Rape Culture in the Classroom

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The statistics around sexual assault are staggering: 1 in 3 women will be assaulted in their lifetime. And those numbers are grossly under-reported due to the ordeal women have to go through once coming forward to confront their attacker. While I am aware of these statistics the terrifying reality of rape culture didn’t fully hit me until I saw it being perpetuated in my own classroom.

I had one day left in the week and didn’t want to start a new unit, so I decided to do a spot social justice lesson. The lesson examined the racialized and gendered messages mainstream media send us by analyzing Lupe Fiasco’s song “Bitch Bad”  and various responses to it, like this one from Crunk Feminist Collective. The lesson went well, the students were able to discuss with clarity and share profound insights into the songs lyrics and video. They discussed minstrel, they discussed their own use of the term “bad bitch,” and most importantly the young women in the classes told their truth around dealing with the pressures of looking “sexy” while maintaining respect and not being seen as ratchet. While many of the young men listened and were respectful there was a handful that simply refused to accept what was being said. They rejected the idea that women actually didn’t appreciate how they are viewed, both my larger society as well as the young men in their lives.

It was at this point that the conversation turned troubling. A young man we will call Michael was particularly vocal about his disbelief. He was adamant that women lied constantly and that despite what they were saying now, in front of him and the rest of his class, when he talked to them individually they agreed with him. Despite the often times passionate objections from the women in the class, the other males remained quiet, Michael was not to be moved.

By the end of the day I taught the lesson three times. There were many more positives to take than negatives, but Michael’s reaction was the main one that stayed with me. It wasn’t so much Michael’s reaction in and of itself that was scaring me, while it did. What was getting me was that when the class ended,and the young women were obviously still upset, the reaction of the other men in the class was to rush Michael out to keep him from getting yelled at or “punched,” as one young man told me. This is where I really saw the danger of rape culture. It is not just in Michael’s response, it is in the silence of his peers. Instead of checking their friend they remained silent, passively siding with him. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them would remain silent at the party when a friend wanted to “have fun” with the passed out girl, like in Steubenville? How many of them will say the girl “wanted it?” How many of them will, despite dozens of accusations, refuse to believe that one of their friends is a serial rapist? Worse, and more heartbreaking than that, how many of them will be able to have a healthy relationship with a woman? How many of them will be able to listen to, and truly be supportive of, their sister, mom, aunt, girlfriend, wife, or even daughter when one of them has the courage to face our devastatingly sick society and say she was sexually assaulted?

Me and Zoe

As a new father, I look at my daughter and understand with incredible clarity that the responsibility for healing from this trauma lies with us men. It is up to us to model healthy, loving, and complete humanity by refusing the narrow definitions of manhood. The homie Jamie Utt talks about this with incredible compassion, this is just one of his pieces, please check them all out.  Above all we must not be silent. Just as white silence is tacit acceptance of white supremacy, when we are silent about rape culture, patriarchy, and misogyny we are accepting them as part of our society, we must refuse this.  We must talk about manhood and masculinity, and the entire gender spectrum, early and often. When we do this, our young people will  grow up with a healthy image and understanding of not just themselves, but others, more capable of healthy relationships. And what can be more life-giving than healthy relationships?

What Educators Can Take From #BlackLivesMatter

Black Lives Matter

“each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.“- Frantz Fanon

Who would have thought from the obscurity of a small suburb of Saint Louis  this generation’s most influential movement for justice would be born. The murder of Mike Brown galvanized communities across the country: they were sick of seeing their children’s lives being stolen by police once every 28 hours. From these communities’ collective pain and consciousness rose the Black Lives Matter movement.

Led by young people who came of age in the so called post-racial and colorblind meritocracy of America Black Lives Matter shatters these illusions. They are exposing the eroding foundation of America as fundamentally built on white supremacy and incapable of reform. They are demanding society reorganize itself, that the Racial Contract be done away with in favor of a truly inclusive and democratic one.

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Of course, the movement is not without its critics, both on the left and the right. The most common claim is that the movement does not have a demand. Quite to the contrary the movement’s demand is actually quite clear, its even in the name, they want Black lives to matter. So, what does that look like?

If Black lives are to matter it is going to begin in schools. Currently, the education system in America is a mess of colorblind idealism and corporate interests. It is the intersection of class and race and that intersection is a multi-car pile up. This is due to the combination of over-saturating the institutions and curriculum with whiteness and then filling nearly every classroom instruction position with well-meaning, colorblind fundamentalist so called “whites.” The result is an education debt and opportunity gap that is crippling every aspect of this country.   But it doesn’t have to be that way. The Black Lives Matter movement offers us the perfect opportunity to fundamentally alter the trajectory of this country, but we must take advantage of the opportunity. Here are some ways we might begin to do that.

1) So Called “White” Educators, you are not White!

This can be a tricky one because the world prescribes whiteness and its privileges onto us. But if the Black Lives Matter movement has done anything it has been to publicly shine a light on and proceed to undress the lie that race is an issue for people of color and that whiteness is the default. Whiteness is something. We must do the work of understanding what that something is and abolish it from our systems of knowing. When we do this we realize that we are cultural beings and that whiteness is a sociopolitical arrangement with no real anchor in reality, and certainly not in justice. Here, here and here are some resources for beginning to do that work

2) Dialogical Over Banking, Surplus Over Deficit

Another sad hallmark of our system is that it views poor students and students of color as suffering from an “achievement” gap, as lacking the necessary ability to successfully withdraw what has been deposited by their teachers all year. This is preposterous once given more than a second to consider. Students coming from a world marked by poverty and the violence of racism, a world that they intrinsically know was not set up for them are, of course, not going to care at all about Calculus or Shakespeare. They are certainly going to care even less about what the unrelatable “white” teacher has to say about those irrelevant subjects. Their lived experiences and accumulated genius are not represented or valued in the classroom so why should they value the classroom? This has to change. We need to recognize that every student is bringing with them a wealth of knowledge and it is all valuable. The classroom should be an incubator for ideas meant to make sense out of the world. Any assessment should measure the ability of young people to be creative, to critically think and to solve problems. Anything less than that is simply not valuing their existence, their lives; Black Lives Matter has made it clear that is unacceptable. Paulo Freire is a good place to start for those interested in fostering this type of classroom.

Save Ethnic Studies

3) Implement Ethnic Studies Curriculum and Requirements

The second point leads directly to this third and last one. We need to immediately implement ethnic studies courses and require them for graduation. For too long the story of America has been of European immigrants coming to this continent, Americanizing it and themselves, all for the better. We know this is far, far too simplistic, and often times patently false. There are many more perspectives, many more truths that must be told for our young people to be ready for a world that decenters whiteness. Beyond the moral imperative Ethnic Studies courses have routinely resulted in increased academic performance, something only the most vile person could suggest is undesirable. Here, here and here are resources and information on implementing Ethnic Studies

Ethnic Studies

Black Lives Matter has made it impossible to remain colorblind, to ignore race and racism. They are calling a spade a spade and are demanding fundamental change. A main battleground for this struggle is, and will continue to be, the classroom. What an amazing opportunity we have, let’s not waste it.

Some Poems

To celebrate poetry month (April) many people write a poem a day. I did that this year and wanted to  share some with you. Hope you enjoy.

29/30

Your mouth is a delta,
saliva pooling, threatening
to drown every inch of common sense that lives within your body.
Your eyes replay tragedies
you heard shouted through whispers.
Still refusing to
believe, this weight is too heavy,
truth too obscene.
If this is real life we have genuflected to paper tigers,
spilled blood to fill gilded chalices,
fake gold turning our souls green.
Yet, you cling to your illusion
like a sailor drinking in the sea.
How long before your thirst betrays you?
What a glorious day that will be.

25/30

Ya’ll are like the stars
Very few will ever know your names
Yet you make the night beautiful.
Soldiers on the front line,
History will forget you, but I wont.
The winds and the rains will erode
you from the textbooks,
Still we learn your lessons.
Pass your tests every time we wake up.
Our original teachers.
Mother’s and Father’s
With GED’s and doctorates in life.
Heros with no national holidays,
Just overtime and time and a half.
Ya’ll are supernovas.
Constellations.
Forever enshrined in the heavens.
Mapping our way.

24/30

I see you, grinding on the daily
paint splatters and wind burned face,
putting on for your baby girl. I see you.
Young solider got so much love, so much energy,
waking up is fusion. You are sunshine.
Enough warmth to turn houses into homes– like ma dukes,in more ways than one.
I see you, feeling the world in ways most can’t fathom.
It’s so much more than a turn-up.
This is church. 
But they don’t got that in the wild, so you scribble scripture in journals
for generations yet to come. I see you.
Scoundrel cornerstone.
Lord of the dance. Grinding daily. Molding the future, mumbling raps.
The future is bright soldier.
Brother,
we thank you for that.

23/30

Got you decked out,
Million dollar makeover, but
I still see the stretch marks.
Remember the contractions.
You birthed real life.
Labor pains dulled by the high life.
They want charm with a blunt edge
And entertainment fees.
We got grit and razor sharp nerves
Only blunts ease.
They swarm like locusts
Feasting on the fruits of our labor
Got us griots
writing tributes to ghosts.
But this can’t be a eulogy
Got you in me, so
We seance and free up.
In ways they only mimic, their
Too bland:
Art districts, faux country clubs,
Gimmicks.
And the proof is in the footing.
Soil we watered with tears.
Scars that are still visible after all these years.
This is what makes us:
Good, bad, and the ugly.
Raze the city,
We comfy.
NE been beauty in the muddy.

21/30

The first time is the hardest, the words don’t quite roll off your tongue, they are sticky and jumble, messy. It gets easier though, with a little bit of practice you will be smooth with it, professional. Then it’s easy to do it to other people. The words move like water filling well carved out riverbeds. This becomes the path of least resistance, and you build habits. All from that first time… that first lie

16/30

I’m peeled back
Exposed
In the most grotesque way
Fake ass knight buffing tarnished armor
Paper mache rock
Castle built from sand at hightide
They see your weakness
They hear you wandering at night
Summoning spirits
That don’t speak your tongue
Only silence resonates in your hollow
Acid rain falls down your cheeks
Nothing grows in your garden
You are not organic
You are exposed
Protect your neck
In the most grotesque way
Be unflinching
Bury your fear
Ball up fists
Wrecking ball
You are exposed
Mouth dry
Like the dust you came from
Thirsty
Not real enough to be perfect
Not perfect enough to be real
Bite your lip
to keep the fear from spilling
Your cup runneth over
Terracotta warrior I am
Peeled back
I am
Bone with no marrow
Exposed
Navigator with no compass
In the most grotesque way

15/30

the future is bright
the type of bright that blinds
that hurts the eyes
brilliant bright
life-giving light

8/30

8 shots, middle of the day.
8 shots.
8 excuses, 8 apologies, 8 lies, 8 8 8
every 28
hours before the dawn
8 shots. 8 8 8.
what if there was no video?
8 angles, slow-moed 8 times.
8. 8. 8.
trying desperately not to swallow the hate

7/30

I try to mind my own business but they are talking loud enough for me to hear. “They just expect everything handed to them.” I’m not sure what “they” means to them but know it’s either poor people or people of color. Part of me wants to make a scene, part of me wants to just go fill up this glass of water. As I stand up still unsure of what I’m going to do I see the Obama 2008 sticker on his laptop. I turn and leave the coffee shop. Life in MN Nice.

6/30

We are connected.
We may have gulfs between us,
of fear, of
fun house images of God,
but we are connected.
And we will find each other.
With interstellar technology not even Google could map.
We will find each other.
We will speak in matching laughing accents,
and conjugate hugs to dull the pain.
We are connected

4/30

There are stories searing my tongue
Histories erased
Memories meandering
Ancestors accents anglicized for assimilation
But we are here
Buried under dollars and cement
Our roots remain
Ruins no more
There is truth to be told
Stories searing our tongues.

The Fire Right Now: Ally vs. Accomplice

RIOTS BREAK OUT IN BALTIMORE

Once again the country is faced with the harsh truth of its own brutality. The Baltimore police department severed Freddie Gray’s spine and took him from his family. This happened because when an officer made eye contact with him he had the audacity to run. The officers involved were suspended with pay and the rhetoric surrounding the case has been very sympathetic to the officers. This has resulted in Baltimore’s collective anger boiling over into massive protests which many have labeled a riot. In fact, rioting has dominated the headlines and social media with many excoriating the mainly young, black protesters who participated. I am not going to go into the politics of a riot, you can find that here. I am not interested in pointing out the inherent racism of the criticism of young, poor, and mainly black people being called criminals and thugs (as Barack Obama did) while white rioters get treated with kid gloves, you can find that here. Given these facts, I want to suggest a course of action for Euro-Americans who consider themselves progressive and anti-racist: We need to contextualize these events in history and unequivocally support these actions, calling out any criticism of them by Europeans.

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Recently there has been criticism of the term ally. This criticism rests on how those who identify as such position themselves to benefit from, and actually require, the very conditions they supposedly are trying to dismantle. This phenomenon is sadly on full display at times like these. Many “allies” and anti-racists have been mega-critical of the uprising happening in Baltimore. They cry for “peaceful protests” and working within the system, at the very most civil disobedience. This approach lays bare their investment in the system. They see the destruction of property as violence, but ignore the fact that much of that property is owned by others and was obtained through a long line of  violence. That violence doesn’t count.  They can not wrap their minds around the idea that the system is actually built on oppression and as such can not be reformed. They quote King’s I Have a Dream speech but forget that he called riots “the language of the unheard.” They are comfortable in the system and don’t want to feel guilty about it. They love the system and when it comes down to it they will condemn its destruction. They are will placate by asking “why did he run?” They will ponder with condescending paternalism “why do they destroy their own neighborhoods?” And they will say nothing of the violence and rioting that gave birth to America.

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We must not be allies. We must be accomplices, and right now is a perfect opportunity. By standing with those in uprise we are saying we understand that the system is inherently unjust and that it must be drastically re-envisioned. We are acknowledging that this is life and death and that Freddie Gray, Mike Brown, Renisha McBride, Aiyana Jones and all the rest will never be back, but CVS will. We are acknowledging that the distribution of resources and who gets to profit from those resources needs to change. By refusing to call the destruction of property a violence we contribute to a refocusing on the violence of the state. In short, refusing to rein in the birth pangs of revolution is a small but real rejection of the the culture of whiteness and as such is a blow to white supremacy. It is a very tangible way we can affirm that #blacklivesmatter.

The Disconnect and Finding Home

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This weekend I drove by the home I went to my first house party at, and it reminded me how long I have felt disconnected. I was in the 8th grade, there were only 20 or so students in the entire class so pretty much everybody hung out with everybody. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t tension, particularly with me. I didn’t fit in, I wore my hat backwards, wore different clothes and talked funny. There was one guy that was particularly rubbed the wrong way by me, and at this particular party it boiled over. He called me a wigger and tried to turn my hat around, I wasn’t going and it escalated from there. Before it got physical the adults broke it up (yup, it was that type of party) and him and I were told to go home. I remember crying when I got back to my house and wondering if there would ever by a place for me. The feeling hasn’t gone away.

It’s not uncommon for me to be asked “what are you?” The folks asking this are often times genuinely confused: I don’t present like the typical white male. Most often, then, the conclusion reached is that I want to be, or am trying to act, black. It took me a long time to really deal with this accusation: did I want to be black? The journey to answering that question has been a long and often times trying one for me. I have always tried to be as authentic as possible the problem was, and still is at times, I don’t always know what that is. I listen to Hip-Hop and have since the 3rd grade. I speak in the way that comes naturally to me, and I dress how I feel most comfortable. But, to me, the accusation got at something much deeper than my aesthetic. The accusation was more about how I move in the world. I didn’t fit in, it was hurting me, and I needed to know why.

It wasn’t until this past year that I have finally gained the tools to begin to confidently wrestle with the accusation that I wanted to be black. Through my studies at the Wellness Center I have been able to realize I don’t want to be black, I want to be cultural. That is to say I didn’t, and don’t, want to be white. I was recognizing at an early age that mainstream white American culture disconnects us from cultural practices and cultural knowledge, it is a parasite that eats at our souls ultimately disconnecting those who identify with it (whether consciously or not) from the larger human family. That is why I was drawn to Hip-Hop, and other ways of knowing (in 5th grade I asked my teacher why communism was bad), I wanted culture.

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I know I am not alone in this, there are so many Euro-Americans who are hungry for something real, who want culture. They are sick of having their worth dictated by their income and stock holdings. They are sick of trading their labor for the profits of a few. They are sick, and they want to be healthy. Beyond that, the nation has come to a point where whiteness is eroding and there needs to be something to replace it. The #blacklivesmatter movement has put everybody on notice: whiteness is over. This prospect terrifies many so called whites. But that need not be the case. We are human. We have culture, something to draw on. We must use that root culture to become poly-cultural and build something here and now to replace white supremacy. It must reject the pillaging of the earth. It must value humans over property. It must value community over the individual. It must call us home. But mainly, we, those who have had whiteness prescribed to them, must hear the call and come home.

Walter Scott, Mumia and abolishing whiteness

I woke up to #WalterScott all over my timeline. The video is horrendous. It feels like something out of a bad move, it’s the scene people would say is unrealistic: cop murders black man in cold-blood and slowly walks over to plant a weapon by his dead body, while another cop is there! That shit don’t happen! But that shit did happen, and we got it on tape! That’s the really scary part, without the video how many people would believe what took place? How many interpretations of medical examiners reports and official documents which blame Walter Scott would we be subjected to? *** I saw a picture of Mumia Abu-Jamal yesterday that sent chills through my body. Undiagnosed and untreated diabetes is ravaging him, and the state of Pennsylvania could care less. Mumia has survived so much already but the state is relentless. If they can’t stick a needle in his arm they will kill him this way. I don’t believe that this attack on Mumia is coincidental. I believe the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the heightened consciousness that has resulted, presented a real opportunity to mobilize for Mumia to finally gain his freedom and the system is doing everything it can to keep that from happening, from Mumia being to America what Mandela was to South Africa. For decades Mumia and his supporters have said the police brutalized him and set him up for the murder of Daniel Faulkner. This has been met with a consistent skepticism from liberals who often draw the line at supporting Mumia (or Assata). I can’t help but wonder what the video tape of December 9th 1981 would look like? abcf-political-prisoners-free-mumia-abu-jamal **** They tell me I shouldn’t be trying to identify as anything other than white. That’s denying my privilege, they say. I can’t get with it. Whiteness is the product of white supremacy. It’s our boarding pass for this awful ride. So many of the same people gripping tight to their whiteness spend a lot of their time thinking and talking about dismantling white supremacy. How do you dismantle something if you still identify with its most significant production? I wonder if they see the irony? What I do know is Walter Scott is dead, Mumia is still behind bars, dying, and people out here still worrying about how to be good white folks, ignoring Baldwin’s wisdom: ” as long as you think you’re white there’s no hope for you.” AbolishWhiteness

Vampires and Mirrors

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what if vampires could see themselves in the mirror?

would they stop mistaking emptiness for their own reflection?

is that what they really need from our blood, our essence, our ability to see ourselves?

do they just want to see themselves?

is that the disconnect,

we try to guard our necks and they just want to be seen?

is that why they constantly wrecking scenes?

talking about who owes them, and how hard it was to die.

constantly attempting to reassure the world

they hate the taste of blood, as it drips from their fangs.

that ultraviolet light is discriminatory against them, they are simply trying to stay alive.

would bodies continue to pile, every 28 hours, leaking melanin and hemoglobin?

would they need to shapeshift? or would their own bodies be enough?

would they need armies stalking the night enforcing their terror?

would this madness cease if they could simply see themselves?

if vampires could see their reflection in the mirror, would they remember they too were human?

Misfit pt III

This is the third part of a three part short story. Read part I and part II here

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iii.

The sun seemed to be shinning a little brighter this morning. The type of sunshine that made it seem like everything was glowing. Today was going to be a beautiful day. I was going to do a presentation at my office about white privilege. It was something I had been pushing to do for months and they finally agreed. Of course it didn’t hurt the cause that over the last year the company had been sued for a “hostile working environment”

Looking back it is amazing how much things changed for me after Jamal was murdered. They didn’t charge the officer, gave that dude a medal in fact, and the city went ballistic but, after a couple of days, things went back to “normal.”

I struggled, especially after they didn’t even charge the cop, with what Derek’s cousin had broken down for me. I realized that life was different for me because I was white. It was not an easy conclusion to come to, but it was the only one I could make in light of all that had happened.  I remember feeling like my world was collapsing around me. I was so unprepared to deal with what this meant. So I decided to learn as much as I could as quickly as I could. I read every Tim Wise book I could get my hands on. I watched every Youtube video I could find dealing with race and racism. And I applied my new knowledge to literally everything! Privilege was everywhere. I was ashamed I never saw it before. But it was all good now. I felt better. I was doing what I could. I was one of the white people that “got” it. Today was going to prove that!

The presentation wasn’t until 2:30 this afternoon but I took the entire day off to prepare. Now I was sitting at a coffee shop right near campus and was going over what I was going to say, going through some books to make sure I got every bit of knowledge I could. The last thing I wanted was to be stumped by any questions or critiques. The issue was too important.

I was going through one of the books I brought when an older gentlemen came and sat down across the table from me.

“Hi.” I said with a smile and a bit of confusion.

“I see you are reading about racism”

“Yea… I’m trying to do what I can… in the…” I wasn’t exactly sure what to say but before I could finish my thought he saw I was struggling and mercifully cut in.

“but you don’t have any James Baldwin here, how come?” he asked with a smile. Something in his voice told me I was in the presence of immense wisdom.

“I’m not sure, to be honest. I like James Baldwin…”

“Didn’t know he wrote about race did you?”

I laughed and said “A little. I mean his name comes up in the things I’ve read.”

He smiled and introduced himself, “I’m Toussaint” he made himself more comfortable.

“I’m Aiden” I said and shook his hand.

Toussaint continued “Baldwin actually wrote a lot about race. And more specifically he wrote a lot about whiteness.”

“Ain’t that the same thing?” I asked genuinely confused.

“No, not at all. See all these books here they talk about racism and how bad it is and how whites got it so much better. And that is true. But what they don’t do is talk about why. They never look at why whiteness is here or how whiteness caused it all. They want everybody to just be pulled up into whiteness. But, see, Baldwin knew better. He knew that if you didn’t look at whiteness first then there was no hope for ending racism. That’s why he said ‘As long as you think you’re white there is no hope for you.’ Young man, whiteness is the problem.”

“Damn.” I didn’t mean to cuss in front of an elder but it just came out. I think Toussaint could see how deeply that hit me but he didn’t stop.

“Aiden, let me ask you. What are you?” I wasn’t really sure what he was trying to get at.

“I mean, I’m white. I’m human. I’m American” I wasn’t really sure how to answer the question. Nobody asked me that question in the way Toussaint just had.

“No, I mean where are your roots?”

“Oh, my mom is Irish and my dad is… I’m not real sure.” I replied feeling more confident.

“Are your roots there? In Ireland?”

“No, my roots are Northeast.”

“And when I asked what you were you didn’t say Irish you said white. That’s what America did to you Aiden. It made you white. None of these books here are going to talk about how to change that.”

Toussaint had just shook my whole world. I had never even thought about what it meant to be white. I thought everybody should just be treated well and that would solve the problem, but Toussaint was telling me there was more to it than just treating people better.

“So, what do we do Toussaint?” I asked genuinely wanting an answer.

“Aiden, you can start by getting grounded in something and connecting to creation. We can only grow together if we know where each other are growing from and what is bringing us together. Would love to talk more but I got to run. Thanks for the conversation young brother.” Toussaint got up and walked out of the coffee shop. I just stared at my computer and the blinking cursor. I began typing without thinking “As long as you think you are white, there’s no hope for you.”

****

I looked around for the least packed check-out line but there was no use, they were all incredibly backed up. I pushed my cart to the closest one and took a deep breath.

There were three carts in-front of me: a Mexican-family was checking out followed by a Black family after them a single white male and finally me. The families each had full carts and the guy had too much for the express lane. I took out my phone and opened up Facebook, I was going to be here for a bit.

The white guy was clearly in a hurry and was getting impatient. He kept looking over the coolers of soda and racks of candy to see if any lanes offered hope of getting out of the store earlier. The cashier was a nice man, maybe 40 years old, he greeted each of his customers and tried to engage in small talk with them, no doubt to make the time pass easier.

“Just do your job. Think your Mr. Rogers or something.” I heard the white guy mutter just loud enough so I could hear him. I didn’t look up from the phone.

The Black family was emptying their carts and realized they forgot an item. Their son, maybe 16 or 17, ran back to get it. The cashier reassured them it was not a problem.

“sorry folks we forgot something but my son is going to grab it right now. Won’t be long.” The dad let the line know what was going on.

“What the fuck. We don’t have all day!” the white guy was not happy about the delay.

“I’m sorry sir. It won’t take long.”

“Whatever.”

There were a few tense moments between the exchange and the son running up to the cashier with what looked like a package of chicken breasts. They checked-out and left.

“Sorry about the wait sir. Hope it wasn’t too much of an inconvenience.”  You could tell the cashier didn’t really care for the impatient white guy.

“It’s ok.” He responded while emptying his cart. As he placed the last frozen pizza on the belt he looked up at me and smiled.

“Surprised they could even afford that stuff. Figures though, with Obama as president, food stamps will have you eating like a king. You know what I mean?”

“Actually no I don’t.” the tension was palpable.

“You know what I mean, man. They don’t want to work. You know that was paid for with our taxes.” He was desperately searching my face for a sign of approval.

“Oh, you must think I’m white. I’m not.” I just stared at him expressionless.

“Oh… well… umm” he turned and paid for his groceries without saying another word.

“Good afternoon sir, how you doing?” the cashier asked with a smile.

“I’m great. How are you?” I smiled back.

Misfit pt. II

This is the second part of a three part short story. Read part one here

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ii.

When Jason pulled up I was ready and waiting at the door. I always liked the weekend, but tonight I was super geeked. My school refund had just been processed on Tuesday and I went shopping. I had on some fresh new RocaWear jeans and the cleanest retro Jordan 12s I had ever seen. Plus, it had been a long week at Hamline and I needed to let loose. I hated every minute I spent on campus. It was like a whole different world, and the people there treated me like I was a martian too. It seemed like everything I did was a spectacle. Folks asking me what life in the city was like, had I been shot, did I know any gangbangers. It was enough to make my head spin. Being back in my neighborhood with Jason and the rest of the crew was like a return to normal. I was feeling good.

“Ah shit new gear!” Jason always noticed when I got new clothes, probably because he was plotting on when he could “borrow” some of it.

“Yea man. Hamline is good for something I guess!” I responded as I got in the car.

“Damn man they just cut you a check just like that?”

“Yea man, I take out extra on my loans and they just give me the money.”

Jason didn’t go to college. After we graduated from St. John’s Jason went to East High School, the local public school, and didn’t finish. It wasn’t that Jason was dumb or couldn’t do the work, he was smart and worked hard, it was just that he didn’t see the point. It was always a bit ironic to me because it was Jason’s comment at his birthday way back in 3rd grade that made me transfer back to St. John’s. If he had never said anything maybe I wouldn’t have ended up at Cliffview, one of the best college prep schools in the state, and maybe I wouldn’t have gone to college either. Who knows though, my parents say they always knew I was going to Cliffview. They thought college was the way to a better life.  I figured I was smart enough, I got decent enough grades without really trying, and it gave me the opportunity to keep playing baseball so what the hell. Now I was a junior at Hamline, paying the 37k per year tuition with mad loans, and the only part I gave a shit about was getting those refund checks.

“Damn. Maybe I should go to college they just giving that shit away”

“With your dumb ass ain’t nobody giving you shit” Jason just laughed and turned up the music.

“J, you talked to Derek?”

Derek was a friend of ours from the neighborhood. When his family moved in it was a big deal for a few of the other families on the block, they were “ruining the neighborhood.” My family never thought about it like that, we were told to not see color so it didn’t matter that they were black. When the families that just couldn’t stand “those people who just want to continue living off the government” moved out Derek, Jason, and myself became good friends.

“Yea we got to pick him up on the way downtown.”

“Tight” I was excited to kick it with my two closest friends. Tonight was going to be a good night.

We didn’t have any real big plans or anything, just to kick it. While most people our age were headed downtown to go to the clubs we were cool to find somewhere to grab something to eat and just chill.

It didn’t take us long to get to Derek’s and when we pulled up he was already outside on the phone.

“What’s up ya’ll. Damn I need to get out.” Derek seemed extra stressed

“What’s going on man?” something in Derek’s voice made my stomach drop.

“Ah man, it’s all good. You know how it goes, bills are long and money is short.”

“That’s the story of my life man.” Jason replied and he wasn’t lying either, of the three of us his family had come the closest to being foreclosed on. There were more times than I can remember when Jason was skipping meals and taking nap sandwiches.

“Shit sucks.” Derek’s words hung in the air. What the hell you supposed to say to that? Yea it is and we all knew it, no need to confirm that shit.

To break the mood I reached over and turned the radio up as loud as it went. The bass banged so hard it rattled the speakers, normally I would have turned it down because that shit sounds awful but tonight I left it up; in fact, if I could have turned it up higher I would have, something needed to drown out the thoughts. Those only led to trouble.

By the time we got to the restaurant we were all feeling better. We were debating whether or not Iggy Azalea was real Hip Hop and if it was cool for her to rap in a black girl’s voice. Jason was arguing that she was tight and “fine enough to get it.” That got Derek talking about how she clearly wouldn’t go for Jason over him, she was clearly “one of those white girls that loves black dudes.” I just laughed and shook my head. Just as I was reaching for the door someone said my name.

“Aiden!” I recognized the voice and every muscle in my body tensed up. I turned around to see Andrew Johnson. Before I could say anything Andrew started in.

“Still trying to be black I see”

“Who the fuck is this hillbilly Aiden?” Derek didn’t know Andrew because his family was one of those that left NE before Derek’s moved in.

“Hey you even got a real live negro!” Andrew started to laugh.

“Negro? Did this mothafucka just call me a negro?” Derek was already balling up his fists.

“Andrew it’s been a long time since we seen you around NE, I think since your mom was caught sucking off the mailman right?” Jason always went straight for folks mothers; he just didn’t give a fuck. Most of the time people just ignored him but Andrew was clearly upset.

“Fuck you Jason! But I wouldn’t expect anything less, your mom can’t even keep the heat on, probably spends all her money on drugs. Maybe she borrows this one’s welfare check” Andrew slurred his words while pointing in Derek’s general direction. Jason lunged at Andrew with pure hate in his eyes and I was barely able to step in front of him to hold him back. I didn’t want this drama tonight.

“Andrew, you’re drunk. Go home before you end up hurt.” I was genuinely surprised at how calm I was.

“I wish you fucking bums, with your little nigger friend, would try and hit me!” Andrew really thought nobody was going to do anything.

It must have only took a few seconds. I was between Andrew and Jason with my back to Andrew. I turned over my left shoulder and hit Andrew with a right cross. Andrew’s head snapped back, Jason rushed passed me and connected with a left hook. Derek followed with an overhand right that knocked Andrew to the ground. But that didn’t stop us. I was standing over Andrew throwing punches while Jason and Derek were kicking him in the ribs, Jason on the left and Derek on the right.

It wasn’t until we heard someone yelling to call the police that we snapped back to reality. Andrew was on the ground in the fetal position whimpering, holding his ribs and bleeding. We just stood there and stared at each other, all three of us terrified at what might have happened, at what we were capable of.

The patrol must have just happened to be in the area and saw the commotion because they showed up damn near instantaneously after the bystander yelled to call them. Two cops jumped out of the squad car and ran up to us, one already had his gun drawn.

“Get the fuck on the ground!” you could feel the hatred.

We were all still standing over Andrew in shock.

“Get the FUCK on the ground.” The cops repeated themselves as they got closer. Derek was the first one of us to react.

“Ok. Ok. Relax” he said as he started to move to the ground.

“Now!” shouted the cop with his gun drawn. As he made his way towards Derek he pulled out his baton and blasted Derek in the ribs. That was enough to shake Jason and me out of our trance.

“What the fuck. You can’t do that shit!” I shouted at the officer while his partner stood between us and Derek, who was still getting his ass beat.

“Stop that! Help us!” Jason was visibly scared and his voice was shaking.

“You can’t do that shit.” I wasn’t even thinking straight I just reacted and tried to get to Derek. The other cop pushed me back, struggled for a half second at his waist and then pointed something at me. The next thing I know I was shaking on the ground.

“Stop resisting. Stop resisting.” The cop just kept repeating the phrase. By this time there was a small crowd forming in the parking lot and Andrew had gotten to his feet.

“Arrest those fucking punks! They assaulted me for no reason.” He was back to feeling hella strong with the police there.

The cop was finally done tazing me and was now handcuffing and dragging me to my feet. Jason was screaming and Derek was rolling around on the ground. Both cops were yelling to “stop resisting” but nobody knew who they were talking too, and I knew it didn’t matter, they weren’t actually talking to us. It was all for the official story and the paperwork at this point.

As I got to my feet I saw the crowd and noticed Derek’s younger brother, Jamal, running toward us. The cop who had tazed and handcuffed me yelled “Gun!” and let off three shots.

***

The funeral was heart wrenching. The city was one wrong word away from exploding. The official police report, which of course the media just went with, was full of bullshit. The events that night, according to them, went something like this: We were out looking for trouble and got hungry so we decided to stop at the restaurant. On our way into the restaurant we saw a college going white male from Lillyvale and decided to rob him. We violently jumped him and would have killed him if it wasn’t for a police squad that luckily happened to be in the neighborhood. When the police tried to break up the altercation we fought back and had to be restrained with force. At that time Jamal, who they made sure to point out had marijuana in his system, pulled a firearm in an attempt to keep Derek from being arrested. The lack of a gun at the scene was explained away by claiming that someone in the crowd who knew us must have picked it up before the police could secure the crime scene. Nobody seemed to question this.

Immediately after the shooting people took to the streets but the police and established “progressive” politicians put an end to that. The politicians urged folks to let the process play out and the police were quick to arrest anyone who had been known to “start trouble.” Within 24 hours of the shooting some of the most vocal critics of the police had been arrested and held for 72 hours, none were ever charged.

After the funeral we all gathered at Derek’s house. The air was electric. One minute there would be folks crying the next there would be calls of “Fuck the Police” and demands to know what was going to be done. I mostly felt numb. I couldn’t bring myself to cry and couldn’t even begin to think about what should be done. Becca and my parents said I was in shock, but I’m not sure what it was. I just sat in the corner of Derek’s backyard and stared. Just then one of Derek’s cousins came in screaming.

“Man, Fuck these white mothafuckas!” Everybody circled around him asking what was going on. Some of the folks were telling him to calm down while others were agreeing. He didn’t seem to care about none of that, he just kept talking.

“You see this shit they put out today. They published Jamal’s school discipline report and got an interview in here talking about he was a ‘trouble maker’ at school! Can you believe this shit! Anything they can do to make us look like fucking criminals. They ain’t said shit about them two white boys that were being arrested too! They always get off easy. Fucking Crackers”

I don’t know what it was inside of me but I just snapped.

“Fuck you man! I was getting fucking tazed when that pig shot Jamal, and I was trying to get the other one off of D! Don’t come with that bullshit.”

He got real calm and started to walk over to me. Everybody there stopped what they were doing to see how this was going to play out.

“Oh the white boy was trying to save the poor black kid huh?”

“I was trying to help my friend!”  Every word hung in the air. I scanned the crowd trying to find Derek but couldn’t.

“You ain’t Derek’s friend white boy. You don’t know shit about Derek or any black person.”

“Of course I do. I grew up with him. We went to the same school. My family lives right down the street.  Don’t you look fucking stupid trying to bring that racist shit into it.” We were almost nose to nose now.

“Typical fucking white shit. You think because you live on the same block and go to the same school that somehow you live the same life as us. How come Jamal is dead and you here in my face then, huh? If you the same as us why we ain’t burying you, White. Boy.” My blood was boiling. I had never even seen this dude before and he was going to tell me that I didn’t really know one of my best friends.

“Fuck You! I know Derek!”

“No white boy you don’t. You got tazed, big fucking deal. You know how many black people getting tased on the regular, for doing nothing! I read you go to college, right?”

“What that got to do with anything?”

“How you get there? You probably don’t even got great grades. Still the school set you up for that shit.  How many times you get suspended? How often teachers call your house talking about they were afraid you would get violent? How you pay for that shit? Bet your parents helped didn’t they? They co-sign a loan or two for you? Well we can’t do that shit, we don’t got collateral! We don’t own shit, we rent. Life ain’t that same for us.” He was strangely calm and it was making me feel hella uneasy.

“Color don’t got anything to do with that. We struggle just as much as ya’ll and I worked my ass off.”

“And that WHITE BOY is why you don’t really know Derek or any Black person here. You only don’t think color matters because you don’t got any! You’ll learn though.”

“I…” I couldn’t say anything.

He turned and walked away from me. The rest of the people went back to what they were doing. I could hear them talking about what had just happened. Some agreed and some said he was wrong. Derek came out of the house but his cousin pulled him back inside. I saw Jason sitting at a table across the backyard with tears streaming down his cheeks. I sat back down and zoned out.

Misfit pt. I

i.

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The sun seemed to be shinning a little brighter this morning. The type of sunshine that made it seem like everything was glowing. You know the type. It wasn’t just the sunshine though, even the birds were singing my favorite song. I always loved the first day of school but today was especially exciting.

“Aiden, you are going to be late! Get down here and eat!” Mom thought I was still asleep but who could sleep on such an exciting day?

The morning was always a triathlon for the senses: There was the smell of day old coffee being  re-brewed; we didn’t get paid till next week so Pops did what he had to do. The glow of the incandescent light bulbs made the kitchen look like something out of a poor persons Norman Rockwell painting. Pop’s cigarette smoke burned your eyes and throat and did its best to distract from the sweet smell of burning menthol, which everybody in the room, if they were honest, could taste– he worked overnight and needed a little something to keep him up long enough to wish Becca and me a good first day of school. At any given time someone was trying to talk over the radio which stayed playing the top 40 hits that “we know you want to hear!.” Then there was the smell of burning hair from Becca’s curling iron which, mixed with the coffee and cigarette smoke, made the entire house smell like something rich folks imagined when they thought about families like mine. All accompanied by the chorus of neighborhood dogs responding to Charlie’s, our 80 pound Husky, good morning serenade. In the midst of all that what I cared about was happening behind Mom who had just won the battle with the toaster and got the two pieces of bread to stay down. Soon they would be covered in a thick layer of peanut butter.

“Good morning Mom.” I mumbled through a yawn and sat at the table waiting for the toaster to finish its job.

“What up little shit?” Becca said without missing a beat. Her Auburn hair held just a tint of orange. Mom loved that because she felt like it was her contribution to making us. Mom is 100% Irish, complete with the fire red hair and freckles. When Mom married Pops, who ain’t Irish at all, one of the things she worried about was when they had kids Pops’ dark features would just kinda wash away the half of us that was Irish. The orange in Becca’s hair let Ma know she was in there, that she was still here.

“Becca! Don’t use that language in this house!” Mom said that same line every time Becca cussed but it didn’t stop her. Becca was older, she was going into the eighth grade, so she felt like she was grown. Not that Becca didn’t go through the motions: she always said “sorry Mom,” but it never stopped her from cussing the next time.

The first day of school is always a little more exciting than the mundane nine months that follows but today had an extra energy to it. Today was the first day back at my old school: St. John’s Catholic, a small neighborhood school filled with the kids of waitresses, cooks, construction workers, garbage men, and other jobs of the sort. Last year was great. It was the first time I was in public school and didn’t have to wear a uniform. I didn’t have any homework… ever, and I made a lot of friends who lived on the North side of the city: Richie, Cory, and Travis were my closest. Public school was cool. I still saw some of my friends from St. John’s around the neighborhood and I would rub it in their face that they had to wear those ugly, stupid uniforms and that they had homework. Last year was cool. But at my best friend Jason’s birthday party I realized I needed to go back to St. John’s.

We were playing video games in Jason’s room and I was telling him how much cooler public school was than St. Johns and without even looking up from the TV screen Jason shook my whole world.

“Yea but you are going to be dumber than us.” Damn! He said it so calmly too. I couldn’t even form my mouth to make a sound. The whole burning in my chest threatened to consume my whole body. Jason still had the controller way to close to his chin and was hella focused on the game, it was like nothing to him.

“No I ain’t!” it was a weak comeback, I know, but Jason was my best friend I didn’t think I needed something clever. Jason stopped playing the game, put the controller down in front of his crossed legs and looked at me like I was one of them abused dogs on those TV commercials.

“What’s X times 8” Jason asked with the dumbest grin I had ever seen.

I had no idea what the answer was but I quickly shouted out “two!” and grabbed the controller to take my turn. Jason just laughed and went to the kitchen.

It was that moment, sitting there all kinds of confused and hurt and embarrassed that I decided I was going to tell Mom to put me back in St. John’s. I didn’t realize at the time that we had left because tuition, even with the help of our church, was just too much. All I remember is when I told her what happened and that I wanted to go back she hugged me and said ok.

This morning I felt something like Craig Mack in “Return of the Mack” (Cory had put me up on hip hop and rap music). My uniform was fitting nice, Mom had ironed it extra right this morning. I made sure there was enough gel in my hair to hold every single strand in place even if I was caught up in a tornado. Somehow I was convinced that my curly ass hair could and would look just like Zach Morris’ from Saved by the Bell, no easy feat. I had to show Jason and the rest of my friends that I hadn’t lost anything; I was always one of the smartest and I needed to stay that way, I needed them to know nothing had changed.

Like I said, this morning the sun was shining extra bright and it felt extra warm too. It really was a perfect morning. The other kids in the neighborhood were already at the bus stop when I got there, they didn’t all go to St. Johns but we shared the same bus stop. Anyway, we all headed up to the corner store to get candy, just like normal but this morning I found an extra dollar in my pants pocket so I could get a Snickers and a Coke… perfect day! The bus ride was cool. It felt good to be around Jason and my other friends. It wasn’t that Cory and them weren’t cool but I hadn’t grown up with them, it wasn’t the same. This is where I belonged. It wasn’t until I actually got to school that I noticed things were not all good.

I guess I didn’t notice any change from my group of friends in the neighborhood, they didn’t treat me any different (although, apparently, they noticed it too) I thought I was just Aiden. But apparently I had changed, at least let Andrew tell it.

At St. Johns there were only about twenty five kids per grade, so everybody knew everybody and with very few exceptions everybody got along. At least up until the fourth grade. It all started when I got off the bus. Andrew was getting off his bus at the same time; I didn’t see him though because I was too busy being welcomed back by Steve and his brother Sam.

“Aiden, you know you’re white, right!?” Andrew and me weren’t what you would call friends, but we weren’t enemies either. I guess you could say we tolerated each other. I mean St. Johns was small it didn’t make sense to have enemies.

“Yea Andrew I do. Why?” my voice cracked a little at the end and a small whole started to burn in my stomach.

“Then turn your FUCKing hat around!” Andrew was the youngest of four brothers so he had learned to cuss so smoothly. He hit the emphasis perfectly so that anybody who could hear him stopped dead in their tracks.

I couldn’t move. My mouth felt dry like I was sucking on cotton all morning. I felt small, instead of being comforting the sun now felt like I imagined it did for the ants when my cousin Shane held a magnifying glass over them. All the joy and triumph of my homecoming was gone.

“Make me BITCH!” my emphasis was even more perfect than Andrew’s. I mean my Pops didn’t raise a punk, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let Andrew Johnson make me feel like one.

Of all the people at St. Johns to tussle with, though, Andrew was not my first choice. Like I said he was the youngest of four brothers and had plenty of experience defending himself. The one advantage I had was that I could tell he wasn’t used to somebody his age coming back at him.

“You’re a wigger Aiden! Look at you! Listen to you! You ain’t nothing but a wigger! You’re white and act like a nigger!” Andrew was moving closer to me as he was yelling. I balled up my fist and got ready to throw down.

“And you ain’t shit but a racist!” Once again I matched Andrew’s intensity. Right as I was cocking back to deliver a right hook to Andrews chin Sister Beverly, the matriarch of St. Johns, appeared in the window just above our heads.

“Aiden Collins! Andrew Johnson! To the office, right now!” When Sister spoke everybody stopped. More than that, you did exactly what she told you to. She just had it like that.

When we got to the office Mr. Strauss was on the phone. He didn’t even look up from behind his glasses he just pointed to the two chairs against the side wall. Mr. Strauss had been in the Army before going into education and he looked like he was trying too hard to hold on to that shit. He still wore his hair in the military cut, even though he had maybe a fourth of it left. You would catch him every now and then using military time. I remember once he caught Troy in the hallway after the bell rang “Troy! Class started at 1300 hours!” Troy had no idea what the hell that meant but he got his ass to class. Strauss always dressed the same: white shirt, black tie, black slacks (always with a perfect crease), black dress shoes. He could be more than a little intimidating so Andrew and me moved as quick as possible to the chairs and sat down.  I didn’t understand what was being talked about but I got the feeling he wasn’t happy: every few seconds he would take these deep, deep breaths and the vein in his temple was bulging all the way up to where his hairline had receded to. I knew it was real bad though when Mr. Strauss took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his index finger and thumb.

“Alright, well then we are just going to have to do what we have to do…. No I don’t want to either but if enrollment doesn’t go up then there is nothing we can do. We CAN’T close! She will understand.”

Mr. Strauss hung up the phone.

“Gentlemen, what is going on?

We both just kind of looked at each other.

“Well, I will be making a call to both of your families. Not a good way to start the year gentlemen, get to class.”

The rest of the day I just kind of stayed to myself.  It wasn’t that I was scared of Andrew or wanted to avoid him but something he had said really hit a soft spot. I couldn’t tell you what it was exactly but I felt very uneasy. I had to readjust the plan. I thought today was going to be one of the greatest days of my life, I was coming home. Now, though, I just wanted to get back home.

“Aiden, you just get back and are already fighting?”

“For real!” came the echo of voices followed by some half-hearted laughs.

“We didn’t fight. Andrew wouldn’t be here if we did!” it didn’t matter that I was feeling some kind of way there was no way my friends were going to see that. I worked hard to puff up my energy along with my chest.  I felt a little like small animals must when they get anxious and scared and try to make themselves intimidating. I think the hair on my neck and arms even stood up.

The rest of the day went by without much happening. Andrew and I exchanged some stares but neither of us said another word to the other. When I got on the bus home I sunk into the last seat, the one that is only really half a seat, with my back and head resting against the window and closed my eyes. For some reason there was a boulder forming in my throat and all I wanted to do was cry.

“What the fuck Aiden! “ Mom only cussed when she was super upset. “It’s the first day and you were in the principal office!”

“Mom, it wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even touch each other. Mr. Strauss was tripping.”

“I don’t like fighting Aiden. What happened?”

“Mom, we didn’t fight. Andrew was talking stuff and called me a wigger so I called him a racist.”

“What is a wigger?” The look on mom’s face was a strange mix of genuine confusion and disgust, like she has just opened up some Tupperware full of food you couldn’t even recognize anymore.

“A wigger is a white person who is acting like a . . . you know . . . the N word”

“Well that’s stupid to say. But he does have a point Aiden.”

It felt like I had just been punched in the chest.

“What do you mean Mom!?” I couldn’t tell if I was more hurt or angry.

“Well you are white Aiden.”

“I know.”

“So why do you run around listening to that music and talking like that?”

“Talking like what?”

“You talk like one of those rappers Aiden! That’s. Not. You!”

“I thought we weren’t supposed to see color” you could hear my voice crack.

“We don’t. But you are Irish. We are white.”

“And that means I can’t listen to rap?”

“It means they are not your people!”

I could feel my throat start to tighten and my eyes start to fill with water. I didn’t know what to do, or say, so I just whimpered “whatever” and went to my room where I buried my face in the pillows on my bed and cried until I fell asleep.