TOWOIT #244

September 26, 2017… Day 250

This morning I had my earbuds in and was listening to a long news story about North Korea, the start of the Korean war, and what could happen to South Korea. A few times, I glanced over at my coworker, who I sort of treat as a little brother but also lean on emotionally sometimes. He came from South Korea with his mom when he was 6. His grandpa, who still lives in Seoul, grew up in North Korea until he was a teenager, when he moved south and was separated from his family.

I was interrupted from my listening and thinking when another coworker popped up at my side and said in a stage whisper, “Have you been watching Ken Burns’s Vietnam documentary on PBS?” I hadn’t been, but was meaning to. I’ll have to now. Sissi, wide-eyed, dropped an unusual amount of personal vulnerability on me in a short amount of time this morning at my desk.

Her parents and older sister left Vietnam by boat in 1975 and after spending time in a refugee camp in Guam, were sponsored by Lutherans in Washington State (where she was born). She and her parents had never talked about Vietnam or the war. Her parents had come down from the north to the south when they were young. Sissi said she was 36 years old and learning so much for the first time from the documentary. When she was growing up with white kids in Olympia, she hadn’t wanted to know anything. She didn’t want to be different. And it was the attitude of her parents too—this is a new beginning, the past is painful, don’t look back. But now Sissi thought she’d sit down with her mom and ask her questions, and she’d record the conversation if her mom would let her. Her eyes got glassy and mine did too, just listening to her and thinking about mothers and daughters.

I thought about some of my friends’ dads back home, and how we didn’t learn much about that war either. It seemed like a fresh wound. It felt like we actively weren’t talking about it, but it was still present. Later I learned that Alaska has the highest number of Vietnam vets per capita—a desire for space and peace, was the conjectured reason. In high school we did have some WWII sailors come in to our classroom to talk about the war—the grandfathers of my friends. Afterward, their grown baby boomer children were startled to hear how much their fathers would say out loud to the high school kids that they had never said before. And how much they hadn’t known about their dads and the war.

Now in a town like my hometown, a lot of white (and Native, and Filipino) people are upset about football players kneeling to protest racism and police brutality. I have been fuming for days about people wearing patriotism like a mask over their anti-black racism and not being self-aware enough to even know they are doing it. But I think their feelings about the flag and the anthem are sincere, too. I think their patriotism and their discomfort at black men protesting are so intertwined that it will take a delicate surgery to separate them. I don’t know how many of them will volunteer for a procedure like that. Maybe they will just wrap themselves up in the flag because it feels better.

I hope some of those people are watching Ken Burns’s documentary on the Vietnam War. I think it will have cross-over appeal for Republicans and Democrats, as a work of military history. I hope it brings up some conversations in white homes the way it looks like it will for my friend Sissi. I don’t know if it is too presumptuous for me to hope this, as someone who is not a combat vet, but I hope somehow through conversation and storytelling and reflection that there is some sort of catharsis that allows greater self-awareness.

A Facebook friend from home who often bridges the gap between left and right — she is from a logging family, loves guns, is often not politically correct — has been standing up for the players who kneel. She also posed this question on Facebook: What will people who are boycotting the NFL now do with all of that extra time and money? Will they work to end veteran homelessness? A few women took her up on her gambit and said why yes, maybe they would do just that. That was not a bad idea at all, they said.

When you think of all the time, money, and energy that people put into football—it could be a strange, unexpected gift to have it back for something else. Maybe people who really do stay away will feel empty without the tribalism and camaraderie and suspense of the game. And maybe they will find something else and maybe that something will be healing.

TOWOIT #211

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August 19, 2017… Day 212

On Friday I was invited to a Seahawks pre-season game, last minute, with some women from work. I have worked with them for years but haven’t been too tight with them. They’re 10-15 years older than me and really funny. They are put-together, caustic, fun, a little drinky. So I was honored and I said yes.

I told my mom and she said, “I thought we were boycotting the NFL because of head injuries and they won’t give Colin Kaepernick a job.” My mom loves watching football and I think yelling “Run, you son of a bitch!” at the TV is an important form of therapy for her. I said, “I know, I feel like a hypocrite.” But I’d only ever watched the game on TV, never in the stadium, so it was an adventure and an opportunity.

“I thought we were boycotting the NFL because of head injuries and they won’t give Colin Kaepernick a job.”

When I got to the pub where we’d be pre-funcing, the women (who are all white, like me) were chatting at a round table with two black men. “Oh,” I thought, “We have gentleman friends along!” Actually my co-workers were just cleverly poaching the table as the men seemed to be leaving soon. It was a bit of a “we’re all suddenly best friends” situation though, super jocular between the men and women. Everyone teased me for having no Seahawks gear on.

We were in the hallway on our way to the stands when the anthem played. I couldn’t see anything. A clump of people were just standing with hands over their hearts, waiting to proceed to their seats. I wondered if anyone sat down with Michael Bennett. I wanted to ask someone when I sat down. I didn’t want to ask the group of black men seated directly behind us, because I didn’t want to seem like a nosey parker white lady about it. I didn’t want to ask the white guy sitting to my left, because I didn’t want him to think–even for a second–that I was inviting white disapproval of black protest.

A cop who had been shot raised the 12th Man flag. I knew about him from the news. The stadium swelled with heroic orchestral music and the crowd was rapturous. The camera swung around behind him and displayed the crowd below him — thousands of people at his feet, roaring applause. There were fireworks. It was thrilling on a visceral level, but then again–team spirit is a close cousin to tribalism, nationalism, and mob mentality. I thought, “I guess we’ll still all have a nice time doing this when the bill of rights is gone.”

“I guess we’ll still have a nice time doing this when the Bill of Rights is gone”

We watched the game and had fun. The seats were wonderful. My companions joked a lot with the row of black men behind them and then an older white woman in front of us turned around and said, “Could you quiet down? All I can hear is your talking!!” She scowled at us. We were collectively a little too drunk to take criticism well. I whispered to the woman next to me, “I’m such a people-pleaser that this is killing me” and she guffawed. The woman on the other side of her said too loudly, “Well fuck you, lady, it’s not the symphony.”

A beer vendor in a silly hat passed by in the aisle. He looked really familiar. We smiled at each other. I saw him again when the women and I were making a herd-like run to the ladies room. He said, “Hey, we know each other!” But we still couldn’t figure it out. He asked me if I was part of the glass-blowing world. I wasn’t. I asked him if he’d lived in Alaska. He hadn’t.

After the game, the women and I went to another bar to get something to eat. The bartender and the waiters, the clientele, the decor — it all reminded me of working at a steak and seafood place in Juneau in a windowless cave inside an old art deco hotel. The conversations between us four women turned deeper and more serious. There were workplace rifts, hurts, slights, and burdens that I never knew about. We were eating these delicious teriyaki steak skewers and slowing down and drinking water. We were almost speaking baldly about real gender issues.

But a man to the left of me at the bar inserted himself into the conversation. A couple of the women were still feeling mischievous enough that they bantered back with him. This was a guy who bragged about the size of the diamond in his wife’s engagement ring, as he was flirting with my co-worker. He bragged about knowing a lot about whiskey. He bragged about knowing at least three different well-placed merchants who could get you a very high quality this or a very premium that. He bragged about the steak he was eating. The TV was right above us, and the Seahawks coach, Pete Carroll came on. The sound was off. “Look at that broken nose,” said one woman. “It looks good,” said another. One of them looked at the guy next to me and said “You have a broken nose. Like Daniel Craig!” There was then some friendly one-upsmanship about James Bond trivia. I said something casually about how a woman Bond would be fun, and the man said, “NO. James Bond is a man. That’s the way that it is. People are trying too hard to change society. Everything is fine the way it is!” I already thought he was a serious blowhard up to that point, but the vehemence with which he turned a lighthearted conversation on Bond trivia to an indictment of meddling feminists — well, I had his number.

“No. James Bond is a man. That’s the way it is.”

So then Michael Bennett came on the TV screen. He was wearing a camouflage shirt and his beard and hair were a little longer and less-kempt than I remembered seeing them. The reporters were probably asking him about why he sat down, but I couldn’t read his lips. I still didn’t know if anyone had joined him. The man next to me said, “So what do you guys think about–” (Don’t say it! I thought) “–Michael Bennett sitting down during the anthem?” One of my companions said, “You know what? It is what it is.” She said it a bit curtly, like she didn’t want to talk about it. In that moment I was a little  disappointed in that reply, but it turned out to be the least disappointing thing in the conversation.

The man went on to say that HE was in the military, HE had been around the world twice, HE had been in Afghanistan, HE was a firefighter now. And the flag was sacred cloth, and America paid those football players’ salaries. And the women I was with seemed to be just nodding along and letting him run with it. “My grandfather was a marine, so I get it,” said one. And the man said, “I’ve had to deal with some unsavory characters and I just want to tell them to go fuck themselves.” At this point I looked at my watch, stood up, turned to the man and said, “I support Michael Bennett 100% and I’d like to tell you to go fuck yourself.” I turned to the women and said, “I’ll see you all on Monday!” waved cheerily, and left.

“My grandfather was a Marine, so I get it”

This crap, this crap one week after Charlottesville. I was livid. I was vibrating on an unholy frequency. This is White America.

At the bus stop, a young black man approached me, saying he needed $20 for something. He interrupted his pitch to say, “Oh, you have the prettiest smile.” He had a lisp and was smaller than I was. He was really young. He had a southern accent and said he came to Seattle from Lynchburg, Tennessee. The Confederacy, I thought. I readily handed over a $20. This looks like white guilt, but I’m sorry you had to put up with so much crap, kid. I didn’t care if I was being scammed, right then. I just wanted to feel slightly less gross by doing a good turn for someone.

Michael Bennett is from a military family. Michael Bennett gets all of that the-flag-is-sacred-cloth stuff. He gets it. How hard is it — how hard is it really — to just imagine that you, as a white person, do not understand what black people go through in this country. That you just don’t get it. That there are things worth sitting down during the anthem for. That it is ok to see that. I wished I’d had the presence of mind to say some of that, any of that.

I was halfway home on the bus when I realized I was still clutching the big white linen napkin from the restaurant. It was smeared with teriyaki sauce from the skewers, which I had not eaten in a ladylike manner. I looked ridiculous.

The next day, Saturday, I was rattled and jangled still. I mentioned what happened to a white friend and she said I seemed awfully angry lately — that maybe I should consider getting help with my anger issues and how I react to people. Maybe I was too dialed in to politics, she gently suggested.

I don’t want to get less angry. Another friend of mine is a woman of color, is married to an immigrant from Mexico, has a little girl, and has spent her whole professional life as a community organizer among low-income people of color — SHE can look away from the news if it helps her. SHE can avoid the added hurt and anger that the headlines and Donald Trump’s face give her. SHE can be unaware of what’s happening in Washington, D.C. and cite self-care as the reason. But I’m a white woman who works in the financial industry. I damn well better pay attention to what’s happening. And if that means crackling with bad feelings, then that’s just what it means.

“I’m a white woman who works in the financial industry. I damn well better pay attention to what’s happening.”

On Saturday, the Boston counter-protest marches dwarfed the white supremacist rally. My white neighbor, sitting on her stoop, told me frankly that she would spend the rest of her life rooting out hidden racist tendencies in her brain, and dismantling institutional racism however she could. A (normally) annoyingly zen white yoga teacher friend put our entire Trump-voting hometown on blast in an uncharacteristically angry Facebook post. “This post seems shaming,” commented one person. “Yeah. That’s because it is shaming,” he replied.

On Saturday, I learned that no one sat down with Michael Bennett. But a white team-mate, Justin Britt, had hung back and stood right next to Bennett, with his hand on Bennett’s shoulder. It was a show of support. A frustrating display in some ways — why not just also sit down, Justin? — but it was something, it was not nothing. I hope.

On Saturday, I finally remembered where I knew that white guy who was selling beers at the game. It was at a day-long anti-racism workshop in the spring. He was called out for something by a young Latina and an older white woman sprang to his defense. No, no, he calmly said, gesturing that the white woman stand down. He didn’t come there to not be called out. He came there to learn.

 

Update: When I saw the women on Monday, they didn’t seem bothered at all by my abrupt style of exiting, and said that the guy was a creep and they hoped not to run into him again.