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.

Radical, Intentional Belief

We talked about race last class.  I mean, really talked about it.  My students had been assigned to read Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015) and Patricia Williams’ essay “The Death of the Profane,” in her Alchemy of Race and Rights (1991). (You should get and read both of these books.  To tempt you, here are excerpts: and ).  I also had them read Kimberle Crenshaw’s recent article in The Baffler, “Race to the Bottom.”

As always, we started the class by having everyone share one question or thought about the reading.  To a one, the students just wanted to talk. In particular, they said, they wanted to talk about their feelings about the material.  So that’s what we did.

Both because this is a law school seminar, but also because, as I explained to them, I believe it is important to know that we are all working from shared understandings, we started by identifying the theory underlying or constructed by the readings. Coming off our class last week, the students did not resist my statement that “America has a terrible, terrible problem with race.” Nor did they balk at the notion, described and illustrated by Coates and Williams and Crenshaw, that racism in this country is not only systemic — meaning, it exists in every structure and corner of our society — but also foundational — meaning it has powered and continues to power what we think of as the American success story, the American Dream.

They also seemed to understand without defensiveness that notions like “post-racialism” and “colorblindness” are not answers to our terrible terrible race problem.  They got that such ideas and practices actually widen the already yawning chasm between those who “consider themselves white” (per Coates) and those perceived or marked as not white.  Even affirmative action got some discussion — is it necessary to right centuries of wrongs; is it too little, too late; is it actually reinforcing the racist notion that non-whites need a hand out or hand up?

Wrapping up the first hour, our group had come to accept that our very Constitution and founding institutions not only benefited from, but were indeed built upon a racial and racist hierarchy with whites at the top. We understood that all that has flowed from those foundational documents and institutions — i.e. all of “American” history — is tainted by the drive to maintain that racist hierarchy.  For several minutes, we seven Americans who consider themselves white and one who has been identified as, and considers herself to be black sat and took in that uncomfortable reality.

And then:  what can we do about it?  My students looked at me expectantly.  I looked back at them, expectantly.  I shrugged.  They looked surprised and a little worried.  Like, “wait, you got us all to this point and you don’t have a way to get us out?” I laughed a little and admitted that I didn’t have any answers.  I told some stories.  I reminded them of our Discussion Guidelines (Group Discussion Rules for Critical Lawyering class).

I asked questions about white guilt and the burden on “non-whites” to represent and answer for all people of color.  We agreed that both of those powerful psychological forces undermine our efforts to understand and bridge the racial fault line in the American landscape, by either paralyzing us into inaction, or hardening the lines between us to make dialogue impossible.

And then I turned it back on them:  what is one concrete thing you can do, knowing what you know now, to “help”?  Here is what they suggested:

Put your race goggles on.  See everything through race.  It might seem wrong to think of someone as “white” or “black” or “brown,” but we have just identified that America sees everyone who isn’t white as something “other.” Failing to see race is a privilege only those who consider themselves/are perceived to be white can afford.  So put your race goggles on and see everything through race.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

Have uncomfortable conversations, like the ones we had in class.  Call your friends, co-workers, family members on their questionable comments and race-based assumptions.  Be that person who is always bringing up race and racism.  Do this with humility; and be vulnerable yourself.  Start the conversation by telling a story about your own discomfort or racist behavior.  Do this every time you can.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

Decide to believe other people’s experience of race and racism.  Do not assume you know what they’re talking about; in fact, admit that you do not.  Do not try to make comparisons, or to find non-race-based reasons for the behavior being described.  Ask questions to clarify your understanding, but not to undermine another person’s experience.  Don’t ever accuse someone of “playing the race card.” Practice radical, intentional belief.  Just for this week.  Just until next class.

We all agreed to do these things.  Just for this week, just until next class, we will put and keep our race goggles on; we will have uncomfortable conversations; we will ask questions and be humble; and we will decide to believe.

Why don’t you join us?

Choking on the Reality of What Is

I stepped away for a minute over the weekend to get my daughter settled in for sophomore year 1200 miles away from home. No biggie. Stayed with my own parents for two nights while there and felt the poignancy of perching between generations, as the younger needs me less, the older needs me more. And I resist the shift in roles on both sides: I’m not ready to stop day-to-day parenting my daughter, nor to start day-to-day caring for my parents.

It’s not like an obstinate, foot-stomping kind of resistance, but something I guess you would call grief, at times choking me with the inevitability, the naturalness of the passage of time and what that means. My daughter is almost 20, my parents almost 73 and 83. I am almost 51. Everything is happening exactly as it is supposed to be happening. But being awake to the reality of all that is, at this moment, for me, excruciating.

Many of you reading this are nodding and “mm-ing” in support and understanding. Many of you have adult or almost-adult children; or are adult or almost-adult children yourselves. Many of you have aging parents, or are aging parents yourselves. You can imagine what I am experiencing at this moment, as I prepare to board a flight that will take me back to my home halfway across the country. You have empathy, you have compassion, you have ideas and suggestions and wisdom that will help me navigate this particular transitional time. We have a shared understanding of my experience because it is or appears to be a universal experience – we all age, our kids grow up, our parents get old and eventually die. And so do we.

But accepting that inevitability is altogether a different experience. And one that many of us never do – which is, according to Buddhists – the root of human suffering. We cannot accept what IS, preferring instead to come up with other narratives, other explanations, other reasons for what is happening.  It is the dissonance between what we want or hope to be true and what IS true that is choking us.

In class last week, we tried very hard to figure out what IS when considering the police shootings of Philando Castile by Officer Jeronimo Yanez and Justine Ruszczyk/Damond by Officer Mohammed Noor. We examined the divergent experiences of, for example Diamond Reynolds and Officer Jeronimo Yanez in the hours following his killing of Philando Castile. She was treated as a suspect, separated from her 4-year-old daughter and held overnight for questioning. He was driven home within hours after the shooting and told to get some rest. What explains that difference?

We wondered about the divergent reactions by the police departments and government officials involved in the killings of Castile and Ruszczyk. Officer Yanez was kept on the force for almost a year before being offered a separation package that included tens of thousands of dollars in something like severance pay. No harsh word was spoken against him publicly by any government or police official. The shooting of Castile was portrayed as an unfortunate event.

We don’t know much about what has happened to Officer Noor. He declined to speak to the press or investigators – which is his right under the U.S. and Minnesota Constitutions. We do know, however, that the local police union disavowed Officer Noor almost immediately; and that the Minneapolis chief of police spoke out forcefully within days of Ruszczyk’s death, condemning the killing and calling it completely unjustified. “Justine did not have to die,” she said. Within days of that statement, she had been asked to resign, and did so. The Mayor of Minneapolis herself is being called upon to resign in the aftermath of the shooting.

We tried to graph the intersectional identities of Castile and Ruszczyk, Reynolds, Yanez and Noor. In so doing, we had to confront how deeply contextual such mapping can seem to be (but maybe, for some identities, is not).

Yanez – who is a Hispanic police officer — is treated differently from Reynolds – an African American low-income single mother. Why? Because of his badge?  Or because he is a man and she is a woman? Or because being Hispanic is just slightly more powerful than being black?

Yanez is treated differently from Noor – a Somali-American, Muslim immigrant. Why? Can’t be because of his badge – they both have badges. Because Noor is an immigrant? Because he is specifically a Somali immigrant? Because he is Muslim? Or because he is black and Yanez isn’t?

Castile – an African American man — is treated differently from Ruszczyk – a white Australian woman. Why? Because he is a man and she is a woman? But what about Yanez and Reynolds – he is a man and she is woman? Because he was armed and she wasn’t? Because his car smelled like pot and she was a free spirit out in the alley in her nightgown? Or because he was black and she was white?

We went around the room and imagined explanations for the different outcomes of the two shootings. And there are, indeed, facts that might go a long way toward explaining the differences. Just as there are facts that would allow me to avoid feeling anything more than a bit wistful when dropping my daughter off, and noting the decline in my parents’ energy and mental ability.

But those factual narratives fail to capture fundamentally what IS. As one of my students bravely asked, “How can anyone see the Castile and Ruszczyk differences as the result of anything BUT race?” And as another of my students bravely answered, “because I can’t believe people could be that horrible.”

Well, what IS, my friends, is that we all age and we all die, and we all watch those we love age and die too.

And what also IS is that America has a terrible terrible problem with race; and we always have.  I’m not going to argue this point here, nor am I going to cite statistics.  Rather, I am going to ask you to consider honestly and off the top of your head, the most obvious difference between the shooting and killing of Philando Castile and the shooting and killing of Justine Ruszczyk. He was black and she was white.  And the officer who killed her was black.

We need to talk with our parents and our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the reality of aging, illness and death.  And we need to talk with our kids and our spouses and our other loved ones and each other about the foundational problem of race in America.

But before we get to the talking part, we need to sit with the deep, excruciating, choking discomfort that admitting those realities causes us.  It is devastating to accept these truths — but guess what, it is even more devastating when we don’t. Just look around you.  Only when we have the courage and humility to be awake to the reality of the American condition can we begin to have conversations that will allow us to move forward in constructing a different understanding of living in global community.

Keep yourselves awake through these truly awful moments.  Pay attention and be humble.  We are all in this together.

Operationalizing the Theory of Intersectionality

The topic for Class Two was the theory of intersectionality and its use or misuse in today’s social movements.  We discussed the difference between intersectional identities — which we all have — and the theory of intersectionality — which is about how those identities intersect with access to power.

We got there by dipping into the narrative theory tool bucket and mapping characters and traits. Who are the characters — human or otherwise — in, for example, Kimberle Crenshaw’s 2015 article on intersectionality ( and Representative Jayapal’s recent video on the same thing ( What traits do those characters have? Is access to power a trait? Or is Power itself a character? My students understood quickly that power and its operation was the main point of the theory of intersectionality, but wondered how the theory works in practice.

Let’s consider the Jewish lesbians who were expelled from the Chicago Dyke March in June because they were carrying “Jewish pride flags:”  The organizers’ argument for removing the three women was that the flags they carried called to mind the flag of Israel, which could cause discomfort or even trauma to Palestinian or other marchers opposed to Zionism.

Columnist Bari Weiss argued in the New York Times that there is no more “crisp[] expression of the consequences of ‘intersectionality’ than a ban on Jewish lesbians from a Dyke March.” She goes on to suggest that “intersectionality” leads to a caste system of victims, or what my students called the “oppression Olympics.”

To get underneath that critique, I pulled out another tool of critical resistance: asking “what if.” Although we know quite a bit about the three women who were expelled from the Dyke March, we know very little about who — if anyone — the March organizers were trying to protect.

What if, I asked my students, the person who raised the issue to the organizers was a Palestinian lesbian who had fled to Chicago from Israel, having been displaced by the building of illegal Jewish settlements?  How does that affect the character mapping? What role does power play now in our list of characters and traits? To which one of my students responded, “you had to make it hard, didn’t you?”

It is hard.  So let’s keep asking those “what if” questions.  What if instead of a “Jewish pride flag,” lesbians from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee carried their state flags, to show their pride at being both lesbians and Southerners?

In case you don’t have the flags of the 50 states memorized, here are those flags:

 Alabama  Arkansas  Florida Georgia  Mississippi  N. Carolina Tennessee

And in case you don’t have the flags of the Confederacy memorized:

Should the organizers of the Chicago Dyke March expel lesbian marchers carrying any of these flags? What if the organizers of the March were white, but many of the marchers were African American? What if the organizers of the March were African American? What if the Southern lesbians were themselves African American? Now, what if the march in question were not one for lesbian rights and visibility, but for Black Lives Matter? How do these “what ifs” affect your answer to the question of whether the march organizers should expel marchers carrying one of those flags?

Get out your narrative elements and critical thinking cheat sheets, folks.  This stuff is hard.  And fundamentally, most importantly, contextual.  Who are the marchers? Who are the organizers? What is the event? Where is it happening? When is it happening? Why is it happening? How has it come about? And then go deeper — who are the characters? What are their traits? What is the nature of the event? Its setting? Etc.

Only by digging in to the context and narrative realities of a situation can we understand that situation well enough to begin to explore the true nature of whatever intersectional conflicts might arise.

What does all that mean in practice? We have all been to marches, and will no doubt be again — maybe even today!  What would you do if you saw flags or signs that gave you pause? As an organizer? As a fellow marcher? What if you yourself were confronted by someone who had concerns about a flag or sign you were carrying?

And let’s not kid ourselves into thinking any of this is about flags and signs.  Someone at your office, place of worship, school, neighborhood, bus stop, local watering hole, birthday party, uses a word or makes a remark that might be seen as potentially oppressive to someone else.  What do you do? What if you are the person potentially oppressed? Or the potential oppressor?

As a tool of critical resistance, the theory of intersectionality depends on our ability to engage in humble self-reflection about the intersections between our own multiple identities and those of the people and situations around us.  Only then can we assess our role in resisting, mitigating and avoiding — or perpetuating — inter- and intra-identity conflict.

Because like it or not, our liberation IS all bound up together.  Injustice for one IS injustice for all.  We may not know what to do on the ground, and we certainly do not have all the answers.  But friends, we know how to ask questions.  And if we don’t want to devolve into simply ranking each other for entry into the Oppression Olympics, ask we must, with humility and self-awareness.  Even if the answers we get are complicated, or not be the ones we want or anticipated. Even then — especially then — we have to keep asking.

Tools for Critical Lawyering

First class was yesterday.  (If you’re just joining us, catch up by reading my last post here: I called it the “tools” class.  We explored and played with three of my favorite tools — narrative theory, critical reflection, and cross-cultural competence.  My theory is that if we critical lawyers, resisters, citizens use the tools offered by narrative theory, critical reflection and cross-cultural competence, we do a much more authentic and effective job of deconstructing and reconstructing the institutions and people we are critiquing.  Sounds pretty heavy, huh? The secret is:  it’s not.

For our purposes, let’s say narrative theory means breaking a situation or event down into its narrative elements.  As described in the assigned reading (this awesome new book by me and Margaret Johnson from the University of Baltimore School of Law., those elements are:  Character (including traits); Events (including timeline and setting); Causation (cause & effect); Normalization (gap-filling); Masterplot (stock story or stereotype); and Closure (disruption & resolution).

And for our purposes, let’s say that critical reflection means the process of asking questions.  My students found this “cheat sheet” really helpful:

And finally, cross-cultural competence comprises a whole field of theories and tools, but again, for our purposes, the theory of cross-cultural competence requires each of us to identify, consider and recognize our own cultural identity; and to do the same for others’ cultural identities.  Coupled with narrative theory and critical reflection, consideration of culture as an important identifier can result in richer and more effective communication and relationship building. In addition to that awesome book described in the previous paragraph, consider the exercises and tools developed by Sue Bryant and Jean Koh Peters, and described here:

So those are the tools.  What did we do with them in class, and how will we use them going forward?

After introductions and development of discussion ground rules (both of which deserve blog posts in and of themselves, but that will have to be for another day), we jumped right in to trying our hand at using the narrative elements to listen to and deconstruct a clip from “74 Seconds.”

Each student took one of the elements  — Character, Events, Causation, Normalization, Masterplot, Closure — and listened to “Coming Soon” with that element in mind. We then reported back — what Characters were mentioned? What events? What cause and effect? Did the running of the plates cause the traffic stop? What Normalization? What kind of gap-filling do we have to do? There must have been something to make the officer pull him over? What Masterplots or tropes — small town disrupted, black man v. cop, viral video leads to revolution. What Closure is suggested — the end of the 74 seconds? The indictment of the officer? The trial?

Try this yourself– it’s a four minute clip.  You will be amazed at how much more you learn from those four minutes — about the choices the storytellers (reporters, producers, editors) made; about your own perspective/biases; about the various currents running through the narrative.  And this is just the teaser for the actual narrative or narratives that are “coming soon!” Imagine how powerful this tool can be if we apply it to the events and narratives all around us.

Moving from the narrative elements of the “74 Seconds” clip, we turned our focus back onto ourselves by practicing Habit One of Bryant and Peters’ “Five Habits of Cross-Cultural Competency:”  making a list of similarities and differences.  I paired the students up and had each team write such a list, directing them to try to make the two lists roughly the same length — to look for more similarities if that list is shorter; and more differences if that list is shorter.  Each team struggled in different ways:  one team found it challenging to come up with similarities; another to come up with differences.  Some teams identified the similarity/difference of race, gender, sexuality, religion right up front; others did not.  We agreed that a whole class could be spent on just the question of how each team decided (unconsciously? consciously?) what traits to include and what traits to ignore or leave out.

I had a whole additional hour of material planned, but time was up.  We — seven quite similar and quite different people in St. Paul, Minnesota — have embarked on this project together.  Yesterday, we all committed to that. Next week, we take another step together by exploring the critical theory of Intersectionality, using the tools from yesterday, and maybe some new ones.  I told my students at the end of class that I don’t have anything in particular planned for class yet, so please feel free to send me suggestions.  That goes for all of you too.

I know that whatever I do prepare will teach me more than I know now; and that whatever we do in class will teach me even more.  This project is not about deconstructing one theory and then moving on to the next; it’s about identifying and learning to use tools that will allow my students and me to dig even deeper into what it means to be a socially responsible, critical thinking, authentic member of this society.  So whatever we do, it will be challenging and intense and exhilarating.

Critical Lawyering in Today’s World

My pledge on July 4th was, in addition to continuing to pay attention and “seek accountability from those who have attacked and undermined our democracy,” to “work to shore up systems – and create new ones – that protect and empower our Democratic ideals; not only to protect against further erosion, but also to work, always, toward a more perfect union.”  So that’s what I have spent the last month trying to do.

In particular, I have designed and am preparing to teach a law school seminar called Critical Lawyering in Today’s World.  As the syllabus describes:  “Students will read and discuss a cross-section of writing on narrative theory, intersectionality, critical race theory, gender theory and critical lawyering theory. The principal focus of the class will be to determine how these theories bear on the real-world work of lawyering in today’s world.”

In other words, the course is my way of trying to figure out — with my students and for myself — what we need as critical lawyers to do our job in these times.  And, even more broadly, what we all need, as critical resisters and guardians of democracy, to do our jobs in these times.

I hope we will discover some answers together over the next few months.  I will post every week about the assignment and materials covered for each class, as well as the discussions we have in the classroom.  I know some of my students subscribe to this blog (thank you!), and hope that they will feel empowered to contribute to the conversation publicly, if they are so moved.  And I invite all of my blog readers and muses to jump right in as well.  If you want to follow along, here is the syllabus: Grose Syllabus FA17

The course will, in part, revolve around a podcast, called “74 Seconds,” produced by Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), that reports on and analyzes the events surrounding the police shooting of Philando Castile in July, 2016.  You can subscribe to the podcast here.

In next week’s inaugural class, we start with my two favorite tools of effective critical lawyering (and resisting):  narrative theory and critical reflection.  We will develop discussion guidelines and ground rules, because any good consideration of critical lawyering must be based on a foundation of trust and respect.  And then we will jump right in.  Hope you’ll join us.