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Why I Don’t Feel Proud of America


1. HOW DO THEY SLEEP AT NIGHT?

I hear Tom Petty playing in the other room, where Mani’s taking a late-afternoon shower. We just went out for lattes and errands and a little walk down to Sunset Farm, where the bees and butterflies are having a field day, quite literally. We passed a few people walking their dogs, clearly enjoying the spectacular fall beauty of blue sky and October perfection.

And yet, the perfection is pierced by knowing that we are so broken. Relationships are frayed and resilience frazzled even as our resolve to resist becomes fiercer and more urgent by the hour. It feels impossible to maintain equilibrium when the supposedly elected leader of our country shows, over and over, his true colors — colors he never even bothered to conceal in the first place and that not only didn’t keep him from office, helped him get into it.

Comedians, artists, writers, educators — so many people doing more than our elected officials to push for change that is so long overdue as to feel hopeless. An entire party in the pockets of lobbyists. How do they sleep at night? How?

“Running down a dream…” comes a voice that has accompanied many of us for decades.

But whatever the dream once was, it was never everyone’s. And our insistence on self-interest and insane individualism has come at quite the cost.

What does it mean not to give up in times like these? It means not giving up. There’s nothing metaphorical or oblique about it. It means living the fuck out of life, and realizing that your voice really, really matters — especially if you’ve been one to sit this round out, watch from the sidelines, keep the peace that isn’t peace at all but privilege in action.

I am ashamed of this country.

Even writing this feels ranty and useless, but here I am. Sigh.

2. “BE PROUD”

I shared the above on Facebook yesterday. A friend who commented encouraged me not to be ashamed of our country. “Be proud,” they wrote. “It’s our time to make it better,” this person suggested. “We’ve come a long way in a short time. Think about it.”

The following was my personal response, which I’m sharing here after this person and I talked on the phone today for an hour. This is how we do this work, by being willing to invite and enter into honest, if difficult, conversations with friends and family members.

3. LETTER TO A FRIEND

My dear friend,

I love you, too, and I have thought about it. I always feel super supported by you in terms of my writing, so thank you for that. And I’ve been sitting with your comment about not being ashamed of our country. I’m curious where that’s coming from. My fear is that by focusing on pride and progress, we are turning a blind eye to what’s devastatingly wrong with our country.

The suggestion that I “think about it” and focus on feeling proud of our country and on our “progress” is really hard to swallow. I don’t want to just throw words around like “white privilege” or “mansplaining” because I think those just shut people down rather than encouraging any kind of dialogue. And I’m not invested in being right, but I really hope you will consider why this kind of response is problematic from the perspective of just about anyone who is directly affected by misogyny, racism, anti-poverty, antisemitism, homophobia and transphobia, and the myth of American superiority on which we were raised — all of which have been totally elevated and normalized by the Trump presidency but have existed as deep currents throughout American history.

Yes, there has been social and economic progress. But you don’t have to look hard or far to see the cracks in this perspective. It’s a distinctly white perspective, and one that rests on tremendous privilege.

What is it about the idea that I am ashamed of our country that makes you want to suggest otherwise? Even many of our veterans have expressed shame. This is not what they fought for. There is nothing un-patriotic about this expression of despair and disgust; if anything, it’s me putting *more* skin in the game and saying NO, I will not stand by while our government systematically destroys people of color, incites violence against women and Muslims, and treats people living in poverty like criminals.

I just drafted the following on my blog but haven’t decided yet whether I’ll publish it. Honestly, I wanted to connect with you one-on-one because I do love you and I care deeply about our relationship. These are the kinds of conversations that our “progress” depend on — people like me and you talking openly and being willing to be uncomfortable as well as to face our own places of internalized privilege and blinders. We have a responsibility to do this, and I really appreciate you reading this and hearing it an invitation to consider a different perspective — one that frankly doesn’t leave a lot of room for feeling proud of America at the moment.

This IS how we will have any chance “to make it better.” It’s not easy but it’s our turn to do this work.

Love,

Jena

4. WHY I DON’T FEEL PROUD

So, coming back to the question of being proud, here’s a sampling of why I find that is so problematic.

I won’t be proud when there have been 521 mass shootings in 477 days — with NO action from our government to seriously address the problem of gun control and an off-the-rails distortion of second-amendment rights. Our “founding fathers” would not have been able to imagine the likes of more than 500 people being injured by a single shooter.

I won’t be proud when 53% of white women voted for a narcissistic sociopath man who boasts about pussy-grabbing, incites violence against people of color, has zero empathy for human suffering, calls conscientious objectors “sons of bitches,” offers “warmest condolences” to victims of a mass shooting, and tells Puerto Ricans theirs isn’t a real disaster while 3.4 million Americans are facing life-and-death conditions.

I won’t be proud when “individual incidents of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Semitism, and anti-immigrant sentiment” have risen exponentially since the 2016 presidential elections alone.

I won’t be proud when women’s bodies are more heavily regulated by law than the purchase and use of guns — including guns designed for warfare.

When congress votes to cut off federal funding that affects “9 million children and pregnant women in low-income households.”

I won’t be proud when “African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites

When acquittals and dropped charges are the norm for white police officers who shoot and kill African-Americans — and African-Americans are three times as likely to be treated with excessive force by police.

When the Secretary of Education of the United States of America makes changes to sexual misconduct guidelines at colleges and universities that will protect rapists rather than believe victims.

When the middle class is vanishing out from under us and, according to MIT economist Peter Temin, “this dual-economy has a ‘racist’ undertone.”

When Latinx women earn a full 45% less than white men — and Native women aren’t even represented on the chart of wage comparisons.

When 21 transgender people have been murdered in 2017 alone.

The suggestion that we should be proud of our country at this moment is so problematic and upsetting. To insist that we focus on “progress” implies an ability to look right through reality.  As my friend and fellow writer Emily Nichols Grossi wrote yesterday, “We, the US, are in the direst of straits.”

To say we should be proud, to insist that we focus on progress rather than really looking hard at ourselves and the systems that continue to protect the most privileged and punish the most vulnerable, is short-sighted and insulting. I want nothing more than to find a way to say this that will open minds and hearts rather than cause defensiveness, but that part is out of my control.

I absolutely believe in using our voices, and recognize that there are many ways to do this. But this goes beyond being “a good person.” It is imperative — IMPERATIVE — that those of us who have lived our entire lives in relative ease — with few to no road blocks to “progress” due to the color of our skin — stop defending a country that shows every sign of moving in the wrong direction.

There are millions of Americans with their hearts in the right place. But it’s way past time to confront the reality that there are also millions of Americans who tacitly and overtly endorse ignorance, hatred, and violence every single day.

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The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.