Another Shift? We’ll Know For Sure In November

Nine Eleven

I paused on this line from Ayisha Malik’s otherwise lighthearted British novel, Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged, because it brought back memories of my experience on the same day in the United States. It was September 11, 2001, when terrorists crashed two passenger planes into the World Trade Center in New York, another plane into the Pentagon near Washington, D.C., and a fourth one into a field in Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives, and many more were injured in the attacks.

I was a college student in Connecticut at the time, and like so many others, I sat in my dorm room feeling anxious and depressed while watching the news. As a person from a Muslim background, I was acutely aware of the “shift” that happened after that day. Now, I’m worried that we’re experiencing another one.

After 9/11, I went from being a so-called “Model Minority” to a threatening “Other,” someone targeted by TSA at airport security almost every time I flew (which was often during my first year of law school). I had thought anti-Muslim sentiment had improved over the last few years, at least in my own life, but maybe that’s because I now travel with three redheads who call me “mom,” and we live in a diverse community that knows us well.

Outside of this community, I feel far less secure.

Last Friday, after waking up to disturbing news about the attack in Nice, France and Newt Gingrich’s call to “test” Muslims, I was stopped by security at a building I’ve visited many times before because they thought I was a threat.  They held me and my intern (who was “guilty” by her association with me) as they let everyone else pass, making us late for the presentation I was giving. I don’t know for sure that my Muslim name and brown-skinned appearance had anything to do with it, but it’s hard to come to any other conclusion when (1) that’s the difference between me and the visitors they let through and (2) I live in a country where many people accept, and some even encourage, discrimination against Muslims.

Remember when Donald Trump first proposed a ban on Muslims entering the country? His polling numbers went up afterwards among members of his party.

Maybe if more of his supporters actually knew a Muslim they wouldn’t be as susceptible to his fear-mongering. They would then know that the vast majority of Muslims are just like everyone else, individuals who are simply trying to live their lives in a peaceful and productive way. As the Pew Research Center found in 2009:

[H]igher levels of familiarity with Islam, and especially knowing someone who is Muslim, are associated with more positive views toward the religion… Not surprisingly, people with lower levels of familiarity with Islam exhibit higher levels of non-response in attitudes about Islam, saying they do not know whether it is more or less likely than other religions to encourage violence.

Can literature help fill this gap? As I said in What Parents *Should* Do:

For children [in communities blighted by homogeneity], their first exposure to diversity may be through books. Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.

Books that feature Muslims in an honest way — like Sofia Khan Is Not Obliged — are important tools to break down stereotypes. It’s hard not to identify with 30-year-old Sofia as she explores Muslim dating in London, a project that begins after someone calls her a terrorist during her morning commute to work one day. I wish there were more books like this one.*

However, the impact of these “fictional friends” may depend on the audience. There’s a big difference between a child at a formative stage in life and a person already old enough to vote this November. The people who need to read these books the most are probably too close-minded to ever give them a chance.

 

*See Word Contessa for more on this topic.

 

What Parents *Should* Do

In Please Stop Parenting My Children, I asked others to stop providing unsolicited parenting advice, especially when that advice related to what books my children should not read.

However, right now, I will provide my own unsolicited parenting advice to families. It’s advice that I believe is not only good for families, but also good for our society and the world:

Read

By “diverse books,” I mean literature that features individuals who come from underrepresented racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as literature that features gender minorities and individuals with disabilities.

This advice is most important for those parents who live in communities blighted by homogeneity. The United States Supreme Court ended race-based restrictive covenants on real estate in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and declared segregated schools to be illegal in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), but well over a half a century later, Americans still live in residentially segregated communities and send their children to racially segregated schools. For children in this unfortunate situation, their first exposure to diversity may be through books.

Fictional playmates from diverse backgrounds should not be a substitute for real-life playmates from diverse backgrounds, but it’s a start. As research suggests, this start may well result in more empathetic children who see the value of diversity.

Hopefully, these books will bring us closer to someday achieving Martin Luther King’s dream in which individuals are not “judged by the color of their skin”– and I will add, their gender status, whom they love, or any other characteristic beyond their control — “but by the content of their character.”

It’s 2016, and we’re not there yet.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here are a few of my favorite children’s books featuring diverse characters and themes:

I hope your family enjoys these books as much as my family has.

 

Are You In Need Of A Smile?

IMG_7004

A few weeks ago, I downloaded the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin on my e-reader so I could read it during my commute.

I share this account with my 8-year-old twins, one of whom said: “Fisher is the most boring book ever. It’s just about some girl who couldn’t get into college.”

I can’t believe she read enough of the opinion to know what the case was about!

I’ve been thinking about the Fisher decision as the events of this past week have highlighted how much race matters. For more on this topic, see The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Case Reminds Us Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks.

Facing Reality & Doing Something About It

The Headlines

Every morning, the headlines reveal another national tragedy: the death of Alton Sterling on July 5th, the death of Philando Castile on July 6th, and the deaths of five Dallas police officers on July 7th.

It’s times like these when I retreat into books, into the comforting fiction that helps me hide from our hate-filled world.

This is when I read old favorites like L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and Jane Austen’s Persuasion, books that don’t directly address the racism of their eras and were written when assault rifles didn’t exist.

However, this time, I can’t read fiction, at least not today. I have to face reality, and I encourage others to do so too.

If you haven’t watched the videos of Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s deaths, please do. They are graphic and highly disturbing, just like the open casket at Emmett Till’s funeral 60 years ago.

We have to confront the brutality of these killings and its underlying causes. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile — and far too many others — died at the hands of police officers because they were black. We have to face racism, including our own implicit biases, and we have to recognize how this racism infects every system in our country, from access to education to the administration of justice.

We also have to watch the video of Alton Sterling’s son, a trembling child devastated by the senseless loss of his father. Anyone who isn’t moved by the emotion in this video isn’t human.

And now we have a video from Dallas of the man shooting police officers, turning a peaceful protest of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile into the deadliest day for police officers since 9/11. The shooter had an AR-15. Why on earth would anyone have such a weapon? That’s a question our politicians have to answer.

In the United States, we have an election coming up in November. People who want our government to face the problems ravaging our country, such as systemic racism and the proliferation of guns, must register to vote and get to the polls. We have to hold our representatives accountable.

Our reality is too devastating to ignore.

______________

The image is a composite of these headlines:

The Significance of a 71-Year-Old Mistake

On February 23, 1945, during a quiet moment in an otherwise intense and bloody battle of World War II, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a patriotic scene for the history books: the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima by the United States Marines.

It was the second flag raising of the day, the unimportant one. The six men captured in Rosenthal’s photograph were raising a replacement flag that was much larger than the original. Nevertheless, this is the Pulitzer Prize-winning image that found its place in history.

In the picture, the six men face away from the camera, focused on the task at hand.  It’s hard to count them, much less identify who they are.*

For seven decades, the world knew these six figures to be (1) Corporal Harlon Block, (2) Private First Class Rene Gagnon, (3) Private First Class Ira Hayes, (4) Private First Class Franklin Sousley, (5) Sergeant Michael Strank, and (6) Navy Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, whose son used the photograph as a vehicle for a book about his father, the other flag-raisers, and the battle of Iwo Jima.

Flags of Our FathersThat book is Flags of our Fathers, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers and published in 2000. In 2006, Clint Eastwood turned the book into a movie of the same name, starring Ryan Phillippe as John “Doc” Bradley.

Now, after a Marine Corps investigation, we have learned that Doc Bradley wasn’t in the photograph. Instead, it’s Private First Class Harold Schultz helping to hoist the flag on Iwo Jima’s highest point, Mount Suribachi.

Reading this news, I wondered: Why didn’t Mr. Schultz speak up about his role in the flag raising? Why did Doc Bradley claim the credit?  The two men passed away in the mid-1990s.

According to Flags of Our Fathers, soon after the publication of Rosenthal’s image, Doc Bradley went on a highly publicized Bond Tour (selling war bonds), attended speaking engagements, and represented the flag-raisers (three of whom did not survive the war) at unveilings and other events. However, Doc Bradley described his fame in an interesting, self-deprecating way. He said:

We are not heroes… [a]nyone on that island could have been in the picture… we didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.

Later, Doc Bradley stopped talking about the picture altogether. As his son recalls:

He had trained us, as children, to deflect the phone-call requests for media interviews that never diminished over the years. We were to tell the caller than our father was on a fishing trip. But John Bradley never fished. No copy of the famous photograph hung in our house. When we did manage to extract from him a remark about the incident, his responses were short and simple and he quickly changed the subject.

Did Doc Bradley know he was not the person pictured in that photograph? Knowing little about the confusion and atrocities of war, I initially found it hard to believe anyone could make an innocent mistake about what part they played in raising a flag. Somehow, I felt as though Doc Bradley had stolen someone else’s valor by taking the credit for it.**

But my initial reaction was ridiculous. There are many benign explanations for Doc Bradley’s actions; it could be as simple as not personally remembering the flag raising in the fog of war, but then assuming he was there because that was the official story.

The fact that Doc Bradley is not in the iconic photograph may weaken the allure of his son’s book, but it does nothing to alter his heroism. As his son wrote in the book, presuming his father was in the photograph:

… Doc Bradley was indeed a hero on Iwo Jima—many times over. The flagraising, in fact, might be seen as one of the few moments in which he was not acting heroically.

Rosenthal’s picture captured 1/400th of a second of the Battle of Iwo Jima, a military action that raged for more than a month. In that time, Doc Bradley did what he was supposed to do as a Navy Corpsman, ultimately receiving the Navy Cross for his bravery. He dragged soldiers to safety, he saved lives when he could, and he comforted those he could not as their lives slipped away.

For the sake of history, it is nice to know the names of the six men pictured in Rosenthal’s photograph. However, the Marine Corps’ commandant, Gen. Robert Neller has said:

Although the Rosenthal image is iconic and significant, to Marines it’s not about the individuals and never has been… Simply stated, our fighting spirit is captured in that frame, and it remains a symbol of the tremendous accomplishments of our Corps – what they did together and what they represent remains most important.  That doesn’t change.

Everyone who assisted the effort at Iwo Jima is a hero, whether or not a photographer captured their actions on film.

 

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*You can see a clearer version of the picture (compared to what is on the cover of Flags of our Fathers) on smithsonian.com.

**I also discussed stolen valor in my post about J. K. Rowling’s “Robert Galbraith” identity a few years ago.

Do You Want Your Diaries Published?

AEE 6

I would burn my diaries if I knew where they were. At some point, while moving between Philadelphia and Boston, I lost the multi-volume compilation of my private childhood thoughts. Maybe they’re disintegrating in a landfill somewhere along I-95. Preferably, someone recycled them without ever peeking between the covers. More likely, though, they’re stuffed into boxes in my basement or our storage facility, waiting for my children to find them someday and learn how silly their mother once was.*

I don’t know why I’m self-conscious about who I was when I wrote those diaries, which was between grades two and twelve.

I also don’t know why I started keeping a diary in the first place. It may have been a reaction to the impotence of childhood, a time when I wanted adults to take my opinions more seriously than they often did. Somehow, writing my thoughts down made them seem more important.

Recently, author and diarist Elisa Segrave wrote about “the pleasure of keeping — and rereading — diaries.” She touches on the reasons compulsive diarists record their daily experiences. Some want their privacy while also wanting their “thoughts to be appreciated.”

To the extent I wanted others to appreciate the thoughts in my diaries, I wouldn’t have wanted that to happen in my lifetime (or even shortly thereafter, contrary to my typical aversion to “dead hand control”). Diaries are a vital source of historical information, though I doubt my childish musings on pop culture, boys, and other insignificant topics will provide future historians with much insight. My children are probably the only people who will ever find any reason to read them.

Segrave found and read her mother’s diaries as her mother was dying from Alzheimer’s. The journals her mother wrote between 1930 and 1950 gave Segrave a window into a woman who was otherwise uncommunicative with her children after a family tragedy.

Similarly, in Amelia Elkins Elkins, the recently deceased matriarch of the Elkins family comes alive through the diaries her daughter finds in Woodlynne Hall’s dusty, ten-thousand volume library. The diaries shed light on Gladys’s demise and on her relationship with her conceited, silly husband, a re-imagined version of the patriarch in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. The revelations could tear the family apart.

Much to her daughter Amelia’s dismay, the diaries become a potential piece of evidence in the lawsuit stemming from Gladys’s death. Grappling with the possibility of her mother’s diaries becoming part of the public record of a trial, Amelia begs their lawyers to find a way to prevent the opposition from having them:

“…These are her private thoughts. Even I wasn’t supposed to read them.” That a diary could be read was always a risk; perhaps that was part of the appeal to some who dared to share their thoughts on paper.

So maybe Gladys wouldn’t have minded. I would. How about you?

________________

*These days, I have the maturity to keep that silliness to myself.😉

The Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Case Reminds Us Why #WeNeedDiverseBooks

Supreme Court of the US

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, felt cheated out of “her spot” at Texas’s premier public institution of higher education. Why? Because she is white, and UT Austin has a race-conscious admissions program.

Per state law, UT Austin fills 75% of the freshman class with students in the top 10% of each Texas high school, but Fisher wasn’t a good enough student to benefit from that race-neutral program.* Instead, her application went through a “holistic review” for a spot in the remaining 25% of the class. This review considers many factors, including a student’s test scores, essays, community service, leadership experience, extracurricular activities, and “special circumstances,” such as socioeconomic status, family-status, language spoken at home, and finally, race. As Justice Kennedy acknowledged in the Fisher opinion (Fisher II), race is nothing but a “factor of a factor of a factor.”

Honestly, I cringe at how insignificant race is in this calculation (whatever the post-Grutter v. Bollinger view of Equal Protection may require). For many of us, race isn’t a “factor of a factor of a factor.” It plays a large role in our lives whether we want it to or not. In my case, it was the reason TSA singled me out for pat-down searches almost every time I flew between Philadelphia and Boston when I was in law school after 9-11. For others, negative stereotypes of their racial background gives them a reason to fear the police and gun-toting vigilantes like George Zimmerman. It’s the reason some people have been killed.

Race matters more than UT Austin’s “holistic review” (or recent Supreme Court precedent) suggests it does.**

But even UT Austin’s minor consideration of race was too much for Abigail Fisher, who was so unable to empathize with people from different backgrounds — and so unable to see her own faults — that she challenged the review under the theory that race should never matter in college admissions.

Thankfully, she lost. The Court determined that a race-conscious admissions program is constitutionally permissible when the program is a way of obtaining “the educational benefits that flow from student body diversity,” including “the destruction of stereotypes, the promotion of cross-racial understanding, the preparation of a student body for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and the cultivation of a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.”(Fisher II citing Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003).

But Fisher — known these days as #Beckywiththebadgrades — won’t be the last person to claim that any minor consideration of race violates the Constitution. These anti-affirmative action cases pop up again and again.

Whenever I see these cases, I wonder what the plaintiff’s bookshelves look like, assuming they have bookshelves at all (the average American isn’t much of a reader). Would these cases be less likely if Americans read more? How about if they read more diversely?

There is evidence that literature promotes a reader’s ability to empathize with others. As Time Magazine summarizes:

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.

I assume that access to books that feature characters from diverse backgrounds — like the ones I included in my list for the Diverse Books Tag would help people see the world from other perspectives. For readers who live in racially homogeneous communities — sadly, as many Americans do — their only exposure to diversity may be through literature.

It might be too much to hope that literature can prevent people like Abigail Fisher from blaming others for their own problems. However, reading books has other important benefits, including increasing a person’s chance of getting into the college of their dreams.

Then there’d be nothing to sue over.

______________________________________________

*It’s worth noting that the Ten Percent Law includes majority-minority schools, presumably resulting in a more diverse freshman class.

**Courts have to be wary of race-based policies. However, there is a difference between a law or policy that seeks to increase diversity versus one that seeks to squelch it (such as Jim Crow laws or gerrymandering). The Supreme Court’s time would have been better spent addressing laws that fall into the latter category rather than revisiting affirmative action after Grutter.  UPDATE: I just saw breaking news that the Court will review racial gerrymandering.