It is a strange time to be a white immigrant in this country or thinking through how I learned my whiteness by living in America for over a decade.
|Karmela Padavic Callaghan||Jun 7, 2020|
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This letter contains references to racialized violence and police brutality. In light of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and subsequent protests, I have included some possible supportive actions at the bottom of the essay. Please do scroll that far.
In December of 2017, a few months after I started writing Ultracold, a transportation company that was up to that point fairly popular on the campus of the university I was getting my doctoral degree from put out racist statement that more or less destroyed their business. The incident prompted me to reflect on whatever promise of Americanism had burrowed under my skin by then. I wrote a short letter about these thoughts and time-stamped it by noting I was going on ten years of living in the United States and hinting at how much time was left before the student visa I then held would expire. Most of my friends from the past, now twelve, years during which I have been living in the States would recognize this as typical – much of my time in this country has been spent worrying about getting my next visa and keeping my next degree on a timeline that will satisfy its constraints (in the end I did not manage to complete a Ph. D. in the allotted five years and had to ask for an extension). Having moved here when I was sixteen, I very much feel like I grew up here as well, and the notion of leaving the life I have built up for myself since has always been terrifying. Though I have some modicum of extra security these days, and truly want to believe that no one would separate me from a spouse and family that I adore, the question of what it means to be American, or wanting to become one, is still often at the top of my mind. Trying to pin-point a time when I became so attached to this country that I can’t seem to even imagine trading for another, back in 2017 I wrote
“Maybe it was when I stopped being scared if I woke up and my first thoughts weren’t in Croatian, maybe it was when I would go home and my friends seemed so disconnected from things that were shaping me, or maybe it was when my grandfather made me cry over Sunday dinner because he thought I had come to love capitalism too much, just like all Americans are assumed to do. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Somewhere in my psyche a switch flipped, and I started thinking of myself as not necessarily American but at least part American or maybe latent American. This past year has been extremely effective in reminding me that I am absolutely none of those things.”
It is odd to read these words now in June of 2020 and realize that I am simultaneously closer to being American in the eyes of the law and more poignantly than ever reminded of how narrow and hard-to-satisfy the category of “American” still is.
In the past week, as protests continued in every big and small city in America, I have been getting messages from family members who still live in Croatia, expressing their shock and fear and concern. My mom saw footage of a police vehicle driving towards a crowd of protesters in Brooklyn and she saw police in riot gear elsewhere. She watched videos of activists speak about wanting structural change and encouraging everyone to vote in the next election. An ocean away, she stayed as informed as she could yet when we tried to talk about it, I felt like the full context of what is currently happening in America was nearly impossible to explain.
I am a physicist and not a historian and my training is in nonlinear partial differential equations, not oral histories of racial prejudice. Still, I feel like any subset of years I have spent living in the United States has made an unconscious recorder of something adjacent to such a history. I remember getting half a day off at my expensive boarding high school when Barack Obama was inaugurated, I remember having heated Facebook arguments about the killing of Trayvon Martin with a friend of someone I had co-taught calculus with in college, and I remember Ferguson coinciding with my first year in graduate school. I am from a very white, Catholic, non-threatening by almost anyone’s standards country in Europe and I grew up soaking up racism left and right just by the virtue of my environment being remarkably homogenous. Looking back, it feels like I had to learn an overwhelming amount of history and make an overwhelming number of mistakes to be at a place where I am now, maybe somewhat more educated, hopefully a little more aware. And it feels like I had been pushed straight into the learning process, without much guidelines other than some very rough sketch of some very rough ideas in that one very long US History class I had to sit through in high school. So how do I condense that information and that lived experience into an occasional videocall? Of course, there is no simple answer to the question of what is happening and why is it happening and why now, which is really many questions but also a single question with many layers. At the same time, I really like to think that I can do better than “how about I just tell you about everything I’ve absorbed for twelve years and I still don’t know that that is enough.” I keep writing in my cover letters to potential employers that I am good at distilling complex information and communicating it in clear and accessible ways when it comes to science, but in this other arena I seem to be completely stumped.
As recent events unfolded, it seems like many have been similarly stumped and shocked. Except that that is not true at all. So many people in this country who are not white have been living with the things that shock the rest of us now as long as they can remember. This sentiment has been all over social media: people of color in our communities don’t need our shock and grief, they need our action. In 2019 when four progressive congresswomen of color were told to “go back” to “broken and crime infested places from which they came” by the 45th president of the United States, scholar Ibram X. Kendi opened a powerful article in the Atlantic by saying
“I live in envy. I envy the people who know their nationality. All the people whose nationality has never been a question in their mind.”
And then later,
“I do not know if I’m still three-fifths of an American, as my ancestors were written into the U.S. Constitution. Or fully American. Or not American at all.”
I have often written about feeling like I was at home in multiple places, but also not really at home anywhere. I have doubted whether my home country is really my home. But my questioning is fundamentally different from Kendi’s. And my being able to turn that questioning into an academic exercise and a prompt for theorizing that then spawns essays and letters is a gross reminder of how in trying to become an American I may have learned a type of whiteness that is steeped in privilege and markedly different than the ignorance concerning race I arrived to this country with when I was sixteen. I keep wanting to say that this is such a strange time to be an immigrant in this country, but what I need to be saying is that it is an eye-opening time to be a white immigrant in this country. Surely, I was white when I lived in Croatia and I knew that I was, but the American construction of whiteness is rooted in a very different history and fundamental to the way some of us foreigners learn to integrate into American society. Regardless of lofty ideals, the freedoms that I have benefited from throughout my years living here, one of the most American things of all remains to be an inability from many of us who are white to not be self-reflective about it and to center anything other than our own discomfort with that reflection.
What I mean to say is: because I am a white person living in America, I have learned American whiteness so well that this letter is still not really about anything other than me.
Kendi closes his essay by stating
“Maybe I should not live in envy; I should live in struggle. Maybe I should have been asking, “Who controls America?” instead of “Am I an American?” Because who controls America determines who is an American.”
All I want to think about going forward is how to support that struggle without pulling the old exceptionalism card and making it all about myself.
Photo: This is a non-comprehensive list of deaths at the hands of police in the U.S. since Eric Garner's death in July 2014. Credit: LA Johnson/NPR
Here are a few things to consider doing:
· Donate to the ACLU Legal Defense Fund
· Educate ourselves on law surrounding policing in our communities and contact local elected officials about it; support campaigns of candidates that support reforms or defunding. Here is a place to start in New York.
· If you are affiliated with universities encourage those institutions to invest less in campus police and more in community programs
· If you are a teacher or in charge of a learning environment (i.e., TA), deliberately incorporate reading and other materials created by African American and Black scholars and activists, or discuss these readings where possible in your educational environments. (It is important to incorporate this in meaningful ways to avoid tokenizing and to be prepared to answer questions such as “why have I never heard of this scientists before” in ways that acknowledge structural racism.)
* In quantum mechanics, every entity you might want to study, such as an electron or an atom, corresponds to a wavefunction. A localized wavefunction is narrow in shape and tight or compact in space and you could draw it as a single “bump” or “peak”. An extended one is more like a typical wave and covers a lot of space. Typically, each wavefunction corresponds to a quantum state having some energy. If such an energy state is localized, then it’s wavefunction has the narrow, localized shape. As a concrete consequence of this distinction between states with one or other wavefunction shape, systems that conduct well have extended electronic wavefunctions while insulators show localization – electron distribution is related to the shape of the wavefunction so a wavefunction that is “stuck” being peaked at only one place means that electrons can’t quite move away from that point and no currents can be formed.
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ABOUT ME LATELY
LISTENING: This interview with the abolitionist activist Mariame Kaba on Call Your Girlfriend. I’m not sure I’ve ever really thought about what a world without prisons or police could look like before my social media feeds flooded with information about it this week, so I am grateful for the accessibility and, for the lack of a better word, tenderness that Kaba employs in introducing the topic here. A big takeaway from her explanations is that we cannot imagine the world we have today and then just subtract incarceration and policing – we have to imagine building up whole new structures and fostering a lot more of new connections as well. Kaba’s point is that we should be thinking about a broad restructuring, about truly changing the status quo rather than just tweaking the flawed institutions we have right now, and that’s the kind of call for a revolution that gives me that, paraphrasing adrienne maree brown, deep embodied “yes”. Another part of this interview that I loved was the meditation on hope as a practice and our having to practice, through action, for the world we hope to one day inhabit.
This episode of On Being where the Minneapolis-based therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem that discusses how racialized trauma lives in the body and is replicated by how we view and treat bodies, similarly, really challenged me and spurred me to self-reflect more. I am not equipped to judge the scientific merits of the importance of the vagus nerve or the psoas muscle nor am I an expert on epigenetics, but the notion that we carry history in our bodies strikes me as true just based on my own experience. Accidentally, the first letter I ever wrote touched on this idea, and I have thought about the mind-body connection (or divide) often this week. Protesting is such a bodily and physically risky act (especially in the age of COVID-19). I have also seen many fitness and yoga practitioners on social media stay silent on what is happening in the streets though they have been relentlessly peddling embodiment and embodied peace beforehand. Self-care and mindfulness have been all the rage for the last few years, but we cannot forget that theses notions also encode uneven racial structures that surround us more generally. Menakem is direct about this when he says:
“the premise of the work is predicated on the idea that there was a certain time where the white body became the supreme standard by which all bodies’ humanity shall be measured. If you don’t understand that, everything about America will confuse you.”
and uses the term “white body supremacy” throughout the interview to further highlight it
“The white body is used to hearing things that make it comfortable. And so when you say something like “white supremacy,” especially here in Minnesota, everybody goes, “Yes, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.” And then what happens is, it goes — just the term, “white supremacy,” is a very intellectual term. It doesn’t land in the body.”
Another of his points that really resonated with me was the observation that progressives often create strategy rather than culture. I have been guilty of this in the past, sitting in so many meetings about what is wrong with my communities, but not calling-in friends or colleagues that may have been doing the exact things those meetings were about. The notion of having to create a new culture to really change things dovetails nicely with Kaba’s framing of the abolitionist cause and forced me again to think big and deep.
Music: I’m still listening to Slint and have been really liking their second record called Spiderland. One of my brothers-in-law who is a musician pointed out to me that this is something of a landmark record for post-rock and all sorts of “progressive” or “math-y” genres of loud music, and I can definitely hear it. It reminded me of Deafhaven at their best, spoken word parts ring of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and though my exposure to Sonic Youth has been somewhat minimal, I can hear a bit of that particular approach to noise in this record too. Clicking around for similar artists on streaming services took me to this Rodan record and this one by Birds in a Row. Both are pretty good and rounded out my post-rock listening for the week.
LEARNING: It’s been hard for me to be overly productive this past week and much of my learning has not been about physics. It has been an odd time for me overall and I have been struggling to build a sustainable workday routine that also doesn’t induce overwhelming anxiety. There are only few loose ends to tie up before I deposit my doctoral thesis and I am starting to seriously face the fact that there is a very real chance that after mid-July I will be unemployed for a while. So sure, I messed around with some transfer matrices for the Fibonacci chain and spend some time trying to see how their recursive structure might affect a related family of curves on the surface of a three-dimensional torus, but I can’t claim that that’s all that was on my mind for eight hours every day.
Current events have been on my mind often and beyond dinner table conversations I helped draft a statement in response to racism in policing put out by the leadership of the Access Network. I also continue to work on the upcoming virtual conference for the organization which is now set to include an action-oriented session focusing on addressing the same issue. Working with the Access Network has been one the big highlights of my last few years of graduate school and I am proud to be a part of a group that is self-reflective and accountable to its membership (the statement the leadership wrote was motivated by being called-in by a member). As a co-mentor for the team putting together the virtual conference I have also been consistently impressed with their work and have equal amounts of excitement and anxiety when it comes to seeing how it all works out in just a few weeks. I’m hoping to have some more formal writing about the Network, ringing in full five years of operation, out in the world soon too.
On top of physics work and Access work, I have also been trying to widely and fearlessly apply for jobs here in New York City. I’m looking for opportunities in science and mathematics education, diversity, equity and inclusion advocacy, science communication or the intersection of the three. For sure, this is a wide net to cast and there is a lot I could do out there. However, after so much time spent in the academic bubble and pouring so much of myself into an academic career plan that proved unrealistic, a billion cover letters later I still mostly feel scared. It feels like I write this every week but learning how to overcome that fear and hesitation is probably the biggest learning project I’ll undertake this year.
READING: The latest issue of the Written Out newsletter on reading black authors because you like reading and not because you’re trying to soothe some sort of guilt. Kelsey McKinney rather pointedly writes:
“As people who love reading, it is important that we diversify what we read not because it makes us “good people” or because it “will help us learn to dismantle systems of racism” but because there are really good books out there that we will miss if we fail to reach outside of the kinds of books we usually gravitate toward. There are great books outside the reach of what is comfortable, books that are beautifully written and moving and fun to read. We don’t read black writers (or trans writers or any other oppressed groups writings) because it is our homework as white people trying to be better. We read these books because they are good and we like reading good things.”
The 23rd issue of Sonia’s Poem of the Week that rounds up a few pieces by Black American poets writing about their own experiences. I am consistently struck by how much power there can be in poetry and how often it serves as a simultaneously punch in the gut and the face. The excerpt below from Keith S. Wilson’s “Black Matters” resonated with me because my brain is conditioned to click with the dark matter metaphor, but I would encourage you to click through and read the whole issue. It closes with “Poem about My Rights” by June Jordan which is breathtaking enough that I couldn’t decide on just a few lines to include here. I’m planning on buying books by all of these authors soon.
From “Black Matters” by Keith S. Wilson
“dark matter is invisible.
we infer it: how light bends around a black body,
and still you do not see black halos, even here,
my having told you plainly where they are.”
WATCHING: After a dear friend recommended it empathically stating that it is “the Best Show”, we spent most of our late nights in the recent days watching the Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. In some sense, this was a choice mildly in line with the current moment as it explores the ways in which trauma ripples through generations and families, especially when no one is willing to talk about it. There is a fair amount of supernatural in this series, but it’s more subtle than the mention of haunting in the title might make you expect, and it is only in the last few episodes that explicitly ghost-like ghosts take center stage. As a character states early on, most often ghosts are a consequence of our wishes or regrets and we see them because we want to see some tangible version of those feelings. I’ve toyed with this metaphor in my past writing as well and do feel like I am reckoning with the ghosts of past me at pretty much all times. Haunting of Hill House is a masterclass in exploring this notion while also giving the viewer some real scares – be they paranormal or more mundane. The episode that focuses on one of the main characters struggling with addiction was really powerful, and the way in which everyone in the show talks about mental illness very much underscored how bad we as a society are at finding language for hurt, trauma and healing processes. Pretty much no-one in the Crain family, the family that is being haunted by what happened to them in Hill house and maybe also by Hill house itself, is likeable exactly because they are handling their hurt badly and it is pretty clear that that’s the chain of causation here. I’d recommend this show because it is well done and enjoyable to watch, but also because yelling at the Crains about communicating better with each other could serve as a useful nudge for the rest of us to have more, and more thoughtful, conversations with the people we share a painful past with in our own lives.
The other series we have been watching recently is the FX on Hulu historical extravaganza Mrs America, also recommended by a friend whose taste I’ve come to trust. It fictionalizes events surrounding the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and mostly centers the story of the amendments’ biggest opponent Phyllis Schlafly. In many ways, this show is really unsubtle. You don’t have to watch more than an episode or two to realize what it is trying to do by focusing on Phyllis – though she is presumably advocating for housewives and homemakers, she is not really either, she is working as much as the feminists and she is being discriminated against as much as them no matter how much she extolls the virtues of a traditional marriage and gender relations. The other punchline the viewer is being repeatedly hit with is that of the problems under the umbrella of intersectionality that are plaguing both the pro-ERA movement (struggling to give voice to their Black members and being at times openly hostile to their queer members) and the STOP ERA group headed by Schlafly (which doesn’t shy away from racism to the extent of covertly taking support from the Klan). Both of these parallels are certainly important and fascinating but do feel rather heavy-handed. However, they are also still very relevant today and some of the talking points on either side of the ERA fight sound like they have been lifted from contemporary news reports regardless of which incredibly famous actress (and they are all incredibly famous and high-powered in this show) delivers it.
One of the most intriguing things about Mrs. America is that it takes Phyllis as its main character though she is a veritable villain. It is from the start hinted that she has taken up the ERA cause not because she is much of a believer, but because it is a convenient way to shore up power men were not allowing her in her actual area of expertise. By the time the show gets to the Reagan-era, it is rather clear that she is building a conservative base for his run and is more pleased about mobilizing a large number of previously apolitical women than she is distraught when the Republican party decides to take a pro-ERA stance. Is it ok for me as a female viewer to sympathize with Schlafly in moments when her male conservative colleagues say crude and sexist things to her? Mrs. America certainly works well in terms of complicating how we draw lines between allegiance, sympathy and antagonism.
Ultimately, Mrs. America is also remarkably educational. Though the time jumps can be jarring and the timespan the show covers maybe deserved a longer rumination, the whole thing manages to touch on so much. From Shirley Chisholm’s presidential run to the conflict between different waves of feminism as presented by the likes of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem to the evolution of the women’s movement within the Republican party (the Jill Ruckelshaus episode is really powerful), I just didn’t know enough about the vast majority of the show’s content. Mrs. America has its flaws and I don’t love how it treats some of its queer characters (though it seems like their stories are based on their own writing at the time), but it should probably be required viewing for many. Much of the history it shows resonates so much and many of us have certainly not been provided that context for the issues of right now through our formal education.
On a related note, I first learned about the on-going fight to ratify the ERA from this episode of the Unladylike podcast. The team that produced it rounded up some useful resources on the state of the amendment, its importance and strategies for its ratification going forward here.
EATING: Over the weekend we made these grilled flatbreads and had them with a whole slew of toppings (hummus, baba ghanoush, ajvar, tomato slices, chopped cucumbers) and roasted vegetables marinated in olive oil, garlic and lemon juice after they have been nicely charred on the grill (slice zucchini, peppers and yellow squash very thin and grill until soft, blistered and having nice grill-marks then while they are still warm mix them with 1/4 cup olive oil, juice of half a lemon, two crushed or finely minced cloves of garlic and a good pinch of salt that you have whisked together previously, let sit a few minutes if you can).
On Friday, I took some extra time to work on beer-battered, air-fried tofu tacos again and again they were a great success. I’ve been working from this recipe but cutting down the amount of flour in half and adding spices such as garlic powder, paprika, cumin and ground coriander to the batter. The slaw from the original write-up, however, is a must and I have been making a riff on the cream with cashews instead of a store-bought vegan product as well.
The rest of the week has also been a return to favorites: I made these muffins again, pulled together another riff on this urad dal, had quite a few chickpea flour pancake lunches (with a side salad or potatoes microwaved until soft then quickly browned in a pan) and experimented with soy curls which is a project I keep periodically keeping coming back to (so far: they are great in a riff on paprikash with tomatoes, peas and cashew cream, and also as a topping to savory oatmeal or congee-adjacent porridge when cooked with shiitake mushrooms, soy sauce, garlic, maple syrup, rice vinegar and hoisin sauce). The pull of eating outside in our backyard has been strong, and every day when it didn’t rain, I just wanted to eat foods that feel like summer, down to not even flinching a little bit when my husband made himself an iced coffee lemonade as a dissertation writing pick-me-up. Hopefully we will continue to have the chance to soak up, eat and drink sunshine and sunshine-y foods in the coming days.