The Stewardess

This is the story I wrote for the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition 2021, just in case anyone is interested in reading it. Here was my prompt:

Genre – Romance

Subject – A rehearsal

Character – A stewardess

2500 words or less

Hope you enjoy!


“Have you counted all the linens, Mary?” asked Katherine.

“Yes, ma’am. 24 sheets and 15 coverlets.”

Katherine made a notation in the ledger. At the other end of the table, the cook grumbled: “Are you going to ask me to count each individual turnip that I’m about to pop in a pot?”

Katherine looked up with half a smile. “No, Robert. But I might need to deduct those that go into your belly,” she said and poked his round center. Robert rolled his eyes but smiled.

Just then both Robert and Katherine were aware of a new stillness in the room and were surprised to see Charles Tupper standing in the doorway.

“Why hello, Charley,” said Robert. “What brings you to the castle?”

Charles had shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, a boyish face and scruff on his cheek. His usual soft smile had turned taciturn and serious.

“Katherine, might I have a word?” The words fell out of him in a rush, as if he could not keep them back any longer.

Robert raised his eyebrows and swiftly waddled out of the room, but Katherine knew that he would eavesdrop in the corridor. Charles likely knew it too.

Katherine stood in front of him then, feeling the warmth of his body blocking the cold air that snuck in through the edges of the door. “Is everything all right, Charles? Is it the farm?”

He simply shook his head no. Charles was not much one for words, so when he did speak, she listened: “Katherine,” he said, not quite meeting her eye. “I know I’m a simple working vassal with not much to offer and your position is far above me. But…” He started to wring his hands. This usual stone of a man was nervous indeed.

“I would like to ask your hand in marriage.” He finally turned his sky-blue eyes up to meet hers.

Now it was her turn to look away. She wasn’t exactly surprised at this proposal. After all, he had proposed a few months ago, just before her father’s death. But that had been communicated to her and refused for her by her father who hoped for a more advantageous match. But as an illegitimate child of one of her father’s servants, she knew no other offer was likely to come. Had she been able to answer then, she would have said yes. Charles loved her, had loved her since they were children playing in the field. But with her father’s death and such an uncertain future ahead, she was no longer sure of her answer. Did she have to marry at all? 

She smiled into his blue eyes. He smelled of heather, contentment, and home.

“May I have time to think about it?”

“A ‘course,” he nodded then walked out the kitchen door as silently as he’d come.

Robert slinked back in from the corridor with surprising agility for such a large man.

“Charles is a good man. Would make a good husband. My Lord was a fool not to secure you a husband before his death.”

“Watch your tongue, Robert.” She calmed herself. “Who says I even want a husband?” But they both knew that time was running short and the wanting of a husband was not the reason for acquiring one.

Katherine and Robert worked in silence for a while, both trying to forget these unspoken truths.

“Do you have word when our new Lord will arrive?”

Katherine’s smile fell. “Lord Calthorpe should be arriving in a fortnight.”

As if her words were a summons, she and Robert heard the pounding of horses’ hooves and the slosh of a wagon’s wheels outside the drafty stone kitchen walls.

Katherine and Robert locked eyes. “No, it must be someone else,” but she stood, smoothing her green woolen dress, trying to rub off the inky black stain from her forefinger.

Cook laid his roughened hand closer to Katherine on the table. “All will be well. He’ll have heard of you and your position, surely. Your father did not match you with a husband, so I suppose he thought you’d be able to stay on.”

Katherine made a forced smile, and then patted the bulky hand.

She gathered up the ledger and walked swiftly down the corridor to the Great Hall. Philip, a scrawny boy of seven, was clearing the trenchers from the servants’ meal. “Have you seen who it is, Philip?”

He quickly shook his head from side to side. “Go, tell everyone to come to the Great Hall. I’m afraid it may be our new Lord.” Philip’s eyes went wide with surprise, and he swiftly moved down the corridor.

But before Philip could gather any more of the servants, there was a loud knock at the great wooden doors.

#

It was not Lord Calthorpe after all, but Sir Thomas Cranmer, his Lord’s seneschal come to inspect the property. Of course Lord Calthorpe would arrive with numerous horses and carriages, not a single wagon. Since her father’s death, her thinking had been muddled.

Sir Thomas had muddy brown hair and friendly brown eyes that crinkled at the edges. After he introduced himself and his servant, he asked, “And you are, I presume, Katherine Little? Steward of Land’s End?”

Her nervousness melted away, and she confidently said, “Yes, sir. Or stewardess, if you rather.”

“Well, stewardess,” a playful smile on his face, “please show me around the castle.”

#

In the next few days, Katherine showed Sir Thomas every nook and cranny of the estate, from the castle’s hidden rooms to the grazing lands. Each day, they would visit a farm, mark its progress, and come in muddy and tired from their journey. Katherine nearly forgot about Charles’s proposal until they visited his farm. He stood, looking silently on as he patted a cow, sizing up the man with Katherine. Charles saw the steward’s fine clothes and shined boots, and the way he gazed at Katherine when he thought she wasn’t looking. Instead of talking with them as the other vassals had done, he walked back in the barn to get on with his work.

“That’s rather rude,” commented Sir Thomas.

Katherine, equally wanting to avoid speaking with Charles and Thomas together, claimed, “He has much work to do and knows I can explain better than he the goings on at the farm.”

Later that afternoon, Sir Thomas and Katherine sat near each other in the Great Hall, inspecting the ledger by the light of the window.

He leaned back in his chair. “How old are you, Miss Little?”

Katherine met his gaze, but then looked down at the ledger as if the answer were there. “I am not yet one and twenty, sir.”

Thomas knew that she was in the prime of her bloom, but he had not guessed she was so old.

Katherine could sense the hesitation before he finally asked, “Why is it you are not yet married?”

Katherine looked up from the ledger and stared off into the Great Hall, gazing fondly at her father’s sigil. “My father…I mean, my Lord, did not desire it. He preferred to keep me home.”

“Is that what you prefer?”

What an extraordinary question. One that she had never been asked. She looked at the steward full in the face. “Since my father had no other heirs, he educated me, and upon seeing that I had a keen mind and was eager to learn, sought to install me as his steward when I came of age. Land’s End is my home. My true love.”

She looked down, embarrassed at her hyperbole, but could sense the smile climbing on Sir Thomas’ face.

“How very fortunate you are to find the thing that you love.” Katherine saw a flush creeping up his neck. 

In the lull, Katherine saw an opportunity: “Now it is time for me to ask you a question, if you’ll permit me.”

“Anything, Miss Little.”

“Do you think Lord Calthorpe will keep me on? As stewardess, I mean?”

Sir Thomas knew his master to be easy-going and fair. He also knew that his Lord would appreciate having a beautiful woman under his roof. But he knew all too well what his Lord was like with the young women in his household, much to the consternation of Lady Calthorpe — and now Sir Thomas. His answer was then of two minds: “I think his Lord could find no one more competent than you to steward his possessions, except possibly me,” he smiled.

“But you might find the castle changed once he arrives, and not be so eager to keep on.”

Katherine barely heard the caveat. She only heard that it was possible to stay.

#

A few nights later, Katherine lied on the small cot in her room, flat back atop the coverlet, thinking over the last several days. Sir Thomas Cranmer was like no other man she had met. He treated her with the respect a steward afforded another steward. He listened patiently to the report of her father’s estate and asked intelligent questions. She imagined though that Sir Thomas did not furtively stare at other stewards when they thought he wasn’t looking. But she had to admit that she often looked his way as well. The edges around his brown eyes crinkled pleasantly when he smiled, which he did often. His muddy brown locks seemed always tousled. She had noticed his nervous habit of smoothing the hair on the back of his head. Katherine imagined herself reaching out to brush it back. It would be soft, and her hand might graze his neck as she brought it back to her side. In that moment, she also had another thought — combing her fingers through Charley’s long, blond locks. He would smile at her and cup her hand to his face, and she would smile back.

She had never been with a man though she knew what went on between men and women in the dark. You can’t spend your childhood sleeping in the Great Hall and not hear the muffled moans and movements under blankets. Did she want that intimate life? Did she want that with Charley? With Sir Thomas?

Her father had meant well by uplifting her from the position of her servant mother, but that also meant she existed in this in-between place — not quite a servant and not quite a lady. Her household accepted her as the stewardess, but now that her father was gone, she had heard the grumblings of not a few farmers being made to heed the advice of a woman. Sir Thomas’s recommendation that she keep her position could only go so far.

Katherine thought again of the question Sir Thomas had asked her.

“What would she prefer?”

Did she want marriage with Charles? It would be a good life, but not as ambitious as the one she had set out for. She remembered the one time she had gone unaccompanied to his farm, how they had stood in silence before each other and felt the pull to each other’s bodies. It was a fleeting moment, but the next day Charles had asked for her hand and been refused by the Lord. Was that pull still there?

Or did she want to remain as steward to Lands’ End? She knew every inch of the castle, took pride in ensuring the tapestries were hung with care, the coin that came in was more than went out. And more than that, she was good at this job that was reserved for only men.

 She turned on her side, shifting her view to the stone wall. She screwed up her nerve to see her situation plainly. Even if she were to remain as stewardess, she honestly did not think it would be long. Lord Calthorpe might appreciate the novelty of a stewardess but would soon succumb to the pressure of replacing her with a man. Would she be forced into marriage then? Or worse — would she go back to the life of a mere servant?

Katherine placed her cool palms over her face to stop the tears. Not for the first time had she found herself in this position, wishing to stop time, or to go back to before her father’s death. Why could not everything remain as it was?

No, no more, she thought as she swung her legs down to sit up right. I must think properly about the future. Her days as stewardess were numbered. “I must marry,” she said aloud to the room. Voicing it, she knew it to be true. She would accept Charles’ proposal, or did she dare hope for something more, a way to keep her position and find love? Sir Thomas had certainly flirted with her, but would he want her for a wife?

#

The next day, Sir Thomas asked if they could rehearse the formal ceremony to bind the vassals to his Lordship when he arrived next month. Katherine knew this rehearsal was mostly a farce. Sir Thomas could organize a ceremony like this blindfolded, but she humored him and sat in an ornate chair at the end of the empty Great Hall. She hoped he was finding an excuse to be alone with her, her stomach churning from excitement or nerves.

Katherine calmed herself and found her voice: “These tables would be cleared, and the vassal would walk up to the Lord, hands behind his back.”

Sir Thomas preceded to slowly walk up to her, his boots gleaming in the sunshine, hips swaying ever so slightly, reveling in his role play.

“You should stop just there to pronounce your fealty.”

Sir Thomas looked her straight in the eye. “I promise myself to you,” he said in almost a whisper. Katherine’s breathing quickened again. Was he toying with her or was this something more?

“You would then come kiss the Lord’s hand.”

He stepped forward and lightly cupped her hand with his own, and she felt its soft warmth. He looked her straight in the eye and then bowed to float his mouth over her hand. She could feel the hot breath and then, lightly, delicately, the cool touch of his lips.

“The Lord would say I offer you my protection,” she said in a gust of breath.

Thomas knelt then. “Katherine,” he said, “You are a most uncommon woman. Would you do me the honor of becoming my wife?”

Her body heaved with the word “yes” on her tongue but could not make her mouth form the sound. She looked down at her slippered feet, her hand gripped tighter by Sir Thomas. Instead of joy, a rush of anxiety filled her. Envy of all women, Katherine actually had a choice. If only she were a seer and could peek into her future. In which life would she be happy? She looked back into Sir Thomas’s face, but a new image came before her — Charley’s sky-blue eyes. In those eyes she felt home. And she knew her answer.

What is White Supremacy?

“White Supremacy is Evil | Glendale United Methodist Church – Nashville Sign” by GlendaleUMC is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

I know that people are probably hearing the term white supremacy more and more. Maybe you heard it being said yesterday after the events at the Capitol. White people don’t like this term because it makes us cringe. It makes us feel complicit in racism. 

I think for a lot of us, white supremacy conjures up certain images: the KKK, lynchings, genocide of Indigenous peoples. The worst examples of racism, hate and prejudice. 

We think of white supremacy being a thing of the past, but the more I read (thank you Ibram X. Kendi for How to Be an Anti-Racist), the more I understand that white supremacy is the present too. White supremacy looks like segregated cities and school districts, like my own in Dallas. White supremacy looks like black women being four times as likely to die in childbirth. White supremacy looks like black men being a disproportionate part of the prison population. White supremacy looks like a mob storming the capitol and those rioters being corralled by the police in a gentle manner compared to how the police handled Black Lives Matter protesters.

All white supremacy means is putting the concerns and well-being of white people above all others, creating a hierarchy based on color. Now, I think most white people do not intentionally place themselves above others. White Christians especially should not since we are to be like Christ and divest ourselves of power to become servants to all. 

But I think most white people fail to realize that our country has white supremacy baked into it, written into some of our first laws. The founding fathers who we revere were flawed human beings trying to come up with a way of governing people that had never been tried before. These flawed human beings were also steeped in white supremacy because they put their concerns and needs over Black enslaved people. They, in fact, justified enslaving people by trying to scientifically and theologically claim that Black people are less.

The constitution is not the Bible, but we treat it like a sacred document. However, we often read the constitution the way we read the Bible, as something inerrant, holy, unchangeable. Like the Bible, most of these words are inspiring and filled with deep moral ideas. But we also know that Thomas Jefferson did not believe that Black men were included in the famous phrase: “all men are created equal.” It didn’t even include white women. These men believed white people were superior to Black people. That white men were superior to white women. How do we not expect the documents and laws they wrote to be informed by that mindset? We must look back at the past if we have any hope of saving our future. We must admit that our government was built upon the back of slavery and the genocide of indigenous peoples. Yes, we also created a new and laudable form of government, but we are also slavery and genocide.

I don’t like that being the story of America any more than you do. But it’s true. And it has been this way for 400 years. It may unfortunately take that same amount of time to undo the damage.

One of the ways we as white people can say that we are not white supremacists is to admit that America was built on racist ideals. There are many in this country that only want to perpetuate the myth that America has and always will be great. But in truth, a great nation, like a great man, would admit their past sins and repent and ask forgiveness. A great nation would repent in the true sense of the word and make a change, a turn to treating the least of these as the best. 

The term white supremacy is meant to make us uncomfortable and even icky. I don’t want to be in the oppressor class. I don’t want to be Rome to Jesus’s Jewish people. I don’t want to be Babylon to the Israelites. There have been many times that I wished I was Black or Asian or Native. They seem like they are in the right and white people are always in the wrong. It does not feel good to be looked at for your race and thought of as evil or bad. Maybe we should lean into that icky feeling a bit more because I’m pretty sure the depth of what we feel is only a fraction of what Black, Indigenous and other people of color feel being actively oppressed. Feeling icky and uncomfortable is a privilege. 

Unfortunately, I think being white just means we get to feel icky right now. However, I do think it is important to have a healthy racial identity that is not based on hierarchy. I don’t want to constantly feel guilt and shame for what my ancestors did and for the systems in place that I benefit from. I wish “white” meant “ally,” meant “friend.” Words change meaning over time, but they don’t do it on their own. The way to solve the problem of white supremacy is to actively combat the racism in our world, not just by calling out the racist joke your uncle told, but by supporting people in power who support the policies that will help BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), supporting Black-owned business, supporting organizations like Abide Women that try to create equity in women’s healthcare. We have to listen to those who are different from us. 

Really, white supremacy is part of a larger issue: dehumanizing anyone we see as outside our group. We dehumanize others based on much more than race. We dehumanize those who we don’t understand. We dehumanize those who scare us. We dehumanize those who don’t have the same values we hold. We are all guilty of dehumanizing someone for one reason or another. I want us all to just take a step back, breathe, and remember that we are all human. We all have feelings and thoughts, backstories and ancestral history. 

Some of us have the lived experience of being harassed by police. Some of us have only ever encountered the police during a (likely rightfully earned) speeding violation.  Some of us have only ever really had friends, and I mean those deep, true tell-each-other-everything friendships, with those of the same race. 

I think that is why it is so important to listen to each other. And that is why it is so important to listen to people of color whose experience can show us that white supremacy is real. If you don’t have any friends of color, that’s ok. Read their books or tweets or Instagram posts. And not just the ones that agree with you. Dare to listen to someone who opposes your beliefs. I’m trying to do the same. It is not always easy, but always enlightening, and bringing me closer to becoming the human being I want to be.

Did you know Bob the Tomato Makes YouTube Videos?

Bob the Tomato

Ok, so not really. It’s Phil Vischer, the creator of VeggieTales — and the voice of Bob the Tomato. He has a YouTube channel named after himself and is associated with the Holy Post podcast.

In case I just said a bunch of words you don’t know the meaning of, let me explain. VeggieTales was a popular Christian children’s show in the 90’s and the 00’s. Usually they would reenact a Bible story with all their animated vegetable friends to show us a moral about how we should live today. It’s a cute show I grew up watching, and one that I’ve shown my kids as well. 

Anyway, when I saw that Phil Vischer had his own YouTube channel recently, I was intrigued. I was unsure if I wanted to watch anything, but a video about abortion caught my eye.

It was well-researched, measured, and would not make anyone feel pressured to change their values. It is definitely for an evangelical Christian audience, but one that does not have the bombastic nature of Fox News or the conservative-bashing bent of MSNBC. 

The take-away in the abortion video was not to persuade people to to become pro-choice, but to show that who we vote in for president won’t actual be the thing to lessen abortions. What reduces the number of abortions?  Better and more affordable healthcare for women. I’ll let the video do all the explaining, but it definitely worth a watch. 

While I don’t agree completely with all Vischer’s conclusions in all his videos, he does present our complicated American history in a visually engaging and informative way, helping us as Christians to understand how we should engage in the world.

Here are the videos I’ve found particularly interesting of late:

Race in America: Part 1

Race in America: Part 2

How Should We Vote? A Christian’s Guide to Approaching the Voting Booth

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 @ CulturalOrganizing.org

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.

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 IMBD.com 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.

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