Racism is Exhausting

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I’m a very diverse person. I come from both a Jewish and Christian background and I’m very interested in the Muslim religion and culture. I have been in many different churches of a variety of denominations, Messianic and reform synagogues, and mosques, including the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the third holiest site for Muslims, falling behind Mecca and the Dome of the Rock. I was taught from a young age to always respect people of other religions, cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds, simply because they are fellow human beings and deserve such.

This is why I’m always so taken aback whenever I run across racism, because the color of one’s skin is always the last thing on my mind.

I recently ran across an article that talked about white privilege in America. It claimed, among other things, that white people are born with a backpack of privileges that they have not worked for and do not deserve, but they receive it nevertheless, simply because they are white. This backpack of tools helps them achieve goals that minorities cannot even dream of reaching, the article went on.

I remember reading the article and blinking. Having just received my Bachelor’s Degree with a 3.9 GPA (and a healthy amount of student loans!) I would have loved to have been able to reach into this bag and pull out a treasure so that maybe I wouldn’t have had to work my tuchus off during the past four years. I’d love to possess it now as I attempt to find a good job so that I can pay for grad school in the fall, after taking out (yet another) student loan.

Now, let me be explicitly clear when I say that I understand that, having been able to go to college, receive my degree, study abroad, and go to grad school, I am in a minority. There are people who can only dream of attending college for a semester, let alone for the past four years as I have been able to do. I do not take that for granted for a second.

Having never been a racial minority, I also can’t address the issues they face. Racism is a real and ugly thing; I won’t even attempt to deny that. I can’t (and won’t attempt to) address what minority groups face, but I can say with certainty that I have not accomplished what I have simply because of the color of my skin. To say so about me (or any other white person) is racist, pure and simple.

At my school’s Partnership Dinner in April, I was blessed to have been invited and have the chance to listen to Ben Carson, a man I greatly admire and respect. His autobiography Gifted Hands details how he overcame his troubled youth in inner-city Detroit, growing up to become an incredible neurosurgeon credited as being the first surgeon to successfully separate twins joined at the head.

When asked about what it takes to become successful, his answer was one of the most encouraging answers that I filed away to remember when I become discouraged.

“A person can be born with the world handed to them on a silver platter. They can have every  privilege imaginable, but all of that is pointless if they don’t set goals and work tirelessly to achieve them. Similarly, people who are born with nothing, as I was, can achieve whatever they put their mind to if they work hard enough.”

His answer takes gender out of the equation.

It makes one’s religion a moot point.

It makes ethnicity irrelevant.

One of my professors had probably the best view on this touchy subject. She said, “There are a variety of ethnicities that can and should be appreciated for their beauty, but there is only one race: the human race. Sometimes, we forget that.”

We’re all from the human race. Let’s remember that and extend each other the love, grace, and respect that we all deserve, rather than tearing each other down.

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Book Review: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

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I have a love/hate relationship with Sherman Alexie. I adore him because of the talent he possesses. I cringe when I pick up any of his writings because I know I’m about to get punched in the gut. The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is no exception.

Sherman Alexie has a way of storytelling that makes the reader feel as though he/she is in the midst of the situation. He uses matter-of-fact language when describing circumstances that are based on his real life experiences. The tone he sets in his various stories does a good job at conveying the lot of American Indians.

This is especially seen in “That is what it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” Victor does not have the money for a plane ticket to Arizona. He is travelling there because his deceased father has a savings account to be claimed. His former friend, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, offers to lend him the money if Victor will take him along. They arrive to find the trailer, reeking from having contained his father’s dead body for over a week in the Arizona sun. Alexie describes the situation in an almost detached narrative voice that, surprisingly, actually lends more emotion to the story.

Alexie is also proficient at telling sad stories from his community with the absence of a whiny voice. Readers especially notice this when reading, “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” Alexie sets the stage as he does so frequently and skillfully and the reader is swept up in the story of Julius, a young boy playing basketball on the reservation. Through the voice of Victor, Alexie recounts Julius and his eventual downfall after he gets involved with alcohol. This is a particular strength of Alexie’s; he is able to use his pieces of literature to send the message about the destructive properties of alcohol without appearing preachy or judgmental. Alexie refers to Julius as being a figure of hope for the people on the reservation; Julius was a talented basketball player and wanted to go to college. People thought he could make it, but then he got involved with drinking. He describes it as a huge hurt and disappointment to everyone on the reservation, but no one is surprised because that is what they expect to happen.

That is perhaps the saddest aspect of Alexie and his writings: there is a cycle of helplessness in which the characters find themselves. In “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor recounts how his father was spit on at a bus stop, his mother was forcibly sterilized after he was born, and how his uncles had stashed crackers in their bedroom as children so they could have something to eat. He remembers his father crying on Christmas Eve because there wasn’t any money for presents. He frequently mentions how people on the reservation are stuck in a cycle of drinking and poverty and while some are apathetic about changing, others simply don’t know how. It is all they and the generations before them have known.

One thing to note about many of Alexie’s short stories is that he likes to have his characters regularly employ colorful language. Call me old fashioned, but this bothers me. While it can be argued that explicit language can be appropriate and useful depending on the character or situation, Alexie’s heavy and frequent use of extremely offensive words is a bit over the top. So many instances of vulgar language take away from the other language Alexie uses that is incredibly descriptive and actually cheapens his stories. It distracts from the message he is trying to send in telling them. His stories could be just as (if not more) powerful if the frequency of those words was reduced.

Book Review: Woman Warrior: Memoir of a Girlhood Among Ghosts

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Maxine Hong Kingston recalls stories from her past and recounts them in her work of creative non-fiction Woman Warrior. Her stories reflect the situations of women within the Chinese culture, as well as Chinese Americans living in the United States during the Chinese Revolution. She discusses explosive topics (particularly when they are paired with women) such as education, fighting, sexism, and family life. She tells stories from her mother’s past and effortlessly blends her autobiography with Chinese folktales in such a way that the reader could misunderstand and believe that it is purely an autobiographical story.

Maxine Hong Kingston opens Women Warrior with a story of her mother telling Kingston as a child to never talk about her aunt. Kingston’s aunt becomes pregnant while her husband is away at war, and Kingston’s mother recounts the story of what happened to her; the village is enraged and ransacks her house. She retreats and gives birth alone, after which she takes the child and jumps into the family well, committing suicide. Kingston ponders this story of the “No Name Woman”; she wonders if her aunt had loved the man, or perhaps if she was forced into the sexual relationship and had no choice in the matter. Kingston frequently talks about women and the gross injustice of the oppression they are required to face.

Kingston goes on to tell the story of the warrior Fa Mu Lan, essentially morphing into the character herself. She describes the training she endures, as well as the skills and intelligence that are needed to withstand the experiences that she does. It is interesting to note that Kingston chooses to tell this story in relation to the story of her aunt; the two women (Fa Mu Lan and her aunt) are so starkly different. While Kingston’s aunt (whose name we never learn because the family is trying to wipe out her memory) gives up rather easily and does not fight, Fa Mu Lan is a committed warrior who does not let her circumstances affect her or her attitude. Fa Mu Lan is brave, strong, and unhindered.

Kingston also highlights racism in her collection of stories. She is disappointed in herself because she cannot stand up to her racist boss, who frequently makes horrifying comments to Kingston. She wishes that she could be like Fa Mu Lan and bravely stand up to her boss, but she is not bold. She expresses her discomfort in whispers and squeaks, after which she is fired. Kingston is very bitter and angry about the racism she faces, and that reflects strongly in the way she describes and refers to Americans and the United States in general.

Kingston’s writings also have a very spiritual nature to them. She frequently refers to stories involving ghosts, spirits, and other paranormal activity. Kingston tells a particularly striking story involving her mother’s educational life, in which she faces and overcomes one of the ghosts that lurk in the halls. It is known as “The Sitting Ghost,” and Kingston’s mother lights buckets of alcohol and oil on fire in order to scare it away. Although it is not an explicitly Christian story, spiritual matters heavily influence Kingston while she is writing Woman Warrior.

Beloved: A Book Review

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Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved covers many different themes; she writes about revenge, racism, death/loss, self worth, relationships, and the importance of community. Her story tackles disturbing situations such as sexual assault, infanticide, slavery, and the mistreatment of human beings that borders on being torturous. She even touches on the supernatural with the aspect of the house being haunted by a ghost, which everyone believes to be the spirit of Sethe’s daughter. Perhaps the most significant theme Morrison touches on, however, is that of identity.

Many characters struggle in the story with the concept of their identity, taken away from because of the horrors of slavery. Baby Suggs, for instance, is confused when her former master is driving her to freedom. Her son has worked overtime on Saturdays, Sundays, and nights to be able to buy her freedom. Mr. Garner refers to her as Jenny Whitlow a few times, and she doesn’t understand why. He finally reveals that Jenny is her real name, not Baby Suggs, which she goes by because her husband was Suggs, and he called her baby. Mr. Garner tells her to go back to Jenny Whitlow when she is in the North because he tells her Baby Suggs is not a “real” name. It has become her identity and is what she had been called by her loved ones, however, and she continues to introduce herself as such even when she is a free woman in the North.

Stamp Paid, too, deals with identity. He renames himself after he has paid off all of his old debts because he feels as though his new name will more accurately reflect his character. He was originally born under the name of “Joshua,” but changes it because he wants a name that is solely his own. Unlike Baby Suggs, he does not have emotional ties to his name, but wishes to be completely freed from his past. His new name not only reveals what he believes to be his identity, but also helps him view himself as an entirely different person.

Paul D and his brothers represent the idea of identity, as well. Their situation deals more with the negative aspects of slavery; they are all named Paul, but are distinguished by the initial that follows: Paul D, Paul A, and Paul F. The fact that the three brothers all have the same name signifies how slavery swallows up an individual’s character to the point that the only difference between the three men is one letter. Readers learn more about Paul D and his character, but names are a significant part of one’s identity; Paul D and his brothers are denied that basic right.

Sethe is arguably the character in which the theme of identity can be seen the most strongly. When Beloved “returns,” Sethe’s identity becomes completely swallowed up in her, to the point that she has no distinctive character outside of her daughter. She is completely obsessed with Beloved, to the point that she is completely dumbfounded and disbelieving when Paul D tells her that she is her best thing, not her daughter. All of the brutalities she faces chip away at her until she is no longer Sethe; perhaps she does not even remember who Sethe is.

Toni Morrison tells a moving story and uses many different themes that broadly cover all of the atrocities that fall under slavery. Her writing shows how the dehumanization of humans leads to cruelty, rape, and the break up of families, and, in some situations, death. Many of the slaves also display a loss of individuality and defining characteristics, as well. Morrison rightly believes the loss of identity is just as much of a tragedy as these horrors, and her writing reflects that with many characters.

A Rant on Religion and Reindeer

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(Heck yeah, alliteration.)

Oh, religion. It’s such a funny thing.

I don’t like it very much.

Because here’s the thing: religion doesn’t save you. Religion doesn’t make you a good person. I’ve met Muslims who displayed the love of Jesus better than some Christians. I’ve been snubbed and disdained by Jewish people because of my belief in Jesus as the Messiah, only to be welcomed with love and acceptance by atheists.

I took a Diversity in American Literature class during the last semester of my undergrad. We talked all semester long about the danger and pointlessness of ethnocentrism: the belief that one’s culture is better than anyone else’s. As a culture, we frown at racism, sexism, and classism, but we don’t hesitate to damn each other to hell if our religious beliefs differ.

Do I have certain aspects of my belief system that I follow? Absolutely. I didn’t create this post to talk about those points. (Believe me, it’d take more than a post. I’m kind of complicated.) It’s also not to talk about salvation issues. This post is (going to attempt) to point out how stupid it is to mock other people because of their belief system.

I’ve never understood hating or mocking someone because of what they believe. I can disagree with someone (strongly!) and still be able to have an open, respectful conversation. I’m always blindsided when I overhear rants about stupid Christians and their barbaric belief in human sacrificing. I don’t understand telling atheists or Muslims or Catholics that they’re going to go to hell for their beliefs. It doesn’t solve anything. It just further alienates one human being from another.

I recently read a book in which two characters were talking about the discord between Palestinians and Israelis. “Why so much hate between relatives?” one questions.

“It’s because we haven’t learned much from the prophets and hardly anything about the rules of life,” the other responds.

“Then what’s to be done?”

“Give God back His freedom. He’s been hostage to our bigotries too long.”

Here’s the deal:

I’ll respect someone’s views as an atheist.

I won’t respect the fact that he/she shames, berates, and mocks people who do believe in God.

I’ll respect someone’s views as a Christian.

I won’t respect the fact that he/she self-righteously condemns other non-Christians, going against everything Jesus stood for.

I’ll respect someone’s views as an _______ (fill in the blank with any religion)

I won’t respect the fact that he/she supports extremist ideas or beliefs that injure themselves and other people, or views certain individuals as lower than others.

I’ll respect reindeers.

I won’t respect the fact that they bully and exclude another reindeer simply because of his red, shiny nose.

It’s as simple as that.

Funny in Farsi: A Book Review

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I have always had a heart for for people who are marginalized, mistreated, and abused. My own writing frequently reflects this. I also love reading about different cultures and religions. These are a few of of the (many) reasons I appreciate Firoozeh Dumas and her book Funny in Farsi.

 

Funny in Farsi

Funny in Farsi

 

Firoozeh Dumas’s memoir Funny in Farsi is enjoyable to read for multiple reasons. She is able to convey her frustrations and the unfair treatment she received as a new immigrant to the United States while using humor, without seeming bitter or hostile. She is very balanced in her storytelling, particularly when she is careful to include and show empathy for other cultures that are frequently marginalized, particularly the Mexican community, which she lived near growing up. Dumas also has a very open minded attitude, which shines through when she is telling stories of her slightly eccentric, but very loving and supportive family.

Dumas expresses the racial profiling and stereotyping, as well as just pure ignorance, that she had to face in America growing up when she tells her stories, particularly in the essays “Bernice” and “The F Word.”  In “Bernice,” she talks about people not knowing what country she was even from, as well as how her French husband is admired while she faces hostility when Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Tehran. She is able to express her thoughts on the subject gracefully and tactfully, without racially profiling the Americans, but still able to clearly convey her position. She uses humor in “The F Word” in the way she writes the barrage of questions that she would frequently receive about her name. Her choice of writing the questions in a run-on sentence was a very effective way of showing how she would be ambushed. She is brutally honest and transparent, however, in expressing the vulnerability she felt when going by both an American name and her Iranian name. She is very skilled at expressing honesty through comedy.

Perhaps one of Dumas’s most touching essay is “I-raynians Need Not Apply.” Although her characteristically dry humor is still present, it has more of a sad tone that some of her other essays. In it, she expresses the struggle her family endures when they first move to America a few weeks before the American hostage situation in Tehran. Her father loses his job and struggles to find one again until the hostages are released. She uses her normal comic wit when relaying her father’s disgust towards her view of politics, but the most striking feature of this essay is the way it ends. All of Dumas’s other compositions end with an amusing quip or humorous quote from her family; “I-raynians Need Not Apply,” ends on a serious note as Dumas quotes her father’s view on how tragic it is for people to hate.

In “The Wedding,” Dumas portrays her family realistically; they are very involved, slightly controlling, and want to run her entire wedding. An interesting thing to note, however, is that even though she describes her family with a mixture of love and exasperation, her relatives are by far the more preferable choice when compared to those of her husband. Her mother-in-law refuses to accept both Dumas and her family, simply because they are Iranian. The traditional Muslim ceremony she had with her family members seems more meaningful and heartwarming than the ceremony she has with his family in a church. Dumas is very careful, however, not to bash her husband’s side of the family, even though they did not approve of her marrying their son and made no secret of that fact.

In all of her essays comprising the book as a whole, Dumas is very open and honest but avoids being bitter. This a mark of a talented writer, and perhaps her greatest strength.