Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Thoughts on Diversity, Understanding, and Justice: Kale and Fennel Salad with Apples and Cinnamon

When I went to graduate school for the first time back in 1995 for a PhD in English, my plan was to study "comparative ethnic literatures of the U.S." -- which meant, to me, studying the creative writing of non-white America, the experiences expressed in fiction and poetry by writers whose voices were less prevalent in the literary canon.  I'd written a thesis on Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker, because the language of their characters was like subversive music to me.

My own identity was conflicted: I was more or less a white girl with a father from Spain who immigrated to the U.S. via France (as a Jesuit charity boarding school student) and then Cuba, a place he lived for many years and left in order to avoid being executed.  I often checked the box marked "Hispanic" because that was what I'd been advised to do, because my cultural experience at home wasn't like other white families I knew, and because there wasn't really any box I felt could describe me.  I won a fellowship for underrepresented students, and felt guilty because I came from a middle-class family, even if my parents had worked hard to achieve that status.

I can't count the number of graduate school classes in which we engaged in impassioned debate about race, about whether people who could not self-identify as [African American, Black, Latina, Chicano, Korean-American, Asian, etc.] could write with any authority about the literature written by people who could.  We talked about whether people who were white literary critics were co-opting and colonializing literary studies.  And I wondered a lot about where I fit in, and whether I was deluding myself, thinking I could speak not necessarily for these writers and these literatures, but about them.  I wondered, too, whether there were any core elements common in human experience.  If we could ever sit down together and feel like the most important thing was our shared humanity.  I hated those discussions; they always made me feel bad about being, for all intents and purposes, white.

Though I ended up leaving that graduate program, the difficulty of advocacy stuck with me.  That difficulty had dimensions, too: it wasn't just about race, but about sexuality, about anything we couldn't change about ourselves.  How could we ever create a world in which people worked together for peace and justice if we could never fundamentally understand each other?

About ten years ago, I took a trip to South Africa with a group of educators and future teachers.  We were there to visit South African schools, to see the effects of apartheid on the educational system, and to make a contribution to South African education.  And to be honest, the more our hosts talked about difference,  described the ways in which apartheid had fundamentally shaped an unjust and well-entrenched system, and complimented our ability to overcome racism in the U.S., the more I felt like we were the ones who needed to learn something from them.  Because, of course, our racism is a lot more insidious.  A lot less obvious, perhaps, but in that way even more dangerous.

My friend KeAnne wrote a powerful post on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day, about how we continue to struggle to deal with difference in this country, in ways that are both transparent and invisible.  (Go read it; I'll wait.)  It got me thinking about my very racist father (his ideas always shocked me, given that he was also, technically, the minority), and about my own actions and beliefs.  About what I would have done in her shoes.  I think I probably would have done the same thing, and maybe I'm naive, but I don't think that it was racist.  Because I'm not sure whether she could have helped bring about change in that neighborhood from within it.  It's a tricky, and delicate, question.

My son and I did our annual viewing of the "I Have a Dream" speech on Monday.  He doesn't understand it all yet, because he's six, and the language is pretty complex, but I try to paraphrase for him as best I can.  I love this part best:

"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. [...]
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Sitting down together at the table of brotherhood.  That's really what it's about, isn't it?  Not necessarily being able to live another person's experience, but to know that our destinies are bound up together.  The "salad bowl" metaphor for diversity in the U.S. has given way to other metaphors, and then lack of common metaphors at all.  We are a complicated place, and we don't all mix together easily.  I try to teach my son, and hopefully, one day, my daughter, that there's a lot that is the same about all of us and that the sameness doesn't make the differences any less important.

But here's what I think now, more than a decade after my graduate program days: you don't need to understand someone, exactly, or to have lived their experience, to be willing to listen, to be willing to work for justice, and to talk openly about what justice really means.  You need open eyes and an open heart, and you need to be willing to cultivate trust.  Maybe that's naive, too, but I need to start somewhere.

Kale and Fennel Salad with Apples and Cinnamon
adapted from Cooking Close to Home
I love this salad because it's both mixed and separate, because the flavors both blend and are unique.  It's a good salad to serve beside a warm winter soup.

2 T. olive oil
2 T. honey
2 T. cider vinegar
1 t. garlic, minced
1/4 t. cinnamon

1/2 c. fennel, julienne
1/2 c. apple, julienne
1/2 c. carrots, julienne
1/4 c. red onion, julienne
1 1/2 c. kale, very finely chopped
a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds

Blend dressing ingredients together using an immersion blender (great for emulsifying) or a whisk.  Set aside.

Combined julienned ingredients in a large bowl and toss with dressing.

Evenly divide the kale among the serving plates, and top with mixed vegetables and fruit (this is also a fun job for the almost two-year-old).  Sprinkle with toasted pumpkin seeds.
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  1. Thank you for including me in this wonderful post. I took an African American lit class as part of my English degree and it felt odd because I didn't feel I had the right or ability to critique that literature. I also took (and loved) world lit but didn't feel the same oddness and discomfort with other culture's literature.

    I think you're right: open eyes and hearts and empathy can go a long way. Maybe sometimes we make it too difficult.

    On a side note, I wanted to do grad school for comparative lit but decided not to.

  2. Mmmm, I love this. I do think there is a big difference between "speaking for" and "speaking with." And it comes down to that table analogy. Are we all sitting at the same table, having a conversation, truly listening (and not just trying to think up the next thing we want to say), or are some people not even at the table, part of the conversation, and instead others are speaking for.

  3. Just like that toggle of opposites in yoga that we are working to unite, we are a planet of people with differences but also a fundamental sameness. If we could listen to and respect each other the way we are trained to listen to and respect our bodies in Asana, perhaps one day that shared humanity will triumph. Loved this post. Wise and gorgeous writing as always.

  4. Great post J! And thank you for instructing me to go and read KeAnne's. I love hers too! :)

    As an aside, thank you for including the line, "I'll wait..." I feel compelled to let you and KeAnne know, that had you not written that, I probably would not have clicked over, because I am having a busy day (like pretty every day) and didn't think I had time. But I also respect your opinion and when you said that, I thought, "well I better do it then!" :)

    In case you don't go back to read my comment on KeAnne's post, I am going to share here some of what I did there.

    So much of what both of you wrote about resonates with me. My parents marched with MLK Jr. when he came to Chicago and chose to raise my sister and I in a Chicago suburb, Evanston, that is known for its cultural/racial diversity. But its not that simple. I had lots of black acquaintances growing up in Evanston, but not that many friends. I would maintain that was more about socio-economic status than racial differences, but it is definitely and interesting thing to reflect on and discuss. My husband and I chose to settle and raise our family in a Chicago neighborhood called Beverly, also known for it cultural and racial diversity. I wanted for my children to grow up going to school and living near children of different races and backgrounds, as I did. I know that changing the way we think about people and topics is not that simple, but it’s a start.

    I wrote this post called “Otherness,” on my blog in November 2011, after going to see a critically acclaimed and Pulitzer Prize winning play called Clybourne Park written by Bruce Norris, at the Steppenwolf Theatre here in Chicago. The storyline speaks to a lot of what KeAnne and you wrote about in your posts and I talk about that more in mine.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and experience, as well as encouraging me to read about KeAnne's. I love to talk about this topic, as I think in some ways it is simpler than we sometimes allow it to be and in other ways extremely complicated. I also think, as Mel shared in her comment on KeAnne's post that in this day and age race is only one of many things that divides and unites people in our country. I am proud to be an American, especially with a bi-racial president and first family. I do think that sends a strong message to youth who are learning and imagining what their lives will be.

    Good stuff J! I love how your posts often make me really think and feel and wonder. :)

  5. I love this post, justine. there is so much to chew on. love these tough discussions about race.

    when I was first hired as a social justice lawyer, I remember my mentor asking, for the record, how I would be able to represent these underserved communities yet not lead them, and speak with but not for them, if I wasn't from among them. here I was, this young, middle class (if not upper-middle) white woman.

    yet my answer was simple and has served me well: have empathy and respect, be honest and build trust, and work to empower the client. not sure why all professionals aren't trained this way.

  6. Agh! I need to learn my lesson about commenting right after I read something, when my thoughts are still fresh in my mind, instead of trying to come back to it a few days later. :) I agree with Lollipop's sentiment about speaking for vs.with and about making sure the voices that need to be a part of the conversation are being heart. HOW we go about these conversations is the key. This is a really wonderful post.

    By the way, I LOVE Zora Neale Hurston too. I think I've read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" at least five times - it is one of my all time favorite books, so beautifully written. I'm reading a collection of short stories by Langston Hughes right now. Very thought-provoking.

  7. I recently had the weirdest ephiphany that my mom and her sisters are bi-racial, but never identified with anything but white. (as far as I know) With all the "progress" we've gone through, I'm still not sure how to fill out check boxes for Baby X. And what happens to people who are tri-racial, how do they identify?


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