I Just Miss Her.

For Lindsay

I almost ran into Rachel the first time I met her. Literally.

It was 2014, and she was speaking at my seminary, Eastern Mennonite University, about A Year of Biblical Womanhood. I was walking into the chapel a full 30 minutes early to the morning session, like the superfan I am, eager to secure my seat and (maybe) get a chance to greet her before she did her thing.

But I didn’t expect to literally run into her upon entering the building.

Thankfully, I didn’t actually hit her. I stopped myself short of tackling her and the woman guiding her around. But I did follow this stunt up with a short gasp, giant eyes, and a very shrill and fangirl-y “May I hug you?!”

She was very gracious and gave me a hug. It was one of the most wonderful hugs I’ve ever received in this lifetime.

I proceeded to follow her around for the rest of the day, because again, superfan. Throughout the morning chapel, afternoon coffeehouse, and public evening session, my fangirl flag was on full display, and she was so kind and attentive to me when I went to talk to her after each one.

In the morning, I waited in line to ask her the most important questions I could think of: “What did you think of the Breaking Bad series finale, and what non-theological book recommendations do you have?”

First answer: “I keep myself up at night worrying about Jesse and hoping he’s OK now.” (Same, girl. Same.)

Second answer: “Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed was really good. It’s also not as devastating as some of his other works.” (This was a lie. I cried myself to sleep when I finished that book.)

In the afternoon, I talked to her about being a woman in seminary and predestination and other theological stuff.

In the evening, I snapped a few pictures with her (one of my favorites is at the top of the page) and finally got her to sign my book. She called me a “kindred spirit.” She called a lot of us “kindred spirits.” We’re all pretty great like that.

It was, in all honesty, one of the best days of my life. I don’t remember everything she said during her sessions. But, like Maya Angelou said, I remember how she made me feel. Like a sister. Like a friend. Like a woman of valor.

A couple years later, she followed me on Twitter after sharing one of my Wednesday Wisdom blog posts inspired by one of her quotes. She always “liked” the photo of us I would share annually on the anniversary of the day we met. She even shared a chuckle with me over a photo depicting a snippet of a Proverbs 31 verse on display at my bridal shower 3 years later.

And now she’s gone.

Not her legacy, maybe not even her spirit, but her physical presence is gone. She won’t get to hug or kiss Dan or their kids, or binge-watch a new show, or write notes, or make plans for conferences or writing projects, or get indignant, or finish Game of Thrones, or be alive.

I’ll never get to tell her how hard I cried over And the Mountains Echoed. I’ll never get to read another funny Tweet from her about motherhood or marriage or theology or life. I’ll never get a chance to fangirl in her presence or tell her how much her words have meant to me, how I’m only a seminary graduate and pursuing a writing career because of her influence.

I just miss her so much. I miss her like a dear friend, like a beloved mentor, like a kindred spirit, like a sister in Christ.

I miss the woman of valor who helped me embrace my calling, as a writer, a theologian, and a follower of Jesus.

I miss the woman who gave me permission to doubt and question God when few others would. I miss the woman who, with Dan, modeled for me what a true marital partnership could look like, which aided me in my relationship with my own husband. I miss the woman who was just as passionate about discussing feminism and racism as she was about Breaking Bad and literature. I miss the woman who taught me how to love God outside of the institutional church, who helped me embrace my “None” and “millennial” statuses, whose words made me laugh, cheer, cry and rage. I miss the woman who read my words and saw my photos and found me worth following. I miss the woman who made a way for me and so many others with her work.

I miss her honesty, her humor, her love, her anger, her sass, her heart.

I know her torch is in our hands now, that I will continue to write because of and for her, that I owe so much to her. I know this. I accept this. I embrace this.

But I fucking miss her.

I miss her presence in this world already. I miss her on behalf of myself, on behalf of this community she helped nurture and form, on behalf of her husband and children and parents and sister and close friends. I miss Rachel Held Evans, who looked at me, a wild-eyed second-year seminary student who had almost run into her and ran after her for the rest of the day, and didn’t just see a fanatic or another student, but a kindred spirit.

I just miss her. So, so much.

To Whom Do I Belong?



I am the daughter of a single mother and a once-absent father.

My mother was born and raised in the farmlands of Slippery Rock, PA, whose claim to fame is their university and odd moniker. My father was born and raised in the fields of Amman, Jordan, populated by ancient ruins and the stories of refugees.

My mother’s family knows the toil of farm life and the joys of a large family and a full house. My father’s family knows the toil of a life in exile, living in a land which struggles to claim them as full citizens, and the joys of solidarity with a movement and resistance to a regime.

My mother’s hair is short, light, and blonde. Her skin is light, and it tans well. Not as tan as Baba’s though. His hair has receded and is streaked with grey, but his skin maintains its year-round, dark olive tone.

I carry the physical traits of both of my parents on my body: Mom’s eyes in shape and Dad’s in color, Dad’s hair in thickness and volume and Mom’s natural highlights.

My curls are looser than the tight-bound coils they once were. My nose is bigger than “average” and it hooks. My English contains a hint of a Southern accent.

I pass as a member of those who call themselves white, even though my body holds characteristics that don’t keep me quite there.

Both of my parents know the loss of family land. My mother’s family lost our farm the summer before I started high school, the farm on which I spent my infancy and toddler-hood, due to lack of finances. My father’s parents left Palestine before the chaos of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could deport them.

They know the loss and joy of leaving home for Orlando, Florida, in order to seek their fortunes, and they know the pain which resulted when things did not go as planned.

And they share me, their light-skinned, brown-eyed, chestnut-haired, social-justice-loving, strong-willed daughter.

I am the child of Amer and Elizabeth, a Mustafa and a Davis.

I am a child of America and Palestine, of long-time citizens and almost-refugees, of struggle and privilege.

I have lived here for generations, and I am the first generation to occupy this soil.

I am a product of the occupied land of Palestine, the Amman ruins, the ocean air of Orlando, the Slippery Rock farm, the city of Winchester, the rolling hills of Bridgewater and Harrisonburg, and the busy highways of Northern Virginia.

I love steak with a bit of pink in the middle served with mashed potatoes covered in homemade gravy and corn on the cob planted and harvested by my late grandfather. My mom’s spaghetti is my favorite comfort food. I love falafel and baba ganoush, and my dad’s Middle Eastern grilling is delectable.

My family has two sides, but I interact with one like a citizen and the other like a tourist.

I am fluent in Pennsylvania slang and can barely recite the Arabic alphabet. My nose recalls the scents of my Gammy’s apple pie and the earth after a rainstorm, but it is still growing accustomed to the smells of naan and an approaching Fort Lauderdale summer shower. I have memorized the funny and heartbreaking stories of my mother’s family and struggle to recount basic stories of my father’s youth and his extended family’s history.

I found much joy in being reunited with my father and have found many struggles in reconciling these two identities. I admire my mom for her resilience during the struggles of our life together, and I wish both of my parents had found a way to bridge their personalities and cultures so I could fully know and love them both.

Do I get to authentically embrace both sides?

Do I get to enjoy Mom’s spaghetti and Baba’s kufta with the same level of authenticity and pride?

If I learn Arabic and Palestinian history primarily through books and classes, am I still able to identify as one of them?

Do bi-racial kids who grew up with only one parent get to honor both of them, or must we choose one over the other?

I Don’t Want to Be a Canary in a Coal Mine


Wall Street Journal

Americans without mental health conditions like to talk about people with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions in intriguing ways.

They like to offer us a billion home remedies and natural fixes instead of encouraging us as we seek medication and/or therapy. As such, instead of looking at us as people, they see us as projects who need curing instead of grace.

And then there are those who put us on odd pedestals that I personally never asked for.

They call us canaries in coal mines, extra sensitive to the pain of the world and, as a result, its saviors.

To be honest, I’m not sure which one is worse.

On the one hand, I don’t want my pain diminished and the treatment I seek for it to be demonized. On the other hand, I don’t want to be the world’s savior. And I don’t want my fellow people struggling with mental health conditions to have that burden placed on them.

Because yes, canaries warn coal miners of toxins in the air so they could get out and save themselves.

But those miners also let the canaries die.

That’s the country in which we live. We don’t live in a country that takes care of us. We don’t even live in one which heeds our warnings.

We live in a country that demonizes, ostracizes, and casts us aside.

So please, don’t put us on this pedestal, whatever your good intentions may be, even if it’s out of your desire to rewrite the narrative around us. Please, just let us be people who care deeply about the world and need deep care.

Because even though we are your prophets, activists, and healers, we have to manage our own conditions so your pain doesn’t kill us.

Anxious Activist, Part 3: Fasting from Social Media



It’s the third (and final) week of my Anxious Activist series, in which I highlight spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. See my first post here and second post here. This post focuses on fasting from social media.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.


Every Sunday, I go on a social media fast.

I read books and catch up on TV shows. I snuggle with my cats and go on dates with my husband. I call my family members and friends, go on walks, tidy my planner, and do household chores.

For 24 hours, I give myself permission to lose my phone and my constant connection to the digital world.

This is not a post slamming social media, and it’s definitely not a post in which I say I will walk away from social media forever.

I’m thankful for social media, as an activist and as a person living with anxiety. This digital age has connected so many of us and brought that which was once in darkness into light.

The too-common stories of police brutality are brought to the eyes of the privileged through smartphone cameras and live streams. Hate crimes against Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and people of color are brought out in their unflattering light.

Hashtags have brought out the stories of the marginalized and kept them in the national spotlight with enough fervor to topple those in power. The Parkland shooting survivors used their media platforms to prevent their incident from becoming a one-day headliner. Ahed Tamimi’s viral resistance to the Israeli army kept her imprisonment and trial, and the plight of Palestinians, a regular topic of conversation.

Social media broadcasts stories of struggle and healing, which help those of us living with mental health conditions feel less alone in our ordeals and provide more tools of assistance. Online counseling and mental health tracking apps put coping and coaching mechanisms right at our fingertips.

In so many ways, for activists and people living with anxiety, social media can be a gift.

But it can also be one of our worst triggers.

When we are inundated with intense stories, and our news feeds are saturated with the pain of the world, emotional exhaustion and burnout are almost inevitable.

We compare our own raw and challenging lives to the filtered ones of our friends, and we wonder, aloud or to ourselves, “Why am I not as happy/as successful/as good as they are?” Self-doubt trickles in, followed by self-hatred, and we spiral into despair. Likes and comments, not our own character and talents, become our affirmations.

Relationships become less about checking in and more about tweeting and retweeting each other to gain more followers and credibility. Conversations become arguments. We draw lines and choose sides, and those on the inside can find themselves ostracized the moment they express accidental ignorance or do not know all the right words to say or things to do.

(This is not to minimize the effects of people whose ideologies and actions are hateful. We do not need to be accommodating to every ideology and every person who espouses it. But I do think we still struggle with allowing space to question and struggle, even in so-called “progressive spaces.”)

The more I have engaged with social media, especially for the sake of my writing and activism, the more I realize I treat people like pure social capital. I do not interact with others for the sake of community or communion, but for the sake of building up my own brand.

I notice myself looking at people as pawns instead of peers.

Instead of mastering the tool of social media, it has become my master. It has mastered how I look at others and at myself. It has mastered how I treat others and how I allow them to treat me. It has gone from being my tool to a weapon I use to tear myself down.

When I fast from social media, I give myself 24 hours to remember who I am.

I remember to look at myself as a divinely made human being, and I am one person who can only do so much. I am my own person, not one owned by the opinions and “likes” of others. I am God’s child who owes allegiance only to the coming Kin-dom.

And like our holy Creator, I need rest.

I cannot carry the weight of the world on my shoulders every day, or any day. It is not in my human capacity, especially as someone with anxiety, to take in all of this information and process it in a healthy way.

So once a week, I cater to my dusty nature and lay down the burden not meant for my shoulders.

Those 24 hours cause me to look at my peers the same way; as holy ones made from dust, who are worthy of the same dignity with which I struggle to show myself, who are as finite and fallible as I despite the pedestals I make for them. I relieve them of the burden they were never meant to bear: to make me feel fulfilled and loved, to give my life meaning, to make me “enough.” I let them be themselves, as sacred and messy as they are meant to be.

I’m still going to use social media. I have a blogging presence to maintain, family and friends to which I must attend, stories to hear and make heard, activism and advocacy to do.

But I will start to master this tool so it will further my activism, creativity, mental health, and community.

I will work to control it so I do not use it to control others or my own sense of self.

I will not let it be my master anymore. I will master it.

Anxious Activist, Part 2: How My Part-Time Life as a Rogue Halfling Scribe Helps My Anxiety and Activism


Geek and Sundry

Welcome to Week 2 of my Anxious Activist series, in which I highlight spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. See my first post here. This post focuses on gaming with friends.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.


Maryam Summerton is a halfling scribe hiding a terrible secret about the night her university was attacked. She’s a rogue fighter who travels the land of Valkana with a socially awkward elf/lizard-creature hybrid, a bloodthirsty orc, a quiet mage, and a couple of raucous elves.

Every few months, I become Maryam. My friend Scott’s apartment transforms into Valkana, and with our band of misfits, we fight monsters and unravel our party’s personal lives and motives.

I never thought much about RPGs (role-playing games) until I was in my late 20s. A combination of Stranger Things and Scott’s involvement with them piqued my interest due to the storytelling and fantasy elements. The act of building a character who embarked on quests, confronted problems, and wrestled with morality gave me all the theological and social justice feels, so when Scott asked my husband and I to join an RPG group, I jumped at the opportunity.

I’ve only played as Maryam on two occasions, but I look forward to those game days with great delight, and it’s not only because I love our DM’s storytelling abilities, the junk food we eat, and our friend Nick’s epic Orc costume.

Playing as Maryam engages my imagination. I have to build her character, from her backstory to her interactions with the party members and non-player characters. This engagement with her helps me become a better storyteller and a more empathetic person. The ability to hear and tell a story, first our own and then another’s, is an important gift to utilize in activism and mental health care. When we can tell our stories well, we can hear, understand, and share the stories of others in ways that do them justice.

When I act as Maryam, I have to look at a problem from another perspective. Maryam is as quiet as I am brash, so her interactions with others challenge me to confront physical, social, and emotional obstacles in ways which require more planning and subtlety. As a rogue, Maryam gets close to the action and fights hard, whereas I am more likely to step back and let others do the battle, after which I will tend to them.

This use of imagination assists both mental health and activism. Getting into a character’s head helps develop problem-solving skills. As activists, this helps us think of more creative and constructive ways to engage our culture’s systemic evils. As people living with anxiety, this assists us in our quest to learn as many self-soothing practices as possible and to understand that what might work for one person does not work for everyone.

Not to mention, playing with our imaginations is good fun. It calls us to a life in which everyone can play and be joyful. The time and space to play is a holy act of liberation, for ourselves and others, because it reminds us we are creative beings who experience joy when we create together and enjoy each other.

This is why the community involved in RPG games is so wonderful. Through Maryam, I am in community not only with other characters, but with their players. By succeeding in quests, building alliances, and sharing drinks at the inn, both the characters and the players who shape them grow in their bonds with each other. They realize the game would be a lot less fun if only one were playing, not to mention a lot more dangerous.

Instead of enabling my self-isolation, Maryam pushes me into community with my friends and their creations. She brings me into sacred, life-giving communion with others when I am tempted to withdraw from the world in all of its despair. Sometimes, she drags me kicking and screaming into it, but for the sake of my activism and my own health, I am thankful that she does.

We are still working out when our next game night will be, and we often have months between quests. But I know when we meet again, Maryam and the party will be waiting for me, and creating their stories will give me the imagination and joy I need to live my own.

Country Roads and Labyrinth Paths, Take Me Home

Rita Robinson

Photo by Rita Robinson

I knew I had arrived in Harrisonburg, Virginia, when I rolled down my windows and the pungent scent of manure smacked me in the face.

I knew I was back at my seminary when I walked through the doors and inhaled the sweet smells of coffee and books.

I knew I was back with my people as I sat through my friend’s profound capstone presentation and embraced and reminisced with old friends, remembering how loved I am and how well I have loved others.

And after the reunions took place and everyone had returned to classes and homework,  I felt the call of the prayer labyrinth.

I’ve written about my experiences with my seminary’s prayer labyrinth in the past. It was one of the few spiritual discipline with which I could authentically and regularly engage during my dark and stormy nights of the soul. One of my favorite qualities about walking the labyrinth was how I didn’t always walk away with new insight or even necessarily feeling better about the state of things when, but I always left feeling God’s presence more than I had previously.

I’m not in a dark or stormy night as of now, but the labyrinth is still a part of my seminary home, and I missed it as if it was a friend. So I walked up the steep hill to it, and when I arrived, I stood and beheld that space of grace and transformation once again.

From my first step on the first stone, a flood of memories began to wash over me.

There were early memories of the young man in college who showed me how to play a guitar while ordering a cheeseburger, and the later memories of the two of us exchanging marriage vows. I turned a corner and felt the nervous giddiness upon walking through the seminary doors for the first time and the heaviness of leaving them for the last time. I gazed out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and remembered the professors who taught me to doubt, to believe in myself, and to look critically at my whiteness. As I caught a glance of the gazebo, I recalled the conversations I had there with my now-husband over the phone, wrestling with our respective callings and vocations.

The labyrinth took me on a journey through key points in my faith journey, with the choruses of both Michael W. Smith’s “Heart of Worship” and Gibbons’ “Almighty and Everlasting God” providing an eclectic soundtrack, because they, too, were part of my journey.

When I found myself in the labyrinth’s center, I did not bow down like I normally did. Instead, I stood tall, with my shoulders back and head high, as if to look God right in the eye.

And as I gazed upon the face of God, I met Her back with a bright, thankful smile instead of my usual snide smirk.

I made the sign of the cross to mark the moment and myself as holy, held my hands out open and wide to accept the grace of the moment, embraced myself in God’s love, and gave a small bow, all to say.

And for the first time in a long time, I said these words without a trace of irony, and only pure gratitude and love:

“Thank you. I trust you.”

As I took the winding path out of the labyrinth in preparation to return to my home in Ashburn, I felt more confident in the fact that I am loved and have loved others well. I walked away knowing I was leaving this home for my other home, and it would still be here to welcome me back again.

I understood that even as I move forward, there is always a home to which I may return.

Thanks be to God.

Anxious Activist, Part 1: Gratitude as a Tool for Self-Care and Social Justice

For the next three weeks, I will be posting an Anxious Activist post on Wednesday afternoons, highlighting spiritual practices which could assist in better self-care and self-maintenance for activists living with anxiety. This first post will focus on the spiritual practice of gratitude.

Please note: I am a bi-racial (white/Arab American passing as white), cis-gendered, heterosexual, and able-bodied woman who writes through those lenses. I know there are a number of mental health conditions which could be discussed in relations to self-care and activism, and I will be writing only about anxiety, as a person living with anxiety and not as a medical professional.


Every night for the last six weeks, I’ve engaged in a daunting spiritual practice.

Each night, I’ve opened my pink Princess Peach journal and written down four moments for which I felt gratitude in the previous 24 hours.

They range from a clean house to a productive work day, hearing back from my therapist to playing a favorite song, even coloring a Pikachu page gifted by my colleague’s son and maintaining a collected mental state when I felt tempted to spiral out of control. My husband and his actions come up a lot, as do our Brooklyn Nine-Nine marathons and snuggling with our kitties. On particularly rough days, I find myself scraping the bottom of the barrel for anything positive to include, but I still write it down.

Gratitude as a spiritual practice has been on my mind for several years. I remember my friends from the Pentecostal church of my youth engaging in the practice on Facebook either for the month of November or, for the more ambitious types, a full year. They would post photos with captions about their gratitudes, and I found my timeline full of snapshots of children, steaming mugs of coffee and tea, spouses, life events, and clean kitchens.

I enjoyed seeing their photos and gratitudes, but I often worried that they acted more as signs of privilege and remedies to “first-world problems” instead of actual examples of God’s grace. Since I’m a person with a significant amount of privilege as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual, and able-bodied person, I didn’t think it right to broadcast what was going well in my already great life and call it a manifestation of God’s favor. It didn’t seem to do any justice or provide any assistance to people with less power and privilege. Not to mention, I was already a major cynic at this time, and expressing gratitude for such “mundane things” seemed beneath me and my nihilistic worldview.

But as I began to engage more in political and social activism and dealt with the constant threat of burnout, mental exhaustion, and apathy, put into hyperdrive with my anxiety, I thought back to those past posts of gratitude and wondered if these folks were onto something.

I thought about the posts from people of privilege living in their safe and secure walls, and I also recalled the examples of grace expressed between groups of marginalized people. I thought of the Black Lives Matter youth rallying support for all victims of police brutality, the strength of LGBTQ+ siblings who continue to engage with faith communities who cannot decide if they want to include or exclude them, and the radical and vulnerable expressions of love Muslim leaders showed to victims of anti-Semitic persecution.

So when I finally decided to take up a gratitude journal, I decided not of focus solely on the tokens of privilege in my life. Instead, I learned to focus on the gracious actions done by people around me, and the moments of grace I extended to myself when I was less than “perfect.”

Practicing the art of gratitude can be a positive influence for our activism. When we note moments of grace and mercy in our lives, we become more gracious and merciful people, first to ourselves, then to each other. When we remember to accept the cup of water handed to us, we might be more inclined to share some sips from it or pour a cup for someone else in need.

This practice can also remind us we are not alone in this life or in these struggles. Noticing how others have reached out to us in our difficult times, through a message, an embrace, a gift of food, or practical assistance, we might begin to notice how even in our most anxious moments and in the most troubling times, there is someone by our sides who is with and for us. We might even become inclined to be that support for another who is marginalized, either by a systemic issue or their own trauma and pain.

And, perhaps most important of all, practicing gratitude will remind us to extend grace to ourselves. Perhaps we will be more gracious with ourselves when we deal with anxiety, burnout, failure, and other traits and results normally deemed “undesirable.” Perhaps we will learn to accept we are both holy and dust, divine beings in limited bodies and spaces, and we will learn to be gentle with instead of rough on ourselves. We need the strength to keep going, and self-expressed grace can be the balm to soothe and heal our wounds that we might otherwise seek to make worse.

And as I look at these moments of grace extended to others, I learned more about extending that same grace to myself, because how can I give a cup of water to another when my own cup is bone dry, and I am dehydrated?

Gratitude is a radical action, for the one in a position of power and the one on the margins. When we remember we all belong to one another, we express gratitude for God’s loving presence among us. When we remember we as individuals are beloved by God, in our divinity and our humanity, we express grace to ourselves when we are not at our best. And it could whet our appetite enough to seek more grace not only for ourselves, but for those to whom little grace seems to exist.

White People and Black Art, Part 3: Until There Are No More Firsts, #OscarsSoWhite Remains Relevant

Ready Steady Cut

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

This is the final post in my White People and Black Art series. Post One and Post Two can be found at the attached links.

The 90th Academy Awards will air on Sunday, March 4th, and there is a lot of buzz surrounding them.

There’s no clear Best Picture favorite. Get Out made the cut and got 5 nominations. The Shape of Water has the most nominations but it’s still uncertain if it will sweep or go home with little to nothing.

It’s a very exciting run this year, especially in light of the 2015 and 2016 #OscarsSoWhite controversies, which arose when zero people of color received acting or directing nominations.

However, in light of Moonlight’s 2017 victory over La La Land and the increase in diversity among the 2018 nominees, some dare to wonder if #OscarsSoWhite is finally irrelevant.

According to April Reign, who launched the hashtag in 2015, the battle is still far from over.

“Until we are no longer lauding ‘firsts’ after a 90 year history,” Reign tweeted, “until we can no longer count a traditionally underrepresented community’s number of nominations on our fingers, #OscarsSoWhite remains relevant.”

While the list of nominations for the 2018 Oscars reflects a potential shift in films the entertainment industry recognizes, work must still be done to ensure a number of nominees and winners featuring the stories of the traditionally marginalized becomes the norm, not the exception.

This work includes recognizing and dismantling the structures that keep these communities from being well-represented in the first place.

The Academy is predominantly composed of white, heterosexual, able-bodied men, and as such, their standard for “talent” is judged through this lens. The training and education required to meet those standards is often only available to those within certain socioeconomic classes, classes which are predominantly composed of white people. Not to mention, those providing the training and education are also likely to be white.

This is why a common rebuttal to an all-white nominee list is, “The white actors are simply more talented.”

While I am not contesting the talent or ability of any previously nominated actors or actresses, it is worth confronting the truth that certain socioeconomic classes, and therefore a certain race, are better able to access the education and training required to make it into “award-worthy” films. As a result, the white talent often comes out on top, and the talent of the marginalized is often left unseen due to lack of access to these resources.

This is why the Academy continues to dish out nominations which are the “first” of their kind, or ones so rare they can be counted in the single digits, even after a 90 year history.

Among the “firsts” and rarities in the 2018 Oscar nominations are: the first female cinematographer, the fifth female and black directors, and the first black woman in 45 years to receive a screenplay nomination.

In the Best Actress category, only 1 black woman and zero Asian or Latina women have won award. The last black woman to win was Halle Berry in 2002, and she has even lamented this lack of representation, which she thought would be amended with her victory.

These standards also affect the types of stories the Academy rewards, as well as who is rewarded for telling these stories.

When women of color receive nominations, they are often nominated for playing maids, slaves, or abusive mothers instead of three-dimensional characters with autonomy over their own bodies and destinies. Black directors like Lee Daniels and Steve McQueen are nominated for films like Precious and 12 Years a Slave, which are stories of violence committed against black people, while Spike Lee’s films about both black excellence and black struggle are repeatedly snubbed.

And in 2016, when Straight Outta Compton received a Screenplay nomination, the nominees were all white. While the cast was led by black men, the ones recognized for telling the story were white.

The challenging of this predominantly white, hetero, able-bodied, male membership is a major reason why a massive overhaul of judges and Academy members occurred. The 2017 Academy year saw 800 new members join. Of those 800, 39% were female, and 30% were people of color.

This shift in judges alone had drastic results, as evident in the type of films nominated this year.

Call Me By Your Name, a love story between two men that doesn’t end in tragedy, was adapted for the screen by an 89-year old gay screenwriter. Get Out is a “horror parable about racism” directed by a black man. And Lady Bird centers around female friendship instead of a heterosexual romance and is directed by a white woman.

When people from more marginalized backgrounds are given the power to see and judge films, they seek films which embody their lived experiences. As such, they bring with them a judgment criteria different from the dominant white, straight, able-bodied, males who have traditionally held the reins.

And when the films are honored by the Academy, they can also be honored by the American culture.

This is a big step in the right direction, and it could result in major systemic change if sustained in the future.

But again, this is not yet the norm.

While the 2018 Oscar nominations show a shift in the right direction in terms of the representation of marginalized communities, there is still much work to be done. The Academy still needs to be intentional about the talent they find, produce, and recognize, and Americans who occupy realms of privilege need to be more intentional about the media they consume.

Only when it becomes the standard for traditionally marginalized populations to tell their stories can we truly say change has come, and #OscarsSoWhite can finally retire.

My First Anxious Moment

I remember I was 4 years old. Or 5.

I remember my best friend Emily was visiting me.

We were in the living room. Toys were scattered on the floor. My doll house. My fire truck. My Barbies and a few stuffed animals.

And I was crying inconsolably.

I sputtered out my reason between the sputtering sobs: “Emily doesn’t want to be here. She doesn’t like me. She isn’t having fun.”

My mother told me it wasn’t true. She even point blank asked Emily if she was having fun, to which she graciously, and perhaps falesly, replied “Yes.”

Later on, we went to the playground at the school where Mom worked, right across the street from our apartment.

Emily climbed the jungle gym. I stayed on the ground, once again weeping.

Same fears.

“She doesn’t want to be here.”

“She doesn’t like me.”

“She isn’t having fun.”

Same consolations.

“That’s not true.”

“She does like you.”

“She is having fun.”

And the big one: “The only reason she wouldn’t be having fun is because you’re so upset.”

Which inadvertently caused me to feel more upset.

Emily played. I wept.

(Emily and Mom, if you’re reading this and remember that day, I am so sorry.)

It’s been 23 years since this first anxious moment, and I’ve seen it play out so many times.

In friendships, classrooms, romances, my interactions with my family, the workplace, and church.

In every close relationship I’ve had, there comes a time when the song inevitably plays, and it often gets stuck on repeat.

“My best friend hates me.”

“My teacher doesn’t think I’m smart enough.”

“My husband is mad at me.”

“My parents are judging me for not being like them.”

“My colleagues don’t think I’m as good as them.”

“My fellow Christians look down on me.”

It’s a song I hate, yet it plays on and on, rarely ceasing.

That’s not to say things haven’t improved.

Yes, the thoughts ring in my head, but most days, the volume is low. The annoying sound becomes background noise, and some days, I can even hear a lighter, sweeter, calmer melody instead. Most days, I have some degree of control over the sound, so even when I notice the noise drifting to an uncomfortable level, I am conscious enough to turn it down.

That’s the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work.

And then there are days I lose control of the dial, and it’s cranked to 11, and the speakers threaten to blow out.

That’s also the medication and therapy and other forms of self-care at work, but instead they are losing to my mind, which has gone into dumpster-fire-mode. (It’s like normal mode, only over-caffeinated and with fangs).

When I find myself in these moments, I start to wonder.

I wonder what my childhood might have been like if I had actually felt like a child, not someone carrying the weight and worries of the world on her small shoulders. I wonder what my adolescence could have been like if the anxiety had not paralyzed me from pursuing my dreams of theater, athletics, and writing. I wonder how much less strain and baggage my friendships, family relationships, and marriage would contain if I could actually trust that all of these people loved me for me.

I wonder what is it like to be truly free from this burden, to not wait for the next panic attack, or to not beat yourself up when you say the wrong thing, or to not question if your dearest loved ones are out to get you.

I only catch glimpses of that Promised Land of No-Second-Guesses once in a while, and they are freeing and wonderful.

But to live a whole life like that? I doubt I’ll ever know what that’s like.

It’s hard to accept that the fears you had at age 4 are still the ones you carry in your heart in your late 20s, and maybe even will carry your whole life.

And the only way out I know is through struggle: the daily struggle to keep my thoughts from consuming me, to consciously remind myself that I am loved when I only feel worthy of hate, to battle with my mind on a regular basis.

I struggle, alone and with others on my journey, so I may rest again at the feet of contentment.

And each time, I hope the respite lasts longer than the previous one.

White People and Black Art, Part 2: Black Panther, Black Leadership, and White Submission

For Black History Month, I’ll be doing a series about films, comics, books, and other forms of media which predominantly feature people of color in the cast and/or are created by people of color. I am biracial (White/Arab American), and I will not be writing as an “expert” on black culture or art. I also acknowledge that black art is not made with white people in mind, because everything else is catered to our desires anyways. Instead, I share these musings as one seeking to educate her fellow white people on why black lives and black representation matter, and what we as white people can learn about racial tensions and interactions from these art forms.

On February 4th, I began the series with a post about Jordan Peele’s Get Out and how the film can encourage white people to confront our microaggressions and other harmful behaviors towards people of color. Today, I will be talking about Marvel’s smash hit Black Panther and how the film can encourage white people to see ourselves as followers and people of color as our leaders.

This post contains mild spoilers for Black Panther.


Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER L to R: T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Like most of the American population, I saw Black Panther this weekend.

It was pretty damn great.

The costumes and visuals were stunning. Shuri is my new favorite Disney Princess, and Erik Killmonger is the most well-rounded Marvel villain yet (deal with it, Loki-stanners). Chadwick Boseman played his role perfectly and looked beautiful as ever. And the Dora Milaje kicked major butt.

What made this Marvel film attract so much attention was how it centered the African/black experience, while the white people served as “token characters” who supported the main African and black characters, in a role reversal rarely seen in film. In doing so, this film is not only prophetic for people of color, but for white people, too.

In Black Panther, we are shown a world in which white people are not calling all the shots or even controlling the narrative. Instead, they are following the lead of the people of color.

Black Panther’s Dora Milaje — Photo: Marvel Studios

From its aesthetics to its story, Black Panther is greatly influenced by the genre of “Afrofuturism,” which is a social, political and cultural genre that projects black space voyagers, warriors and their heroic like into a fantasy landscape, one that has long been the province of their mostly white counterparts. Stories which fall under this genre reimagine a world in which colonialism did not occur, and they also project what those affected by the African diaspora can do as active agents in their own futures.

The heroes and heroines in Black Panther, and other Afrofuturist tales, do not wait for a white savior to come to their rescue. Instead, they are their own saviors. They are their own queens and kings, princes and princesses, presidents and generals, warriors and politicians, representatives and resisters. They are not tokens or model citizens. Without the oversight of white supremacy, they have the dignity to embody the whole range of the human experience.

As such, the film features both black excellence and black pain, which results in an empowering form of representation for Africans and the African diaspora (the global communities descended from the movement of African peoples from their homeland).

White people, on the other hand, participate in the “token roles” normally designated for people of color in predominantly white films. They go from the leaders and the storytellers to the followers of black leadership.

CIA Agent Everett Ross is one of the two “token white guys,” and his role as a white person in a superhero franchise is subversive for the genre. Ross is the butt of several jokes in the movie…[and] exists as a kind of corrective to the “white savior” characters that are standard in earlier Western films about Africans. He’s even called a “colonizer” in a semi-joking, semi-serious manner, going for the heart of the long arduous relationship between the two cultures.

But Ross is such an important character for white people to watch, primarily because he is not the main player. He serves as T’Challa’s ally who saves and is saved by Wakandans. During his time in Wakanda, Ross submits to African leadership. When he dares to speak out of turn to a tribe’s leader, he is immediately and hilariously shut down, further confirming the centrality of black leadership in the film.

And despite his nickname, Ross subverts the white trope of colonizer and white savior not only by taking on a less significant role but by following black leadership. He does not demean their leadership or demand that he play a bigger part. Instead, he recognizes and accepts his place in the Wakandan story, and as such he serves as a helpful ally.

For the first time in a Marvel movie, and in one of the few instances in American film period, white people are not the ones in charge of shaping the story. That role and responsibility rests firmly on the shoulders of the black characters. Instead, white people serve as allies who follow their lead and their codes.

This is why Black Panther is an important film, not only for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for our global culture. In a culture that consistently labels white people as the heroes and leaders of this world, it is important for people of color to see a hero who looks like them.

It is also as important for white people to remember they are not the only ones in charge of this world.

We need to be willing and able to humble ourselves before our siblings of color and let them lead us, because they have dreams for a future which requires us to lay our power down.