Why reading Roxane Gay is good for me


Dear Rebecca:

I did something unusual to start 2018: I decided to go to “reading list zero.”

What this involved: Clearing the stack of books I’ve been reading but failing to finish the last few months, and instead picking up a book or two I’d never cracked before. Part of me feels guilty about this, but starting the year with a clean reading slate feels really good. (I may return to the older books at some point, but the clean slate feels really good.)

The two books I’ve picked up are both, incidentally, by women of color. One is “Kindred,” Octavia Butler’s classic novel mixing science fiction and antebellum slavery. The other is “Hunger,” by Roxane Gay.

I’m more than halfway through “Hunger,” and I’m so glad I picked it up. Gay’s story is about growing to be a “super-obese” woman as a defense mechanism after being raped as an eighth grader. That’s not an experience I’ve had, but — as you know — my body has been broken and unruly since undergoing diverticulitis surgeries in 2011. I’m awkwardly shaped, I can’t exercise like I did prior to the injury, and the result is … kind of gross.

So: Even though I’m not a woman of color, even though I’ve never been sexually assaulted, I’ve found catharsis in Gay’s memoir.

I get this:

No matter where I am, I wonder about where I stand and how I look. I think, I am the fattest person in this apartment building. I am the fattest person in this class. I am the fattest person at this university. I am the fattest person in this theatre. I am the fattest person on this aeroplane. I am the fattest person in this airport. I am the fattest person in this city. I am the fattest person at this conference. I am the fattest person in this restaurant. I am the fattest person in this shopping mall. I am the fattest person on this panel. I am the fattest person in this casino.

I am the fattest person.

This is a constant refrain and I cannot escape it.

This is powerful and true.

My original aim today was to dismantle this piece asking if “feminism ruined The Last Jedi,” a question posed, in part, because the author believes that trying to shove women into the heroic parts usually played by men somehow is unnatural and ill-fitting.


Roxane Gay does not need my white guy validation — would probably refuse it if offered on those terms. But reading literature that comes from other perspectives and experiences, by women of color, is good for me. Where there are differences, it helps me see the world from a different angle. But it also reminds me of the commonalities.

Reading is good. Reading outside your own experience is good. I’m a better man when I do it.


Is political civility … pragmatic?


Thanks for pointing out that Gonzaga program. I’ve been thinking about this paragraph of your post, in particular:

I don’t want to overstate the case: I don’t think that we owe conversation to people who are hostile to us, deny our humanity, or want us to suffer. I don’t think we need to read primers on how to get along at the holidays with family members who think that treating us poorly is okay/

I thought of that again when I read this piece in Vox, which in turn references a Washington Post piece. Here’s the part that won’t surprise you — that you’ll definitely agree with:

Contrary to what some have suggested, white millennial Trump voters were not in more economically precarious situations than non-Trump voters. Fully 86 percent of them reported being employed, a rate similar to non-Trump voters; and they were 14 percent less likely to be low income than white voters who did not support Trump. Employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.

So what was? Racial resentment.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.

So what to do with that? The answer of many of my friends on the left has been succinct: Screw ’em. We’re writing them off.

And that’s understandable. For persons of color, especially, voters who act on racial resentment “are hostile to us, deny our humanity, … want us to suffer.”

But here’s the part of the Vox piece that offers a different solution:

 Research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and racial resentment may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-trans attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But all of this involves a lot of legwork, outreach, and a kind of empathy that people may not be comfortable with in an era of highly polarized politics.

So. What do we know?

• It’s really hard to change people’s views. Really hard. We are a stubborn species, no matter where you exist on the ideological spectrum.

• But: It is possible.

• And: In some cases, the effort may have a payoff that’s beyond political, but even moral.

Empathetic dialogue is hard. Most of us, these days, are so angry that we don’t want to do it. You’re even right, to some extent, that we shouldn’t have to do it – nobody should have to prove their humanity, right?

Right. But if our goal is to nudge society onto a different path than the one it’s currently on, that kind of hard work may be required anyway.


DACA, Jesus, and family: A letter

A DACA demonstration, by Bread for the World.

Dear Family,

Greetings to my dear ones across the world. Some of you are in Pakistan. Some in Canada. Many of you are scattered across the United States—Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Michigan, Kansas, California, etc. I am writing to all of you to tell you a little about myself. I know we see each other at weddings or funerals every few years. We hug and we take photos for Facebook (so we can show off our saris). But I am starting to realize we do not really know each other.

Let me explain.

As you know, I am an immigration attorney. But the work I do is public interest law — I serve low-income families, the vulnerable. Part of the reason I do this work is because of the religious tradition I inherited from you. I am proud to be descended from generations of Pakistani Christians who took me to church every Sunday and made me memorize chapters and chapters of the Bible. It shaped who I am. My values.

You taught me how to love. Empathize. How to be kind. Serve others. And now here I am, working with undocumented immigrants during a time when they are being vilified by our own president.

Soon, the government will stop accepting renewal applications for DACA aka Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA helped almost 800,000 young men and women who came here as children get protection from deportation. DACA helped them to work legally and achieve their dreams of going to college, owing a home, starting a family.

Fam, I wish you could come and follow me around for a day. For the last few weeks, young people have sat across from me and cried as they talk about the fear they feel. They’ve shown me their grades, pictures of their toddlers and talked about graduate schools plans they are afraid to pursue. And now they’re left waiting. Wondering. Afraid.

When I see them, I see my parents, uncles and aunts when they immigrated to the States. I see you.

This is wrong. This isn’t the Christianity you taught me. You taught me Christianity is beyond all borders and nations. You taught me “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” You taught me to treat everyone like an angel. You would say, “What would Jesus do?” You made me sing, “Jesus loves the little children/All the children of the world.” Does he though? Do you?

Do you know anyone with DACA? Odds are you do. You just don’t know you do. I am very thankful to know people like my former coworker and friend Rossmeri Ramirez. She has DACA and is speaking out about it. But we need others to speak out and support immigrants. We need you. I need you.

Family, we are scattered across the globe. We are the same. We eat the same food, flavor our basmati rice with the same mango pickle. We like the same clothes, we wear the same gold jewelry. We go to the same churches. But politically, we are very, very different.

Can you tell I am angry? I apologize. But I am angry. You shaped me into the person I am. You are proud of me. You believe in service and missions. And yet your politics is hurting the very people I am working to protect. This isn’t the Christianity I want to know. Can you explain it to me?


Kishwer Vikaas is an immigration attorney living in Sacramento, California. She grew up attending Mennonite church and school in Lancaster County, Philadelphia and South Jersey. She used to write about South Asian pop culture for Sepia Mutiny, MTVDesi, The Aerogram, etc. but has since retired. You can find her on Twitter @phillygrrl.

What are we willing to trade for DACA?

Dear Rebecca:

I take it as a given that — following Donald Trump’s DACA announcement — we’d both like to see Congress pass a law giving the so-called “Dreamers” a chance to stay in the U.S. legally and even create a pathway to citizenship for them.

So. What are we willing to give up?

Republicans control Congress, after all. Not all Republicans are immigration hardliners — lots, with the business community, love them all the cheap labor that immigration, legal and otherwise provides. But it remains the case that a unified GOP is probably going to want to pass a bill that lets them tell their constituents: “See! We made the country safer!” Just giving the Dreamers a legal pathway to stay isn’t going to get the job done. Giving the GOP a win might.

So I say: Give them the wall.

Don’t get me wrong. I think Trump’s wall is stupid. Probably ineffective. Mexico certainly won’t pay for it. And it goes against everything we’ve been taught about our country being a hope for people around the world who needs hope.

I also think most Republicans recognize that failing to come up with a solution on DACA will be a disaster — condemning people who are here to a lawless grey zone, at best, or requiring their deportation to “home” countries they don’t know at worst. That’s why President Trump, for all his anti-immigrant bravado, punted the issue back to Congress.

Still, I don’t trust the GOP simply to do the right thing. Do you?

So. A compromise of sorts will be probably needed. One that lets them look tough on immigration. Maybe it’s increased funding for ICE, or reduced numbers of legal immigrants. Of all the options on the table, building a wall seems like it might be the least bad.

There’s going to be a temptation among Democrats to hold out. And certainly, nothing should be conceded before both sides get to the negotiating table. There’s also no reason to give away the store. But if we truly believe that anything but legal status for the Dreamers amounts to a disaster — and I do — then we probably have to be willing to compromise, to not let perfect be the enemy of accomplishing something good. That means we’ll have to give up something we’d rather not give up. In politics, this is how it often works.

So. What are we willing to give up? There are real lives depending on the answer.

Sincerely, Joel


Hellboy, and the difficulty of giving up white privilege

Dear Rebecca:

Are you a Hellboy fan? No? Well, let me bring you some news from the world of entertainment:

After Ed Skrein was cast in the forthcoming reboot of Hellboy, frustration quickly surfaced over the white actor being slated to play Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character from the comic books. It was the latest installment in the Are We Seriously Still Talking About This? chronicles of studios racially miscasting roles in film and television. But, in a big twist, Skrein announced Monday that he will depart Hellboy to make way for a more appropriate actor, explaining his “moral” decision on Twitter.

In a response to both whitewashing complaints and Skrein’s decision to exit the film, Lionsgate has released a statement of their own today saying they are now committed to casting the role of Daimio correctly: “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”

28-ed-skrein.w190.h190So. We can argue whether the ethnicity of a fictional character is set in stone, but I’d like to leave that aside for now and say that what Skrein did was very, very laudable. He got a job based on a number of factors – he’s a talented prettyboy, after all – but also, probably, because Hollywood still finds it easier to cast white people in Asian roles than the other way around.

To his credit, Skrein didn’t try to rationalize this. He gave up his privilege.

Here’s the tough part: Giving up that privilege was probably, for Skrein, relatively easy. He’s been in movies before; he’s got several more in the process. He wasn’t giving up work, exactly — he was giving up this work. When you’re rich and (somewhat) famous, that’s a gamble worth taking, especially if you calculate that keeping the role might make you look like an insentive racist to part of the viewing audience.

Down the socioeconomic ladder, it’s a little harder.

I understand why a lot of folks don’t want to hear about white privilege. Maybe it means they get harassed by the cops less, or maybe they find it a little easier to get a job, and getting a job is goddamned difficult enough that it doesn’t always feel like much of a privilege. And hey, I’ve got kids to feed, too, so why should I give up my $40,000-a-year job to somebody else who deserves a shot?

The other thing: The situation isn’t usually so clear-cut as Skrein’s. He took a job that had long been envisioned for an Asian face. When I take an editing job,it’s rarely a “black” job, I take.

This is why folks like Trump win elections. Losing privilege is a loss, especially when it gets down to zero-sum questions of who gets this job.

So what Skrein did was admirable. It’s also not really an example to solving the problem.

Sincerely, Joel

Arpaio, Trump, and Nazis

Dear Rebecca:

Donald Trump’s pardon of  Joe Arpaio re-emphasizes something we already knew: The folks who say they only have a problem with illegal immigration often aren’t being totally square with us.


See, Arpaio got in legal trouble not because he was hunting illegal immigrants, but because — for all practical purposes — he was hunting Latinos: native-born, naturalized, or undocumented. Trump’s pardon says that’s OK.


A 2011 Justice Department report concluded that Arpaio engaged in “unconstitutional policing” by systematically targeting Latinos for racial profiling. That same year, in response to a lawsuit, a federal judge ordered Arpaio to stop detaining and harassing residents of largely Latino neighborhoods. He ignored the order and continued to perform sweeps, claiming they were lawful.

And, uh, yeah: That does put Trump on the side of Nazis, Confederates, and any other group of racists you care to find deplorable. It singles out a less-powerful group for legal harassment and possible arrests based on nothing more than the color of their skin.

That is racist. That is racist. That is racist. Period.

Respectfully, Joel


‘He’s No Angel’: The unbearable whiteness of innocence

Dear Rebecca:

Conor Friedersdorf is one of my favorite writers around right now. He’s conservative, but he’s probably the most intellectually honest commenter I know of — during the Obama Administration he was equally tough on both the president and the president’s most-stupid critics.

His latest post over at The Atlantic involves the consideration of a podcast interview between Sam Harris, professional atheist and Trump-hater, and Scott Adams, “Dilbert” creator and Trump-lover.

He quotes from the interview at length, and it was in those quotes that something jumped out at me:

Screen Shot 2017-07-13 at 6.40.50 PM
Technically, he’s white.

Adams: Keep in mind that President Trump’s past is far more public than other people. So you’re going to see the warts as well as the good stuff. But let me stop acting as if I disagree with the general claim that you’re making, that he has done things that you and I might not do in the same situation, and would disapprove of. That is common and would be shared by Trump supporters as well.

Harris: But then you seem to give it no ethical weight.

Adams: Here’s the proposition. He came in and he said in these very words, ‘I’m no angel.’ But I’m going to do these things for you. Now he created a situation where for his self-interest, if you imagine he’s the most selfish, narcissistic, egotistical human who ever lived, he only cares about himself, he put himself in the position where there was exactly one way for any of those things to go right for him, which is to do a really, really frickin’ good job, and to imagine that he wants to do anything but the best job for the country now, now that he’s in the position, and probably even when he was running, is beyond ludicrous.

“No angel.” Where had I heard that term before?

Oh. Yeah. It’s used anytime a black person has been abused by police — to suggest that even if the victim of that abuse didn’t haven it coming, he or she probably still had it coming. It’s a cliche among activists now, one that had its origins in the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and the New York Times coverage afterwards.

Justin Cohen explained the problem with this last year for HuffPo:

In the wake of police executions, you are bound to hear a few things that distract from the real issues. One of those storylines is that “he was no angel,” wherein the media will outline the various ways in which the victim behaved inappropriately in the past. None of this matters, and it certainly does not change the fact that the police killed the person outside of any legal process. I smoked pot when I was in high school, for example, and if the police used that as justification to murder me, that would be ludicrous.

Which brings us back to the president. As Friedersdorf notes: “It is fascinating that Adams counts the pronouncement, ‘I’m no angel,’ as a point in Trump’s favor, as if unapologetically acknowledging moral depravity lessens its weight.”

Indeed, for our white president, “he’s no angel” is his “boys will be boys” get out of jail card, an exculpatory phrase, whereas when the phrase is used with black people, it’s to heap guilt upon them in, at best, ambiguous circumstances.

Seems wrong, somehow.

Sincerely, Joel