Whenever I see an automated lawn mower my first is often: lonely. it’s as if I want to ascribe feelings to this free range device which performs this sisyphean service by only cutting millimetres of grass at a time. The device is in nearly constant motion except when it stops to recharge itself. It’s an interesting and peculiar thing to want to have such a visible convenience. How nice to have the lawn in a consistently manicured state without the bother of physical effort. To maintain a mowed lawn becomes a task we can leave to this single device that requires nothing of us beyond it’s charging station and grass to cut.
The device cannot be lonely. It is created to neither feel nor emote. It has its task, its energy source, a program of operation and not more. That is both the point and the dream.
One thought I have about the rise of robots and AI powered service devices is how they are marketed to us as harbingers of freedom and ease. We receive the impression that all we will need to have our wishes fulfilled will be the sound of our voices and an ever receptive personal assistant named Alexa or Siri that will then set the logistical wheels in motion to trigger the necessary steps of wish fulfillment. In this way, we are told, we shall be freed.
It dawned on me, however, that perhaps the fascination of having an Alexa at hand or being able to bark commands at Siri may have less to do with actual freedom and much more to do with the joys of a sleek and modernized subjugation; the satisfaction of the command and control of our surroundings through machines that we appear to boss around.
Slavery is out(dated), automation is our present and future.
Think about who most ardently supports increased automation and the necessary 24/7 surveillance that feeds its learning database.
*Note: this untitled post was in my files unpublished. Until June 21, 2019, that is. I got updates on my phone that 3 such posts were released. I have no explanation. I trashed the other two. I drafted it some time last Fall I think.
Our school celebrated the opening of the Elementary Art Show for grades 1 – 5 on Friday. Positioned along a main corridor of the school, students and their families were able to feast their eyes on over 300 distinct pieces of artwork, selected by each student to be included in the display. Because I travel this hallway several times a day on my way to and from the gyms, I had multiple opportunities to glance at a few pieces each time through. What really caught my attention, though, were the artists’ statements. Alongside each artwork, my colleague, Sabina Trombetta, posted the artist’s name with a statement. I was struck by these honest testaments to students’ relationships to their effort, their craft, their enjoyment and their understanding. Here’s a sample of what some of them said: (The number refers to the grade level of the student)
Art makes me feel happy. 1
I am an artist because my teacher taught me how to be an artist. I like to do different things. 1
I am an artist because I can turn everything into art. 1
I am an artist because it is my thing. 1
I have learned that not all artworks have to be perfect and how you want. 2
I like art because it’s fun seeing new stuff, looking in a different way, and exploring. 2
I love art so much. It is my favorite subject. Art makes me feel happy and loved. I love art so much I even drew with my left hand when I had a broken arm. 2
I have learned feelings in color. 2
Art is very calm. It makes me smile. 2
Art can be a dream. You can fly or visit outer space. But most of all art is from the heart. 3
Art can be a great inspiration. I have learned art takes time. 3
Art can be good and normal. Everybody does different art. 3
Art is good. But it’s challenging. 3
Art is so fun even if it’s boring. I always find some way to make it fun. 3
I love art. Art is my life. On the first day of school I was like “Is there art?” 3
To me, art is anything you want it to be. 4
This artwork is a musical country. My inspiration came from Motown. I ran wild with my imagination making it. 3
Art is something everyone can do. 4
When I create art it makes me feel relief. 4
When I create art I think that I’m in the picture. 4
I have learned that if you want something to go your way you have to work for it. 3
I have learned that art is everywhere. 4
Without art I wouldn’t have done this beautiful piece. I would have some boring blank spots. 4
Art makes me feel free. My inspiration for this artwork is reality. 5
I think art is important for me because you can be creative. 5
The experience draws the art. 5
I have learned many things, but art is a gift granted on all. Some big, some small, art is everywhere waiting to be found. 5
My inspiration comes from the things around me. 4
I love art because when I’m mad at my brother or I’m sad, art always calms me down. 3
I wish I could share more of their insights and ideas. Reading each one gave me a fresh view of each child. Again, I am humbled by what children will tell us if we would simply listen.
Senior year of high school. English elective: Logic, Persuasion and Belief. I wrote an essay entitled, “My Rival Is Moving Out Into A Traffic Jam” which my teacher, Mr. Nelson, absolutely loved. I was stunned by the mark he gave me and caught off guard when he lauded my work in front of the whole class. I still have that essay in my archives – 8 yellowing notebook pages of handwritten text. It’s 36(!) years old and I have always known its whereabouts. It has traveled with me from Cleveland to Providence, to Vienna, to DC, then back to Vienna. That means something.
I carry this artifact along with a few other pieces of writing I am especially proud of in an old blue folder. When I tell people that I was a “good student” in high school, what I really mean is that I was a strong writer. It pleased me to be able to wrangle words to get them to say what I wanted. It also pleased me to be have my skill recognized and praised. (Even if by the wrong name: Jeri!) I was an achiever, so the grammar of school made sense to me.
I graduated from an independent day school just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. In our class of 104, there were 6 Black students, 4 boys and two girls. The upper school, previously all male, had been co-ed for about a decade before I arrived. It was a very preppy place and even listed in The Official Preppy Handbook (1980), to the chagrin (and perhaps secret pride) of the administration. When I showed up in 10th grade I was clueless about all that, just noticed a lot of kids walking around in collared shirts and corduroy pants (no jeans allowed).
While I was there I made myself at home: found my place on the track team and in the tech theater crew. In that overwhelmingly white environment I became a keen observer of social patterns because although I had plenty of friends, they were scattered across several different cliques. As a result I had a outsider’s perspective with the benefit of insider informants. As ‘the Black girl’ I wasn’t competing for the same boys as the white girls (or so it was assumed), and among the white (and most of the Black) boys I wasn’t even in the running but I was likable and funny and easy to get along with so I enjoyed a sort of non-threatening popularity that probably in the long run saved me a lot of adolescent grief and drama.
In my all Black neighborhood, I was occasionally referred to as an Oreo – Black on the outside, white on the inside, but that designation never bothered me quite as much as it should have. In my own estimation, it felt like I had learned to make the contrasts work for me. At school and at home my academic inclinations were supported and applauded. If some kids accused me of ‘talking like a white girl’ I could only tell them that my parents talked like that, too. Of necessity I was building up a repertoire of both/and behaviors and attitudes. If I didn’t feel beautiful in the white mainstream sense of the word, I at least felt comfortable in my own skin. I looked like my dad and socialized like my mom. I soaked up the rigor of classical ballet and prized the spontaneity of school sports. I internalized my city neighborhood’s nuances while I learned to move through east side suburbia like a resident. I sang along with the Gap Band and Billy Joel. All these aspects were a part of me. I was and wanted to be many things at once.
Which brings me to the parallel playlists. When I thought about writing this post for the #31DaysIBPOC Challenge, I was flooded with possible ideas. In reading some of the initial posts, I was struck in particular by those stories which reflected on the past; on upbringing and negotiating various social contexts. So I decided to look back, too. And what I found was music. Song and dance offered me an emotional home base; countless spaces for me to rejoice and rage, recover and revive. My youngest son jokes that I have a song for every occasion. He’s not wrong.
Mr. Nelson’s favorite essay involved an analysis of song lyrics of Steely Dan’s My Rival, Billy Joel’s Moving Out and James Taylor’s Traffic Jam as illustrations of social alienation in modern America – all late ’70’s songs that were on heavy rotation on my rinky-dink turntable. Steely Dan is still my favorite band of all time. I feel like I owe half my life to Billy Joel for his song Vienna in which I felt seen and understood at 13. (“Slow down you crazy child/ you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart/ Tell me why are you still so afraid…”) And on the same album as Traffic Jam, James Taylor’s Terra Nova rings in my ears anytime I think about the tension between heading home and staying away. These were my songs by artists who helped me know myself as I muddled through adolescence.
At the same time, I knew well the pleasure and pain of singing Heatwave’s Always and Forever, minus the expectation of having that kind of match up with any boy. The same was true for Gap Band’s Yearning For Your Love and Outstanding. I sang those songs as if my life depended on it – especially in the car driving between the burbs and home. I dreamed of that one special slow dance with a boy who actually knew how to hand dance and would show me the ropes gently and lovingly. Listening to Cleveland’s AM R&B radio station, WJMO, I would go mad dancing to Parliament’s Flashlight, while the Commodore’s Jesus Is Love made me wish I was more religious than I actually was.
Parallel playlists have been my life’s soundtrack. Soulful rhythms followed by pop rock anthems sweeping into sad boy ballads coming around to mellow funk and old school slow jams. All of those tunes belong to me, to the person I’ve become, underscoring my collection of missed wishes and dreams come true. I know the words to all these songs. In singing them, I sing myself in a thousand and one ways.
Listen to the pop playlist here. Soul playlist over here. Putting these together gave me a great deal of joy. May you find a few tunes to soften and sweeten your day!
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Joel Garza (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).
Dr. Robin DiAngelo explains “identity politics” at the beginning of her landmark book, White Fragility:
“The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.
The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on willful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.” (p. xiii)
I turned to DiAngelo because a friend described a situation in which someone exhibited behaviors I would associate with White fragility although the topic in question was not race related. I was looking for a way to understand this person’s reactions which included extreme defensiveness, a focus on her own feelings and sense of being wronged, concern that her authority was being undermined by my friend. I wondered: Is it possible to demonstrate white fragility even if race is not the source of the inflammation?
I don’t have a definitive answer for myself but I do believe the same symptoms may be typical when someone’s sense of entitlement is threatened. A sense of entitlement is defined here as “[a]n unrealistic, unmerited or inappropriate expectation of favorable living conditions and favorable treatment at the hands of others.” Given this, a sense of entitlement might emerge from seniority in a position, elevated status in a hierarchy, deep identification with the status quo, being a member of the in-group. When a power structure is inhabited and led solely by members of the in-group, it’s no wonder that an awareness of the struggles faced by out-group members is diminished. As DiAngelo suggests, “inequity can occur simply through homogeneity.”
My big questions remain: What motivates people to become more careful and critical observers of self? What motivates people to reflect on and correct problematic behaviors?
I often express the wish for others to be and become more reflective. I want that for myself, too. I want to be a better listener, negotiator, coach. And I want others to join me in these pursuits. But it seems harder to do if you are holding onto a sense of entitlement that blinds you to the need for more than surface reflection. Entitlement will always prefer comfort and ease. Deep, consequential reflection promises the opposite. It’s no surprise that more of the privileged and seriously entitled are not jumping on the bandwagon of reflective discomfort.
I’m thinking about my friend and her situation and how it’s part of a larger pattern of power relations stories being told the world over: folks in power feeling threatened by those laboring under them expressing dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Instead of asking, “what can we do to better meet your needs?” power holders seem more likely to embrace defensiveness and denial. When do power holders recognize the need to do things differently?
Usually crisis. Something needs to seriously break down, go awry, come to an irreversible head. Reflection becomes a survival necessity. Change is made. Not always dramatically better but often in the direction of improvement.
How can I help people see this process more clearly? What can I do to increase the likelihood that those who hold power will develop eyes, ears and speech for equity?
I’m scratching my head over this one. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to my friend, offering support where I can and continue to mull over the questions that need big and generous answers.