My Rude Awakening on White Males, Brown Females and #BlackLivesMatter


LPA personal epiphany about race and gender, to my fellow white males:

No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

I’ll explain.

It started in 2012 when I met Leela at the iconic Greenwich Village jazz club Smalls. Leela (pictured right) is of Indian heritage but is ethnically ambiguous and is regularly mistaken for someone she is not.

Two things there is no confusion about: to the outside world, she is a woman and she is non-white.

Leela and I moved in together within months and are happily married after four years. My rude awakening began almost immediately. First, the skewed glances when we held hands on the street. Not only are we a mixed couple but there is an age difference between us, so I chalked it off to curiosity. I assumed New York City was as tolerant a place as you’ll get in America and that we would barely merit a passing glance.

How wrong I was.

Shortly after we met, Leela moved into my apartment in Battery Park City, an oasis in the bustling heart of the world’s money machine, a stone’s throw from the towering headquarters of Goldman Sachs. It’s a neighborhood where privilege abounds, where dogs have walkers, kids have nannies, homes have housekeepers, and buildings have attendants. It’s where supermarkets deliver at all hours, where main courses start at $30, where weekends involve loading the family SUV and driving being driven to the Hamptons.

I chose that neighborhood years before it became what it is today. A long-time Upper West Sider, I moved to lower Manhattan shortly after the September 11th attacks for a number of reasons, not least of which was a sense of solidarity with the victims, several of whom were friends. I stayed because I thought living near a river was the only way my young daughter could get a taste of nature while still growing up in a polluted, over-crowded metropolis. (I’ve since moved near the park, for the same reason.)

Back to the present and my induction into a world seen through a darker prism. A day after Leela moved in, she came home visibly upset. I asked what happened. Apparently, the doorman had blocked her from entering the building, refusing to believe that the keys she was carrying were legitimately hers. She had to convince him to check the approved tenants list before he allowed her to go to her own home.

The incidents piled up. Things that may seem small to someone who doesn’t endure these experiences, but that in aggregate soured her daily life. The cabs that wouldn’t stop when she tried to hail them but hit the brakes and backed up when they saw she was with me. The clerks asking her to verify her ID every time she presented a credit card. The smiles at me from neighbors and barely concealed scowls at her when I turned away. The usual catcalls and crude comments when she walked alone. It quickly became clear that although we shared the same day to day life, her existence was profoundly different from mine.

The event that brought it to a head was when she pressed ‘PH’ in the elevator and the other occupant, a white male, asked which penthouse apartment she was going to clean. The idea that she lived there didn’t occur to him. When I heard about it, my indignation was palpable. It was the indignation and disrespect she lived with every day and that was alien to me.

Over the years we’ve been together, like all couples, Leela and I have shared our deep secrets, formative events that have left lifelong scars. We each have our stories. But nothing we spoke about prepared me for the steady accumulation of little emotional cuts, the insults of everyday life that keep her guard up at all times. This was something entirely new to me.

A progressive activist since college, I’d convinced myself that I was sensitive to the plight of others, enlightened about the hardships that humans face, self-aware enough to know that my experience was not necessarily that of the people around me. As a Lebanese-American who grew up a child of war and witnessed and survived death and destruction, I told myself that I got it. I knew to respect the perspective of other individuals, no matter how different that perspective was from mine.

What I didn’t realize was that we are stuck in our own heads far more than we can appreciate and that empathy has limitations. As a white male, I can convince myself that I understand racism and sexism, but it’s far more intellectual than visceral. My point of view is distorted by the culture I exist in.

These numbers from the Washington Post provide context:

In a 100-friend scenario, the average white person has 91 white friends; one each of black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races; and three friends of unknown race. The average black person, on the other hand, has 83 black friends, eight white friends, two Latino friends, zero Asian friends, three mixed race friends, one other race friend and four friends of unknown race. The average black person’s friend network is eight percent white, but the average white person’s network is only one percent black. To put it another way: Blacks have ten times as many black friends as white friends. But white Americans have an astonishing 91 times as many white friends as black friends.

Until I married Leela and saw the world through her eyes, I was partially blind, believing I saw the harsh truths but only seeing them through a white-tinted lens. Living life as a woman of color is an automatic double strike against you. Leela and I move through the same physical space but our mental space is altered by the people around us, by the insidious prejudice (pre-judgment) surrounding us and shaping our reality.

I say all this as #BlackLivesMatter draws stark lines of demarcation between those who get it and those who don’t. I know I’ll never fully feel what Leela feels, but I can still rage against racism, fight inequality and injustice. I can still take a stand and make a difference, but I must do it with humility and acknowledgment of my own biases.

I’ll conclude by re-posting something I wrote after the Charleston massacre:

I look at my daughter and wonder about the world I brought her into. Yes, there is beauty and love, but there is also agony, brutality, sexual violence, abuse, extreme inequality, rampant injustice, preventable starvation and disease, blind greed, intractable bigotry.

Of the evils we create (and confront) as human beings, racism is one of the ugliest. It shows its hideous face in myriad ways.

The past few years have been particularly heinous in America. Today, it’s a white man marching into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and gunning down nine worshipers. Before that it was 12 year-old Tamir Rice shot down by cops for holding a toy gun. Before that it was Eric Garner choked to death on a busy New York street for selling cigarettes. And on and on…

Black Americans have been slaughtered on the streets for riding BART trains, holding toys, seeking help after a car accident, selling cigarettes, riding bikes, wearing hoodies, buying skittles, running away from danger, and playing music. They have been killed sitting in their homes.

No activity is safe, no location secure. Death can come from anywhere, for any reason. Shot in the back. Publicly strangled to death. And justice is never guaranteed.

We all share responsibility for the moral failings of our nation and we all must play a part in rectifying those failings. The question is how we do it. We cannot root out all prejudice – it is ingrained in human nature. Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is famous for this quote: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But in his letter, he also writes: “I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes.”

To get to the underlying causes, we must start by speaking the truth and calling things by their proper name.

Yes, #BlackLivesMatter. So much is contained in those three words, so much more than many of us understand, however well-meaning we are. As I said: No matter how sincerely we think we get it, we don’t really get it.

UPDATE (7/7/16): This was published a year ago and since then, many more lives have been snuffed out under similar circumstances. Most recently: Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. This brutality must end.

The demise of the left and the new (un)reality: a center-right America


Let’s face it, these are dark days for the left. As we barrel toward the November elections and an almost certain triumph for the GOP, we are losing the national debate and making giant strides backward on key issues.

It’s the new (un)reality:

  • George W. Bush is steadily and surely being rehabilitated and now the question is how much gratitude we owe him.
  • Sarah Palin can move the public discourse with a single tweet, promoting a worldview consisting of unreflective, nationalistic soundbites.
  • Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Fox are dominating the national conversation, feeding a steady stream of propaganda packaged as moral platitudes to tens of millions of true believers.
  • In the face of overwhelming evidence, climate deniers are choking the life out of the environmental movement and willfully condemning humanity to a calamitous future.
  • From ACORN to Van Jones, liberal scalps are being taken with impunity.
  • Feminism is being redefined and repossessed by anti-feminists.
  • Women are facing an all-out assault on choice.
  • Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is being co-opted by a radio jock.
  • Schoolbooks are being rewritten to reflect the radical right’s anti-science views.
  • The rich-poor divide grows by the minute and teachers and nurses struggle to get by while bankers get massive bonuses.
  • We mark the end of a war based on lies with congratulations to all, and we escalate another war with scarce resources that could save countless lives.
  • An oil spill that should have been a historic inflection point gets excised from public awareness by our own government and disappears down the memory hole (until the next disaster).
  • Guns abound and the far right’s interpretation of the second amendment (the only one that seems to matter) is now inviolate.
  • Bigotry and discrimination against immigrants, against Muslims, against gays and lesbians is mainstream and rampant.
  • The frightening unconstitutional excesses of the Bush administration have been enshrined and reinforced by a Democratic White House, ensuring that they will become precedent and practice.
  • Girls and women across the planet continue to get beaten, raped, ravaged, mutilated, and murdered while sports games induce a more passionate response.

All this a meager eighteen months after a wave of hope swept the nation and gave heart to progressives who had battled for sanity and rationality during the dark days of Bush. Well, these days are much darker. Already the national discourse is conducted on the right’s terms.  The marginalization of liberal thought under Bush-Cheney has only accelerated under Obama, and we must accept that indeed, America is — or is becoming — a center-right nation.

Why is this? My thoughts:

There is a simple formula for rightwing dominance of our national debate, even when Democrats are in charge: move the conversation as extreme right as possible, then compromise toward the far right.

This is something Republicans are willing to do while Democrats are not. The media plays along, so the net effect is for rightwing framing to prevail. And prevail it has. The consequence is that public opinion is shifting to the right.

The only question is how far right it can go before there’s a correction. I’m not optimistic.

UPDATE: Let me just add that by no means is this about quitting, but about being realistic. I’d never advocate giving up the progressive fight and I relish taking on those who want to take America “back” instead of taking it forward. With all the setbacks — and we’re facing a major one now — I have faith in the inexorable march of progress. Ultimately, humans will civilize themselves. Let’s hope we don’t bake our species out of existence before that happens.

No justice on earth until girls are free from these horrors


There is no graver (self-imposed) risk to human existence than the ravaging of our planet and there is no greater outrage on our planet than the wholesale oppression of girls and women.

I defy you to listen to these stories without getting overwhelmed with horror and anger:

And if that wasn’t enough, read these examples of what girls and women endure every day and let the anguish sink in:

This:

Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist, cannot bear to listen to the stories his patients tell him anymore. Every day, 10 new women and girls who have been raped show up at his hospital. Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair. “We don’t know why these rapes are happening, but one thing is clear,” said Dr. Mukwege, who works in South Kivu Province, the epicenter of Congo’s rape epidemic. “They are done to destroy women.”

Or this:

13-year old Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was stoned to death in Somalia by insurgents because she was raped. Reports indicate that she was raped by three men while traveling by foot to visit her grandmother in Mogadishu. When she went to the authorities to report the crime, they accused her of adultery and sentenced her to death. Aisha was forced into a hole in a stadium of 1,000 onlookers as 50 men buried her up to the neck and cast stones at her until she died. A witness who spoke to the BBC’s Today programme said she had been crying and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning, reported to have taken place in a football stadium. … She said: ‘I’m not going, I’m not going. Don’t kill me, don’t kill me.’ “A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.” The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was “awful”.

Or this:

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, which includes crimes that were not reported to the police, 232,960 women in the U.S. were raped or sexually assaulted in 2006. That’s more than 600 women every day.

There can be no justice on earth until we address this greatest of travesties.

Violence against women and the law


Striking:

[O]nly about one third of countries around the world have laws in place to combat violence against women, and in most of these countries those laws are not enforced, well resourced or taken seriously.

Violence against women and girls, in the form of human trafficking, harmful cultural practices, rape as a tactic of war and domestic violence, is one of the single greatest barriers holding women back. A staggering statistic: one out of every three women will be a victim of violence in her lifetime. And the problem is getting worse every year.

I stick by this New Year’s prediction:

Another decade closes, another decade dawns, another thing you can bet on in the years to come: women across this planet will be disrespected, beaten, abused, violated, oppressed. Simply for being born female.

I have one child, a daughter. Not yet 2. But I know full well that her gender automatically brings with it the likelihood that at some point (perhaps at many points), she’ll be treated like a second-class citizen.