Category Archives: Social Studies

Why privileged people must keep talking in troubled times

White people are talking to one another these days. Eagerly reading books. Earnestly participating in whites-only discussion groups — a type of racial segregation with an entirely different feel and meaning from the power-hording exclusions of the past.

This is our work, to face up to and come to terms with what feminist and white anti-racism activist Peggy McIntosh calls the “unearned entitlements” that society bestows on white people. (See the list that McIntosh laid out more than 30 years ago in her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” and notice how full that knapsack remains today.)

As I have worked through (in order) the books White Fragility, and Between the World and Me, and There There, and How to Be an Antiracist, I have been thinking about language:

  • How white names have erased other cultures.
  • How shifts in capitalization initially confused me.
  • How hard I tried, as a young feminist, to incorporate gender-neutral language into my writing and daily speech.

And because I made such an effort to replace generic male pronouns with the admittedly awkward “he or she,” I have become more aware of when unconscious bias — the privileges of race, class and sexual orientation that I take for granted — still trips me up with how I use and view language.

Here’s what I am learning:

Lesson 1: Do your homework.

During the uncivil tug of war over whether to call Minneapolis’ largest lake by its original Dakota name or the one that honored racist politician John C. Calhoun, I never bothered to investigate how to pronounce Bde Maka Ska. Instead, wanting to look “woke,” I simply used it.

A friend who lives near the former Lake Calhoun gently corrected me when I referenced ba-DAY-mah-kah-SKA, putting the primary emphasis on the final syllable. The correct pronunciation of what translates into English as White Earth Lake has a flow, emphasizing the second syllable of the second word. Ba-day-mah-KAH-ska.

“But that’s not what the spelling suggests!” I told my friend. No matter. Not my language, not my place. Instead of embarrassing myself further, I found a video online that helped me pronounce the name correctly, and then I practiced. By now, the pronunciation is second nature.

Lesson 2: Fake it till you make it.

The first time I was asked to introduce myself with my pronoun preferences was when I began volunteering for a feminist health organization in January 2018. “Hi, I’m Amy, she/her/hers” sounded awkward at first. Eventually, like “he or she,” it just seemed natural. The practice has also helped me be more cognizant of non-binary people, those who identify as neither female nor male.

I had witnessed the pronoun challenges of my transgender first cousin, who spent some long, hard years transitioning from male to female and who later grew impatient when people made pronoun mistakes — as her parents, my aunt and uncle, sometimes did. My husband once referred to Renae as “he” at a family gathering, watched her stiffen and felt himself want to melt into the floor. Instead he apologized and moved on, acknowledging Renae’s feelings before his own by staying with the conversation. By remaining present, both literally and emotionally.

Lesson 3: Find safe spaces to work things out.

I recently joined a “Dismantling Whiteness” group at work. I seek out people I trust with whom to discuss issues of race and inequity, of power and privilege, of unconscious bias and changing language patterns. Like me, they are white; like me, they are trying. Like me, they sometimes are confused.

As a former editor, I closely followed the decision by prominent media outlets last summer to start capitalizing the word Black again, in the wake of the social upheaval that followed the police killing of George Floyd. Was this a gesture meant to reverse centuries of horrific treatment? Was it intended to help Black people earn some overdue respect? Or was it time to remind whites of our complicity?

A commentary last July in the Washington Post argued a different point of view. If we capitalize only Black, said author and historian Nell Irvin Painter — who herself is Black — then we fail to acknowledge that whiteness is a race, a social construction that for centuries has elevated some people at the expense of others.

I choose, here and elsewhere, not to capitalize white. Not yet. I fear leaving any impression of allegiance to white nationalism or of appearing antagonistic toward social change or of differing with Black people’s right to claim their own identity. I’m just not sure it is my choice to make.

This is why white people are talking. We must figure it out among ourselves. “I feel like such a stumbling white person,” I told a Black colleague last year at a pre-COVID work meeting. She laughed and touched my arm. “Keep on stumbling,” she declared.

Our turn, finally, to have a reckoning with race.

Three ways to wring some good from the grief of 2020

It was the year we couldn’t wait to see end, even though most of my siblings and friends and I are so deeply into middle age that we’re not sure we can call it that anymore. We’re supposed to savor time, at this stage of life, not wish it away.

But this was 2020, the year of Trump. Of COVID-19. Of a nearly recalled election. Of George Floyd getting murdered and Twin Cities businesses getting burned. Of debates about policing as armed car-jackers were targeting and terrorizing women. Of we white people talking earnestly among ourselves about privilege and our overdue awakening to racial inequities. A year when food lines, tent encampments and rising unemployment brought those inequities to public consciousness and squarely to our doors.

“What will you miss about 2020?” someone asked me on (of course) a Zoom call just as the year was about to turn. “Is there anything you’ll want to take with you?”

Outside Fireroast Coffee and Wine in south Minneapolis

My facility for thinking on my feet failed me (“COVID brain”). I couldn’t come up with an answer. And so, as experience has taught me, I turned to the wisdom of trusted friends. Since we’re all going to be masked and socially distanced for a while, their insights can apply equally to 2021.

1. Isolation can also yield peace

“Everyone’s narrative is so negative with COVID,” one friend told me. Instead, consider how working from home, enforced isolation from family and friends, watching movies on Netflix and concerts on our computers have “slowed things down,” he pointed out. During a recent medical appointment, a nurse told him she had gone sledding with her daughter, that COVID restrictions helped her be a more present mom. “We’re not rushing,” she explained.

More time for family was a theme of my friends’ responses. “One thing I will miss when it is all over is time with my kids,” said a member of my weekly women’s group. “I would not want this to go on forever — it would not be good for any of us. But I am very aware that I will never spend this much time with them again.”

Stay-at-home orders “brought a forced simplicity due to isolation,” said a woman who was widowed last year. Another woman, mother to 4- and 5-year-old girls, has enjoyed being released from the pressure “to do-do-do: swimming lessons, gymnastics, dance, soccer, birthday parties, church.”

My most culturally connected friend filled the empty space with reading. “I will miss the luxury of being able to spend time with authors I love and ones I’ve just met,” he said. “I have never read so many books in one year in my entire life!”

Dogs and being outside in nature are even more important than I had thought (and I had already thought they were very important).

Northfield, Minnesota, volunteer and civic activist

2. You get to reframe your own world

A woman who describes herself as an “extreme introvert” would like the less chaotic version of Christmas 2020 to continue. “There was so much less commercial onslaught,” she explained. “I didn’t go to stores with cheesy music, nasty people and buy-buy-buy messages, did not have to navigate the food and drink and noise at parties, and could just be with my little family.” This year’s downsized Christmas reminded her of Chanukah, celebrated by her husband’s side of the family.

The “low-key social life” that comes with COVID restrictions were a blessing to a friend who gave up alcohol more than a year ago after some months of struggling to stay sober. “No pressure to fit in and no drinks to turn down,” she said. “Instead of feeling left out for not being invited to the bar or the club for drinks, I feel like everybody else.”

One woman described “an emotional flash of thankfulness” every time her furnace clicks on. It reminds her of the creature comforts she can enjoy while she cocoons. “I hope I can keep that visceral association with that sound,” she said.

As for me: Aside from running shoes and Smartwool gloves, I haven’t updated my wardrobe in nearly a year. Dresses and dress pants gather dust in the closet. I maintain a skincare routine but rarely wear makeup. I am now so accustomed to dressing for warmth and movement first that I can’t imagine reverting to dressing for professional appearance, for someone else’s notion of what women are supposed to wear. I want that liberation to continue.

I’m feeling connected to the world in a scary but important way.

Minneapolis writer, mother and naturalist

3. Getting rested but staying woke

One friend answered my email query on January 6, the afternoon of the armed insurrection — the revolting revolt — at the U.S. Capitol. “We’re so ready to move on from 2020 that it would be easy to leave behind what we can learn,” she said.

Here are her lessons:

  • “What I do impacts others and they impact me. COVID has brought that message home. Who knew as simple an action as wearing a mask could literally save someone’s life? Or livelihood?”
  • “I’ve learned that a significant part of the population sees the world very differently than I do,” said this woman who, like me, was raised in a white, middle-class neighborhood with quiet streets and good schools and assumed safety. “It’s more than having differing political persuasions or religious beliefs. They are working with a different fact set and underlying assumptions about the nature of our society.”
The author, distracting herself in nature before the election last November

Another woman, a former politician who remains civically engaged, said that George Floyd’s “public, brutal, coldly cruel and unnecessary” killing makes her want to work harder for civil rights in 2021.

My strongest memories from 2020 relate to the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on May 25: seeing billowing smoke from a torched Walgreen’s less than a mile from my house during the civil unrest, walking through the Floyd memorial at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis on my birthday, biking past the destruction on East Lake Street in Minneapolis and the Midway business district of St. Paul, alerting neighbors to wheel out their hoses and put their garbage bins away after a Speedway in my neighborhood got firebombed.

I finished a book in December about historic and contemporary racism in Minnesota, my home state, the place I have always lauded as progressive. I’ve been donating more money to more diverse causes, watching as the neighborhoods around me reboot and rebuild.

“What I want to take with me is the awareness of how the year demonstrated both the fragility and the resilience of human beings,” a friend said. For me, 2020 threatened to upend everything I once believed in. I guess that’s how a more enlightened perspective starts.

Is age a point of pride, or a fact to be denied?

I caught myself doing it again on a chilly evening in October, telling a group of young parents and first-time homeowners at a neighborhood block party that my husband and I are being careful to take Coronavirus precautions because we are “not young.”

During a Zoom call recently with students at the college where I work, I referenced “people my age” to distinguish myself from the students’ generation, but I didn’t say how old I really am. Similarly, in a conversation with my 30-something manager about whether in-person contact with college students is safe during COVID-19, I said, “You know, Josh, I’m not young anymore.”

Why can’t I state the obvious, to speak the very word (“old”) that I am trying to embrace? Here’s why:

  • Because my colleagues at work might see me as irrelevant.
  • My young neighbors might deem me a person not worth befriending, no longer fun, with my aversion to swearing and dated love of high-waist jeans.

Just as it’s OK in our culture to describe someone as “thin” but never “fat” — even though both adjectives layer a none-of-my-business judgment onto someone else’s body — it is a compliment to say someone looks young but never old. To deny that I am old, at 63, is to imply that age is a deficit, an embarrassment, rather than an achievement that grants us wisdom and perspective. By using euphemisms to sidestep the truth, I am colluding with the stereotype I seek to shatter.

“Lots of old people don’t get wise, but you don’t get wise unless you age.”

Educator, author and scholar Joan Erikson

I want to claim the word “old,” just as some young women have “reclaimed” a pejorative that I consider so sexist and vile I refuse to reference it as anything other than “the C word.” My hairdresser, who is five years my junior, dismissed my reasoning with a tinge of anger the last time I had a haircut. “You’re not old,” she snapped. “My mother is old. She’s 91 and in a nursing home.”

Except I am old. Not elderly, as in physically decrepit or unable to manage my daily life. But at 63, I am hardly in midlife any longer. I use wordplay to describe this shapeless period bridging authentic middle age — the 40s and 50s — and the point at which I will retire from my career. I say that I’m in “upper middle age” or in “my early 60s.” I say that I am ”older,” borrowing the tentative nomenclature in an article about a scientific study of walkers in their 60s, 70s and 80s; the reporter called them “older people in good health.” Older than what, or whom?

Maybe “young-old” is the most accurate (and palatable) as I navigate this mystical, mysterious final third of my life, the one with the end I know is coming but cannot see.

Age is relative

I walk by a well-tended Little Free Library on a warm autumn day, and the book that calls to me is one of those little handbooks of sayings, the kind you keep at a lake cabin or in the bathroom. It’s called “Age Doesn’t Matter Unless You’re a Cheese.”

I smile, of course, but do I believe the title’s true? Isn’t claiming that “age doesn’t matter” just another way of denigrating old age, of saying it is a reality and simple fact to be denied?

We dismiss age in our culture. We exchange disparaging birthday cards about growing older, like the one I saw recently of a drooping, half-naked granny wearing leather sex gear (how preposterous that an old woman would have a sex life). We women lie about our age, feeding a multi-billion-dollar “beauty” industry with face creams and makeup and hair dye and Botox injections — and taking it as the highest compliment when someone reassures us that we look good, “for your age.”

We deny that age will affect us. As an athletic person and daily exerciser, I have done so myself, until sore knees and slower bike rides and more need for sleep have told me otherwise.

During a get-out-the-vote phone bank before the election, I commented in the Zoom chat to my young colleagues that it would be interesting to discuss what conclusions we draw based on the prospective voter’s age, which we can see. “I usually look forward to talking with older women because I assume they’ll be kinder,” said one woman who’s maybe 30. “But I have talked to some feisty older ladies lately.”

I might have counted National Public Radio reporter Nina Totenberg as a “feisty older lady” until she poked fun at her age on “The Axe Files” podcast with political commentator David Axelrod. He noted that Totenberg, who’s 76, has been covering the U.S. Supreme Court longer than any current justice has been serving. “Thanks,” she said sarcastically. And then came the predictable: “I’ve been covering the court since I was 6.”

Right, LOL.

My extended family had a Zoom call recently to meet my 82-year-old uncle’s second wife. They like to golf and someone asked what her handicap is. “That’s like asking a woman her age,” one of my cousins said to a round of laughter. I wondered whether I — the humorless feminist — was the only one who felt the sting of shame behind the joke, the hard and hurtful implication that women lose value as they age.

Name it and claim it

My younger son sits in the kitchen of our family home, thumbing through a novel he has stopped by to give me. He reads a quote by Buddhist author Pema Chodron at the beginning of the book: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?”

I expect him to ask me the question that Chodron posed. Instead he says: “Do you worry about death?” My son is 25, old enough to be framing some structure around his life but still young enough to see the vista of options spread out before him. He asks me if I fear death because he sees my lifespan as limited. In his eyes, through his experience, I am old.

I answer not reflectively as an older woman but instinctively as a mother, with a Mama Bear protectiveness that has been part of me since I gave birth. “No, I don’t worry about my death,” I tell my son. “I worry more about yours.” He looks surprised and oddly pleased, while I am momentarily caught in the memory of the color draining from my father’s face as we waited for my older brother’s funeral to begin barely three weeks after he had turned 33.

“Never regret. If it’s good, it’s wonderful. If it’s bad, it’s experience.”

Writer Victoria Holt

I don’t fear death. I fear decline. I think of the woman a decade my senior who told me that she began to feel more physically vulnerable by age 70. I’m more afraid of falling than I used to be, less willing to risk a new activity like rollerblading or scooter riding for fear of being injured.

The righteousness, the declarations that age won’t slow you down, the rage against society’s youth-culture machine: Those all feel deliciously true, until you turn the corner and stare age squarely in the face. Until you recognize that time moves through a lifetime as it does through a vacation — starting slowly, stretching out in front of you as though it will last forever, then speeding up as the end draws near. And then you’re scared.

I’m never going to run an 8-minute mile again, and my waistline will never be what it was before my pregnancies. So how can I embrace who I am today? How can I love this wrinkled, wiser woman who nursed her mother to a dignified death, who raised two boys to be good men, who is trying to come to grips with the reality that her career is almost over and a decades-long sense of purpose will have to be replaced?

“During much of my life, I was anxious to be what someone else wanted me to be,” says poet Elizabeth Coatsworth in the Age Doesn’t Matter quotations collection. “Now I have given up that struggle. I am what I am.”

And what I am, vibrantly and gratefully, is old, with wisdom and a wealth of experiences that compensate for the swift and sometimes bittersweet passage of time.