ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Racism Archive



June 2015



Hey. White People. Let’s Talk.

Written by , Posted in Politics

I’d like to take just a little bit of your time, fellow white people, to talk about some shit that we need to change.

And let’s be clear – it is WE who need to change. Not black people. Not non-black people of color. White people.

Hopefully you know by now that a white guy with a gun killed nine black people in a church because they were black. Because he hates black people. This should be super basic, but I’ve noticed some white people (namely the ones who get paid a shit ton of money to hold a microphone in front of a camera) are having trouble with this concept. But there it is. It was an act of terrorism.

And I’ve seen some folks post links to articles about the shooting, and pictures of the people the racist shooter murdered, and that’s fantastic. I also, today, saw a lot of people posting the video of Jon Stewart’s monologue. I just watched it, and found it to be very moving. I get why people are praising his comments, and his choice to treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.

But at the same time, I was reminded that nothing he said is new or original. And even my statement is not new or original – black people were pointing that out today online. In fact, black people have been telling us that racism exists for decades. So many white people are quick to look for another explanation – any explanation – for the racism that black people (and non-black people of color) experience on a DAILY basis, while at the same time screaming ‘YES’ at their TV (or computer) screen when a white guy on basic cable makes the same points. I’m NOT trying to imply that any of my friends who posted that video fall into that category, but just in general, it’s an observation.

I see white people twist themselves into pretzels looking for any reason other than racism to explain the shit black people experience on a daily basis. The white woman who moves her purse to the other side when a black man walks by was just switching arms because she was tired. The black kid who was followed around the store just happened to be exactly in the security officer’s path. The black kids at the pool were just being too rowdy (anyone would have been treated the same!).

So here’s my request: when a person of color says what they experienced was based in racism, try believing them. You might think the world is better than that, but that’s a privilege you have because you are white. (You know I couldn’t get out of this post without using that term at least once.) I know I wish that things were better, and the optimist in me wants to believe that things are better. But that just doesn’t seem to be reality.

If you are interested in other things that maybe you haven’t had to think about, consider your office. Is your office only hiring white people, who just happen to be ‘the most qualified’ or ‘fit in with the team’ best? Really think about if either of those statements is true. If you find yourself only hiring white people because ‘they are the most qualified’, is it because your job descriptions favor them? And if you are only hiring people who ‘fit in with the team,’ could it maybe be because you are hiring people who look and experience the world exactly as you do? (These aren’t my ideas; I’ve attended trainings in the past couple of years pointing out how easy it is to unintentionally keep the status quo).

Another thing that has been helping me lately is reassessing where I get my news and analysis. Asking myself: is everything you read on Facebook or Twitter or whatever other media you consume reinforcing my world view? If you’re interested in making a change, maybe consider checking the bylines on the articles you choose to read. Are they written by white people almost exclusively?

I’m not writing this because I think my friends are running around shouting the n-word. I’m writing it because I know I’ve been unintentionally contributing to a world where people like the racist shooter think that they should hate black people, and maybe I’ve got friends are looking for things they can do, too.

So with that, I’m letting you know that I’m going to start being consistent in ways I should have been much sooner. Please know that from now on:

• If you start a statement with “not to be racist, but” – I’m going to stop you. I’m not interest in your observation that you know is clearly racist, but you still want to say because you think it’s true and don’t want to recognize that this means you’re acting in a racist way. If you don’t stop, I’m walking away. And man, if I do that in front of you, please call me out.
• If you tell a racist joke, I’m calling you out on it. As recently as probably a month ago a friend (I do not recall who) made a joke about Asian drivers. What the fuck? That isn’t funny, and by not speaking up (even if I’m trying to avoid confrontation, or avoid being labeled as “humorless” or “too PC” [god forbid I care about treating others with respect, amiright?]) I might be giving you the impression that what you said is okay. That ends now. And if you think I say something that could come across as racist, please tell me. I won’t get defensive. I want to know!
• If a person of color tells me that they experienced racism, I’m going to believe them. Yes, it’s possible that on occasion what they experienced won’t have been racism, but that seems so unlikely that I’m okay with being wrong on occasion.

I’m not perfect. And frankly, as a white person, I’m not the one anyone needs to listen to about racism, because I don’t experience it. Ever. But like I said up front, I’m part of the problem. So are you, probably. Let’s work on that. Okay? Okay. Cool.



April 2014



The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Others have reviewed this for Cannonball Read already, so here are the basics in case you missed it: Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died at Johns Hopkins, where she had been admitted due to complications from cervical cancer. She had radium treatment at one point, and when she received the treatment, a biopsy of her tumor was taken at the request of a researcher. From there, the cells were cultured and became some of the first that would grow, and keep on growing, in a lab, making them perfect for testing all sorts of things, including the polio vaccine that helped eradicate the disease from the U.S. The problem is that she never knew about this (nor did she consent), and her family didn’t find out until about 25 years later. While researchers and biomedical companies were making history (and money), Henrietta’s descendants were mostly poor, without much secondary education or even basic health insurance.


The author, Rebecca Skloot, is a white woman who first learned about the “HeLa” cells in high school. She wanted to know more about the woman behind the cells, and spent over a decade writing this book – she tracked down medical records, met with researchers, and eventually was able to spend lots of time with Henrietta’s children and grandchildren, helping them to learn more about the mother they didn’t ever get a chance to know.

This book is fascinating in many ways. The first is just the sheer quality of Ms. Skloot’s storytelling. She weaves the present and the past together seamlessly, finding clever and logical ways to intertwine the research, the history, and the science so that the book flows really well.

It is also a great book for those of us interested in biomedical ethics. Once we part with something that was once connected to us, does it stop belonging to us? Do we have any right to demand that our tissues not be used in ways that we might find objectionable? What about genetic mapping – if my DNA is found to be really helpful in some sort of research, am I obliged to be okay with that research? Are my (hypothetical) kids obliged to be okay with research that is traceable to their genetic code? And can we ever really consent when the alternative to saying “sure, use my cancer cells” may be that they don’t remove the cells? These issues are mentioned throughout the book, but get a more thorough review during the afterward, where one particularly douchey Harvard researcher seems to think that research matters above all else. Which, who knows, maybe he’s right, but he doesn’t make any legitimate  argument about it.

Finally, the book is fascinating in the most important way a non-fiction book like this can be – it tells us about a real, flawed family that has been devastated not just by the loss of their matriarch decades ago, but by the realization that her cells live on in ways they never imagined and didn’t entirely understand in the beginning. It’s a glaring statement about the priorities in this country when a person can ‘donate’ cells that very seriously changed the medical world forever, but her family can’t afford health care for themselves. There’s so much here about racism, classism, and elitism that I could write a thesis on it. But instead I’ll just leave you with the strong recommendation that you pick up this book.