What Shall We Call Us?

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

Crowd at Millions March Oakland

I am one to throw the term “people of color” or “POC” (for short) around fairly liberally. I use it when talking about the books I read, or the types of advocacy I’m involved with. In general, I like to think and talk about the ways that having dark skin or features that aren’t associated with whiteness creates a certain sense of solidarity. But it would be false to say that I’ve never questioned my own use of the word. In particular, I’ve always wondered whether Asian and Pacific Islander communities always identify with that term. This past week, through a friend, I found a great article on Black Girl Dangerous discussing the term “POC” and all the baggage tied up in lumping people together all the time.

In the article, “What’s Wrong With the Term ‘Person of Color'”, author Janani encourages solidarity across race/ethnicity groups, while making the important point that each individual minority community has a distinct history of oppression. Sometimes one group plays a role in oppressing another to try and get closer to acceptance, or a group may have internal oppression issues that are not the same as the internal challenges that other race/ethnicity groups have.

One particularly eloquent quote that I loved toward the end of the article summed up the overall argument quite well:

Black-Asian solidarity in the US, for instance, is hard to find and it will continue to be difficult to build if we continue to use the uncritical ‘POC’ label.  Rather, we can use ‘POC’ as a way of reflecting on our different racial histories and building coalitions in our struggles and their difference.  POC is a term for building solidarity between movements, not a movement in itself.  That distinction is important.

 

Lots of food for thought in a time of beautiful multi-cultural organizing around #BlackLivesMatter.

Behind The Kitchen Door by Saru Jayaraman (Review)

Behind the Kitchen Door_We tend not to realize that diversity is not the same as equity — that simply seeing a lot of restaurant workers from different backgrounds doesn’t mean that restaurant workers have equal opportunities to advance to jobs that will allow them to support themselves and their families.

-Saru Jayaraman

I had to read this book after attending the Facing Race conference this year, which featured several members of ROC United, the national union that Jayaraman co-founded for restaurant workers in the wake of 9/11. Jayaraman herself is a fantastic public speaker, and I couldn’t wait to get back home and read her book at the end of the conference.

Behind The Kitchen Door is a collection of stories really, powerful stories from restaurant workers that ROC has worked with throughout the years. ROC’s focus is on creating equal working conditions and career advancement opportunities for all restaurant workers, so many of the stories highlight the unfair treatment that people of color, and particularly women of color, face on the job everyday.

There are horrifying accounts of wage theft, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and chronic financial instability. Jayaraman points to the lack of leave that causes many restaurant workers to keep serving, even while sick. She also brings up many times the astoundingly low federal minimum wage for restaurant workers ($2.13!!!), since theoretically workers are making up the rest of the gap between that and the normal minimum wage through tips. Jayaraman shows pretty convincingly that this frequently does not happen, and that employers often do not compensate the difference as they are supposed to.

I really liked that the focus of Jayaraman’s book and life’s work is on such a universal job. While I personally have never worked in a restaurant, I know many friends that have. Many can relate to the stories she’s telling and the difference between those of us for whom restaurant work is a step along the road to a better career, versus those who rely on the industry for much of their lives.

One interesting bit of information that I learned from the Facing Race conference is that ROC United is piloting an app that diners can use when they go out to eat to report on the perceived race of the wait staff and kitchen staff. It’s built to work well with Yelp and Twitter, and seems like an interesting way to unobtrusively bring to light the colorism that the industry struggles with (whiter staff get to serve while darker staff are stuck in the kitchen, without regard to qualifications).

There’s a bit of repetition of certain facts throughout the book, but it’s a really worthwhile read for the stories alone. It’s a good practice in empathy to read about other people’s lives and think about how we can as consumers support restaurants that exemplify the fair hiring and labor practices that we want to see while boycotting or reprimanding those who don’t.

4Stars24/5 STARS

#BlackLivesMatter, Now and Always

I wasn’t expecting so soon after writing about Ferguson that we’d be hearing back on the conclusion of the Eric Garner case.

If I had been thinking about the Garner case much beforehand, I might have been predicting that the indictment would be affirmative. That finally this situation and this cop would go to trial. Because it was on video. Because the police used an illegal chokehold. Because the coroner called it a homicide. But of course if that’s what I’d believed I would have been disappointed.

I’ve been reading a lot of reactions and seeing a lot of memes and spoken word links floating around Twitter and Facebook as black communities and advocacy communities try to make sense of the decision. There have been some heartfelt expression pieces giving voice to those experiencing trauma and tragedy. There was a lot of talk about the uncanny way that the verdict coincided with Obama’s push to get more police to wear body cameras. It was uncanny in the sense that the Garner case immediately disproved the validity of this “solution” and instead forced us to focus again on the heart of the matter — implicit bias and the inherent harm of having a militarized police force.

I’m troubled by so many aspects of these deaths. I’m frustrated, saddened, and angered by the fact that it keeps happening, over and over again. But I what I actually find most frustrating and disempowering is the lack of understanding and the apathy that I see from a lot of non-black, non-advocate communities. I hear people focusing on the legal facts or the doubt surrounding the events of deaths or speculating about what facts were presented to the Grand Jury. I hear people hanging on the the uncertainties and giving the benefit of the doubt to the white police officers or to mostly-white juries. All of this is very hard to hear, and hard to fight.

For me, it keeps coming back to Eric Garner’s last words, where he expresses the pain he experiences at constantly being a target of harassment and suspicion:

Everytime you see me, you want to harass me. […] I’m minding my business, officer, I’m minding my business. Please just leave me alone. I told you the last time, please just leave me alone. please please, don’t touch me. Do not touch me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.

 

To know that the man who said these words is no longer with us is deeply sad. It’s a constant struggle for me to articulate to others why his words matter so much. They point exactly to the heart of the profiling and the psychological toll of that profiling on an entire class of people.

It matters.

We matter.

#BlackLivesMatter.

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar (Review)

The Story HourI think distance also helps me gain an certain critical perspective that’s essential for good writing. It makes it possible to be more truthful in my writing, to speak some harsh truths. And being an immigrant in America, always having this outsider-insider thing going on, is such great training for being a writer. Because that’s what writers are – outsiders wanting to get on the inside and insiders longing to burst out.

-Thrity Umrigar

On face, The Story Hour was set up to have a really fascinating plot. An Indian woman, Lakshmi, tries to commit suicide and is referred to a black psychiatrist for treatment, Maggie. Lakshmi is married to an Indian man who is indifferent and sometimes emotionally abusive to her, while Maggie is married to an Indian man as well, but they have a rich, loving relationship. The book is about both women finding themselves in their relationships and in life.

While I really enjoyed the creativity behind this story, unfortunately a lot of it fell flat for me. The characters all seemed a little too one-dimensional. The book alternates between Lakshmi and Maggie’s perspective. The Lakshmi sections are written in broken English, which seemed strange and uncomfortable, given that regardless of how Lakshmi’s spoken English sections should sound, she probably thinks pretty coherently in her mind. There wasn’t really a need to make her thoughts come across in broken English.

From the very first chapter Maggie’s character is tempted to cheat on her husband Sudhir, but we never really get a good explanation of why. It felt a little too much like the “black woman can’t hold down a marriage” trope. And some of the pointed descriptions of race were a little strange. Also, I understand the limitations of an Indian author writing about a black character, and I want to give her credit for even trying, since we desperately need more multicultural literature out there, but it seemed like she didn’t go very much in depth into Maggie’s cultural influences. Instead, it felt as though her cultural background was just a coincidence, when I’m sure it would have played a lot into her daily life.

I won’t give away the ending, but I’ll just say it seemed to drag on a little longer than necessary (which felt surprising since this is such a short book), mostly because it was a little cliché and predictable. But I still really appreciated the sheer creativity that Umrigar drew upon to come up with the initial plot and cast of characters, and I did find myself reading through the book fairly quickly once I got past the first couple of chapters and got used to her style here. I’m definitely interested in reading some of her other works later on.

4Stars24/5 STARS

Bookish Updates

Dirty ChickI have a free ARC to review! It came in the mail this week. It’s called Dirty Chick: Adventures of an Unlikely Farmer, and it’s a memoir about a San Francisco woman who moves to New Zealand to till the land. The back cover promises some funny moments, as I can only imagine this type of story would entail. I’m looking forward to reading about a fellow Bay Area lady and getting a peek into the mysterious world of farming. Check back in late January for the review.

In other news, I finished NaNoWriMo this year! I’m particularly proud of myself for rounding the 50,000 word mark given that I had sort of decided to give up around 2pm on Sunday. Thank goodness November ended on a weekend this year, because no sooner had I wasted a few hours on the Internet when I realized I actually did want to keep pushing toward the finish line, which was still about 11,000 words away at that point. What ensued was the most typing I’ve ever done in one sitting.

I attempted NaNoWriMo two years ago and made it halfway through, so it meant a lot to me to reach the end this time — even though the novel I came out of the process with will need lots and lots of revision to be anything close to polished. It was also helpful and fun to have kept a NaNoWriMo “journal” of sorts documenting the process. Here are a couple choice excerpts:

Day 0 (October 31)

Omgee, I’m going to write so much this month, it’s going to be awesome! I can’t wait to be working on my novel each morning (ostensibly that’s when I’ll make time to write) and to get to the end. I’m definitely reaching the end this year. And somehow I’m also going to keep up with my blog – eight posts in a month can’t be too bad, right?

Day 1

Alright, whose fun idea was it to plan NaNoWriMo to start the day after Halloween? Screen is so bright, too bright, do I really have to start back on this stupid novel again? Maybe I ditched it for a reason. But maybe I can do this, yeah, the story is all coming back to me now, just a little rusty…

Day 2

As long as I set aside about an hour of each day, I should be able to finish this thing in no time. I’m already not sure if I’ll like the story that I come out with in the end (so many boring scenes, too much obvious dialogue), but hey I’ll have something to work with and edit. Jesus, 1,667 a day is a lot of words though.

Day 7

So much fog this morning, is it a NaNoWriMo omen? Is it good or bad? Most importantly, should I write it into my novel?

Day 16

At a conference. Goodness, it’s hard to keep up with this writing. I think I’m now officially about three days behind, trying to finish my word count for today so that doesn’t turn into four days. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

Day 25

I’m starting to really believe this is doable, given how far I’ve come. I mean, no doubt there will be a lot of writing to make up on the last day, but I have the day set aside for myself. I think I can pull it off.

Day 27

Behind, ahhh! Thanksgiving, ahhhh! Can I really do this?

Day 28

Okay, I’ve got to bring it now if I want to finish on time. Three days left!

Day 29

OMG, two days! *furiously punches on keyboard*

Day 30

That’s it, I’m done, I can’t do it.

Wait… Bring it.

(11:00pm PST)

Winner-2014-Web-Banner

November Book Finds (Except, Really Ferguson)

Ferguson NewsWell folks, I’m going to be honest with you, because of NaNoWriMo, I did not in fact identify any new books this month that I want to pick up to read. But the good news is, I’m still plugging away on my novel draft. (Very slowly, and somewhat surely).

What I have been thinking a lot about lately, instead of books and outside of NaNoWriMo, is Ferguson — both the grand jury and the greater epidemic of black youth being killed by cops in the U.S. I watched the coverage of the press conference of the county prosecuting attorney, McCulloch, and could tell almost as soon as he started speaking that the decision of the grand jury was not to indict.

What really happened that day with Michael Brown and Darren Wilson I may never know, but I’m truly at a loss of what to do with my emotions of frustration and sadness at the reality itself that these deaths keep happening. I’m angry at the focus on the fact that Brown stole cigarillos from a store before he died. It’s not about whether he was a perfect person — none of us are — it’s about the fact that he didn’t get the same chance to even stay alive as a white kid has in the U.S. To even continue breathing on this earth. Everyone deserves that chance.

It’s going to take me more time to process all the events. I do feel glad to have been able to march for a little while with Oakland protesters early in the evening to express some solidarity with others similarly digesting their emotions. I was happy to see several familiar faces in the crowd. And I know there are people out there doing good work to change policing practices and criminalization laws. It just feels like the need is so immediate and progress is so slow. How many other black boys and men do we have to lose before then?

If there is to be a connection back to books in this post, it’s that I’m finding myself wanting to read more of the foundational writers on black identity because of racial rifts we’re seeing today — James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, etc. So much of what I read is contemporary, but I want to go back too and remember the roots of black literature and nonfiction. I also want to find more of their female contemporaries to read. They might not have been writing about Ferguson, but they sure would have understood how to talk about it if they were still around.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss (Review)

The 4 Hour Workweek$1,000,000 in the bank isn’t the fantasy. The fantasy is the lifestyle of complete freedom it supposedly allows.
Timothy Ferriss

I’m not going to lie, Mr. Ferriss is kind of a smart-ass. However, he knew what he was doing when he wrote The 4-Hour Workweek. I mean the subtitle alone is enough to get you to pick up the book (“Escape 9-5, live anywhere, and join the new rich”). It just makes you curious even though I got some clear (and correct) signals near the beginning that this is a book oriented more toward young folks burning out on time- and energy-intensive corporate jobs.

What I liked most about The 4-Hour Workweek was almost all within the first hundred pages of reading. Not that I didn’t like the rest of the book, but it felt less relevant when it got into the nitty-gritty of planning your escape route from corporate drudgery. The first few chapters are all about visioning and thinking big (as well as alternatively) about your work life. Basically Ferriss is telling us to be creative about our thinking on what is “necessary” to succeed and do a good job at your work. And he helps with an important mind shift away from thinking about the money you make and more toward maintaining an adequate amount of money that you then use along with your biggest resource, time, to make the most of your life.

However, while I liked his framing, and Ferriss definitely seems quite happy with his “4-Hour Workweek”, I can’t help but wonder how the folks who have to work with him feel. I mean, here’s someone who refuses to have meetings (yep, pretty much at all), answers phone calls with emails, and only checks email once a week. If I had to work with him that would drive me crazy. As would the fact that I’d always be dealing with his horde of virtual assistants based halfway around the world who he pays to do his work, rather than Ferriss himself.

I can’t really see many of his specific suggestions being anything I would want to implement in my own work life, and something about the attitude of using non-Western countries as platforms for “mini-retirements” and off-shoring personal work left me a bit sour — I’m sure Ferriss spends very little time thinking about privilege and what it means to have even a basic income and an American passport. His idea of “hitting rock bottom” means that you could always take out a second mortgage on the house you own or cash out some retirement savings, but a lot of people are nowhere near that high when they hit their bottom.

Basically he gets positive points for creativity and minus points for self-centeredness. But if you’re approaching it for a few productivity tips or a visioning framework it’s a worthwhile read.

3Stars23/5 STARS

Why I Can Only Read So Many Slavery Narratives

slave shackles

National Museum of American History via Flickr

I read Kindred a few months ago and had a hard time functioning normally for a couple of days afterward. The book followed Dana, a black woman from the late 1900s who is involuntarily drawn back to time travel onto an American slave plantation. On the plantation she experiences or witnesses all manner of indignities and injustice – she must contort her spirit to a back-breaking system to stay alive.

I had a similarly strong reaction reading An Untamed State, which, while not about slavery in the 1800s sense, was about modern day sex slavery of a woman kidnapped in Haiti.

Many people have recommend to me A Known World by Edward P. Jones, which does look like a fantastic book and I happen to own it now, but at the same time I’m finding myself reluctant to actually pick it up and read it. Why? Because, the setting of the novel is slavery, and sometimes I just don’t feel up to the emotional toll of reading another book about slaves.

When I was a kid, I lived in a city of very few black people. Most folks were white, some were Asian or Latino, and just a couple were black. I remember in class when we’d talk about slavery and all of the kids would turn to look at me, to see… I don’t even know what they wanted to see, maybe how I was handling it or to try and imagine what it would have been like if I were a slave. The word “slave” was thrown around on the playground as a joke to any other kid, regardless of color. I’m going to make you my slave! The point is, as a young person it was pretty traumatizing to talk about slavery, which meant that I didn’t really decide to think about it or process my thoughts about slavery until I was much older.

As I grew up I came to think about slavery in the Ta-Nehisi Coates sense, of how this one period of intense oppression, of physical and mental hurt has lead to systemic poverty and perpetual criminalization and marginalization of black bodies. Books and movies like Kindred reminded me of the intense servility and subservience that slavery forced upon African Americans. While we’ve now had decades of black pride and racial justice movements to try and recoup some of what we lost, during the time of slavery’s peak and Jim Crow you didn’t have a choice – you had to be obedient and obsequious to whites. Living in Oakland, with the strong history of the Black Panthers grounding my feet, this past is sometimes hard to reconcile with. Quite simply, sometimes, I just don’t want to visualize that subservience.

It’s not that I want to ignore my history or that I don’t think slavery narratives should exist. To the contrary, they are ABSOLUTELY important and I firmly believe in studying the history of oppressed communities. White people in particular need to understand slavery and the legacies it wrought. But for myself as a black woman, there is a point where I’m not sure what more I get out of slavery media. Do I need to see a man getting whipped naked in front of his children one more time? To read about another black woman being raped by her white master? When these scenes and moments are literally a part of my family tree, at what point do I get to look away for a moment to catch my breath? There are times when I just need a little space before I’m ready to go through the trauma of re-visualizing my ancestry. Never ever to forget, only to keep moving.

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (Review)

Love MedicineMy first introduction to Louise Erdrich was through her novel The Round House, which garnered a fair amount of critical acclaim, and which I think someone recommended to me. My second discovery of her was through Plague of Doves, which I read for a book club where everyone HATED it and I couldn’t have had a more opposite view. Recently I decided to read Love Medicine, giving myself a third dose of Erdrich.

What I love most about her books is her prose and story structure. She writes these sentences that come out like poetry sometimes — simple, but clear and metaphorical. As for her structure, Erdrich tends to write from multiple points of view throughout her work, invoking many voices of a single family or tribe to describe intertwined events and relationships. The only downside of that approach is getting a little confused between all the characters. I made liberal use of the family tree that she provides in the beginning of Love Medicine to figure out who was connected to who else and how. (A warning that the rest of the post contains some spoilers):

Love Medicine family tree

Several of the stories that Erdrich tells through Love Medicine called to me, but one particularly skillful section was her description of Marie Lazarre’s childhood. Marie temporarily joins a convent, and encounters a terrifying, yet magnetic mentor who changes how she views herself and the church forever. She later develops into somewhat of a matriarch of the Kashpaw clan on the Chippewa reservation, and Erdrich describes a fascinating relationship between her and Lulu Lamartine, another powerful female figure on the reservation who is involved at times with Marie’s husband.

Throughout the novel weaves the character of June Morrissey, who passes away in the first few pages of the work. We see her character expanded and nuanced through the eyes of those who loved and fought with her. Using June’s story to shape the rest of the work is another example of how well Erdrich is tapped into structure and metaphor.

The way that Erdrich dealt with gender was also interesting to me, as the Chippewa women in her work were in some ways bound to similar stereotypes as other women — seen as the ones to cook and clean, subject to being cheated on by men, etc. However, the strong matriarchal perspective complicated those truths with others, and reminded me of matriarchal strength in other cultures, as in many black families for instance.

So, while the threads of the different characters were challenging to keep track of at times, I’m glad to have read and enjoyed another of Erdrich’s works. I also want to push myself to read other Native American authors, and not rely on the voice of a single woman from one particular tribe as THE perspective on American Indian culture, as we are want to do at times. I look forward to expanding my horizons along those lines.

4Stars24/5 STARS