Before 2008 I only had light exposure to people of color, never really knowing someone intimately enough for them to speak their minds. In the last decade I have managed to change this, developing a close enough friendship with some very smart people who aren’t afraid to call me out for stupid shit, and speak their mind when we are talking casually on or offline. I would say I have also gotten better at reading works from more people of color, and expanding my digital network to include more black and brown voices. Intentionally acknowledging that what I was consuming on a regular basis has always been very “white”, and that a diet of more diverse ideas which included people of color, is much more nourishing and progressive than having the same old conversation with familiar faces, and people who look just like me. One area I am eternally grateful for in my evolution is being exposed to the view of America presented by writers like Kevin Young, who wrote Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News-—helping me expose how some very fundamental stories I was exposed to as a child were just damaging propaganda from the white supremacy. Something I would have never uncovered on my own. I am also very much loving the intimate thoughts of James Baldwin as I read a variety of essays from him, providing me with an unfiltered view of the world around me through the eyes of a black man. This shift in my reading diet has been crucial to my evolution, and helping me better understand who I am, where I came from, and where I want to be going.
Limiting the power of the tractor beam of my family, childhood, and where I grew up has been one of the more difficult parts of my journey. I never felt at home in my home town. I always felt different, out of place, and inferior. I grew up in a very beautiful part of Oregon. I grew up around some very kind and caring people. However, I also grew up very, very poor, in a very white and somewhat backwards world. I ended up getting in trouble, not because I was a bad kid, but because I was bored and there was nothing to stimulate my intellectual mind. There wasn’t much to do in my small town other than get into the good or the bad drugs, and without a well-funded library, or anyone helping me find my way to a University, I found other ways to express myself as part of the hippie drug culture that exists in Southern Oregon and Northern California. With death, jail, and other devils nipping at my heals I began to change my behavior, and cull the network of people I was hanging out with, beginning my journey beyond where I grew up. This was hard. I had to write-off a number of people who I cared about. I had to draw some hard lines defining what behavior was acceptable around me, and what wasn’t. If you did hard drugs, you were not allowed around me. If you weren’t willing to accept the wider reality of the world outside of where I grew up, I didn’t come around anymore. If you weren’t supporting your children and generally interested in bettering yourself, it is unlikely our paths would cross again, or I wouldn’t let you know where I moved to. Then in other cases, the distance made it harder to stay in touch, and some people just assumed they were in the pool of unwanted and unwelcome, or generally feeling like I was leaving them behind, and made it clear I was too elite, untrustworthy, and not part of the inner circle anymore. Making for some pretty lonely times, but also managed to allow for new opportunities and relationships to flourish as I made a commitment to move forward.
AS old relationships disappeared, and new relationships formed, I began to see what was acceptable and unacceptable differently. As I learn to care for more people of color and those with more diverse backgrounds, it became harder to condone many of the ideas and voices of my childhood. With numerous Jewish friends it became unacceptable to allow for the casual anti-semitic remark, let alone outright denial of the holocaust, or narratives about how people of Jewish decent control the world. With numerous friends of color around me, it became unacceptable to have people around me who would make the direct or indirect comments about people of color that were offensive. The more friends of color youy have the less acceptable it is for you to have a racist friend. The lines between what is acceptable and unacceptable shifts, evolves, and become very strong positions that you feel compelled to defend. If you haven’t moved, evolved, or expanded your network, these shifts will not make sense, and it is easy for people to blame me for causing the friction. Someone who used to seem harmless, soft spoken, and even in some cases funny, becomes a threat, to the point where you refuse to have over to your house. Pretty soon you aren’t showing up to regular family or hometown gatherings because someone who has always been a fixture on the landscape has made the situation untenable for you. From the viewpoint of everyone back home, you are the problem. Nothing has changed for them, and you are the one not coming around, and causing problems, thus you are what is wrong. Not them. As you seek out new ideas, and open your mind to other possibilities, others begin to see you as a threat to the lifestyle they have always known. For me, I am just growing more righteous in what is acceptable or unacceptable around me, and the people I love. For me, it is essential that I continue to keep moving forward for the rest of my life, ever expanding the circle of people I am exposed to, and making sure I empathize and give space to other voices and ideas—-not simply clinging to what I know, or what was handed down to me as part of childhood.
When it comes to my in-person as well as online personas, I am always performing. In the past I performed for my childhood network, as well as every wave my network ever since, and it is something that I will continue to perform for my ever evolving, diversifying, and expanding network of people. It is what we do as human beings. When it comes to being a free thinker, or independent mind amidst all of this, I will always work to make sure my views are informed and reflect who I am, but honestly I see this just as much about what we are thinking as what I am thinking. I believe in the value of the individual, and the importance of me being a free and independent thinker, but I believe in freedom and equality, not just freedom. I am not under any delusion that my thoughts and actions aren’t influence by those around me, and every one of my actions is being shaped by the world around me. The stories I read on and offline influence my thinking. The people I let into my life all influence my behavior, and everything I do each day is part of a performance for the people who know me. I would say that the independent individual part of all of this is really about who I let into my circle and be either part of the performance or join the audience. One thing I have learned in my evolution is what I once considered free and independent thinking I have come to understand how scripted and pre-programmed it all really is. Not that my life now is free from being scripted, pre-programmed, and being handed to me, but I am more aware of what constitutes free and independent thinking and what doesn’t. I get understand that everything is about the stories we are exposed to, and that everything is a theater production. It just depends on where you are at in the production supply chain, and whether you are in the cast or the in the audience. After working in government, and with large enterprise organizations, as well as startups, I realize what a production all of this really is. How much of that production you are unaware of when living in rural areas. How much you are just an unaware audience member completely oblivious to the theater you are sitting in when you choose to be plugged into this world via TV or the Internet. That independent thinking largely exists in books, and everything else is just a skillfully choreographed production by the 1%, and everyone else is left thinking they have a choice.
Now that I have gotten a taste, there is no going back for me. I can’t sit around the dining room table and argue whether or not the holocaust happened. I can’t sit around and swap stories about how aliens are real, or lizard people live in the center of the earth. I just can’t entertain and accept ideas that are clearly racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, and otherwise intolerant or ignorant. I can accept that people are different, and not everyone has the same access to education and information, but I don’t have the time or tolerance for willful ignorance and an insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories, fantasies, delusions, and age old racist and anti-semitic tropes. Its not that I am better than the people I have left behind, but I do choose to demand better in my life. I choose to be informed. I choose to listen. I choose to read. Not just online, but actual books from diverse authors. I can’t sit around and rehash the same old tired stories. I wish I could show people I grew up with just how dangerous some of these ideas that have taken root in their isolated environment are. I know they feel like they are tapped into “the source” of information via the web, but it really is just another elaborate production, rehashing many of the same racist, sexist, anti-semitic, and hateful narratives of the past. They just have a new digital polish that makes them seem like they are fresh and new. There is just an endless pool of validation waiting for us online, and available in our performative circles, and I am looking to not avoid this dance, but ensure it is as diverse and meaningful as it possibly can be, benefiting not just me, but also the wider world. I can’t roll my reality back to what used to be, no matter how nostalgic I may be for an earlier time. There is no trading in what I have learned for an earlier model, and after shifting my view of the world I am eager to learn more. What else is out there that I was never shown, or what was deliberately hid from me? How can I continue to shake up my reality well into my senior years? What other diverse voices and faces can I help give support to, helping offset my privilege and whiteness. Really it isn’t just about not going backwards, it is always about forward motion, and continuing to seek out truth, and not get comfortable in what validates the worst in me, or us.
Ultimately for me, it is not about escaping this circus production, it is just about being able to see the different acts, and have more agency in the performance and storytelling. It is about being able to listen and learn from diverse voices, and truly hear new stories coming from parts of the world I have no experience in. I see ideas similar to food, and now that I have a taste of what is out there, I am going to be eternally seeking new flavors and experiences. This storytelling isn’t about shaming the people I grew up with. It is about freeing myself from the cords I have allowed to be attached to myself from these experiences. It is about dealing with the rats nest of perception that I let control me from a time in my life where I didn’t have as much agency and control over the ideas I was exposed to. I am merely using some of the cast of characters I grew up with to help be break things down and understand where I came from, and how my view of the world was programmed by white supremacy, fear, and ignorance. It is about freeing up space so that I can fill that space with new and exciting ideas from people who do not look or act like me. It is about drawing strong lines about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the world I live in. But also making sure I am always evolving, diversifying, and expanding what I am exposed to in this rich world. I am terrified of stagnating. I am horrified at the thought of stopping learning. I am troubled by what as been kept from me because of my whiteness. I cringe at the lack of creativity, empathy, honesty, and awareness the performances I have been historically part of, and still continue seeing around me online via Facebook. I am under no delusion that my existence on Facebook isn’t a performance, and that I operate within a bubble, but goddammit, my performance is as going to be as honest and empathetic as I possibly can make it. And I make sure that my cast, crew, and audience is as wide as it possibly can, pushing me out of my comfort zone and exposing me to as many interesting ideas and stories as humanly possible.