Monday, May 25, 2020

The Mandibles

The Mandibles, Lionel Shriver

Absolutely captivating, this book had me hooked for a solid few days. And frankly, reading it at the moment, when we are watching economies suffer and change, it was not easy or comfortable.

It’s 2029, and life in America is not so great. Five years ago was the Stonage, when other nations hacked the US power grid and everything, everywhere turned off. That started the decline and inflation that people are now dealing with. As the dollar continues to plummet, and other nation unite to propose a new currency to form the basis of world trade, the President installs dramatic measures - the cancellation of all foreign debt, that all gold in the US in now owned by the government, no US dollars can be removed from the country, and any trade is the new currency (bancor) is prohibited.

To make it personal, these changes are played out in the lives of multiple generations of the Mandible family. Great-grandfather Douglas, now in his nineties, is the controller of the family wealth, earned years ago by inventive forebears and now keeping him in the lap of luxury in an exclusive nursing home. His two children (in their 70s) have been quietly waiting for years to come in their inheritance, but have managed very comfortable lifestyles of their own. The adult grandchildren never relied on the money, but the satisfaction that it was there somehow helped everyone get by. It seems that only one of them, Willing, a fourteen-year-old great-grandchild, is able to grasp the enormity of what is happening, and what they need to do about it.

As the changes enacted by the government filter their way into the community, you see what really happens to people under dire economic breakdown. Persistent inflation, wages no longer cover basic goods, banks reclaim mortgaged homes, and jobs are lost. Mass unemployment, mass homelessness, mass chaos.

Shriver has keen insight into humanity and their varied ways. Some will just get by, some will flee, some will bury their heads in the sand, some will turn to whatever it takes to find some money, and everyone is pushed beyond what they ever thought they would have to deal with.
“Everyone adapts effortlessly to coming up in the world, and improved circumstances always seem well deserved. But going in the opposite direction feels unnatural. What’s really poisonous that it also feels unjust… I’ve never met anyone whose life has taken a sudden turn for the worse who thought a reversal of fortune was just what they had coming to them. The outrage, the consternation, the fury, all of it impotent - well. Setbacks never bring out the best in people.”
As I said, reading this in the midst of Covid-19 made it especially realistic. Chillingly so. There are comments about the stockpiling of toilet paper that could be out of the news of the last month or so. Of course, once all the paper goes, it’s shredding old clothes and sheets that is required to be used with vinegar, thrown out at first and later saved and washed to preserve them. We can be thankful we didn’t get to that (yet?). Another comment points out that since various diseases spread in communities, it is no longer acceptable to hug or even shake hands (sound familiar?!)

About the first three-quarters tells of the unravelling of the American way of life over the first five years. The final part skips ahead 15 years to show what could have happened moving forwards, picking up the stories of the same people.

Throughout Shriver has comments about healthcare, the US government departments, the US interactions with other nations, most notably Mexico and China. There are obviously many observations about economical and monetary places, and I will admit that Husband had to help me out with understanding some of the early changes described.

All in all, an excellent, thought-provoking read.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Refresh

Refresh, Shona and David Murray
“Over many years, and through many struggles, the Lord has … taught me, and is teaching me, how to live a grace-paced life in a world of overwhelming demands.”
Are you overwhelmed? Are you close to, or at, burnout? Is everything just too much? Many women find there is a time in their life where they ask these questions. Shona and David Murray experienced their own burnout, and found refreshment and healing through trust in God’s sovereignty, care and love, and by facing the reality of their over-paced lives and the limits of their physical bodies. This volume for women is a companion to David’s Reset, which husband found very helpful and shared with the men on his staff team. Shona’s own story is one of burnout with young home-schooled children while working as a doctor and with a husband in ministry. Her experience may be unique, but she speaks situations that many of us are familiar with. Refresh includes single women and those without children, but the main focus feels as though it is for married mothers.

I have read this book twice in recent years. Once a few years ago on long-service leave, and now in the middle of Covid-19 isolation. I am not on the brink of burnout, nor am I currently overwhelmed by demands. For me, in many ways this current season has been one of lower output and fewer deadlines. However, it’s been a time to allow for reassessment and reflection. Where might cracks be appearing? How close are we running to the edge? What level of busyness do we want to return to? We watch others around us take stress leave and need professional help, and consider our own frailties at the same time. So, whether you are currently struggling with the pace of your life, or just want to be aware of what the warning signs might be, this book is worth reading.

It is structured around the concept of ten stations at a gym, the first being Reality Check. Murray provides a process for readers to assess their own state, asking questions to flag warning signs in physical, mental, emotional, relational, vocational, moral and spiritual areas. Then you consider how wide, deep and long you have had symptoms in each area. Her analysis is that if you have warning signs in a couple of areas, and particularly in spiritual or moral areas, you need to address things straight away.

She encourages women to analyse their situation and the effects of their lifestyle, noting the main areas of danger which include idolatry, materialism, debt, indiscipline, diet and perfectionism. She starts with a helpful reminder of God as creator, and who he has made us to be as wonderfully amazing, complex and limited humans, who are affected by sin in all areas.

Then comes an exploration of the value of sleep, noting that sleep proves our trust that God is sovereign and that we are finite. I appreciated this chapter for I am increasingly convicted of the theological importance of sleep, and it is something that can often be ignored. Another chapter examines resting, stopping and relaxing, encouraging time out in each day, the week (a day of rest) and the year (vacation). As she notes: “Every Christian wants to know God more; few Christians fight for the silence required to know him”. For those who want to explore rest (but not sleep) in more detail, you might be interested in the recent secular offering: The Art of Rest.

She expounds the need for regular exercise, and also a healthy diet. There is detailed consideration about medication for depression and other mental health issues. Murray is a GP and I found her to be balanced and wise, she concludes it is a blessing of God for those who need it. She encourages women to consider what fills up their tanks and what empties them and to wisely manage both, so that we can find purposely find refreshment and be aware of depletion.

There is time spent thinking about our identity. Both in Christ and as a forgiven sinner; as well as in our relationships, and the unhelpful identities we may give ourselves that may need tweaking. Part of our identity includes acknowledging our weaknesses as well as our strengths and how they are redefined through Christ.

One gym station reflects on the weights we carry through life:
“By the time we are 40, we are carrying mortgage and credit card debt, work problems, husband and children worries, healthy issues, church conflicts, car repairs, and healthcare premiums, and on and on it goes… The weights accumulated imperceptibly; they multiplied a little every year until life slowly yet inexorably crushed us. Now, our minds are frazzled, our hearts are pounding, our bodies are breaking down, our relationships are straining, our sleep is declining, our quality of work is suffering, and our happiness is a distant memory.”
She considers the idea that there are two ways of operating: the well-planned life and the summoned life, challenging women to see that planning, having a purpose and making appropriate decisions are preferable to living entirely in response to circumstances. But we still need to be able to respond to situations, and so we seek balance. To figure out what this might looks like she considers purpose, planning, and pruning, and how purpose is particularly needed in five areas: our spiritual, family, vocational, church and family lives.

Towards the end, there is encouragement for women to prioritise their relationships: with God, our husbands, our children, friends and older women, noting all are important and probably should operate in that order.

I appreciated Murray’s wisdom, grace and honesty throughout. You can tell that she has lived the overwhelmed life and has experienced major burnout and depression. Yet she has learnt from it and found a better way forward. That better way is multifaceted. It is spiritual refreshment and a willingness to sit at our Lord’s feet. It is a recognition that sin plays a part in all aspects of our lives. It is acceptance that we have limited bodies that need care and maintenance. It is allowing our community to come alongside us and be with us in our struggles.
“The key is to grasp that pacing ourselves is biblical, whereas living the fast, frantic life is not. It takes faith to believe that and to follow through with it. To live it is in fact a dying to self – a dying to our self-will, our self-sufficiency, and our self-image. Have you understood frantic living versus grace paced living in that way before?”
Murray offers wise words and advice we would do well to heed.
“God’s calling to each of us is unique, and he takes great delight in us when we serve him in it … He does not demand burnout. He rejoices to see us taking biblical care of the bodily temple he has gifted to us and is delighted when we live conscious of our weakness and in total dependence on his daily refreshing grace.“
A slightly edited version of this was first published on TGCA.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race

Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race, Reni Eddo-Lodge

After reading Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/ Brown Scars, and discussing it at length, I was pointed to this book by Reni Eddo-Lodge, a London based journalist who has written a detailed analysis of racism in Britain, both historically and currently. I have hardly spent any time in Britain, and so do not have any personal experience and knowledge of these issues there, but she has written in a clear and compelling way, that even if I do not fully grasp the political structures or geographical references, her points still hit home to a reader outside the UK.

Eddo-Lodge is a black woman who as a 4-year old asked her mother when she would become white, because all the good people on TV were white, but all the villains were brown or black. Through her university years she took a course on black history where she realised how much of the UK’s history ignored the issues of racism and the range of cultures present in the country. Increasingly right wing political agendas were calling for a reduction in immigration, to protect “British people” and their “way of life”. As she dug deeper, she began to realise the depth of structural racism through all facets of British life.

But as she tried to speak about it, she met walls of resistance from white people, refusing to see the issues, or claiming we are post-racism and that we no longer see colour. After years of trying, and meeting walls, blank faces, arguments and white tears (like Hamad), in 2014 she wrote a blog post (also like Hamad), called “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race”. It was a way to declare that for self-protection, it was no longer worth talking to people that refused to see the problem. Not unsurprisingly, it sparked critique, but also, much more positively, more conversation, both from people of colour agreeing with her comments, but also from many white people keen to understand more and wanting to know what they could do. It is worth spotting her own note that when she talks about white people she doesn’t mean every individual white person but rather whiteness as a political ideology. (p115)

That led to this book. Firstly she covers some of the history of Britain, including the various ways that people of colour came to the country and how racism has been prevalent across the years. She then turns to consider “the system” using detailed examples of police racism, which led to coverups, persecution and miscarriages of justice for many people of colour. This then leads to an analysis of what she terms ‘structural racism’, how racism is intrinsically part of life, and its reaches affect education, job opportunities, housing, income, the way people are treated in the workforce, access to medical care and so on. Yet, it’s often just assumed or ignored, because it’s so part of life: “The covert nature of structural racism is difficult to hold to account.“ (p64)
“Research from a number of different sources shows how racism is weaved into the fabric of our world. This demands a collective redefinition of what it means to be racist, how racism manifests, and what we must do to end it. It seems like black people face a disadvantage at every significant step in their lives.” (p65-66)
She then turns to consider white privilege: “the fact that if you’re white, your race will almost certainly positively impact your life trajectory in someway. And you probably won’t even notice it.... White privilege is dull, grinding complacency. It is par for the course in a world in which drastic race inequality is responded to with a shoulder shrug, considered just the norm.“ (p87)

This chapter also raises some interesting questions about mixed race children and where they find their identity, whether parents actually consider both ethnicities as they raise a child, and the impacts of privilege and racism on that child.

The next chapter then turns to consider “Fear of a black planet”, and the irrational fear that white people have that perhaps one day the tables will be turned on them. As such, she makes some very interesting comments comparing the importance of talking about racism with its often counter-argument: talking about offending people. What happens at that point she says,
"Tackling racism moves from conversations about justice to conversations about sensitivity. Those who are repeatedly struck by racism’s tendency to hinder their life chances are told to toughen up and grow a thicker skin."
As she notes, the conversations need to be had, and we need to encourage free speech. But, as she notes:
“Free speech is a fundamental foundation of a free and fair democracy. But let’s be honest and have the guts to unpick who gets to speak, where, and why. The real test of this country’s perimeters of freedom of speech will be found if or when a person can freely discuss racism without being subject to intellectually dishonest attempts to undermine their arguments. If free speech, as so many insist, includes being prepared to hear opinions that you don’t like, then let’s open up the parameters of what we consider acceptable debate.”
She then considers feminism and introduces the term intersectionality to address the joint issues black women face when delaying with both racism and sexism. Hamad dealt with the intersection between racism and feminism in more depth, but I also appreciated Eddo-Lodge’s analysis here. She finally turns to consider class structure, and how racism in intertwined here as well. There was some detail on London’s housing situation here, which while the details escaped me, was clearly showing the disadvantage people of colour experience when councils ‘gentrify’. She also challenges the idea that more education, or moving up in class will really make any difference:
"Being constantly looked at like an alien in the country you were born in requires true tolerance. I don’t think that any amount of class privilege, money or education can shield you from racism." (p208-209)
The final chapter moves to considerations of how to respond. First she says, the conversation needs to keep being had. When asked, when do you think we’ll get to the end point on this, she says “you can’t skip to the resolution without having a difficult, messy conversation first. We are still in the hard bit.“ (p213). She notes,
“Change is incremental, and racism will exist long after I die. But if you’re committed to anti-racism, you’re in it for the long haul. It will be difficult. Getting to the end point will require you to be uncomfortable." (p214)
I was pleased to see her considerations of what white people can do in the space:
“White people, you need to talk to other white people about race. Yes, you maybe written off as a radical, but you have much less to lose…If you feel burdened by your unearned privilege, try to use it for something, and use it where it counts. But don’t be antiracist for the sake of an audience. Being white and anti-racist in your private or professional life, where there is very little prize to be found, is much more difficult, but ultimately more meaningful.” (p216).
There was also a measured warning about the of championing causes on social media. “We really need to be honest with ourselves, and recognise our own inherent biases, before we think about performing anti-racism for an audience.”

In the end, her conclusions rang true to me:
“racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve.” (p219)
So, she suggests, white people first need to be talking about it, then to consider how whiteness has silently aided our lives, but in the end she does not encourage guilt, “I don’t want white guilt. Neither do I want to see white people wasting precious time profusely apologising rather than actively doing things. No useful movements for change of ever sprung out of fervent guilt.” Her suggestion is get angry because anger can be useful and you can support those in the struggle rather than pitying yourself.

She concludes, “it can be as small scale in chipping away at the warped power relations in your workplace. It can be passing on knowledge and skills to those who wouldn’t access them otherwise. It can be creative. You can be informal. You can be your job. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re doing something.”

This book, along with Hamad’s, have caused me to think through these issues in more depth than ever before. I have appreciated the challenges they have raised, and the uncomfortableness they have made me feel. Clearly there is no short term fix for the systemic racism apparent in our communities, but I feel better informed to at least be part of the conversation and consideration for change.

Monday, May 4, 2020

White Tears / Brown Scars

White Tears / Brown Scars, Ruby Hamad

This book is still rolling around in my head and has prompted further reading as well. I read it thanks to a partial interview I heard on ABC radio, and was intrigued.

Ruby Hamad is an Australian journalist and author, who was born in Lebanon. She has written a searing critique of white culture, most notably white women, and how for centuries they have used their position of power over women of colour. Much of her focus is on Australia and the United States.

She starts identifying her own and other women of colour’s experience that when they raise issues of racism with white women, usually the situation is turned back on them, with white women claiming they have been victimised or that the woman of colour challenging them has been arrogant and hostile. This led to her to write an article titled ”How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour”, which was picked up by numerous media outlets and led to Hamad realising her experience was definitely not unique.

When she began this book, her central question was "What happens when racism and sexism collide?" What she analyses is:
 “the way in which women of colour who attempt to address an issue that is detrimental to them in some way almost invariably come up against a wall of white fragility so immovable, so lacking in empathy, so utterly unrepentant, that the first few times it happens, you naturally assume you are imagining it, that you are the problem, that you should have gone about it differently … until at some point you, as a woman of colour, realise in shock that regardless of the facts of the situation, the real problem isn’t even about you. It is how white society regards you. It is how white society treats you. Because you, as a woman of colour, do not measure up to their image of what a women in and should be in order to be believed, supported and defended.”
From here, Hamad explores roots of white colonialism. Because the prevailing idea at the time was that all brown, Asian or black (any non-white) culture was subhuman, you could treat those people any way you liked, which included sexualising the women. Of course, this also enabled white men to treat indigenous women as they chose, with no consequences or repercussions. She goes on to explore the power that sex and desire played in these interactions, as indigenous women were cast in the worst possible, simplistic light, either as unable to control their desires or wanting white men to save them from their own men. And so arose stereotypes which exist still in various forms today: the spicy sexpot of Latin America, the submissive China Doll, the deceptive Dragon Lady, the Angry Black Woman or the Bad Arab. Whereas, she asserts, white women were always seen to be pure, innocent, damsels in distress, who needed protection and saving from white men, often against the perceived threats of indigenous men.

When considering white privilege and how white people do not know how to interact with it, she quotes another woman, Kristina: “I think white people have discomfort from their white privilege, and then when you have conversations with them about these issues, that discomfort suddenly ruptures, and they see that as discrimination against them because they’ve never had to operate in a system where you have to own your discomfort.”

While analysing white tears and how white women use their fragility when challenged, she also draws attention to the maternal complex of white women trying to rescue indigenous people from their believed lower states. This has extended to removing children from their homes in order to give them a more ‘civilised’ upbringing. She looks further into feminism, and how most change has been won for white women, not women of colour, noting “there is no recourse for women of colour who have been burned by white feminism”.

There are times when she starts to think change will happen, but then writes off the change: “White women keep apologising, telling us they will listen, they will improve, but they never do”.

In the final chapter, she has two conclusions:

  1. "Women of colour must become consciously aware of the limitations forced on them, that these limitations are designed to keep us on the lowest rung of the hierarchy, and that we need to collectivise to bring them down", and
  2. "white women have to acknowledge the unfair advantage their race has given them not just in the sense they have white privilege, but in the sense they have participated in a system where their womanhood is itself a privilege and a weapon."

She finishes with a rallying cry for women of colour to unite and white women to get behind them. Beyond that though, there is little suggestion of what a real way forward could look like.

What are my thoughts? They are many, varied, and I’m still considering them.

  1. She has presented a strong critique against almost all aspects of white culture, particularly the impacts of colonialism, which read as accurate portrayals of much history.
  2. Her stereotypes of women of colour struck a chord, especially when you consider how they are still represented in popular culture.
  3. Yet, I also wondered if her representation of white women is also a bit stereotyped. There was no recognition that some white women do not behave this way, and yet there must be some that do not fit her mould.
  4. Related to this (and I acknowledge that her topic was white women), there are numerous cultures who believe they are superior to others. We do live in a western world, where white is often seen to be dominant, yet there are other cultures who have the same sense of entitlement and priority. An exploration of this would have been interesting.
  5. It can be insightful to read an author who holds strong, different opinions on many things to our own. I don’t mean so much her comments or analysis of racism, but as I looked through her Facebook page, it’s clear we think differently on numerous issues and also choose to express ourselves differently. Yet, it’s helpful to be challenged and consider various perspectives.
  6. It was outside the realm of her research, but personally, I want to consider her conclusions through a Christian lens. Of course Christians have not always done this well in the past, and I agree that dreadful wrongs have been done in the name of the church. Yet, I hope that for those who truly believe that all mankind is made in the image of God, there is a desire to see the equality and value of all. How do we seek to really love our neighbour, if our neighbour is all people, of all colour?
  7. In the end, I found myself asking, “what do you want me to do?” I am not a journalist, a CEO, a politician, a leader of any type in a public setting. So, what is Hamad asking of me? I would have loved another chapter or two with some productive suggestions for moving forward. I am a white woman, I make mistakes (as we all do), so what should I do - in the day-to-day and in the bigger picture? I felt this book would have been more powerful, as well as more conciliatory and productive if this was included.

All in all, a challenging read and well worth diving into, it will make you consider your own reflections and experiences of racism, whether you are white or of colour, male or female - and that is something we all need to do.