1. Rachel Monroe’s “#Vanlife, the Bohemian Social-Media Movement” for The New Yorker
Years ago, when my husband and I were traveling around the West in a 2003 Chevy Aveo (a car the size and color of a Skittle), we camped at Badlands National Park. Next to us was an old Volkswagen van occupied by a gorgeous young couple and their son. They cooked in the van, had coffee there, played with their little boy, the doors thrown open to the surreal reliefs of the landscape. It looked so dreamy that Jorge and I have nurtured the fantasy of selling everything and taking off in a van ever since.
Not anymore. Monroe’s piece is a fascinating, nauseating reveal of social media’s rapacious commodification of every aspect of everyday life, even–and especially–the most far-flung hippie escapist fantasies. The characters in her piece are at turns victims–sucked into nonstop content production for their sponsors, their lives converted into a set for choice products–and the worst kind of new age posers, refusing to accept their role as marketers (calling their sponsorships “alliances” is just one laughable example) as they stage their freewheeling yoga-and-surfing life for an audience desperate for authenticity.
There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic conformity in the vanlife world. Nearly all of the most popular accounts belong to young, attractive, white, heterosexual couples. “There’s the pretty van girl and the woodsy van guy,” Smith said. “That’s what people want to see.” At times, the vanlife community seems full of millennials living out a leftover baby-boomer fantasy: the Volkswagens, the neo-hippie fashions, the retro gender dynamics.
2. Kate Ristow’s “Why Didn’t I Get Help for Postpartum Depression Sooner?” in New York Magazine
Ristow chronicles her experience here with postpartum depression, but the focus isn’t so much on the nature of the disease itself but on the way it is still stigmatized, overlooked, and minimized, even while most women are ostensibly screened for it after birth. She writes, “I wonder, now, what would have happened if we treated postpartum depression as more routine than taboo.” This would mean acknowledging that many women may flounder in a middle ground, not so depressed that they can’t function, but overwhelmed enough that their lives are seriously impaired.
We continue to view postpartum depression as a “woman problem,” an out-of-control version of PMS. At its most benign, it’s perceived as complaining, inappropriate, a weakened resolve, like the inability to control oneself around chocolate or shoes. At its worst, it’s dangerous, psychotic, as illustrated by extreme tragedies that make any mother with even a whiff of sadness terrified to admit it.
3. Mariama Lockington’s “What A Black Woman Wishes Her White Adoptive Parents Knew” in Buzzfeed
This is a resonant, powerful essay, composed in vivid snapshots that reveal the pervasive everyday racism Lockington experienced growing up as the adopted black child of white parents. The piece confronts the many ways in which Lockington’s adoptive parents failed to address her race, and how this failure over time amplified into an erasure of Lockington’s sense of self and place in the world.
A few months ago, in therapy, I found myself uttering the following words: “But if I’m not a good girl, who will want to keep me?” I am 31 years old and I still feel as though I owe this picture, my white parents, something impossible: my silent gratitude. I still feel that if I dare to question, challenge, or speak truth to my snapshots as a black transracial adoptee, I will be “sent back” or “unadopted” for being ungrateful. What happens if I say to them:
Look, I have often felt unseen in your home, your home in which I was in many ways expected to live up to the myth of colorblindness. Your love alone does not protect me from the fact of my black skin.
4. Ijeoma Oluo’s “The Heart of Whiteness: Ijeoma Oluo Interviews Rachel Dolezal, the White Woman Who Identifies as Black” in The Stranger
This piece stuck with me long after I read it. Oluo travels to Dolezal’s house in Spokane for an interview, wary and yet trying to be open-minded, only to get sucked into a series of belittling, insensitive explanations and arguments that at their core reveal the persistent arrogance of whiteness. Never have I read an interview so uncomfortable and charged, where the tensions between what the interviewee wants to portray and what the interviewer sees are so immediate. Oluo is weary of being pursued constantly by the media’s fascination with Dolezal, and I hope her incisive analysis here of that fascination helps put it finally to rest.
For a white woman who had grown up with only a few magazines of stylized images of blackness to imagine herself into a real-life black identity without any lived black experience, to turn herself into a black history professor without a history degree, to place herself at the forefront of local black society that she had adopted less than a decade earlier, all while seeming to claim to do it better and more authentically than any black person who would dare challenge her—well, it’s the ultimate “you can be anything” success story of white America. Another branch of manifest destiny. No wonder America couldn’t get enough of the Dolezal story.