How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.

What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

This is turning into a month of listening, for me.

After the controversy erupted over J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans people, I realized how little I actually know about that side of human experience. Where did these new pronouns come from? What’s the difference between transsexual (which has been around since I was a kid) and transgender? Why nonbinary?

So I decided to start with digging into pronouns. Because a) I’m a grammar nerd, and b) Getting more comfortable using new or different pronouns is a concrete action I can take, right now.

And I’m glad I did! This book is a delight, a quick read that doesn’t skimp on the details.

For example, I had no idea of the controversy over generic he that raged in the US and UK over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Suffragettes like Susan B Anthony argued that if he covered women when it came to paying taxes and being arrested for crimes, then it covered them when it came to voting, too.

This passage, in particular, struck me as completely bad-ass:

If, for instance, in a penal law there are no feminine pronouns, women should be exempt from the penalties imposed. And if men are to represent woman in voting, let them represent her in all. If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.

She (and suffragettes throughout the nineteenth century) lost that argument, and the argument that the fourteenth amendment covered women, since it used not he but persons and citizens.

Which is why the current discussion over the ERA — where detractors insist the fourteenth amendment already covers women — is so specious. There’s hundreds of years of American jurisprudence that says otherwise. We absolutely need an explicit amendment that grants women full and equal rights.

As even this one example, shows, arguments over pronouns go back a long way.

Calls for a new “gender-neutral” pronoun go back three hundred years (!).

Use of the singular they in just that manner go back seven-hundred years! It was never accepted by grammarians, but it was used in print and daily speech all the time.

Baron traces all of this history — the legalities of the generic he, the rise of new pronouns, etc — and links it together, showing how the current debates about pronouns and trans rights echo debates we’ve had down the centuries. Every time, the side of “existing usage” is really on the side of weaponizing grammar to suppress certain populations.

That’s a side I don’t want to be on.

If you’re at all curious about where the “new” pronouns have come from, and why using the right pronouns is so important, I highly encourage you to read this book.

Or if you’re already onboard with explicitly asking for people’s pronouns (and sharing your own), and just like language, I’d still recommend it, as a fantastic and informative read.

So: What’s your pronoun? I’m he/him/his 🙂

The Right Way to Do Wrong, by Harry Houdini

Disappointingly, this is not the full original text. It’s been trimmed down by almost half, and then padded out with other articles Houdini wrote.

Still, what’s left behind is fascinating. Lots of great stories of scams and burglary, from using chewing gum to steal jewels to having a confederate hide in a checked trunk in order to steal from a “locked” luggage compartment. Many good story ideas buried in here.

You can see why Houdini was so fascinated by the techniques of thieves and con-men. So much of their work involved mis-direction and slight of hand, the same techniques he used as a magician.

You can also understand why he went after mediums and psychics so hard: They were using those same techniques of magic, but not presenting themselves as magicians.

Thus they were not only defrauding the public, but casting legitimate magicians like himself in a bad light. Because they were frauds, and so when they were discovered — which they almost inevitably were — they made reputable magicians like himself look like frauds, too. Better that he unmask them, to make the difference more distinct.

So, a good book, still, though far too short. I’ll have to track down a complete version at some point.

The Indian World of George Washington, by Colin G Calloway

This is the kind of American history I wish they’d taught me in school.

It’s a story of intrigue, of diplomatic maneuvering between dozens of nations. Of military campaigns won and lost. Of peace betrayed and hope rekindled.

I would have eaten this stuff up. Did eat it up, when presented with the history of Europe in the Middle Ages or Japan’s Edo Period or China’s Warring States.

(Okay, so the latter two I only got exposed to via video games, not school, but still)

But teaching me this version of American history would have forced adults around me to acknowledge our part in this struggle. And most of the time, we were the villains.

We made treaties with Native American tribes, swearing to abide by some border line, and then promptly set about settling past that line. We struck deals with the leaders of individual villages and then insisted whole tribes adhere to them. And when those tribes refused to sign new treaties with us, establishing new boundary lines, we invaded, burned their villages to the ground, and slaughtered their people.

And Washington was at the heart of all of this.

As First President, he established the policy of buying Native American land when we could, and killing them all if they wouldn’t sell. He also pushed them to become “civilized,” which in his mind meant dropping their own culture — including their sustainable agriculture, their religion, and their gender roles — and adopting settler culture wholesale.

Why would he do this? Because he speculated in Native American land, buying up the “rights” to tracts that hadn’t been formerly ceded by any tribe. He needed those boundary lines pushed back, that land cleared of Native Americans, and then settled by Europeans, if he was to recoup any profits.

This is the part of American history that has white squatters fighting both Native Americans and elites back east for their “right” to seize land.

The part that has our very first treaty under the Constitution negotiated with a Native American tribe.

The part that has Washington taking time out of the Revolutionary War to have three armies loot and pillage their way through Iroquios territory, destroying crops and peaceful towns as they went.

And its the part that shows the Native Americans as what they were: A free people, with their own politics and divisions, struggling to deal with the invasion of their lands. Some sought peace, some wanted to fight, and some moved rather than deal with the Europeans. But all of them thought of themselves as their own nations, with control over their own territory, and their own sovereign rights.

Something Washington never conceded to them, and he embedded that denial in our relationships with the tribes from the start.

This sort of history is complicated, and Calloway does an fantastic job sorting through it. Amazingly, he condemns Washington’s mistakes without finger-wagging.

It’s enough to relate them truthfully. The First President condemns himself.

Goliath, by Matt Stoller

We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.

We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.

We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.

But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.

Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.

The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.

The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.

Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.

Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.

But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.

I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.

And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.

Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.

And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.

If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.

It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.

Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.

Political Tribes, by Amy Chua

A frustrating and ultimately disappointing book, with some flashes of insight.

Let’s start with the good things.

Chua’s argument that US foreign policy often operates blind to ethnic tensions in other countries, which leads to horrible mistakes, is spot-on. The chapters looking back at past conflicts through that lens are informative; I never realized there was a racial element in the Vietnam war, for example (most of the wealth of the country was controlled by an ethnic-Chinese minority, before the war). And I didn’t realize how much the Taliban are an ethnic group (majority come from one tribe) rather than purely a religious movement.

She also has some good points to make about how tribalism operates in the US, with each group feeling attacked on a daily basis.

But her prescription for fixing things boils down to “talk to each other,” because she’s also missed some fundamental things in her analysis.

Over and over again, she talks about the “historically homogeneous” countries of Europe and East Asia, contrasting them with the “unique” experience of the United States as “the world’s only supergroup.”

Never mind that no country is, or has ever been, ethnically homogeneous. Never mind that ethnicity itself is, like race, an invented concept, something we pulled out of a hat and pretended was real.

And never mind that the US is not unique in being a society made up of immigrants plus an oppressed aboriginal population.

So she can’t say more than “we should talk to each other,” because she has no sense of how every “ethnic state” was created by violence and death. That Germany (!) was not ripe for post-war democracy through some accident of ethnic purity, but was purged of other groups deliberately by the country’s government and people. That even the concept of being “German” or “French” or “Chinese” is an invented thing, something hammered into people by a government that wanted them to stop being Provençal or Bavarians or Hmong.

And that the United States has never been a peaceful supergroup, but a vehicle for a group of people that call themselves “white” to ethnically cleanse and oppress all others. The “good old days” of “group blindness” she pines for in the final chapters never existed.

So she can’t see ethnicity itself as the problem, because she takes it as a given, a fixed construct. A solution where we break down the concepts of “white” and “black” into their components, or ditch them altogether to adopt identities built around our cities and states, can’t even be conceived in her framework.

Which is too bad, because her book is otherwise well-argued. We need her type of analysis, to be sure, but we also need more awareness of history, of how the divisions we take to be absolute today were invented, and can be remade.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott

Is there anything better than opening a book to find the author is speaking directly to you? It’s like discovering an old friend you’ve never met before. Someone you just click with, who warms every cockle of your old heart.

That’s what I felt, reading Bird by Bird.

Lamott’s willing to be vulnerable, to show not only her worries and her fears, but also her jealousies and her anger, her depression and her rage. It makes the book feel more human, to me, than other writing advice books. More humble.

And more realistic. Lamott insists over and over again that writing is wonderful, that when the words come together it’s one of the greatest joys she’s ever known, but that doing the work needs to be enough on its own, because publishing — whether getting rejected repeatedly, or getting accepted and dealing with the disappointment that comes when your work doesn’t get the attention you crave — is not the path to happiness for a writer.

So for her, it’s the triumph of getting in the day’s word count that matters. Or the knowledge that the book you wrote for your dying father was done before they passed, so they got to read it. Or the thought that writing about your own struggles, your own pain, can help someone else who’s going through the same thing.

For me, her book has been like a stay in a remote cabin with a good friend. Relaxing, conversational, but also deep and moving. I’ve already incorporated a lot of the techniques she advocates, from focusing on getting one single thing down to staying in the chair until the words come.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

It’s difficult to think of myself as privileged.

Growing up, our family car was one donated to us by the local church, because we couldn’t afford one.

The only house we could afford was one at the very end of a dirt road so badly cut out of the weeds that the school bus wouldn’t go down it, so I had to walk a mile or so to where the dirt track met a farm road.

I always started the school year with sore feet, because we couldn’t buy new clothes for me, and last year’s sneakers, once so roomy, were now so tight that I couldn’t run in them, lest my arches feel like they were breaking.

But I was privileged, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

When I was 16, and walking home from work after midnight, the cops didn’t stop and frisk me. They didn’t arrest me for breaking curfew. They didn’t demand proof of the job that kept me out, proof I could not have provided right then, in the dark, on the street.

Instead, they drove me home.

When I was in college, smoking weed in a parked car, the police didn’t come up on me in the night, rip me from the vehicle, and put me away for possession and intention to distribute.

And as an adult now, if I change lanes without signaling, or do a California Roll through a stop sign, I don’t have to worry about the police doing anything more than giving me a ticket, if they even decide to pull me over.

If any of these things had happened to me, my life would have been derailed. My job working for the federal government could not have happened. I would not have been able to finish college. I would have been branded a criminal, and locked out of the upward mobility I’ve experienced.

I have been privileged, then, because I have been allowed to succeed.

But millions of Americans with a skin color different from mine are not allowed. And it’s something that was invisible to me, until very recently.

I didn’t know that the police have the power to stop and frisk anyone they even suspect of being engaged in illegal drug activity. That they can give the most implausible of reasons to search someone, or their car, or their luggage, without a warrant. And that given this immense power, they choose to use it not on the majority of criminals who are of European descent, but on African- and Hispanic-Americans.

It frightens me, to think of how lucky I was not to be caught up in the Drug War. And it worries me, to see the same excuses that have been used for thirty years to lock up millions of African-Americans now turned onto those trying to enter this country in search of a better life for their families: They’re branded criminals, stripped of rights because they supposedly came in “the wrong way,” told they’re “jumping the line” and have only themselves to blame for the hardships they face once they’re here.

It’s lies, all of it, and it breaks my heart that my own family, who in a different century would have been the subject of the same lies, swallows them whole.

If this conception of privilege surprises you, if you know that most criminals are dark-skinned but think poverty is to blame, or if you think justice in the United States is in any way color-blind, then I urge you to read this book.

The New Jim Crow is not a polemic. It is not a screed. It is a well-research, well-written account of how we’ve given the police enormous powers in the name of winning the Drug War, and they’ve turned them on the most vulnerable and most oppressed segment of our society. It’s essential reading, especially as we enter a new election cycle and debate what sort of government we want.

News & Reviews: August 6, 2019

News

HUGE NEWS this week: I sold my first short story!

And to a professional, SFWA-qualifying market, no less!

More details as they shake out, but I’m over-the-moon pumped. The story’s one I’ve been working on for three years (!), revising, polishing, and submitting.

Many thanks to my friends that suffered through reading all those drafts, and offered me the feedback I needed to make the story shine!

Reviews

Finished off two books this week: Persian Fire and Paper Girls, Vol 1.

Persian Fire, by Tom Holland

One of the best examples of narrative history I’ve ever read. Holland is simply a great writer, so that despite some repetition and over-reliance on certain turns of phrase, I sped through its 350+ pages.

And it illuminated aspects of ancient Persia and Greece that I didn’t appreciate before. Like how Sparta trumpeted equality for everyone except for those living in the cities they conquered (who were turned into slaves, one and all). Or how democratic Athens regularly held an ostracism, so they could kick out a citizen who was getting too powerful (or causing too much resentment among other citizens). Or that the King of Persia considered all his subjects his slaves, and yet left them to worship their own gods, and mostly govern themselves, so long as they paid tribute.

I wish it’d gone more into a subject it teases in the Preface: How would Greece have fared if Xerxes had conquered it? Given that the Persian Kings were considering letting the Ionians (subjects of the empire) govern themselves democratically, how much of Western history would have been different?

Holland does go into detail about the Persian empire (origins, revolutions, etc), which is a great corrective to the usual Greek-sided way of telling this story. But he leaves one of his most tantalizing questions unexplored, which is a tragedy.

Paper Girls, Vol 1, by Brian K Vaughn, Cliff Chiang, Matt Wilson, and Jared K Fletcher

Picked this one up partially because of Vaughn’s work on Saga, and partially because of the clean, comprehensible art style.

And now I have yet another Image Comic (like Monstress, and Saga, and Wicked + Divine, and…) that I’ll pick up every chance I get.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that it’s set in 1988, it follows four pre-teens on their paper route one early morning, and that things rapidly get…weird. Like, time-travel and possible aliens and dinosaurs weird.

It’s fantastically well-done. Its creative team is firing on all cylinders: the story is strong, the drawing clear and easy-to-follow, the colors manage to invoke both the 80s (to me, anyway) and the various locations (early morning outside, dark basement, etc) and the lettering conveys everything from a radio’s static to a drunken warble.

Which reminds me, I need to go pick up Vol 2 🙂