Posted in musings, quotes

the social underpinnings of racism: Trump and the 1950s

In the wake of Trump’s ascension to the presidency, a lot of people like me were left wondering how so many Americans could be so angry and feel so wronged that they were willing to tolerate blatant racism and misogyny in their leadership. There’s been a lot of confusion and a lot of anger, and not a lot of dialogue; each side tries to defend its beliefs by reciting wrongs against itself, or attempts to seize the moral high ground and demonize its opponents instead of listening to their grievances. It’s one of the reasons I’ve had to severely limit my social media time…

But as I was reading The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss, written before the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in the aftermath of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, I came across a passage that seemed quite relevant today:

First, prejudice is a contagious disease, as easily caught as measles, the babe from his parents, the school child from his playmates, the adult from his fellow workers and neighbors. To compound the social tragedy, prejudice once caught is hard to cure, since it unwittingly serves a number of morbid purposes. When a man is picked on by his boss, he can slam home and take it out on his family, and frequently does; however, a more socially approved outlet is to turn around and release the feelings of hate and anger on those of a minority racial group. If denied certain yearned-for opportunities and privileges, there is a devilish quirk within man which gives him perverse satisfaction in seeing that at least one segment of the population enjoys even less opportunities and privileges than he.

If a person feels socially or mentally inferior, has a persecuted feeling that society is crushing down on him, it is easy to bolster waning self-confidence by convincing himself, “At least there are whole groups of people socially, mentally, economically inferior to me.” Worse yet, he will try to keep minority groups in a deprived and subjugated position, to prove what his ego wants to believe.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have long told us that bottled-up feelings of aggression and anger can be dynamite to the happiness and well-being of the individual who refuses to recognize real causes behind his maladjustments. Multiply these fearful and emotionally tense individuals by thousands, by even millions, and you have social dynamite… Hostility will be exploded in any area where society permits it…

War has always been a socially glorified outlet for pent-up angers and frustrations of whole peoples. In America, our Negroes have provided another scapegoat, and so we have had race riots, Jim Crowism, and the Ku Klux Klan. On the West Coast first the Chinese, then the Japanese, provided another handy outlet for our inner tensions, and we have had discrimination in jobs and housing, an Orientals Exclusion Act, and the “relocation centers” of World War II.

The anger and other negative emotion of the dissatisfied people who voted for Trump is real. Many people felt disenfranchised, ignored, stuck in a world they didn’t ask for, unable to change their fate, feeling like their communities and families were broken. And Trump acknowledged those emotions when most other politicians were oblivious to them. Would these people on their own have decided to take out their anger on immigrants, women, and other minorities? I’m not sure; in many cases, I don’t think so. I know a lot of good people, who care deeply about human dignity and equality, who voted for Trump for one reason or another, trying to look past his faults. But Trump himself has most definitely established those groups as “acceptable” targets for the pent-up anger of anyone who feels ignored, overlooked, or under-appreciated; he has made them the scapegoat of the failures and frustrations of the majority.

Like it or not, whether you as an individual are racist or not, Trump has bolstered the cause of racism by making it more socially acceptable once again; he has directed the force of social anger towards some of the most vulnerable and unrepresented groups of all; he has given hostility a safe place to explode, and so set our country back in its fight against racism and for the equality of all. Racism is in so many ways a systemic issue, not an individual issue; that is why the attitude of the president is so powerful and influential. That is why it matters so much, especially now, to speak up against racism, to push social pressure against it as much as possible.

Posted in book lists

what I’ve been reading lately

After a rather long stretch of time in which I mostly reread my favorite fiction (Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter on repeat!) and kept up with the news and our church’s Bible-in-a-year plan, I have been diving back into the world of books. I realized that I have a lot of time in which I can read but not do much else (while Aubade is nursing, especially at night), but of course holding a book is complicated by said nursing… so I had been reading the news, surfing the web, and spending altogether too much time on Facebook, which was not helping my postpartum mood in the least. Then I remembered that all the libraries in my county have come together to create the Greater Phoenix Digital Library – meaning that more books than I have time to read are available on my phone, for free, with a simple app and the PIN from my library card. Honestly I’m not sure how I managed the boys’ newborn phases without this…

So, despite finding that a lot of the books on my wish list are checked out by other users of the library system, here are four books I’ve read this week that were completely new to me, in a variety of genres:

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou

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This is of course a classic, and most people who haven’t read it are still familiar with some of Angelou’s poetry, at least (I knew of her mostly through her poetry, to be honest – Phenomenal Woman makes the social media rounds fairly frequently, and I love it every time I read it). But for me, who grew up in an educated, well-off, white family, it was eye-opening to see the deep personal and emotional impact of both intimate individual hurts (like parental divorce and sexual abuse) and systemic oppression (like the racism and poverty Angelou faced herself and saw affect her community). Someone’s story can be far more impactful than all the statistics and social study lessons in the world, especially when told with the simple power and unpretentious elegance of Angelou’s writing. It’s not an easy read, because of the painful topics it deals with, but it is definitely worth reading.

The Family Nobody Wanted, by Helen Doss

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This is a memoir of quite a different type, although it touches on some of the same themes. Doss and her husband discovered as a young couple that they were infertile and that the demand for Caucasian infants to adopt was far greater than the number of babies available. So, in the 1940s and 50s, they built their family by adopting the unwanted children – children of mixed heritage who didn’t look “white” enough for mainstream American families to consider – and ended up with 12 children all together! The book is an honest look at their family life, addressing the racism directed at their children and family but mostly just full of hope and humor (I laughed out loud many times at the anecdotes Doss related – she is quite adept at capturing the funny side of disastrous moments as well as the dialogue of her young children).

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

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After reading two memoirs, I decided to switch things up and chose this post-apocalyptic novel after seeing it on one of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s booklists (in general, that is a helpful site if you aren’t sure what book to read next!). I don’t normally read this type of fiction because it is dark and suspenseful and keeps me up all night, and this was no exception… The basic premise is that a strain of the flu wiped out the vast majority of the world’s population, disrupting civilization to the extent that people are living without electricity, without medicine, scavenging and hunting to survive, holding on to what scraps of art and culture they can salvage, and falling prey to cults and prophets who offer some explanation for why so few survived. Mandel’s characters are diverse in personality and background, and the different ways they experience the pandemic (as well as the years before and after it) feel very authentic. I particularly liked how the threads of theatre, music, and literature wound through the characters’ stories without devolving into preachy passages about the meaning and value of those things in a broken world; the novel is far more about what it means to be human, and how humanity survives and even perhaps recovers from an event so utterly devastating.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

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Kristof and WuDunn examine the inequality of women in the developing world in a number of different arenas, including forced prostitution, rape (as a tool of shame or a weapon of war), maternal mortality and injury, and education. Each issue tackled is presented in light of the story of one or two individual women, spotlighting the problems involved as well as the complexities faced in addressing those problems; for instance, we see how difficult it is to truly free an underage girl from forced prostitution in the story of one young woman who returns multiple times to feed her drug addiction – which was in itself instigated by her captors and abusers. Some stories are inspiring; some are less so; and the statistics that they illustrate are often bleak. As a new mother myself, having experienced a labor (with my first) that would have resulted in death or serious injury without access to a surgeon, it is horrifying and saddening to read about women who have had similar experiences without the medical care available to me and others in the West. There is so much pain and death that could have been avoided. On the other hand, however, the book also shows us the stories of whole communities that have been improved by simple investments in education, or by deciding to take justice for women seriously. In addition to the stories and the statistics, a unique and valuable aspect of this book is the appendix listing specific organizations that are working in effective ways to address the issues faced by women in the developing world, to give the reader ideas of whom to support. I would encourage anyone – especially anyone who believes that things like rape and maternal care are only “women’s issues” – to read this book and see just how much communities can grow and heal when they come to realize that women, as in the eponymous proverb, “hold up half the sky.”

What have you all been reading lately? I’d love to hear your recommendations, since I have a short window of reading opportunity open right now!