Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Apology (further thoughts from a law student)

Mitchell Hamline student, Matthew Yost, wrote these reflections on the complex process of apology, and the need, ultimately for redemption.

It’s difficult not to feel as if we are in the middle of a watershed moment for people—most often men—behaving badly. High profile instances of harassing and assaultive behavior have risen to the top of our collective consciousness, but a deeper and more pervasive culture of misbehavior has leached into all aspects of contemporary society. This phenomenon—dangerous, frustrating, consistent—sparks a social master plot that generally concludes with an apology.

Apologizing for bad behavior is a fundamental human supposition, so much so that it is one of the simplest concepts that children are taught and expected to replicate. Apologies are key to redemption, the process by which people who misbehave are socioculturally reset.

Despite their apparent simplicity, apologies are layered in their complexity—or at least, they ought to be. Apologies are meant to show contrition, that the person apologizing has recognized the way their behavior upset cultural norms and expectations and that they are acting to improve. Lately, though, the arc of the redemptive master plot has been eroded by ubiquity and a fundamental misunderstanding.

Take an example. A media figure is found to have engaged in a pattern of sexual harassment against colleagues in the recent past. The behavior is met with a mixed response, with some believing that the man’s actions were simply old-fashioned—unacceptable and gross, but harmless. Nevertheless, the man is spotlighted and criticized, though there is no legal response to his actions. Facing mounting pressure, the man publicly apologizes, the substance of the statement something like, “I regret if my behavior caused offense, it wasn’t my intention. I hope we can put this ugliness behind us and move forward from here.” The performance complete, the news cycle shifts, and the man continues forward with his life and career with little impact from this event.

Sound familiar? A generic apology, directed at no one, acknowledging no actual responsibility. Often, this is because a person is unwilling to accept or admit their wrongdoing. When there is no cultural recourse for a person’s poor apology, what incentive is there to hold oneself responsible? In fact, the reverse seems true: The weaker and less responsive the apology, the more a wrongdoer is rewarded and the faster their actions are forgotten.

How can we improve this situation? Forcing a person to accept responsibility is at best an uphill battle, at worst an exercise in futility. There remains, however an active cultural role in deconstructing and reconstructing this narrative.

To start, an apology should never be absolute. Its substance can’t be contained in a one-off statement at a press conference. Rather, an apology is a continually negotiated act requiring diligence and focus and reaffirmation. A person whose apology does not comport to this expectation should be corrected and pressured again and again until they understand this. If they still can’t change, their apology is simply unacceptable.

Second, it’s critical to recognize that “apologize” is a verb. By its nature, an apology requires action. Again, a statement of apology is a fine first step, but what comes after the statement is far more critical. Only in taking action is the extent of a person’s commitment to contrition truly put on display. There’s no prescribed action that needs to be taken for every apology; such actions should be guided and informed by whatever the apology stems from. Maybe it’s the simple act of listening; maybe it’s engagement with those who have been negatively impacted by the  actions; and maybe it’s working to address the damaging assumptions that inform and underlie bad behavior. Always, the action should involve a commitment to assure that whatever the person did never happens again.

Finally, a critical component of an apology is its acceptance. Too often, this is the beginning and end of the act. “I’m sorry” is followed reflexively by “it’s okay.” In instances where an apology is directed at a specific person, the instinct to accept immediately should be critically reexamined. If the previously-mentioned components of a “correct” apology are absent, what incentive is there to accept? Maybe acceptance is altogether inappropriate. Maybe acceptance should always be conditional. Like the accompanying action, it seems that there’s not one simple means or process for accepting an apology. Embracing the discomfort that comes with that uncertainty is useful for both the person apologizing and the people being apologized to. It acknowledges that an apology is a social construct, but one that is critical to our collective cultural evolution.

Is this setting up an impossible scenario? Am I asking too much? Critical engagement with the concept of the apology is certainly new and challenging, but is the status quo of the current Apology Industrial Complex really yielding positive results? Like most of our tired master plots, the apology seems ripe for revision.

There is an obvious and important disclaimer here: As a culture, it’s important that we don’t abandon redemption. If people are never redeemed, there would be no justification for apology. What are we going to do with all of the people in this world who have made a mistake, who have lied, who have harassed, who have assaulted if they become irredeemable? That may be difficult to hear and accept. (It’s difficult to write.) People act with selfish disregard and their actions have consequences that are visceral: sharp, painful, and lasting. But if we cannot somehow accept these people, we risk further eroding ourselves and our society. All this being said, redemption requires something far more than saying “I’m sorry.”

Having the Courage to Love Like Grown-Ups (thoughts from a former Franken staffer)

Emily Flesch is a third year law student at Mitchell Hamline.  I asked her to write something after the news broke on Thursday.

“For many of us, living under the Trump administration has cast everything into sharper relief: It’s as if we’ve all been given fancy polarized sunglasses with which to more clearly see the fault lines of the patriarchy. It’s no longer possible to ignore what was there all along.” – Lauren Duca,

The goggles our class has been exploring this semester are difficult to wear, which is a hallmark of the privilege of the wearer, as we are forced to see what has been obvious all along to those without privilege. The other defining feature of these goggles is that, as Duca notes, above, once you have had them on, it is impossible not to see through them.  And with our gender goggles on, the landscape is pretty grim. Here, as Lindy West describes:

“Not only are women expected to weather sexual violence, intimate partner violence, workplace discrimination, institutional subordination, the expectation of free domestic labor, the blame for our own victimization, and all the subtler, invisible cuts that undermine us daily, we are not even allowed to be angry about it. Close your eyes and think of America. We are expected to keep quiet about the men who prey upon us, as though their predation was our choice, not theirs.

So I have spent these last several weeks shocked, but not surprised at the men being named for their predatory behavior. My experiences, and the experiences of countless other women (and men) have made it clear that even (and especially) the people we love, respect, trust, and admire are capable of horrific acts. If this post-Weinstein “reckoning” is to have any meaning, we must steel ourselves to hold accountable even (and especially) the people that we love, respect, trust, and admire.

This brings me to Senator Al Franken.

I first met Al at his book signing when I was 15. Yes, I was the weird kind of kid who read political satire. Neither of my parents was especially political, but I had always been fascinated by how our government works and the business of politics.

My dad drove me, and I remember waiting in the line. I remember meeting Al and I remember his smile. I remember what I said to him – that I hoped he decided to run for Senate. If he did, I promised I would work for him.

A few years later, Al officially announced his senate run. I made good on my promise and joined Team Franken as an intern. It was a dream come true for this nerd. I went to my first political convention, where I helped Al win the DFL endorsement. I got to introduce Al at an event in Duluth. Together, we told the story of meeting at the book signing. I loved talking with voters about the issues. Working on Al’s campaign is one of things I am most proud to have done.

When Al was finally elected as our Senator (by only 312 votes), I knew that my work had mattered. And I truly believed that Al was going to make a difference in Washington, not just for Minnesotans, but for all of us. I believed him when he told us that his crass jokes from SNL were “just jokes.” I believed him when he promised he was going to work hard and take his job as a Senator seriously.

Over his first two terms, I have continued to be impressed. His work on behalf of veterans, on behalf of women, on behalf of consumers, and on the judiciary committee has exceeded even my expectations. Senator Al Franken, I have told people many times over the years, is the one politician that I truly believe in 100%.

And then, the photograph of him groping Leeann Tweeden.

“He needs to resign,” I texted my parents, after the story broke. My father responded, “I don’t think there is a man our age who hasn’t acted inappropriately at some point.”  And that, I explained, is precisely the problem.  Look through your goggles, people!

The road forks now, in terms of what should come next. There is a political reality, and there is that reality that has existed in the shadows, without the benefit of the polarized sunglasses, for too long.  Hovering over both realities is this discussion of nuance, of degrees. Of whether what Al did was better than many, and worse than some.  I am not sure that it matters.

The political reality as I see it is that we cannot afford not to hold Al accountable. Any leniency will be used against us from the right, who, so far, has failed to hold credible allegations of child molestation against Roy Moore, and has elected Donald “grab them by the pussy” Trump as our president. Any wavering here will not be understood as the product of weighing the facts and circumstances and reaching a reasoned conclusion. It will be a cudgel to beat us with, and shield to hide behind the next time a Republican is accused of sexual misconduct.

The other reality, the “shadow realm” that is being dragged, flailing and screaming into the light, is the one illuminated by our “power vision” goggles,  In this reality too, Al, and the rest of us, must be held accountable. Not in an angry, vengeful way, but because we recognize that as humans, we hurt each other. Because we want to be better. Because we understand that we are all in this together.  And because we love the ugly and deeply flawed Democratic experiment that is America.

I have been thinking a lot about ‘love’ this semester.  For a long time, my concept of love in a political and social sense was informed by none other than Senator Al Franken. He wrote in Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: “Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad, and helping your loved one grow. Love takes attention and work.” This framing of love has become one of the bedrock principles of my personal political ethos. But today, it falls short.

I love Al Franken. Not like a child, or a former staffer, or a constituent. I love him like a grown-up. But I am over just “taking the good with the bad.” And I am over “helping your loved one grow.” Women have been doing that since the dawn of time. We are not the only grown-ups in the room. Al is a grown-up too. It is time for him, and the rest of the men whose names we have heard, and whose names we have yet to hear, to do their own work — the hard work of taking responsibility for their bad behavior, of understanding the pain and hurt they have caused, and of accepting whatever consequences follow.

We have a foundational problem in this country, with racism, with sexism, with violence, and poverty and capitalism and war. We have a problem in the White House, at the highest levels of our government, and we have a problem in our states, our cities, and our small communities.

Loving America — ourselves and our society — means doing the difficult work of admitting that problem in all its complexity: it means being uncomfortable, being proximate, and owning our own complicity. To me, that means summoning the personal and political will to hold ourselves and each other accountable. It means there are no free passes.  It means wondering, constantly and publicly, how things would be different if the status quo were to really shift, foundationally:  where woman-identified voices, and the voices of people of color were truly elevated in our society, instead of relegated to the margins.

What if there had been more female voices in politics to inspire the younger version of myself, into whose campaigns I could have invested my time, my energy, my idealism? An oft-cited statistic is that women need to be asked an average of seven times to run for public office before agreeing. To all my woman-identified friends, consider this ask Number One: please run for office. I promise, when you do, I will come work for you.

Keeping Our Hope

Mitchell Hamline student, Laurel Blanchard, offers these reflections on hope and where she finds it. (And if you’re just joining us, check out for a description of the class.)

In a recent class session, considering Bryan Stevenson’s work around on for justice, we discussed the difficulty of existing in our world today; and that in order to prevent living in complete despair (both as humans and as attorneys) we must hold on to our hope — to something which reassures us everything will be OK. This discussion later resurfaced for me in an unexpected way.

A couple evenings ago I was listening to the song “Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder. As the song played I meditated on the lyrics. I was overwhelmed at the aspiration to one day live in a world where “all men are free.”

How hopeful these lyrics must have been 50 years ago when the song was released by Stevie Wonder. I imagine a glimmer of hope blooming in Stevie’s mind while these dreams danced about in the form of piano notes. Perhaps a fog of peace gently fills the air each time he plays this song. But, sadly, “Someday” has not arrived. Will it ever? “No hungry children, and no empty hand,” the song continues. I wouldn’t have to go far to be reminded that this ideal has not yet been realized.

Yet tucked inside this whirlwind of sweet aspiration that is “Someday at Christmas” is a confident assurance. Ah, yes, as the song continues I dare to dream that “maybe not in time for you and me, but someday at Christmas time” …our world will be a better place.

I’ve heard this song a dozen times. But never has it spoken to me as it did in this moment. If “Someday (fill in the blank)” is our hope, then how do we reconcile our human need for assurance that everything will be “OK” with the dark reality in which we live?

Honestly, I don’t think we do. And I don’t think we should try.

The fact of the matter is that humankind is self-destructive on its own. We just are. (Hello, the ice caps are actually melting.) So instead we ought to look to hope to bridge the gap between our needs as fragile humans and our reality.

To be sure, this is not to minimize our reality nor to satisfy our need for assurance. Instead this bridge serves as a way to live in between the two. To live in the tension. Why? Because we have no other choice. In this very moment nothing is getting better. And for now we will continue to live in this moment where the world perpetuates its own demise. It’s the human condition. We must find a way to live in the tension.

And you know what? Maybe that’s all right.

Maybe keeping our hope is not about “Someday” ever actually arriving. Perhaps in this world of incessant doom, hope is all about looking onward to “Someday” with faithful assurance that it will come, but never expecting to live in it.

If we expect otherwise I dare to say that we are lying to ourselves. For as long as we roam the earth I don’t believe that we will see world peace. If our world has existed for countless lifetimes and has yet to maintain a complete absence of evil, the odds of change are undeniably bleak. But in order to move from a place of despair, into the tension, we must recognize that on our own we are prone to chaos and destruction.

And this is why we need hope.

For me, my hope rests in the belief that I will one day live in peace – in heaven with Christ where there will be no more death, no crying, and no pain. This doesn’t have to be your hope. This is not a plug for Christianity. I’m simply expressing the place from which my relief comes. I live with hope. I live in the tension. I’ve not reconciled my need with my reality because the two are mutually exclusive. I’m merely living in between the two.

I encourage you to find a place of hope, in whatever season you’re currently living. We can’t hedge our bets on world peace, but we also can’t live with our feet in the sinking sand that is the chaos around us. We must find a way to live in the tension. And we must do our parts to sow seeds in contribution to “Someday,” whether or not we believe that it will ever come. Quite honestly, I’m OK with that . . . and I hope that you are too.

Wisdom and Hope from a Law Student

Third year Mitchell Hamline student, Thomas Dolan, reflects on the semester:

The past few weeks’ classes have felt particularly fraught—with anxiety, with dread, with the grim specter of hopelessness hanging over our every word, but in a strange way, these sessions have been productive in a way others were not.

After learning, over the past few months, how to don our various critical “goggles,” we had to reckon with the fact that, now that we have these goggles, what we see through them will likely take a real and devastating toll on us, both psychologically and emotionally.

To a straight, white male from a background of economic privilege, much of the appeal of this class lay in the opportunity to hear the experiences and perspectives of people whose lives have been very different from my own, and to confront within myself those aspects of privilege that can lead even the most well-intentioned people into serving and reproducing relationships of oppression.

Another point of interest to me was the prospect of really delving into the ways lawyers can recognize and help to dismantle the kinds of toxic, hierarchical systems that have long under-girded our society. If such systems were once invisible, hidden by layers of “tradition” or law, it seems they have grown weary of the shadows, now strutting about in our midst, handily personified by the shambling oafs and dead-eyed charlatans currently infesting the White House.

This course has delivered on both counts, and I’m deeply grateful to have this new set of analytical tools and emotional awarenesses.  But the last few weeks have involved the discussion of an utterly essential parallel skill. We have tried to answer the following questions:

Once awakened to the utter, all-encompassing subjugation, exploitation, and systemic dehumanization built into so much of our reality, how the hell is a person supposed to get out of bed in the morning?

And is it ever okay to take these goddamn goggles off?

Whether one is frozen by fear—as my trans cousin has been since the election; or by hopelessness—like many who thought a Clinton Presidency was as certain as the sun rising again tomorrow; or by guilt, rage, or the sense that there is JUST TOO MUCH [CRAP] GOING ON TO FOCUS ON ONE THING, FOR GOD’S SAKE; we must hold paralysis and resignation at bay. But how?

Our discussions here were difficult, but necessarily so. Thankfully, the group has developed enough trust in each other that we were able to get really vulnerable and specific about our fears and despairs, and nobody seemed to feel obligated to reflexively bright-side anyone else. As a result, what began as a very un-Midwestern baring of our deepest existential anxieties turned into something that—for me—took on a really cathartic tone, and, eventually, a discussion on the very nature, utility, and feasibility of what we might dare to call “hope” in times like these.

We discussed the deeply jarring cognitive dissonance provoked by an abiding faith in Dr. King’s “Long Arc of History Bending Toward Justice” metaphor on the one hand, and Everything Going On in the World Right Now on the other. After decades of being able to take some degree of incremental social progress as something of a given, the psychotically cruel and shockingly petty political revanchism of the Trumpenreich feels less like a political setback and more like watching a gang of feces-flinging baboons eating the Constitution and beating up our dad.

Personally, however, I don’t believe the “Long Arc” theory is refuted by recent events. In my mind, the metaphor describes not a law of nature—like gravity, say—but an observation about the nature of human beings. What I mean is that I don’t think Dr. King meant to imply that there’s some cosmic force compelling the world toward justice, and that if we just wait long enough, things will work themselves out. Obviously, this is not true; if there is any historic-gravitational force at work—that is, if there is a predictable direction in which modern societies drift when people of conscience stop paying attention—it is almost certainly in the opposite direction: toward feudalism, hierarchy, and rule by force. The long arc of history, when looked at from a distance, does bend toward justice, but a closer look reveals that it only does so when there are people bending it with all their might.

Finding Our Vocations

Class last week was about stepping back from the brink and regrouping — asking the questions, why are we doing this work? Can we be doing it better? How can we sustain ourselves as we do it? We also spent time acknowledging other voices we struggle with: Am I doing enough? Does what I do make a difference at all? How can I justify my choices, knowing what I know about how horrible the world is?

We have to step back and regroup like this in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We have come to know how hard this work is, how intractable and enormous and impossible to achieve it seems.  So we have to take breaks, to rest, and to gain new understanding and information about ourselves and our work.

I wrote back in May about vocation:  that place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger.   I asked Professor Jean Koh Peters ( about this idea of “deep gladness” and she explained that it is not happiness, exactly, but something like joy.  I was sitting next to my dear friend, colleague and co-author Professor Margaret Johnson ( at the time, and Jean said, “when you’re talking to Margaret, you’re in your deep gladness.” Margaret and I looked at each other and at exactly the same time said, “it’s true!” (To which the universal response is “awwww.”) But as lovely as my friendship with Margaret is for a million reasons, I think Jean was referring to the work Margaret and I do together – the narrative theory and critical reflection work. And she’s absolutely right: my deep gladness, when I feel most at home and alive and authentic and three dimensional, happens when I am deconstructing systems and relationships and examining them for a greater understanding of power dynamics.

Finding and identifying my deep gladness has allowed me to move more deeply and intentionally into my work for justice, which I believe is where that deep gladness starts to meet some of the world’s deep hunger.  My students and I explored these ideas as we talked in class about Bryan Stevenson’s vision for making the world a more just place (

1. Be proximate to what you care about:  This to me begs the question: what do you care about? What is your great joy, your deep gladness?
2. Change narratives:  This requires first identifying and deconstructing the existing (dominant) narratives:  the characters, events, causal connections, master plots, attempts at normalization, closure. And then working to construct new ones, with our power goggles on.
3. Protect our hope:  This to me is about staying connected to your deep gladness: find, honor and protect your passion, what moves you.
4. Choose to do uncomfortable things: Not everything that brings you deep gladness meets the world’s great hunger; and we all need to cherish and celebrate those many moments when you are not uncomfortable (that is part of #3).  But in order to meet the world’s great hunger, you must step into it.  Being uncomfortable lets you know that you are in your vocation.

My students’ task for next class is to figure out their deep gladness.  “How?” Some of them asked.  I thought back to Professor Peters’ guidance to me.  In the absence of a pair of collaborating best friends to point to, I suggested that students pay attention in the next week to what makes them cry — not in a bad way, but in that powerful, poignant way that usually happens for me when I’m driving. Pay attention to what makes you cry like that, I told them, and next week we’ll see what kind of deep gladness the world now has available for meeting its deep hunger.

There Are No [Easy] Answers

We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process. —  Jeff Sessions, Attorney General of the United States, October 12, 2017.

Last night, I spoke to a group of public interest . . .  law students about being a good lawyer in these troubled times–using the Sessions speech as my starting point. In the lengthy Q&A, almost every single question was about how to keep going in this work, how to not normalize things, how to know which battles to fight, etc, etc. . . . I’ve seen it with my own students–they are learning the law at a time when the law itself is under attack. . . . Try as I might to spin it as being more important than ever, even heroic to gain the skills that will slow down and push back against the harm, it was obvious that it is just a really, really hard time to be a law student. Those of you out there teaching or mentoring law students or . . . new attorneys…please be extra mindful of how hard it is, and how uncertain some are that the work going to make a real difference.

Class was really tough last week.  We had read Michele Gilman’s “The Return of the Welfare Queen” and Lucie White’s “Notes on the Hearing of Mrs. G.”  I had planned a good class using narrative theory to identify the characters, traits and masterplots embedded in the themes of these articles, and to construct a critical theory based on class and economic justice.  I will no doubt teach that class at some point.

Because as I reviewed the students’ journals (which they submit a couple of hours before class), and as the students themselves came in, chatting with each other and with me, I realized this class session was going to be different.  The students were revved up and frustrated and angry.  They were eager to talk about how bad things are and how hopeless they feel.  And they were hopeful that through our discussion, we would arrive at solutions — things that would really address the issues we have spent the semester exploring.

We have identified the systems, my students are saying.  We recognize the master plots and stereotypes and archetypal characters.  We recognize the different narratives – the white supremacist narrative of “still n—a;” the patriarchal narrative of the “Charmed Circle”; the classist narrative of the worthy poor and the Welfare Queen. We see it all. Now What?

Of course, there are no solutions.  Or at least no easy ones — not without dismantling our First World Capitalist White Supremacist Patriarchal Judeo-Christian society. (Which is seeming inevitable, actually, though not without a lot of devastation in the process.)

The fact is, my friends, we are in the middle of a slow burning (in some cases literally) social, cultural, and environmental apocalypse and I have been handing out special goggles so my students can see just how apocalyptic things really are.  That’s great except for the fact that the apocalypse is still burning all around us, and all we have to fight it are these special f-ing goggles! We are really tired of wearing them, but it’s really hard to take them off, now that we know what’s out there.

So I did not try to convince my revved up, frustrated and angry law students that “no really, this stuff works:  we can make a difference! Don’t forget what Margaret Mead said (; or why Dick the Butcher wanted to “kill all the lawyers,” (  Instead, we just talked about how hard and bad it all is, and how really it feels just awful a lot of the time.  And other than the fact that misery loves company, I don’t think any of us felt much better by the end of class.

This week is “Fall Break” so we don’t have class.  And I will take a week off from blogging too.

I am tired and discouraged, as are all of you, I know.  But I’m not done; none of us are.  Sometimes, we just need a break, to regroup and figure out what comes next:  what is my deep gladness, what is the world’s great hunger, and how can part of my deep gladness feed part of the world’s great hunger? I am working to figure that out.  And as the resister known simply as “Robert” reminded us all back in February:

“Take a breath. The rest of the chorus will sing. The rest of the band will play. Rejoin so others can breathe. Together, we can sustain a very long, beautiful song for a very, very long time. You don’t have to do it all, but you must add your voice to the song.”

Let’s all take a breath.  And then, back to the music!

The Story of O.J., Peaches & Valerie Castile

I’ve been thinking a lot about the living prophets and other voices around me who describe aspects of what our country is going through right now. As I wrote last week, those voices help me stay grounded and awake in those moments when denial and oblivion beckon like sirens from the rocky shore. Sometimes those voices appear on my Facebook feed or on the Rachel Maddow show or from a pulpit somewhere. But sometimes those voices float from my son’s room as he is getting ready for school or practice: Chance the Rapper, Nick Cannon, and, my latest obsession (according to my son): Jay-Z.

I promised last week that I would write more about the class we had on Philando Castile and gender. So that’s what I’m going to do now. But first, please go listen to these two songs: Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” and Nina Simone’s “Four Women” you know these two songs, you will understand why I suggest you listen to them both together; if you don’t, you soon will.)  I’ll wait.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence by wondering if you understand what these two songs have to do with the current state of our society, government, world. But I am going to ask your indulgence in following my current (possibly obsessive) analysis of these two songs as tools to understand – and undermine – that current state of affairs.

Here are the lyrics of both (I’ve excluded the last verses of the O.J. song for space and focus reasons. Much there to analyze too, but not for today). I’ve highlighted the distinct characters – and their traits — in bold. :

The Story of O.J.:

Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a
Light n–a, dark n–a, faux n–a, real n–a
Rich n–a, poor n–a, house n–a, field n–a
Still n–a, still n–a

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

House n–a, don’t fuck with me
I’m a field n–a, go shine cutlery
Go play the quarters where the butlers be
I’ma play the corners where the hustlers be
I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood
That your mama rentin’
Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
That’s how you rinse it”
. . . .

And Four Women:

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
Inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah
Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
But my father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
And what do they call me?
My name is Saffronia
My name is Saffronia

My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
My mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
My manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see!
My life has been rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
My name is Peaches!

These characters and traits are what narrative theory would describe as “stock” characters, or archetypes, the idea being that they describe kinds of people rather than individuals. So for black men, the stock characters used to be house slaves and field slaves; now they are rich n—s and poor n—s, butlers and hustlers. But all of the archetypes boil down to just one: still n—. Even O.J. Simpson can’t escape from that archetype – still n—, still n—.

And for black women, Simone describes four archetypes as well: Aunt Sarah, the “mammy” character who can handle whatever comes at her – with her strong back and long arms; Saffronia, the product of violence who might pass as white in some circles, but remains part of the world of “still n—;” Sweet Thing, the black temptress who, with her wide hips and wine-like lips can be bought by the highest bidder; and finally, Peaches – the epitome of black female rage, with her rough manner and language, who threatens violence against anyone who crosses her.

Okay, so these are two interesting songs telling interesting stories about being black in America. Why am I obsessed with them? Because they are not only describing stereotypes about African American men and women.  Rather, these songs are describing the processes of categorization and oppression. The characters identified by Jay-Z and Simone were not created by the artists or by the people populating the archetypes. They are created and maintained by the system of white supremacy itself, as a way to sort and control all blacks.

These songs are not about the stereotypes of the slavery or Jim Crow era, but of today’s American society. Every single black man and every single black woman is forced by today’s American society to fit in to one of these archetypes.  If an African American individual does not conform to the contours of one of the stock characters, chances are that White America will fill in gaps and build on assumptions to make them fit.  That is part of how a hierarchy based on “race” works:  the dominant “race” gets to sort and label the oppressed “race.”

I started our class last week by playing the Nina Simone song/video on a loop as the students walked in. (I had assigned both songs in a previous week) And then we talked about the issues involved in Philando Castile’s killing and its aftermath.  I didn’t even have to prompt my students to think in terms of characters, traits and archetypes.  They were right there with me.

Who is Philando Castile? Go look at the coverage of the shooting, look at the pictures of Mr. Castile, read what his family and friends have to say about it and about him.

Over and over again, we read after one of these police shootings of black men that he “wasn’t in a gang;” “he isn’t a criminal;” “he had a job;” “he was in school;” etc.  Why? Why is this what families and friends and communities of color stumble over themselves to say loud and clear to whoever will listen?  A loved one has just been killed and those most devastated by his death are desperate to tell a counter-narrative about him:  that he is NOT one of the typical black men America knows all about — the house n–a, the field n–a,  the butler or  the hustler.

And what about the women in Philando Castile’s life? We started with Valerie Castile — Philando Castile’s grieving mother who “stayed calm” and “dignified” throughout the events following her son’s death, all the way through the trial and beyond.  Who is she? “She is Aunt Sarah,” sighed one student.  And indeed, here she is, with her broad back and strong arms, embracing the grieving fiancee of Justine Ruszczyk in the days after Ruszczyk’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police:

Whether in news coverage of how quiet and dignified she was during the trial, or photos of her attending a private vigil for her son, Ms. Castile was the middle-aged black woman white America could root for; and be comforted by.

Until . . . . she became Peaches.  Every account I have read or seen or heard of the moments after Yanez’s “not guilty” verdict was read contains a sentence like this one: “After the verdict was read, Valerie Castile yelled an expletive and . . . left the courtroom in tears.”

No stranger to the boxes white America tries to put black women in, Castile described her experience in her own Facebook Live video a few days after the verdict:

“I’m sure y’all seen this bullshit that happened today. Fuck what they talking about!. I’ve been holding myself, trying to be strong, and not say the wrong things because I already know how they get down. I’m 61 years old. I’ve seen it, I’ve smelled it, I’ve heard it. Now you see exactly what these motherfuckers think about us. They murdered my mother f*cking son with his seat belt on. So what does that say to you?”

I could go on, and I’m sure you can do.  Where does Diamond Reynolds fit? Is she Sweet Thing and Peaches, or just Peaches? And what about Mohammed Noor? Is he a house n–a  as a cop; or a field n–a, as a Somali immigrant?

And then of course, we have to consider the two songs themselves, and the layering of Patriarchy over White Supremacy.  Where do Nina Simone’s “Four Women” fit in Jay-Z’s landscape? He samples the song throughout his, but doesn’t use the gender identifying language of the original song.  What does that do to the unique (and deeply intersectional) experience of a black woman, as opposed to a black man?

All of which to say, these songs and the tools they suggest are just that — voices and ideas.  What we do with those tools is up to us.  I propose using them to remind us to keep our race and gender and power goggles on; to challenge ourselves at every turn to identify hierarchies and interrogate our own participation in them.  I believe that is what makes these voices those of living (or recently deceased — RIP Nina Simone) prophets:  they remind us to look beyond and outside of ourselves and to keep paying attention to what we find there.

The Real Work (and Why We Do It)

Saturday was Yom Kippur. I am not an observant Jew – grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants, yes, but raised in a highly assimilated and non-religious New York family. But this time of year coinciding as it does with the turning of leaves and the shortening of days always grounds me in the spiritual underpinnings of the work of Resistance.

My favorite Resistance Rabbi – Michael Adam Latz – described the Day of Atonement this year as a day of “Open broken hearted souls joining together in song and prayer, in tears and in repentance, in the work of forgiveness and the work of breathing a new world into being.” He prayed that the day of reflection “take you soaring to new spiritual heights, your engagement with t’shuvah [repentance] turn your lives in a more holy direction, your forgiveness flow like a mighty stream, your commitment to justice and human dignity consume your waking hours.”

I first started this blog as a way to keep breathing in the early months of the Trump administration. It helped, as I joined other anxious white women like Rebecca Solnit ( and Amy Siskind ( and Jennifer Hofmann  ( who are determined that this not become a normal, if slightly worse, bad Republican administration. We keep track, we monitor, we call out, we center, all in the name of #Resistance – to Trump and all he has ushered in.

But as the months wore on and it looked like we were not going to get a do-over or early impeachment, as the Republican leadership seemed determined to stand by their man, I realized I needed to pace myself. And to remind myself of the real work of #Resistance. This isn’t a tennis game, or a brilliant, if not quite believable, spy novel. This is the country that I live in, a country that has been riven by strife and cruelty and selfishness since its founding.

Rabbi Latz is not the only spiritual leader to remind us why we do this work. No. It is, after all, “the real work of Christmas”

“to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.”

And it is the work of my Buddhist chaplain sister, Kim Moore, as she brings her practice to men and women in the cells of San Quentin and Soledad prisons. Over 500 prisoners have participated in an intensive year-long training in mindfulness, emotional intelligence and understanding violence, its roots, and its victim impact. In response to the work Kim and her colleagues are doing, one of the prisoners said, “You are speaking to us as if we were human beings again. No one has come in here and addressed us like that before.”

I will write more about last week’s class on gender and Philando Castile and how as critical lawyers and resisters we have to keep keeping, monitoring, calling out and centering, in the name of #Resistance. For today, though, it seemed important to remember why we choose every day to put our race, gender, class, privilege goggles on and force ourselves to look through them at the jagged shards of misery all around us. For me, while I am inspired by the words of the Bible and the teachings of Buddhism, I find the comfort and strength to keep at it from the actions and words of our living prophets – of all faiths and traditions. My fellow resisters, I count you among those prophets and thank you for walking this path with me.

How is this Helping?

Let’s have a quick mid-semester review. In the very first class of the semester, way back in mid-August, we began engaging with the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection. Using those tools, we started the process of deconstruction as a tool of critical resistance.

As those of you who have worked with these tools before, you know that there is nothing inherently normative about either narrative theory or critical reflection. Narrative theory reminds you, as the story constructor or listener, to attend to the narrative elements – character, events, causation, normalization, masterplot, closure – as clues about the narrative’s underlying importance and power. Critical reflection reminds you as a powerful actor in society to attend to the situated power of the various characters involved in a situation, and assess that power relative to others.

In order to operationalize these theories – make them tools that can be used rather than theories to discuss – we need a normative framework – a system that guides our set of beliefs, values, understanding of the world. Part of what we do as lawyers, law students and critical resisters is make choices not only about how to use the tools of narrative theory and critical reflection, but also about what normative framework to use. And we must make those choices intentionally, and with an understanding of what our choice of tools and frame might mean – how, in other words, it might affect the story we construct or interpret.

Choosing a normative framework can be as simple as deciding to put on your race goggles. Or your gender goggles. Or your intersectionality goggles. When you put your race goggles on, for example, you are deciding intentionally to believe that everything that happens can be seen as taking place not only against the backdrop of a socially constructed hierarchy of racial categories, but actually driven by such a hierarchy. We might call this hierarchy White Supremacy. With our race goggles on, we understand and accept Coates’ assertion that race is the child of racism, and not vice versa.

With race goggles on, we apply the tools of narrative theory to identify the characters that populate and drive the system of White Supremacy; and we isolate and describe the traits of those characters. Narrative theory reminds us that characters might be the KKK and individual racist actors, but also and more importantly, characters in our system of White Supremacy include the institutions that make that system run: the criminal justice system, the system of gun rights and gun ownership, the police, the school system, neighborhoods, the media, etc. Critical reflection reminds us to attend to the relative power of these characters, which we can do by mapping their “traits” – one of which will certainly be the institution’s use, access to and source of power.

Putting gender goggles on as we did last week and will do again this week leads us to interpret and experience everything as informed by a socially constructed hierarchy where gender is binary, and one side of the binary is more powerful than the other. We might call this hierarchy Patriarchy. Having chosen the normative frame of critical gender theory or feminist theory, we put our gender goggles on and intentionally, radically believe – maybe just for this class or the time it takes for you to read this blog – that everything happens against the backdrop of and fueled by Patriarchy. We believe that as race is the child of racism, so binary gender and the corresponding gender roles are the child of Patriarchy, and not vice versa.

With gender goggles on, for example, we accept the proposition – with determined and intentional belief – that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she is a woman. Of course, there were other reasons and we can all argue about those; just as there were other reasons that Philando Castile was killed and we can all argue about those. But choosing the normative frame of critical gender or feminist theory requires us to start with the belief and understanding that we have to rule out misogyny as the cause for her election loss before moving to the other explanations.

If we accept that proposition – which my students did, readily and without much argument – narrative theory asks that we identify the characters in that system – the institutions that make it go. I had assigned the Dean Spade’s 2013 article on marriage (“Marriage Will Never set us Free” so that seemed as good an institution to start with as any. What traits does the character of the institution of marriage have? And layering critical reflection over our narrative theory inquiry, how does the institution of marriage exemplify, perpetuate and contribute to Patriarchy?

It did not take long for us to identify the operation of Patriarchy and its oppressive power at work in the institution of marriage. From its myriad state and federal financial and other benefits to its rules about “adultery” and monogamy and – only too recently – race and gender make-up, the institution of marriage drives the engine of Patriarchy.

We considered the simple – but significant – question of name changes. Even with their gender goggles on, the four cis women in the group said that they would probably change their names if they got married. Why? Because it would be easier for the kids; because they didn’t like their last names anyway; because their parents or grandparents or partner’s family or partner wanted them to; because of societal pressure. I channeled my wonderful mentor, Ann Shalleck, as I shrieked in mock (but actually quite real) hysteria “don’t you realize you’ll disappear?!”

Gayle Rubin’s famous “Charmed Circle” (from “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Carole Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger (1984) describes the privileging of monogamous, heterosexual, pro-creative, age-appropriate etc. couples. Attaching social and economic benefits only to those who belong in the Charmed Circle does nothing about the Charmed Circle itself. There are still those who are accepted into the circle – and get the accompanying social and economic rewards – and those who are excluded from the circle. Thus the system of Patriarchy – driven, remember, by the Charmed Circle – remains intact.

My students described feeling hopeless and angry during and after this discussion. They are young, professional, ambitious people who want to get married – because that’s what young, professional, ambitious people do! Why does Patriarchy with its Charmed Circle engine have to ruin everything!

Unlike my students, I felt anything but hopeless during this discussion – angry, yes, but not at them. Their anger and frustration fuels my hope. While marriage is most certainly an engine and tool of Patriarchy – much as Coates’ American Dream is an engine and tool of White Supremacy, being aware of that fact is the first step in undermining both the tool and the system it animates. And you know what the second step is? Talking about it. Naming it. Making intentional choices about what to participate in and what to avoid.

So by all means, get married, reap the benefits, have a party. Yes, you will be participating in the oppressive engine of the Patriarchy, but since America is both Patriarchal and White Supremacist, it’s very hard to avoid participating in those systems. What you can do – and must, really, if you want to be a critical resister – is make intentional choices about how you are participating. Maybe, for example, make up a new name for yourself and your partner? Or maybe, talk to your kids about why you chose to change your name, and what it means to you.

Be intentional. Be vulnerable. Keep those goggles on.

Critical Race Theory in Action

The thing about practicing radical, intentional belief — or wearing your “race goggles” — is that once you start, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable; both to keep the goggles on, but also, interestingly, to take them off.

My students remarked on that as we went around and reported on our week of intentionally seeing race and racism everywhere and in everything.  From reality t.v. to neighborhood list serves to bridal party planning to grocery delivery men to NFL commentary, my students described their experiences of dissonance and discomfort at being both white, and aware of their whiteness.

Because it’s the awareness that is the key, right? Without our race goggles on, we don’t have to be aware of our whiteness because whiteness is something that just IS.  Like air.  It is only when something is other than white that we become aware of it.  Just as  we only notice air when it is smoggy, or full of pollen.

But whiteness is not like air.  Indeed can you tell me what whiteness is exactly? What makes someone white? What makes someone non-white? You see how easily we can go down an ugly path that leads straight to Dr. Josef Mengele and the Nazi Eugenics Program; or, closer to home, to our current Attorney General’s support for the 1924 Immigration Bill that restricted immigrants based on their genetic makeup.

Ta Nehisi Coates describes race as being the child of racism, not the reverse. Another way of saying that is that race is socially constructed in such a way as to support and maintain a hierarchy whereby the constructors of racial categories retain power, and members of the other constructed categories do not.  This is not a new or even particularly complicated idea.

But it is an important one for those of us committed to practicing radical, intentional belief. With our race goggles on,  we become aware of whiteness as a race.  We come to realize that far from being like air — something that just is — our whiteness is just as much a social construction as others’ non-whiteness. That is the dissonance and discomfort we feel, and why many people never put the race goggles on to begin with.  Because, as my students have come to realize, once they’re on, it is really hard to take those race goggles off.  Simply put, once you see  it, Race — yes, with a capital R — cannot be unseen.

Becoming aware and attuned to our individual experiences of race and racism provides the foundation for unpacking those experiences.  After all, if race is a construction of a racist hierarchy, all we have to do is identify, recognize and deconstruct that hierarchy.  Right?

If we start with the proposition that race is socially constructed, and that the United States is built on a construction of race that perpetuates the superiority and power of whites at the direct expense of blacks and other “non-whites,” we move quickly to the next proposition that the political, legal, social systems and institutions that make up what we think of as “the United States” are also built on such a foundation.  And here is where things need to get both specific and general.

Think about all the political, legal, social and other systems or institutions that intersected with Philando Castile’s life, as a black man living in the Twin Cities in Minnesota in 2016 — the police, the criminal justice system, public schools, National Rifle Association, neighborhood and church, family, etc.  What if we assume that every one of those systems was built and operates in the shadow of this racist hierarchy of White Supremacy? How does that inform our information gathering and understanding about each system and how it enhances or undermines the life of someone like Philando Castile?

We know, for example, that Philando Castile was pulled over for traffic stops or speeding more than 50 times in the 13 years he was driving.  That’s an average of more than 3 times a month.  How many times have you been pulled over?

There is no looking away from this.  We are not mere observers of a slow-moving, massive and ultimately fatal traffic pileup; we are passengers, we are victims, and in some cases we are drivers.  While it is clearly beyond any one of us to stop the pileup, let alone undo the devastation it has already caused, each one of us can try to slow it down, and work to mitigate the damage.  We do this by keeping our race goggles on and describing what we see — in stark, honest, and exhausting detail — no matter who listens and what they say.