Archive | December, 2012

Bumper sticker thought for the day

17 Dec

I don’t put much stock in bumper sticker wisdom, but I saw one today that gave me pause. It read:

Human being is half verb.

I didn’t get it at first, but then the light flickered on: the phrase “human being” is half verb. In other words, what we are is being, and that’s a process and an evolution. It’s a discovery, as opposed to a fixed reality, or an entitlement. And how we be defines what it means to be human.

In the wake of the Connecticut school shooting, the idea that we are what we are being resonates.

Troubling though it is at a time when we’re all trying to distance ourselves from shooter Adam Lanza (wondering what was wrong with him, and how he could have done what he did), I keep reminding myself that he was human, too. That he was being human. Maybe in a way that’s unfathomable and horrifying to some of us, but human nonetheless. Creating, along with the rest of us, the human narrative. This is not to excuse or minimize what he did, but to witness his as a human act. And maybe in that, there’s hope: instead of trying to fight unimaginable monsters, we can focus on trying to be there for and with the folks among us, who need a little more of the best of humanity.

How T-Rex helps us

14 Dec

Here’s a quick, cool article from the Greater Good Science Center on “An Awesome Way to Make Kids Less Self-Absorbed” (–+Other+Lists&utm_campaign=GG+Education+-+December+2012+-+Other+lists&utm_medium=email).

[Side note: If you’re looking for a worthwhile feed of current research on compassion, empathy and how we can be part of the greater good, I recommend subscribing to their newsletter. It’s always informative, engaging and uplifting to read what they’re doing.]

Here’s the scoop:

T-Rex, Half Dome and Gandhi’s committed practice of satyagraha just may be the cure to the “drastic” decline in empathy among young adults (although this article doesn’t cite studies of empathy in older and younger demographics, I can imagine this isn’t just a trend among college-age and recent graduate-age folks–and yes, like many studies, this one focuses on college students as a subset of young adults, so there’s the question of the people in this demographic who aren’t pursuing higher ed).

How? According to writer Vicki Zakrzewski:

When we see a grand vista in nature such as Victoria Falls, or experience an inspiring work of art such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” or Michelangelo’s Pieta, or ponder the phenomenal inner strength of a great soul like Gandhi who non-violently led India to independence, we often feel two things: 1) a sense of vastness that gives us 2) a new perspective on the world and our place in it. This is awe.

[A]we makes us feel very small and like we’re in the presence of something greater than ourselves. We also may lose awareness of our “self” and feel more connected to the world around us.

… Since adolescence is a crucial period for identity-formation, some researchers have suggested that adolescence is a particularly important time to experience awe—it could help them see themselves as deeply connected to the world around them, not the center of it. Inducing the uplifting experience of awe could also be a positive way to keep narcissism in check.

While scientists haven’t yet examined if this temporary loss of self-focus directly impacts empathy levels, they do know that awe makes people feel less impatient and more inclined to volunteer their time to help others—strong evidence that it makes them feel more connected and committed to something bigger than themselves [emphasis added].

I appreciate this research as an addition to our toolboxes and as a counterbalance to the well-intended movements to simulate other people’s experiences and (over)strive for empathy. Awe resonates with me as sometimes a more honest reaction than, “Oh, yeah, I get it.”

I feel awe when I consider Laura Jane Grace’s process of aligning who she is with the person the world sees (see my 10/16/12 post on her transgender experience). I feel awe when I listen to someone talk about experiencing homelessness. I feel awe when someone shares a perspective that never would have occurred to me. I don’t “get” these individuals or their experiences. But they still inspire me.

So here’s a wish for each of us: may we experience a steady diet of awe and share it with others.

** Thanks to the GGSC for their work and inspiration.

** And for an update on Laura Jane Grace and her debut performing with her band, check out: Here’s an excerpt:

Grace is two weeks into hormone replacement therapy. The process involves redistribution of her body’s muscle mass, and she was worried about how it would affect her stamina. The band talked before the show about taking some time between songs, but they ended up just powering through the set. The only problem Grace encountered was her guitar cutting out during one song.

Once again: awe at Laura Jane’s courage. I hadn’t ever thought about the issue of changing muscle mass potentially impacting stamina for individuals undergoing the transsex process.

I don’t feel better

12 Dec

Here’s the headline from the LA Times: “Hate crimes down in 2011, but anti-gay violence up, FBI says”  (,0,1940858.story).

It’s the “but.”

Hard to feel good about any hate crimes happening, and any group seeing a rise in hate.

The statistics collected by the FBI show a diversity of targets for hatred, coming from a diversity of groups, although whites, Christians and heterosexuals still seem to commit the significant majority of race-based, religion-based and sexuality-based hate crimes, aimed primarily at black people, Jewish people and gay men.

And then there’s the disparity between the number of crimes reported to law enforcement, versus the number of crimes reported via an anonymous Justice Department survey: the FBI’s official number of 6,222 hate crimes in 2011 explodes to almost 200,000 annually when you go off the record. And that’s still just those folks who had access to the Justice Department survey and trusted that they could answer honestly and anonymously.

All this makes me think: while it’s easy, in places like the SF Bay Area, to think hate crimes happen in those other (read: backward and ignorant) parts of the country, I think this is still our problem, too. Because the whole attitude that “those” people aren’t “our” people” is at the heart of hate crimes, no?

Instead of “homeless”

10 Dec

Last week, I was listening to “Why Some Homeless Choose The Streets Over Shelters” on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (, and I learned a useful new expression: people experiencing homelessness.

I can hear the eye-rolling even as I type this.

Sigh. Fine, Ms Political Correctness, should we now say that you are experiencing Asianness and experiencing womanness, rather than “being” either?

Well, first of all, I’d advise dropping the “should.” There is no rule of naming that is always correct and will thus protect you from ever using language that someone else may object to. Forget the political correctness scapegoat. You just gotta ask, learn, try to say what you have to say, and share the potential impact you may have. (The key there: shared responsibility.)

So what’s the difference between experiencing homelessness and being Asian? I’d say: innateness. Whereas homelessness and Asianness are both social identities (constructed as ways of recognizing groups of people), homelessness is a matter of external circumstance, whereas Asianness is a matter of the body I was born into that won’t change without access to expensive, extensive and rare medical services. And while the body (and mind) I’m born into inevitably impacts my circumstances and vice versa, I think it’s worth considering the distinction between calling someone homeless–as if to say that not having a home (in the conventional sense) is who they are–and acknowledging that she is a person experiencing homelessness right now, and maybe for a long time. Granted, becoming someone who experienced homelessness and is now “with home” can be a daunting and maybe insurmountable challenge, so this is not to suggest that experiencing homelessness is like experiencing college or experiencing fishing.

Again, there’s no perfect language. There is, however, always the opportunity to consider how we say what we’re saying, and what we end up believing through the words we use to name the world around us.

“Give a Ugandan woman hope”! (It’s “fun and easy”!)

7 Dec

I was just invited to a bead party by the middle and high school daughters of a friend. What, you may be wondering, is a bead party?

Here’s the gist: created by the nonprofit BeadforLife, it’s when you retail handmade recycled paper bead jewelry (and shea butter body products) made by Ugandan women to friends. The profits go to BeadforLife’s efforts to “create sustainable opportunities for women to lift their families out of extreme poverty by connecting people worldwide in a circle of exchange that enriches everyone” (

Sounds worthwhile, for sure.

And while I plan to go to this party, I’m also uneasy about the message that BeadforLife sends to its supporters:

According to the organization’s website, “[BeadforLife] believes that any action you take on behalf of others is a big step in creating a just and sustainable world.”

I beg to differ. “You” cannot just act on behalf of others and assume you’re doing right by them or the world at large just because you decide you want to do something. What “you” are doing in this case is just a newer form of imperialism, minus the big army. It isn’t “your” or my place to presume to act “on behalf” of someone else. But it is our place to collaborate. That is to say, to ask, learn and share within a reciprocal dialogue that recognizes differences in status; resources; social, economic and political power; perspectives and experiences, and that seeks out and creates the intersecting, mutual spaces between us where we can take action as peers, not as superior action-taker and unheard, (better be) grateful inferior.

Now, granted the idea of a bead party is, well, to have a party. Still, BeadforLife’s emphatic message about how “fun and easy” it is to “change a life” and “give a Ugandan woman hope” kind of freaks me out. I picture a dark-skinned woman opening a box sent from the US; out pops HOPE (and maybe an Obama bumper sticker from 2008?)

I don’t mean to diminish the work BeadforLife does. My point is that they almost do that themselves. They do vital, potentially transformative work in Uganda, educating children, providing business training to women and addressing health needs. Yet their primary message (at least in regards to the bead parties) seems to be: See how easy (and fun!) it is to change the world??

And it’s not easy. Yes, social justice is fun at times. But creating sustainable, systemic and dynamic change (which is to say, change that can change as people and needs do) isn’t easy. We can’t confuse throwing a bead party with digging a well, even if the money from the party goes to digging the well. Someone still needs to dig, no matter how many party-throwers and goers get crazy with some beads. And digging a well isn’t the sum of social justice. If we want all people to have reliable access to fresh, drinkable water, we’re going to need to address social, political, educational, economic and very real environmental inequities, challenges and realities. And that’s not always going to be fun or easy.

Now, I get the deal: in the spirit of “get something when you give something” (like address labels for your donation to the Marine Mammal Center), Bead for Life wants to incentivize my friends’ kids to “do good.” I think it’s great that they’re hosting a bead party, and yes, I plan to go. I also think that it’s only fair and responsible to tell these girls and other bead party hosts realistically what they are and aren’t doing by throwing a bead party. Not just for truth in advertising, but for the responsibility we have to educate about social justice for social justice. If we want to see necessary change in the world, rather than just a flurry of well-intended activity that primarily serves the egos and sense of well-being of the flurriers themselves, then we need to be clear: there’s charity, there’s service, there’s community engagement. And whether those serve social justice is a matter of collaborative discernment and action.

** Thanks to HN, RN and AN for the invite.

Otherwise, don’t bother apologizing

6 Dec


The headline sums it up: “The Chi Omega chapter at Penn State University apologized after a photo surfaced of sorority members wearing sombreros and holding offensive signs” (

Yes, those signs say: “Will mow lawn for weed + beer” and “I don’t cut grass I smoke it.”

This sad convergence of girls gone wild and women crying out, “We can be funny, too!” gets sadder, for me, with the unsurprising follow-up.

According to WebProNews, the Mexican American Student Association responded to the incident with this statement:

The Mexican American Student Association is disappointed in the attire chosen by this sorority. It in no way represents our culture. Not only have they chosen to stereotype our culture with serapes and sombreros, but the insinuation about drug usage makes this image more offensive. Our country is plagued by a drug war that has led to the death of an estimated 50,000 people, which is nothing to be joked about (

To which the sorority responded with this statement:

Our chapter of Chi Omega sincerely apologizes for portraying inappropriate and untrue stereotypes. The picture in question does not support any of Chi Omega’s values or reflect what the organization aspires to be.

Really?? The only statement of disappointment comes from the MASA? This is just a Mexican thing? Yes, Penn State officially responded, too, with its own statement about being appalled, respecting First Amendment Rights and this incident not reflecting the culture or values of Penn State or sororities and fraternities affiliated with the university. To which I would ask: when speech is hateful–including carelessly or thoughtlessly hateful–don’t we have a responsibility to balance the freedom of the speaker with the freedom of those who have to listen?

And where is the outcry from all the other people, who may not be Mexican, but who understand what it’s like to be stereotyped or have their identity turned into a joke that falls on the other side of funny? It may be that the MASA wasn’t alone, but the media have only chosen to ask and publish their statement. This is equally problematic. We cannot build inclusive communities when it’s every group for themselves when someone challenges the values we purport to share in common.

As for the “apology,” I am so tired of these words. Whoever invented The Apology should be getting royalties. It’s up there with the celebrity “I went to rehab for exhaustion” press release.

So listen up, the next group or person who indulges in a negative stereotype because you thought you could get away with it and then whoops!-no-you-didn’t: please ask yourself where that impulse came from, what it felt like to make fun of other people (what, in fact, were you thinking?), what you’re sorry for (just getting caught?) and what–if anything–you’ve noticed about yourself and your community. Consider which of your values and aspirations your actions did support, and whether you want to continue standing by those values. And then apologize.

A good (white) man

5 Dec

In his NY Times op-ed “Mitt Romney: A good man. The right fight,” Romney chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens describes how Obama’s second presidential campaign turned the Democratic Party’s “problems” of “being too liberal and too dependent on minorities” into advantages (

Stevens then laments, “But he was a charismatic African American president with a billion dollars, no primary and media that often felt morally conflicted about being critical.”

Morally conflicted about being critical?

What do you think that means?

As Stevens made a point of calling out Obama’s African Americanness (as opposed to his relatively young age, newness to politics on the national level or another descriptor) in the same sentence, my gut tells me that he means to suggest that media felt conflicted about being critical of Obama because he is African American (and white, Stevens. And white).

Quick gut check for you: do you agree?

And what are you basing that on?

That’s what I want to ask Stevens. If, in fact, his implication is that Obama’s African Americanness cowed the media (and it’s not clear if he’s talking exclusively or mainly about white-owned, -produced and -centric mainstream media sources), he needs to back that up.

Yes, I know that’s asking a lot. But without any substantiation, Stevens plays into racist beliefs: the notion that people of color actually have it easier than white people because we are of color and that is too much ultimate power for white people to deal with. Beyond being insulting to both people of color and white people, it’s a ridiculous assertion in the absence of any acknowledgment of just how improbable it still is for a non-white politician to be a viable presidential candidate. No, one Obama does not mark the end of racism.

Now, I’m not saying some folks didn’t bite their tongues. Particularly among white folks, there is a researched and documented fear of appearing to be racist (read “Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Evaluating Strategic Colorblindness in Social Interaction” by Apfelbaum et al.) But to claim “media” (as a collective) hesitated to criticize is to suggest that Obama had a systemic advantage. And for that, I need some proof. I also need some counterbalance. Does Stevens also believe that it was tough for “media” to criticize a Mormon candidate’s record and position?

In writing this one small sentence, almost a casual addition toward the end of his op-ed, Stevens reinforces white privilege by granting immunity to Romney–ironically, on the basis of his whiteness–of any whiff of unfair advantage based on race. It’s brilliant. Mind-boggling. And irresponsible.

I’m all for calling bias. Let’s just try to base those calls on something more than… our bias.

* You can read Apfelbuam et al.’s study here: