small victories

i don’t ever really know what sinks in when i talk to my kids about racism. about sexism. about ableism, heterosexism, cis privilege, imperialism, genocide, etc. i’m just winging it. trying to teach them to recognize their privilege. to see white supremacy, the patriarchy, police officers and capitalism for what they are. me and their daddy try to contextualize it so it intersects with their lived experiences. but who knows. this parenting thing is like making it all up when the script is supposed to be in front of you.

and i’m even more dubious when i talk to my 8 y/o. sure, he grasps more, but he’s not as attentive or empathetic as his little sister. he’s bright. but can still be pretty self centered. i dont know what lessons about the struggles of others really make an impression. which made the other night at bedtime especially thrilling. in an enraging kind of way.

elijah and i were snuggling in his top bunk. it was dark and we were just cuddling quietly. sometimes we talk, sometimes we share stories, but that night it seemed like we were just going to lay there quietly while he fell asleep.

after a few minutes of cuddles e finally broke the silence, startling me a bit. he started with the bold (but totally unshocking) statement that they’d read a racist book in class that day. i was intrigued, curious to see how he’d interpreted our informal lessons. the book is called “betcha” and is a tool for teaching rounding and estimation. elijah was angry because the whole book centers around two boys: one white, one black. and apparently throughout the book the white boy consistently, diligently does his estimation and rounding, thus getting every problem right. while the black boy just sort of guesses: sometimes getting it right but more often getting it wrong. ugh, right? but oh, so run of the mill.

we’ve talked about racism as it intersects with academics, the way teachers will differentially treat white students and students of color. especially black students. about tracking and school suspensions and all other manner of white supremacy in the classroom. and here it was glaring my kid in the face and he saw it for what it was. it’s a little thing, i get that. and he didn’t harass his teacher for reading it–which feels like step two in teaching your white kids to recognize racism. i can’t wait for step two, y’all.

so i’m just going to sit here and appreciate my little one and do a tiny, tiny shimmy of exaltation. and then get back to the work of raising white kids to see the world around them critically and resist the crazy bullshit at every turn.

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Lessons i will teach my white daughter

I am seeing a lot about how white folks need to accept responsibility for our privilege and our role in the maintenance of white supremacy in the wake of the continued police sanctioned murder of black men, women and children. And it’s true. As i’ve said before, we need to teach our white children how NOT to be racist, how to see and call out racism, how to recognize the ways we benefit from and contribute to white supremacy, how NOT to be killer cops or trigger happy vigilantes.

There is a whole heck of a lot we need to be teaching our white kids. But as I read pieces by white mother’s grappling with their white privilege, I feel they come up just short of what we, as white parents of white children, need to be digging into

White female tears

White female tears

with each other. The action steps, the how to’s, the words we can use to talk with our children about something that saturates our world as completely as white supremacy.

I want to offer my messy and incomplete thoughts into the realm of strategy sharing. To start a conversation about how exactly we raise white children to make different choices about how to live with and use their white privilege. This post focuses specifically on my white daughter and it is incomplete, but i want to do similar posts for my white son and to expand on this one in the near future. I really am hoping this will be a conversation.

Lesson one: i will tell my white daughter that every man that has ever hurt me deeply was a white man. it was a white man that raped me. it was a white man that emotionally abused me. it was a white man who stole a lot of money from me, lied about it and then tried to wheedle his way back into my life. media, friends, teachers and other family members may try to convince her that black men are somehow scarier than white men. but they will be wrong and i will work to remind her that white female fear of black male bodies is a powerful tool of white supremacy. and i will teach her not to wield it.

Lesson two: i will teach her that as white women we are white supremacy’s darling. we are the antithesis of black male bodies. we are what white american terrorism is made for. from the lynching of emmett till, to the kkk, to the school to prison pipeline, to the ongoing open season on black bodies. all of that institutional violence, at it’s core, is all for us. all for white women. we are the battle cry of our white brothers. we are something to fight for and protect. while non white bodies, male and female alike, will be seen with suspicion by law enforcement and will be charged and imprisoned with enthusiasm by our justice system, she will be seen as innocent. she will be protected. at the very least she will be given the dignity of being treated innocent until proven guilty.

my daughter will know the names and stories of shanesha taylor and kari engholm. shanesha taylor is a black mother who left her two young children in her car with the windows cracked and the fan running while she went to a job interview. immediately upon returning to her car, ms. taylor was charged with two counts of child abuse, faced up to 8 years in jail and had her bail set unnecessarily high. her children were fine. keri engholm left her infant daughter in her minivan and then rushed off to meetings. tragically the little girl died but iowa officials were hesitant to charge mrs. engholm at all and it took them awhile to do so. my little girl will know that justice looks different when you’re a white woman. and that that is all kinds of fucked.

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White women: doing the work of white supremacy every. damn. day.

Lesson three: i will teach her that her white female body is used as a weapon of white supremacy against non white women. that while, yes, we face certain violences as a result of our female bodies, we also face less because of our skin color. and that her skin, hair and eye color are the trifecta of perfect beauty. that it is our bodies that have colonized beauty standards worldwide. that women all around the world have been taught to hate their own bodies because they are not light enough, their hair not straight enough. and that all over the world there are women that change themselves to look more like us. it pays to be the darling.

Lesson four: i will teach her that our dominion as the ultimate woman goes beyond beauty standards. that it permeates our psyche and that we let it be our truth. i will teach her the real history of the white female heroines she will learn about in school. she will know that when it mattered, during the women’s suffrage movement, white women were willing to throw black freedoms under the bus. that they were pitted against black male suffrage and instead of uniting made it clear they would not work with black men but fight on their own. i will teach her that margaret sanger, hailed as i champion for female reproductive choice, used her development of the birth control pill to serve the agenda of forced sterilization of black women. my white daughter will understand the legacy of our white foremothers and know how it continues to impact white feminists’ erasure of women of color.

There is endlessly more to teach her. There are whole lessons on avoiding the white savior complex. About tokenization, white woman’s tears, white guilt, how to step back shut up and cede some of our power. I just needed to start somewhere. And open the conversation with other white parents of white children about HOW exactly we teach our children NOT to use their lives as a pillar of white supremacy. Comments, reactions and feedback desired.

It’s time for white parents to have “the talk” with their kids

Alright white parents, it’s time to get real. First, you should read the following articles: this one on the root by Tonyaa Weathersbee and this one by Jennifer Harvey at the huffington post.  Both explore the nuances of how parents navigate conversations about race and racism with their children and to what effect.  A spoiler: it is largely to damning effect.

In short, Ms. Weathersbee argues that “the talk” black parents have with their children about not provoking white people, not doing those things racist dominant white culture deem “suspicious” just supports uninterrupted white supremacy. And gives white folks a pass to continue their violent legacy of racism.  On the other hand white parents fail miserably at cultivating critical thinking on racism with their white children. As long as we, as white parents, fail to challenge the racist culture we live in and teach our children to see white supremacy for what it is, this shit is not going to get better.

Let me draw a parallel that you might be able to connect with. Maybe you’re familiar with the idea that we need to stop blaming our daughters for dressing in certain ways or consuming alcohol or being friendly and instead teach our boys not to rape and assault our girls. Makes sense, right? We can get behind that, right? Well now i’m going to challenge white parents to step up and stop hiding behind the idea that black and brown people need to stop wearing hoodies or reaching for their wallets when stopped by the police or blasting their music or knocking on strangers doors when they’ve been in an accident. And that instead white parents need to start teaching our white kids not to be racist and kill black and brown people because of our white supremacist indoctrination that teaches us to fear and hate non white people.

It’s the same idea, really. Even if we don’t want it to be. In order to do it though we have to give up a couple of pretty lame excuses i hear far too often from white folks who claim to want to do this work. The first is that white people often feel like we need to be taught by people of color about racism.  As if as white people we have no experience perpetuating or benefiting from racism that we could use to work from, or no ability to look critically at the systems of power all around us.  Or no access to articles, blogs, news sources, comedians, etc. who are speaking from their lived experiences about racism in this country.  Not to mention the way this re-centers white need and forces people of color to not only live in our racist culture but also enlighten well meaning white folk about their struggle.  It is baffling to me.  The second excuse i hear is that we don’t know what to say, that we need some pre packaged talking points to get us started.  And then nothing happens.  We’ve stated our desires to work on this ish, but we have no tools and apparently no power within ourselves to take a leap and build as we go.  But we need to let go of our fear of not being the perfect white “anti racist,” because always saying the perfect thing doesn’t matter if we are letting it get in the way of doing anything to deconstruct the systems of oppression we. participate. in. and. benefit. from. every. day.

So white parents, it is our turn to tackle “the talk” with our kids.  To share the burden of unpacking racism with parents of color.  It is time we teach our white kids not to murder and fear kids of color.  Not to assume they are guilty, violent, lazy, stupid, drug addicts, etc. Because if Ms. Weathersbee’s analysis of historical patterns holds we are swinging back into a period of even more severe violence against children and women and men of color.  Soon #Every28Hours will be #Every18Hours.

And there is some good news for us, white parents.  Once you start to look for jumping points to discuss racism with your kids, you will find that they are nearly limitless.  Here’s an easy first step. Just take a look at any media that is relevant to your child(ren) and you are bound to find stereotypes aplenty or maybe just a palpable lack of characters of color, voices of color, etc. Media constructs a significant part of our kids worlds today and even if we’re groovy parents that limit visual media consumption (ya know because it teaches our girls they need to be rescued by boys, etc), there’s always books. My nearly 6y/o daughter will almost only consume books with rad female characters. If i pushed her i think she’d be able to identify that that’s because she can connect to those characters more easily than she can cool male characters. So what if i pushed her to consider how in these same books she loves there are very few characters of color? And asked her if she thought her friends at school would be able to connect to those characters in the same way she does. And when she says no, to encourage her to consider how that might feel. To be constantly unrepresented or stereotypically represented in movies, books, television shows, etc. It’s not a giant leap.

Or you could work with your child to analyze the ways in which we teach history in this country. You know, because we make it all sound so pretty when really our American history is an ugly parade of violence and white domination. As they come home from school with construction paper “native american” headbands, take a second to talk to your kid(s) about what really happened to those same native americans after the yummy feast was over. About how we killed native americans, pushed them from their lands, killed them a lot more and pushed them onto increasingly smaller reservations, then how we legislated their assimilation, stole their children and jailed them with impunity as they tried to resist and preserve their lives and cultures. School, i promise, will provide SO MANY OPPORTUNITIES to debunk the great white myth of our own superiority and fairness.

And while we can start small we MUST build up to the big stuff. We’ve talked to both of our kids about the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. The murders, mind you, the blatantly obvious murders. We’ve talked about how this happens a WHOLE FUCKING LOT. I’ve talked with our 6y/o about how she is the antithesis to a black or brown male. Cops will trip over themselves to save a pretty white girl, we are who armed forces have risen to protect throughout white history. I mean, damn, we’ve had whole nations going to war for us.

Explain to your kids that we fail to sentence the murderers of these children but conversely imprison and execute men and women of color for NON VIOLENT crimes. Explain to them the next time there’s a missing white girl’s face racing across every news outlet and computer screen that we do not do the same to find missing girls of color. Help them draw the conclusion that this means in our white supremacist culture that we just don’t value the lives of people of color. They will not need your help to know how utterly fucked up this is.

Our kids are bright and they get shit, they pick up on what’s going on around them. So let’s not hide them from the ugliness of the world we’ve built for them, but instead let’s reveal it to them so that they know what we’re up against. We cannot fight what we are not acknowledging. We cannot protect our own children if it means condemning other people’s children to a life of violence and a high probability of murder.

This blog does not begin to cover everything it needs to. But it aims to start a discussion and keep it going. #ItsTimeWhiteParents

thats a good daughter: on gender as an illusion

not ten minutes after i put up a facebook status about preparing to hitch hike my mother was texting me asking me where i was going.  i tried to reassure her in that poor media that i was just headed out to twin oaks and had safely and successfully done the trip many times before.  and then i offered to text her when i was safe at my destination.  she wrote back, “that’s a good daughter,” and i couldnt help but laugh.  i quipped back and told her that “i am a bizarre twist on the good daughter.”  she laughed.  touche.

it has been awhile since i’ve hitched and i was that mix of nervous and excited as i tried to figure out what to wear.  i was afraid that my new hair cut–half the hair got buzzed to a quarter of an inch recently–would render me more gender ambiguous than i usually am and diminish my hitch hiking success.  so i threw on a wild bright pink dress and packed some strappy sandals to change into after i’d biked to my sisters place.  but more and more the act of dressing to my gender is becoming increasingly stressful.  it’s not that i dont love throwing on a dress and embracing everything i love about being a woman, but when i have to present myself as a woman in hyper-scrutinized circumstances like hitch hiking, i remember how absurd the gender binary is.

my gender identity is with some frequency a point of contention with strangers.  yesterday, i was walking to my sisters house and stopped to chat with a little girl on her power ranger.  we talked a little bit and then she abruptly and adamantly told me, multiple times, that i was a man.  because men can wear their hair long and only men have mustaches–which is what she considered the whisker like hair on my chin.  i tried to counter her certainty but quickly realized that i didnt actually want to be defending my definition of gender with the arguments at my disposal and, anyways, she was pretty clearly convinced.

but it reminded me of a conversation my housemate relayed to me.  she works at a local market that i frequent and one day a co-worker who had seen her and i together asked about me.  stumbling through a conversation with awkward questions, he asked if i was a transitioning transgender man.  she reassured him that i was woman bodied and identified and i still grew out my chin hair as a nod to embracing my body, every part of it.  until my housemate told me of his line of questioning, i hadn’t even considered the possibility that i would be confused for being transgender.  i found it amusing and frustrating at the same time.

we are still so stuck in the rigidity of gender stereotypes, gender roles and gender presentation that the only wiggle room we get is an ambiguous understanding of that it means to be transgender.  i have been considering playing with that more.  for awhile i’ve been wanting to do something with this unusual physical appearance i embrace.  the idea would be to pluck the hair from one side of my chin, tape down the opposite breast, and create some costume outfit that was part stereotypically male and part stereotypically female.  it seems like now is the time to do it, while my head reflects that split gender presentation.

and even this doesnt feel like exactly what i want to be doing.  i want to represent the possibility of a spectrum of gender identities and there’s something limited in the split presentation piece.  i would be interested in working with others to play with this.

reclaiming my room

i’ve always hated that word.  usually when its used something that should be sacred or safe or unharmed has already been violated.  they use it to talk about what they do after mountain top removal, they use it to talk about taking back words, they use it to talk about taking back land that should never need to be taken back.  reclaiming has always felt like an insult to the memory of whatever it is youre “reclaiming.”  it always seems to gloss over and sanitize the fact that something terrible, awful, violent happened and someone thought it was okay to do it.  i think we need a new word, something that recognizes the anger and horror of the act and the process.  but until we have it, i’ll settle on reclaiming.

saturday morning i discovered that someone close to me, someone who i’d believed cared about me, stole nearly 600$ out of my room.    it’s been a rough several days since then, coping with the emotional impact: the violation of my space, the violation of my trust, the pain of having every memory of my relationship with this person demeaned and shattered.  then, to exacerbate that process, the low level, constant financial anxiety i am now carrying around with me.

i am only now feeling comfortable again in my room.  the first few days i couldnt come in here without getting nauseous, and it was only because i was all but forced back into the space on monday that i am able to sit in it now.  it was loud downstairs with the brush burner spitting hot air into the house and kaya and i needed somewhere warm and quiet to play.  as we walked up the stairs to my room, she looked back at me with the anxious look of bit lips and said, “but you dont feel safe in here.”  it was true and her pause and concern made it okay to walk in again together, to try at least.  i walked in and was hit by wall of nausea; i remember being even more anxious to bring kaya into that space.  it was the intersection of feeling violated in my room and that re-triggering sexual violences and i wanted to scream and get kaya out of there.  i didnt want her to be exposed to any of the trauma of feeling violated in such core ways; i didnt want to invite her into that space and thus into that experience that is all too common for women in our culture.  but she wasn’t where i was in that moment, and she tugged me forward into the room.

i dont really remember what we did those first few moments.  eventually we burned sage, made little booties for one of my teddy bears that kaya has fallen in love with.  and then at some point we were watching a music video and kaya’s head was resting on my thigh and i could feel my anxiety meet her calm, i could feel her help me ground.  and i felt a little better, i felt myself fall into the reclamation process.

i still haven’t been able to sleep here yet.  the combination of the dark and the vulnerability of sleep have made me too anxious to consider it.  but we’re having a party here at woodfolk on friday and i think i’ll invite folks i am excited about to have a chill party space up in my room, so i can fill it again with good energy.  and then hopefully i’ll be able to convince someone to sleep over with me.  because while many people are offering me spaces to sleep, it is a bit exhausting sleeping somewhere else every night.

and that’s really the amazing part of all this, the response of my new and old communities.  the day i found out i had so many people validating my upset, my pain, my sense of violation.  i had houses and arms open to me.  i had shoulders to cry on and to hold me up.  in the moment that i realized that one person that i’d trusted didn’t care about me, i was reminded of the many many more who do.  and i mean really do.  thanks to everyone who’s been helping me through this process.  mad love.

before i sleep

sometimes i feel haunted.  by all of the stories and images and memories that fight for attention in my head.  and more than the stories and images and memories are the sweet shadows of lost relationships.  tonight pax and i watched west side story and, after brief distress surrounding maria’s disregard for her brothers death at the hands of her lover, we talked about what draws people into gangs.  pax remarked that the movie didnt make a strong case for being a shark or a jet.  i, ever argumentative, had to disagree.

there was a time when i wanted to go into “gang intervention and reinvention.”  it’s in quotes because i made it up and created a degree program all for myself in the University of South Carolina’s honors college to support my fully uninformed dream.  i’d been working for several months in a poor, black community that i could walk to from my freshman dorm.  i was volunteering with an after school program that worked out of a dilapidated building, trying to force kids to do homework for an hour with the promise of playing in the lot across the street afterwards.

on my first day at the waverly center i unsuccessfully tried to work with a young boy named william.  he insisted he didnt have any homework and didnt offer much else to me.  when it was time to play he became slightly more animated.  without seeing how it began i suddenly noticed william in the center of a circle of boys older than him.  the older boys closed in and started hitting him; i panicked.  running into the center of the circle i forced the boys to either hit me or stop hitting anyone at all.  they stopped and william looked at me with fury in his eyes.  he spat some angry words at me and stormed off.  i was baffled.

one of the older boys took pity on me and explained to me later that william was having a hard time at school, that he was being picked on.  and that i had interrupted his initiation.  his initiation into the creighton crew.  william was in 5th grade, the boy explaining this to me was maybe in 7th.  william had been close to initiation into the middle school gang that would offer him protection, that would give him his door into a type of manhood and i’d gotten in the way.  literally.  open your eyes, white girl.

the next time i saw william we didn’t mention it.  he was sullen and i was mostly silent.  i didn’t really know what to say; i could throw empty words at him about doing his homework, but i knew that they’d be just that: empty.  instead i sat close and watched him.  he liked to draw.  its what he did whenever he told me he didnt have homework.  its what he did whenever he told anyone he didnt have homework.  instead of asking him about schoolwork, i started asking him about his drawing.  one day i goaded him, telling him i didnt have anything hanging on my fridge.  that afternoon he handed me a drawing, it was a young black man in profile and it was stunning.  i hung it on my dorm fridge with pride.  by then i’d been working with william for over a year.

when i started they told me we never kept any of the older boys.  that by the time they got to middle school most of the boys dropped off, stopped coming and didnt show up to hang out on the weekends when we would knock on doors and see who wanted to go to the park.  after a year we were keeping more of the older boys.  i worked hard, mostly just paying attention to them, discovering who they really were and not who i expected them to be.  and they opened up to me in startling ways.  i remember one day in that second year, a group of older boys crowded anxiously around me to show off their interim reports (pieces of paper with stupid letters on them that these same boys had previously denied receiving), they were all eager to show me their columns of D’s and C’s and B’s and A’s.  i felt proud then, and a little devastated now.

we teach children that there are very specific ways that we measure them.  these kids were told all about that pretty faced delusional american dream we’re all taught we can achieve if just we work hard enough, while simultaneously being taught in school and in the media and in their social interactions that they were expected to become nothing.  young black male nothings.  and for a few hours each week i gave them the space to be something different.

but i abandoned the idea of “reinventing gangs.”  after remembering that first day with william i realized that i would never really get it and that i could never be at the forefront of radical gang revisioning.  because as much as i love those boys and as much as we helped each other grow, i was always going to be something like inaccessible to them.  they looked at me and i made sense, because i was exactly what they expected to be coming from the university: i was a middle class white girl.  i could love them but i could not shatter the internalized oppression that they carried with them at such a young age.  i could not prove to them that the self fulfilling prophecy society had created for them was untrue.  i did not look like them so i was free to be whatever it was i wanted to be.  they needed strong black men who were challenging our violent racist dogma.

i cant sleep tonight.  because i am back in the sunshine of south carolina springs, walking through streets listening to the echoes of those days when i got to play and love the kids with the waverly program.  and i feel my heart ache missing those hours together.  i wonder where william is, where the others are.  i just went to a group facebook page and saw some of those boys faces, even older now, still hanging around at that totally uncool after school program.

more and more lately my defining experience is one of rage.  i remember fearing anger as a little girl and maybe i am only now healing my relationship with that once “dark” emotion.  but there is so much to be angry about, y’all.  and alongside the ache in my heart i feel a steady beat of rage pound with it.  rage for a culture that continues to inflict this violence on people who arent white, male, middle class or more, able bodied, heterosexual, christian, etc and so forth.  rage at the many many people it takes to support that oppressive system.  rage at our fear, or whatever, that blocks us from standing up and tearing that shit down.

boys!

yesterday’s grrrrrls studies class was a little small, just myself and four other girls.  i hadn’t adequately prepared for class and threw it out to the girls.  we’d spent the last week talking about our friendships with other girls.  and this week when asked what they wanted to talk about, one girl blurted out “boys!”  the others were happy to follow on that path and i stifled a groan.  we started by talking about our crushes.  then when a friend with a “boyfriend” was discussed we were all a little shocked.  what does it mean to be someone’s boyfriend at age 10??  to be someone’s girlfriend??  a little sheepishly but with complete honesty i talked about my own elementary school “boyfriends.”  the girls looked at me suddenly as somebody apart, someone they hadn’t seen before.  they asked me questions and i offered my 23 year old wisdom, about how romantic relationships are now more important within the web of my other relationships.  that a boyfriend is no longer the be all end all of my relationships and that they actually are much healthier when i have a handful of other strong relationships: friend or romantic, alongside it.

we side noted then for awhile about girl friendships again.  one girl shared a story about painful dynamics with a girl who used to be a close friend of hers and now has another group that she hangs out with, and how those two groups are small enemy groups.  other girls shared similar stories, others still offered sympathetic advice.  we explored where those dynamics come from and why girls are often taught they need to compete against each other.  and it brought us all the way back to…boys!  the girls quickly recognized that it was stupid for girls to fight or compete over boys, that we shouldn’t let boys get in the way of our friendships.  but that seemed easier said than done.

again we talked about boys.  spiraling around in concentric circles of relationship talk.  and i’m not actually sure how we got there, but we were talking about saying “no.”  i explained that it was always my weakness, how to turn down a boy without hurting him.  that i often found myself stuck in relationships i didn’t actually want to be in.  and how that was not ok.  i shared a little about my progress in that field when i was interrupted by a clearly vulnerable and earnest question from one of the most outspoken girls in the class.  she looked at me with clear concern and asked, “but how do you do it?  how do you say no?”  i started to explain my tactics and then shifted gears.  we did some role playing.  i played the boy, asking each girl in turn if they would go out with me.  initially the responses were simple: no or maybe.  then i modeled a little more dialogue as the girl being asked out and little by little, we got more in depth responses from the other girls.  but it is clearly something we need to work on more, because there were still girls who it was clearly hard and uncomfortable for.  girls who by the end of class had not given a clear answer.  

we talked more about consent and how saying no wasn’t mean, but merely a reflection of our own truths.  i shared an experience i had when i was probably 14 or 15, at a teen dance club.  how the culture was for the girls to start dancing with their friends, how the boys circled and often would just come up behind you and start dancing, without asking at all.  how i often didn’t even know who was behind me.  and then at one point i was dancing with someone who backed up and then came back to me with his penis exposed.  we talked about how as girls we sometimes really need to hold onto our voices and make them heard, how we have to be able to say no and feel powerful in that expression.

it was a really incredible experience, to explore concepts of consent and saying “no” with girls who are already trying to figure these things out.  i think we’ll probably give both topics more attention in future classes.  if you have any ideas about how to guide younger girls through these conversations and exercises, praytell!

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