The System is Rigged – Response to Trump and the RNC
The system is rigged and I’m angry. I live with crushing student debt, career and savings destroyed by the recession, and a lifetime of stagnate wages. I have no idea how I’ll be able to retire and I wonder what kind of world my daughter will inherit. Growing up poor and on a farm, I always believed that I would “get ahead” in life; meaning, if I work hard, I’ll be financially stable, have a few toys, and build a retirement fund. To this end, in my twenties, I always worked two or three jobs. I still never got ahead.
Then, the recession took twenty years of blue-collar experience and a fresh B.A., soaked in four years worth of blood and tears, turning me into a retail sales associate earning minimum wage and capped at 19.95 hours a week. On the way to work, I’d walk past “Mexicans” on a construction site and think these illegals had my job because they were getting paid half of what I used to make as a carpenter. I didn’t care if they were picking cherries, but how dare they take honest work from a citizen. How did I know they were illegal? I didn’t. At work, while folding and straightening jackets and socks I couldn’t afford, I would think my thirties were wasted years, a decade gone. Many of us have a similar story or know someone who does.
Everywhere I looked—at developer’s new BMW, another person’s vacation to the Bahamas, a customer’s new $500 jacket, a trust-funder’s new house—I saw a rigged system, and I was angry. However, as the recession lingered on, one year turning into five, I also started seeing why America is better than ever.
“Great” is So Boring
“Great” is such a dull and boring word to describe America; it’s bland like cold oatmeal. No wonder people are unable to see “great.” Their vision is blurred and nearsighted, too focused on an iPhone, bank account statement, or trumped up fear and distrust. Real America, the America I know, lies beyond lukewarm “great;” America is fucking awesome.
For three years, the Oregon Health Plan and SNAP food benefits helped Jen and I survive on $8-12,000 a year—if this isn’t a step beyond “great,” then I don’t know what is: this is an American program that helped two Americans stay healthy, fed, and off the streets. Today, I look around and I see friends choosing fulfilling careers over salary. I see neighbors placing water bowls on sidewalks for the local pets. I see a driver stop and wave me across the intersection. I see mothers and fathers forgoing a two-salary income so one can stay home and raise the kids, the most noble of professions. I see my family of relatives and in-laws giving and receiving love. I watch the students I teach help each other grasp a concept or deliver feedback with kindness and joy. Again, all situations are awesome, as in “inspiring awe and wonder.”
Last Month, a stranger pushing her cart from the grocery checkout finishes our conversation by saying, ”God bless you.” I let the love and comfort and power of these word wash over me, then through me, buoyant and healing. A random “God bless you” is pretty damn “great,” if not down right amazing. This is not the first time someone has said this to me, but each time I am awed by the love and power in those words. Last time it was a retired white man in a coffee shop. This time the woman was black and 70 years old and grew up in North Portland, near the college where I work. African Americans, her parents and grandparents, moved to North Portland in 1948 after Vanport, Oregon washed away in a flood. It was okay because the war was over and Vanport was mostly filled with the poor and unemployed.
Today, North Portland has Portland Community College, a new flower shop, a new children’s boutique, and rows of new two story condos sitting on retail space. This woman’s mother and father built the planes and bombs of WWII, but were denied employment and home loans after the war while being segregated and oppressed. When there was employment in the rail yard or lumberyards, blacks were the first to be laid off when profits fell. It’s hard to get ahead without financial stability. The system is rigged and she should be angry. She will have to move because of the privileges denied to the color of her skin. I have a sweet job and apartment because of the privileges of mine.
Of course, the last statement is a reduction. I have worked hard for my education, to create a quiet life, and follow my passions for exploration, creativity, and teaching. However, the assumptions front loaded into people subconscious because I have a “white” name, white skin, and talk in standard English, allows me to live where I want and navigate the bureaucracy of life with confidence and entitlement.
Shit Fucking Happens
I don’t feel the fear, anger, or the hate that some people preach are all around us. Last spring, a man was shot outside the window of a classroom my colleagues and I had left just five minutes before. Last winter, I had two students confess to me they were suicidal, one because she had been raped several months before. Another student of mine went into rehab, and a student in colleague’s class stopped showing up because she overdosed and died. Despite the loss of Winter, my 13 year old dog, the death and dysfunction that surround both my wife’s job and mine, or the recent mass killings in Florida, France, and Germany, I do not feel death breathing on my shoulders, waiting.
Last Tuesday, the day after police were again gunned down by a black man, when I walked to class, I felt like I had a target on my back. Not being a veteran or a gang member, just a white farm boy from Minnesota, this was a new set of feelings for me: first vulnerability, next fear, then rage, and finally a desire to act. Actually, I’ve felt this sequence before, a long time ago as a child, trying unsuccessfully to avoid blows from a drunken father. Here on campus, I scowled—I wanted to act, to scream racial slurs and obscenities, to carry a gun because somebody was trying to kill me because I am white.
The system is rigged and I was pissed that the privileged safety of my skin color had been violated. Instead of acting through violence and vitriol, I took a breath and stepped into my classroom, a mix of at least three genders, six nationalities, twenty different skin colors, five veterans, six parents, two ex-cons, three addicts in recovery, and ages 16 to 55. For the first hour, we worked to define “hate,” and the incongruent feeling between the hate motivated by broccoli and hate motivated by race or sexuality. Should we be allowed to use this word to describe our feelings toward vegetables when the same word causes so much death and horror?
My classroom and college are the land of second chances, and third, and fourth, and fifth… you get the picture. This place is a second chance for those students to try to get ahead once and for all. This is the American dream and it’s still alive and far more than “great.” Each term, for every person that falls to suicide, drug addiction, or poverty, three students pass through another term empowered and one step closer to providing a better life for themselves and their families. However, the system is rigged and I’m angry.
These students struggle with poverty, addiction, being single parents, and language barriers and all they get from society in return for their hard work is racism, bigotry, and ignorant fucking rhetoric. This country is not so “great” to them even though their parents and grand parents help to build this country. While this is most of my students’ experience, they don’t piss and moan about lost safety and privilege, two things they never had in the first place, they put on their big girl or big boy panties, work a full time job, go to school full time, take care of their families, and excel beyond a simple “great” and into the one-of-a-kind American Dream of liberty and self-determination.
It’s All About Choice
We live in the world we choose, including the emotions that vibrate and color our world. I believe in half full. I believe in the kindness and blessings of strangers. I’ve seen half-empty, and that was me trying to be positive about life situations that were totally empty. I don’t live in a world where fear and hate dictate my feelings and actions. I choose not to obsess about the tragedies and vitriol that briefly and sporadically intrude on life. Instead, I choose to see all the cooperation, community, and love that surrounds me every, single, moment.
The system is rigged and we should all be pissed. But, instead of destruction based on blame and division, we need to focus on community and creation. This country is pretty damn “great” and perfectly “safe.” Shit will fucking happen regardless of who is president. Neither candidate can “fix” anything because YOU hold the power. YOU decide how to feel, how to act, and most importantly, how to see the world surrounding your every breath. It’s time to look beyond “great” and see the true awesomeness all around us that already exists.