Tag Archives: race

Living in a Postbinary World

Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. —Martin Buber

stick-not-an-artichokeWhat’s the first thing someone notices about you when you walk into a room? Is it your race? Your gender? An overweight woman on the Dr. Phil Show once insisted that it was obesity. Speaking for myself, more and more as the years flew by I came to believe that it was age. Yet I am now convinced that it is this: I am not a sea urchin or a box of Post Toasties. People might observe my white hair or my pink skin, but only after they discern that I am a human being and not a goat.

Try to define something—anything—without comparing it to something else. It’s not possible to make sense of the world, much less describe it, without putting people and things in categories. No two things are precisely the same, but we can’t give every object or idea its own separate name—even if we cheat and use numbers, as in “snowflake 1,” “snowflake 2,” and so forth.

You can categorize people and things all day long, but none of them conforms neatly to the name you give it. As soon as you invent something called a pizza, someone else is creating variations on a pizza, and pretty soon you have a pineapple pizza, a pizzaburger, even pizza soup.

Though each of us is unique, people are much more alike than we are different—compared to artichokes, for example, or honeybees or freight trains. When the invasion from outer space begins, and the aliens resemble flying dumpsters and smell like raw sewage, all our old enemies—the human ones, black or white, rich or poor, old or young—are going to start looking pretty good to us.

About black and white

Recently I listened to the last few minutes of a radio interview about racism. The interviewee was making the point that racism has less to do with individual attitudes than with participation in racist systems.

“It’s not about being a nice person,” she said. Social, educational, financial, political, healthcare, and other institutions are racist through and through, she told us. I wanted her to be wrong; but, just as I was preparing my mental argument, I thought of the criminal-justice system.

racial-disparity-prisonIn 2010 (the year of the most recent census), black males made up 40 percent of the total male prison population, white males 39 percent, and Hispanic males 19 percent. On the surface, this looks bad for black men, especially when you consider that African Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population. Thirteen percent of Americans are committing 40 percent of the crimes, you might hastily (but wrongly) infer, resolving to put as much distance as possible between yourself and black men—large mobs of whom seem intent on stealing your money and raping your daughters.

It’s true that there are too many black men in prison; arguably, there are too many people of every stripe in U.S. penitentiaries. We not only incarcerate a higher percentage of offenders but also keep them in prison longer than any other country in the world. But the lopsided numbers of black prisoners in this country cannot be explained by the quantity of crimes committed. There are other factors, one of which is mandatory-minimum sentencing laws.

  • For certain crimes, the law sets minimum sentences that judges cannot reduce, even when there are extenuating circumstances.
  • The most common mandatory minimums relate to federal laws for possession of specific amounts of illegal drugs. For example, convicted of possessing a single gram of LSD or a hundred grams of heroin, you’re looking at five years in prison, no matter how sweetly you apologize.
  • The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 set wildly dissimilar penalties for possession of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine. Five grams of crack cocaine meant at least five years in prison—the same sentence as for five hundred grams of powder cocaine. Put another way, a first-time crack offender (statistically likely to be a black male) was virtually guaranteed a five-year prison sentence, whereas a first-time offender with five grams of powder cocaine would likely get probation.
  • According to 2009 data published by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, 79 percent of 5,669 sentenced crack offenders were black, 10 percent were white, and 10 percent were Hispanic.
  • In 2016, the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution reported that “black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates, but black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses.”
  • The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, signed into law by President Obama, was supposed to address these inequities. Unfortunately, the law didn’t apply to prosecutions under state laws—the vast majority of drug-related prosecutions.

Male, female, trans, agender…

The data on mandatory minimums make a strong case for racism in the criminal-justice system; but, as we’ve seen, data can be slippery. All statistics are dubious when they suggest that categories of people behave predictably… that if you have red hair, you probably have freckles, and people with freckles are twelve times more likely than Unitarians to steal candy from convenience stores, so, managers, lock up your Skittles on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Having recently turned 70, I’ve been looking at life-insurance rate schedules. I get regular mailings from Globe, Mutual of Omaha, and other companies offering to sell me insurance policies, with monthly rates based on two factors: age and gender. Logically, a 35-year-old woman is going to pay less per month to buy life insurance because she’s expected to live longer than, say, a 45-year-old man. The longer she lives, the more payments she’ll make and the more money the insurance company will collect.

Globe and Mutual, however, don’t ask me whether I go sky-diving on weekends. They don’t wonder if I’ve had a liver transplant. They don’t seem to care whether I wear a helmet when I ride my electric bicycle. They don’t know that I own an electric bicycle, for that matter. Their actuaries have evidently found that, for purposes of selling these relatively low-payout life-insurance policies, my age and sex are the best predictors of how much I’ll contribute to the companies’ profits.

Here, the insurance companies are treating gender as dualistic: I am either (a) a woman or (b) a man. And yet, in this 21st century, we are learning that gender is not a binary state.



Caitlyn Jenner, Corporal Klinger

From 2012 to 2014, I lived in a comparatively swank homeless shelter with ten other women plus Claudia, whose gender could not be tidily defined. I knew only a little of her history and even less about what was involved in sex reassignment. Claudia had been born with the usual male apparatus, I’d been told, but she had self-identified as a female for many years. Long before I met her, Claudia had begun the process of gender reassignment—including surgery, I assumed—but at some stage had put a hold on it. Her partner died under especially tragic circumstances, leaving Claudia without the money, or the heart, to finish the job.

One evening I was sitting on the back porch with Claudia, smoking cigarettes and chatting. Claudia usually wore a skirt, but that night she had on a pair of snug-fitting jeans. I couldn’t help noticing—as accurately as it is possible to ascertain such a thing when the person being observed is fully clothed and the observer is unwilling to stare—that Claudia’s male appurtenances seemed intact. She had apparently not, as I had believed, had the surgery that a man undergoes in order to become a woman.

“Claudia,” I said astutely, “you still have all your original parts, don’t you?”

Claudia was too gracious to tell me to mind my own business. Instead, she talked about her partner and about how the woman’s death had practically destroyed her.


With Marianne (right), one of my “sisters” in the shelter

There are several things worth noting here:

  • My comment was inexcusably rude. In my defense I can say only that, since I was living in a residence for women, it seemed justifiable to at least wonder aloud whether there might be a rooster in the henhouse.
  • None of us knew precisely where on the male-female continuum Claudia fell. Though she wore women’s skirts, shoes, makeup, and wigs, she looked more like Corporal Klinger than like Caitlyn Jenner. Yet not only was she without vanity, she was entirely unself-conscious about her appearance. She strode around the community and the nearby college campus, where she was a student, with as much poise as one can summon when one is still learning to walk in three-inch heels.
  • Forced to guess, I might have said that she was biologically closer to the male end of the spectrum, yet it wouldn’t have occurred to any of us to refer to Claudia as he or him. In housing arranged exclusively for women, Claudia—whose beard was usually conspicuous by 5 p.m.—was the only thoroughly beloved member of our group. Her credibility was such that, if Claudia said that she was a woman, ergo, Claudia was a woman.
  • In our uneasy sisterhood, there were gossiping, backbiting, sniping, and outright meanness, but none of this was directed at Claudia. Without going out of her way to court friendship, she was never unkind. Without endeavoring to please, she was comfortable in her skin, and the rest of us were comfortable around her. She had only one trait that I found off-putting—an inexplicable fondness for a type of bacon that could be purchased only at Walmart. Every month she took three northbound buses to Walmart, bought several pounds of pork fat, and took three southbound buses to (as it were) bring home the bacon.

Love one another

I mention Claudia because the thought of her makes me smile, and because she illustrates the fallacies inherent in binary thinking. Obviously, I am not the first person to call attention to the dangers of sticking people into a clump and then making wrongheaded assumptions about individuals in the clump. Jesus Christ, I believe, was vilified in large part because he refused to see the world’s populations in Old Testament terms… that is, “Israelites” and “everybody else.”

“All flesh,” he tells us in Luke 3:6, “shall see the salvation of God.”


Martin Buber

Martin Buber, in his 1923 book I and Thou, writes, “Every person born into the world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique. If there had been someone like [that person] … in the world, there would have been no need for her to be born.” He urges human beings to treat one another not as objects or according to roles—customer to cashier, master to servant—but as sacred beings, each unique and irreplaceable. People are not to be used but to be honored.

Daniel Goleman, the author of Social Intelligence (2006), encourages readers to increase the number of people they think of as “us” and decrease the number they think of as “them.” Like Martin Buber, he distinguishes between “I-You” and “I-It” modes of relating.

“We are wired to connect,” Goleman writes. “Neuroscience has discovered that our brain’s very design makes it sociable, inexorably drawn into an intimate brain-to-brain linkup whenever we engage with another person. That neural bridge lets us affect the brain—and so the body—of everyone we interact with, just as they do us.”

Yet we are told that there are black people and white people, as if these were concrete opposites… as if we weren’t all descended from African peoples… as if any detectable “black” trait rendered a person wholly black, a check mark on a census form… as if there weren’t any number of other traits that might be better predictors of behavior, happiness, and life span than what we have chosen to think of as “race.”

A work in progress

Clinical depression is a great leveler. I learned this the hard way, when I quit a four-year regimen of appalling doses of opioids. In the aftermath, I was hospitalized seven times for anxiety and depression. Other patients came and went, and I always assessed them according to one criterion: Could they make me laugh? Nothing mattered except relief from emotional pain, and if someone—regardless of age, gender, race, nationality, S.A.T. score, athletic prowess, annual income, or shoe size—could make my heart stop racing for a moment or two, I clung to that person like moss to a tree. This did not always endear me to the others, but sometimes it did; they had their own pain.

In the women’s shelter, besides Claudia, there were three black women, four Mexicans, a Russian, a Navajo, a white parolee from Arkansas, and me—the token senior citizen. There were Roman Catholics, Protestants, a Muslim, and a couple of unbelievers. I won’t say that these several traits went unnoticed. To a few of the women they mattered very much, but for the most part we were good girls and got along so that if a sunny corner bedroom on the second floor became available we might stake a legitimate claim to it. If we formed cohesive groups, it was more likely to be because we were mothers or students or canasta players than because we were pink or brown.

So I am leery of generalizations about race, age, sexual orientation, and pretty much everything else; and when I think about combating systemic discrimination it gives me a headache. I hardly know where to begin. But I can try very hard to regard you as a unique and necessary child of God, as valuable as I—no more and no less—and try also to remember, by saying my prayers and sticking Post-Its on my mirror, to treat you with love and respect… not that I will always succeed. I find some of you quite odious, actually. You interrupt my dancing. But one day, when I’m feeling very brave, I might just ask to listen to the music that makes your heart sing.