Category Archives: Cultural Context

Our Stories Make America Truly Great (Repost)

I’m reposting this one today because I was in a hopeful mood when I wrote it, believing it was possible to learn and grow and find common ground by listening to “the other,” whoever that might be.

Because of my mother’s health and other life complications, I’m not blogging a whole lot these days. But today, in light of dueling memos in Washington, dueling worldviews–on multiple topics–in this country, I’m feeling a desperate need for reconciliation. The opening of ears, hearts and minds. So here’s this, once again …

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If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—puts out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room fills with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cower inside, trying to figure out how they’re going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy, scotch-at-ten-am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three culture of theirs. In the end, they hire a single African American woman, Dawn, who becomes Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not have the elasticity to overcome discrimination.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

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Keep Quiet and Stop Violating My First Amendment Rights

Certain people of a certain generation–my generation frankly–seem to have had it up to here with the “rules changing.” I hear it. The sighs, the expletives, the tongue clicking, the venting:

You can’t say anything to anyone about anything anymore. If you do, you get accused of triggering someone, being bigoted, or not checking your damn privilege. Well, privilege THIS!

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I know, sweethearts. It’s hard having to be so careful not to offend someone. It’s stifling to be so PC. I get it. When we were kids, back in the eighties, the seventies, the sixties and earlier, political correctness wasn’t even a thing. I am well-versed in the Good Old Days Sing-Along, which goes a little something like this (in the key of tone-deaf):

Things weren’t always fair in our day, but you knew what to call everyone. (Waves index finger in air.) You knew who was a boy or a girl and if you didn’t, that was the fault of the person you were looking at. Maybe they should have dressed differently or gotten a better haircut. (Pounds fist on table, nods agreement with self.)

People could take a joke back then too. You could make fun of anyone you wanted for any reason you wanted: their accents, their weight, how they walked, the sound of their last names. And race? You could say what you wanted about the Blacks, the Hispanics, the Indians and the Asians. No one meant anything by it and all the minorities were fine, unless they had anger issues. (And only the Blacks had those!) No one went around calling you a racist for it!

Nowadays, everyone’s so goddamn sensitive. Everyone’s a SNOWFLAKE. 

Whew. Now that that’s out of our system. Here’s a newsflash: As much as it sucks to be called out for racism, misgendering, and heterosexism, it’s even worse to be the recipient of those things. It’s the difference between someone questioning the motivation of what you SAID and someone reinforcing society’s denigration of what you ARE.

The attacking “ism”—be it racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, cis-ism (because it is an attack, whether it’s intended as one or not; that’s how it feels)–is likely rooted in years, decades, centuries of habit. Which is why it feels normal. Which is why, when challenged, it feels like a cruel affront.

Male chauvinism, for example, was the way of the world since the beginning of humanity. Women were the second sex, the weaker sex, the fragile, and yet the toxically seductive, blame-worthy, (how-dare-she-let-me-get-her pregnant??) sex. And, if you were a guy, it was cool. What was the issue? Nothing! Until those uppity females began clamoring for rights. Why would they DO that? The roles had been clear. Women took care of the kids, the household, the animals, the men, their needs, their whims, their laundry, their messes. And men did the important stuff. Sheesh! What did chicks ever have to complain about? Everything was so easy before. Now you can’t even say anything nice about their body parts without being labeled a misogynist!

Think about it. Let’s say Person A is a member of a dominant group and Person B is a member of a marginalized group. Now suppose person A says something about B’s marginalized group that offends B. If B sucks it up and doesn’t tell A, A can keep going about his life, none the wiser and A is just fine. Status quo, right?

Maybe, but for B’s people, the status quo has been causing collective injury for decades. When people like B “let it go,” they’re not really letting anything go, they’re swallowing anger at being negated and disrespected. They’re usually experiencing guilt and remorse over not standing up for their group too. This leads to feelings of shame, as Person B internalizes a bit of the negativity and disrespect Person A has helped to spread around.

If, Person B decides to confront Person A, A might be annoyed at B, annoyed at the situation, or possibly just embarrassed, leading to temporary discomfort around people in B’s group. On the other hand, B must be prepared for A’s defensiveness in the form of further insults, or the denial of B’s right to feel offended for something so small. That’s often the response when the once-voiceless find their voices. Like I said in the title: Keep quiet and stop violating my First Amendment rights!!

To be fair, it is possible that Person B’s standing up for herself could go well. Person A might see where Person B is coming from and accept the criticism with an open mind. Then Person B feels heard, Person A learns something new, and the world becomes a teeny-tiny bit better. (Of course, Person B may still be pretty exhausted and just a little resentful that this lesson still, in 2017, needs to be taught.)

Personally, I think about this jockeying for position a lot. I know both sides from experience, being both an A and a B. I am Biracial: Black and White. Jewish. Female, cis-het. I have never known poverty. The A in me has taken things for granted that the B in me never can.

In any case, things are changing. These days, Person B is working up her courage to speak out more and more. She’s got more advocates, more allies as it were. And Person A has no choice but to listen and, when possible, accommodate. Is the process easy? Is it seamless?

No, my dears it is not. Person A, all too often grows frustrated with his own inability to remember the new rules and blames—what?—the new rules. Person A remembers when he did not have to be careful, when Person B just swallowed whatever feelings she had about equality and left well enough alone. When America was just this Great, effing country where everyone lived together in peace. And, as long as you were like A—the right gender, color, orientation, accent and religion—all you had to do to get ahead was work hard.

I know not all A’s feel this way. In fact, most I know are aware that, back when America was Great, it was only really “great” for the A’s among us. B’s generally had to work twice as hard to get half as far. Or, if possible, work twice as hard to be taken for an A (by staying closeted, for example, dropping the “stein” from a last name, or simply writing under the name of “George”).

But now, with many barriers to opportunity lifted, Person B can pull even and gain the rewards of her hard work. To many a Person A, who has always taken his elevated status for granted, Person B’s rise feels like an unfair loss.

Equality is sometimes, very, very hard to share. If you achieve it, my standing diminishes. We’ve all known this since kindergarten: sharing is by nature a zero-sum game. If I give you some of my candy, I’ll have less for myself. I might tell you to stop asking for some. It is my right to have all the candy I’ve always had. Find your own, only please don’t be loud about it. (And please, please, try not to kneel.)

But in the long run, if I share, if you flourish, the peace it reaps, the increased strength of our bond is always well worth the trouble.

O Distraction!

O Distraction, against thee, I am powerless.

Whether trivial: a click-bait suggestion about Kylie Jenner’s alleged pregnancy—or weighty: panic about an unaccounted-for friend in Puerto Rico, or gnawing uncertainty about my mother’s health—I am unable to regulate my concentration these days.

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Even if I weren’t riveted to the news reports about hurricanes and earthquakes and wildfires striking close to the homes of people I care about, terrified that people who have not yet declared themselves SAFE are NOT SAFE—I would still be distracted right about now. (By the way, friends in disaster zones, please, if you have power, post to let me know if you’re okay. I will be on Facebook waiting until I hear that you are.)

Where was I? Right. Distraction.

Aside from the confluence of natural disasters that have absolutely nothing—no, of course not—to do with climate change—there are plenty of man-made ones on my mind too. Not the least of which is THE man, made about seventy-two years ago by Mr. and Mrs. Fred C. Trump. Whereas I once opened a newspaper or a magazine and read an entire article, I now click on, read a paragraph, lose patience with the information I am taking in—because I can tell within three words that the article isn’t going to conclude with the sentence, “So it turns out, the 2016 election was a total sham and we’re scheduling a do-over”—and click something else. Click, scan, click, scan, then click again. Check social media to see if anyone there has insights to sample before my fleeting focus shifts elsewhere.

And then, Facebook, my reliable friend, my chief brain-appropriator, lets me know at least once per day that the followers of Lisa W. Rosenberg haven’t heard from me for a while.

Dear Facebook. What would I do without you? Who would entice me with photos of my friends’ teenagers learning to drive, or the same teenagers turning sixteen, seventeen, juxtaposed with adorable baby photos of said teenagers—stirring in me the nostalgia to post baby photos of my own teenagers?

Who would cleverly draw me in and obliterate endless hours of my day, usurp acres of my mental space, while daily enhancing my skills of procrastination? My tolerance for dog videos? Impromptu math challenges? On-the-spot invitations to describe the president using one choice word?

Aside from all that’s going on in the world—natural and unnatural—I have my own personal preoccupations. I’m in the sandwich generation, with teenage children and an aging parent. My worry ranges from mild to catastrophic in proportion, but is always present.

Not at work. I’ve been a therapist for almost twenty years and I know how to be present with my clients, shutting off my own life when I’m in session. In fact, what I love most about my work is helping others to identify their own inner resources, master their own obstacles to fulfillment. In other words, helping them do what I’m currently struggling to do myself.

But I’m a writer as well—or so it says on my blog. I have an agent who believes in me, three novels and a book proposal—all at various stages of revision.

But my creative energy is sapped at the moment. I face this fact for my own mental health, just as I encourage my clients to face their own realities. Some things simply ARE. It’s best not to hide from them. It weighs on you to hide from them. So, with this statement, I shake off the guilt and shame of being a “writer who isn’t really writing right now” (except for my column and sometimes this blog). This is my “I forgive you, self” moment, that so many of us need and deserve.

So—I forgive you, Me! For focusing on your children, your mother, your clients, the news, your friends. And I encourage everyone reading this, everyone who has a Self that they’ve been judging for not being enough—in every way, at every minute—to forgive that Self as well.

I’m not suggesting checking out and binge-watching reruns of Friends or That Seventies Show. Forgiveness-of-Self doesn’t mean avoiding the stuff you have to do. I’m talking about finding a balance, however you can. Sometimes you’re extra-energized, well-rested, or at least hyper-caffeinated and ready to take on the world. Other times, you’re more vulnerable—tired, overwhelmed, overwrought by the news, preoccupied about the safety and health of loved ones. At times like that—and it’s a time like that for most people these days—you need to breathe. Be. And pace yourself

Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

Today I’m doing something I don’t usually do on this blog, which I should do more of: post a book review. I just reviewed Hunger for Goodreads, and I was thinking back to the original tagline of this blog: “Writings on Body Image and Identity.” Nothing could be more fitting than a review of Roxane Gay’s heart-searing new memoir. I highly recommend it to anyone following this blog.

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I finished Hunger three days ago and am still reeling from Ms. Gay’s incredibly candid, courageous memoir. This book is hard to read, mostly because it is so honest, but I found it impossible to put down. It is beautifully written, but Gay never hides raw emotion behind flowery language. Her words are pure, true and vivid, bringing you inside her mind and her world.

By now, Gay has been interviewed about the book so many times, I think most people know something about the story of her body, but briefly: Gay was horrifically gang raped at the age of twelve by boys she knew. She blamed herself and could not bring herself to tell her religious parents or seek help from any significant adult. Instead, she submerged her pain in food, overeating to make her body into a fortress so no one could touch her or harm her again. As she moves through adolescence and young adulthood, she continues to eat, arriving at a point her doctors refer to as “super morbidly obese.”

Gay presents a window into the complications of life as a woman of size, about how cruelly fat people are treated, how painful it is physically, psychologically and emotionally to be extremely large in an unaccommodating world. Gay touches on many “isms” from fat-phobia to sexism to racism.

However, the book is so much more than that. It a book about devastating childhood trauma, the way it arrests the victim’s entire life, coloring her self-concept, worldview and relationships for decades after the event. Gay is very clear that this not a story with a triumphant ending, where she loses all the weight her doctors and parents want her to, or where she finally comes to accept and love herself as is. But she does evolve from a place of self-loathing and self-abandonment to an adult self-love that is indeed a victory.

I recommend this memoir to anyone who has lived through trauma. I also think every woman, every person of color, everyone who has experienced isolation, will be touched by Gay’s powerful new work.

Biracial Identity: I Chose “Neither” before I chose “Both.”

My biracial identity? Black/white. As followers of this blog know, I am the product of a white, Jewish mother and a black father, who were happily married for forty-six years before my father’s death. Williamsons 1970

When I was in my thirties, my twenties, in college and younger, I faced a lot of criticism—was even attacked verbally—for identifying as biracial instead of black. This came from black people who felt I was rejecting blackness, but also from biracial people who felt I didn’t look “mixed” enough to qualify.

Evolving Biracial Identity on Campus

I remember walking across my college campus in 1987 with a white friend, chatting and minding my own business. Two black guys passed us, appearing to be deep in their own discussion. But once they were about a yard ahead of us, one threw me a glare over his shoulder, amplifying his voice:

“… except for those of us who forget what their color is.”

I had no idea what declaration had come before, only that this snatch of the conversation was directed at me. I had a white friend, meaning I had forgotten that I was brown? But my mother is white, I thought. How is white not my color too? Of course, that thought filled me with guilt. I knew the problem with claiming “whiteness” along with “blackness,” no matter how light or dark your complexion. You can’t have a biracial identify. There is no way to identify with your white side and your black side, the logic went. You have to choose, and you’d better choose black, or you’re abandoning your people. But my other people—the white, Jewish people—had also faced struggles and bigotry. The white ancestors on my mother’s side had never owned my father’s black ancestors. (Though the white ones on my father’s side–with whom I do not identify—clearly had.)

From other mixed-race people I heard: “I confuse people. No one can guess what I am.” For some, this was a badge of identity unto itself. To these multiracials, I lacked ambiguity, which meant I was not really mixed. For some of my black-and-white friends, race was a costume they could change at will. For others, blackness, not apparent to the naked eye, was an identity they had to fight to prove–just as I would have to fight to claim my mother’s heritage along with my father’s.

And here’s another twist to my identity: Since I was a ballet dancer and completely immersed in that world for so many years—from the age of seven until my late twenties—Ballet was my strongest identity. Ballet was who I was. I didn’t have time to focus on racial identity until later.

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Me in the center.

I entered college as an exile of the ballet world. I was at the university by choice, but ambivalent, missing ballet, searching everywhere for an ally who understood what I had left behind. Anyone who was unusually thin and walked with excellent posture and duck feet might be a compatriot. And yet, here was all this pressure to identify myself by race.

As I scoured my university town in vain for a halfway decent pointe class, I kept facing the question: “What are you?” more than I ever had.

The question came from blacks more than whites. White people just assumed I was black (they didn’t need my membership anyway). Blacks who asked really wanted to know: are you with us or them? Now I understand why they needed an answer. Blacks were outnumbered, talked over, dismissed, deemed undeserving of the Ivy League education we were getting. Numbers were therefore precious to the group. I was being welcomed, not challenged. Not that I understood this yet.

For me, it was simply too painful and too complicated to choose one race or the other. I loved both my parents. They loved me. They loved one another too, and had created a joint culture in our home. And now I was expected to reject this inclusiveness? Instead, I plunged myself deeper into the world of dancers and theater people, who identified first and foremost as performers.

Racially, I chose neither before I chose both. Neither allowed me to be Lisa-the-ballet-dancer. Which I still am. Which I will always be.

Today I embrace all of who I am, racially, ethnically. Awareness of being black comes first I guess, because that is how I appear, but I identify just as much with my mother’s Ashkenazi Jewish heritage. I am biracial, black/white, blanche-et-noir, both-and. To embrace my white, Jewish “side” is not a rejection of my proud black “side.” I am married to a white, Jewish man, whose heritage is similar to my mother’s. We have two children who know both sides of their history and will take both into consideration as their identities form.

Thankfully, the older I get, the less likely people are to tell me I am not identifying the way they believe I should. Or, maybe it’s simply that I take the criticisms less seriously. I know who I am. My identity is what it is: inclusive, unshakeable, me.

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Ask Lisa: Ambiguous Looks, Identity Concerns

Posting my 4th “Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial Community” column.

This week, I answer questions from a white mom wondering how to prepare her ambiguous-looking children for anti-ethnic hostility, a multiracial woman facing unexpected results of a DNA test, and a black mom concerned about her multiracial tweens’ preference for their white father’s heritage.

Here is the link to the whole post on Multiracial Media.

Advice for the Multiracial Community #3

Today on my third Multiracial Media column:

  • A biracial man grapples with anger when his widowed, white father begins dating a white woman.
  • A young white woman worries about saying the wrong thing to her new black boyfriend.
  • Two American moms are alarmed and upset when their Guatemalan tween daughter rejects her culture of origin.

Click here for the whole “Ask Lisa” column.

Submit your own question on the Multiracial Media site!