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“It was crazy!” (But was it, really?)

3 Oct

Someone pointed out to me last year that when I invite a group to “get crazy and mix it up” when I ask them to create their own small groups for a discussion or activity, I’m participating in a mainstream cultural misusage of terms describing mental disability, disease and unwellness, in the very same culture that typically fails to address mental health transparently, respectfully and helpfully.

I agree. And if reinforcing stigma isn’t reason enough to rethink our collective, casual misuse of mental health terms, let me just say that the ways we use these misappropriated terms are usually inaccurate, as in:

  • “Get crazy and mix it up in your small groups!” It’s actually sensible, community-building and a reasonable professional requestnot crazy–to talk to more people than you typically get to. More directly, I could say: “Take advantage of the fact that the whole staff is together, and mix up your usual coffee break, meeting, office-mate conversation partners!”
  • “That meeting was totally insane!” Most likely, it wasn’t. It was just not what I was expecting. I could say this more clearly: “Wow, people were energized during that meeting! And we just went with it.”
  • [Your turn. First, if you haven’t already, just notice when mental health terms come up, not in reference to actual mental health status. For me, it was startlingly how commonplace this is, from my friends and family, in professional conversations, in entertainment media, in the news… Then, notice if those terms were code for something else that could have been said more clearly, directly…and without dismissing actual mental unwellness.]

Now, you may be thinking, Oh, come on, Alison. We can’t even say “crazy” anymore?

Of course you can. The question is just whether that’s what you intend and choose to do, when you weigh how it’s both “harmless”/”meaningless” when we say “crazy” casually (just like I’ve heard kids say that “retarded” and “gay” don’t mean anything when you call a thing–not a person–“retarded” or “gay”), and dismissive of mental health issues. Because it is both, even if you just meant the former.

And today, in yet more coverage about our “unstable,” “mentally unwell,” “narcissistic” and [insert other mental illness terms you’ve heard or used yourself to describe the current US] President, I heard great advice from journalist Shankar Vedantam:

“Here’s a very simple test on whether you should be using the lens of mental illness to think about someone: are you using it to basically help them, or are you using it to help yourself? It’s a very simple test.”

Quote of the day on inclusion

30 Sep

“… [W]hen you put value into a person, it empowers that person to get in touch with their own inherent value, and then where do they put that value? They put it into their work.

[This is about]“… allowing her to succeed because of her workplace environment, and not in spite of it.”

–Michelle Williams, Emmy acceptance speech, 2019

Please stop with the Asian jokes, Andrew Yang

20 Sep

I want to clarify that my previous post was in no way an endorsement of Andrew Yang as any kind of authority on what’s funny and what’s not. I just liked his specific comment about preferring humor “that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots.”

Which is actually odd, coming from Yang of all people, whom you may be aware, is constantly taking his own cheap shots at Asians with his self-references through stereotypes: I love math, I know a lot of doctors, I like tests.

When asked by Politico yesterday “whether he’ll keep telling Asian jokes, which have offended some people,” Yang responded:

“We’re a very diverse community and if Asian-Americans disagree with my response to a particular issue or a joke I tell, that’s something I would expect and accept. You know, that that’s what happens in a diverse community. I don’t see any reason to dramatically change anything.”

I don’t see any reason for Yang to change, either. Because, apparently, he has no idea what he’s doing. Yang doesn’t understand the racist formulation of the “model minority” myth that he’s trading in: that these tropes of Asian smarts and success are meant to keep Asians in line, to degrade other people of color and to justify the real myth: that the US is a level and fair playing field for all ethnoracial groups.

That much is clear in Yang’s use of the word “diverse”: to suggest that Asian-Americans are just different from each other–not that we are disparate in our status and access to resources and opportunities. Even now, “Asian” as a term tends to privilege East Asians, marginalizing South Asians, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. (The acronym “APISA” is used to signal inclusion of these groups, because you can’t count on “Asian” to do so, given its usage historically.) Through his cheap shot, “model minority” jokes, it’s clear that Yang’s idea of the “Asian-American” community is more exclusive than inclusive.

Yang’s apparent lack of historical, social and (ironically) political understanding about his identity as an Asian-American makes it unsurprising that he “doesn’t see any reason” to stop taking his own cheap shots, even if he sees a reason for Shane McGillis to.

But Yang really needs to stop. He may not get it, but there’s a difference between making an “Asians are good at math” joke in the privacy of his own home among his friends and family, and making that same joke on the national stage while running for President, even while it’s simultaneously true that no matter where you make that joke, you’re perpetuating racist ideas, attitudes and ultimately impacts. If he doesn’t understand the power of his podium, and if he can’t imagine that other US Americans aren’t just “different” from him and may not just “disagree” about what’s funny but be mortally impacted by words that are just jokes to him, then I hope someone offers to “sit down and talk” with him, so he might learn.  In fact, I’m offering right now.

I would hope to learn something, too. I’d love to understand his perspective and share mine. And I’d love for us to share some facts: about racism, about privilege, about the APISA community, about how identity matters when you tell a joke about another or “your own” group, and about what it takes to be antiracist.

Can’t anyone take a joke anymore?

19 Sep

In the wake of newly hired and more recently fired Saturday Night Live comedian Shane Gillis, a lot has been written. In it all, I appreciate Andrew Yang’s statement directly to Gillis:

“I prefer comedy that makes people think and doesn’t take cheap shots. But I’m happy to sit down and talk with you if you’d like.”

I’m not interested in weighing in on whether Gillis should or shouldn’t have been fired. That’s a question for a company or organization to make, based on their values, facing their pressures, fears and aspirations, and discerning how to do what’s right for their employees and the public they serve at the individual and collective levels.

I appreciate that Yang (who, btw, doesn’t think Gillis should have been fired) named the issue with making comments like “Let the fucking chinks live there” and makes a distinction between the action and the person. Let’s stop with the “nice racism, good racism” (McGillis’ words) but not write off the person.

And you know what? Even as I write that, I know it’s hard sometimes. What Yang doesn’t unpack is that there’s a history and a current culture of socially acceptable anti-Asian racism that have helped to spawn and facilitate McGillis’ comments, and the defense of his comments. (Notably, in his own campaign rhetoric, Yang plays with the racist trope of Asians being “the model minority.”) McGillis words are not “just a joke” to me.


I agree with Bryan Stevenson, who wrote in Just Mercy, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

So here I am, quoting someone (Yang) I don’t always agree with, whom I think has some helpful ideas even while I think he says some damaging things in public, about someone (McGillis) whom I don’t think deserves a bigger platform than, say, peers who can be funny without relying on racist stereotypes and sentiments, but whom I also hope has the resilience to learn, grow and become funnier. Not just to people who look and talk like him.

Toni Morrison flipping the script on labels

9 Aug

“In 2012, President Obama awarded [Toni Morrison] the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, recognizing her for “her nursing of souls and strengthening the character of our union.”

Obama described her as ‘one of our nation’s most distinguished storytellers,’ a judgment that was nearly unanimous among literary critics. They tussled, however, over whether Ms. Morrison was best described as an African American writer, an African American female writer or simply an American writer — and whether the label mattered at all.

‘I can accept the labels,’ Ms. Morrison told the New Yorker in 2003, ‘because being a black woman writer is not a shallow place but a rich place to write from. It doesn’t limit my imagination; it expands it. It’s richer than being a white male writer because I know more and I’ve experienced more.'”

 – Excerpted from Toni Morrison’s obituary in the Washington Post, August 6, 2019

This is who we are

19 Jul

Several years ago in Los Angeles, a guy cut me off in a parking lot. That escalated into yelling out of windows and, to my utter shame, I yelled for this Arab-looking man to go back home.

I was ashamed then and more so now and have never repeated this epithet.

But to say this is not who we are as Americans is not entirely true. This is who we are on our worst day. I would give a lot to be able to apologize to this man.

Matthew Sunderland, Joshua Tree, CA in “16,000 Readers Shared Their Experiences of Being Told to ‘Go Back. Here Are Some of Their Stories” in The New York Times, 7.19.19

In a pattern of reporting on hate speech and action that includes a subsequent disavowal by communities of what got said and done by members of their communities in their communities (“those aren’t our values”… “that isn’t us…”) I appreciate this individual owning their actions, and thereby owning that this is him. Not all of him. I believe what Bryan Stevenson has said: “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

And still. This is Matthew Sunderland. This is California. This is the United States.

And so could be the admission and the desire to repair.

I worry about the denials of communities and individuals regarding “who we are on our worst day,” because if we don’t admit it, then we can never repair it and get better. And that’s the insult upon injury: you’ve been told to “go back” and then that it didn’t really happen, it couldn’t have. Because that’s not us. OK?

Quote–and call to action–for today

19 May


Moral arc of universe

Here’s more about Robert Smith’s commencement address and gift to the graduating class at Morehouse today.

And here’s a question: what have I done today to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice? How about you?