aunt have very different ideas about how to handle her during the times she is able to stay at home. There is a constant sense that Neil’s home world is falling apart, and he’s clearly unsure of what role he can (or should) play in caring for his mother’s mental health.

At school, Neil is facing the confrontational teaching style of his main instructor in the acting program and navigating his feelings and connections to some of the fellow students. In his relationships with the other students we see a replication of certain dynamics that Neil has faced throughout his experience growing up with his mother, as well as some elements pushing him toward changing who he is and the behaviors he’s used to cope.

While this is certainly not a “happy” book, for the most part I really enjoyed Majumdar’s style of writing, with its strong mix of dreamscapes, memories, and present life. The first half can be a little jerky as you get used to his style of describing relationships — the characters seem to connect and change their relationships with each other awfully fast at times, particularly in Neil’s “theater life.” But overall I really enjoyed his writing.

Through telling a fictional story inspired by his own experiences, Majumdar is diversifying our sense of who struggles with mental illness. The main character doesn’t shy away from describing his family’s background or talking about the aspects of his life that are built on South Asian culture. At the same time he’s also tapping into universal experiences of trying to fit in and figure out what he wants out of life.

In this sense, I think Majumdar is doing an admirable job of working through the complications of being an author of color. It seems so easy to be categorized as either “too ethic” or “not ethnic enough.” I hope that he won’t get pigeonholed one way or the other as the book continues to get read and promoted.

Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

4Stars24/5 STARS