Playing the Race Card: A personal essay to all of my white friends*
Strap yourselves in because I’m about to take you on a wild ride.
’Twas the night before Impeachment, and the entire nation was stirring.
Three years after a pussy-grabbin’, paper-towel-throwin’, small-handed, tremendously-corrupt, doubly-racist, wall-building, out-of-shape-homophobe, treasonous piece-of-orange-shit lost the election but became President of The United States of America, there’s still so much to unpack. Most of us who care about our mental health are ready to throw the whole suitcase out. It’s been a lot. I know; I too perpetually alternate between being so done, and feeling like I haven’t done nearly enough to change things for the better.
Disassociating is only natural, but I’m here to tell you that this is the fun part. Not that it can’t possibly get worse; it surely can for I have seen what a divided nation can do to itself in a turbulent political climate. Yet I feel that we have reached critical mass as a society, and now comes the time for making things right. It’s a great opportunity and I, for one, am excited. As Ava DuVernay puts it, we are experiencing a painful awakening. The only positive thing that came from having a massive bigot for a President is probably the fact that now no one can deny that there’s a serious problem with racism in America. The crazies have crawled out from under their rocks and have come out in the open, spewing hatred and trying to drag us back to the Dark Ages. We must let the light shine on them, because to fix a problem we must admit there is a problem in the first place.
The antidote is always in the poison.
- A note from the author:
Something terrible happened recently.
Mike Pence, the VP of the United States of America, came to Bernardus winery here in Carmel Valley for a fundraiser dinner. I was blindsided; nothing big ever really happens here, and the one time something did, I wasn’t emotionally prepared. I learned about the visit from a school district text sent to warn us of potential traffic delays. Traffic, however, was the least inconvenient side-effect of Pence’s presence. I felt violated. The NERVE. To come to my HOME. Pence is a part of the political class responsible for hurting millions of people. He is a bigot, a homophobe, and he works tirelessly to take human rights away. So when I read the news I jumped out of bed, made two improvised posters, and drove over to Bernardus to protest. The last thing I want is for people like Pence to believe that they are welcome here.
Unfortunately, I was one of only four other people protesting. Even though many drivers honked in support and there was some noise on social media about the whole thing, it turns out Carmel Valley is populated by a considerable number of conservative Boomers disguised as liberals… As if to confirm this fact, a day later I spotted a brand new TRUMP 2020 flag flying high in plain sight at a neighbor’s house. My disappointment aside, I am glad that I came out. As insignificant as this might have been in the big scheme of things, democracy is maintained by consistent participation, and I am showing up.
Carmel Valley Village is a small place in the beautiful California countryside, and we have our own piece of Heaven. We’ve found solace from the stressful world out there. We relish the quiet, simple life we live: escaped from the Silicon Valley rat race, away from big city pressures, and far removed from the Washington insanity of politics. We are safe and comfortable here. Perhaps a bit too comfortable… Inequality and injustice don’t disappear just because it’s happening somewhere else.
I dedicate this piece to my white friends because, just like Chelsea Handler put it, it’s time for us to solve our own problems rather than ask People of Color to educate us and explain things for us. And since I’m guilty of living in a bubble and having friends who are, for the most part, like-minded (liberal and progressive) all this might sound like preaching to the converted. But I’m also reaching out to those who, like my Trump flag-flying neighbor, seem to have opposing views. This is why I wrote it in the form of personal essays; by sharing short snippets from my own life experience I hope to make it as easy and fun as possible but still get my point across.
I’m hoping to galvanize our little community and make sure we do our part for the world we’ve escaped but are still very much a part of. So thank you for reading, and remember: even if you are weary of politics or unsure of your own place in it, as a citizen, a member of your community, and a human being, you are more than qualified to have and give opinions. This is what democracy in a free country really means—the right to think, speak, and act is your greatest power. It’s “We, the people”, not “they” or “them” or “those other people”. Here I attempt to use my power for the benefit of those who have been wronged, starting with myself in my immediate surroundings.
So grab a cup of coffee (or a drink, I don’t judge), clear an hour to read in peace (or read in increments, I’m not picky), and dive in.
1. For Whom The Bells Toll
In the 1980’s there was a humanitarian initiative in Bulgaria called Peace Flag Assembly. It was a festival dedicated to the “well-being and happiness of children everywhere”, celebrating art under the banner of the UN. Its motto stated “Unity, Creativity, and Beauty”, and between its start in 1979 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it occurred four times in total—once every three years, culminating in a record gathering of participants from 135 countries. Party officials, schoolchildren, and the general public got together just outside of the capital Sofia at a monument specially built for the Assembly. It looked both futuristic and eerily ancient: a concrete bell tower raised in the middle of a circular complex of more concrete blocks serving as a home to bells of all different shapes and sizes, representing each of the participating countries.
I watched the Peace Flag Assembly on TV and even visited the Assembly once, probably as a part of a school field trip (which was by far better than the visit to the Mausoleum, where the sight of an embalmed dead man lying in a dark, cold tomb scarred me for life). The Assembly was one of most magical things that happened to me as a kid. The enchanting sound of the bells as we ran around and rang them one by one. The way the starkness of the bell tower contrasted against the beautiful view of Vitosha mountain. I was most affected, however, by my encounter with children from foreign countries. You see, Bulgaria was a Communist state, and travel abroad was strictly controlled. I had met kids from the Soviet Union and from Eastern Germany before, during family vacations at the Black Sea coast, but this was different. Suddenly the borders were opened, and in came children from all over the world—that same outside world we could only read about, dreamt about seeing, and knew about from what the government chose to tell us. I was surprised to discover a curiosity I didn’t even suspect (you can’t crave something that you didn’t even know existed).
There were Asian kids, Indian kids, African kids, Scandinavian kids, all sorts. They were brown and black and pale and pink, all talking and smiling and mingling, different but together. For the first time in my life I learned what it would be like to be a part of a diverse, inclusive society. I craved to learn new things, to know more about different people, to be touched by the wisdom and the ways of those exotic or modern or ancient foreign places. I loved every second of it, and in spite of all the crimes of the Communist regime, I am still grateful for this experience.
The vast majority of Bulgaria’s population then was (and still is) mostly white (Indo-European), with small Romani (Gypsy) and Turkish minorities (and an almost imperceptible community of a few thousand Jewish, Armenian, and Greek peoples). I had never seen a black person with my own eyes before the Peace Flag Assembly and I didn’t meet many people of other ethnicities until decades after. When Bulgaria’s Communist rule was over and travel in and out became less restricted, not only could Bulgarians explore but now foreigners could also come and visit, bringing their cultures and ideas. We saw a slow and steady increase of tourists, exchange students, and investors from around the world. There were live concerts by globally renowned musicians and Hollywood actors shooting movies in Bulgaria. We saw the first Chinese restaurants open for business and Western European Retirees buying property and settling down in the Bulgarian countryside. Via the Internet information became easily available and when Bulgaria joined the EU in 2017 we could finally say we were part of the big wide world…
Coming into contact with different cultures and traditions enriched the lives of the Bulgarian people exponentially. It's a fact that we readily admit, especially those of us who have lived during the Communist era when we were deprived of that organic, much needed human connection. And still, somehow, after Bulgaria emerged into the world, during my visit back home in the summer of 2019, I had to buy a can of spray paint to paint over new swastikas on walls and street facades. It turns out it’s altogether too easy for some who are ignorant to blame external causes for their own shortcomings. I like to think that Bulgarians are not a mean people by nature, but centuries of political turmoil and isolation have done something to us, something that’s very difficult to undo. These hate symbols are just a symptom of the damage done. In reality, the fact that 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bulgaria is still struggling economically and politically, is a testament that we haven’t learned as much from the world as we could have in order to make progress in the right direction. Bulgaria’s borders have been opened for three decades and yet people’s minds remain closed…
Here in America, Trump wants to keep people out, but we should be careful. We might find this nation a little too well protected from the real world, imprisoned within its own walls, ruled by ignorant tyranny.
“We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.” ― Malcolm X
When you don’t know something or someone, you are more likely to feel afraid. And it’s been said that the more we know someone, the more prone we are to like and respect them. Understanding is the prelude to appreciation, appreciation breeds attachment, and attachment leads to love. Change, followed by improvement, starts with awareness. While Bulgaria has the (ambiguous) excuse of being isolated for not knowing more about the world, America doesn’t. This is the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the biggest world economy, the greatest world democracy.
So tell me, how well different ethnicities really know, understand, respect, and appreciate each other here in America?
2. I Just Took A DNA Test, Turns Out I’m 100%… mixed.
Last month, the English National Soccer Team played an away match against Bulgaria. England annihilated Bulgaria 6-0, but the referee had to stop the game a few times because a large group of spectators were making monkey noises at the Black English players, giving Nazi salutes, and chanting racist songs.
I wonder how many of those (terribly misinformed) boys who call themselves “ultras” really know their own genetic makeup.
Since Bulgaria is located at a geographical crossroads — a tiny Balkan country caught up between the Orient and Western Europe — it is one of the world’s oldest DNA melting pots. There was virtually no Empire that hasn’t colonized Bulgaria and left some of its blood there: the Byzantine Empire, the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire; and that’s on top of the fact that Bulgarians are an amalgamation of Slavic and Thracian nomadic tribes which can be traced as far East as can be.
It’s hurtful to read about such reports from back home, but it’s also oddly ironic. Albeit feeling let down, I’m not surprised by the racist notions of some Bulgarian individuals. After all, Bulgaria fought on the losing side with Germany in both world wars, and nationalist ideologies that lay dormant since 1945 are once again plaguing Europe. What is funny to me is that chances are, these self-proclaimed white supremacists are much less white than they believe to be.
My husband works at a genetic testing company, and one of the perks is having insider access to the latest in DNA technologies. I purchased one of their kits recently, and a few weeks later my ancestry results were ready. I didn’t expect anything other than being utterly Eastern European based on what I knew about my genetic history. There is some Macedonian lineage in the family, but that is all (and, with the risk of being politically incorrect, that’s virtually the same as Bulgarian). Well, I was wrong. I am only 20-something percent Eastern European. The rest is Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, Western-European, North-African, and even some Ashkenazi Jewish. I had to laugh. Suddenly, the question a woman once asked me, namely “Where do you get your color from?”, made more sense (which is still nothing compared to what sometimes people have asked my husband: "What are you?”).
We often need to figure people out, and that’s understandable. Making assumptions based on skin color or other racial markings, however, is not just antiquated and scientifically wrong, it’s dangerous. I remember that time in University when, in a Victorians lecture, I learned about people being classified according to their head measurements, or judging wether they are prone to criminality by their facial features. It seemed so primitive even to me, a descendent of people who still worked the land with oxen while the Great British Empire was erecting factories, building underground railways, and going through a full blown Industrial Revolution. But then again, a century later, Hitler used the pseudo-science of Eugenics to justify the atrocities of the Holocaust. And of course, centuries before Hitler, colonialists used the appearance of enslaved African and Caribbean people against them, as a “proof” of their inferiority. In fact, in the entire history of the world, being different has always been a reason for conflict.
3. In Living Color
Racism isn’t exactly a “white” invention. White people do not have a monopoly on racism because racism is not about white versus black, or about any one particular race exclusively against another—see the Rwanda Genocide, the Armenian Genocide, and so many other terrible conflicts throughout history.
The truth is that, when it comes to racism, race in particular has very little to nothing to do with it. Time and again, race is peer-reviewed-scientifically-proven to be a social construct, with all humans belonging to the same species—Homo Sapiens with a little leftover of Neanderthal. Surely, there are biological implications to being born of a given ethnicity; some of us humans are more genetically prone to certain medical conditions than others, and our physical traits are indeed passed down generationally—from things like skin, eye, and hair color, to our ability to process dairy or wheat or alcohol. The key here is to remember that genetics are very complex, including recessive genes and genetic mutations, and that despite the advancements made, it isn’t an exact science.
My own children are a prime example of nature’s mysterious ways. They are like my husband and I, both physically and personality-wise, but they are also very different: for one, they have copper hair neither of us has, and their DNA profile would give you a headache. Technically they are 50% Bulgarian, a quarter Chinese, and the rest is German and Irish. But given my own DNA test results, their detailed profile would be a practically unclassifiable mix of genes. If race per se was the foundation for racism, what would racists make of my children? They look white-ish. They were born here in America. But their mother and grandmother are immigrants! And their dad looks kind of Asian… Very confusing, huh?
This is because DNA has little to do with race, and race has nothing to do with racism.
“A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Racism, as a personal value system, is a type of moral relativism. It is random and illogical, certainly not rooted in common sense or scientific fact. Racism, as a belief, is more of a phobia, a delusion really, and therefore it can be easily identified as a form of mental illness—especially because it requires a clinical lack of empathy to exist. It is dangerous and hurtful, but it is possible to be treated. You can change someone’s mind (or heart) through communication and education.
Now, racism as an institutionalized policy is a symptom of a wider, universal human trait: the Struggle for Power. It is far more difficult to expose and eradicate because it is intertwined with the very principles on which society operates. Racism is simply the vehicle for achieving power by employing narratives and actions that work to oppress one group of people for the benefit of another.
In order to assert superiority, and thus ensuring authority and control, the power-hungry deprive a given group of people of their freedom, civil rights, dignity, and individual identity by systematically using hate rhetoric and violence to spread misconceptions and to institute bias. Discrimination and prejudice are instrumental in marginalizing and disenfranchising people because it manages to form a (albeit incomplete, false, and damaging) picture of them as collectively flawed due to their race, and to paint them in an opposing, threatening light. The “otherness” of racism implies that different is worse, dangerous, or less.
Racism’s main argument is either-or; it plays off people against each other based on the assumption that the only possible way in which one group of people can thrive is when another is either suffering, put down, or removed altogether.
And that’s simply untrue.
4. Straight Outta Bulgaria
Every time I think about the history of slavery in America, I also think about the five hundred years Bulgaria spent under the Ottoman yoke. Bulgaria was enslaved in 1396 and was liberated in 1878. During those five centuries my people were all but erased from history through slaughter, rape, forced labor, religious conversion, and taxing every sphere of life and production.
Then, in the mid 1700’s, there was a period of Revival.
While still under Ottoman Yoke, there was a surge in education and culture, as schooling the younger generation ensured the enlightenment we needed to revolt and liberate ourselves. Religious independence (from both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Muslim Ottoman rulers) was a vehicle to preserve Bulgarian traditions. Arts and crafts helped people to slowly start small businesses. Travel exposed local revolutionaries to the ideologies and tools that neighboring countries used to achieve autonomy. Access to information (printed press, literature) facilitated us reaching out and exposing the crimes against our people.
One single report by an American journalist in the aftermath of the 1876 Batak Massacre (in the beginning of the April Uprising) helped the world see our predicament and put pressure on the Ottoman Empire to relieve the harsh conditions of its Bulgarian subjects. It drew the attention of Russia who ultimately supported our fight for independence. Two years later Bulgaria was liberated, a feat we still hold as our greatest.
Nothing, however, has come close to the spirit of the Revival, when it comes to unification and having a strong national identity. Bulgaria hasn’t prospered so wholly ever since and struggles to make sense of its past to this very day. We are torn between sentiments of pride with the First Bulgarian Republic when its lands spread on three seas; anger with five centuries of slavery; shame about the years of communism; discontent with the ill-working democracy we now have, and pessimism for the future. The heights of Revival art have not been reached again. The importance of education and enlightenment have not been maintained. The example of other, successful countries, have not been followed. It’s a mess in Bulgaria, resulting in it currently being the poorest, fastest shrinking country in Europe.
Racism is not the sole reason for the lack of prosperity in Bulgaria; it is just one of its many contributing flaws. But intolerance and divisiveness has a lot to do with it. Bulgaria seems unable to learn from its experience, to take advantage of its freedom.
LGBTQ Pride parades are met with violence in Bulgaria. Minorities are discriminated against. My country has adopted certain, superficial facets of democracy such as ruthless capitalism and blind consumerism, but has forsaken other fundamental principles such as equality and upward control. The truth I learned from my country’s history is that when you get ahead at the expense of others, you become wealthy/successful in an environment that can’t support a steady, organic growth. That’s the thing people see when they visit Bulgaria—a few expensive cars among a sea of old cars driven on pothole-ridden roads. It’s a few large houses separated by tall fences from smaller, poorer houses. It’s well dressed young people concentrated in the big cities, attracted by white collar jobs, while the countryside sits deserted and the land—uncultivated by the aging population in the villages. The inability of my country to adapt to the modern principles of democracy has led to an enormous wealth gap, corruption, and decline in quality in all spheres of life, industry, and politics.
In order to maintain wealth and success in such an environment, you need to constantly bypass the faulty, ineffective government administrative services, put others down, and employ unethical methods. You can’t make it the proper, “regular” way in Bulgaria (by following the rule of law), and this short-term, get-ahead-fast mentality leads to a vicious cycle of more corruption and inequality (lack of rules/impotent laws). There is no social and political equilibrium in Bulgaria. What many fail to understand is that you can’t be truly well when everyone else around you is not, because true prosperity is not possible unless the power is distributed.
Take this as a somber warning: a country that does not embrace globalization, tolerance, and inclusivity is a country bound to fail, not just economically but also morally and culturally.
I probably won't have to say much to convince you. You know what’s happening in America lately. Systemic racism, encouraged to rear its ugly head by Trump’s administration, has caused serious chaos and tension. The problem with racism, aside from being unjust and hurtful, is that it creates a political model that’s ineffective and counterproductive in the long run. Such a model is unstable; it is catastrophic in the wider scheme of civilized progress. It builds economies that crumble under the pressure of social unrest, it makes for a hostile political climate, and is detrimental to the development of humanity.
5. The Sunken Place
Do me a favor and imagine for a second that we all live in a horror movie (or as my husband calls it, a “horrible movie”). It’s a classic of the genre: a group of people are trying to get away from some kind of a threat—a serial killer, a ghost, a monster. What is the biggest mistake the characters make, the kind that inevitably costs them their lives?
They get picked off one by one and they get eaten. *Roll credits.*
The way I see it, humanity is those poor horror movie characters, and the monster is global warming/war/inequality. Teamwork doesn’t seem to be our forte. Somehow, we always end up splitting up and as a result we get fucked. I know how naïve this sounds: let’s join hands, get along, and things will be alright—kumbaya and all that crap… but do you have a better suggestion? It appears that, ever since the dawn of time, people have had the tendency to segregate into groups based on their differences, and to get into conflicts over these differences. In fact, the entire "history of civilization" is literally just one long string of wars, people against people, fighting over who would gets what and who will come out on top.
6. I Have a Dream
World peace as a concept has become a utopian modern-day joke; it’s something beauty pageant contestants wish for, or children dream about before real life slaps them in the face. Why, though? Is it really so outlandish to strive for understanding and co-existing in accord, given that the alternative has proven time and again to be destruction, suffering, and death?! I don’t know about you, but if I had to choose between world peace and genocide, I’d put on that flower crown and wave a rainbow flag and give people hugs all day, every day. To me power isn’t having control over the masses or having all the resources at my personal disposal. Those methods should be exclusively reserved for comic book villains and totalitarian dictators.
I don’t claim to have the answer to life, the Universe, and everything. There’s no such thing as a Panacea, but there are ways we can make the world a better place—practical, constructive ways that give tangible results. Knowing history and learning from it to avoid past mistakes is one of those ways. Kindness is another—it’s been argued that teaching children kindness is more effective than teaching them competitiveness on the way to success. If history has taught us anything, it is that division and conflict based on differences with the illusion of superiority is wrong. Stupid and wrong and lethal. Case in point:
Once upon a time there lived Khan Kubrat, a great ruler from the Dulo dynasty. He was one of many in the line of Khans and Kings and Emperors that led Bulgaria from its ancient tribal days, through Paganism and Christianity, to its current, modern present. Kubrat died in 665 AC.
The legend has it that he gathered his five sons on his deathbed and gave them a bunch of sticks. He asked each of his sons to try and break the bunch in half. They all tried, and failed. Kubrat then took the bunch apart and broke each of the sticks one by one. His lesson to his sons was unity is power, a slogan that is now written on Bulgaria’s national seal. Despite the warning, Kubrat’s sons went on to lead the Bulgarian people in different directions. There followed times of change, but without unity Bulgaria saw less triumph and more defeat, ultimately falling under Byzantium, then Ottoman rule. Could my country have avoided its cruel and bloody fate should the brothers have stuck together?
One thing, however, is certain: the effects of five centuries of slavery has had an enormous effect on the Bulgarian psyche and on its collective national identity long after the liberation.
7. Get Over It
Racist people and the beneficiaries of white privilege often use the argument that slavery happened a long time ago, therefore Black people should get over it already. This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Not just because, for instance, the same people “never forget” when it comes to, say, 9/11, but also because there’s no “getting over” slavery.
The Ottoman rule scarred Bulgaria deeply and the effects are still visible: the marginalization of the Roma-aka-Gypsy and Turkish-Bulgarian minority, collective distrust for authority, and the self-perpetuated narrative as tragic victims at the hands of someone else. Half-a-century as a monarchy and another half as a communist republic didn’t do much to restore Bulgaria’s national pride nor did it bring prosperity to the people. Today, young people (myself included), are leaving in droves - searching for opportunities they can’t find in a ruined economy and in a politically corrupt climate. This exodus creates further problems since fewer and fewer are left to fix things; there is virtually no infusion of workers because of hostile immigration policies and an impossible bureaucratic burden. Refugees are treated similarly to what we’ve seen in the US recently: detention centers with inhumane conditions and forceful deportations.
People do not simply get over something so enormously influential in the making of their entire character and selfhood, of their community and culture. There’s no getting over slavery in the sense of forgiving or forgetting. Slavery must be discussed, analyzed, and remembered as much and as often as possible. It is paramount to know that it did happen and why it happened: just because slavery is over now is not a guarantee that it won’t happen again. Many Holocaust survivors have dedicated their lives to remembrance and learning. History echoes through us, and it’s our job to listen carefully and try to understand as best as we can. The most effective way of dealing with trauma is to narrate it, to verbalize it and put it in terms we can deal with. Getting over anything as horrific and wrong as slavery is impossible, but we can cope with it and learn from it. And of course the most important lesson is the job of eradicating systematic racism for the sake of our own humanity.
8. If I Ruled the World
In 2016, Beyoncé dropped Lemonade, an event that transformed the very core of music. 2017 was dominated by Cardi B. In 2018 Kendrick Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for music. And the biggest hit of 2019 was a country song by a Black gay rapper.
Hip hop has been surging ever since the early 90’s, and is now reaching its highest peak yet. It has become the biggest, most popular music genre, dethroning "rock and roll" in both commercial success and cultural influence in America, if not the world.
Suddenly everyone wants a piece of the action. Today, Black is cool. Rap artists are now household names. Since the debut of TikTok (and during the reign of Vine before that), the most viral videos that come out of the platform (aside from cat videos) are those of white teens miming to explicit rap songs. Eminem and The Beastie Boys aren’t the only few white rappers anymore; the rise of white rappers has been increasing so steeply that we barely bat an eyelash when we see a white face tattoos and grills spitting rhymes. Pop music has incorporated many hip-hop elements (beats, singing mannerisms) verging on plagiarism, and the public has adopted many Black trends and appearances (from nail art and hair styles to vernacular) verging on cultural appropriation.
In a country where Black people are being murdered for simply walking down the street (#livingwhileblack), it’s only fair that some Black people also have more money and power than the President.
I think this is a form of social justice.
Because rap music is poetry, but (in my humble opinion) better. Unlike the often exclusive and elitist classic poetry, or the abstract and preoccupied-with-the-self modern poetry, rap music is open to everyone and anyone who’s willing to listen. Sure, certain genres of hip-hop have their share of controversy; they tend to be profane, sometimes homophobic and misogynistic. But the evolution of hip-hop has been on a steady upward curve, perpetually developing and rediscovering itself as a reflection of the changes that Black communities endure.
Rap music is big because it has those fire beats and undeniable rhythm and mesmerizing flows; it’s big because it’s sexy and flashy; it’s big because it has attitude and confidence. But-hip hop is big also because it isn’t afraid to speak up about topics most people find difficult or uncomfortable. So don’t be fooled. Hip-hop is entertaining, but this isn’t 1920 anymore, when Black jazz musicians were revered and applauded yet still had to use a separate Colored entrance at the nightclubs they performed at. Black people are not here for our entertainment only. They are not here to serve us or to play the silent supporting role. They are here to live and thrive just like everyone else—safely and freely, so get with the program (preferably while listening to some hip-hop for inspiration!).
9. Black Beatles
Like so many young people who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, my music taste was first shaped by the 60’s and 70’s rock-and-roll my parents listened to, and by the "Seattle Sound" in my teens. I was raised with The Beatles and Led Zeppelin—a forbidden, dangerous kind of Western music in Communist Bulgaria. Imported from the West by the children of diplomats (some of the few people who could freely travel abroad and had access to foreign currency), contraband records were distributed and copied among Bulgarian university students, and played until the grooves on the vinyl were gouged and worn out. The hippie spirit could not be contained by borders and political regimes, and the rebellion against the establishment rock music carried infected me with many of the ideas and values I still hold today. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, rock music was no longer outlawed but it was still hard to acquire. I listened to bootleg Nirvana tapes and read articles about my favorite Grunge bands, sold by the page, torn out of foreign music magazines that I bought from basements-turned-record stores.
It was a turbulent time and rock music reflected both the state of the country and my inner struggles perfectly. Everything was falling apart: parents were divorcing under the pressure of trying to provide for their families in an economic crisis; previously clean and orderly neighborhoods became blighted by crime and neglect. Our prospects were grim—there was no longer a bright future to look forward to (as promised by the leaders) and we hung out on street corners and in dirty city parks. Music was our salvation. It passed the time and it bound us together - and served as our moral compass. Aside from giving me beautiful melodies, sorrowful lyrics, and powerful guitar riffs, early 90’s rock music taught me to think globally, act locally. It encouraged me to Damn the Man. I learned my very first lesson about social justice from Rage Against the Machine. It was a revelation and a revolution.
It was all over in 1994 (for there was no doubt in my naïve teenage mind that rock music died with Kurt Cobain… I had no idea that so many more of my idols will also be gone by the time I was 35). Rock agonized for awhile (Brit Pop), then attempted a brief, albeit weak, comeback (The Black Keys, The White Stripes) and finally dwindled into a folksy and/or electronic mess (Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, Of Monsters and Men) so much so that they kept giving Best Rock Album Grammy's to Beck because there was simply no one else left.
I jest! But I was truly devastated. The soundtrack of my youth was over and I was never to find music as riveting and meaningful again (or so I thought). I was also disgruntled. What was I supposed to believe in now?! There was no deeper message in pop music, no higher purpose in electronica (unless you count MDMA). In the early 2000’s I pivoted into techno, and soon discovered a genre I was actually excited about. I even deejayed for a brief period, (badly) mixing my favorite drum’n’bass and jungle tracks. For those of you who aren’t familiar, this is a type of dance music that originated in England’s rave scene. It is characterized by the so-called “breakbeat”, heavily influenced by the Caribbean and Jamaican sound system culture, and it incorporates reggae and dancehall samples and elements. Jungle music didn’t just fill a void and eventually help me get over my grief for rock-and-roll, it also reminded me of something I seemed to have forgotten.
Because at the same time I was wearing Alice in Chains t-shirts and torn jeans, and was secretly smoking cigarettes behind the school gym, I also listened to lots of (what we think of now as) old-school hip-hop. My mind was blown when I first heard Onyx and Wu-Tang Clan and Snoop Dogg. I had no idea what these artists were rapping about (I was a 13 year old white Eastern-European girl!) but I was eternally fascinated. I listened to Cypress Hill on my Walkman on repeat for months. When Dangerous Minds came out in the theaters, my entire class went to see it and we almost had a riot. I was hungry for everything and anything new and culturally different because it made me feel like I was cosmopolitan and enlightened, and not just another kid lost in post-communist Bulgaria. Later, as I matured and my musical tastes expanded, I discovered Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and I started to better understand what hip-hop was about. It resonated well with me—issues of inequality, poverty, crime and the struggle to make it in an unfair world.
Rock music was great… but it was predominantly white. There were a few faces of color here and there, but from The Beatles through hair metal and grunge, it was the white (and male) bands that dominated the stage. Which is ironic because rock-and-roll originated in gospel and blues and jazz, which are intrinsically Black music. As open-minded and inclusive rock was, spreading anti-war and love messages, and protesting the establishment, it also played a part in machismo-culture and had become increasingly unpolitical. Rock music inevitably imploded not only because of declining sales and waning interest from record companies, but also because "the times, they are a changin’". Technology pushed rock to the fringes. Pop was what the kids wanted: polished, conformist music that was superficial but had swag; it was easier to digitally produce and distribute (stream) and as the format of the album died, the single was reborn. And so, for awhile in the early 2010’s, Pop was King… until hip-hop dethroned it.
10. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
I started writing this article with the intention of delving into the world of hip-hop to discover something for myself: in particular why I, a diehard rock-and-roll fan, am listening to rap music almost exclusively in recent years, and doing so passionately, zealously. I ended up widening the scope to learn more about what race represents in today’s divided political climate. Therefore back to the inspiration...
The quality of rap music alone is attractive enough for me to listen to it just for fun; yet there’s more. It ignites curiosity in me I haven’t felt since the days of the Peace Flag Assembly. I find fascinating that ability to speak out - definitely worth further examination. It compels me to dig deeper, to know more:
I wanted to know why famous athletes kneeled during the national anthem. I wanted to know why celebrities wore black to the Golden Globes, and why movie stars supported Black Lives Matter. Looking up Rae Sremmurd lyrics turned into reading Langston Hughes. Watching Rhythm and Flow and Hip-Hop Evolution segued into watching documentaries on white privilege and researching Black history. Finally, years of obsessing over pop-culture were paying off. And so I dived head first and spent the past couple of months learning.
I learned from standup comedy: both established and newcomer Black comedians (and random social media posts). I learned from media about white people calling the police on Black people for barbecuing or using the community pool. I learned from any free academic sources I could find like the official statistics published by the NAACP and the Census Bureau. From Morrison’s fiction to Meghan Markle’s and Serena Williams’ real life stories about struggle in the public eye as women of color, I learned. I followed every piece of news concerning the success of Black entertainers or entrepreneurs, such as Tyler Perry’s opening of the first movie studio independently owned by an African-American. I watched NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts featuring rap performers (the Wu-Tang Clan episode is pretty great). I watched VOX’s Rapping Deconstructed, and The Missing Chapter series about border policy and the Indian Child Welfare Act. I read about the Trans-Atlantic Triangular trade and about the ’46 Emory University Columbia race riots. I studied-multi generational trauma and post-slavery-traumatic syndrome as Dr. Joy DeGruy calls it: adaptation and survival in a hostile environment. I combed the internet for Black makeup tutorial videos and hair care instructions. I digested many opinion pieces and talked to both white people and people of color. (Doesn't that dichotomy alone tell you how broken our language is! As if "white skin" is some homogenous thing and somehow everyone else's pigmentation can be lumped together as "the other"?)
And I still feel that I’ve only barely scratched the surface.
The thing is, I can’t single-handedly “fix” racism… not by writing alone, anyway. We need action, but talking about it is a good place to start.
11. I Got 99 Problems But Communication Ain’t One
One of the first things I learned about social etiquette when I moved to America was to never talk politics, religion, or race with people I don’t know well.
It was a well-meant warning by my (American) husband, who dislikes confrontation and deals with it in the most diplomatic way possible. Being who I am—Bulgarian and a writer, I have the habit of riling up people on controversial topics; these are a wonderful source of material to use later, and also make for a fun dinner conversation (and by “fun” I mean deeply personal and raw). I have rarely been afraid to dig deep until I find what people really think, and if you are married to me you can see how this could easily be uncomfortable.
Prior to my move here, and long before I became an American citizen, I remember the day John and I visited the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. We were waiting in line and I started chatting with the man next to me. He was an older American with a Southern accent, and not two minutes into the conversation he asked me if I was “saved”. I giddily explained to him that I come from a very old Christian Orthodox country with strong traditions, but I myself was an atheist. The next thing I knew, John was giving me a subtle kick on the ankle and shaking his head with panic in his eyes: “Abort mission!”… and I did, but not before the man informed me that I was most certainly going to hell. No offense taken, but apparently I offended this man somehow (“my apologies to this man”), and I kept thinking about the exchange long after.
Many such instances followed after I settled into living in the States. I learned to approach those sensitive topics more gracefully, though I never quite stopped initiating conversations. John’s position, from what I understand, is that we need to make sure it’s worth it before we delve into a discourse over ideology, since a lot is at stake. It can spoil the mood, make things awkward, end friendships. I appreciate the sentiment; a kid’s birthday party is hardly the appropriate place to dismantle the patriarchy, and a corporate event isn’t always the right time to discuss gun control. Yet the longer I live in this country and the better I get to know it, the more invested I become in inciting communication by invoking these taboo topics. At first it was the trickster in me and I did it in good humor. Now I believe it is my American duty... and quite possibly my duty as a human being. Things are not good— I can’t afford to ignore it anymore, nor can you.
In the land of free speech, why has talking—and understanding each other—about certain things become so difficult? Why are those things taboo in the first place?! Why can’t we openly debate race and politics and religion without it turning sour fast... unless there’s some huge, serious communication issue in our society? I believe that having different opinions isn’t the problem, but rather our inability to come together and have a productive conversation despite sitting in opposite corners. We need new tools for dealing with that, and lots of hard work. From what I know about America, hard work is something we do very well, so I’m hopeful.
12. The Miseducation of Bobby Pfeiffer
You probably know that the inventor of peanut butter was Black. But did you know that a Black person also developed revolutionary new techniques for cardio-vascular surgery? There are more African-American inventors, artists, political figures, activists and scientists than we know, because racism. However, in almost 2020, with the access to all the information literally at the tip of our fingers, there’s no room for accidental ignorance, and there certainly can be no tolerance for willful ignorance.
Black people during slavery not only worked the land and maintained the entire agricultural economy of the Southern states, they also contributed to building the American democracy as we know it today—the NYT 1619 Project is a great source of information, opinions, and analysis. There is more than just the history of slavery… it’s also Jim Crow, segregation, police brutality, mass incarceration. I feel like Black History Month once a year isn’t enough to educate or refresh our memory about the true scope of the historical struggle of Black people, to explain its long-term effects, or to shed light onto Black experiences and traditions that would familiarize and thus bridge the cultural gap we are now witnessing.
I didn’t go to college until I was 26, and my pursuit of higher education coincided with the first time I left my homeland Bulgaria to live abroad. Before this, and before studying culture and history academically, I learned about the world from movies, books, and music. I jokingly call myself an amateur anthropologist, and as far as my credentials go, my wisdom is still of the empirical kind—I learn as I go through life, trial and error style, watching and listening to people, asking questions. Ten years in America: raising children, making a home, working to find a place in society, has taught me so much. Today the cost of college tuition has become increasingly prohibitive while a degree has never been so poor a guarantee of employment. Moreover, the quality of a college education has come into question, along with moral ambiguity around admissions practices. Yet I still believe that it is important to pursue an education and excel in it. My degree has given me an enormous sense of empowerment as a woman and an immigrant. Furthermore, the years spent at a campus in one of the world’s most cosmopolitain and diverse capitals helped expand my horizons: I learned humanism from my college friends and tutors as well as academic knowledge.
My education is not over; I continue to learn from people I meet here in California. A friend of mine, a fellow mom and a proud Black woman, recently pointed out to me over coffee that the Carmel Valley Fiesta—the local summer festival—lacked any Hispanic or Latino representation. There were no Mexican food trucks by local businesses and barely any booths selling folk-art and crafts, no activities or games to support the ethnic community that gave the event its name. And that’s one of many conversations I’ve had with People of Color here in the Monterey Bay, as well as the Bay Area where I previously lived, about the various degrees of discrimination they see and experience.
My objective is simple: I want to gain enough knowledge to confidently counter racist arguments and effectively shut down discriminatory rhetoric. I aim to fight injustice through facts and logic, encourage constructive and respectful discourse, and promote empathy and understanding.
13. This is America
America is a big country.
Many of you born here don’t quite get it. It’s giant. Not just in sheer size and population; it’s large in the sense of its identity. America is Native American tribes and Amish people. America is LA’s Koreatown and fifth generation Irish in Boston. America is an Orthodox Jew sitting beside a Mexican, whether you’re in New York or Texas. America is the beaches of Hawaii and the white plains of Alaska. Black culture in Atlanta is different than that of South Central; the experience of a person living in a trailer park in the deep South is different than that of a middle class Bay Area tech executive; the beliefs of a Catholic Vietnamese churchgoer in Oregon are different than that of a member of a Mormon congregation in Utah, and so on.
America is the Baby Boomers: white, upper-middle class men clinging to power for dear life because they can’t adapt to change. America is Generation X: detached, hostile, and even nihilistic in the 90’s (“Dude, where’s my Pearl Jam CD?”) but very much into environmentalism and human rights today. America is the Millennials: the inventors of the “sharing economy” who are working three jobs just to afford rent. America is Gen Z: seemingly glued to their phones and yet also they’re student activists for gun control after surviving school shootings .
America is the American Gothic painting and the “woman screaming at cat” meme. America is everyone here. America is us.
The very vastness of all these different experiences, lifestyles, and beliefs implies that we cannot possibly know absolutely everything, or even much, about each other simply because we are separated both by physical and cultural distance. For meaningful and constructive communication to be made we have to step out of our familiar surroundings and explore with curiosity and an open mind. The alternative is second-hand information that is often ridden with misconceptions and stereotypes. Complacency is as damaging as the active spread of bigotry. Question things you hear around you, keep digging deeper.
Our nation will always be divided unless we start seeing it in its entirety, accept its fragments as a part of one whole, and embrace our diversity. And we will always struggle as a society unless we admit that some groups of people are not being treated as well as others, and take firm, immediate action to amend that.
14. Buffalo Soldier
America is also a new country. Where I came from history is virtually everywhere—you can literally trip over ancient Roman ruins just walking down the street. Maybe that’s why Europeans always look back at the past and even dawdle in it. And here, in the New World, people look to the future. This is great for progress but there’s a catch: people often display a certain sort of nearsightedness about events. Especially those past events that have shaped the map of the world and influenced much of the current situation. Without the wisdom of hindsight, future progress becomes elusive and possibly warped.
Economic inequality and social injustice in America are deep-seated because racism goes back a long way. It started with literal injustice: trading in slaves for economic gain and political power with the attempted rationalization of civilizing savage peoples.
The brutality of slavery cannot possibly be understated or exaggerated. Freedom was taken away from African people by colonialists, who also took every other resource they could. We should never forget that much of the wealth we admire and enjoy today was built by slave labor using stolen assets and materials, on land claimed by bloodshed from its original, rightful owners. Slaves were not considered human beings, but property and a commodity. They endured abduction, forced separation from their families and anything familiar, followed by never-ending exploitation. Enslaved black people were beaten, whipped, raped, lynched, worked to death, traded, humiliated; they were denied education, rights to congregate, rights to their own children. Throughout slavery, Blacks were perpetually and cruelly dehumanized via physical, psychological, and legal violence.
The tireless work of many, including those who sacrificed their lives, eventually led to the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation followed by the “Reconstruction Amendments” outlawing slavery, granting citizenship, and giving the right to vote to Black men. The “Reconstruction” immediately after the American Civil War allowed Blacks to own land in the South and hold the first public offices. Unfortunately the Civil Rights Act of 1875 was undermined by the Supreme Court which began an almost hundred year period of Segregation, “equal but separate”, with systematic and legally enforced inferiority for Black people. They had restricted access to education and opportunity, and were disenfranchised by making the means of progress inaccessible, suppressing black voters through state legislation and special provisions. Black people in America struggled in poverty with limited access to public spaces, facilities, and infrastructure well into the 20th Century. All the while there were terrorists like the KKK, responsible for massacres and lynchings.
As a reaction there began the Great Migration, the NAACP was founded in 1909, and the Harlem Renaissance was born. Black sharecroppers were especially vulnerable as the agricultural economy plummeted during the Great Depression which triggered a mass migration of Black Tennant farmers to the cities in search of work, requiring adapting from farming and domestic labor to urban blue collar jobs. Black Americans volunteered to fight in both World Wars and their contribution to the war effort was immense. Almost two million Blacks served in WWII, but segregation of the armed forces didn’t end until 1948.
The Civil Rights Movement, a non-violent action for reform, was met with gruesome violence. In Virginia, to prevent integration, they shut down the entire educational system and the schools remained closed for five years, leaving Black children uneducated, separating thousands of families as they had to sometimes send their kids across state lines in search for an education. In 1963 there was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 aimed to register as many Blacks to vote as possible in attempt to empower the community but became a symbol of violence against civil rights workers. In 1968 Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. By the 1970’s, as a reaction to anti-Black violence, Black militant organizations were formed, such as the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement. It is shocking to me that the uphill battle for equality and justice took well into the 90’s: the first elected African American state governor was in Virginia in 1990, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Senate (and the forming of the Congressional Black Caucus) was in 1992. As a high point in politics the election of the first Black President was in 2008; Barack Obama served two terms and facilitated a great moral and social breakthrough for Black Americans. A successful black president as a messenger of hope and change that people could believe in.
And then Trump happened…
Today, Black people have the highest incarceration rate in this country, more than five times the rate of whites. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Movement there’s a huge wealth and income disparity between People of Color and whites: Black wealth is only about 7% of whites. Black communities are plagued by unemployment, restricted access to healthcare and education, high divorce rates, crime, and poverty… and almost all of these issues can be traced back to systematic discrimination and unequal opportunity due to racism, which has historically persisted ever since the days of colonization.
15. The Color Purple
We, white people, have the moral responsibility to acknowledge the existence of racism and to take action to abolish it by refusing to partake in white privilege as well as abolishing myths associated with People of Color that perpetuate their oppression. It is not enough to say that you “don’t see color”, you must actively show it. Not only does white privilege exist, but blatant, violent racism is a full blown epidemic. So please, by all means, see color and see it in its full, historical importance. It is an exercise in human empathy and a journey in finding perspective and context.
For Black people, their skin color is a source of pride as much as it is a source of plight: the pressure of changing your appearance, behavior, and even name to fit in, to advance in a society that mainly benefits a certain type of person—the white person. The stereotype of Black women being too loud and too aggressive. The challenge of Black women to find products that fit their needs because Black is different. Black skin needs sunscreen and moisturizing; it is as sensitive as any other skin color, if not more. Black hair needs special maintenance and care, and is never to be touched. Black faces belong to Black people, and should not be worn by anyone other than them. Black is the outward appearance of an internal world you wouldn’t know about until you learn its symbolism and cultural meaning. See color, and do not to stop there. See the nuances. Understand them and respect them.
The rule of thumb is simple: if you are not black, you don’t say it. Ever.
The n-word is a derogatory word. People like to play the devil’s advocate (which is just plain trolling if you ask me), with the argument that if black people can use the N-word freely, so should everyone. Wrong.
Language is important because it carries meaning. You are not just saying a word, you are conveying certain ideas and emotions when you choose your words. The etymology of the n-word is rooted in hate. It was a tool of oppression. Originally the term Negro, which comes from the word “black” in Spanish, was used to describe the ethnicity of black people. As it turned colloquial, it also became charged with all the negative racist connotations of slavery. Many other pejorative terms have been used to describe black people: the use of slurs was deliberate. It aimed (and succeeded) to hurt, humiliate, and strip black people of their humanity. Black people were treated, legally and morally, as property during slavery. Later when freed, they were still relegated to second-class citizenship, and the language of bigoted white people was one of many tools to oppress them.
To refer to someone by their name, or to respectfully acknowledge their ethnicity, is to see them as a person with dignity and equal rights as you. Derogatory words strip people from their identity, exactly what Blacks have experienced for centuries.
Today, they have reclaimed the N-word and have given it a different meaning. Not every black person agrees or likes to use it, but those who do, do so with pride. It’s a way to take the power back and be in charge of their own narrative. It can mean brotherhood, friendship. It is an affirmative expression of confidence. It is certainly not lost on black people where the word originated, so using in its modern context has a level of ironic justice. It can mean a million different things: a conversation starter, an exclamation, a question. The N-words has been transformed and renewed, and it doesn’t belong to the oppressors anymore.
Black people have earned the right of using the N-word (as they see fit) through struggle and sacrifice. It might make you uncomfortable, or you might even be tempted to use it too… though I can’t think of a situation where a non-Black person would be entitled to it. Not even while singing along to the Fugees or promoting a film you starred in, because this is not about you.
Same goes for the cultural appropriation of Black vernacular in general. The issue here is that, if you are not of color, you can pick and chose what to take out of Black culture as you please, without suffering the negative consequences of actually living as a person of color. You are free to listen to rap music or to say things like “woke” and “thot”, but you don’t have to live with the fear of being shot for simply driving home. Remember: not too long ago black speech wasn’t considered as cool as it is today—it was called Ebonics and caused a controversial academic storm. And again, before the most recent trend of celebrities naming their children with unusual, “exotic” names, African-American names were (and still are) a reason (and method) to discriminate against Blacks when hiring.
17. We Gon’ Be Alright
Boyko Borisov used to be the Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Interior when I worked at the Police Force 12 years ago (I was a dispatch operator for six years before I went to college). We called him Batman, only not because of his love for fighting crime, but because he used to wear this long, black leather coat that waved behind him like Batman’s cape. He went on to become the mayor of Sofia (the capital of Bulgaria), thrice a Prime Minister (and before all of that he was a former bodyguard to the Bulgarian totalitarian dictator Todor Jivkov).
Not unlike Putin, Borisov has a history of lingering in power for as long as I can remember, and also has the habit of boasting his physical strength and prowess. And not unlike Trump, Borisov is a master of the art of chest-beating, making big promises he rarely delivers, and honking his own horn every chance he gets. During the week of Thanksgiving this year, Trump and Borisov met at the White House to discuss military security and regional energy strategies for the Balkans. Prior to the meeting, Borisov had announced that he would “demand” the abolition of US visas for Bulgarian citizens, something that appeals to Bulgarians as immigration has become the main way for people to achieve personal and professional growth. However, there was no concrete decision made on the subject during the meeting, other than the standard “cool aspirations, but it will not happen until you meet the quotas, aka never”.
Instead, the two leaders confirmed the purchase of eight (8!) military fighter jets, an investment that costs Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, $1.2 billion, and does not further Bulgarian economy in any way, nor contribute to the wellbeing of its people. The most notable thing of the photo-op was Trump and Borisov’s body language. There was an abundance of manspreading, muscle-flexing, back-patting, and self-satisfied smiles. I was stunned at the realization of how well-deserved these two men were of each other: I left Bulgaria to find democracy, equality, and opportunity, and yet here I was, staring at the POTUS smugly approving of one of the most corrupt and controversial figures in Bulgarian politics. The meeting didn’t make any waves whatsoever in the American press but it galvanized the demagogues in Bulgarian society.
I want to repeat my warning once more: do not let America become a corrupt dictatorship like my homeland. I know I won’t: the 2020 Presidential election is going to be my first one as an American citizen and I simply cannot wait.
18. Bulls on Parade
Thanksgiving is over, and I have decided not to celebrate this American holiday anymore. I did it so far because I wanted to feel American, and I didn’t want to disappoint my American family. But the more I think about it, the more indignation I feel towards Thanksgiving. For one, I hate the dead turkey part, and for another, I hate the genocide part. In a country that treats immigrants inhumanely because it has forgotten that it has been founded by immigrants, I can’t stand for the whitewashing of history. As Chief Sitting Bull put it: “it is not necessary for eagles to be crows”. So, this is my statement—I shall continue to be grateful for my good fortune, but I will celebrate differently from now on: by teaching my children American history, and by encouraging them to be kind, fair, and to stand up for what’s right.
“History, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
~ Maya Angelou