Making Mistakes

Today we’re learning distribution. I’ve just done a few whole-class examples and now I’ve put some practice exercises on the board.

As my students begin copying them into their notebooks (so they can show their work), I begin circulating the classroom.

My intent is clear: identify mistakes and correct them. This is important, both artificially because it’s on state exams and implicitly because the relationship between multiplication and addition that is distribution has profound impacts on number systems that underlie a plethora of physical phenomena and theoretical constructs alike.

The first few students I check in with are plowing ahead, all the way to the second question already. Then I get to one of my struggling learners. Let’s call him Joe.

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The Black Guy

I remember attending a party, a get-together, maybe I was just out at the bar. A few days later, I was talking with a friend, and he was asking if I knew someone there. “He had short hair, a white t-shirt…” the descriptions kept going, and literally they could describe half the people in the room. So finally I asked, “The Black guy?”

My friend got flustered and didn’t know what to say. Finally he stammered, “Yeah.”

I shrugged and said, yeah, I knew him, and said his name. End of story.

Except it isn’t, because I’ve been thinking a lot lately of how I’ve been racialized, how I’ve been shaped as a white man, how as a white man I’ve made mistakes that have hurt the people of color around me, that I’ve done things I thought were right that were actually pretty racist.

So why did my friend feel so horrified to fully describe that person as Black?

On the surface, as another white person, I’m sure he felt that if he acknowledged a Black person’s race that he would be doing something racist–it’s bad to describe people based upon their race. But that’s wrong: race is as valid a descriptor as height, hair color, or if he has hair at all. It isn’t until we make assumptions based upon race that it turns into prejudice, and it isn’t until that prejudice turns into action that it becomes discrimination.

But the fact that he couldn’t say, “He was Black,” screams of racism.

Think of it like this: What if instead of being Black, the man had done something embarrassing that would’ve immediately made his identity known. Maybe he’d dripped cheese dip on his sweater. Maybe he forgot to zip his fly. Maybe he came overdressed to a casual party. To call him out on any of these things would be describing him according to a fact that we perceive as embarrassing, as impolite to mention, as undesirable and inferior.

So we wouldn’t say, “He spilled wine on his pants,” because that would be rude, so when we refuse to name his race, when we refuse to acknowledge his Blackness, then what’s the unspoken conclusion we’re creating about what it means to be Black?

That being Black is undesirable and inferior.

Erasing parts of his identity to appear in-offensive implies there’s something offensive about the part of his identity we’re erasing. When we ignore race, when we refuse to see race, when we insist we’re colorblind, we’re perpetrating racism by stifling the conversation. By implying that just acknowledging someone’s race is calling them out for being something bad.

Moments like this bubble up for me all the time. Small bits of memory that seep into my awareness at odd moments throughout the day, while I’m watching something on TV, reading a book, hanging out with friends. They’re innocuous moments, the sort of filler that’s too bland, too real to ever be captured in cinema or script. Yet something about those moments riled me inside, left me unsettled and questioning: Why? Why did I react like that? Why did he?

It’s uncomfortable, I’ll admit, but maybe I’m a masochist: Examining that discomfort feels meaningful, feels significant. I don’t have all the answers, I don’t know the solutions to the problems we’re facing, but maybe by looking back at these instances of cognitive dissonance, I can discover something about myself, something about the world I’m living in.

So, yeah, he was the Black guy. Why couldn’t we just say that from the start?

Why I still read racist, sexist, and transphobic stories

Consider this: HP Lovecraft and JRR Tolkien wrote stories that are blatantly, textually racist, but I’ll still cite “The Call of Cthulhu” as one of the greatest horror stories of all time and I’ll fawn over The Lord of the Rings whenever I’m given the chance.

Also consider this: I once attended a book signing for Orson Scott Card, of Ender’s Game fame, who coincidentally is also from North Carolina like I am, and when I asked for his signature on a notepad because I didn’t have the money to buy his new book, he gave me a free copy instead. Years later, as I learned his staunchly conservative views on homosexuality and how he actively promoted homophobic policies, I still happily bought and read his books.

And finally, this: I grew up with Harry Potter, and no matter how many transphobic comments JK Rowling posts on Twitter, I’ll still proudly wear a Golden Snitch tattooed on my forearm and never once question my love and adoration for her books.

But, uh, if I want to be anti-racist, why do I do any of this?

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I was wrong

About a week ago, I wrote the following:

It’s a basic fact that the police are given power that the general populace does not have, and if everybody is the product of socialization within a racialized (and racist) society, then it’s inevitable that racists will be behind the badge–probably in roughly equal proportions as racists in general–and they will use, no, abuse that power in alignment with their own biases.

I shouldn’t have written something about the police without first educating myself about the police, and my assertion that policing is racist because some people are racist and they carry that prejudice with them wherever they go was nothing short of oversimplification.

Yeah, that’s probably a small part of the problem, but it’s not the real problem.

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Race Words

I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

The world is burning up–from fever and riots–yet I sit at my table, face the window, see the sunlight, the brick-and-blue building across from me, and then look back at my computer.

What am I doing?

What are we doing?

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Man in the Iron Masc

This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

When I was six or seven, my aunt gave me a copy of The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexander Dumas. It’s part of his D’Artagnan saga, most notably begun as the Three Musketeers. It’s a novel of historical adventure, with a political twist–not quite satire, but enough criticism it probably played a role in catalyzing the French Revolution.

The version I was given, however, was adapted for children. I never read it.

The book sat on my bookshelves for ages, and I probably still have it somewhere, stored away in a box in a closet probably, but because it was a gift, something given to me, I always felt obligated to read it. The intrigue was always present, if my interest in reading it was not: Who was this man? And why did he wear a mask made of iron?

The historical figure we may never know, but the fiction is a story all its own.

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Breaking the Binary

This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

“Male or female?” The form is generic–it could be anything–but the question is as particular as it could get. Just two options. No room for black or white or grey. Just male or female. Or. The “either” is implied; the “both” is inconceivable.

For me, it doesn’t matter. I check the first box (because, after all, the male box always goes first) and carry on with my day without giving it a second thought. That’s because the sex I was assigned at birth is the sex I identify with. It’s a privilege often taken for granted, that when the doctor overseeing my birth wrote “male” on my birth certificate, it ended up describing me pretty well. Just like how the magazine printed on cheap newspaper in the checkout aisle looked at my birth date, said I’m a Gemini, and then stuck me in a box forever. Thankfully, that descriptor ended up pretty on point, too.

But all that means is I’m just one of the lucky ones.

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This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

It’s a logical dilemma, I told my friend Cole. We’ve been friends for over a decade–we met in an online writers forum and though we’ve never met in person, I consider Cole one of my closest friends. When you share your writing with someone, an intimacy develops that rivals romance, and Cole has not only shared but inspired my stories.

Cole is also trans, and while I was investigating transgender issues more deeply and hitting mental blocks of my own to better understand trans experiences, Cole was kind enough to let me lean into the discomfort and talk about the hard things.

Cole has also given me permission to share some of the words we exchanged, for which I’m especially grateful: Not only did their words help me understand things more deeply, they also said them far more eloquently than I ever could.

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Battle Lines

This post is part of my 2019 Pride Month series “Proudly Reaffirming Identity, Diversity, and Equity,” exploring present-day issues facing the LGBTQ+ and allied communities.

It’s raining today. The sky was overcast all morning as I nurtured a throbbing hangover. Last night was my first gay wedding. Well, it wasn’t my wedding, but of all the weddings I’ve been to, this was the first same-sex affair. It was a delight. The grooms hosted an amazing party, with delicious cupcakes and a well-stocked bar at a local staple of the “gay district” in Milwaukee, and two local drag queens performed. It was beautiful.

It was, in a word, progress.

There’s a reason why this was my first gay wedding: Up until a few years ago, same-sex marriage was still illegal in most of the country. But through advocacy and activism, through raising our shared voices and not just waiting for legislators to give equality, but facing the courts and demanding it, this battle was won.

But this battle, big as it was, is just a single front in a much larger, ongoing war.

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