Review of “The Chalk Circle” by Tara L. Masih, Editor

Periodically Americans of Anglo-Saxon descent decide it is a good thing to be more sensitive to “the Other,” even though they have systematically, throughout their 400-plus year history, insisted everyone not of their same background be classified as “Other.” These efforts at understanding have gone only so far, however, since this group not only continues, through its dominance in the media for example, to represent itself as the “norm,” but endeavors by a variety of means to retain its position at the top of the social and economic hierarchy in society.

While just reading about injustice won’t change anything, it is a start, because you can’t address wrongs if you don’t even know they exist. This award-winning book is an excellent way to walk (metaphorically) in the shoes of people who are forced to negotiate their identities through the lenses of white America.

The editor, Tara L. Masih, started an annual essay contest on the subjects of “culture, race, and a sense of place,” to provide a forum for viewpoints of people of all backgrounds, including those of Anglo-Saxon European descent. As Masih argues in the Foreword: “All voices need to be heard in order to find understanding and be truly intercultural.” (She prefers the word “intercultural” over “multicultural” because, as she writes: “Multi, to me, means many and separate; inter begs to be more inclusive.”)

[You can read more about the annual contest here. The current judge/sponsor of the intercultural essays, Lyzette Wanzer, has a powerful essay in this book.]

Each brief but moving essay in the book is preceded by headnotes to introduce the author. The effect is unexpectedly pleasant; it is a bit like being at a cocktail party, where you meet each person and then hear the story he or she tells you after you exchange facts about your backgrounds.

In the introduction, David Mura, the talented American author, poet, novelist, playwright, inter alia, discusses questions of identity that are explored so thoroughly in the book. He points out “identity cannot be thought of without difference, that is, without considering what I am not.”

A consistent theme in the essays is in fact the determination of what one is not. Notably, as one essayist observes, “No matter how much you value mind over body . . . you can’t escape your body, and others are particularly bound to experience your body before your mind.”

We have seen this recently over and over again, thanks to many videos exchanged over social media, showing white people (denoted as “Kens” or “Karens”) judging someone and even accusing a person of not being “an American” solely on the basis of physical cues.

An infamous Ken and Karen threatening peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters

The whites captured in these smartphone videos want the person who looks different to leave the country, or at least be arrested for some imagined crime. Most significantly, they feel entitled to make those claims. Isabel Wilkerson, in her new book, Caste, has a cogent explanation for this attitude, as part of her explanation of what she considers to be the primary organizing principle of American life:

“A caste system is an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry and often immutable traits, traits that would be neutral in the abstract but are ascribed life-and-death meaning in a hierarchy favoring the dominant caste whose forebears designed it.”

Wilkerson notes further about the caste system in America:

“It is about power – which groups have it and which do not. It is about resources – which caste is seen as worthy of them and which are not, who gets to acquire and control them and who does not. It is about respect, authority, and assumptions of competence – who is accorded these and who is not.”

What The Chalk Circle does is put the focus on how it feels to be a part of this caste system, to be the subject of stigmatization; what it does to one’s psyche, and how one learns to negotiate the constant barrage of ongoing micro-aggressions, as well as exclusion and differential treatment. How can you ever have the confidence to walk through the world without wariness and fear? How can you ever feel at home? What about guilt over privilege? Does feeling guilt matter unless the system is dismantled?

In fact, some of the best essays are about discomfort over privilege, not only over other groups, but even other others within one’s own (and oppressed) group.

(For a striking video addressing that very question, you can hardly do better than this offering from BBC One. In the dystopian political drama “Years and Years,” Muriel spoke to her family about how everyone is to blame for the current state of the world. The video of the speech went viral.)

Muriel castigating her family for complicity in social and economic hegemonic behaviors, via BBC

Most helpfully, the book concludes with a set of discussion questions, as well as a list of which essays correspond to which overarching issues, such as experiencing stereotyping in school or work or play; the concept of “home” when one is from a multicultural background; and exploring family history through letters or photos or food. (Think about the idea of food and what is considered “normal” in this country. As author Sari Botton said in an interview, “. . . . I don’t eat Indian food out, I eat it at my parents house and relatives houses, and we don’t call it Indian food. We just call it food.”)

Evaluation: In this time of tribalism and fear over the shifting demographics of the country (i.e., the move away from a white majority), it is crucial to share our stories with one another; we need to open our eyes, heads, and hearts to the world outside our insular universes. If nothing else, we can discover just how fascinating other lives are, and how talented and entertaining are the people who share their stories.

But more importantly, these excellently curated, well-written, and often poignant essays by all kinds of people from various backgrounds help teach us that we are all human beings; that if you prick us, we all bleed red blood. They are not didactic in nature; rather they simply convey what life is like for different people, especially when you feel (because you are made to feel), like an outsider in your own country. Most are only a few pages in length; you can dip in and out of them at your leisure as you tour other worlds from your reading chair. And perhaps as we come to recognize so much of ourselves in people of all backgrounds, we may be willing to take more active steps to dismantle the systems that make “otherness” a negative, rather than a positive source of new ideas and of paths to renewal, both for ourselves and for society.

Why is it so important? As essayist Shanti Elke Bannwart writes:

“It seems that civilization is a very thin net underneath the tightrope that spans the abyss of our dark passions and cruelties. We had better tread gently, keeping a careful and humble balance so that we don’t slip.”

Although this book was first published in 2012, it seems more needed than ever.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing, 2012

About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
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