Monday, June 15, 2020

what would finn do?

Among the celebrities lending their voices to the movement for Black lives, John Boyega has stood out. Not just because he’s put his body on the front lines at protests and because he’s shut down Twitter trolls with delightful wit, but because—in our house—he is Finn.

You know: the ex-Stormtrooper stolen from his family and raised as FN-2187. When he refuses to kill for the First Order, he defects and eventually joins the Resistance. It’s not the subtlest metaphor, and I’m not the first to say “Yes, this guy! The guy who took off his blood-smeared Stormtrooper helmet and refused to be a cop for the last gasp of the Empire!” But at this moment in history, I am especially grateful for how much Dash, at age 5.5, adores him.



Before schools closed in March, I had never seen a Star Wars movie all the way through, although AK, Dash’s other mom, flew her toy Millennium Falcon around her childhood living room and, as a forty-something adult, has been known to read Star Wars fan fiction online when she needs to unwind.

Dash’s entry point into the franchise was The Force Awakens. He liked Rey, the scrappy scavenger-turned-Jedi and instant feminist hero, and BB8, the snowman-shaped droid who bleep-blooped adorably. But he was fascinated with the Stormtroopers, Finn, and their leader, Kylo Ren, who is torn between good and evil. 

Dash often puts a trick-or-treat bucket on his head, wields an umbrella as a “blaster,” and extends his palm toward me in an attempt to control me with the Force. We have never given him a toy gun, and we’ve talked about what to do if he ever encounters a gun, even if he thinks it might be a toy: Don’t touch it, tell a grownup, real guns kill people. 

I fear firearm accidents, but I also fear that the police will see my Brown kid—when he’s taller and older, or looks older—playing with a toy gun and shoot him.

I’m not so worried about him running around the driveway shooting me with an umbrella. Power play is developmentally appropriate; it makes sense that kids—who are constantly being told don’t slam the door, don’t climb that fence, don’t put that tiny LEGO Stormtrooper helmet in your mouth—would want to be the enforcers now and then. 

He went through a cop phase this fall: Blame Paw Patrol, or the police officer he met at the train station, who gave him a baseball card that had a Dodgers player on one side and an LAPD officer on the other. He and his friend Jasmine still periodically throw me in “jail” and issue me Post-It-note tickets for things like “being mean.” I talked to him about how police officers needed to follow rules too, and how people who went to jail were not “bad,” but had broken big rules or may have made bad choices. We talked about how courts decide whether people are guilty or innocent. But how to describe the prison-industrial complex to a kid who hasn’t started kindergarten? How to explain that being labeled guilty or innocent has very little to do with being guilty or innocent?


Guilty as charged.

Now that his attention has turned to Star Wars, I’m observing his obsession with two men torn between good and evil—the Black man raised to believe he was a bad guy, who chooses good when he has nothing to lose, and the white man born to heroic but imperfect parents (Leia and Han Solo), whose power and privilege mix with his daddy/grandpa wounds to form a perfect storm of evil (basically our president, if he were smarter and broodingly handsome). 


In the original movies, the lines were more clearly drawn, although Luke and Darth Vader’s “I am your father” moment hinted that good guys and bad guys weren’t so far apart. I hope that pop culture is veering toward a more complicated understanding of how people are shaped by systemic forces (or Forces?). 

Dash loves his Stormtrooper pajamas. He loves stomping around and talking in a deep voice. He also frequently talks about how “some Stormtroopers are nice. Finn didn’t want to kill people.” 

Yet if Finn had stayed a Stormtrooper, killing people would have been all in a day’s work.



When I’m not worrying about my son and other mothers’ children getting shot by police, I worry about—and I’m just gonna say what so many white people are hiding behind defensiveness—losing the nice life I have. America has been largely good to me, an educated, white, middle-class, somewhat-able-bodied person. I have a job. I have a lawn. 

When I saw images of overturned cop cars ablaze in Los Angeles during the last week of May, a part of me was transported to April 1992, when I was a high school freshman in suburban LA. My little white beach town behaved shamefully back then. I don’t even remember how rumors spread, exactly, before the internet, but they were hot as fire: “First they’re coming for three B’s: Beverly Hills, Bel Air, and Brentwood,” someone said with faux authority. “Then they’re coming for the three beaches: Manhattan, Hermosa, and Redondo.” 

Ash from South Central fires rained down on us, but even it was white. All those neighborhoods were fine. Parts of South LA still bear scars.

I was disheartened but unsurprised to see a handful of hometown Facebook friends-of-friends traffic in similar rumors about what “they” had planned. I typed strongly worded comments, but meanwhile, my stomach was a knot of fear I couldn’t quite untangle. Was I, too, scared that a real revolution was coming? Or was I scared of what the cops and the National Guard might do to the revolutionaries? Both? Was it possible to crave order and understand the need for periodic chaos? 

When Finn escapes the First Order and crash lands on the desert planet of Jakku, Rey mistakes him for a Resistance fighter. 

Finn gets a look on his face like he’s bullshitting in a job interview: “Obviously. Yes, I am. I'm with the Resistance, yeah…. This is what we look like. Some of us. Others look different.” 

I’m not usually a fuck-the-police type. Can I be a legit Resistance fighter? The imposter syndrome is strong in this one. I’m a rule follower by nature, but one of my least favorite feelings is being trapped in an unwinnable game—whether it’s my boss asking about the status of a project that was never explicitly assigned or Dash railing against a snack he asked for a minute ago. And that’s what policing has created for communities of color: an unwinnable game. 


Proposal: All cops should wear their undies on the outside.

When AK was in grad school, she left class in West LA one day at dusk, and sat in her car eating a bag of almonds before beginning the long drive back to the Eastside. A cop knocked on her window. What was she doing? Where was she going? 


AK has cinnamon-brown skin and indigenous features. West LA isn’t entirely white, but it’s white enough that there are people invested in keeping it that way.

“You had your hood pulled up and you took it off when you saw me,” he said. 

“No I didn’t,” she said, because she didn’t. 

“Yes you did.”

He was letting her know the rules. He was letting her know who would be telling this story. Never mind that a hoodie on a person of color is considered a weapon in America. 

An unwinnable game. 

When I remember that AK’s experience is the norm for people of color—when I devote time to imagining what I can’t imagine, but must—I can step out of my own wound-gazing, where I just feel like Why does it seem like all of social media is vaguely mad at me? I’m not a Karen.… Am I a Karen?

The other day, Dash was running around as AK and I were doing what he calls “arguing,” meaning any debate conducted in a mildly serious tone of voice—figuring out our work schedules, reacting to the shit-show news feed. 

He grabbed a dish rag and thrust it at us like a weapon. “You don’t know the power of the dark side!” he roared. 

We do, though. And we don’t. And sometimes it feels like we’re armed with a dishrag.

We stopped our serious talk and broke into laughter. 

There’s a scene in the 1995 movie Jeffrey in which the titular gay man, played by Steven Weber, gets mugged. “Whaddya got?” growls one of the homophobic perps. 

Jeffrey looks up from the ground. “Irony?”

Queers, communities of color, kids, and artists have learned how to use whatever we have at hand to push away evils in the shadow zone, wielding laughter and play. 



As a middle-class white lady and as a parent, it’s easy to leap to keep the lid on the status quo. But I’m glad I can still be knocked off my guard, diffused and disarmed.

As Hayley DeRoche and others have pointed out, part of the work of anti-racism is sitting in our own discomfort. For me, that means acknowledging not just American history, not just my own biases, but my deep-rooted fear that I might be a bad guy, simply by benefitting from what other bad guys have done. So who am I to shout fuck-the-police from the rooftops? 

It sometimes feels like biting the hand that has fed me, but it’s not feeding my son and other people I love. It might start as a whisper. I might only have a dishrag and irony and the spare time to call one council member to politely ask him to defund the police. 



Last night, I was texting about fear with my friend Shea and she said, “So many fears are about self-preservation. [There are situations] when you get a gut fear that’s important to follow. That’s self-preservation that’s positive, right? It’s kind of the same thing when you feel privilege threatened--but in that case, that instinct shouldn’t be authoritative.”

I’ll try not to let fear drive this bus. To make a world that is more comfortable for Dash and his peers by, in the words of the wise Fiona Apple, “travel[ing] by foot, and by foot it's a slow climb / But I'm good at being uncomfortable, so / I can't stop changing all the time.”

In the words Finn repeats to himself, breathlessly, as he’s making his escape: “I can do this. I can do this.”



4 comments:

Chris Baron said...

So good. Thank for writing and sharing this.

Cheryl said...

Thank you <3

Rebecca Niederlander said...

somehow "the force awakens" makes a whole lot of sense right here, right now. thank you for this beautiful essay. I love your family.

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