Frienemies of the Pods (Part Two)
Letters about weaponized white parenting and the search for a way out
Note: This isn’t an essay! It’s a set of letters between me and my brilliant friend Courtney Martin. Actually, it’s the second half of an exchange that begins over at her newsletter. You really should read that first, as all this won’t make as much sense without it.
A quick note on Courtney: I don’t have to tell you this, but this year has been THE WORST. There’ve been very real bright spots, though, and one of the brightest for me has been getting to know this mind-blowing mom/writer/thinker/doer/activist/founder-of-things/connector-of-people out in Oakland. I feel like I’ve known her forever, which I have a hunch is a pretty common experience for people in her orbit. I’ve never quite met a white writer like Courtney- she’s self-reflective without being naval-gazey, hopeful and angry at the exact right moments and extremely serious about justice while still being a hell of a lot of fun. Your life will be better with Courtney Martin’s writing in it. Fortunately, she’s got a newsletter to which you should subscribe and books which you should read. I reached out to her this week because I was sincerely stuck and needed somebody I trusted to puzzle it all out. It was a very good decision.
[Again, this is the second half of our conversation. The first half is here].
Oh damn, I needed that. Thank you. But first, can we talk more about our kids' quarantine obsessions? How many times DO those wild animals really need to be rescued? I mean, I know the answer: as frequently as my three-year-old needs to arrange every plastic figurine in our house in a row so that Skye from Paw Patrol can whisper intensely to a random green dinosaur. Related: have you ever lived with an American seven-year-old as they develop an intense obsession with German soccer teams? It means that, as his parent, you have to suddenly develop strong opinions about something called a "Borussia Möngengladbach."
[Also, you asked what we're doing right now. MPS will be all virtual this fall and we'll do our darndest to be good little partners for that effort, whatever that means (hellooo awkward seven-year-old zooms!). We do have child care help (thanks to one of the best human beings on the planet) four days a week now, which wasn't the case for much of the quarantine, and of course that feels life changing. Courtney, I've done actual grown-up work before 9:00 PM recently! It rules! That's to say, who am I to badger other parents for just trying to figure something out, right?]
But goodness, your words. Thank you. What I loved in particular was the way you stripped away my current distraction with individual transgressions and refocused on the bigger culprit. Because, yeah, that castle thing suuuuucks, but it's not really about that (nor is it about individual groups of well-heeled families creating their Own Private Exeter). It's about the three-headed dragon of capitalism and patriarchy and white supremacy and the nasty trap it lays for all of us (do dragons lay traps? I don't know... let's go with it).
You're totally right though. We ARE only taught to be individualistic consumers and competitors. And because of how well we've internalized those lessons, and because our country has systematically taken a monkey-wrench of neglect and spite to every possible shared social net that might support us in thinking otherwise, even our "activism" is defined by how well we consume (the workshops, the books) or how well we compete (the manifestos, the cancellations).
I loved the invitation you gave, especially for white people, to welcome each other into work of solidarity and outrage in ways that aren't self-righteous and exclusive. I heard in your words echoes of Audre Lorde (master's house, master's tools, etc.) and adrienne maree brown (fractals, Courtney! fractals!). That then raises a different question, though. Other than writing letters to our wise friends when we find ourselves slipping (heeeey!), how do we sustain a very different way of being in political and social relationship to each other?
Did you know that, during the UFW marches in the Central Valley in the '60s, the farm workers would do theater for each other every night? They were essentially mini news-reels about what was happening with the marches and the boycotts. It started as pure entertainment, but after a while Huerta and Chavez realized that, after playing different parts (in particular after playing the bosses), workers would show up in subsequent organizing meetings with newfound levels of confidence, imagination, etc. This was a group of people who had been socialized to believing myths about their powerlessness and inferiority, and the ability to imagine themselves as fully and powerfully human, even in a silly skit, was reality-shaking.
I've been thinking about that a lot, as I work to organize groups of people who don't have to unlearn myths of powerlessness but that DO have to step outside deeply learned patterns of individualism and entitlement. I'm still feeling my way through how to create spaces where people like us get to imagine what it feels like to truly live in interdependent beloved community, even if our world is so far from it. Because goodness it feels like that's what we need.
What have you found that helps you more sustainably spark both your own and others' imagination? What helps you pick yourself up when you fall off the wagon? And most importantly, what are you gonna do when your daughter finally gets tired of listening to the Secret Garden?
So much love,
Oh man, this is the thing: "Other than writing letters to our wise friends when we find ourselves slipping (heeeey!), how do we sustain a very different way of being in political and social relationship to each other?"
You mentioned those amazing UFW folks and their nightly theater. Maybe this is part of what is hardest about organizing people with power and privilege--we need less theatrics. (Coincidentally, I just watched the John Lewis documentary last night and they had some riveting scenes of the role playing that those who did the first lunch counter sit ins did as preparation; sick, inspiring stuff.) I've been writing about a school merger here in Oakland in which a lot of white families got VERY dramatic about the harm being caused to their white children. I am amazed at how easily we play the victim (see: the many, many op-ed pieces about how elite parents can't believe they are being forced to spend every waking hour with their own children because of a pandemic. see: me anytime the wifi in my house is slow or spotty.).
I am also amazed at how easily we focus on a different villain than the one living inside of our own hearts and homes. So often when I interview white and/or privileged parents who has chosen to send their kids to schools they have some guilt about, they will make a big effort to turn my attention towards the real problem: the private school nearby or, if they are there, the mostly white, desirable public school nearby (worse than going to a private school because you're taking a free spot in a school that is basically a private school!). White people, in other words, will tie themselves up in cirque de soleil-style knots in order to not look at the power they wield.
So is there some kind of anti-theater of the oppressor that we can find in the annals of white history? Or can we invent one?
Now we're really down the rabbit hole, man. Should we publish this thing in case it's useful to anyone? Things are feeling pretty urgent around here.
(When she gets tired of listening to Secret Garden she watches a YouTube show about how to draw unicorns and hamsters with super huge, creepy eyes. I think we'll go on like this for awhile...)