mr. rogers, spirit amulet

Yesterday, I watched the new Mr. Rogers’s documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” In Pittsburgh, showings of the documentary are communal practices of catharsis. Mr. Rogers’s record as an exemplary human being is, of course, well-known outside of Pittsburgh, but here he’s like a totem. I have heard him referred to (in non-joking tones) as the second coming of Christ, and the popular question is not WWJD, but rather WWFRD.

I knew he was a nice guy. You don’t need a documentary to tell you that: I feel like the cardigans and the Keds are enough. I did not know how much of a radical he was, or what made him so radical—it wasn’t just taking on racists, or explaining assassination and death and tragedy to very little kids. It was this driving, soul-pumping idea that every single person is valuable, reasonable, and worthy of time and effort. That our main job is to invest that time and effort into other people and to reflect their best parts back onto both themselves and onto the world.

I think paying attention to other people is its own form of radicalism. Amidst minute attention spans and never-ending lights, letting someone else know that I see you changes things. I know I’m grateful for the people who see me.


Last week, I started teaching my first summer term.

If you’ve never participated in one, summer terms are extremely condensed—at my university, they cram four months of content into six weeks of classroom instruction. As I was preparing my syllabus, I myself had a minor stroke, so I can only imagine how my students are feeling.

Teaching as a graduate instructor strikes a very perplexing balance between legitimacy and illegitimacy. At a public(ish) university, I always have students who are older than me (I have two medical doctors this term. Yes, two), and I don’t have a PhD title yet. But I still have to frankenstein together exams, manage needs, design curriculum, etc. It’s like all the work with about four percent of the benefits. Just kidding, except not.

Anyway, I’m enjoying this stage of #gradschoollife a lot. Except the lesson planning, which can be kind of painful, and explaining the difference between “ser” and “estar” for the sixty-billionth time. At some point, you just need to send them to YouTube.

Classes are a weird sort of artificial habitat, if you think about it. I’m spending face-time with these eight humans every single day for three or more hours, and we’re stumbling through grammar and vocabulary and culture and politics and life. And then in August, we all go our separate ways to (perhaps) never see one another again. So many of our interactions in life are like that—ephemeral, almost dreamed up.

An open letter to fellow white people upon this backlash of vitriol against brown people

Hey there, white people. Have you been following the news? There are a lot of things happening in this country, and many of them have to do with black and brown people. I can already hear the backlash—Why do you have to make this about race, though?Coincidentally, I’m sure black and brown people ask themselves the same thing.

Today, though, I want to talk to you about undocumented immigrants, mainly because our president is obsessed with them. Perhaps he has a night journal where he writes down all sorts of horrid little ideas to make their lives just a bit more grueling before he goes to bed. Or maybe he hosts afternoon brainstorming sessions with his Goon Squad (hey, Steve Miller). He might think about them over his morning McMuffin. I can’t pretend to know.

What I do know is that he is verifiably, wholly obsessed. I also think I know why—he’s obsessed with undocumented immigrants because he knows he can use them to get to you, white people.

Hence this open letter. You’ve probably seen news stories replete with photos of brown children being ripped away from brown parents with tears streaming down their faces, or shots of President Trump signing an executive order that permanently imprisons these parents and children as a not-solution to the problem he created. You know what I’ve seen? I’ve seen your comments beneath these photos: I would never bring my kid with me to the border if I knew there was a chance we could get separated. This is sad, but if the parents didn’t break the law they wouldn’t be in this situation. If they want to stay together, they should stay in their home countries and fix their own problems. And my personal favorite, WHAT ABOUT ILLEGAL DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?

White privilege is a funny thing. Now, wait a minute. I know you hate that term. White privilege? I’m working three jobs to pay my rent, that’s how privileged I am!I hear you. Maybe we can brand it as something else? I’ll get back to you. The point is that you, somehow, can make these crushing statements and go vote at the polls and affect people’s entire lives while (here’s the key), the entire time, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about.

You, with your supposedly operational democracy and a police force that most likely won’t dissolve your son into acid or rape your daughter, don’t really understand the phrase “between a rock and a hard place” to the extent that Central American and Mexican (and Black) parents do. You see these parents at the border being torn from or imprisoned alongside their toddlers, and (can you believe it?) you somehow manage to convince yourself that brown people love their kids less than you do.That’s some high-level gaslighting right there.

Since it apparently needs to be said, I’ll say it: Brown people love their kids, too. They love them a lot. Doing what these parents do—leaving behind family, friends, and communities, sheltering their children along a deadly, dehumanizing journey—is an ultimate love story. It drips with love. It explodes with it.

Here’s the question: What does it mean to criminally prosecute migrants who come here to whittle a way out of crushing poverty and jaw-dropping violence? Here’s the answer: It says a lot more about us, white people, than it does about them. You know our dirty secret, don’t you? White people adore undocumented labor. We thrive off of it. We love paying 60 cents for a Gala apple, and we love rock-bottom prices during happy hour at our favorite local food joints. We very much enjoy the cheap hands that care for our lawns, clean our houses, and raise our children. So what if these same hands pour billions of dollars (a net of $10 billion in 2010) into our government to save a social security net that they can’t access? All the better.

That, in Migration 101, is called a pull factor. We pull bodies of color here to do work for blushingly low pay because that’s the way it’s always been (except, of course, during slavery, when there was no pay at all). With our unemployment rate sitting at a trim 3.9%, these people form a permanent under-underclass that supports everything and everyone. You know when farmers and restaurant owners and factory foremen tell us that their industries would collapse without undocumented labor? That’s because they would.

What about push factors, then, the other half of Migration 101? Glad you asked. Latin America, a complex region with some of the highest measures of income inequality in the world, has a myriad of push factors to choose from—and do you know the rub? We, white people, have been involved in almost all of them.

For example, drug violence in Latin America gets a lot of airtime, and it’s easy to see why. Since December 2006, 120,000 Mexicans have died as a result of violence connected to narcotrafficking, and an additional 27,000 people have been declared missing. El Salvador suffers from a homicide rate nearly triple that of Mexico. Guatemala and Honduras endure similar levels of violence that really rock the brain if one thinks about them too long, but fortunately, white people rarely do. If we did, we’d have to consider the demand that fuels drug violence, and guess what? It doesn’t come from Latin America.

Drugs are as American as apple pie and Black Friday. We’re living through a full-blown opioid crisis, but we’ve been building up a ravenous drug market for decades and decades. Who has to pay for that drug market with their lives? Addicts, yes, and also brown people—brown people born and raised in our supply territory. Of course, we manage to erase these brown people by lumping them into the fiendish categorization of drug traffickers, as if families who suffer drug violence only exist if they’re white. Brown people trying to escape drug violence? Impossible, we say, because all brown people carry that violence out.

Of course, American support for cruelty against brown people extends beyond buying drugs. I know you don’t want to hear about how our government set Latin America aflame by supporting dictatorships throughout the entire 20thcentury. No one likes talking about kidnapped and murdered people, am I right? We’d rather just focus on Castro as the sole proprietor of Latin American unfreedom, which is fine. We won’t talk about the Platt Amendment of 1901, or the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1922, or the 1973 Chilean coup, or Operation PBFORTUNE. Ever heard of the Banana Wars? Thought not, and why should you have? They’re an ugly business.

Instead, let’s talk about poverty. NAFTA is really great because we get cheap cars while Mexican people get jobs and foreign investment, or so the story goes. Here’s the thing, though: trade is made up of two parts, capital and labor, and when only capital can cross borders, free trade isn’t really free. Immigration law forces human beings to participate in restricted markets instead of allowing them to move to whichever one serves their interests best, while money can hopscotch like there’s no tomorrow.

Basically, this means that Walmart can roll into Mexican towns and set up massive corporate farms that drive little farmers out of business, but when said little farmers want to move to the United States to take advantage of higher wages, they can’t—a border stands in their way. They need to stay in a collapsed rural economy and work for collapsed rural wages. You can see how the problem self-perpetuates, right? It’s no coincidence that the Mexican peso tanked in 1994 at the end of NAFTA’s first year, or that illegal immigration to the United States nearly doubled between 1994 and 2000. Who built that? We did, or at least a part of it.

So drug violence, political instability, and poverty are three big pushes that combine with the pull of plentiful jobs to bring brown people to the United States. This is nothing new, and it’s not what’s coming to a head right now. In fact, illegal border crossings are way down—from 1.8 million apprehensions in 2005 to under 304,000 in 2017. Why are people all hot and bothered about immigration in 2018, then?

Like I said, white people, it’s about us. Trump’s unabashed baiting of the white psyche with the specter of the undocumented immigrant is making us see ourselves, and we’re freaking out. That’s because being white is a pathological condition best summed up as this: we know, but we don’t want to know we know.

You, white person, might not know that the CIA launched Operation PBFORTUNE in 1952 with the explicit goal of overthrowing the Guatemalan government after land reform threatened the interests of the gargantuan United Fruit Company, or that the subsequent Guatemalan military dictatorship carried out a nearly forty-year genocide campaign against the country’s indigenous population for which the U.S. supplied money, weapons, and training. You might not remember exactly how the Mexican peso collapsed, and you may be a little fuzzy on why Mexican President Felipe Calderón began Mexico’s disastrous war on drugs in 2006. Perhaps you don’t recall the average wage for an undocumented immigrant or understand how that wage relates to the money you save annually on cheap goods and services. You might not know how many dollars undocumented people paid into your social security check last year.

But you probably do have a general sense that we benefit from other people’s misfortunates, and indeed, that it has always been this way. This isn’t white guilt, it’s just pure fact, and if you feel guilty, that’s beside the point. I’m uninterested in your guilt except to say this: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and I’m talking about fire.

Whiteness is such a delicate dance, isn’t it? It involves all of these acts of raw power to maintain and maximize that power, but it also involves making those acts invisible. We don’t want to see them, because if we did, how could we say that we are better than everyone else? That we’re an aspiration to live up to? This is exactly why we disguise our powerplays in ethnocentric discourses of divine favor and birthright. That way, you see, we didn’t take anything from anyone else—theyare trying to take something from us. If only brown people could be as rationalas us, as hardworkingas us, as morally centeredas us, if only they loved their own kids as much as we do and fixed their own problems like we know how to, they would have what we have.

It’s such a comforting delusion. It allows us to push and pull a brown body along a deadly journey to a deadly border, reap the benefits of that body’s dislocation and its work, and then spit on parents with the label “ILLEGAL” as they try to forge an alternative for their kids. The law, we like to say, is the law. Our ancestors migrated legally—after massacring an entire indigenous population, of course, and under wildly different immigration laws that admitted any white person who could pretend to have some money and didn’t appear to be a prostitute. Our complicity is thus hidden beneath a mask of innocence that we ourselves build, which is why, in the words of James Baldwin, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.”

Brown people aren’t criminals, and neither are they victims. Refugees and asylees and migrants and illegal immigrants are all categorizations of daring people of color who build lives for themselves despite it all, despite the fact that we skim off both the top andthe bottom of their efforts even as we condemn them. It’s time to reiterate: These categorizations say a lot more about you and me, white people, than they do about them.

That’s why Trump can use them to get to us so easily. That’s why everyone is losing their minds. The ugly process of manufacturing whiteness is supposed to be invisible, and it’s not quite so invisible anymore.

Have you noticed how people of color aren’t surprised about, well, any of this? The secret of whiteness is not a secret to anyone who isn’t white. It’s time to confront the crime of our innocence—it’s time to free ourselves from the tyranny of whiteness.

Let them in. Let them in not as the permanent under-underside that holds up the invention of whiteness, but on terms of human decency and human health and human benefit. Not for people of color’s sake, white people, but for ours. Delusion is a symptom of unwellness in this patient as much as in any other, and it’s for the mutual benefit of all that we treat it.


fake it until you make it (or break it)

We’re into the third week of the fall semester, when everything is starting to feel more permanent. At the beginning of the academic year, it’s all imaginary—a prank that goes on too long. But now the gauntlet has been thrown, and we’re slowly settling into our lives of expanding file folders, three-ring binders, and moldy critical theory.

When I was about 14, I got drafted into serving at a coffee shop. My friend worked there, and I wanted to help. I wanted to be useful. The problem, of course, was that I didn’t even drink coffee. It was a whole new language to me: cappuccin-who? I didn’t know how to ask about whole milk or almond or skim, and the idea of adding foam to just about anything was confusing on an existential level.

When I was 17, I went to Paris. I was stopped on the street by a woman whose scarf I still remember in vivid detail (green lace with silver tassels). She started asking me something—in French, of course—and she continued to ask more and more things as I shook my head or nodded at what seemed like appropriate moments, but probably weren’t.

At 20, I was in college. I somehow ended up running an online community for journalists, and then in an even more radical twist of fate, became responsible for planning a conference to bring them all to our sleepy little college town to meet with our sleepy little college students. I distinctly remember breaking down while I was on the phone line with the receptionist at the local hotel where we were putting up our attendees. She was pretty nice about it (#southerncharm).

All of that to say that when I walk into a college classroom at the beginning of every semester and somehow end up at the front teaching actual people, I feel like I’m continuing a long, personal tradition of pretending to be able to do things that, in all actuality, I can’t do. I can’t even almost do them. It honestly doesn’t seem that different from six-year-old me playing teacher in her bedroom, except I’m not rocking the same bangs as I did in the 90s.

I expect this trend to continue for quite some time—good thing I’ve had a lot of practice.




creation and destruction

Here in Pittsburgh, local news has picked up the story of five previously lost Elizabeth Black portraits that were rediscovered in a public library under decades of dirt and grime. Conservators are trying to restore them—their work is being made much more difficult by vandalism. Three of the five portraits have been defaced in some way.

I wonder why humans always break things? It seems to me like a constant slide towards not only atrophy, but destruction. Shattering bottles in the street, tossing trash out the window, cutting down forests, polluting rivers, knocking over ruins, vandalizing cemeteries. We see legacies and histories effaced, nature corrupted. Sometimes we kill people, sometimes we take away their language and break apart their communities.

This is tied, of course, to creation—new buildings, new technologies, new cities, new goods, leaving some sort of new mark on the things we see and come into contact with. It’s impossible to have creation without destruction, birth without death. Sometimes it seems to me that living is just an endless wrestling match between these two uniquely human impulses.

If that’s true, I know that I’d like to be a creator. I try to create something every day. It doesn’t always go well, but I try.

3 recommendations you need to hit up when you’re in Bogotá

I love that feeling you get when you wake up in a new place. How the sounds bleed in bit by bit—people in the street, unfamiliar cars, the clattering of wheels and feet—until they’re accompanied by smells, feelings, a flash of sunlight through a curtain.

We started our trip in Bogotá, a city about which I’ve heard mixed reviews. Some people call it cold or undifferentiated from any other capital city—a little boring or difficult to navigate.

I loved it. The local people were incredibly friendly (keep in mind, I flew in after two years in DC, so my expectations might have been low), and the food was divine—ajiaco for the win.

Our three days in Bogotá included Monserrate, the beautiful mountain in the photo that’s crowned by a chapel and offers expansive views of the city, the nearby town of Zipaquirá and its salt cathedrals, and exploring Bogotá’s colonial sectors, including La Presidencia, el Congreso, a former-convent-turned-art-museum, and (my favorite) a street filled entirely with book vendors next to the Gabriel García Márquez Cultural Center.

We also checked out La Zona Rosa, which has some very high-end shopping and restaurants. After dark, we were careful to take a secure taxi service, since the number of robberies-by-taxi in Bogotá has been growing. All in all, we felt very safe, although our hostel in the La Candelaria neighborhood encouraged us to go out with a security guard late at night (we generally declined).

In addition to the classics (Monserrate, Plaza Bolívar, Museo de Oro), here are three different recommendations from my time in Bogotá:

1. Café Magola Buendía: This adorable coffee shop is what dreams of Colombia are made of. Super chill place with super chique decorations and, of course, delicious hot and cold coffee beverages, not to mention aromáticas, sandwiches, and chocolate goodies. It’s next to the popular La Candelaria neighborhood. Free WiFi!

2. Museo Santa Clara: Located one block away from Plaza Bolívar, this museum is a former convent that now houses colonial art and religious relics. It’s very affordable ($3,000COP/person, about $1) and mysterious—nuns were cloistered for life here, and you can still check out the narrow, winding path they took to get to their confessional boxes. The museum also hosts rotating exhibits from a variety of plastics and performative artists.

3. Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez: This cultural center was a gift from Mexico to Colombia, which explains the big Mexican flags out front. They sell every book imaginable here and demarcate special sections of Colombian fiction and non-fiction, which, if you have a literati heart like mine, will make you very happy. Local booksellers also set up stalls outside of the center, so you can easily find bargain-priced used books.

Are you going to Bogotá? Have you already been? Hit me up with your own recommendations or questions in the comments!

The return of the renaissance woman

Once upon a time, when I was maybe five, I wanted to be archeologist. I hadn’t seen Indiana Jones, but who needs a movie to convince them to play around in the dirt and dig up old stuff?

That was followed by my wish to be a paleontologist (dinosaurs!), then a neuroscientist, then a geneticist, then a journalist. I’ve been all over the map—even as an undergraduate, I studied a rainbow of things like languages, political science, chemistry, and literature, and I’ve worked with code, consulted, edited, and taught.

My story isn’t unique. I know a lot of people around my age whose interests and careers look more like a kaleidoscope than a straight line. It’s made me think—hundreds of years after the fact, are we seeing the returning of the Renaissance Wo(man)?

Leonardo da Vinci, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, and Thomas Jefferson could have designed you a plane, taught you Nahautl, or built you a house, respectively. They were also artists, scientists, poets, and politicians (Sor Juana corresponded with Isaac Newton, which is pretty cool).

Industrial capitalism tends to broadly reward narrow specialization, however, so as factories started to emerge I think a lot of the innate curiosity of the human spirit became unequally distributed. I mean sure, once he became rich Andrew Carnegie had a lot of interests, but did his factory workers?

I wonder if that’s changing. I, and so many of the people I know, understand a little bit about a lot of things. Technology allows us to work more flexibly and also requires a broad, nimble skill set that doesn’t necessarily fit into the clock-in and clock-out mentality of my grandparents and their grandparents.

I believe in continuing to democratize discovery beyond the Andrew Carnegies of the world.