Imposter: Whitewashing “By Any Means Necessary”

Every white person in this country—and I do not care what he or she says—knows one thing. They may not know, as they put it, “what I want,” but they know they would not like to be black here. If they know that, then they know everything they need to know, and whatever else they say is a lie.

James Baldwin, On Language, Race and the Black Writer (Los Angeles Times, 1979)

I have these very deep feelings that white people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their consciences. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” they are “with us.”

Malcolm X, “What Can a Sincere White Person Do?”

I grew up among oafish racists in my white family and community. This was upstate South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a teenager, I stood in the pro shop of the golf course where I worked while one of the grounds crew carefully explained to me that once Cain was banished from the Garden of Eden, he mated with apes and that’s how we have Black people.

This horrific moment aside, one of the most stark lessons I learned living among people with grossly simplistic views of race was that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated.

Each summer as a teenager, I moved from working in the pro shop to working as an attendant and then a lifeguard at the country club’s pool. There, white Southern women arrived daily, many with unnaturally bleached-blond hair piled high, and rubbed themselves down with baby oil to sun bath from midmorning until mid-afternoon.

These women were as blatantly racist as their husbands routinely were on the golf course—a white person’s sanctuary that explicitly banned Black people from joining.

I have a very vivid memory of one woman, a wife of a long-time employee of the golf course. She had the most cartoonish bleached hair, maybe the tallest, but she also was tanned to beyond brown; with the lathering of baby oil, her stomach glistened black.

And my mother often joined these women. She also sunbathed in our yard when not at the pool. Like her father who sat outside barefoot in only cut-off blue jean shorts any sunny day, she was olive complexioned and tanned deeply.

Harold Sowers, my maternal grandfather, was my Tu-Daddy; here, in his later years, he sat outside fully clothed and in the shade.

What compelled these white women who so openly loathed Black and brown people to render themselves dark every summer?

This, I think, is the complexity of anyone’s relationship with race—especially when white and especially when trapped in baseless, simplistic views of race that serve the interests of white people.

In the first six years of my life, before we moved to the golf course, I remember vividly that my mother often suggested she had some Indian heritage; with hindsight, I suspect she spoke with something like a garbled romantic longing because she had exoticized the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina from briefly living in Lumberton, North Carolina growing up.

My mother also adored Cher, whose own jumbled heritage and flourishes of cultural appropriation helped fuel the very worst aspects of my mother’s racism.

Wikipedia offers how complex race and celebrity are (not the used of “claimed”): “Cher was born Cherilyn Sarkisian in El Centro, California, on May 20, 1946.[3] Her father, John Sarkisian, was an Armenian-American truck driver with drug and gambling problems; her mother, Georgia Holt (born Jackie Jean Crouch), was an occasional model and bit-part actress who claimed Irish, English, German, and Cherokee ancestry.”

These white women tanning and my mother’s fantasy of having Lumbee blood somewhere in her veins are my first experiences with white women imposters, who are increasingly being exposed in higher education:

This year alone has seen the unmasking of a handful of white academics who have posed as nonwhite: BethAnn McLaughlinJessica Krug, C. V. Vitolo-Haddad and Craig Chapman.

Whereas Chapman and McLaughlin impersonated women of color online only, Krug and Vitolo-Haddad wove their false ethnicities into their personal and professional identities day in and day out. This kind of living a lie is perhaps most infamously exemplified by Rachel Dolezal, former head of the NAACP in Tacoma, Wash., and part-time professor of African American studies at Eastern Washington University. Dolezal identified herself as Black but was revealed to be white in 2015.

White women passing as not white has become a multi-layered offensive whitewashing of “by any means necessary,” since this act of being an imposter seems designed to manipulate a genuine problem in academia, the lack of diversity.

The paradoxical aspect of these layers includes that women are one of the areas of need in many universities dedicated to increasing diversity and inclusion and that white women suffer the negative consequences of being women even as that is tempered by their proximity to white men’s privilege (something that we have abundant evidence a majority of white women will cultivate, notably that more white women voted for Trump in 2016 than for a white woman, Hillary Clinton).

White imposters of race who are women are not only doing harm by taking away the very small spaces afforded Black and brown faculty candidates, but by spitting in the face of the very real and very harmful effects of imposter syndrome often experienced by minoritized people.

As a faculty member on our presidential committee for diversity and inclusion, I have spent many years specifically serving on and chairing a committee that participates in the hiring process so that the university implements best practice to increase diversity among our faculty (which is deeply underrepresented by race as well as gender).

Since my university has now faced a recently hired faculty member accused of being a race imposter, I am witnessing in proximity (as I did with my mother) that this deception has many negative consequences, mostly suffered by the people this event has impacted directly (the department, students, etc.) and indirectly (candidates not hired), but also impacting the process of recruiting and hiring diverse faculty.

Academia is a complicated environment, even culture, in which many things must not be spoken while other things are discussed to the point of no return (with no action).

Legal restrictions and tradition have created circumstances whereby universities seeking diverse faculty can discuss diversity needs and set up policies and practices aimed at increasing diversity, but not explicitly address any candidate’s race, culture, gender, etc.

There are also spaces in academia (not all of them) where everything works under a veil of good faith, but the sort of good faith that has existed forever among the privileged, the sort of wink-wink-nod-nod that existed among the all-white members of the golf course of my youth.

Higher education is not the world of Leftist indoctrination imagined by conservatives, but it is populated by progressives with good intentions who are more than counter-balanced by a willful naivete that comes with being the white progressives Martin Luther King Jr. warned about.

As I mentioned above, academia can often be more words than action. I do not doubt that many who speak often and eloquently about the need for diversity and inclusion are genuine in their rhetoric and their intellectual commitment; but I also know for a fact that most who offer the rhetoric balk at taking any actual steps on the road to equity.

Don’t want to step on any of the wrong toes.

There are few places where “talk is cheap” (and safe) is more telling and complicated than higher ed.

Academia, then, is ripe for deception by those who are willing to whitewash “by any means necessary” even at the expense of people who have no choice but to live lives tinted every moment with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc.

My life has transitioned from the oafish racism of my childhood—good country people—to the elegant racism of higher education—well-educated people with good intentions.

Each faculty member unmasked for being a race imposter sends me back in time to my mother playing Cher records or sun bathing with the regulars at the golf course pool.

I have been reminded in recent days that people with grossly simplistic views of race reveal that any person’s relationship with race is incredibly complicated—and ultimately dangerous.

The Perfect Trap

Many years ago when I was teaching high school English in rural upstate South Carolina, I taught all three of the district’s superintendent’s children—two daughters and a son.

The older daughter in many ways represented both a uniquely smart and hard-working student and the paradox of the perfect student.

These were the early days of me learning how to teach writing well; these were the early days when I taught with a sort of earnest zeal that can never make up for the horrific blunders I imposed on several years of students.

Setting aside everything I did wrong—reminding us all that learning to write and learning how to teach writing are journeys—I was from the earliest days as a teacher firmly committed to students experiencing writer’s workshop and writing often, authentically, and with multiple drafts for each essay.

Most of my students then and even now have had very little experience with drafting, navigating substantive and challenging feedback, and teaching/learning experiences that sit outside the norm of grading and evaluation.

This older daughter was the top student in her class; she went on to excel in college and eventually eared a doctorate.

But she wasn’t the perfect student because she was fortunate to be so smart and having been raised in a very privileged home.

From the beginning, she simply revised her essays and resubmitted them time and again. While other students tried to avoid the revision process or simply submitted a weak effort at the one required revision in order to pass my class, she was all-in on our partnership to help her learn to write well.

In stark contrast to that experience many years ago, I routinely—and once again this semester—have to carefully navigate that many if not most of my students are paralyzed by their own misguided perfectionism; paradoxically, the perfect student is not bound by perfection, but by risk and trust in learning as a journey.

A new partner for me in my quest to move students learning to write away from perfectionism and grade-grabbing is John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice.

My first-year writing students just finished Warner’s book, and we recently brainstormed the big take aways they gained from the book. I was deeply encouraged that many students were quick to focus on a theme of Warner’s:

This book is here to give shape to your practice, and encourage you to work purposefully toward increased proficiency.

While you will quite quickly amass experience, it’s important to recognize that there is no terminal expertise in writing. You will get a little better every time you do it, but you will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.

This is one of the best things about writing with purpose and writing through different experiences.

May as well keep going by next figuring out who you are as a writer….

The first thing to know about writing is, in the words of Jeff O’Neal, a longtime writing teacher and now digital media entrepreneur, “You are going to spend your whole life learning how to write, and then you are going to die.” (pp. 9, 16)

I abandoned putting grades on essays decades ago in order to shift students away from thinking in terms of evaluation and avoiding mistakes in order to be perfect; however, the lack of grades has proven to inhibit student performance as well.

While I still do not grade essays, I invite students at any time to conference with me about what grade their work would be assigned. Several students have had this conversation with me this fall, sharing a common theme: They feel that my feedback suggests they are writing poorly and that they are doomed to low grades.

First, I assured each of them that their current hypothetical grade status is quite good, but more importantly, I stressed that if they continue to revise with purpose and care they certainly were capable of achieving an A in the course. In fact, I tell them, I often anticipate that from students who fully engage in the process.

They all left our conference relieved, but I have to stress to students over and over what Warner emphasizes above: “[Y]ou will never reach a finish line after which you will cease to improve.”

At the core of the perfect trap are some fundamental problems with traditional teaching that are firming linked to grades and evaluation.

The punishment/reward paradigm discourages risk and encourages pale compliance; writing well comes from risk and requires that writers navigate boundaries, both conforming to and breaking them.

There is nothing perfect about the perfect student, and there never will be.

As teachers of writing, we are tasked with fostering in our students a sense of purpose, care, and trust that the educational system has denied them.

While my two FYW seminars discussed Warner, several mentioned the O’Neal quote, which seems a bit harsh, but writing and learning to write, as journeys with no finish lines, are bound only by time.

We must write and rewrite until there is no more time for that piece, and then we move on.

Perfect is a trap that ends that journey, or even worse, never allows the first step.

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

In the pre-pandemic world that seems much further in the past than it is, I traveled from South Carolina to Milwaukee in February of 2020 to speak at the Wisconsin State Reading Association (WSRA) annual convention.

My public work had been dominated by refuting the “science of reading” movement for more than a year at that point—including having a book in press on the “science of reading” as another version of the Reading War—so I arrived in Milwaukee a bit apprehensive about how I would be received.

My session was well attended by an energetic crowd of teachers who seemed eager to engage in why the “science of reading” movement was misguided, but I also encountered another distinct frustration among teachers I had not anticipated.

A significant part of the “science of reading” agenda has been to attack popular reading reading programs, notably programs associated with Lucy Calkins and Teachers College (see here and here, for example).

As I interrogated and discounted many aspects of the “science of reading” agendas, the attendees were supportive of my analysis, but teachers often expressed very negative experiences with Calkins’s programs, the third most popular reading program in the U.S.

What I was witnessing surprised me, but I soon realized that Calkins represented for very different reasons multiple problems with how reading is taught in formal schooling throughout the U.S.

When I asked teachers attending that session why they were so frustrated and even angry about Calkins’s programs, I heard what I have long argued about the essential problem with any reading program: Administrators spend a great deal of time and effort making sure teachers implement adopted program, and not acknowledging teacher expertise or student needs and learning.

To be fair, teachers frustrated with Calkins’s reading programs were credibly concerned about how it was being mandated and implemented (no real fault of Calkins or the publishers).

Despite my efforts and the efforts of my scholars and teachers of literacy, the “science of reading” momentum has only increased. The most recent development is likely one of the worst.

Across the U.S. media advocacy and parental zeal have directly resulted in state reading legislation, the worst of which has implemented third-grade retention policies. But the next shoe to drop has been how those policies directly impact teaching and learning—repeating the Open Court, Reading First, and National Reading Panel scandal not even fifteen years in the past.

And once again during the “science of reading” frenzy, Lucy Calkins is in the middle—as reported by the most prominent “science of reading” media propagandist, Emily Hanford:

The Arkansas Division of Secondary and Elementary Education announced in October 2019 that any curriculum that utilizes cueing strategies won’t be approved for use in the state, meaning that Calkins’ materials and another popular program, Fountas and Pinnell Classroom, are effectively banned [emphasis added]. Colorado released a list of approved core reading curriculum, and Calkins’ programs weren’t on the list. A group outside St. Louis sent a letter signed by 216 parents, students and taxpayers to the school board asking that Calkins, and Fountas and Pinnell be dropped. The Oakland Unified School District, whose use of Calkins’ products was highlighted in the 2019 APM Reports story, announced it was forming a committee to consider adopting new curriculum. And Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit consulting group, published a review that concluded Calkins’ curriculum materials are “unlikely to lead to literacy success for all of America’s public schoolchildren.” 

So we are now confronted with a very disturbing but common formula related to reading instruction:

Media “Experts” + Parental Zeal + Political Knee-jerk Legislation + Market Forces = Failing Reading, Again

Let me return to the teachers attending my session at WSRA.

If anyone were genuinely interested in understanding the complexities of teaching reading in formal schooling, almost everything needed was available in those teachers’ comments.

For the most part, these teachers recognized the misrepresentations and problems with the “science of reading” agenda, notably that journalists and parents were driving the conversations on how to teach children to read; they also knew from lived experiences as teachers that reading programs—all reading programs—are the problem, and not the solution.

At the core of the flaws in the “science of reading” movement is the belief that there is a clearly and easily defined “right way” to teach reading, that most teachers (for some odd reason) refuse to acknowledge that one “right way” (and/or were never taught that “right way” by teacher educators who, again for some odd reason, refuse to acknowledge that one “right way”), and that all we need to do is to adopt that “right way” to (finally?) teach all children to read.

Yet, this is both magical and overly simplistic thinking.

There is no one “right way” to teach reading and there is no silver-bullet reading program.

Teaching students to read well is negatively impacted by dozens of factors that lie well outside the confines of what any reading program can address—socio-economic inequity, racial inequity, school funding, an oppressive accountability/standards/testing culture, human nature, etc.

“Science of reading” advocates have spent a great deal of time demonizing Calkins and her workshop-based, holistic programs, but now they also seem almost gleeful to claim that she has come over to their side.

All of this rather petty “gotcha” approaches to the cult of celebrity as that impacts education (Calkins as a literacy guru or Hanford as the “science of reading” prophet) has perpetuated one of the worst dynamics surrounding how we run our schools—market forces.

The changes being made to Calkins’s programs are responding to the market being closed; it genuinely doesn’t matter in that context if the original programs were or weren’t “scientific” and it doesn’t matter if the changes are or aren’t “scientific.”

Publishers respond to market forces, and for public education, that means that democratically elected officials are responding to constituents and creating legislation that governs what reading materials states can and cannot purchase to teach children to read.

This is capitalism, not science; this is the free market, not education for equity and democracy.

The NCLB, NRP, Reading First, and Open Court scandal of the 2000s laid out clearly that the exact same process happening because of the “science of reading” movement is destined to fail, guaranteed to corrupt how we teach reading.

Teaching children to read is about individual children and their teachers. At best reading programs can provide some of the tools needed to help children read, but reading programs generally are used at their worst—as ends unto themselves.

Whether or not Calkins has gone over to the “science of reading” movement is nothing to celebrate or condemn.

That we remain mired in “all students must” and myopically committed to adopting the “right” reading program are the real problems—once again.

UPDATE

Calkins has offered a clarification that challenges how Hanford and EdWeek have characterized the changes to her program; key comments include:

Many of you are asking questions in response to the latest Ed Week blog. While I am glad that Ed Week and Emily Hanford are studying the work we are doing at Teachers College, their articles can spawn misunderstandings and misconceptions, so let me clarify….

While the journalists will try to persuade you otherwise (controversy gets more eyes on the page than consensus), this is actually a small shift in our thinking, one that applies to the way that a teacher coaches a child who is in the early stages of reading development—which, if using Guided Reading Levels, aligns with approximately levels C through H. Some kids progress though the levels at pace, and for them this shift doesn’t really matter. However, it is an important shift to make for those readers who’ve not picked up the phonics knowledge they need and for working with kids who have dyslexia.

What stays the same in our work with K-1 readers? 98% of it. We still support the rich comprehension work that has always been a part of workshop teaching. We still support kids reading with agency. We still support choice and rereading and reading to learn and talking about books. We still support the reciprocity between writing and reading. We still support kids learning letters, onsets and rimes, spelling patterns, and high frequency words as we have taught them. We still support using the learning progressions and assessment-based teaching. We still support kids reading with phonics, fluency, and comprehension. We still support kids seeing themselves in books and learning about others through reading. We still support kids learning to lead richly literate lives.

Review: Santa Cruz Stigmata: The Road More Graveled

I faithfully ascribe to Rule 12 of cycling: The correct number of bikes to own is n+1. While finding excuses to own two of the same type of bicycle—two road bikes, to MTBs—has always been fairly easy, few things are as exhilarating as having a different type of bike to purchase.

Several years before the gravel bike craze went mainstream, a few of us began seeking out any gravel roads we could ride. I and another cycling friend own several Ridley road bikes, and always found they performed very well on gravel with slightly wider tires—23 mm and 25 mm—that weren’t quite the norm then as they are now.

On one of our summer trips to Ft. Collins, CO, in fact, we found long stretches of gravel, and I was immediately enamored with the somewhat ‘tweener quality of gravel riding; it felt similar to road riding, my true love, but had some of the challenges of mountain biking as well as being on roads so remote that the inherent dangers of road cycling, cars, were greatly reduced.

I am also sort of a big-gear plodder on the road bike, which seems to suit the inherent grind of riding gravel.

Having made some major life changes, I have found myself with far less space and already struggling with my n+1 commitment to cycling so I resisted joining the gravel bike movement until—as luck would have it—this summer when I discovered that bicycles were in very high demand.

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have slowed production and distribution of bicycles, but demands of bicycles have also dramatically increased.

My local bike shop can barely keep bicycles on the showroom floor.

A few weeks before my summer trip to Colorado this past summer, then, I foolishly tried to buy a gravel bike to take with me to Ft. Collins; that effort was a bust so I settled for traveling with a road bike and MTB.

By early August, however, I committed to finding and buying a gravel bike. My first order, originally a two-week delay on delivery, soon became a late October delivery.

After daily checks on the order status, and wistfully looking through other brands and models (all unavailable as well), one day I noticed the Santa Cruz Stigmata (scroll down for build tech specs and geometry; I own the 56 cm model) in stock in a Midnight Green color scheme that I really like.

Competitive Cyclist allowed me to switch my order, and within about 10 days, my Stigmata arrived.

The top tube decal, with the gold accents, is a great touch, but the red on the head badge disrupts the green/black color scheme on an otherwise really beautiful paint job and decal design.
Geometry, design, and fit are all very much in line with my Santa Cruz Blur MTB and two Ridley road bicycles (Helium SL and Excalibur/Flandrien)

I have been a long-time fan of Santa Cruz and have recently declared my Blur the best bicycle I have ever owned (totaling about 45-50 bicycles over 35+ years of serious cycling); therefore, I was eager to own the Stigmata for quality alone.

Yet, part of my gravel bike purchasing was also guided by interest in 1x drivetrains (one of the best developments in MTBs in my opinion) and my commitment to SRAM components.

The gravel bike craze has become dominated by the new Shimano GRX line so it was challenging to find available gravel bikes with the combinations I wanted; the Stigmata ticks off every box.

My local options—within 30-minute drives—are a mix of gravel and paved roads, maybe 2/3 gravel, but I have many miles of gravel-only roads at both Dupont and Bent Creek (mountain biking paradises in North Carolina), hour-log drives. These options also offer extended climbing, very challenging terrain where most rides include 100-feet/mile for rides of 15-20 miles.

My cycling life has also shifted some to include riding on rail-to-trail paved bike paths, and I have wanted a gravel bike for those more casual (and sometimes more bumpy pavement) rides.

My early impressions of the Stigmata include mixed-surface rides, one challenging ride at Bent Creek, and a rail-trail ride as well as doing some road laps on a course where I typically ride my road bike.

At first, the cockpit of the Stigmata felt a bit tight, but the build came with a 0 setback aluminum seatpost that I have swapped out for a carbon seatpost with 20 mm setback; now the fit feels really comparable to my road bikes (effective top tube is the same with the reach within 0.2 mm).

I had a very similar experience with the fit of the Santa Cruz Blur, which I have since come to appreciate.

Once on gravel, the road, or paved trails, the Stigmata rides extremely well. The tracking and handling are solid and dependable.

The beefy fork is really stable in heavy gravel and on steep descents, and the 40 mm tires do well to offset some of the harshness of the stiff frame and fork.

Overall, I would say the comfort level is much better than I expected—considering that the bike handles and responds at a very high level.

It some getting used to, but the extended hoods for disc brakes and the flared handlebars now common on gravel bikes are quickly forgotten while riding.

In the early 2000s, I made two important changes, switching to Speedplay pedals (from Look) and to SRAM drivetrains. I have used Red, Force, and Rival in the SRAM line, preferring Force for a great balance of price and performance.

I am a huge fan of SRAM drivetrains, the feel and quality of the mechanical shifting. I also loved the original hood design, but have adopted to the current design.

What I have always marveled at from SRAM is that shifting performance is incredibly similar from Rival to Force to Red. The Rival 1×11 drivetrain on the Stigmata has performed perfectly as I expected.

However, the one flaw in SRAM that many people have noted is the disc brake feel and quality. For disc brakes on MTBs even low-level Shimano brakes have a much better feel and performance than SRAM for me.

The Stigmata is the first non-MTB for me with disc brakes, and I was slightly concerned about the stock SRAM disc brakes.

After riding some steep gravel descents and even doing several laps of a mountain biking trail with roots and sharp hairpin turns, I find the SRAM disc braking adequate; the feel still leans soft for me, but disc braking is so superior to rim braking that I am satisfied so far with SRAM/Rival quality.

On balance, then, considering cost and performance quality as well as aesthetics, I am incredibly happy with my first gravel bike purchase.

The only real issues I have had were a couple faulty bolts on the Easton stem (which Easton has never responded to) and a bit of an issue with the rear tire losing air more quickly than the front. I chalk these up to minor and expected issues with any new bike purchase; I had extra bolts and added some sealant to the rear tire.

I am not quite as stunned by the Stigmata as my Blur, but I cannot recommend Santa Cruz bicycles more highly.

I also want to offer a nudge to those considering making the gravel riding jump; you would be well served if you choose the Stigmata—if you can find one available.

Clothespin Bucket

I had a dream last night, the kind of dream that jumbles your past and present in ways that make sense only in the dream.

The jumble in this dream was riding my recently purchased gravel bike from my former home (where I lived when I was about 10 until my early 20s) to the nearby club house of the rural golf course where that house sat, Three Pines Country Club.

In this dream, my mother, now deceased, met me at the club house after I pedaled up the long hill from that house to the club house, weaving between cars much more carelessly than I would in real life. I also rode the bicycle over steps and furniture into the club house, weaving there through people as if my behavior was perfectly normal.

The kicker of that dream was not the mixing of past and present as well as the living and the deceased but that I eventually realized although I had ridden to the club house to hit range balls, I didn’t have my golf clubs or shoes—as I had ridden a bicycle of course.

In real life, both my mother and I worked at that golf course for many years, and I spent a great deal of my life at the club house and hitting range balls, spanning essentially my entire adolescence.

None the less, the dream was so vivid that I was unnerved when I woke, and continued to think about it all morning.

Eventually, I texted my oldest nephew, over twenty years my junior, who lived much of his life growing up in the same house, raised primarily my my parents, his grandparents.

Our shared home and parenting have resulted in our feeling in many ways more like brothers than uncle/nephew, I think.

Since my nephew had been very close to my parents in their declining years, he was the executor of their will; and since their deaths a couple years ago, we have continued to reach out to each other as we work through the complicated loss of my parents.

When I thought more about this dream, I wanted to share it with him, and his immediate response was to wonder why the dream had included the associations that it did.

Almost immediately, I realized that the odd combination of my current cycling hobby and my childhood and adolescent life on a golf course made perfect sense, especially including my mother.

And what holds all that together is clothespins, or more accurately my mother’s clothespin bucket.

brown wooden cloth pin lot display
Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Our first family home was a rental house in Enoree, SC, several miles south of my home town, Woodruff, where my parents next rented a house before building their own home—the one of my dream—at Three Pines. The house on the golf course was a few miles north of Woodruff. I lived in these homes in the 1960s and 1970s.

My mother always washed clothes and then dried them on a clothes line outside, the clothes held in place by dozens of wooden clothespins she kept in a plastic bucket.

At some point, by the time we lived at Three Pines, my parents did own a dryer, but she still would hang clothes outside and that bucket never budged from the laundry room. I want to say the bucket was blue, in fact.

I started college at a junior college in nearby Spartanburg, and then finished my undergraduate degree at the satellite campus of the University of South Carolina—then USC-Spartanburg but now named USC Upstate.

For my final 2.5 years there, my advisor was an avid triathlete, a sport I had never encountered before, being relatively new in the early 1980s. It is because of this advisor that I became fascinated with serious cycling.

As a college student from working class parents, I was not hurting for money—I always had jobs, often at nearby golf courses—but buying a serious bicycle in the early 1980s seemed too expensive once I started shopping around.

One day I was telling my mother about the advisor, triathlons, and my budding interest in cycling, adding that I thought buying a bicycle was more than I could afford.

Without hesitating, she told me to go to the laundry room and bring her the clothespin basket; that turn in the conversation struck me as odd, but I dutifully fetched the bucket and started to walk to my room.

Digging through the clothes pins, my mother said, “Here,” and I turned to see her holding a wad of bills she had pulled from under the clothespins. “Don’t tell your father,” she added.

It turned out to be a couple hundred dollars, but we never talked about why she was squirreling away money or why she was so willing just to hand over about $200 to me on the spot.

The money was still well below a bicycle shop quality bicycle, but I went to Sears and bought what now counts as my first serious bicycle because I did start riding in a way then that led over the next three years to buying that first bicycle shop bicycle from the now defunct Great Escape, then in downtown Spartanburg.

I know enough pop culture psychology and the works of Freud, Jung, and Frazier to be able to navigate my own dreams for some glints of meaning. So I feel comfortable with what I see in the dream merging my now and my past, blurring my current 30-plus year hobby of cycling with my childhood and adolescent hobby of golfing.

It is of course my mother this dream is about.

My mother’s willingness to create her own secret place, a stash of cash, in a clothes pin bucket—this domestic woman, this life-long mother, this person who was immediately self-sacrificing.

Especially for her son.

Especially for me.

My parents not only would have done almost anything for me. My parents essentially did do anything for me.

They did that for my nephew as well.

It is something we share, something we can understand with a heavy melancholy and love, something we have to take out every once in a while and try to work through, untangle, confront.

I had a dream last night, the kind that leaves you disoriented and nearly unable to draw a clean line between that dream and your own lived life—because the fabric of the dream is weaved out of strands from many different years as if the finished garment is a perfectly ordinary shirt.

A shirt when washed would flutter a bit on a clothes line, fastened securely by decade’s old clothespins used occasionally to hide a few dollars you may need someday.

Bully Politics, Eugenics, and the Last Days of American Pretense

If the American character included the ability to admit that the country’s founding was deeply flawed but aspirational—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as goals we are still trying to achieve for all, not just some—we would not have to admit in 2020 that much of what America believes is simply lies.

Instead, the American character is often trapped in James Baldwin‘s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” now disturbingly embodied by the Trump/Pence administration and their bully politics.

Of the many lies at the founding of the U.S. that continue to poison our aspirations for individual liberty and robust democracy, possibly the most disturbing and immediately damning is that people fled England in pursuit of religious liberty.

For some frustrating reason, throughout my 18 years of teaching high school English, students were bombarded by American literature focusing on the Puritans, specifically reading/viewing both Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Students tended to recognize after these works that those first Puritans were not so much interested in religious freedom for all, but fled England in order to be no longer the oppressed, but the oppressor.

Chillingly, Hester Prynne and an assortment of women condemned as witches suffer religious tyranny that sends a powerful message to students about the role of religion in misogyny and sexism.

A novel written mid-nineteenth century and a play written mid-twentieth century (during the McCarthy Era), both set in seventeenth century North America, serve in 2020 as stark reminders that religious liberty in the U.S. is not something we aspire to but a bald-faced lie.

That bald-faced lie has no better representative than Mike Pence on the stage with Kamal Harris for the only vice presidential debate of the 2020 election.

Pence pandering for Trump and their white evangelical base evoked a false narrative that Christian faith works as a disadvantage in the U.S.—now embodied by the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.

This flipping of the oppressor as the oppressed parallels the white nationalist message embraced by Trump; angry white Americans are emboldened under Trump because he echoes and speaks to the lie that being white in the U.S. is some sort of disadvantage.

While a great deal of evidence has supported the idea that mainstream (“moderate”) Democrats and Republicans are nearly impossible to distinguish from each other, the election of Trump has not only exposed a difference but also spurred the last days of American pretense.

If we look carefully at the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, for example, Trump/Pence and the Trump-led Republican Party are pushing a distinctly minority agenda; 60%+ of Americans support waiting to fill Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s seat until after the election, and nearly 70% of Americans support maintaining Roe v. Wade (one of the goals of the rush to confirm Barrett is allowing states to ban abortion).

Next, consider, for example, legalizing/decriminalizing marijuana, gay marriage, trans rights, laws protecting separation of church and state (such as those governing forced prayer in public schools).

All of these expand religious and individual liberty; and notably, Republicans reject all of these while Democrats support them.

Also consider the #BlackLivesMatter movement as it has been confronted by white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and mostly white self-proclaimed militia.

Here a strong and important distinction is needed. #BlackLivesMatter is a call for extending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to Black Americans—not a claim that Black people are superior to white people, not a call to take life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from white people.

#BlackLivesMatter, in fact, has some strong similarities with the Black Nationalist movement of the mid-twentieth century that, again, is distinct from white nationalism.

White nationalism (not only but the worst of which includes the KKK and neo-Nazis) argues for white exceptionalism and white purity. These are the vestiges of eugenics, parroted by Trump’s nod to “good genes” in his supporters and his belief in his own superior genes.

Black Nationalism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement are not about Black people being superior, but about a recognition that assimilation and equity among races have been and are currently being resisted by white Americans.

Over the past couple weeks, the country has been confronted with the Trump/Biden and Pence/Harris debates; of the four people on those stages, only Harris has displayed the highest standards of preparedness, poise, and respect for the offices, the aspirations of the U.S., and the American people.

Of those four people only Harris has had the highest bar for her performance.

Mediocre white men, Trump and Pence have been uniquely dishonest, even in the context of mainstream U.S. politics.

Like the iron-fisted tyranny of the Puritans, Trump/Pence are poised to use bully politics to impose the minority tyranny of evangelical whites on the U.S. while waving the Bible in one hand and wrapped in the American flag—a warning so compelling that we evoke it like a fact that can’t be confirmed.

We may or may not be witnessing the fall of U.S. democracy, but we are staring directly into the last days of American pretense.

And possibly the greatest pretense of all—or at least the one that best illustrates the anti-democratic aims of the Trump-led Republican Party—is that there is a pro-life movement.

“Pro-life” sloganism is not just a veneer for anti-abortion, but for forced pregnancy and birth.

Overturning Roe v. Wade and denying women reproductive rights are efforts to impose religious dogma above national ideology, an admission that religious tyranny is the goal of the Right in the U.S.—not religious or individual freedom.

Four more years of Trump/Pence may close the door to American aspirations, but it certainly will toss aside American pretense to expose what America is willing to allow for some at the expense of others, once again.

You’re on Your Own (But You Don’t Have to Be)

During the recent U.S. Senate debate in South Carolina, Jaime Harrison and Lindsey Graham seemed determined to one-up each other about their overcoming hardships in their lives.

Harrison, as a Black South Carolinian, sounded quite similar, in fact, to Republican senator Tim Scott—both sending strong messages about rugged individualism that can easily be viewed by those denying racism as proof anyone can make it in the U.S. with enough grit and the right mindset.

The U.S. has long loved rags-to-riches stories, ignoring both that these stories are compelling because they are incredibly rare and that these stories are often lies.

Rugged individualism is not just an idealistic mythology, but a deforming lie that helps mask that most success in the U.S. comes from privileges and connections linked to family wealth, race, and gender; wealth begets wealth just as privilege begets privilege.

Bootstrapping myths have existed nearly as long as the U.S., and seem grounded in a belief that without these stories to incentivize people, the country would crumble due to inherent human laziness.

Certainly the real and mythologized stories of the U.S. are mostly about exceptional individuals (almost all white men) and the power of competition to drive the demands of capitalism and consumerism.

Bootstrapping and rugged individualism myths fail for several reason, however. One is that rags-to-riches stories are by their nature outlier events; it is both illogical and harmful to treat outlier phenomena as “normal,” as the foundational expectation for everyone.

But the greatest harm in these myths are grounded in the lies. Research, in fact, shows that cooperation, collaboration, and community are far more productive than competition.

Just a bit of critical examination into anyone claiming to be a “self-made” success exposes that many factors played a role in that success, notably connections, collaboration and community hidden beneath the individual, and even luck (despite the problems with Malcolm Gladwell’s work, Outliers serves well to reveal those patterns).

What business can prosper without the publicly funded roads and highways systems?

For many in the U.S., Harrison and Scott as successful Black men prove that there is not a systemic problem in the country, but a failure of individuals who can be “fixed” through a more demanding education system and a more punitive police state and legal system.

Again, these beliefs are contradicted by evidence, such as that Mullainathan and Shafir detail in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Individuals tend to behave in ways that reflect their environments.

Mullainathan and Shafir offer two contexts—slack and scarcity, which we can loosely frame as wealth and poverty but understand it is more complex than that.

When people live in slack, they tend to behave in ways that seem rational and productive, in part because of lower stress and wider margins for error. While this is paradoxical, having more than enough money tends to allow people to be better with money (such as saving or spending more carefully, including having greater access to wealth through loans that tend to be lower interest for those who are wealthier).

Living paycheck to paycheck or living without adequate finances creates a level of stress that tends to result in greater financial hardship—falling behind on payments or accumulating insurmountable debt.

Despite the mythologies and beliefs of many in the U.S., these differences can be traced to the circumstances of people’s lives and not to flaws in individuals.

In fact, living in slack allows for individual flaws since making mistakes or bad decisions have much lower stakes.

Having a car break down when you are a salaried employee with a strong savings account and a high credit score has a much different consequence than when you are a single parent working two part-time jobs with hourly wages and no savings account as well as a low credit score.

Despite our knee-jerk urge as a country to blame individuals for their situations and applaud success as the result of individual effort, the evidence is clear that systemic forces are far more powerful than individual qualities for most people.

The ultimate irony here is that while the American Dream tends to be a message of rugged individualism, bootstrapping, and having the grit and proper mindset to succeed, the more robust and humane version of that Dream requires a culture shift in our collective mindset.

Instead of celebrating individuals who overcome inequity, poverty, racism, and sexism, what if as a people we committed to making sure no one has those challenges to begin with? What if we genuinely committed to the possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we claimed all people to be endowed with at birth?

Why must any child earn a full and dignified life in the richest and most powerful country in the history of humanity?

While it feels cliche to mention, Martin Luther King Jr. serves well here to demonstrate the great failures of the American culture bound to individualism to the exclusion of community—what John Dewey identified as either/or thinking that misleads people into thinking the needs of the individual are in conflict with the needs of the community.

King, well after his assassination, has been added to the pantheon of celebrated individuals, reduced to a passive radical and quoted or invoked mostly in ways that confirm the very system King was, in fact, rejecting.

The American Myth requires a King who is a unique individual who overcame, and his messages are only useful when they can be woven into the existing fabric of individual responsibility, respectability politics, and (maybe worst of all) a colorblind society.

That is the “content of character” King, often more prop than the person and radical King became near the end of his life.

However, King called for setting aside “fragmentary and spasmodic reforms [that] have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor” because “the programs of the past all have another common failing — they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else.”

Ultimately, then, King concluded: “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective — the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income” because:

We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished. The poor transformed into purchasers will do a great deal on their own to alter housing decay. Negroes, who have a double disability, will have a greater effect on discrimination when they have the additional weapon of cash to use in their struggle.

Many decades before the research offered by Mullainathan and Shafir, King recognized that shifting to systemic solutions instead of “fixing” or punishing individuals would allow the sort of individualism that need not be rugged in order to be fully human—and a contributing individual to the larger economy and democracy.

Consider the shift in perception of individuals by a systemic change—decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana creating entrepreneurs where we once saw criminals.

The American Dream is a damning dream, a hoax, a lie—as long as it remains a story of bootstrapping and a celebration of manufactured individuals overcoming.

The Harrison and Graham debate was more than one-upsmanship about who had the hardest path to the stage.

One is a pause, a possibility for turning toward the sort of community at the center of King’s final message; the other is clinging to the very worst of the country that has resulted in each of us being on our own—unless we were lucky enough to be born into the sort of wealth and privilege that allows us to fail and try again.

In 2020, during an international pandemic while living in the richest and most powerful country in the world, you are on your own.

But you don’t have to be.

Bully

TV shows and movies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, if my memory serves me well, tended to fall back on a predictable and likely lazy portrayal of bullies; beneath their abusive and violent exteriors hid a deeply insecure but ultimately redeemable human.

In the real world, however, the United States has elected a bully and conman president. The first presidential debate of 2020, in fact, put that harsh truth on display as well as offering ironic proof of the power of white male privilege.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden demonstrated the extremely low bar for white men with wealth and power. As I watched the circus between the conman clown and cartoonish career politician, I thought about “no excuses” charter schools where mostly Black and brown students are compelled to make eye contact, walk in straight lines, and conform to the most rigid rules of civility and behavior.

The expectations for the weakest among us in the U.S. are infinitely higher than for the most powerful—as demonstrated by Trump’s bullying and Biden’s doddering.

Let me be clear, my concern about the Trump/Biden debate is not a both-sides complaint. While Biden is a deeply flawed candidate and person, Trump is in a deplorable class all by himself.

The ultimately irony of Trump’s bullying and blatant racism on display at the debate is that it comes on the heels of the Trump administration claiming that anti-racism education is indoctrination and Nikki Haley’s celebrated claim at the RNC that the U.S. isn’t a racist country.

As the exposed tax returns have confirmed, Trump is mostly a conman not a gifted businessman. But more significantly his art of the con depends on his faith in bullying, a faith built on decades of evidence that those tactics do in fact work—because people who can benefit from tolerating the orbit of Trump are more than willing to suffer and fuel his bullying.

Conmen and bullies cannot survive, however, unless we allow them to exist. While those TV shows and movies of my youth seem naive and unrealistic, they did often expose the power of confronting bullies in order to disarm them.

One way Trump has survived and thrived is because pop culture and the media have been complicit in his bullying and lies.

After the debate, for example, The Washington Post offered a headline noting Trump had depended in “false facts” because the mainstream media refuse to use the word “lie” just like the media continue to suggest that using the word “racist” when warranted is somehow disrespectful.

Here is a missed lesson from the debate.

Debates are formal and structured arguments, events based on decorum and mostly academic expectations for discourse, argument, and facts.

Trump has spent his entire life existing in an ideology outside the parameters of rules, laws, and ethics/morality. As has now been reported, for example, Trump considers those who have died in the military to be “suckers” and “losers.”

To Trump, anyone who plays by any rules is a sucker and a loser.

Functioning outside the expectations of decency has allowed Trump to lie, project, gaslight, and bully his way to celebrity status and ultimately the White House.

It isn’t that Trump is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers (a characterization Trump would love to foster) but that Trump is stealing at poker while using a marked deck when almost everyone else refuses to admit that he is cheating.

For all his bumbling and loss of composure, Biden was correct to call Trump a clown, and despite the delicacies of proper behavior, to tell Trump to shut up. But most importantly, Biden hit the core of Trump by repeating that Trump cares only about Trump, and is willing to sacrifice anyone, including the U.S. public and even his own family.

Every Trump business scam is a monument to himself.

While it is true Trump is a racist, that likely sits inside a much larger fact that Trump considers everyone else to be suckers and losers, including his evangelical base (which he also mocks behind closed doors as he does the military).

There is no credible way to justify Trump as bully in chief, yet more than a third of the U.S. continues to support and even revel in his bullying.

Trump is a referendum on the American character, which is once again being exposed for its very worst qualities. The U.S. had to fight a war to end slavery, waited over 140 years to allow women to vote, and held out almost 190 years before acknowledging equality for Black Americans.

However, this is not an after-school special, and Trump is not redeemable.

The real question is whether or not the U.S. is redeemable, and I have my doubts.