An Anti-Racist Writing Classroom

The way I teach writing is racist.

That is a hard sentences to write, and an even harder statement to reverse, but I’m going to try. 

I’m an adjunct English instructor at a community college. What that means is that I work hard for my students for low pay and no voice into how writing gets taught except in my own classroom. And for the past several years, I have taught Composition only online and only in an 8-week format instead of the normal 16-week semesters. Honestly, the class I teach is not the best for our student population who tend to do better with in-person classes. I also think it is unreasonable to ask anyone to truly learn anything about writing in eight short weeks. But the college didn’t ask me when they created online and shorter courses in attempt to boost retention. The class that I teach works well for some students, but many others struggle. That being said, I loved creating an online course for my students that focused on learning about writing and the process of writing rather than being too focused on the end product — or at least, that is what I thought I’d been doing. But after a summer of reflection, I think my good intentions and the realities are very different. 

This summer I also challenged myself to learn how to become an anti-racist educator, so I read a book called Anti-Racist Writing Assessment Ecologies by Asao Inoue. It was about as much fun to read as it sounds (it was very dense). I definitely had to brush up on my Marx and Foucault, but I learned a lot, and learned that I have a lot of work to do.  I also felt a bit disheartened because, like everything else in this world, what I love to do is steeped in system racism, a fact I am only now discovering.

There is a lot of pedagogy to unpack in this post, so sit tight.

One of Inoue’s main arguments is that what composition courses have traditionally taught students is to inhabit the “white” way of writing, which is not to be confused with the “right” way of writing. In order to understand this, we need to ask some fundamental questions. Who gets to decide what language is deemed proper or professional? Why is one “English” considered better than another? Why is African American Vernacular English (Ebonics) considered unprofessional even though it is governed by grammatical rules and does not hinder communication in anyway? 

The short answer: white supremacy.

As an example of why language is steeped in racism, Inoue explains, “Black people are not discriminated against because some speak a variety of Ebonics — rather, I argue, Ebonics is stigmatized because it is spoken primarily by Black people.”

Inoue calls the “white” way of writing a “white racial habitus” because it informs the entire way we see the world and not just the way we write. He spends a lot of time in his book (to the point of redundancy) making sure we understand this fundamental point. He also makes sure to emphasize that being cognizant and aware of these racial differences in language does not mean that we just ignore teaching what he calls the “dominant discourse.” We should teach students how to use the grammar and punctuation rules of Academic English, but we should also recognize where Academic English originates and why it might be harder for some students to write in that English.

Now, his book is not focused on the way we teach writing, necessarily, but on the way we assess writing. When students arrive in our classrooms, they do not arrive with the same set of language experiences. I very often have multilingual students and a fair number of Black students whose primary “English” is African-American Vernacular. When we judge all students by the same English standards, that creates equality, but not equity. 

Paul Kuttner @

According to Inoue, “This project (to assess everyone by standards of the same discourse, the same English) is an inherently racist project.” 

However, I think many teachers, myself included would balk at this statement. How are we meant to assess mastery of writing skills if not to judge everyone by the same standard? Though the idea that grades should be based on the “one right way to write” is changing in the composition field with a focus on end-of-semester portfolios that mark growth, most writing teachers are still focused on the end product — the final draft — to show evidence of how skillful a student’s writing has become. But there have been many studies that show focusing on the end product does not truly show evidence of learning, nor does it capture how much effort went into that writing product. But how do we then determine an A paper from a C paper? Inoue’s short answer — we don’t. Our focus should be less on comparing students to the dominant discourse and more on helping students think like writers. We should disconnect quality of writing from grades that can have larger effects on a student’s academic career and life. 

Inoue proposes a different way: instead of assessing students on the quality of their work, he grades on the labor involved in that work. Inoue explains, “Our most important asset is the labor we do now, the effort we expend on rhetoric, not our nature gifts, or our racial habitus. Adjusting our assessment systems to favor labor over the gifts of racial habitus sets up assessment ecologies that are by their nature more ethical and fairer to all.” The focus here is on the process of writing rather than the product of writing. He is suggesting that we grade students based on their effort and not their product.

But how do you capture and assess labor? Inoue requires students to complete labor journals explaining what they did and then reflecting on that labor, whether it be reading, drafting, critiquing, or writing. His students end up writing A LOT, perhaps more than in a conventionally graded course.  At first it seems downright backwards to grade students based on quantity rather than quality, until Inoue gets into the details of how he performs his assessments. Just because he is not grading for quality, doesn’t mean his feedback isn’t focused on quality. He explains, “The white racial habitus is not a standard by which students must write up to or be judged against, but is understood as a direction everyone heads toward at their own pace and in their own ways. Most important, it is the heading toward, the movement, the ‘flow of becoming,’ that is the basis of measuring and grading in antiracist writing assessment ecologies. Because ecologies are fundamentally about change, movement, and actions, judgments about student labor (the engine of movement and change) might best be used to determine things like grades and define expectations for work.” His course is focused on molding writers, and having them go through the moves that real writers make, without penalizing them for taking risks and possibly failing in a writing endeavor because it is those failures and mistakes that are required for learning. These days, students are so focused on grades (because we have taught them to focus on these markers), that actual learning is not deemed as important. If I had it my way, we wouldn’t grade students at all, but in a world focused on competition that seems like a naive dream.

Another part of Inoue’s work that intrigued me is that he had his students create their own rubric for how their work would be judged. Not only is this a great learning opportunity, but it gives students agency. However, I am unsure how to make this work in a short, online format. The students appreciate having clear guidelines of my expectations in the form of a rubric, but it would be much more powerful for them to collectively create their own. 

Inoue never states that his particular way of teaching is the only way to create an anti-racist classroom; it is simply the way he has come up with. I am eager to figure out how to create a labor-based grading system in my classroom, but I know that what I come up with will likely fall short because of the constraints I must work within. For example, Inoue based this book on one experimental semester of an upper-class writing course. I teach the basic writing course for first-year students. Inoue uses much of his class time to discuss and peel back the why’s of writing with his students. I’m not sure I can recreate that in an asynchronous online format. But this book does at least give me a place to start my thinking. I also like his pedagogy because not only is it anti-racist but will actually enhance learning.

However, for teaching writing to become an anti-racist endeavor, this movement must go further than with my classroom alone. Later this semester, I am slated to talk with a few other instructors about this book and anti-racist teaching in general. I hope that will garner some much needed discussion about this topic. Teaching and teaching in higher ed specifically can be a very solitary endeavor for an adjunct. I rarely get to see or talk with other colleagues, so books have become my teachers, but I would love to learn from other teachers too. So, if you are a teacher (or not) and interested in anti-racist teaching, read the book (it’s free) and discuss it with me.

An antidote to despair

I am livid. Not only are people of color, especially African Americans more likely to die from COVID-19 because of institutional racism like housing segregation (forcing people of color into dangerous living situations). But in the midst of this national crisis, we are also forced to witness the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Two of these innocent human beings were murdered by cops and the last by a former cop and his son. 

Sometimes it can seem like all we can do is give in to despair. And I am a white person who feels that way. I can’t imagine how people of color feel. 
I don’t know how to fix the racism inherent in the police force. But I can do my best to continue educating myself on how this problem came to be. Be the Bridge has an excellent resource of books, podcasts, and movies to help us educate ourselves.

We can also donate to causes that directly help black and brown people in our neighborhoods. One such cause that has become close to my heart is Abide Women’s Health, operating in Dallas where the maternal mortality rate of black women is much higher than white women. Their goal is “to improve birth outcomes in communities with the lowest quality of care by offering healthcare and complimentary services that are easily accessible, holistic, evidence based and free from judgement.” I have donated to this organization before but decided that it was high time I contributed again.

Nothing can bring back Floyd, Breonna, or Maud. But we can help black and brown babies and their families to thrive in our city.

A White Girl Gets Woke: Little Fires Everywhere…especially on IMDB

After watching a movie or TV series, I’m the kind of person who looks through to read the trivia, reviews, and to see what else the actors have done that I might be familiar with. I don’t know why I do this. Maybe its because I don’t want to leave whatever immersive world I had inhabited while watching, and this is a weird way of being in that world a little longer. But why I do it doesn’t really matter. 

So after I finished the limited TV series Little Fires Everywhere, I scrolled through IMBD as usual. I hadn’t read the book before watching the series, so I learned that one of the main characters, Mia, had an unspecified race in the novel. In the show she was played by a black woman, Kerry Washington. Ms. Washington is probably best known for her lead role in Scandal, but I recognized her as Chenille from Save the Last Dance, a movie released the year I graduated from high school (2001). So I have obviously not followed Kerry Washington’s career very carefully, but I thought she was great in the role of Mia.

However, as I started to read reviews for the show, I was struck by how many were about Kerry Washington’s lack of acting skills (apparently she only has three expressions?). Even stranger, most of the reviews barely commented on the show itself, preferring to disparage Ms. Washington instead. As a person who reads IMDB reviews regularly, I couldn’t remember the last time so many people panned one specific actor in a show or movie. I hate reposting these reviews here, but I think I need to in order to make my point.

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As I scrolled, I struggled to find one that didn’t comment on how bad her acting was. I started to think, “Am I bad judge of acting ability?” Maybe she does have her go-to facial expressions as seen in other shows (but so do I lot of actors). I just don’t think her acting warranted this many bad reviews. 

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And then I got to this review:

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I think it was the comment that she was “angry and racial” that made me stop and realize that there was more going on here than people not liking a certain actress. I think most people are conflating Ms. Washington with her character. And let’s talk about that character (Spoilers below): Mia is a black artist, single mom to teenager Pearl, and newcomer to Shaker Heights, OH. She does not have a warm and bubbly personality. She can be disconcertingly quiet and cagy. I think part of that caginess is a result of running from a secret in her past that she is afraid will catch up with her, but some of it also surely comes from being a black woman traveling on her own in predominantly white spaces. Mia is also incredibly perceptive and loving (and not just to her own child but to the black sheep child of the woman she despises). She is also unapologetically Black. So I would say she is “racial” as the reviewer above noted because her blackness is always with her. She does not make the other white characters comfortable when they step into awkward racial faux pas. She does not apologize for who she is or how she chooses to live. Whiteness makes us think that race is only a factor when people of color enter the scene. Reese Witherspoon’s whiteness is just as much of a factor in her scenes as well.

Another common denominator of all these comments is about how angry Mia is as a character. I thought her character was fascinating precisely because she did not cover over her anger, especially because many people would see her as the “angry, black woman” trope. She expressed her anger freely (when she felt safe to do so), unlike Reese Witherspoon’s character Elena who would cover over her anger with a false smile and passive aggressive comments (until the end when her anger about how her life has turned out becomes too much for putting on the veneer of geniality).  

And here is the thing about Mia’s anger. It is nearly all warranted. Not only is she daily encountering microaggressions from well-meaning and some not-so-well-meaning white people, but she is witnessing the hurt that white privilege inflicts on her child. One vivid example of that privilege is when Lexie, Elena’s daughter, writes Pearl’s name instead of her own at the abortion clinic, afraid of smearing her own reputation, but doesn’t give a thought to Pearl’s. Lexie then has the audacity to still expect Pearl to take care of her after the abortion, which she does. Mia has the right to be angry for her child, but she doesn’t yell at Lexie. Instead she envelopes her in a hug of understanding, the anger burning deep inside her until she can safely express it through her art.

I actually think Mia is the more likable character, even though she is apparently perceived as the “stormy,” “angry,” one. Elena is meant to be the “bad guy” in this show. She inflicts major emotional harm on her children and on nearly every other character with more than two minutes of screen time. One major fault of the show compared to the book (or so I’ve heard) is lack of nuance. The novel does not have a clear hero or villain in either woman, but nuance doesn’t read well for prime time television.

 Even though Elena is the clear villain, I found myself identifying with many parts of her personality and actions. I have been guilty of wanting to be seen as a “good white person,” mentioning the time I marched with Dr. King. Ok — so that was Elena — but I have other moments written on my “good white card,” like the time I dated a Muslim or had a Latina roommate. I haven’t called the cops for a black person being in my neighborhood, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t internally more cautious around him. I think Elena, with her facade of perfection and goodness, hits closer to home than many of us would like to think. 

This thought brings us to my favorite scene: Izzy has been sent home from school for creating a misguided art installation where she put black and yellow face on Cabbage Patch dolls to make a point that in our society, babies are “worth” different values depending on their race. Instead of staying home, she runs to fellow artist Mia’s house. Izzy is venting about her unwarranted suspension, but Mia sharply stops her and says that what she did was wrong, even if her heart was in the right place. Mia says, “You can’t challenge people and not expect to be challenged back.” At this moment Izzy looks so small and fragile and white, as if she might cry. But she is young enough and humble enough to accept this critique. She simply nods her head and stays silent. I loved this exchange because Izzy was being confronted with her racism and instead of being defensive, she soaks in the realization of what she’s done. Elena may be the embodiment of how not to be an anti-racist, but Izzy shows us the way.  

I thought the series was a powerful meditation on motherhood, race and class, even if parts of the story were a bit melodramatic and unbelievable. But it is also the only TV show in recent memory that confronts white privilege and the subtle racism of liberal whites. It is definitely worth the watch, even if Kerry Washington’s limited emotional range bothers you. I still think she’s great. But I would suggest that it is not Ms. Washington’s acting abilities that most people found unwatchable — but the confrontation of racism in our own hearts. 

A White Girl Gets Woke: Reading I’m Still Here

I have been learning more about racism and my own whiteness and how it functions for a few years now. I still have a lot more to learn, so I just finished I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. 

This book challenged me so much. I found myself alternately wanting to give myself a break from reading it and not being able to put it down. Through reading about Austin’s experiences, especially in mostly white workplaces and churches, for the first time, I think I got a glimpse of what it is like to be a black woman in White America. And it is exhausting and haunting and scary. 

I so appreciated her being vulnerable enough to tell us about the small little cuts that well-intentioned white people, her friends even, would make. And then I had to put the book aside for a moment because flashing through my mind were the many scenarios where I was that well-meaning, but harmful white person, asking an insensitive question, making a stereotypical assumption, or crying my white tears for being called out on my racism. 

I started to look back at discussions with school friends and coworkers, realizing that some of what I said might have been hurtful and even harmful. But my mind wanted to tell me, “No, you are a NICE white person. You aren’t intentionally racist.” But my heart told me this: “Ignorance does not excuse causing someone harm. The default of simply being white is being racist. It takes work to be anti-racist — work you are not doing.” 

One recent example of how I can be thoughtlessly racist was when I got together with coworkers for a baby shower. I was talking about how one of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys in my son’s dual-language Spanish class went by the diminutive of Kike because his English name is Hank. I thought it was so cute that this little white boy went by a Spanish name. A Latinx coworker then sternly said“You realize that a Hispanic person can be white too, right?” I said something dumb like, “Yes, of course, uh…but I just haven’t seen them.” Then I clammed up and my eyes started to water, embarrassed. I focused only on my white guilt, and not until after I read this book did I realize that I had put this unspoken onus on her to make me feel better. Which she did. She changed the topic and asked me a different question. She, the one who had been offended, felt the need to make me feel better because that is the terrible power of Whiteness. 

This book made me realize that I must examine my own Whiteness. I must examine it Every. Damn. Day. Because black women like Austin deal with racism every day. The least I can do is learn more about it. Learn the right questions to ask. Not being consumed with my white guilt when I inevitably put my foot in my mouth again, but apologize and educate myself to do better next time.

I also realized that I am raising my kids in the same way I was raised — where we don’t talk much about race. White silence is insidious; telling kids to be kind to everyone doesn’t really cut it. Neither does sending them to a racially diverse school, hoping that by being around people who are different from them will magically make them anti-racist. I have discussed with my older son the different colors of skin all the children in his class have and that everyone is good, no matter their skin color and that a thing called racism where white people tell darker people that they are not as good exists, and that we should not think this way. But I think we have only had this conversation about three times in his seven years of life. 

I need to do better, but I’m honestly not sure how. I like guidelines and rules, someone telling me exactly what to do, but the process of becoming anti-racist is messy and challenging. But because my anxious self could not sleep at night thinking I might raise two white mansplaining racists, I searched the internet and found a book called Raising White Children by Jennifer Harvey. And I know there are seminars on how to teach your children about race and ways of combating racism and I will look into those next, but first I will read this book and see what I can learn, and how I can teach my kids better than the colorblindness I grew up with.

The Best Parenting Book Ever

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into CooperationEasy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation by Becky A. Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is seriously the best parenting book I’ve ever read. It has taken me almost a year to work through this relatively slim book, but I found I needed to take time with each chapter to fully absorb it. (I took notes and made flash cards for myself — I’m a nerd, I know). It also has taken me that amount of time to actually put into practice these parenting techniques.

I should also say that this is probably one of the best mental health/counseling books I’ve ever read too. Another reason I chose to read it slowly is because one of the very first quotes of the book is “You cannot teach what you do not know.” So if I don’t know how to deal with my feelings or accept disappointment in a healthy way, how can I expect my child to not throw a fit about leaving the park early?

Maybe everyone else already understands this, but it took this book for me to realize that children misbehave because they don’t know the appropriate way to deal with something, not because they are disrespectful. The first thing the author teaches is to accept the moment as it is and to look at this tantrum (or “bad” behavior or whining) as a moment to teach our children a better way. There are many times I whine or throw a tantrum as an adult, but we seem to expect children not to do these things and to be punished for them. Bialey has us focus less on punishment, and focus more on what we actually want our children to learn. Basically, this book is about changing our mindset about parenting, starting with changing our mindset about ourselves.

This might sound philosophical, but Bailey also has specific actions to take, to the point of “here are the words you could say” kind of thing. She gives tons of examples of what to do and compares that with what we might already be doing, which I appreciate. I think one of my biggest takeaways was from The Power of Attention: what you focus on, you will get more of. This might be obvious, but it is something I had never really practiced in a parenting context. I usually found myself saying, “Don’t do this,” “no, not that,” etc. Bailey suggests that we focus on what our kids are doing well and also giving a suggestion of what to do rather than what not to do. This is simply just reframing how we say things. For example, I should say, “Put your feet on the floor,” rather than “Don’t put your feet on the table.” Little things like this actually matter and make a difference.

I have become a more compassionate, centered parent because of this book. I still make mistakes, of course, but I have found this way of teaching rather than punishing helpful for my kids and me.

View all my reviews

A White Girl Gets Woke: Gentrification Edition

Condo construction

Photo by John Tobe is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When we bought a house in our neighborhood seven years ago, it was a relatively diverse place, but it is rapidly gentrifying. In reading “The Dallas Morning News” several weeks ago (yes, I read the actual physical newspaper), I saw an article about an apartment complex not far from me that had been sold to a developer, likely to be transformed into an expensive condo. The current tenants had 60 days to vacate. The tenants responded by having a protest, highlighting the plight of low-income renters.

At the end of last year I read Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It is an important, illuminating and heartbreaking book about how hard (and expensive) it is to be poor in America, never being able to put down roots anywhere, always being required to search for the lowest rent or go homeless. I don’t know the people who have been basically evicted in my neighborhood, but because of this book, I am now familiar with the sad path that this might take them.

We recently had to vacate our house for about a week because of a mold problem. We moved in with my parents who live on the other side of town. It just about drove me bonkers (not because of my parents) but because it just wasn’t home and our schools, our jobs, our activities were now 30 minutes away. But I had a safe space to go for a limited period of time. I can’t imagine having to pick up and move so often because of not being able to make rent or getting evicted. 

Most low-income earners spend 60% or more of their paycheck on rent. That is just absurd. One, we don’t pay people enough and two, the cost of paying for a place to live has become astronomical, not even just for renters. Because the housing market has been booming, even my husband and I could not afford to buy in our current neighborhood now. Basically, we need more affordable housing in all our neighborhoods. 

You might be thinking that Section 8 vouchers could cover this. Well, most people are on a wait list for years and even then, many properties do not have to take these vouchers. We had a friend who (after waiting three years) got the coveted Section 8 voucher, but it took him another year to find a complex that would accept it…in Ennis. Dallas needs to require new developers to make affordable housing right along with these fancy, expensive condos. Dallas needs to require that more landlords take Section 8 housing. And we all need to see that housing is a basic right. 

A White Girl Gets Woke: My White Life

So 6 months ago, I set myself up with a series that I was going to write, and then I promptly stopped writing. Chronic illness, major diet changes, and a heavier teaching load than I was expecting all contributed to my lack of writing. 

But life has relaxed (slightly), so I’m back. Before life intervened, I was discussing how my worldview has changed for the better these past five years, starting to understand racism and white privilege in a way I never had before. However, my literal view, the people I tend to surround myself with has only gotten whiter. 

Five years ago (really six), I worked at a community college where most of my colleagues, friends, and students were people of color. Now that I’m a stay-at-home mom, working only online, I have found that my friend groups have gotten whiter and whiter. To me, this unveils my white privilege even more starkly because I can easily surround myself with whiteness, only occasionally and tangentially interacting with a person of color. 

But I want to make a more conscious choice of who I surround myself with. I need to go out of my comfort zone. I need to put myself in colorful, non-white spaces. One of those spaces is being more active in my local elementary school where most of the students are Latinx. I’ve gotten involved in the PTA, partly to do my part, but a lot so that I can get to know a lot of the other parents in the school. I have met some people, but I haven’t been able to spend enough time with anyone to actually become friends. 

So, I think I’m going to have to find other spaces where I am the minority, but honestly, I have found this hard to do. I have good intentions, but like so many people, I lack follow-through. I also lack the time. If I really want to find a group of people different from me, I am going to have to give up something else. Do I give up the women’s group I meet with biweekly, made up of mostly white women, but that I also find life-giving? Do I just make my introvert self talk to more moms on the playground? I’m seriously asking for suggestions here. I don’t know the answer. I have whitewashed my life, and I don’t like it. I want to live in color, but I don’t know how. 

A White Girl Gets “Woke:” A series

So what have I been doing the past five years? Well, among other things, I’ve been getting “woke.” If you aren’t familiar with this term, it basically means seeing and working against systemic racism, although I suppose you can wake up to just about anything. 

Five years ago, I would have told you that I don’t see color (people are just people). This was even after I took several graduate level courses in African-American Literature. I learned a lot in those classes, but through no fault of my teachers, I never understood that colorblindness actually perpetuates racism because it literally refuses to see differences in people and especially how they are treated.

Then Trump got elected. I know, I know. This was a “woke” moment for a lot of white people, and I’m no different (though I am aware that my black and brown friends were giving me the side eye and thinking, “What took you so long?” For a humorous representation of this phenomenon, watch this SNL skit.)

I’m sorry that it took seeing that most of our country will excuse racism and misogyny in our leaders to see that racism and misogyny are real, and ever-present. 

Now I don’t want to alienate my Republican friends who may have voted for Trump. You have values that are important to you that he claims to represent. I just also want you to see that words matter. They pave the way for how we think and act. And his rhetoric (calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, calling African nations “sh**-hole countries) paves a way that America has walked since its inception, and that path leads to inequality, harm and death for people of color. I don’t want to walk that path anymore.  

So I started reading more books, reading blog posts by people of color, following activists on Facebook. In order to get “woke,” education is a good place to start (look at the end for my book, podcast, and blog post recommendations). One of the places to start learning is actually understanding who we are.

And we are white people.

I am a white person.

What the heck does that even mean? In order to investigate this question, a few of the women in my church and I created a group for us white Southern ladies to learn and discuss what whiteness is and means. We did this by creating a curriculum where we discussed a 14-episode podcast series called Seeing White along with material called “Whiteness 101” from Be the Bridge, a non-profit group focused on racial reconciliation.

I’m glad we had this safe space to learn and discuss. Because there have been tears. And frustration. And anger. We white people can be defensive. No one wants to be called a racist. But I’ve come to see that all white Americans are racist because we live in a racist society, one that privileges white skin and cultur Continue reading

When a Voice is All You Have

So, I haven’t touched this blog in about 5 years. It just no longer appealed to me to share my life, my struggles, my thoughts. These past five years have been a time for me to focus on parenting, dealing with a major faith shift, and learning to live with a chronic illness. It was also a time that I stepped away from writing altogether. I didn’t even write for myself. 

It wasn’t until this past November when I participated in NaNoWriMo that I realized what a large part of my life was missing, that writing is actually life-giving for me. I wrote a strange mash-up of a fun middle-grade novel centering around a scavenger hunt that was also a fairly depressing meditation on death. Needless to say, no other eyes than mine will ever read it, but it was the act of writing itself that was more important to me than what I accomplished. 

I had been so fearful, for so long that my voice didn’t matter. I was fearful that people would read what I wrote and find it wrong-headed or stupid and at once afraid that no one would ever read it at all. I’m passionate about reading books by people of color, so I was hesitant to even start writing a novel that would put a privileged white girl’s perspective out there. Don’t we have enough of those?  

Maybe. But I need to recognize that my white, privileged, cisgendered voice can either stay silent to what is going on around me or speak out injustices that I see. And sometimes I’m still hesitant to use my voice because I am afraid that deep down I just want people to see me as a good white person. But I feel like I just need to stand up and say no to separating families. Say no to treating people who come to this country illegally like they are criminals.  Say no to a country that is more concerned with the rights of unborn children than with the living, breathing black and brown men, women and children who live in fear of the people who are meant to protect them. Say no to being cynical and apathetic. 

I want to say yes to seeing immigrants who come to this country as humans, as people who don’t want to leave the only home they have ever known but know that they have no future if they stay. Say yes that black lives matter. Say yes to writing my congressmen (even though I don’t feel like it does much good) because if everyone feels apathetic and does nothing, how can we tell the people in power what is true and good?

I think I also write this with a fair amount of guilt. Guilt for not doing more, for not going to protests, for not having many friends of color. Because I have chronic migraines, most days I am just hoping to keep me and my kids alive and relatively sane for another day. In some ways that gives me a great excuse to do nothing. But I’m tired of doing nothing. So on days when I only have a voice, I think I’ll use it.  

Helping without Hurting

'Smokehouse' photo (c) 2000, Don O'Brien - license:

I just finished Miss Willie by Janice Holt Giles for book club.  It was a book I honestly wasn’t too excited about: a middle-aged woman goes to take on the challenge of being a a school teacher in the poverty of Appalachia.  I feel like I’ve read this book before (Christy, anyone?).  But I ended up getting immersed in Giles’s beautiful language and her portrayal of Miss Willie’s realistic inner life.  Miss Willie also comes to an epiphany at the end of the novel that coincides with another book I’ve been reading — When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself.

This book talks about the best ways to help others, mostly the idea of working with the poor, not foisting our “help” upon them.

Miss Willie comes to a similar conclusion and Giles writes this inner process in such a true way that I will quote it at length here:

“She had come to the ridge thinking:  These poor people!  They need help so badly.  They need me, Miss Willie Payne, so badly.  She had been horrified and shocked at conditions, and she had gone about preaching and lecturing. She had known the right way to do all things, and she had never hesitated to say so.  She had pitied these people and patronized them.  And what people of pride ever wanted pity or patronage!

But she had tried so earnestly to help them!  She had tried.  The wrong way, maybe.  But she had tried everything! Everything? Now her heart told her.  Everything…but love! She remembered crying out to Mary: “Where can you start? Where can you start?” You start with the people…and you start with love for the people! ‘The gift without the giver is bare’! And she had never given of herself! Her time, her energy, her knowledge. But not herself! She winced from that thought, but she faced it in all its bitter gall. She had never loved them!

Love was the way.  And lovelessness had been her greatest sin.  Out of a dim, long memory Miss Willie remembered a text of her father’s. ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ The words came back to her now, and repeated themselves over and over. ‘Take my yoke.’ ‘Take my yoke.’ That most perfect One had lived ‘together’ with the people. What did He mean by his yoke? ‘Take my yoke…and I will make it easy.’ Could He have meant — was it possible His yoke had been living and working with people who never understood Him? Common, ordinary, ignorant people, who didn’t listen and who wouldn’t change? People who didn’t want anything better than they had? People who were dirty, diseased, and foul sometimes, and who were clean and noble and fine other times? People who loved and hated, fought and made peace, witnessed against their neighbors and then stood by them? Could He have meant living with them and loving them just as they were, unchanged and unchanging?

Like the eastern sun flooding the sky with light, Miss Willie understood in a flashing, transfiguring moment what it meant.  It meant to live together…under the yoke, together! Not one standing above, reaching down to pull the others up! Not one saying, ‘I must help these people’! It meant, instead, the banding and linking of people, one to another, in love and pity and yearning. It meant saying, ‘My people’; not, ‘These people.’ It meant getting under the yoke alongside of people, one with them, pulling the load with them.  Not standing aside telling them how to pull! It meant grieving with them, and sorrowing with them, and laboring with them, and laughing with them, and most of all, it meant loving with them. ‘Take my yoke’! He had been yoked with the people.  He had meant, then, live with them where they are.  Love them as they are. Take the yoke, and life it.  All lift together!”

She says it well: words I have thought myself, words I’ve been ashamed of, words of challenge, words of the true Kingdom of God.