HomeUpstanders: How A D Nauman Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry,...

Upstanders: How A D Nauman Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate

Well, don’t beat yourself up if you’re unable to leap into a rough situation in a cape with a sword to vanquish the bully. Think about what you are good at, and use your talents to advance the causes of social justice in this country. Remember, you’re part of a movement — a movement for good; you don’t have to accomplish everything all by yourself.

An upstander is the opposite of a bystander. A bystander is someone who stands by while others are being bullied, maligned, or mistreated. An upstander is someone who stands up to protect and advocate for the victim. We are sadly seeing a surge of hate, both online and in the real world. Many vulnerable minorities feel threatened and under attack. What measures are individuals, communities, and organizations taking to stand up against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate? In this interview series, we are talking to activists, community leaders, and individuals who are Upstanders against hate, to share what they are doing and to inspire others to do the same. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing A.D. Nauman.

A.D. has dedicated her life to social justice. She is an educator and the award-winning author of Scorch and Down the Steep (Regal House Publishing). Her fiction investigates the sociopolitical in the personal, especially the impact of culture on identity, the mechanisms of power in personal relationships, and the challenges of life in a hyper-capitalist society. Through her work, she hopes to inspire readers to join the national conversation about racism and sexism in the US, inspiring a movement towards greater compassion for all. Her work has been recognized in Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthology, produced by Stories on Stage, broadcast on NPR, and granted an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, an era awash in public discussion of social justice. The nightly news, popular books, music, movies, TV shows — all arrows pointed in one direction: civil rights. That was the larger cultural context I inhabited. My more immediate culture was southeast Virginia, the Tidewater region, which is the setting for my novel, Down the Steep.

Though I spent most of my childhood in Tidewater, my parents were not native Southerners. My mother was from Minnesota; my father, California. We’d moved to Virginia for my father’s job as a minister in 1963, which is when the novel is set. My parents supported the civil rights movement and made it clear to me and my older sister that racism was a bad thing. They pointed out the shacks that Black people had to live in, the separate water fountains. They expressed dismay over the racist comments made by some people in my father’s congregation. They were alarmed that my sister’s history book had a chapter titled, “The War Between the States.” One of my earliest childhood memories is of a Klan march up the dusty street in the small town where we lived. Though we were white, the need to challenge racism was on ongoing theme in my family.

Another ongoing theme was the Holocaust. In that era, many survivors were still alive to tell their horrific stories. We heard them, read them, watched them on movie screens. I am not Jewish, but I am of German heritage, and I felt a particular horror that people somehow related to me could have been so brutal. The question, “How can people be so cruel?” became a kind of mantra for me. I wanted to understand it. Since then, I’ve read countless books on the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany, which, sadly, has helped me understand the times we live in now.

Can you share a personal story of how you experienced or encountered antisemitism, racism, bigotry, or hate? How did that experience shape your perception and actions moving forward?

Being female of any race teaches you about prejudice, especially in the decades when I was a girl. Expectations were low. Teachers didn’t think I’d grow up to have a job, much less a career as a college professor. My parents valued education and sent me and my sister to college, but they figured we’d meet nice young men there — future lawyers and physicians, hopefully — and get married.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the misogyny was palpable. It was widely assumed that boys were smarter than girls. Girls were seen as weak, disorganized, illogical, and overly emotional. We were also seen as existing to be in service to men. We were to cook for them, keep the house clean, take care of the children, all while helping our husbands succeed in their careers, providing emotional support and boosting their egos. We were to prioritize our appearance. The idea that women might compete with men in the workplace was ridiculous: first, we’d never be as good as they were in any profession, and second, our purpose in life was to be a helpmate for a man. And by the way, those notions are trying to make a comeback, especially through evangelical Christians.

My lived experience as female — being dismissed, disregarded, openly insulted, demeaned, at times assaulted — enabled me to better understand and have empathy for people of color in the US. In Down the Steep, the sexism that the protagonist experiences becomes a conduit for relating to a new Black friend, and gradually she overcomes her own racism.

Can you describe how you or your organization is helping to stand up against hate? What inspired you to take up this cause?

In addition to being an author, I’m a professor of literacy education at a public university in Chicago. I teach K-12 teachers how to better teach reading and writing to their students. In my program, we’re dedicated to high-quality literacy instruction for all children, with a focus on lower-income children of color. But I fully believe that writing fiction for social justice, which may seem like a round-about way to get there, also has a positive impact on equity.

Novels with social justice themes have been a part of American literature for centuries. Today they’re most likely to appear as dystopian, YA, speculative, and historical novels. Writing equity-themed fiction allows authors to bring social justice issues into public discourse. It does something else important, too: When we read a work of fiction, we “live through the text,” as literary theorist Louise Rosenblatt has said. As readers, we walk in the shoes of fictional characters, and by the end, we’re empathizing with them. Reading fiction builds empathy.

My novel Down the Steep depicts how a racist girl learns to overcome her own racism. She begins to see the illogic of racist beliefs, starts listening to other viewpoints, allows herself to care about a Black person, and at last openly challenges the racist culture that spawned her. Perhaps my novel will provide a kind of road map for white Americans to find their way out of racism with some degree of self-forgiveness.

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your work as an Upstander?

My first novel, Scorch, published in 2001, was a dystopian satire set in a near-future America that had become a Corpocracy. It’s a portrayal of how ubiquitous advertising, marketing, and propaganda affect the lives of individuals in such a culture. At the end of the novel, a rich celebrity, who has gotten wealthy by writing a book on how to get wealthy, is elected President, and the country completely unravels. When Trump was elected in 2016, I got an email out of the blue from an old friend I’d lost touch with, exclaiming that my novel had predicted Trump. (I think The Simpsons did, too.)

Could you share an inspiring story that demonstrates the impact your efforts have had on an individual or community?

Well, nothing dramatic comes to mind. I think of my work as one strand of a larger group effort to try to make the world a better place. Teachers and writers don’t always see an immediate or obvious impact of their work, but it is there — it quietly ripples outward. Those of us working toward social justice through writing and teaching don’t really seek to take center stage. What’s important to us is the work.

In your opinion, why do you think there has been such a surge of antisemitism, racism, bigotry, & hate, recently?

Run-away capitalism and its resultant income inequality. Above, I described the culture of the 1960s and ’70s, how the messages we all heard in that era encouraged tolerance, sang the praises of peace, love, and understanding. When Reagan was elected in 1980, the country veered to the right. Now all the messages we hear point toward money. Money is power, money is celebrity, greed is good. We worship wealth. Wealth is the measure of our value as a person — and very few of us have enough of it. Most of us don’t have enough even for a sense of stability. So many Americans live stressful, miserable lives.

The growing wealth disparity since the Reagan era has allowed a small number of uber-rich Americans to hijack our democracy. What we have now is an oligarchy. To maintain their power, the oligarchy has struck upon the age-old strategy of turning lower-income groups against one another. It’s easy, and it’s effective, because people need to feel they belong to something, somewhere, and overt tribalism provides that. Our tribes are packaged as “teams,” and we’re made to focus on “beating” the opposing team. Team Trump v Team Biden; Team Christian v Team Satanic Liberals; Team White v Team Anyone-Not-White. It’s terrifying. It’s the rise of fascism — our own particularly capitalistic American brand of it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

One thing individuals can do is challenge wealth worship. The pursuit of money is not going to provide a sense of meaning in our lives. In fact, it’s undermining our ability to find meaning. The uber-wealthy keep extracting money from middle and lower income people, making it hard for the majority of us to feel a sense of stability. We work long hours to increase the profits of a small number of people who are already wealthy, and as a result we have less time for what typically feels meaningful to people: friends, family, creative endeavors, sports, and other forms of personal enrichment. Kids go to college now to increase their earning potential, not to learn. Young people choose careers that will pay well, not because they’re interested in or care about the work, which is setting them up for miserable futures.

Here’s what politicians need to do: Reverse Citizen’s United so our elected officials work for all their constituents, not just their big donors; enforce anti-trust laws; and ensure rich people pay their fair share of taxes so we can fund social programs, especially Medicare-for-all and free college.

What are your “5 Things Everyone Can Do To Be An Upstander”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

1 . Show kindness every day to everyone: be a role model of kindness. Send out those ripples. If we help to create a culture of kindness, I think, angry people will be a little less angry in their daily lives.

2 . Make a commitment to honesty, and share that commitment with everyone in your sphere. Again, be a role model. Consciously avoid exaggeration. Resist the impulse to spin reality to support some preconceived belief you don’t want to let go of. Resist the ubiquitous message that you must “sell” yourself: you aren’t a “brand” — you’re a complex human being, just like everyone else. Be open and honest about who you are, even if you fear it may make you look bad. Above all, admit when you make a mistake, apologize, and strive to do better in the future. Our culture is in a major crisis of honesty. If everyone were more honest, maybe the truth would not be so hard to discern.

3 .Share stories about when you were wrong about someone because you judged them based on their appearance — including skin color, gender expression, ableness, religious apparel. Overgeneralizing doesn’t make us “smart”; in fact, overgeneralizing is a thought distortion. I once had a student who came to class in a full burka, face and body completely covered. The first night of class, I was sure she’d be quiet, oppressed, maybe even depressed. Yet she was among the most outgoing and cheerful of students, her personality shining through. She did a presentation on the Middle East’s many female heads of state. This was before the first woman to ever run for US president on a major-party ticket — in 2016 — was beaten by a far less-qualified renowned misogynist.

4 . Challenge common cultural myths whenever you spot the opportunity. Be a model of critical thinking. One of our most tenacious myths is that poor people are poor because they’re lazy. I like to point out that a single mom who works two jobs and then comes home to take care of her children seems to be working much harder than men who waddle around a golf course all day. Another common myth is that rich men are just smarter than everyone else. But that’s not true either: they may be better at making money than everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they’re smarter; it just means they value money more than other people. There are scores of brilliant people in this country who choose other professions — teaching, medicine, research, etc. The myth that rich people “deserve” their wealth because they’re somehow “better” than lower income people is deadly. Literally.

5 . Talk with the people in your sphere about the importance of voting, especially (though not limited to) in the upcoming presidential election. Voting in this election is truly a matter of life and death. Do we want a president likely to start a war, like George W. Bush? Do we want a president who blocks all attempts to help people get affordable health care? Who we elect as president matters — the policies and priorities that he (or someday she, maybe) advances will impact our daily lives. Again, look for myths to bust: it is not true that the two political parties are the same, nor is it true that “all politicians are crooked.” These are myths created to dissuade people from voting.

In discussions of voting, raise the issue of how one decides which candidate to support. Try emphasizing that selecting a candidate is like conducting a job interview. In any presidential election, we’re hiring someone to lead our country. The candidates are job applicants: which one do you think will do a better job, and why? When someone says we need a “smart businessman” to be president, please point out that a successful CEO does not necessarily have the skill set to lead a democracy. CEOs can bark orders, and employees do what they’re told for fear of being fired. A US president doesn’t do that. He must work with people he dislikes to get things done. Our country is not a company. Another not-very-good reason to vote for someone is that we just “like” him better. This is going to be the leader of the free world, not your bowling buddy. Once I read a letter to the editor from a man who was supporting John McCain because he thought Sarah Palin was “very attractive.” Dude, this is not someone you’re going to date! A vice president is someone who may have to run the country! So what do we look for in job candidates? Experience and sanity would be high on my list.

How do you handle the emotional toll that comes with being an Upstander?

The emotional toll that I feel comes from a constant desire to do more. I feel like I should be leaping into tough situations in a cape with a sword to vanquish the bully, but I’m an older woman, and I really can’t do that. Also, I don’t have a cape or a sword. So I try to employ these other means of effecting change in our cultural context — because culture shapes individual behavior. I hope I’m doing enough to be an upstander. I remind myself that I am just one imperfect person, trying to do her best, and that’s probably okay. Then I drink some wine.

If you were in charge of the major social media companies, what would you do to address the hate on the platforms? Could you share specific strategies or policies that you believe would be effective in addressing hate on social media platforms?

Change the algorithms. Stop showing people “news you’ll like.” Information is not a product to be consumed — it’s being treated like it is, but it isn’t. Also, have clear policies against hate speech and enforce those policies. Someone with the luxury of declaring himself a “free speech absolutist” is someone with enough privilege to keep himself safe. (Elon Musk is such a good example of a rich person not being smarter than everyone else. If he were, he would think more deeply about that position.)

How would you answer someone who says: “Hate speech is permitted under the US Constitution. Why are you so worried about permitted, and legal speech?”

I’d say that the Supreme Court has ruled many times over many decades that the right to free speech is not absolute. Libel and slander are not legal. You are not allowed to use “fighting words” or shout “Fire!” in a theater. The Supreme Court has ruled that there are circumstances in which the government is permitted to limit speech, one of them being when words pose “a clear and present danger of inciting violence.” We aren’t allowed to incite violence.

The definition of “hate speech” is slippery, so I looked it up. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, hate speech is “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation.”

So, inciting or encouraging violence against people based on their demographic group can be restricted. You have a right to be a total jerk on the social media platform of your choice, but you cannot go on Facebook and encourage all your jerky friends to run out and physically harm other people.

Are you optimistic that we can solve this problem in the United States? Can you please explain what you mean?

The American oligarchy has claimed so much power at this point, and their propaganda machine has become so efficient, and Americans are so desperate to find some sense of meaning in their lives. As of this writing, Trump is way ahead of his challengers for the GOP nomination for the presidency. How is this possible? Who thinks he should be president again? I can’t say I’m optimistic. The thought of Trump returning is terrifying.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become an Upstander but doesn’t know where to start?

Well, don’t beat yourself up if you’re unable to leap into a rough situation in a cape with a sword to vanquish the bully. Think about what you are good at, and use your talents to advance the causes of social justice in this country. Remember, you’re part of a movement — a movement for good; you don’t have to accomplish everything all by yourself.

In what ways can education be leveraged to combat antisemitism, racism, bigotry, and hate?

As mentioned, my day job is as a literacy education professor. I have too many opinions in response to this question to share them all here! I’ll share just a few.

For many years now, we’ve focused on the need for critical thinking and effective evaluation of sources in middle and high school. We need to do more of that. In the lower grades, especially the primary grades, teachers strive to teach children, through children’s books and other activities, to treat each other with kindness and to respect differences. There are entire curricula on anti-bullying and the acceptance of diversity.

Unfortunately, all of this work is under constant threat by conservatives, who have recently, for some reason, labeled the teaching of kindness as “woke.” Apparently, poor innocent children are being indoctrinated into the satanic practice of being kind. Especially pernicious is the “science of reading” movement, which is importing conservative agendas into schools Trojan-Horse style. Though these are complex issues, the bottom line is there is a powerful faction in our country that doesn’t like public education (which they call “government” education) and has been trying for decades to destroy it through propaganda campaigns. These factions do not represent educators who care about children. Some are religious conservatives who want their religious beliefs imposed on everyone — which is as un-Constitutional as you can get — and some are venture capitalists who see education as an untapped market to exploit. Others are just plain segregationists.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Barbara Kingsolver said, “I don’t understand how any good art could fail to be political. Literature is a powerful craft, so we have an obligation to take it seriously.”

I appreciate this enormously. All fiction is political — books either challenge our common cultural myths or reinforce them. Think of all the missing-and-dead-girl fiction there is out there. What message does that send about girls, women, and social trust?

The “Big Five” New York publishing houses today, with their prime objective of maximizing short-term profits for shareholders, are treating fiction as though it’s only entertainment. Given that marketing departments have an outsized influence on what gets published, I wonder if people who actually read books are deciding what books to publish. In my view, the big houses are failing to publish enough serious fiction — that is, fiction that aims to make readers think, as well as feel.

Goethe wrote, “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.”

Books matter. Reading matters.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to meet Thom Hartmann. He has been a tireless advocate for democracy and equity. Over the years he’s helped me, like so many others, better articulate the causes of our suffering in this culture of extreme capitalism. And if he doesn’t have time for breakfast or lunch, I’m happy to be a guest on his show!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Website: www.adnauman.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/adnauman/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/april.nauman.1

Down the Steep: https://regal-house-publishing.mybigcommerce.com/down-the-steep/

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your important work!

Upstanders: How A D Nauman Is Standing Up Against Antisemitism, Racism, Bigotry, and Hate was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.