Owning my privilege.

C., a friend whom I knew from church, is someone I would want my kids to be like.  He attended an Ivy League school, dresses conservatively, and holds down a very nice job at a tech company.

He is also African-American.

Recently, in a comment to a Facebook post, he outlined some of his personal rules for avoiding trouble in stores: always get receipts for goods you get.  Only hold goods for as long as you need to read the label.  Don’t carry items around until you have. Try not to carry items from store A into store B if store B also sells them.

This was an eye opener for me.  Yes, I knew there was white privilege, and that I benefited by it, and was aware of problems of African-Americans being followed around stores.  But receipts? I often ask not to be given receipts, especially for small items.  I don’t want the extra paper, and I figure the amount of the purchases will show up on my bank statement. And not holding goods?  I carry things around stores often without thinking about it.

But I am a white woman, and I am never harassed.

There have been a lot of articles since the shooting of Michael Brown detailing the various indignities — and downright dangers — faced by African-Americans in day-to-day life. While intellectually I knew about a lot of these problems, and was outraged by them in that white liberal “I hate racism in all forms sort of way,” I am perhaps reading them with more emotional intelligence than before.

After all, as I said, I am a white woman, and a middle-aged one at that.  I get the benefit of doubt. Others do not.

I worked a campaign last year with my friend J. He was the best phone canvasser of our group, so much so that I once sat next to him to see if I could learn his technique. (I didn’t.) But things changed when we began precinct walking: he was treated with suspicion, while I was greeted, if not warmly, at least civilly. He took to carrying books around with him, so he would appear more acceptable. (Not unlike whistling Vivaldi.) He once commented “people look out their windows at you and see a neighbor.* They look out their windows at me and see a big black guy.”

Stories — a few among many — that have been reported the past few years:

Black man gets shot by police while looking at toy guns in WalMart. This while the white NRA members swagger around events holding real guns to demonstrate how important their interpretation of the Second Amendment is.

Young black man talks about how he nearly became another shooting statistic.

Fifty-one year old man (with impressive resume) is arrested and detained for six hours because he “fit the description” of a suspect in a burglary. (I have previously mentioned the Palo Alto police chief who in 2008 instructed officers to stop and talk to young black men, because they would “fit the description” of a suspect in a string of break-ins.)

In 2009, a black man in Ferguson gets arrested by mistake, is beaten by police and then charged with “property damage” because he bled on their uniforms.

Young black former college football player shot and killed by police while seeking help after he was in a serious car accident.

Black woman gets shot in her own doorway, and the cop who shoots her lies in his report.

And, of course, Trayvon Martin** and Oscar Grant.

One thing that strikes me is how often details such as “college-bound” or “good father” or other qualifiers are added to descriptions of victims, or how they are described as thugs who (implicitly) deserved what they got. (The New York Times ran a piece that declared that Michael Brown was “no angel,” as if that mattered.) It is though we think that such things don’t happen to middle class people who act “appropriately.”  Even how I started this post: the fact that my friend went to a good college and doesn’t dress like a gang member is irrelevant.  He should not have to deal with the petty humiliations that come his way based on his skin color. (C. also commented in the Facebook thread that “Justin Beiber can get away with wearing baggy pants.  I can’t.”) It is almost as though the media needs to reassure us that yes, this is horrible: the deceased was a “perfect victim.” Or not, as in the case of Michael Brown. (Horribly, media coverage tends to treat white killers better than black victims.)

Nothing matters except than what happened in the confrontation that resulted in the shooting. No one deserves to go around afraid for their life or safety just because they’re young and black.

And I have to remind myself that I am the beneficiary of three centuries of slavery and oppression.  That my white skin shields me from indignities and fears that others have to live with all their lives.

That I need to speak out for justice, and support others who do the same.

*This was not true when I walked Vietnamese neighborhoods.

**Yes, I do know that Trayvon Martin was not killed by law enforcement, but by a vigilante. If anything that makes the case even scarier: if you are young and black you can be a target even if you don’t have a run  in with the cops.

My kind of guy.

quix·ot·ic: hopeful or romantic in a way that is not practical.
Full Definition of QUIXOTIC:
1. foolishly impractical especially in the pursuit of ideals; marked by rash lofty romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action.
2. capricious, unpredictable.
Merriam Webster Dictionary.

As most of you know, the title of this blog comes from the song “Man of La Mancha,” from the Broadway musical of the same name. The musical is about both the life of Miguel Cervantes and his most well-known character, Don Quixote.

Don Quixote is not necessarily an admirable character. He’s clearly delusional, and the “tilting at windmills” was because he thought he faced a horde of giants. That we think of him fondly owes as much to popular representations of him as it does to Cervantes’ magnificent novel. (Although it is true that Cervantes seems to be fond of his character, as well.  The piece is clearly satire of romantic and chivalric traditions.) At least in my circles, “quixotic” is not a pejorative: being quixotic may not be a good trait in all circumstances, but it is one viewed with a sort of bemused fondness by most people I know.

I am quixotic. I don’t know if I am proud of that, but I am certainly willing to embrace it.

I am going to Spain soon (knock wood), to La Mancha and Castile, among other places.  I do not know if I will make it out to Alcala de Henares, Cervantes’ birthplace.  I did last time I was in Spain, eating at the Ristorante Rocinante.  Given that it was primarily a steakhouse, the name was a little unsettling (Rocinante was what Don Quixote named his horse).

I am sure that I will think often of my mascot, and wonder if I should maybe try to be less like him.*

*I am absolutely convinced that I will keep humming “The Man of La Mancha” all the time we are near Madrid. Once we head south, that changes to “The Barber of Seville.” I know, because that is what I did the last time I was in Spain.


Reading Comprehension Fail 101.

Reading comprehension, it’s a thing. A thing at which I apparently failed yesterday.

Ian Osmond has pointed out to me that he did not actually do a cost-benefit analysis, merely pointed out that one needed to be done. I think his analysis was spot-on, but he did not actually provide numbers. I think my point — that the analysis matters — was still correct, but I misunderstood what was going on.

Of course, I then wrote an indignant WWF post based on my misunderstanding, lamenting the lack of reading comprehension and critical thinking skills in the Facebook population. (I broke my own “don’t write posts after midnight” general rule.) It’s kind of like writing a post crying out against the poor grammar skills of today’s youth which contains glaring grammatical errors.

(The part in the last post concerning the scare-graphic about Nestle is still accurate, however.  I spent half-an-hour rereading a short article several times and running numbers. To do a thorough analysis I would still want to look up the actual facts from a source with less of an obvious agenda, and run more numbers, but I stand by my original outrage.)

I have since edited the post to clarify the situation, of course.  I would take the post down, but I think I need to keep it up as a lesson in humility.


I need to get off Facebook.  In the past hour, I have had a discussion with a guy who felt that arming teachers was the right thing to do, and who responded to a careful cost benefit analysis showing that in the end, more kids were likely to be shot accidentally than get shot by psychopaths, with “All the math won’t matter to a parent whose kid has just taken a bullet to the brain in algebra class.” I pointed out that it wouldn’t matter to the parent whether the kid was shot by Adam Lanza or by a teacher accidentally. This is the sort of reasoning that leads to large portions of the American public believing that ten-year-olds shouldn’t walk a couple of blocks to school unsupervised. [Edited to Add: Ian Osmond, who did the original analysis in the Facebook post, points out that he did not actually do a cost-benefit analysis, because he did not have the numbers, but merely pointed out that one needed to be done. His analysis of the situation was, I think, spot-on, and the "the maths don't matter" claim was still ridiculous. However, it seems that this was a case where my reading comprehension failed. As I said, I needed to get off Facebook.]

I also was faced with an alarmist claim that the Nestle Corporation was siphoning off 75% of the groundwater in the Colorado River Basin. Even had I known next to nothing about water systems (and I do know a little), the claim would have looked ridiculous. I followed back the link to the purported “full story” and found that the people who made the scare-graphic had massively misstated what the story said. (Not that the “full story” itself wasn’t a piece of propaganda: the authors converted the number of acre-feet that Nestle bottles from the Colorado each year, roughly about 1,400 acre-feet, into millions of gallons, and then resumed the story talking about millions of… acre-feet.  The entire effect was to make the Nestle draw-off seem massively larger than it was.) [ETA: I want to point out that, unlike in the previous example, I did re-read the story several times, and actually ran the numbers.]  I hate being placed in the position of feeling I need to defend a large multi-national corporation. As I said in a comment, corporations often do such awful things, why resort to hyperbole? The facts are bad enough.

Math, people. It’s a thing.  Reading comprehension is a thing, too, as is critical thinking.


Religious tolerance for me but not for thee.

Support for religion only exists for fundamentalist Conservative Christian believers, it seems.

Last month, Operation Save America  terrorists activists surrounded and invaded a Unitarian Universalist Church in Louisiana. They screamed at the congregants that they were hell-bound baby killers. It’s okay, they believe, because the UUs allowed the groundbreaking for a new abortion clinic to take place within their facilities. So these people decided to crash their worship services, to scream hatred towards people who have different ideas about when life begins.

At the time the terrorists activists showed up, the congregation was having a moment of silence for the members who had died in the past few weeks. The Operation Rescue people desecrated this time of prayer with no hesitation. The congregants responded by singing hymns. After they were shown the door, the protestors stood outside the nursery to scream at the children within.

George Tiller, the abortion doctor who was shot a few years back, was killed at the church where he was an usher. In church. Where is the respect for the sanctity of houses of worship?

What do you think any of those Operation Rescue people would do if an Evangelical Protestant church was surrounded by a Islamist congregation screaming that the people inside were infidels who needed to convert or possibly die?  Such a scenario is unthinkable, not the least because conservative factions are already willing to believe that even the most moderate Muslims are ready to engage in violence at the drop of a hat.

Across the nation, there have been a whole host of regulations and court decisions, ranging from “conscience provisions” for pharmacists to Hobby Lobby, that warp the First Amendment to privilege conservative Christian religious doctrine over any other.  (Hobby Lobby also allows religions to define their own scientific reality, but that’s another post.) Who cares if an employee belongs to a religion that accepts contraception as morally acceptable (or no religion at all)*? Or if a young woman who seeks emergency contraception or *gasp!* an abortion is following her own conscience?

Southern Baptists believe (or at least used to) in the “priesthood of the believer.” This concept meant that there was no intermediary between the human soul and God. It seems that that only applies if you hold the same very narrow views as they do.  People who believe otherwise are set up for damnation.

Last week, police surrounded St. Mark’s church near Ferguson, Missouri, on several nights.  The church and its school building were being used as a “safe space “by the community in the midst of the ongoing chaos. The police were apparently upset that people were leaving the church wearing gas masks, among other things.

So maybe we should make that privilege narrow to white conservative Christian religion.

That “War on Christianity”  that people on Fox News rant about is even more obscenely ridiculous than it ever was.  If fundamentalist Christianity in America is at war, it is an offensive war of its own choosing with the goal of squelching any other belief.

We will never have Sharia law in America; but I am afraid that unless we are careful at some point we may have theocracy nonetheless.

*Do NOT get me started on the “paying for it” issue.  Employees pay for their own insurance, either directly or through their labor. Hobby Lobby and other corporations of their ilk should have no say in the personal medical decisions of their employees, given how much money they make off them.