Marcus is not the new Jess Mariano. Ginny is.

Marcus is not the new Jess Mariano. Ginny is.

When Netflix’s Ginny & Georgia dropped, almost immediately the internet broke out in articles comparing it to Gilmore Girls. The comparison to Gilmore Girls is fair, if superficial. Sure, both shows feature a single mom who had her daughter when she was a teenager and take place in a quaint small town. Sure, both mothers have complicated on-again-off-again romances with their daughter’s father. I do not really think Ginny & Georgia is that similar to Gilmore Girls beyond those broad strokes.

I definitely do not think that Marcus Baker is the new Jess Mariano. In fact, I think if we are going to compare anyone to Jess, it should be Ginny.

Bustle compared Marcus to Jess in the headline for an article that mostly focused on the actor, Felix Mallard, who plays Marcus. Seeing that headline had me looking for similarities as I watched the show. Both are brooding teenage boys. Okay…

But when we look at Ginny and Jess, there is far more similarity. Both Ginny and Jess are readers with a critical eye. Both Ginny and Jess have complicated relationships with a flighty mother. Granted, Georgia is a much stronger figure than Jess’s mother, but both teens had childhoods spent moving from place to place at their mothers’ behest. Both Ginny and Jess have commitment issues and leave an earnest, goodie-goodie romantic interest hanging. Both have a mentor who runs a restaurant and gives them some occasional tough love while they pine away for one of their best customers who also bosses them around…

So, if we’re comparing anyone to Jess, make it Ginny, not Marcus. It’s easy to fall back on the tropes that there’s the bad boy neighbor causing romantic trouble for the smart girl next door, but Ginny & Georgia is working beyond those categories in their portrayal of Ginny, a smart complicated character. Let’s not force that dynamic on the story. 

And let’s not compare Joe to Luke while we’re at it. (Even though I sort of just did.)

 

(Book Review) Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas

“Son, one of the biggest lies ever told is that Black men don’t feel emotions. Guess it’s easier to not see us as human when you think we’re heartless. Fact of the matter is, we feel things. Hurt, pain, sadness, all of it. We got a right to show them feelings as much as anybody else.” (Concrete Rose 163-64).

Concrete Rose, the prequel to Angie Thomas’s hit book, The Hate U Give, is a moving coming of age story that focuses on a young Maverick Carter in the aftermath of finding out that he has a baby son. He thought that the baby belonged to his best friend, King, but when a DNA test reveals the truth and the baby’s mother leaves the three-month-old boy with Maverick, he has to grow up fast. Mav renames the baby Seven, the number of perfection and a number significant to theories about the recently departed Tupac. For those who loved Starr in The Hate U Give, this book leads up to the time just before her birth. Mild spoilers ahead.

This book was amazing. Thanks to my own daughter taking an uncharacteristically long nap, I read it in one day. I couldn’t put it down.

I really like Angie Thomas’s style as a writer in general. I think she handles heavy topics with prose that is light with hope and youth and then hits hard when the moment is right. That is true of this book as well. Whereas The Hate U Give dealt with police brutality and had Maverick’s history with the gang on the side, this book deals with the difficulty Maverick faces as a young father whose own father is in prison. Maverick struggles to make ends meet, to go to school when his son keeps him up all night, and with grief after his cousin is killed in a robbery.

I think what is especially noteworthy about this book is the focus on a single father. Usually, when a book handles teen pregnancy, it follows a young mother, her decisions and struggles. In Concrete Rose, however, Maverick becomes a father in an instant and struggles to learn how to fill that role. The result is funny and very touching. We also get a vivid picture of the inner life of a conflicted young man that is tender and surprisingly sweet. I thought the metaphor of a rose worked beautifully, as Maverick has to grow, pruning parts of his life. It had the double meaning also tied to Tupac’s The Rose That Grew From Concrete. Finally, as Maverick focuses on becoming a man, he is surrounded by male role models who provide different sorts of guidance. His cousin, Dre, another young father in the gang, encourages him to take care of his child while also providing him the love and support of a peer. From his boss, Mr. Wyatt, Maverick receives discipline and a more traditional model of masculinity. Maverick’s father, Adonis, serves as both a model of the type of father he doesn’t want to be and as a source of advice when it comes to Maverick’s evolving role in “the set.”

I do not usually enjoy prequels very much, so my expectations going into this book were limited. I was so moved, however, by Maverick’s story and the inner life that Thomas gives him. This was such a beautiful read.

The Parenting Problem with My Cellphone

When Julio and I did our weekly check-in on Monday night, one of the prompts was “I will do less…” and my answer was immediately “messing around on my phone.” No question or pause.

As a person and, more specifically a mother, in 2021, my cellphone is obviously a big part of my daily life. It’s how I contact friends and family. Send silent memos to Julio from across the house. Shop for our grocery pickup. Read books. Listen to podcasts or music. Track baby meals and naps. Keep track of library books. Play Animal Crossing Pocket Camp. You get it.

For a long time, my daughter didn’t really notice the phone. Then, when I started to take pictures of her, she would stop what she was doing and stare, her face saying, “What is that?” Now, she reaches for the phone. In my defense, reaching for the phone emerged during phone or video calls with family members. But still. When she reaches for the phone, I just picture battles over screentime down the road. I do not want that. As an older millennial who can remember what her brain was like before the internet, I do not want to plant the seeds for an obsession with gadgets. But I am modeling it.

This afternoon, when my girl did not go down for her nap as scheduled, I snuggled up with her in the bed for a “chat.” She babbled at me and I asked her questions and we looked at each other’s faces and it was perfect. It was the exact carefree timelessness that I envisioned when I said I wanted to do less messing around on my phone.

We started exploring the difference between being under the sheet and not under the sheet. When I pulled the sheet up over our heads, the afternoon sun shone through the flannel and we could see the floral print from the other side. Baby girl reached up to the sheet, feeling the fabric and looking at the flowers. It was a perfect moment. I tried sneakily to take a photo. Immediately, she tracked my phone and reached for it. I decided that I had to just paint a mental picture or write it in my notebook, because if I kept trying to get a photograph, the moment was going to stop being about the sensory play we were engaged in.

This, of course, is a 21st century quandary. For most of human civilization, babies have been born and grown up without every day of their lives being photographed, documented, and shared. I get that. And there are days that go by without me pulling up the camera. But many times, this child I so fervently hoped for is so sweet and precious and I want to drink up every second of her infancy and childhood, saving it in a little digital archive to keep her forever. Of course, the risk of this impulse is living her childhood through the filter of technology, not being in the moment with her. As in most things, I am sure the key here is balance.

This post is not a full-fledged essay or a post with anything resembling answers. It’s just a quick reflection on a small problem I’m facing while trying to be intentional about how I parent my child. Julio and I have an Unplug Box for our cellphones to go into when we are having family time, but it currently sits on the coffee table in a room we use less frequently. Maybe the first step is to move the box.

Yoga with Adriene: 4 Cycles in 4 Seasons

Trigger warning: we’re going to some dark places, including miscarriage, but we end up in a good place. 

Last year, Adriene Mishler was crowned “The Reigning Queen of Pandemic Yoga”. In a time when yoga studios were closed and when people were staying home to flatten the curve, more and more people turned to the online yoga community Yoga with Adriene, where the mantra is to “Find What Feels Good.” For many of us, Adriene had already been a staple, an important voice in our quest for self-care and wellness. What follows is not so much a review of Yoga with Adriene (which for the record, I think is great, but often slower than what I want. More power yoga, please, my love!) as it is the story of my journey with yoga over the last four years, through the use of Adriene’s annual 30 Days of Yoga series. It’s a story of grief, healing, illness, more healing, walking away from my yoga mat, and finding my way back. Spoiler alert: I find what feels good.

Season One: Revolution and My World is Rocked by Grief 

I first jumped into a 30 Days of Yoga with Adriene, the annual thirty-day program hosted by the yoga superstar each January on YouTube, in January 2017. At that point, I had practiced yoga off and on for half of my life (starting with Rodney Yee DVDs before getting ready to go to high school), I had even followed Adriene for years, but I had never developed a daily practice. That was my goal. Oh, little did I know. 

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Girls in the Civil Rights Movement

As Black History Month begins, there are a plethora of lists circulating on the web of resources to use for learning more about Black History. Black history is American history. 

In this space, I wanted to briefly share the stories of some girls who were visible parts of the Civil Rights Movement. When I wrote my dissertation, my focus was girlhood narratives and discourses about citizenship in 20th Century American literature. With that topic in mind, naturally, I spent a lot of time studying the role of youth in the Civil Rights Movement. The young people involved are personal heroes of mine. So, here are some of the stories that were big parts of my research, in case you want to study up on some of these amazing people. 

Claudette Colvin

When Claudette Colvin was 15 years old, she refused to give up her seat on the city bus home from school, where she had been learning about Black leaders like Harriet Tubman. The incident happened nine months before Rosa Parks’s famous arrest, but Civil Rights leaders felt that Parks, who was an adult and more middle class in ethos, would be a better test case, so Colvin’s story was largely forgotten until recent years. 

Read/hear more about Colvin’s story at NPR: https://www.npr.org/2009/03/15/101719889/before-rosa-parks-there-was-claudette-colvin 

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges inspired the famous Norman Rockwell painting “The Problem We All Live With” that was recently referenced in images celebrating the election of Kamala Harris as the first Black woman to serve as Vice President. More importantly, Bridges was a key figure in the desegregation of public schools. When she was in the first grade, she became the only Black child to go to William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. The images of hateful crowds screaming at her and U.S. Marshals escorting her to school became iconic.  During her first grade year, so many parents kept their students out of class at William Frantz that Bridges spent most of the year learning by herself with her teacher. Her family was sent a Black baby doll with a noose around its neck. The wrath that was directed toward Bridges is shocking to this day. The picture of Bridges that Rockwell painted would eventually be hung in the Obama White House. 

Elizabeth Eckford

The Little Rock Nine

Ruby Bridges integrated her school in 1960. In 1957, the Little Rock Nine ( Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas, Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNie, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Karlmark, Thelma Mothershed, and Melba Pattillo Beals) made headlines as they desegregated their high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. The nine students who integrated Little Rock Central High did so as a test case for Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case from 1954 that found school segregation was not legal. After Brown, not much was done to integrate schools, so it became clear that the issue would have to be forced. The Little Rock Nine were a big part of that movement. On the first day of school, September 4, 1957, the governor of Arkansas sent troops to block the students’ entrance. President Eisenhower countered, sending federal troops in to escort the students to school. One image that became particularly emblematic of this movement is that of Elizabeth Eckford, looking awfully cool and collected in some killer shades, walking into school as an angry mob screams at her. Eckford was 16 at the time, so it is understandable that whereas people could look at her picture and see the strength and resolve, seeing the same sorts of images featuring Ruby Bridges at their center would be a degree more shocking. 

Sheyann Webb and Rachel West

Sheyann Webb and Rachel West

One of my favorite texts that I wrote about in my dissertation was Selma, Lord Selma: Girlhood Memories of the Civil Rights Days by Sheyann Webb and Rachel West. In the book, Webb and West recount their childhood experiences living in Selma, Alabama during the movement for voting rights and the infamous Bloody Sunday march. When watching Selma, I scoured crowd shots looking for some representation of these two brave little girls and did not see them. The truth was, they were part of that march. They were witnesses to that violence, escaping by being scooped up by fleeing adults, including Hosea Williams. Their account is sometimes very shocking. For example, they describe laying awake at night thinking about the fact that they could be killed. More often, however, they emphasize how proud they are to have been part of the community and for the fight for their rights, even though they were years away from being old enough to vote. Another element of their story that I find fascinating is the initiative they took in their involvement with the marches in Selma. Their parents were busy trying to pay the bills, so they did not get the girls involved. Instead, the girls skipped school to participate, doing so because they felt so strongly about the actions their community was taking, defying the adults most directly involved in their lives to do so. Because of their youth, the girls were given special attention by some members of the Civil Rights Movement. The recount meeting Dr. King, and have several wonderful stories about Rev. James Reeb who was ultimately killed in Selma. It looks like their book is out of print, but I very seriously suggest finding a copy at the library or a used book store and giving it a read. 

Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair

The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

Four little girls were the victims of one of the biggest tragedies of the Civil Rights Era. The 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing happened on September 15th, 1963 when four KKK members in Birmingham, Alabama planted a timed dynamite bomb beneath the steps at the church. Up to 22 people were injured and four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Carol Denise McNair, were killed. It took decades for justice to be done in the case, which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” The tragedy was a turning point in public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Diane Nash

Diane Nash

I have put Diane Nash last because I do not think she could really be called a girl, but she was incredibly important to the involvement of youth in the Civil Rights Movement. Along with John Lewis (RIP), Nash was a founding leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and also involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) from 1961-1965. Nash was arrested dozens of times. She was instrumental in recruitment for the Freedom Riders and faced up to two years in prison for her role. She was four months pregnant at the time of her arrest and ultimately ended up spending 10 days in jail in Jackson, Mississipi, not two years. Later, Nash split from the SCLC over issues she had with the leadership, including the near exclusion of women. 

Black girls continue to do amazing things in American life today. The first who comes to my mind is Mari Copeny who made headlines for her protests about the Flint Water Crisis. Conversely, Black girls also continue to be discriminated against. We have seen the images this past year of girls marching during the Black Lives Matter protests and grieving their fathers and family members. Just yesterday, news broke of a police department telling a nine-year-old Black girl that she was acting like a child before pepper-spraying her. I feel like nothing I could say would be sufficient, so let me say this: Black girls do not have to do extraordinary things like the ones above did in order to deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and love, and our culture so often fails them.

Mugshots of Freedom Riders

Further Reading

Library of Congress: Youth in the Civil Rights Movement

PBS News Hour: Children Who Marched for Civil Rights Inspire a New Generation

Books on School Integration

Books for Talking About Race with Kids

10 Things Everyone Should Know About Diane Nash

Diane Nash Refused to Give Up Her Power

Breach of Peace: Portraits of the Freedom Riders

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

Resources and Reflections on Prenatal and Postnatal Core Workouts

38 weeks pregnant, teaching my last barre class before baby. I think a core ball is essential for pre and postnatal abs, but if you do not have one, a pillow can work as a support too.

Before the pandemic, I taught barre fitness classes at a local studio. I loved it. After years of doing cardio and crash dieting, learning how to build strength, particularly lean muscle, changed my relationship with my body and with food. I found myself focusing more on strength and stamina, through yoga, barre, and running, and more on good nutrition than on calories. It was a paradigm shift that worked wonders for me. Exercise is essential to my mental health. Movement is medicine.

Fairly regularly in my classes, I would encounter a pre or postnatal woman who was concerned about her abs. Sometimes, the postnatal woman was very postnatal and still did not feel like her core strength was anywhere near where it was before babies. If you spend any time in women’s group fitness circles, you’re going to hear about two things 1) diastasis recti and 2) pelvic floor dysfunction. These issues are very common for women who have carried a baby and failing to address them can cause years of problems including back pain, the “mommy pooch” in the abs, incontinence, and/or peeing your pants when you sneeze. There’s a lot of jokes out there about the last one. I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s a shameful sign of our culture’s inattention to women’s health that so many women feel like they have to just accept incontinence as a fact of life—the price you pay for having a baby. It’s not.

So, all that said, when I got pregnant I felt really good and strong and I went into the physical experience of carrying my daughter focused on good core and pelvic floor health so that I could deliver her and recover from it as best I could. I would like to share some of the resources I used along the way. If you are postpartum and experiencing issues with your abs or pelvic floor, it is never too late to work on healing.

A Note About Exercise Philosophy 

I am a certified barre instructor, but I do not have certifications in pre- or postnatal training. I am also not a medical doctor. It really is best to talk to your healthcare provider about any concerns you have about your core or pelvic floor. If you have pelvic floor issues that are really troubling you (incontinence, painful sex, etc.) there are pelvic floor physiotherapists out there who specialize in these issues. 

I am not going to lie to you and say that my appearance was not part of my mindset in this area, but what I tried to focus on in my training was function. My body has to carry me through my whole life. In my prenatal training, I was focused on the function of my body to carry and deliver my daughter. In my postnatal training, I focused on healing my body so that it could carry and support me through my days. I wanted to feel at home in my body again, when so much in my life had changed so dramatically. This was a mind-body issue as well, so getting my self-talk in order was part of the process. My daughter is almost 5 months old and I am within five pounds of where I started my pregnancy, but more importantly, I feel strong and I feel like myself without having tortured or deprived myself. 

ETA: Also, upfront I want to acknowledge that birth experiences can impact recovery in ways that are beyond our control. Recovery from a c-section can look totally different from my experience below. My labor left me feeling really adrenaline high, so I started on my recovery pretty quickly. Take things at your own pace. Finally, I am at home which gives me a certain degree of flexibility with my time. Often, when I have time to do something for me, exercise is what I choose. You do you. 

Okay, let’s get started. 

Prenatal Core Tips

There is some debate about whether or not women should do ab exercises when they are pregnant. Those who say women should nix it are on that side because they are concerned about the aforementioned diastasis recti—separation of the abdominal muscles, specifically caused by thinning of the connective tissue between the two sides of your rectus abdominus (the six pack muscles). There are a ton of resources out there (links below) about this issue and I am not an expert. So, I will be brief. Some separation of the abs in pregnancy is moreorless inevitable because there has to be room for the baby belly to grow. Problems can arise when the separation in that connective tissue does not heal properly. 

Abs and arms are my favorite areas to workout and I taught barre until I was 38 weeks pregnant. If I had still been in the studio, I would have likely just cued verbally and sat out much of the ab section of my classes, but with COVID I was teaching over Zoom and had to demo. Sometimes my sweet husband was a fitness model for me. Sometimes I pretended to do the exercises. A lot of the time I just modified. That was my approach to prenatal abs—MODIFY. The way I saw it, a strong core would help me carry the baby without putting too much strain on my body and then would help me push her out. 

I treated preparing for delivery like training for a race. Labor is kind of an extreme sport, after all. So, as soon as I got pregnant, I started doing more core exercises during that first trimester, trying to get my core as strong as possible before I had to modify. My midwife told me that after 16 weeks, I didn’t really have abs anymore. So, during the second and third trimester, I no longer exercised the rectus abdominus and focused on my obliques, the muscles along the sides of your core. These muscles help with stability and support. What I visualized was the obliques forming a corset or a cradle holding the baby up. I was helped in this by the fact that I carried my daughter pretty high, but my focus was on maintaining stability in the core for that purpose. 

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(Book Review) A Smart Girl’s Guide to Staying Home Alone

I don’t remember what exactly I was searching for on the library website when I stumbled upon A Smart Girl’s Guide to Staying Home Alone: A Girl’s Guide to Feeling Safe and Having Fun, but I was curious about what advice this publication from American Girl had to offer. Perhaps the ongoing pandemic means that girls are staying home alone less than they had in the past, or maybe the demise of childcare for many parents means that they are staying home alone more. Whether your girl is staying home alone while you run a few quick errands or as part of a regular family schedule, A Smart Girl’s Guide to Staying Home Alone actually makes a pretty good primer to get her ready and provides some fun ideas to do while she’s home alone. 

Staying home alone grew to be something I really loved. I had space and quiet and access to the good snacks all by myself. But it was occasionally scary. If you have an anxious child, I think that this guide could be particularly helpful. The book starts with a quiz to help girls get an idea of where they are emotionally in regards to staying home alone. The quiz really has nothing to do with safety or what to do in particular situations; it is all about taking a girl’s emotional temperature about being alone and gives a brief idea about how to proceed depending on the girl’s results.

The next sections provide ideas for girls and their parents to layout some house rules about staying home alone and then some Golden Rules that the publication believes all girls should follow. These Golden Rules really are golden. As a woman who lived alone for years, I can tell you they remain golden to me. This section is really good advice, as any true crime fan will affirm: always lock the door, trust your gut, do not let strangers in the house, never tell anyone you’re alone. My one quibble is that I wish it was firmer on ignoring the doorbell. I think it would probably be pretty easy for someone to pose as an authority figure and talk their way out of being a “stranger.” Girls, just don’t answer the door when you’re alone. The book says this, but I wish it was firmer and more explicit. 

The next section goes over things to take with you when you leave the house—again, sage advice—and guidance on getting to know your neighborhood. These are ideas that have less to do with staying home alone than with getting home alone and therefore might not apply to all girls. Still, good advice. 

I love the part about doing a security sweep when you get home alone. Checking the doors and windows. Smart. Be paranoid, girls!

Next up is a quiz about what to do once you’re home alone. This is often less about safety than it is about good habits. I’ll allow it. Then, there’s some guidance about quelling anxiety as it crops up. 

The rest of the book is mostly focused on fun things to do when you’re alone and/or dealing with your siblings when you’re home alone together. There is some kitchen safety and basics, plus some recipes, which seems like it could/should be a whole other book. This book finishes with a section troubleshooting tricky situations. It focuses on trusting your gut, but also aims to help girls hone their instincts by working through some scary situations. Here, the guide is a mixture of reassuring and just the right amount scary. 

Overall, I was impressed with this book and would probably buy it if my daughter were old enough to stay home alone. It’s a quick 63 pages long and I think it would be smart to keep it someplace easily accessible when you’re leaving a kid home alone—after you’ve read and discussed it together. 

(Book Review) Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

I wrote this book review on January 4th. I like to work a week ahead when I can. I did not know that on January 6th there would be a violent, white supremacist insurrection at the Capitol. So, I want to leave intact my thoughts from before, but add something as well.
America is not great. We have never been great. The United States has been powerful. It has been prosperous. But we have never lived up to the ideals we were founded on—ideals about human equality written by slaveowners who did not include women in their aspirational notions of our nation, either. I love this country. I get as romantic as anyone about the ideals we are meant to represent, but I also did my graduate research on discourses about citizenship in American literature and I have done the studying to know that we have never, not once ever lived up to being “great.” We have only been a democratic republic in which all citizens were enfranchised for about 55 years. (Oh wait, no we haven’t, because remember the felons.) And as soon as we reached that milestone with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one party set about doing everything they could to sneakily disenfranchise people again. The modern Republican party cannot win presidential elections without voter suppression.
As many have said, what happened on Wednesday was not surprising to anyone who has been paying attention since Donald Trump announced his candidacy by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals. This is the logical conclusion of his rhetoric. There were Confederate flags in our Capitol. Really, talk about losers. Talk about traitors. My blood ran cold. There was a hangman’s noose on Capitol Hill. There are a lot of areas where I think we can probably compromise in politics. White supremacy is not one of them. Absolutely not. Not a chance. Never.
I struggle knowing that people I love voted for this immoral, craven, stupid liar who has enabled some of the very worst groups and exploited some of the more vulnerable. It hurts my heart.
White supremacy is a moral rot that cannot stand. It is dangerous to all of us. It is anti-American, anti-Christian, ignorant, against our best interests, and I just can’t even. I can’t. This country was built on it and we will never, ever, ever be great until we have a moral reckoning, a real one, repent, apologize for where we have failed our fellow humans, and move forward.
January 4th, 2021:

My husband is Puerto Rican, an identity that is unified but heterogeneous, a mixture of Spanish colonizers, African slaves, and Indigenous Latin American people. Most of the time, this fact slips under the current of the intimacy of our relationship. He is just Julio. He listens to salsa music when he works. He cooks us pasta every Sunday and has a passion for baking French bread. The fact of our inter-ethnic marriage usually only comes into our heads when confronted with white supremacist ideology. Then I wonder how safe we really are, how safe Julio is, running or driving. I wonder if there are people we know who look down on our marriage. I wouldn’t be surprised now that I know how many people in our circles were willing to vote for a white supremacist.
I read a lot of scary books, but Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy by Talia Lavin is easily the scariest thing I’ve read in a long time. Lavin, a Jewish, feminist, antiracist journalist, infiltrated multiple white supremacist spaces online in order to better understand modern white supremacist ideology and how it circulates and proliferates online. In her book, she follows the racist and anti-Semitic genealogy of the alt-right and traces its support of Donald Trump and the ultimate, shocking conclusion that he was not extreme enough for many of these people. Her depiction of how white supremacists and their ideas hide in our midst like a “plague” is timely and haunting.
In the current culture of antiracist books, I think Lavin’s journalism offers a really important portrait of how anti-black and brown racism and anti-Semitism are woven together. The blurb on the cover from Rebecca Traister reads “Brutal, urgent, [and] also unexpectedly delicate.” I think that’s a pretty good, succinct description of what makes this book so good. Lavin has a light, pithy tone that hums along through truly depressing material until it lands hard, sometimes humorous or self-deprecating punches. For example, she is chased out of a convention for white supremacist YouTubers and one of them later compares her to a pigeon. As she rehashes the event, she notes: “(I am not shaped like a pigeon. I’m more of a noble heron or perhaps a heavily pregnant stork.)” (161). I was moved by how far she was willing to go to uncover how these white supremacist subcultures function and how they infect broader civil discourses. I was scared for her just reading it.
I thought that the best chapter (worst?) was the one in which she infiltrated a white-only dating site, posing as a white supremacist chick ready to make white babies and be a traditional wifey. Through her analysis, she paints a stark portrait of how misogyny and white supremacy intertwine, perfectly setting up the following chapter on Incels (“Involuntarily Celibate.” They hate, and sometimes kill, women because they are not having sex with them. Sex that they deserve because they are white men, ffs). This chapter also demonstrates how humane Lavin is. As much as she abhors white supremacy, she is still able to see the humanity in the people she encountered on the site:

“Here’s the truth that emerged for me out of a whole lot of deception, out of becoming Ashlynn and courting her suitors. The worst people are still people; their humanity is impossible to disregard, but it does not absolve them. If anything, it makes their choices more abhorrent, surrounded, as they are, by the banality of a life indistinguishable from other lives. Even a self-described Nazi eats dinner, and chances are it’s pork and pinto beans, and would you like the recipe?” (85)

It’s scary how mundane it all is.
When I worked in a jail, I met a fair number of white supremacist or adjacent people and I was kind of mystified by how often that ideology intersected with religion. Lavin also has an illuminating chapter about how white supremacy relies on old-timey notions of Christianity or paganism for its origin story.

“What all these obsessions—with medieval Christianity, with Christian symbolism, and with the Middle Ages in particular—reflect is not just a desire to devolve to a society that was more warlike, built on casual and deadly violence. It also reflects a desire to create an origin myth for whiteness—and imbue a thrown-together and internally inconsistent ideology with an intoxicating whiff of ancient virtue” (141).

In another valuable chapter, Lavin explains what Antifa is and how it functions, a good and necessary text in response to the transformation of anti-fascists into a boogeyman on some corners of the web. And FoxNews.
If you are already invested in reading anti-racist literature, this book is clearly in your wheelhouse and will probably make you feel really mad and scared too. But, if you do not normally read these sorts of books, I think you should definitely read this one. It’s eye-opening and nauseating. Or at least it should be.

Further Reading
Timeline: U.S. Citizenship Law
Comps Notes: Theories of Citizenship and Nation
Two Books On Racism in American Christianity
One Person, No Vote

A Principle and an Equation I Wish Would Become Popular Knowledge in 2021

For nerds (or listeners of Reply All), both of these concepts are possibly old news, but as I think about the persistent problems that enable really big problems, I keep finding myself thinking about two concepts: the Dunning-Kruger Effect and a mathematical equation by David Robert Grimes that illustrates how many people would have to keep a secret for large-scale conspiracies to be true. 

First, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Have you ever been in a meeting or a class and some bonehead keeps spouting off or trying to take the lead, clearly believing that his ideas are the best even though he is underperforming everyone else? If yes, then you have witnessed the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. 

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is based on an experiment published in a 1999 paper by Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They tested participants in their study on logic, grammar, and sense of humor and found that those who tested in the lowest quartile rated themselves as far above-average. They explained: “Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it” (Psychology Today).

One of the problems of our current political climate that really grinds my gears is the devaluing of expertise. In the name of getting rid of elitism, there has been a rise of anti-intellectualism that I find stunning. Instead of trusting people who have devoted their careers, or sometimes their whole lives, to a certain area of study or work, that expertise has been subjected to conspiracy theories, slander, or plain refusal to listen. For example, politicians are often subjected to the question “Do you believe in Climate Change” as though the scientific community is not in near-unanimous agreement about the issue. For example, Dr. Anthony Faucci, a leading expert on viral disease, is treated like a shill. I think that there are a couple of issues at play in this dynamic, but the easiest one to spot is this insistence that we are all entitled to our opinions. Sure, you can think whatever you want, but not all opinions are created equal. Just because someone thinks something and expresses it with conviction does not make that thought reasonable or, more importantly—true. Arguments require evidence and logic not just likes and retweets. 

Played out on a large scale, the Dunning-Kruger Effect has given us a government full of celebrities and rich people’s buddies who lack expertise, experience, mastery of the English language, and so on, because their belief in their abilities far exceeds those abilities. Call me old-fashioned, but I want the people in positions of power or influence to actually know what they’re doing. Bring back the nerds! (And altruism, please!)

Now, about those conspiracy theories. Working in a library, I was at first really surprised by how popular books on conspiracy theories were. But then, over the last few years, conspiracy theories like Q Anon and P l a n d e m i c (spelling them so as not to be picked up in search engines) have gone viral. It is easy to deride conspiracy theories and the people who believe in them. And I believe that they should be resoundingly debunked as the nonsense that they are, especially when they are as dangerous as these two theories are. BUT, I think it helps to understand that conspiracy theories tend to become popular when the world feels out of control. The conspiracy theory offers an explanation and usually villains behind why things are so out of sorts. For some, it is easier to believe the conspiracy than it is to believe that things have just gone terribly wrong. 

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To my eye, however, the most obvious problem with these large scale conspiracy theories is just how many people would have to keep the secret for the theory to even be plausible. I think of CJ Cregg on The West Wing and how sure she is that there aren’t aliens because there’s no way the federal government could keep that secret for this long.

So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that a mathematician at Oxford University had come up with an equation to calculate how many people would have to keep a secret for a conspiracy theory to be true. 

“Dr Grimes then looked at four alleged plots, estimating the maximum number of people required to be in on the conspiracy, in order to see how viable these conspiracies could be. These include: the theory that the US moon landings were a hoax (411,000 people); that Climate Change is a fraud (405,000 people); that unsafe vaccinations are being covered up (22,000 people assuming that only the World Health Organisation and the US Centers for Disease Control are conspirators and that others involved in advocating, producing, distributing and using vaccines are dupes. 736,000 people if, as would be more likely, pharmaceutical companies were included); that the cure for Cancer is being suppressed by the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms (714,000 people).”

He also took the math a step further and also calculated how long it would take for certain conspiracy theories to be uncovered by either a whistleblower or an accidental leak. 

If we apply this reasoning to, for example, COVID, if the pandemic was a hoax all of these people would have to keep the secret: the WHO, the CDC (everyone at these organizations, from secretaries up), world governments, doctors, nurses, nursing home staff, the other employees at hospitals and nursing homes, families of people who have gotten sick, funeral home workers, public health workers, reporters, fact-checkers, and so on. It’s a lot of people across the globe. 

As I’ve watched the news over the last year, these two concepts have popped into my head over and over. Life feels really complicated right now and I think that makes a lot of us vulnerable to charlatans and boneheads, but thinking through things calmly almost always helps. 

Further Reading

Understanding the Dunning-Kruger Effect 

An expert on human blind spots gives advice on how to think

Impostor Syndrome: The Flip Side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

One giant … lie? Why so many people still think the moon landings were faked

Equation shows that large-scale conspiracies would quickly reveal themselves

How many people does it take to keep a conspiracy alive?

Secret success: equations give calculations for keeping conspiracies quiet

 

The Tale of the Delia’s Glitter Jeans

A Ghost of Christmas Past

Remember Delia’s? If you were an adolescent girl in the 1990s or early 2000s, surely you must. The Delia’s catalog would come in the mail and I wanted everything. I had previously had a smaller version of this experience with the American Girl doll catalog, but with that wishlist I was more reasonable. When I was in the first grade, a group of girls told me that I couldn’t be friends with them because I didn’t have a Pound Puppy. I acquired that Pound Puppy and the stakes were raised much higher: I couldn’t be their friend unless I had an American Girl doll. Christmas came and went and I had my doll and they still wouldn’t be my friends. It didn’t matter, though, because now I had the doll. At seven years old I had sense enough to understand that they weren’t being friendly. I did not have that sense at 15. At 15, my insecurity had few limitations.

So the Delia’s catalog would arrive and I would flip through the pages and I would picture myself in the outfits, mentally trying on different personas. I wanted all of them. I would be better if I was just different. And then I felt bad for the wanting. I was starting to grow into a more adult understanding of greed and modesty and the value of a dollar, but even these rational parts of me could not quiet the utter longing to look pretty and cool, preferably with flat abs. So when Christmas rolled around, I created an elaborate list, with pictures, of what I wanted from the Delia’s catalog. In this very consumerist part of the world, that may be fairly typical behavior, at least if I believe TV ads, but I still feel such shame and regret. Then came the glitter jeans.

I think the term was spacedyed. The jeans were dyed with a gradient ranging from a pale, icy blue to a medium blue at the cuffs and they were glittery. The glitter was actually part of the fabric, not glued on like at the Limited Too (a store I was never petite enough to shop at, frankly). They were pretty darn cute. And I got them for Christmas. And then I only wore them twice, and never to school. I felt so bad about it, hoping that my mom wouldn’t notice. I probably should have exchanged them, but the thing is, I really liked them. I was just too scared to wear them.

Part of the problem was the fit. When you’re an even moderately tall woman (5’8″ for example) buying jeans can be stupidly difficult. Then, throw in the unfortunate super low rise trend of my high school years and things got worse. These jeans fit fine, but the rise was low enough that I felt like if I sat or kneeled or anything, my crack would come peeking out. The real issue, though, was that I had never seen anyone wear anything like them. Were they as cool as I thought they were? Or were people going to notice me? Fearing that I would stick out, I wasn’t brave enough to wear them.

I look back and know two things. First, those jeans were cool. The fabric felt cheaper than it should have, but the overall style of the jeans was pretty darn cute. Second, I was cool. I look back and marvel at how insecure I was. I was so smart and driven and I was into classic books and old movies and I could put together a cute little retro outfit. I wrote my own magazine out of my bedroom and ran through cartridges of ink (thanks, Mom and Dad) printing it for my friends. I was a whole person and I do not understand why I was cutting off bits of myself and hiding them in my bedroom. It made me miserable, and I’m sure it made me miserable to be around. I don’t get it. I should have worn the jeans.

Now that we’ve established that you remember Delia’s, do you remember A Christmas Carol? Remember when the Ghost of Christmas Past comes and takes Scrooge to see scenes from his past—his lonely childhood, his early career, his fiance leaving him because he loved money more than her? Scrooge looks back, first with love and compassion for himself, then with regret. The regret is stinging and I think we all understand it. This part of the story always makes me so sad, though, because of how Scrooge looks back on his youth and sees it differently with older eyes. It can be hard for us to practice compassion for our younger selves and that can make it hard for us to practice it toward other people. We see this dynamic play out when parents live vicariously through their children or hold them to standards that are designed to heal their own regrets, or when they lash out at them for mistakes that hit a little too close to home. We see this dynamic play out when we dislike someone because they remind us a little too much of something hurtful in our own past. We see it when people think that because they’ve suffered other people should too. Bah, humbug.

So, in this last post of the year, as we approach this difficult Christmas, I have three wishes for you:

  1. Release your Ghost of Christmas Past. Bid some regret or hurt adieu.
  2. Practice compassion for the young people in your life. Tell them, specifically, what you love about them. If you can, nudge them to practice compassion for themselves.
  3. If you get your own glitter jeans, please do not be afraid to wear them.

Merry Christmas! I hope you find some joy in the holiday this year and that 2021 brings better days. (Unless you’re in Congress. Congress gets coal, but not to burn. Think of the environment.) 

Please tell me you had something like my glitter jeans experience. I will feel so much better. Let me know below.

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