Behavior Modification: Let’s Make Racism Bad Again

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the millions of Americans who voted for Trump.

This was a candidate who had at least 26 women come forward and accuse him of sexual assault. He also admitted to sexual assault in an interview, on the record. This was a candidate who refused to denounce white supremacists on national television. This was a candidate who incited violence and spread conspiracy theories. The list is long. Too long. This doesn’t even begin to cover it.

As a person with a psychology degree and a mental health counseling degree, I aim to try and understand other people’s worldview. I am fascinated by how people think and what motivates their behavior.

One of my (many) pet peeves is when people dismiss others’ behavior by saying, “I just don’t understand.” A flipside of that is to oversimplify or label a person’s behavior, also in an attempt to dismiss it: “Oh, he’s just a monster.” “She snapped.” “She’s crazy.”

In instances of flippant labeling like that, there’s no curiosity, no desire to actually seek to understand or find out the real, nuanced answer.

And so I ask myself, why did people vote for 45? Did they:

  • Agree with his policies and morals?
  • Benefit from those policies?
  • Or perhaps, they just disagreed with Biden’s policies (or perceived policies)?
  • If they didn’t agree or benefit, did they somehow justify 45’s actions/words enough to feel okay voting for him?
  • Vote Republican out of habit? Or because their friends and family do?
  • They consume Fox News/Breitbart/etc.?
  • Some other explanation I haven’t thought of?

I ask myself these questions because, ultimately, I am interested in how sociopolitical change happens on a macro level. Namely, how do we get people who voted for a racist, misogynist, white supremacist to change their voting habits? How do we make racism bad again (or ever)?

I studied behavior modification briefly in grad school, and I find it fascinating. Getting people to vote and get vaccinated and wear masks and use car seats are examples of behavior modification on a mass scale, as is getting people to buy Gap jeans or the new iPhone.

This reminds me of the massive anti-drug campaigns I was exposed to growing up. “This is your brain on drugs…any questions?” Really stuck with me, as that ad was so compelling and wonderfully quotable.

My guess is that the answer to my question involves attacking the issue from all sides meaning, on both a micro and macro level. I read a quote somewhere from a BLM leader, and I’m paraphrasing: what will help to end racism more is for white people to call out the racist tendencies of their white friends, and not necessarily just befriending black people. Which means we’re going to fight racism little by little, interaction by microaggression.

I keep coming back to the question of how to whittle away harmful, fear-based beliefs of a massive group of people who are no doubt feeling all kinds of feelings after the election. Worse yet, it’s a group of people who have been taught to demonize truth and facts, and many are doubling down with the emergence of platforms like Parler. …How do you reach people who don’t wanna be woke? Again, I’m guessing the answer is: slowly and deliberately and on all fronts. With equal representation, by changing social norms, by calling out microaggressions, and probably much more that I am forgetting or am unaware of.

It makes me profoundly uncomfortable to know that such a large portion of the American population actively participates in an ignorant, fearful, hateful worldview or is at least accepting of them. My hope (maybe fantasy?) is that there is a team of psychologists out there somewhere, brainstorming a massive campaign to combat racism, misogyny, xenophobia, white supremacy, etc.

Where do I sign up?


Day 9

Holding My Breath

Like many Americans, I’m having some feelings this week. Lots of flashbacks to the last election.

Four years ago, I was pregnant with my daughter and I was excited. I was so sure my daughter would be born into a world where she’d be able to take a female American president for granted. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer: our country’s most qualified candidate in history was running against our country’s most unqualified, outwardly racist and misogynistic candidate. It should have been a slam dunk.

I believed the polls. I had faith that an overwhelming majority of Americans would not choose fear and ignorance and hate. Needless to say, the outcome was shocking and traumatic. The experience was definitely a loss of innocence.

That election day I attended a goodbye party for another mom-friend of mine. This was a sad occasion for my whole family since her husband was friends with my husband and they were basically the first friends we made after moving to Oregon. This party was also the last time I planned to leave the house for a while, as my goal was to potty train my 2 year old son as best I could before the new baby came.

We had election coverage on in the background while we ate dinner. We had to turn it off while my husband put my son to bed, and I remember sitting in my room on my phone, scrolling. My first indication that something was wrong was when Florida went to He Who Must Not Be Named. After that, we watched with growing fear and went to bed in shock and disbelief.

I woke up the next day in a daze and proceeded with the potty training plan. It was horrible, stressful. I spent a good portion of the day in tears, not knowing what exactly I was crying about. All of the day was spent elbow deep in piss and shit, one way or another.

I remember thinking that my daughter would be ALMOST FOUR before we’d have the chance to vote him out. Four years is a hell of a long time to do a lot of damage. And so much damage has indeed been done.

As I write this, it feels akin to how one might tell a story of where they were and what they were doing when the twin towers fell or when Kennedy was shot. It was a dark day; one I’ll never forget. Looking back, it spun me (us) into a crazy-ass couple of years. My daughter was born. My post-partum anxiety took off like a brush fire. I went back to therapy. I spent a good few years just trying to get ahold of myself and figure out who I was and how to leave the house with pants on. All this with a background of news reports on hate, ignorance, fear, anger, violence. Rolling back progress and denying human rights.

Fall of 2019, I finally started feeling better, consistently better. I, like many others, declared that 2020 was going to be my year. And it was…until the pandemic. And now the election.

So you can see (I hope) how I am holding my breath. I’m white knuckling this. I’m so angry and scared. I want to believe the polls. I want to have faith in people to do the right thing. But frankly, this country is not what I thought it was, and we’ve all been here before, on this abusive rollercoaster from which we can’t seem to get off. I’m honestly not sure how I’ll get through the next few days…or weeks…or longer, depending.

To those in power who are using that power for personal gain and to manipulate and spread fear: we see right through you. You might be fooling some, but you sure as hell aren’t fooling me.

Abusive people use anything at their disposal to have power and control over others. If they can’t control others, their power is gone. Abusive people try to stop others from voting. Abusive people try to sue for votes to not be counted. Abusive people lie and manipulate the system. Abusive people threaten violence. Abusive people intimidate (in this case, by bringing guns to the polls, or by blocking traffic, etc.). Abusive people gaslight others and deny any wrongdoing. All of these behaviors are coming from a place of insecurity, NOT love, NOT protection, because if these people knew they could be fairly reelected in a just, democratic system, then there would be no need for such devious theatrics.

Abuse is not strength. Make no mistake, we are in an abusive relationship and that is an incredibly powerless feeling.

I voted as soon as I possibly could. I even made sure my ballot was received. And now, I wait. Full of dread, fear…and some cautious hope.


Day 2

The Sweet Spot

For the moment, this parenting gig is getting easier.

I can feel it.

When the kids were really little, even littler than now, I used to carry around baseline level anxiety that only quieted down once the kids were in bed for the night. It was this wired feeling, a hypervigilance of always having to dart my eyes around during adult conversation to make sure my kids were still in the room/not hitting anyone/weren’t peeing their pants/still breathing/what have you and I could never fully relax. Not really.

Lately though, I’ve been noticing that I don’t have to be quite so “on” all the time. I can go to the park with both my kids and know they aren’t going to run off. Or, if they do, chances are they’ll come back. If they want snacks they’ll always come back.

A more specific example that marks how my kids and I are changing with the times: we recently went to a pumpkin patch we go to every year. Usually, I have to bring and carry a load of stuff (water, snacks, diapers, wipes, extra clothes, the kitchen sink), I’m chasing the kids around, trying to keep them out of the mud, trying to get some pictures, making sure they don’t get hurt, or lost. But this year…this year was different. It was the chillest time, you guys. I even lost track of my kids from time to time and my oldest actually came to find and and tell me where he was going. My heart melted and my mind exploded.  I didn’t even know what to do with myself! My kids were fine! I was fine! I went and got a coffee and a pastry and sat my ass down!

It goes without saying that I’m enjoying this subtle and slow creep into the sweet spot of parenting that’s known as the primary school years. Dear goodness, my kids can be fucking adorable when they have reason to be. And for the life of me, I plan to enjoy the hell outta this phase before it gets to the hell on earth preteen and teen ones.

So bring on all the questions about bugs and spelling and life! Let’s tackle long division! Let’s start watching all the Disney movies and have spirited discussions about racism, sexism, and magic!!

Because y’all, for right now, I’m good. My kids aren’t as whiney as they once were. They’re less needy. They aren’t in mortal peril at all times. And they aren’t yet shooting heroin into their eyeballs. Not yet.

Right now, life is good.

Reblog: Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

I originally wrote this post last year, when I had 7.2 dear and loyal readers.  I’m phoning it in today and spreading some Sinterklaas cheer because everyone needs to celebrate Christmas like the Dutch do – early, and with lots of racism.  Enjoy!

——–

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.

Tiny snickerdoodles, burlap sacks, and blackface

In other words, Happy Sinterklaas!!!!

For those of you who may not know, I spent a glorious and exciting semester abroad in the Netherlands in the fall of 2005, which means that I got to celebrate Sinterklaas for the very first time.  For purposes of context, I am also almost finished reading Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (I recommend) and he devoted a chapter to Sinterklaas and how awesomely funny it is to Americans.  In the same spirit, I am going to share my love for this wonderfully racist and quirky holiday with all y’all.

Sinterklaas is the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day, and it falls on December 5th.  The Dutchie version of Saint Nick is the former bishop of Turkey and lives in Spain.  He’s still a white dude wearing red, just add a pope’s hat and maybe a little bit of a tan from the Spanish sun.  What I don’t get is that many Dutchies don’t like Turkish immigrants and think they should go back home, yet they welcome this man every year.  Maybe it’s just because Sinterklaas goes home before wearing out his welcome?  Or maybe Turkish immigrants just need to bring presents with them when they come.  Take note, Turks.

Utrecht Sinterklaas parade Nov 2011

Sinterklaas is much more practical than our American Santa Claus.  Flying reindeer?  Yeah right.  Around the world in just one night?  Please.  Of course, Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat from Spain in mid November and spends those few weeks riding his white horse in parades and handing out goodies before he heads back home on December 6th.  The main boat arrival into Rotterdam (I think it’s Rotterdam) is televised with great excitement, and then numerous other smaller boat arrivals take place for smaller villages with their own harbors.  For those villages without a harbor, Sinterklaas usually arrives by horse, as he did in Utrecht where I was living.

Now, Saint Nick doesn’t come alone.  He has “six to eight” helpers, each named Swarte Piet (translation: Black Pete), who are usually young men in startling blackface with bright red lips wearing bright colored tunics with puffy sleeves and feathers in their equally bright, fluffy hats.  Why blackface?  The original explanation is that Swarte Pieten are slaves Sinterklaas saved from Ethiopia (what was he doing in Ethiopia??) and are now sooo grateful to be saved that they stick around and help him deliver gifts and torment kids (more on the tormenting later).  The newer, more PC explanation is that Piet has black soot all over his gosh-darn face from going down all those chimneys to deliver gifts every year.  Hmmm, maybe Piet should ask for some moist towelettes from Sinterklaas this year.

Swarte Pieten!!

really??! The Dutch teach em young….

The most horrifying part for me was going to the parade to see Sinterklaas and his horse gallantly trot into Utrecht to the delight of little boys and girls…who were also dressed in blackface.  What the what?!  It is one thing for legal adults to smear their faces and portray former slaves, but apparently Dutch parents do this to their kids to get them into the holiday spirit.  Worse still, is that the Dutch see nothing wrong with this and my Dutch friends insisted that I calm down (this is one thing that I was told consistently during my stay in the Netherlands, that as an American I needed to calm the fuck down.  Good thing they have lots of coffeeshops for that.)

So, where were we?  Sinterklaas comes from Spain on his boat with Swarte Pieten, switches to his white horse and then proceeds to parade through the city, waving and handing out goodies.  This is where Swarte Piet pegs the onlookers with tiny snickerdoodles, or pepernoten.  Seriously, they run around and throw handfuls of these things at people (not to them).  Maybe there is a point system, more points for kids and the elderly.  Pepernoten are quarter sized, hard, not-very-tasty gingerbread-like-things, and it seems that Swarte Piet has the right idea that they are better suited as weapons than as sweets.

Now we get to the excitement of the night of December 5th.  Traditionally, cute little blonde Dutch kids would put their painfully uncomfortable wooden shoes out by the fireplace and leave some goodies for Sinterklaas, Swarte Piet, but most often carrots and hay for the white horse (looking back, now I get why the white horse gets all the love…).  In return, the shoes would be filled with candies and a small present.  Nowadays, Dutchies leave their shoes by a heater or, as I was taught, right outside either the bedroom door or on the front or back porch and hope that the white horse doesn’t leave some other kind of stinky gift in there.  One awesome Sinterklaas goodie kids can expect is a big-ass piece of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of their first name.

mmmm chocolate letter….

What happens if you’re bad, you ask?  In America you just get coal, and you should consider yourselves freaking lucky, my friends.  Sinterklaas apparently doesn’t take any shit from anyone, and if you’re bad he sends his Swarte Pieten after you, and you know that these former slaves know a thing or two about corporal punishment.  Swarte Pieten carry burlap sacks with them, and if they encounter a bad child, they put that poor, helpless soul in the bag, drag him outside, beat him with a switch, and then if the situation warrants it, they kidnap him and take him back to Spain.  What they do with this kid once he gets to Spain, I have no idea.  Maybe he’s broken down and retrained Jason Bourne-style to  become part of the next generation of cutthroat Swarte Pieten.  I heard that in the old days, family friends would take turns coming to each other’s houses dressed as Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet to perform some of these fear-inducing rituals on their kids, but nowadays parents just tell these stories to their kids to hopefully still scare them into submission.

During their stay in the Netherlands, Sinterklaas and Swarte Piet visit many public places like town squares and shopping malls and schools.  He made sure not to miss coming to University College Utrecht during one of our lunch periods.  There we were, eating some sort of mystery pastry (the Dutch seem to get a kick out of making yummy looking pastry and then filling it with something heinous, like meat and peas), when all of a sudden six to eight black men came sprinting into the dining hall, chucking handfuls of pepernoten at us.  Now, this university is an international university, run in English and with an American grading system, so many of the students (about 1/3 of the student body) were not Dutch, and we had a good American representation.  Well, us Americans thought, “What the fuck?  These crazy-ass black men run all up in here and throw disgusting, tooth-cracking cookies at us and we’re just gonna take it?  No, sir!”  And we did what came naturally.  We threw the pepernoten right back, along with some food for good measure.  Like hell we were gonna get beaten with switches….although, come to think of it, Spain probably would have been really nice that time of year.

Then in came Sinterklaas, and we straightened up a bit.  I remember he said something to us in Dutch, and then the moment I had been dreading – our Dutch language professor made us non-Dutchies learn a Sinterklaas song and we had to get up and sing it to Sinterklaas himself in front of the whole dining hall.

See how uncomfortable I am?

I did my best to mouth the words (what little of them I knew) and hide my voice in with the rest.  At that point, I would have preferred a small beating instead.  After Sinterklaas left, the food fight resumed.  Boo-yah.

the aftermath

Aside from Sinterklaas giving the kids gifts, I learned about how Dutch families exchange gifts for the holiday.  Usually families choose names so that each person only buys one gift (I like this so far).  It is customary to creatively wrap the gift in order to disguise what is inside, and also to make the wrapping somehow significant to the recipient.  For instance, my group of friends chose names and I chose my Dutch friend Floris.  He likes maps and travel, and so I wrapped his gift in a map.  I remember my friend Shady wrapped her gift and placed it on the plate of a place setting from our dining hall, using a plastic tray and all the stolen silverware and dishes.  I forget the significance…..but I think it was for Jozef who liked to eat a lot.  What also must accompany the gift is a poem about the recipient.  This poem usually makes reference to what their gift may be and/or pokes fun at the person’s character traits/defects.  Yet another small look into the darker, meaner underbelly of Dutch culture.

our Sinterklaas celebration! pepernoten, speculaas, and see’s!

So there you have it.  Sinterklaas 101.  So tonight, remember to leave your shoes out…and hope that you don’t wake up bruised on the Spanish shoreline.  Or do, you know, if you like that kind of thing.

Sinterklaas, goedheiligman!
Trek uwe beste tabberd an,
Reis daar mee naar Amsterdam,
Van Amsterdam naar Spanje,
Daar Appelen van Oranje,
Daar Appelen van granaten,
Die rollen door de straten.