Monthly Archives: September 2014

Jane was not her name, but her real name was an equally common one. In many ways, she was much like her name. Pretty enough, but not a stunner. Slightly taller than average, but not tall enough to stand out. Dark skinned, but not noticeably so. Neither curvy nor boyish. As I try to recall her appearance thirty years later, I can’t even conjure in my mind how she wore her hair. I’m pretty sure she did have hair because if she didn’t I would have noticed.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed her at all in our large school if we didn’t have several classes together, most notably a drama class that had perhaps a dozen students. It’s impossible to overlook someone in a drama class, especially a small one. She was, I recall, always friendly, but in a distant, quiet way.

If Jane was plain, Lola was a stunner. Voluptuous, sultry, a Puerto Rican girl with glossy, black hair, coffee-colored skin and large black eyes. She and I were rapidly becoming friends. I remember one day, standing in the hallway of our school. It must have been lunchtime because none of us were in a hurry. Jane mentioned to Lola that she was having a party that weekend. She asked her to come. She didn’t ask me. I shuffled my feet a little bit and tried to not look too awkward. I was making friends in school, so this wasn’t crushing, and although Jane and I were on friendly terms, we weren’t friends, so it wasn’t a shock that I wouldn’t be invited. I did find it a little strange that she would invite Lola while I was standing there. So, while this wasn’t a huge social humiliation or a dramatic personal blow, everyone likes to be liked and I wanted to be invited.

My discomfort must have been palpable because Jane turned to me and said, “I don’t want you to think that I don’t want to invite you. My brother and his friends give me a hard time about acting ‘too white.’ It’s bad enough as it is. If I invited white kids to my party, they’d give me so much trouble.”

Prior to attending this school, all my other schools had been mostly white. I could see from my first day there that some sort of self-segregation was going on in the school, but I hadn’t yet learned the whys and wherefores. I say self-segregated, but don’t imagine anything too terribly hostile. Outside the school, there was a grassy area shaded by tall trees along a small stream. If you walked by at lunchtime, you’d see teenagers eating bagged lunches or lunches bought at a nearby shop. You might see a cluster of half a dozen black boys with one white boy or a group of four or five white girls with a couple of black girls. In fact, I’d say that self-segregation along gender lines was more common than along racial lines. However, I had always gone to public schools and was used to mixed sex groups and knew what to expect and how to navigate them socially. A racially integrated school was still new to me. I still didn’t know how to navigate it. So Jane’s reason for not inviting me was in important piece of information. She was experiencing social pressure from her family.

A week or two later, in our drama class, as some sort of trust exercise, we each had to tell the class something the rest of the class didn’t know about us. I was a pretty straight kid with an unremarkable life and finding some deep secret was harder than you might expect. I can’t remember what I said. In fact, I can’t remember what anyone said, except Jane. She told us that her brother and his friends made fun of her for being a “wannabe” because she got good grades. It would be a few years yet before Spike Lee’s School Daze would popularize the term. She said that she told her brother, “I’m not going to get bad grades just because you think getting good grades is ‘white.’ I don’t think being ignorant is being ‘black.’ I going to do what I want to do and be myself and I don’t care what you say.” But she did care, she told us, and she tried hard to act “black” and to not seem “white” in any other way.

This memory was jogged by a short article by John McWhorter, “No, ‘Acting White’ Has Not Been Debunked,” the overall thrust of which is summarized in the title. I followed the link from his article to an opinion piece that was given as an example of the opinions McWhorter was countering. The core of Nia-Malika Henderson’s article, “What President Obama gets wrong about ‘acting white’” is:

The North Carolina based study showed black students, some in predominantly black schools, and others in predominantly white schools, negotiating peer pressure and class selection in much the same way that their white peers did.  The study suggests a common strain that sometimes has poor white kids dealing with the burden of being seen as “uppity” and “snobbish,” and black kids in predominantly white school settings, on occasion grappling with that same notion, with a racialized overlay.  It’s essentially nerds versus jocks, yet it plays out in very nuanced ways depending on the school setting and is complicated by class, race and in-group versus out-group pressures.


Harvard economist, Roland G. Fryer, finds evidence that the most high achieving blacks students at predominantly white schools taking a hit on the popularity front, but finds no evidence of the same trend at predominantly black schools. He also finds that “variants on acting white have been spotted by ethnographers among the Buraku outcasts of Japan, Italian immigrants in Boston’s West End, the Maori of New Zealand, and the British working class, among others.”

The fact that a similar dynamic is at work in other society and among other groups does not negate the reality that academically high-achieving black students in some communities (note, some not all) are criticized by their family and friends for “acting white.” Now that Henderson has jogged my memory, I can recall having critical things said to me by working class boys about the fact that I got good grades, calling me a snob. It was ineffectual because they were not part of my social circle. Had I come from a family with a strong working class identity, perhaps my response to that would have been different.

It seems to me that the major disagreement between McWhorter and Henderson is not about the facts, but how the facts should be discussed.

One little note, as I experienced it, the conflict wasn’t between “jocks and nerds,” it was between those who felt themselves to be marginalized by the society and those who were trying to be a part of it.

Look, I’m just an ordinary Joe with a newspaper subscription. I don’t have a Ph.D. in international relations. I don’t really know anything that large swathes of the general public don’t know. Embarrassingly, a large portion of my knowledge of recent Middle Eastern history comes from watching Lawrence of Arabia. I’m not proud of this. I’m only mentioning it to underline a point, my knowledge of the Middle East is pretty thin and mainly due to contemporary newspaper reports. Like I said, I’m pretty ordinary.

So, I don’t feel like I’m being a snob when I take the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, to task for ignorance. I just read, “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was booed offstage Wednesday night by a crowd of Middle Eastern Christians after he told the crowd they had “no greater ally than Israel.” (Raw Story)

Now, if I were to trace my thought process, I’d reveal just how limited my knowledge of the area is. When I see “Christian”, “Middle East” and “Israel” in the same sentence the first person I think of is the prominent literary theorist and former president of the Modern Language Association, Edward Said. I also recall that during his tenure as head of the MLA he was frequently criticized because of his Palestinian nationalist politics. Although an atheist himself, he came from a Palestinian Christian family. I know, this is a thin thread on which to hang any claim to understand the Middle East, and that is part of my point. I have, due to interests in completely unrelated subjects, a vague awareness that there is tension between Palestinian Christians and Israel. The Palestinian conflict with Israel is not due to religion. It is due to imperialism and conquest. The most prominent Palestinian group opposing Israel today is Hamas, but not long ago it was the Palestinian Liberation Organization, or the PLO, a group that was not associated with a religion.

The unrest in the Middle East has been raging since before I was born. I confess, my eyes glaze over when I read about a new conflict. So, the information I personally know is very piecemeal. Again, this isn’t something I’m proud of. I just want to show how average I am. However, when I flip though the paper, I see the headlines nonetheless.

Now, if someone wanted me to speak before a group that was knowledgeable on the subject, be they Israeli, Palestinians, or anyone else, you could be damned sure I would do some research. I wouldn’t leave it at my little ordinary Joe level of patchy knowledge. There’s something to be said for knowing what you don’t know. Ted Cruz is so ignorant that he doesn’t even realize that there is something to know.

I don’t know the history of Israel. I recall that there was a mention of Zionism in Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. Although I love Eliot and think she was both brilliant and wise, I always felt a little uncomfortable with some of the racial aspects in that book. In that book is a portrayal of early Zionism. At the end of the novel, Daniel and his fiancée are preparing to move to the Middle East. I know that is a strange source for my awareness that some diaspora Jews, feeling that they would never be accepted as fellow countrymen in European nations, began moving to the region now known as Israel. What government was there at that time? Honestly, I don’t know. Normally, if I were writing this post I’d look this up before going further, but I want to show how little I know. If I had to guess, I would speculate that the region was controlled by the Ottoman Empire.

Now, what else is in my spotty store of knowledge? Well, I know that the Ottoman Empire came to an end with the First World War and France and Britain partitioned the empire. I had an Israeli friend who liked to blame the British for everything wrong in the Middle East. I know almost nothing of the details, although a few weeks ago I read an article about it in The New York Review of Books. That’s a little factoid that’s filed in the back of my mind with a question mark above it because I have every reason to believe that she is not impartial. However, I am aware that throughout the period between the wars, there a was a trickle of Jews moving to the British run area at that time known as Palestine.

After the Second World War, that trickle became a flood and I don’t think anyone needs to be told why. (Actually, not long ago I read that many people who grow up in the Middle East do not learn about the Holocaust, so maybe that statement is too broad. If you are unaware of the place of Jews in European society prior to the Second World War, you might want to take a look at this Wikipedia article on The Jewish question. The Holocaust was supposed to be the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.”) In the wake of the Second World War, large numbers of Jews entered British run Palestine illegally. The Jews in Palestine waged a guerrilla war against the British and the British passed the question of what to do about Palestine onto the United Nations. The UN then created, in the territory that had been British run Palestine, an Arab state, a Jewish state and the independent city of Jerusalem. There’s lots of fighting among different groups at this point and I don’t know the details. All I know, is that by the time I was old enough to read the newspaper, we had the supposedly intractable problem that exists today.

This is the fairly thin and commonplace knowledge of someone who has no particular interest in the subject and whose opinion on this subject is never ever sought. In the unlikely event I was invited to speak before the organization In Defense of Christians, “a non-profit, non-partisan organization whose mission is to heighten awareness among policymakers and the general public of the existence of ancient and often persecuted minority communities in the Middle East, particularly Christians,” you can damn well bet I would do some research first. From Cruz’s comments I would be under the impression that he didn’t even go so far as to read the about page of the group to whom he was about to speak. This is especially worrisome in light of the fact that the United States is getting more and more deeply involved in the Middle East. It would be easy to say, “I wish we wouldn’t,” but at this point we are deep enough in that even to simply scale back our involvement is a delicate operation requiring first and foremost an understanding of what is going on. I am simply very worried about the ignorance of those who have the hubris to want to lead us.

I do not have the requisite knowledge to have firm opinions about what the U.S. role in the Middle East should or should not be, but at least I know I don’t know. More importantly, the thought, “perhaps I could be President of the United States,” has never entered my mind. The idea of Ted Cruz as President is simply scary. He can’t even speak to a group of Christians without making a mess.

It’s hard for me to speculate on what Cruz was thinking. My own hunch, and it’s just a hunch, is that the Christian Nationalist view of the world is so simplistic and distorted that, despite being a supposedly “smart guy,” Ted Cruz doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what is going on in the world. He probably believes that all Christians believe as he does.

Many Fundamentalist Christians believe that the creation of Israel is the beginning of the “End-times”, the era preceding the end of the world. All Christians do not believe the same thing about the end of the world, so I don’t know if Ted Cruz shares those beliefs, but his simplistic understanding of the Middle East makes me fear that he does.

Sorry, sorry, sorry. Now, with the hashtag #WhyIStayed, suddenly the PC thing is to become collective enablers to abusive relationships. I hope I never have “friends” like that. When my parents found out that my live-in relationship had turned abusive they helped me get out. I was trapped because of money and wouldn’t have been able to get out of the relationship if other people didn’t come to help me. Not only my parents, by platonic male and female friends all reinforced the notion that it was not okay and it was important to leave.

In subsequent years I found myself on the other end that sob story and I told my friends in no uncertain terms, “Get the fuck out!” I remember one conversation where a friend was blubbering, “But I love him.” “Stop being a fucking doormat, ’cause I’m simply not going to listen to this anymore,” sometimes being a real friend can make you feel like a meanie.

Yeah, it’s good to get out of an abusive relationship.

My mother always told me in no uncertain terms that I was to never ever let a man hit me. She drilled that into my head over and over throughout my adolescence. And it goes in reverse as well. Gentlemen, if your girlfriend or wife is hitting you, get the fuck out. There’s no excuse for that.

Normally, I wouldn’t write about this sort of celebrity stupidity. Janay is obviously punch drunk if she married a man who punched her out cold. However, I am concerned about the messages society gives. Young, impressionable girls are reading your pathetic “Why I Stayed” tweets, making it sound so romantic. “Oooh, this is what true love is.” One of my friends’ mother, when I was in high school, used to pull me aside and give me little mini-lectures about how I needed a man who could control me because I was too willful and independent. Let’s not pretend that this isn’t about how some people perceive gender roles.

A cousin of mine once told me that she stayed with her abusive husband because that’s what she saw growing up and she thought it was normal. “I didn’t know it wasn’t okay for a man to hit me.”

The friend’s mother who used to give me lectures? She left her husband when he knocked out her teeth.

I feel very sorry for women who would like to leave but can’t because they don’t have the means, but that isn’t what Janay said,

No one knows the pain that hte media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass of for all his life just to gain ratings is horrific.

“THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels. Just know we will continue to grow & show the world what real love is!”

If that’s real love, then I don’t want love. She makes being a human punching bag sound romantic, and that’s worrisome. She should be embarrassed. She married her abuser. It’s sad, pathetic and sick, and little girls growing up today need to know that. This isn’t romantic and it sure as hell isn’t “real love.”

She also said that she’s “feeling like I’m mourning the death of my closest friend,” which I really have to say sticks in my craw. I AM mourning the death of my closest friend. I’ve never stayed in an abusive relationship, but I left one, and I have to say the two things are not alike.

The woman who created the hashtag? Well, one of the reasons why she stayed was:

I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too. #WhyIStayed

God! Why am I unsurprised. How sad to allow yourself be abused in the name of a God that probably doesn’t exist. If this is feminism, then, like love, I don’t want it either. I know that relationships can be complex. I was married and am now divorced. Two other times I’ve tried to live with men. Explaining how I got into such bad relationships requires a blow-by-blow portrayal. What shouldn’t be complex, however, is the message we’re sending to younger women and men. There are some bright shining lines that are easy to see. Physical violence has no place in a relationship. It has no place in a family.

I’m glad my mother gave me a clear message about that. It helped me overcome the more muddled messages given by the rest of society. Why did she feel so strongly about that? Her father abused her mother.

We judge people’s behavior all the time. This is how we work as a society to decide what is moral, to decide what is right and wrong. When Eliot Rodgers shot a bunch of people in Santa Barbara a few months ago, people had no problem judging that behavior. We judge Ray Rice for hitting her and we can judge Janay Rice for staying.

I like to believe that people are redeemable and can be rehabilitated. I’d like to think that both Ray Rice and Janay Rice could somehow go on to have a healthy relationship that doesn’t include violence, though I have my doubts that such a transformation could happen so quickly. However, I don’t have to “respect” her decision. In fact, I don’t respect her. There, I said it. I don’t respect women who stay in abusive relationships. Pity, yes. Respect, no.

#WhyIStayed – I didn’t.

As I said to my cousin, “All men don’t hit. You don’t have to put up with that. It’s not normal and it’s not okay. There are good men out there.”

I’ve spent the past couple of weeks moving and haven’t checked my email in a few days. Finally, I’m more or less moved in and I sat down to write a post. I paused to check my email and suddenly what I was writing seemed too frivolous to continue.

For about five years I had an email correspondence with a man in Germany. We probably averaged about two or three emails a week, but it was not unusual for us to write every day for a week or a month at a time. Eventually, I came to think of him as one of my closest friends. We flirted more than a little, but we never met. It’s hard to describe how I felt about him. I had affection for him that went beyond being purely platonic, but the fact that we never met prevented it from turning into a full-fledged love affair, but flirtation always lurked in the background. When I saw the movie Catfish, I felt a little disappointed because I thought that they missed the opportunity to explore a more profound question. What does it mean to truly know someone? Why do we like the people we like?

Then last September, he stopped writing. At first, I wondered, but there had been times in the past when he told me that work got busy. He also confessed to emotional problems, specifically depression. However, the longest he had ever gone without writing was two weeks. As we moved into October, I began to wonder. I wrote multiple times and resisted the urge to write many times more. I cried into my pillow. Walking down the street one evening I saw a street sign with the same name as the town in Germany were he lived. I had to momentarily brace myself against a building. I reviewed in my mind every word of the last email he sent and my response trying to find some offense that I could have made.

My sister insisted that something had happened to him because, she said, he would not abandon me so easily.

Several days ago, his brother sent me an email which I only just read this evening. I did not know his brother, but I recognized the surname and immediately knew why he had written. My friend died last September.

It’s hard to describe what a loss I’m feeling right now.