the onus of the ‘me’ generation

Millennials, my generation, get a bad rap. A lot of it is completely deserved, we’re certainly selfish and spoiled but who spoiled us? Our parents generation may have had it rough, but we’re also having a tough time in this recession. A couple years ago a bunch of studies came out showing that Millenials are the first American generation to do worse than their parents. Our parents had pressures and stresses, but of a completely different kind than ours. Many (or maybe most?) parents of Millenials in the Boomer generation were forced into jobs and roles they weren’t ‘suited’ to. The idea wasn’t to be happy, but to be working. But my generation grew up with the idea that we should find something that makes us happy, aren’t we lucky? But with this privilege comes the responsibility to actually be happy; easier said than done.

The existential crisis of the Millennial generation won’t be middle aged men finding themselves in jobs they don’t enjoy and women having Friedan-like awakenings. We had the pressure to like Joseph Campbell, ‘Follow Your Bliss’ and probably picked job we were suited for (we probably didn’t go for the money, because chances are we’re not gonna make enough in any job). As a result we have to deal with the guilt of being unhappy in a job we ‘should’ be happy in. This pressure is immense.

As I struggle with this responsibility myself and go back to grad school I’ve noticed other characters asking the same questions about privilege and class and responsibility to be happy. In Doris Lessing’s the Golden Notebook, Tommy Portmain, the protagonist’s twenty-something son struggles to find himself. As the son of a bohemian mother and a wealthy businessman father he tries to decide whether to be poor and fulfilled or rich and empty (like I said, our generation is probably going to be poor anyway, so we might as well be fulfilled). He envies the milkman with no education, “he hasn’t any choice at all. He’s got a scholarship, and if he fails to make the exam, he’ll spend his life delivering milk with his father. But if he passes, and he will, he’ll be up in the middle-class with us.” “A hundred things to do, but only one thing to be,” he said, obstinately. “But perhaps I don’t feel myself worthy of such a wealth of opportunity?”
It’s similar to Matt Damon’s character in School Ties, who envies Brendan Frasier’s character, “Cause if you get what you want, you’ll deserve it. And if you don’t…you’ll manage. You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s expectations.”

Brendan Frasier and the Milkman’s son can always blame their unhappiness on their circumstance, but how do the privileged justify their malaise, or even their bad days? They’re struggling with the responsibility of their wealth and privilege but also with the pressure of being happy.

their crisis subsides as they grow up. Tommy find contentment in disability, SPOILER ALERT – after a botched suicide attempt leaves him blind, he marries well and lives off a disability check. He never had to sell his soul for money (always having been a supporter of the government teet) and he gets to read and write and love and travel. Matt Damon’s character doesn’t get an epilogue but according to his own predictions, he’ll end up at Harvard, becoming a businessman like his family. More importantly to the plot of the movies he’ll still be an asshole. In our society it’s hard to sympathize for those who come from privilege so raw and explicit. As well it probably should be, but that isn’t to say that life isn’t difficult.

Strong Black Women are Women Too

Ironically, I’m writing a post decrying ‘angry black women’ because I’m feeling bitter and black tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for American Blacks with both Mike Brown and Eric Garner joining the scores of black people killed at the hands of police. On a depressing episode of the Read the hosts tried to keep our spirits up with news of Black Excellence. To support beautiful black women, I went out to buy the new W Magazine with Iman on the cover, but it wasn’t out yet, instead I bought a copy of bitch magazine with an article on ‘the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.’ In it, Tamara Winfrey Harris describes the myth of the sassy no-nonsense ladies, “the cold, overeducated, work obsessed woman” who is “half as likely to marry as white women.”

I just finished reading Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah,’ which lived up to all the hype, as far as I’m concerned. I was excited to hear what my Slate friends had to say on the Audio Book Club (like all podcast listeners I have an imagined relationship with them) and was so disappointed to hear their criticisms. While I loved the book, I think there are many things you can criticize it for. I too felt like the romance was not the strongest part of the book. But The Audio Book Club argued that it wasn’t believable that such a strong female protagonist would do something so weak, selfish and cruel. Emily Bazelon, friend to the blacks was the strongest champion of this opinion. I am so disappointed that these critics, even after reading a book that exposes and challenges these stereotypes, could not get past the idea of the strong black woman. It was unebelievable to them that a woman could be strong in her sense of self, but be ‘weak’ or vulnerable. Haven’t they seen the new stereotype of a woman who has it together in her work life, but can’t get it together in her personal life (have they missed Mindy’s character on the Mindy Project)?

What will it take to convince people to stop thinking of black people as animals? We are strong women, we have to be to withstand the racism and sexism of this culture. Some American blacks come from a line of women who survived the middle passage, who survived the back-breaking work of slavery. That doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain the same as whites. We are independent and capable, but we aren’t invincible. Strength should not be the only positive attribute a black woman can own, we are sensitive and vulnerable too and this is not weakness, this is powerful, this is what it means to be human.

Updated 10/13/14:

In which other white people on slate have trouble understanding why black people idolize white people (hint: there are a lot more white people in the US to idolize than black ones):

from the Gawker Review of Books Interview of Charles Blow:

First comes the recognition that we are devaluing black and brown bodies. And that that is not even a new phenomenon, that that is an extension of an American phenomenon, in fact it is even a world phenomenon. There is a mountain of social science that ranges from doctors not prescribing pain medication to black kids at the same rate as they do for white kids with similar illnesses to spanking being more prevalent among black boys. When you think about that body, and the violence that it must endure—

Right, like the word Ta-Nehisi Coates’s constantly used in his reparations essay, “plunder.” It’s similar to what he was getting at. I keep thinking about how there is not only always something coming at us, but something being taken from us.

Right. And endurance becomes this ambient thing in your life; it becomes your constant. It is not just to play and grow up and fall in love, but it is to endure. It becomes the paramount motivation in your life. The tragedy when you hear young men say, Oh I never thought I’d be 18 or 21 without going to jail or being in the grave. I’ve heard this too much. If that is being drilled into your mind, what kind of psychological damage does that do to you, and to your relationship to society? And in addition to that, whatever damage is being done, society is amplifying the damage by misconstruing the data and concepts so that we overestimate black crime, we overestimate black hostility, we overestimate black aggression. We ascribe it everything dark and negative. In that kind of hostile milieu of black bodies that have been tortured in a way, in a system that is designed to destroy it, these concepts of black being dangerous and wrong, you can have the unfortunate crossing of those wires and you get shootings. I don’t know how to fix that. I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that.

Maybe not “fix,” but you’re in a very powerful post at the Times. You have a platform every week to talk about whatever you want, or at least what’s topical in the news, do you—

Well, my job is to shine a light. Illuminating and educating as best I can is the tool that I have. Other people have different tools. And hopefully they can use what I do in their advocacy, in their boots-on-the-ground sort of work in neighborhoods, changing minds person to person. Other than that, I’m not sure how it changes.

The Women Reading Upstairs

When I lived in New York, I (think) I came up with an expression: The difference between being lonely and being alone is a good book. I had spent a lot of time lonely but not alone and alone but not lonely and the distinction seemed arbitrary. I was trying to find out how to flip the switch when a friend recommended Atlas Shrugged which I greedily devoured over the next month or so. What I realized was that it had a lot to do with how I felt I was being perceived by others. I felt loneliest when I felt the pity of others. When engrossed in a good book it didn’t matter what others were thinking about me. Recently I read Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs which reminded me of Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller. The women of Messud and Heller are alone with books. Their worldviews are shaped not just because they were alone, but because of society’s perceptions of their loneliness as women.

Messud and Heller have both been criticized for these characters. Messud gave an interview in Publisher’s Weekly where the interviewer criticized her character’s likeability, a decidedly gendered attack. Heller’s book is on the Wikipedia list for ‘unreliable narrator.’ While I acknowledge that the women had boughts of anger and bitterness, I completely empathized with both of these characters. In fact in response to Messud’s interviewer, I would want to be friends with Nora and Barbara, they’re both whip-smart and well read, I’d love to see Nora’s art or compare biting cultural criticism with Barbara.

I see these women as potential friends but also as cautionary tales. The criticism of the books belies the scorn I would experience from society if I became a woman upstairs. Society only teaches us to measure us in the mirrors of others. Both stories deal with betrayal, but the moral of both of these stories is one of the narcissism of solitude. Of the distortion of individualism that we experience without others:

People like Sheba think that they know what it’s like to be lonely. They cast their minds back to the time they broke up with a boyfriend in 1975 and endured a whole month before meeting someone new. Or the week they spent in Bavarian steel town when they were fifteen years old, visiting their greasy-haired German pen pal and discovering that her handwriting was the best thing about her. But about the drip, drip of the long-haul, no-end-in-sight solitude, they know nothing. They don’t know what it is to construct an entire weekend around a visit to the launderette. Or to sit in a darkened flat on Halloween night because you can’t bear to expose your bleak evening to a crowd of jeering trick-or-treaters. Or to have the librarian smile pityingly and say, “goodness, you’re a quick reader!” when you bring back seven books, read from cover to cover, a week after taking them out…About all of this, Sheba and her like have no clue.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller.

I kept thinking, as I was telling Didi, that somehow what was in my head—in my memory, in my thoughts—was not being translated fully into the world. I felt as thought three-dimensional people and events were becoming two-dimensional in the telling, and as though they were smaller as well as flatter. that they were just less for being spoken. What was missing was the intense emotion that I felt, which, like water or youth itself, buoyed these small insignificant encounters into all that they meant to me. There they were, shrinking before my eyes; shrinking into words. Anything that can be said, can be said clearly. Anything that cannot be said clearly, cannot be said.

Claire Messud’s the Woman Upstairs


“They’re angry at you, all the time. After a while, it just grinds you down…
The applicants are angry because I can’t see how special they are. Their parents are angry because I let in some other kid with a lower SAT score. The alumni are angry because they got into Princeton, but their brilliant kid got denied. The faculty’s angry because we took the athlete, not the genius, but the football players know that its easier to get in if you throw the discus, and all the violinists and pianists are pretty sure you have an edge if you play something strange, like a tuba or the harpsichord. All the New Yorkers believe that everyone out there from South Dakota gets in automatically, but out there in South Dakota they think they don’t stand a chance at a place like Princeton. The working-class kids are convinced we’re selling admission to the highest bidder. Simone is angry at us because we’re elitist, but the elite know for sure that we’re giving their places away to every black or Hispanic kid who applies. Nonlegacy kids are pissed of because they read somewhere that legacy kids are twice as likely to be admitted. But I’ve watched my boss get up in front of a packed house at reunions and tell all those loyal alumni that two-thirds of their kids are going to be rejected. Let me tell you, they’re not thrilled about that. When I go out to visit schools, the kids are mad at me because they know I’m going to dangle this beautiful thing in front of them and encourage them to apply, and then reject their applications. The college counselors, the private ones who charge thousands of dollars, they’re furious at us, because we’re furious at them, and if we even smell them on an application it pisses us off, which makes it hard for them to sell their services to the parents, who are already angry at us and are now going to be angry at them, too.”

“Can i just say, as a mother of a prospective applicant…that it’s very frustrating. We’re all trying to figure out what you want. And it feels like every time we figure out the rules, you just change them. One year it’s ‘well-rounded students.’ The next it’s minorities who play the flute,’ then as if remembering that it wasn’t supposed to be about her, she rephrased her conclusion. “these kids want to be able to give you what you want.’

And therein, thought Portia…resided the problem…

‘We’re very much aware of that,’she told them. ‘we understand the frustration. And I don’t think there’s anyone in my field right now who isn’t worried about what this is doing to the kids. And I don’t just mean the competition, though that’s bad enough. I mean what the process is doing to them psychologically…We’ve got twenty-five percent of all college applications in this country going to one percent of the schools. And that one percent includes the only fifteen American colleges who accept less than twenty percent of their applicants. We know there are parents who are doing everything they can to game the system. They’re having their kids diagnosed ADHD or learning disabled so they can get extra time on the SAT. Now that ETS has stopped denoting which students have been given extra time, there’s no reason not to. But the message. To the kids. They’ve been tutored in everything, for years, whether they need it or not. So what they come to understand is: I’m not good enough to do it on my own. I need help to be successful…

And how can that not carry forward into their adult lives? I think it already impacts their experience as college students. We have students who freak out when they no longer have that support. They’re e-mailing their tutors and sending them their papers for review. They feel fraudulent…

I had a pretty scary conversation last year with one of my friend Rachel’s babysitters. She’s a senior at Princeton now. She told me a lot of her friends have a kind of disassociation. They’ve spent years assembling this perfect self to display to use — to people who are going to make these important decisions about htem. But sometimes they don’t feel they’re that person at all. They don’t feel smart or capable in the least, and of course when they get to Princeton they’re surrounded by their peers, who have done just as good a job of assembling this competent veneer, then they feel as if they’re the only fake in the bunch. This girl, Samantha was telling me there’s so much self-doubt. When I heard that, I suddenly felt as if I’ve been doing these kids a disservice.
They expect a lot from themselves.
Oh my God. So much. I honestly wonder if they’re not creating, or at least abetting, this surge of anxiety and depression in college-aged kids. And then there’s the other side of the coin. Which the babysitter also pointed out to me. Which is that some of them get to college and they just let all those balls they’ve been juggling for years fall out of their hands. They’ve worked themselves into the ground to get in. They feel like they missed out on slacking off. So now that they’re in, they’re going to have that lazy teenager thing they never had in high school. Seriously the whole system. I wonder about it sometimes. But this where we are. In a few years, it will probably look different.”

Admission, Jean Hanff Korelitz

Late post with some quotes from Admission (pulpy novel the Tina Fey movie is based on) which I read earlier this summer while studying for the GREs. Illuminating a little of the complex many in my generation share. How did I get here? Why did I get here as opposed to someone else? How do I make the best of it? Not hugely different from other generations post-adolescent quandaries except in the magnitude of inequality.

To the White Girls Who Didn’t Get Into the College of their Dreams
It’s different for grad school but my 2 cents is that I want to be somewhere that wants to have me, not someplace where I’m the last person they pick off the wait-list.

Works in Progress II: Prison stats

When I found out that a friend of mine was imprisoned at San Quentin I was reading Dreaming in French. The book talks about Angela Davis’ experience with the Soledad Brothers at San Quentin. When I saw that she would be speaking in my area I bought some books for her to sign. ‘Are Prisons Obsolete‘ was short enough for me to finish in the week leading up to her talk. It reminded me of this clip from black power mixtape:

The introduction to the book was full of mind-boggling statistics. For my job I had been using the d3 library to make data visualizations, so this seemed like a great opportunity to make a compelling infographic about these statistics. I haven’t done so yet, but here are some of the stats I want to use:

-Only 5% of world population lives in the US, but it holds 20% of prison population
-There are 2x as mental mentally in in prisons/jails than in all psychiatric hospitals combined
In 1990 1/4 black men between the ages of 20 and 29 have been incarcerated…
by 1995 it was 32.2%
-Many minorities are more likely to be in prison than educated

Fastest growing portion of the prison population is black women
Up 78% in 5 years
-There are more women in prison now than in the entire decade of the 70s

California Statistics

in 2002:
there are 157,979 people incarcerated
20,000 for immigration detention
35.2% Latino
30% black
29% white

I’d like to make a CA prison timeline, showing their proliferation during the Reagan Era and how they continue to be built at alarming rates:
1852 San Quentin
1880 Folsom
1952-55 9 prisons built
1962-65 3 jails
1980s (Reagan Era) 9 prisons
90s 12 new prisons
Takes 100 years for 1st 9 prisons, last 9 in 10 yrs
Now 33 prisons, 38 camps, 16 correctional facilities and 15 prisoner mother facilities


Growing up we used to say grace before every dinner. I’m not sure when or why, but we stopped. Maybe it was after my mom broke up with her boyfriend or after my brother went off to boarding school, probably some point in between. We used to have cards with graces from different traditions. We had blessings we chanted in Hindi, humorous English ones, short ones, long ones. Even at music camp we always sang a blessing before lunch and dinner, a popular favorite being ‘My Plow (Brings me Happiness)’.
Last year when I was in Afghanistan our host seemed surprised that someone as polite and well-mannered as myself hadn’t the patience to say grace before eating. I was out of practice, I’d like to get back into it. It’s a moment of meditation in our busy day. A moment to acknowledge the privilege that, unlike most people in the world, I don’t have to worry about where this meal will come from. Grace is Good.

‘Privilege is a headache you don’t know you don’t have,’

-Ani Difranco

Thanks to Dom for reminding me @6:40:

Aesthetics and the Mark of Cain

I once took a class where we studied monsters and early geography. Our teacher argued that the reason Americas Most Wanted publishes pictures of criminals is that we like looking at faces for signs – we want to know that we can recognize a criminal just by looking. This curiosity is as old as the bible, wherein God marks the first murderer for all to see. We look for outward signs of inner demons, particularly on the face.

The irony here is not just that we can’t judge character based on facial features, but that if I we were to do so, the only thing I know for certain is that the most beautiful people can get away with murder (though not literally). It’s the beautiful people who don’t have to do as much, they don’t have to be smart or clever to be treated well. I hold beautiful people to a higher standard because they can coast because most people see no blemishes in the outside and assume there are none in he inside.

Which brings me to why I have trouble with looks-based compliments. When someone says you’re hot they’re saying you’re worthy of attention. They may or may not believe that because I have a cute face, I’m good on the inside. I’m not saying I’m not worthy of attention or that I’m not good on the inside, but the stranger giving me the compliment doesn’t know (and if I really am as good looking as you say, I probably don’t need to be good on the inside). Unlike Mindy Kaling, who argues in her recent book that a man should compliment how you wear the item (your body) rather than the item you’re wearing, a man after my heart would compliment my fashion sense. I can’t really help what my face looks like, but I can chose the glasses I put on in. For me, that seems to get a little bit at what’s between the ears.


“They were all four of them providing a service for the rest of the people in the café, simply by being here. They were the “local vibrancy” to which the estate agents referred. For this reason, too, they needn’t concern themselves too much with politics. They simply were political facts, in their very persons.”

Zadie Smith, NW

My new place is a lovely treehouse in the hills surrounded by paths and trails and wilderness. It reminds me of a friend who grew up around here, when she moved to a more urban area said she missed running the trails in the evenings. One of my roommates this semester said she missed swimming in the pristine ocean, saying ‘not having the ocean is like not having carrots.’ I felt these people were being unappreciative, just because you grew up in a particular way doesn’t mean that it’s better or worse than another place, you can take a bus to the ocean or take a walk to some trails. When you grow up in nature, you gain a lot, but you miss out on a lot to, it’s often harder to access culture, but most importantly to me, you miss out on diversity.

I recently read Zadie Smith’s new book, NW and it reminded me of the a lot of racial issues around geography and urbanity. One thing I appreciate about Zadie Smith is her insight into middle-class black life. I don’t envy my mother’s cohort of educated black (often single) mothers who had to chose between raising a child who grew up in the comfort of an urban area around black people (knowing her roots), and the extreme discomfort of being the inkspot in a richer, whiter neighborhood. My mother chose to make our home in a middle-class neighborhood that was very mixed racially, and send us to schools where my brother and I were often the only people of color in our class. I think it worked out great for us, but I don’t envy people who have to make such difficult decisions.

People who grow up in urban centers, projects like the ones described in NW, have to deal with the realities of poverty, criminality, lack of access to education, and all that this entails. But people who grow up as the token brown person have to deal with the realities of not being represented in the culture that surrounds them and the pressure of representing their entire race and class, a pressure I’ve been feeling a lot in my job lately. The weight of that burden is difficult to describe for someone who has never experienced it. I know it’s not my responsibility to teach everyone what black people are like, but when I’m the only brown woman on my team, there is added pressure to perform. I carry this burden on behalf of my generation (people think millenials are lazy), for my locale (people think Californians are lazy), for my race (people think black people are lazy), for my sex (people think women aren’t smart, and can’t do science), for my family and for myself. A friend of mine was telling me how fun it is to act crazy sometimes, frankly I don’t think I have to luxury of lunacy.

I listened to the Slate Audio Book Club on NW. On the podcast they discussed the character Keisha, a black woman who grew up in the projects and became a successful lawyer. She was my favorite character in the book and the one I related to the most. The people on the podcast seemed to believe that the character could never really be successful. That she was bound to fall from grace in a way. I don’t think she had a dramatic fall from grace, but I also don’t think such a fall is so inevitable. In any case, I liked the book, and the discussion and I’d highly recommend both.

Growing up where I did I was surrounded by a diverse group culturally, socio-economically, and ethnically. I’ve written a little about this before but as I’ve lived and moved to other places I have found that this is very important to me (and that such a mix is pretty much unique to Oakland). But it brings up the question, what are we entitled to in a home? Is what your parents had good enough? Is what you had good enough? are you entitled to the same experiences as your peers? do you need wilderness to breathe free? do you need to live with both a mother and a father? do you deserve your own room? How much culture are you entitled to and what?

NOTE: I have started a new job (see resume) and don’t have much time to blog. It’s probably gonna be more like once a month from now on.

In which I worry about my debt

I think it’s time to talk about my debt, because I certainly can’t stop thinking about it. Doing this masters degree is going to put me in debt. I’ve never had any student loans before, I’ve been able to acquire scholarships and financial aid, I worked through college and my parents were able to help out. Now I’m on my own and by the end of this year I will have almost $50,000 worth of debt. I worry about my debt.

I carelessly missed many scholarship deadlines so I can’t get help in that way and most masters programs don’t give financial aid the way that PhD programs do (this is extra frustrating since I plan to pursue a PhD). The idea is that with the professional degree you should be able to pay back the loan by working in your chosen profession. But what if I decide, after going to school, that I don’t want to be in this profession? I worry.

In order to pay back my loans in 10 years (for 1 year’s worth of a 2-year program), it will be about $500 a month. The theory is that having these computer science skills should raise my income by about that much over my lifetime. But not if I don’t use them. Even if computer science jobs are as recessionproof as they say I may not find a job. Even if I do find a job I can stand, $500 a month is a lot of money. I worry.

It’s hard for me to concentrate on my studies with the weight of this debt on my shoulders. In addition, my chronic health problem isn’t getting any better and I fear the stress of school and debt and work is making it worse. A few weeks ago my net worth went from positive to negative. I worry.

My mother assures me that I’m not alone, that the skills will not be worthless, that the knowledge will be helpful (even if it’s the knowledge that this isn’t for me). There are more scholarships, I could work for the government, and that we will repay my loans together. And yet I worry.

Would I worry less if I was in working retail and living in a crappy apartment? Who knows. I worry that I am putting off life in order to concentrate on school and it will catch up to me. I don’t know how this is going to work out, and not knowing is making me worry..