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.

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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

publication news

Gravel, produced by the MFA program at the U. of Arkansas-Monticello, accepted a short piece of mine for their All Trumped Up blog series of election responses. Check it out.

This piece marks the second time I’ve published a piece that includes the use of Centralia, PA as a metaphor for much more. I don’t know what that means, exactly, but it’s interesting to see a trend in my own writing.

Vote Damnit

Online this weekend, a Trump supporter mocked my disabled mother because she dislikes that Trump makes fun of disabled people. Thinking about that motivated me through 4 hours of Get Out The Vote canvassing for Hillary. I’m scheduled to do much more in these last 4 days of the 2016 election season.hrc

I think Trump’s greatest fraud is conning
Americans out of their sense of decency, and I can’t wait to vote on Nov. 8.

crying at Costco

You can remember what someone looked like, how something tasted or felt, but you don’t remember a smell until it hits your sensory receptors like a static electric shock.

So there’s me, today, at Costco making my way towards the bread. The store’s just opened, air’s blasting through the bakery with a hint of cinnamon hitching a ride, and when it hits me I’m dropped back in time, short little kid me, opening the door to the Greencastle Ruritan’s kitchen to find my grandmother and her friends preparing food for an event. Maybe it was an estate auction, or an extended family reunion, or a distant relative’s funeral. It didn’t matter if the occasion that brought my family to the community center was a celebration, a sale, or a mourning, it meant I’d get to see my grandmother and play with my cousins in a side room where kids wouldn’t bother the adults.

That’s how I came to be the lady crying over pies at Costco. For a moment I remembered how life used to be, who used to be in it. My toddler daughter looked at me from her seat in the cart and I realized she and my son are at the age where these very same kind of memories are being formed. I told her what I was feeling, kissed her on the forward and then blew air in her hair she she’d squeal and laugh and push me away.

And then I bought a giant bag of Halloween candy and everything was right again in the world.

adjectives matter

Adjectives. Remember learning about those in elementary school? We are a diverse collection of humans who employ countless adjectives to describe ourselves. Each one important yet unable to represent all that we are. To name a person as solely an adjective is to deny their humanity.

That’s why “she is a transgendered woman” is acceptable, but “she is a transgender” is not. “The black community” works, but “the blacks” makes you sound intolerable (looking at you, big Donny J. Trump).

If you find yourself in need of a label and not sure what to use, remember we all start as people.