finding a home for WHITE AND WORKING ON IT

Today Waxwing published my essay “White and Working On It.” The essay comes from my manuscript of the same name, a project that seems more and more timely with each passing news cycle. So to have this first published part of the whole in a magazine dedicated to “promoting the tremendous cultural diversity of contemporary American literature, alongside international voices in translation” is a perfect fit.

I tend to shy away from using the word “woke” because I’m not sure if it’s my word to use, and also because I believe I’ll work for the rest of my life on waking up. But I know that I was once sleep, filled with good intentions and love and a desire to “help people,” but fast asleep. Faulting people who have to yet learned what I’ve learned is unproductive and will never wake other up. So every time I see that “white women elected Trump,” I see no purpose in #notallwhitewomen. I know I’m part of the 40% who didn’t, but so what?

If we as a country truly wish to  confront our systemic racism, then we in the majority race need to reckon with our own identity. White people need to talk to each other about being white. And I’m trying to reach the biggest audience I can.

So what do you do with a large project that has defined purpose but no defined delivery method? Which to say, what do you do with a literary work that could be any number of things–a book, a serial web column, a workbook, etc…? Especially when said project challenges the identity of the largest book buying demographic? Which is also to say that agents and editors send me the most complimentary rejections.

So “White and Working On It” the manuscript is looking for a home, and I don’t know what kind of home it needs. But it is wonderful to know that at least this first seed of it, the essay that starts the whole project, has found at a place where it fits and can thrive.

Advertisements

Remarks from Lucy McBath’s visit to Moms Demand Action – Pittsburgh

On Sunday, August 27, the Pittsburgh chapter of Moms Demand Action welcomed a Mother of the Movement and national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety, Lucy McBath. Lucy lost her teenage son, Jordan Davis, in 2012. The case made national headlines as it was reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s, but in the end Jordan’s killer, unlike Trayvon’s, was brought to justice. 

Lucy McBath, Pittsburgh 2017

I spent a portion of my summer organizing Lucy’s visit, which included a screening of the documentary, The Armor of Light. We secured space by partnering with the Univ. of Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, specifically Dr. Steven Albert. The following are remarks I delivered to the crowd to start the event and introduce Dr. Albert.

“Welcome. I’m Jenny Ruth, the events lead for Pittsburgh’s chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America. Moms Demand Action started less than six years ago, and our local group is even younger than that. And as we work our way around the city, meeting survivors and community leaders and other people who just wake up in the morning and decide they’ve had enough, it’s clear that others have been hard at work addressing the public health problem of gun violence for a long time. We’re new to the fight but we’re bringing our own political power and weight to bear on the legislators and officials who make policies and craft the laws that govern our lives.

Right now we’re advocating for SB 501 that would require known domestic abuser to turn in their guns. In 2016 over half the people killed in PA were shot by domestic abusers. I encourage you to take a moment and sign a postcard for SB501 that’s in the lobby if you haven’t done so already. We’ll deliver them to legislators soon. We also want to stop the Guns in Schools bill that passed in the state senate earlier this summer, so when it rears its head in the House, we’ll tell yinz and mobilize to stop it.

In the year I’ve been involved in this fight, it’s become clear to me that when our communities look different, our gun violence problems can look different, but none of us are immune.

You may have come here today because you lost a loved one who took their own life with a gun; or because the young people of your neighborhood are taking each others’ lives with guns; or because you know a woman whose boyfriend or husband took her life with his gun; or maybe because you watch the news and have just had enough already. While all these reasons are important because they brought you here, the differences between them don’t really matter. Because as a member of our chapter, a pediatrician, says – when she sees a patient with a gun shot wound, it doesn’t matter if it was self-inflicted or accidental or from some fight on the street; they all look the same laying on her table.

There is not just one silver bullet that’ll take down our gun violence problems. It’s gonna take all of us, fighting on many fronts, to secure our safety. But there are more of us who care then there are gun lobbyists. There are more of us than their are politicians in the pocket of gun manufacturers. There are more of us than we even know, if we just find that one group or program that we can connect with and get to work.

With that being said, I’d like you to hear more about the work being done here by inviting to the stage our host, the Professor and Philip B. Hallen Chair of Community Health and Social Justice in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, Dr. Steven Albert. Lets give a round of applause.”

white responsibility on a day like today.

My dear fellow white Americans,

There’s some ugliness happening in our names today, and no matter how far you are from Charlottesville, VA, you cannot see yourself as removed from the situation. You’ve probably spent your whole life turning away from this kind of viciousness, but to what? So many of us feel we must make the false choice of either white pride or white guilt, and since neither is an attractive option we disengage, pretend we’re above the fray.

But we’re not. Embrace your responsibility.

Declare that these white supremacists in Charlottesville do not speak for you. Condemn them to your family, your friends, your colleagues, your classmates, your neighbors, and your elected officials. Don’t assume people will think today’s ugliness represents a minority of white people. White supremacists assume your silence is agreement. People of color will assume this too, and who will tell them otherwise if not you?

There are, of course, so many others things you need to do. The idea of all the work we must do together to heal this country is overwhelming, so let’s start small with this today. Share this as your social media, and then text RESIST to 504-09 and let your representatives in government know you condemn the hate masquerading as legitimate protest in Charlottesville today, and demand they publicly condemn it too. And if even this feel scary, like posting on your page will start some kind of argument with a family member or a friend you’d prefer not to initiate, understand that’s why you must do it. You can no longer sit in your sports chair and spectate. Justice is marching on.

When I Tried to Sell a Toy

Tonight a man, a stranger to me, began aggressively messaging me about an item I posted “for sale” on a Facebook group reserved for people in my town interested in buying and selling children’s items. It was 5:30 pm. I was attempting a dinner that would be ready when my husband arrived. I was on the phone with him, hearing about his day while he commuted home. My toddler and preschooler were trying very hard to “help” me. All the while this man was messaging me.

I saw his intial message and took a moment to respond “yes” the item was still for sale. He offered me much less than I asked for, and I continued chopping peppers while I considered it. But that was not good enough. He messaged me two more times, in less than a minute, upset I wasn’t responding. I waited a few moments and then told him I was cooking dinner.

He invited himself to my house. Again, I did not respond. 

As I took a rare moment to breath, sit, and eat, I received two more messages. He was trying to force an answer. My husband suggested a response and I made it. 

Then this stranger told me to choke on my food.



I am not afraid of trolls.

I posted these pics of our conversation in that FB group where I advertised a toy for sale. 8 women have commented. 4 support me. 3 say he was in the wrong but so was I; they suggest alternate ways I should have cooked/parented/eaten so I could have met his desire for quicker answers, different ways I could have responded so I would not have invited his rudeness. 1 is his wife.

I wrote to his wife that I pray he does not address her the way he addressed me when I displeased him.

I want to write to those other 3 and say “fuck off.” Or I want to write to them and say “I hope you know you are loved and never deserve a man’s wanton rudeness.” But I will do neither. 

I tried very diligently to ignore this. I put my phone in another room and concentrated on my children, focused on their joy and delight as I played and read to them. But this bullshit was behind my eyes, clouding my focus. I watched my kids through fogged glass. 

I am so tired of this bullshit, of random men ignoring my boundaries, the borders of humanity. But fighting it is less exhausting than surrender. I demand better.

where the white people are

Remember all those white faux-hippies from college who smoked tons of pot and really got into the nuances of it? Glass-blown vs. wood vs. metal bowls. Stinky orange buds vs. bright green with bluish crystals. Saying reefer vs. ganga vs. weed. Some of them grew older and landed good jobs that won’t be forgiving if they get arrested. They’re the craft brew nerds shifting America’s beer scene.

Tasting 3 Floyd’s Dark Lord 2017! No idea who that guy behind me is.

I spent the past weekend attending 3 Floyd’s Brewing Company’s Dark Lord Day, an annual release of their Dark Lord Russian Imperial Stout. 10,000 tickets are sold to the event that’s part bottle share, part heavy metal concert, half waiting in lines for food/beer/port-a-johns, and all fun. It was my second time attending, hubby’s sixth, and we love it.

At some point early in the day, while I’m letting the sheer force of crowd volume wash over me, I settle with the idea that I’ll be in very close quarters all day. I’m not used to it, and it can feel claustrophobic, so I need to down a good 15% ABV milk stout to make peace with it. And there was a unique flavor this year; I understood that acceptance including being okay with the all-white crowd.

I’m all good with white people, but a decade working in higher education–a world hyper-sensitive to cultivating visibly diverse environments–triggers a natural anxiety born of guilt when I’m in an all-white crowd. You have to also understand that I worked in recruitment communications, meaning I was not only part of the crew tasked with bringing diverse bodies to campus, but I had a hand in crafting the marketing material that showed how the college looked to those prospective audiences. Are there enough brown kids in this brochure’s pictures? Are they brown enough that the casual viewer will notice? Are there too many brown kids in this brochure? We don’t want to mislead people, but we do have enrollment goals to meet.

I kept feeling this guilt long after I left the world of higher education, feeling annoyed when it cropped up to remind me of the neuroses I inherited from the job. I asked myself a lot of questions, processing why I felt it was “bad” for an environment to be all white. If an environment was all black, I would respect that. My academic studies taught me that people in the minority need to spend time with people like themselves, that’s why any kind of successful integration is done in cohorts. So if I’m in an environment that’s all white, is that not my own kind of cohort? Is it okay for white people to have cohorts?

Our educational culture’s obsession with “diversity” initiatives is a noble pursuit, well intentioned but disingenuous. After all, “diversity” is usually a code word for “race,” and the results are measured by a simple accounting of colors in the crowd. Adding some people of minority races doesn’t make a place diverse any more than a rabbi attending church makes Sunday mass an interfaith service.

The trick to overcoming my anxiety is asking myself why the crowd is all white. Is it because people of color would not feel welcomed here? Or is it because this day, this event, this pursuit are just not something of interest to others? To find yourself at Dark Lord Day means you are 1) into microbrews 2) have hundreds of dollars to spend 3) have a desire to spend hundreds of dollars on said microbrews 4) have leisure time 5) want to spend that leisure time on pursuing obscure beer 6) enjoy being drunk, outside, around thousands of awkward strangers. The criteria whittles down to a very specific group of people. Most people of any color wouldn’t like this.

It took 43 minutes after the race started to reach the starting line. Good times.


The weekend before Dark Lord Day, I ran my 3rd half-marathon. The running world, specifically big city races, is also a white space. The world-class level of competition in  long-distance running its dominated by dark-skinned Africans. At the leisure level in America, the sport is mostly white. And as I run through our beautiful cities, I enjoy the spectators who cheer us on, the homemade signs along the way that say things like you’ve been training longer than Kim Kardashian’s been married or run like the cops found your stash or even you run better than the government. But then you run past signs that say hurry up, the Kenyans are winning and it’s not hard to understand why people of color are few and far between.

The whiteness of the running world has bothered me because I think us white people don’t make it a place people of color would want to be. That’s a shame, because running is awesome. You learn a lot about yourself several miles into a long run. Why would we want to keep people from accessing that?

There are some pretty cool initiatives dedicated to diversifying the running world. Black Girls Run is one. The after-school program, Girls on the Run, is another that values diversity and has councils serving young girls across the country in many different neighborhoods.

At this year’s Pittsburgh Half, I noticed an uptick in the diversity of participants. In my starting corral I looked around and thought “Wow, there are a lot of black people here, and that’s awesome!” It surprised me and made me happy, not because the crowd met some imagined quota, but because I don’t want people to feel shut out from things I love.

I was on my own, and I struck up a conversation with a woman of color standing next to me. It was her first half. She was nervous, and running partly because of a health challenge at work but also as a tribute to her mother who passed away the year before. I shared my own reasons for running, also related to my mother, and we wished each other luck. I also explained some of the starts and stops we were experiencing because the race starts in waves, and I know that’s confusing to first-timers. You hear a start gun, move a block, and then have to stop and wait for another 10 minutes. Your adrenaline gets the best of your.

I know that I would have chatted with whoever ended up near me, but I felt a responsibility in this case. I can’t control a whole crowd and ensure everyone feels welcome or has a good time. But I can have an impact in my own little sphere, and that’s what I tried to do. For everyone’s sake.

let’s eat cake

I read recently that when asked to associate a word with “chocolate cake,” Americans’ most commonly answered “guilt.” The French responded with “celebration.”

I ran the Pittsburgh Half Marathon this past Sunday, my third half thus far, and it got me hungry for sweets. I do not usually eat desserts because I’m more a savory gal than a sweets gal, but also because I know it’s “bad” for me; afterwards I feel like a failure. I started running five years ago as part of a weight loss journey that I’m now evolved enough to refer to as a “journey to health.” So it was totally weird when, in the middle of mile eight, a craving for something gooey and sweet and baked hit all of a sudden. It gnawed at my stomach throughout those last few miles. I twice ran past goofy spectators offering small cups of free beer because the through of that bitter drink was the opposite of what I wanted.

So I ate a banana at the finish line buffet.

The day after the race, I received word that an essay comprised of the opening to my book, White and Working On It, will be published this fall by Waxwing, the journal where I thought it would be most at home. It was amazing news, but only allowed myself a few hours to enjoy before scolding myself to get back to work on the query and proposal I’ll need to show agents as I shop the book around. Get to work, back to work, get to work.

Why am I so hard on myself? Why push so hard if I never allow myself a reward or even a celebration?

So I came to the bookstore tonight for coffee and some time for uninterrupted work, a kind of reward all on its own, and I added a piece of red velvet cheesecake to my order. If I’m gonna keep at this, I’m gonna eat the damn cake.


 

a conversation with the world

Book #1 is not yet put to bed–I’m in the process of selling it–yet book #2 is already here, forming inside my head, forcing itself out of me, filling the page with words, swelling my eyes with tears. What a strange and psychotic life this is to live as a writer. I did not know this is what it would become. Before this time, I was trying so hard to write, to be an artist who intentionally crafted a piece into existence. Now I am just a lonely person surrounded by the unformed and inconsequential prattle of children, and these books are how I have a conversation with the world.

taking my space

I had my choice of gyms when I moved to the Pittsburgh area, and I chose the local Y due to its indoor track. Three walls are windows, the glass extending to the beginning of the roof as well. In any weather you can run in natural sunlight and that does wonders for your soul.

The track is small–14 laps equals a mile–with three lanes and decent traffic. Signs direct runners inside and walks to the outer lanes. Its a familiar set-up, setting rules of etiquette I’ve followed in field houses across the East Coast.

The track circles around a basketball court and a large layout of fitness equipment like bikes and treadmills and Nautilus machines. And for some reason I can’t come to peace with, older white men love to stand on the inner lane and talk to their buddies using exercise equipment. Like every single damn morning. It’s not even the same one or two guys, but seemingly all of them in the Y at the same time as I’m running.

Its not like I haven’t experienced this before. Women are socialized to take up as little space as possible, always ceding it to the men around them. And men? I don’t think men are even aware of their own space let alone that of others. But you’d think a large, heavy-breathing woman running past them would signal a need of space.

I spent one run weaving around these men, zig-zagging into other lanes, almost colliding with walkers, and that’s all I could handle. I was so mad, so angry that more than one man was doing this one and off throughout my 30 minute run. And its not like they have to; in every situation the man could have moved to the other side of his buddy, to the side where there isn’t a track and human traffic rotating by. So I’ve stopped weaving, stopped risking injury to myself and others, in favor of taking my space back. I run and run and run, each time brushing the guy back until he finally moves out of the way. I get looks. I am met with reactions that communicate I am asking for too much. But it’s my space. I’m done giving way.

My all-white neighborhood of 50 houses is filled with polite people who treat each other with a comfortable distance. That is it’s all white save for the first house on the street, a house lived in by a language teacher and her Mexican husband, their child the same age as one of my own. We are friends, this family and mine. We visit and play and enjoy each other’s company. We know them better than we know anyone else here.

So shortly before they hosted several events for the husband’s students from the local university, and a kids’ art show for the neighborhood, they staked a small sign in their yard that says, “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in three languages. Days after all their hosting duties were done, their hospitality spent, they received an anonymous letter signed “Several of Your Neighbors.” It was toothy and biting and trashy in the way that anonymous letters are. It was about their sign.

While my friend has taken several steps to address the situation, to appeal to friendly neighbors for reassurance, it is a message hard to shake. The little bit of space her family takes up has not met with approval from all. So I’ve done the best thing I know to do; I’ve borrowed her sign. I’ve placed it in my own yard, symbolically annexing my space to hers, showing the world we are here taking up our space without apologies. I hope that every time the letter writer drives past, they feel my presence brush against them, sending the message to get back in their lane and make way.

Yesterday I Marched, 1/22/17

If you don’t believe in abortion,
I marched for your right to make that choice.

If you don’t believe in gun control,
I marched for your safety.

If you don’t believe homosexuals deserve equal rights,
I marched for your sins.

If you don’t believe people of color face discrimination,
I marched for your awakening.

If you don’t believe immigrants should live among us,
I marched for your neighbors.

If you don’t believe climate change science,
I marched for your air and water to be clean.

If you didn’t march because you thought marching was stupid,
yesterday I marched for you too.

wmw