My Brother Says

He says, “I don’t know why we have to continue to talk about this thing that happened 300 years ago. I don’t own any slaves.”

Can we just leave the past in the past? Can’t we just talk about something else?

This is what my white, male, heterosexual peer says without saying.

These are sentiments echoed by some of my other white peers.

I want to turn to him and say,

 

Brother,

[Because, he is my brother. Although our skin color may fool others into thinking that we are more dissimilar than alike, I know that our differences are the product of socialization, and that my eye shape does not make me some subset of white humanity. We are all kin in our shared humanity, and my mother taught me that you may not like your family, but you always love them.]

I know that you are Catholic. I know that Catholics, like other denominations of Christianity, must claim and confess their sins.

I also know that your sins and mine are more than just the things that you or I have done or will do. They stretch far back, so far back that they seem to disappear. Be careful that you are not fooled by this human short-sightedness.

Because, my sins and your sins encompass the hate, the theft, the murder, the violence our ancestors thrust on those less fortunate and more vulnerable. Because, the nice things I have are the present incarnation of the legacy of the history of the oppression of others. Because, you and I are here, in college, and we have taken the place of someone poorer, darker, less heterosexual, and/or markedly disabled.

 

See, this is what spirituality means to me: It means connecting to the humanity in myself so that I can see it in others. It is painful, I will be the first to admit, to see the scope of our problems—to feel so helpless and so full of guilt. But I know from experience that you have to keep going. Keep moving so as not to become mired in the indulgence of self-pity that holds awareness like a lover.

I know, from experience, that the blinding blizzard of guilt ceaselessly begs, “Just lie down. Just for a minute.” But it is when you succumb, even for a moment, that you take advantage of what others don’t have. See? We are lucky that quitting may even appear to us as an option. We are lucky on the breaking backs of our kin.

I also know, from experience, that if you keep going, if you keep pushing forward even when you feel you have nothing left to give, that Spring lies on the other side of the permafrost. That life lives no matter where you are in the never-ending journey for equality. We just need to be open to feel it.

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The Face of the Other

“The face,” Emmanuel Levinas writes in Totality & Infinity, “resists possession, resists my powers. In its epiphany, in expression, the sensible, still graspable, turns into total resistance to the grasp.”

 

This semester I have been taking a sociology course on research methods, which has led to countless conversations (both in class and out) about individual intent of research. Over and over I hear that one of the popular purposes of research is to help the researcher make sense of her individual experiences.

When I hear this, it fills me with an impotent sadness that turns to rage because, once again, I am confronted with a false dichotomy—the separation of individualistic, self-centered understanding versus goals that are more noble, have more to do with a larger cause, are, generally, more male-oriented and more conforming to hegemonic identities.

You tell me what side of the fence you want to paint yourself on.

 

Because, I am not a man.

Because, like Tara Hardy, I choose not to ally myself with women who tell me that I ought not to wear make-up or high heels for the damage I might do to their cause. And, make no mistake, I understand that our causes often overlap and intersect, but I have taken to heart these life experiences I have had.

These experiences have changed me so profoundly, that, unlike my white, middle-class, nondisabled peers, I always come out swinging—fighting because I know that my bodily knowledge, my awareness that social location means everything, is righteous.

My experience, my personal, individual experience has taught me the whole that we all are—that we can all be. When I look into the faces of my white peers who disparagingly critique the idea that the poor might steal for a taste of that taken-for-granted power that is so common to everyone in the middle-class and above as to be invisible, I see a basic disconnect to humanity.

 

All research begins as a spark that is ignited by something that has happened individually to us. However, because I mince no words, am not ashamed of the violence I have endured, because my interests lie in understanding how to make the world a more just and equal place, I have been told that my interest in exploring contemporary and historical narrow conceptions of sexual violence are an instance of me, focusing on myself.

Surely, my interests in gendered violence may have begun that way, but it is insulting to insinuate that my particular interests in the welfare of others serve the sole purpose of me explaining myself, when I know my actions need no explanation.

Because, when I hear of the struggles of others, when I see pain in another’s face, I realize those, too, are my struggles. That, too, is my pain. That there is a thing in our society that looms large no matter where we turn that encourages us to stay disconnected from one another and disconnected from ourselves.

When I research or write or philosophize about social hierarchy, I attempt to chip away at that thing. I attempt to dissolve the barriers.

I feel this needs no explanation, but for those who beg explaining, once again, a quote from Totality & Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas:

“The being that expresses itself imposes itself, but does so precisely by appealing to me with its destitution and nudity—its hunger—without my being able to be deaf to that appeal. Thus in expression the being that imposes itself does not limit but promotes my freedom, by arousing my goodness.”

 

In the other I see myself. In open-armed acceptance of the other (of the other in my self), what is there is freedom and goodness.

Something More: Heterosexism

In U.S. Identity Politics we have been talking about homosexuality. Actually, the professor has been talking about the heterosexist/heteronormative nature of our society, but for much of the class this seems to unconsciously translate into responses about young, middle-/upper-class, white, nondisabled, male homosexuality.

One young, nondisabled, white, heterosexually oriented woman in class keeps bringing up that the most virulently anti-homosexual men generally have homosexual feelings. She asserts that these men compensate for their true feelings with “homophobia.”

I don’t know whether this is true or not, but to be fair, I don’t generally believe that there is an empirical truth to be found.

However, this one explanation of male heterosexism seems shallow to me. Plausible, but shallow.

In my heart, I believe that there is something more.

 

I think about Black male heterosexism. Just adding race complicates the issue, and this compounding shows who we think we are talking about when we talk about “homosexuality.” Surely if the concept of “homosexuality” referred to more than a slight modification of hegemonic masculinity there would be no need to talk about “heterosexism” as different from “Black heterosexism.” When we add race to discussions of sexuality, issues become de-centered.

And, that’s the reality of race: melatonin content, bone structure, hair texture drastically change things.

Further, the reality of race changes social location until race and class become inexorably entangled. Disability status, age, gender, and sexual orientation, too are all bound up with color/ethnicity and class—impossible to separate.

So, when we talk about heterosexism and only talk about men and when we talk about men and leave out the deeply-rooted, white supremacist, propagandistic portrayals of Black men as ineffectually “weak,” Brown men as lecherous pedophiles, Native men as historic relics, and Yellow men as effeminate, we become unable to enact change because society-wide change demands a full and unflinching understanding of the cultural terrain.

 

Heterosexist slurs exist for a myriad of reasons, some of which overlap, and some of which are starkly specific to certain groups. Easily, people from all walks of life may call upon anti-homosexual epithets for self-protection (Michael Kimmel makes a wonderful argument for this in his essay “Masculinity as Homophobia”). Just as easily, one may seek this protection for different reasons and under different circumstances depending upon social location.

It is my belief that, in addition to the above, anti-homosexual slurs can also work to test the waters—to see how accepting one’s loved ones are of ugliness and hate.

Heterosexism makes social boundaries of acceptability visible, so that one can be reminded of the costs of transgressions and/or be alerted if social tides are beginning to turn.

 

I wonder if the men my classmate was speaking of, those anti-gay, closeted men who were so quick to degrade others, were sending out a signal that was buried in their internalized heterosexist disgust.

I wonder if the signal was one of the hope of compassionate rebuke, of unconditional love and trust in the humanity in us all.

I hope that there is that something more because hope and love are the tools I have.

On “Being Saved”

I went to church on my own for the first time today in what feels like an eternity.

The last time I went to church regularly, seriously, seems like another life far removed from the one I live now.

The message at the church I went to today was about the double imputation of the cross.

It was strange, so strange to be there with smiling people who shook my hand.

 

I was fourteen when I first decided to not go to church. I’d put too much of myself into that church, until there was nothing left of me but the same sleepless, haunted nights, whose fingertips still brush my life now.

I felt very distinctly that I asked too many questions. At fourteen, in many ways I was entitled, and I was convinced that I was entitled to some guidance. Just as now, I studied and studied late into the night and then much of the day, trying to find the answers to my questions that my pastors told me were in that one book.

I never found them.

Truthfully, with the little wisdom that’s come with the additional years, I don’t think that the answers are there, in that book. I think that they’re here, inside my heart. I think they were always here, and it makes me sad that the two grown men I looked to for help did not know enough to be able to know how to tell that fourteen-year-old me to meditate on clarity and look within.

There are some things that you can only feel with all your heart.

 

I thought that I could be saved. I thought that going to church would save me.

But, even before church, I thought that someone would save me. I thought that well until just very recently. However, I knew, from a young age, that I would never be a princess.

And, even when given to chance to be kept, I never could stay that way. I always defaulted to fight, always vastly preferred to feel free.

However, I did talk myself into believing that, while never a princess, I could be a Lois. I wanted to be Lois Lane, a Joss-Whedon-Buffy-esque muse.

And, that was the best-case-scenario-me I could imagine—a sidekick, a man-made statuette.

 

What movies, and TV shows, and comic books, and love songs don’t tell you is the after. The messages about women that reached me when I was fourteen were the brainchildren of men who could have easily filled the demands of hegemonic masculinity. The images were of staying and leaving, jealousy and secrets, beauty and youth. I thought that was what love was supposed to be.

 

Four months from today, my significant other and I will have been together for more than seven years. I think back, fondly, on some of those early memories where we were just testing each other, but that’s where it stops.

I know now that I am not in need of saving—that any saving that was done on my behalf was done far before I could even be conscious of it. Part of the beauty of grace is that it needs no faith to show itself.

And, when the nights become unbearably cold—when the permafrost of the day seems too daunting to consider—I know that I’m working towards the thaw, but I’m not alone.

 

For what is only the second time in my life I don’t wish to be April O’Neil, because I feel like I am the hero of my own life.

The Class of Art

My partner is an art major at the university I also attend.

In ways we are very similar. We were both encouraged by high school art teachers who fed our thirst for expression. Both of our families emphasized our artistic abilities, supplying us with materials and books on art. We both prefer paper over canvas or clay or carving materials. We both understand the importance of work ethic in art.

However, the major difference of class has served as a sharp divide in our tastes.

 

A love of abstraction and expressionism still marks everything I touch and seek out.

For example, I find the epitome of everything good and worthwhile in a Mark Rothko—any Mark Rothko. I have sat, a captive of No. 14, 1960, at the S.F. M.O.M.A. until, invariably, the person/people I have gone to the museum with circle the rooms of the second floor of the museum until they feel they have seen all there is to see. I can never see enough of Rothko. His rich, saturated color makes me feel. The first time I saw pictures of the Rothko Chapel, I cried. So much unadulterated pain and devastation all in one place.

To me, this is what art should be. No matter what, its goal should be to make the viewer feel. I find so much beauty and meaning in Rothko because they are so minimal, so pure, they offer so much to take in. That feeling serves as a doorway that can unite us all. We all feel and have the ability to affect and be affected.

This is also what I see in David Lynch and Luis Buñuel—the feeling. Both directors take conventional notions of bourgeois life and turn them on their heads. Both can be uncomfortable, confusing, disturbing—this is where I find the beauty, pushing against the edges of acceptability and norms.

That questioning, that searching that requires pause are why, once upon a time, I was an art major.

 

My partner’s favorite artist is Takashi Murakami.

Murakami’s “superflat” art marries contemporary Japan with the U.S.A., and is said to wed “low” (i.e., commercial) art with traditional (or “high”) art. His neon cartoons critique consumerism while feeding it. They are, in ways, violently aggressive in the most palatable way possible. They are acts of resistance that ensure the artist’s fiscal stability at the least, and promise (and deliver in Murakami’s case) enormous success.

And, some of Murakami, I really love, but if I look too long at it, I end up feeling sick, sugary-sticky, overfull, sad. Sad for our culture. Sad for our future.

 

I think of my partner and how different we are. He’s ambivalent towards Rothko and Lynch, has never had a desire to see any Buñuel. I think of how he feels a likeness to Murakami.

I think, maybe that’s the difference. Maybe that’s part of the class of art. Upper class and middle class art is a leap of faith when you know there’s a safety net. It can take risks because there will always be food on the table. Working class art works towards the goal of sustainability, and the act of faith is the buying of supplies. Maybe. Maybe not.

Confessional

I’ve resisted making friends for about two years.

My partner and I moved to the non-coastal Western town we currently live in about four years ago now.

When I first started attending the university here I let myself grow attached to people in the classes I was in—so that, when we disagreed about fundamental issues of standpoint (e.g., they did not think that race/color changed gendered experiences) it was like a slap. I remember, very clearly, that there seemed to be no communication, only repudiation of my personal experiences as a young woman of color.

There were two classes early in my academic career here that I specifically remember experiencing these types of almost-friends ruptures.

I closed myself off.

Last semester, Fall 2011, the dread semester, my whole life seemed to rupture. A series of incidents occurred—nothing life-shattering, but, I am not ashamed to admit that I experienced such a large crisis of confidence that I daily feared mental breakdown. This crisis coincided with the personal decision to try to open up again. While the results of that semester still refract through my life, my immediate reaction was to seal myself up.

I tried to guard myself so perfectly against hurt from others that I didn’t even feel myself start to go tingly-numb from emotional self-suffocation.

 

This semester has represented another rupture, but there is a difference. If last semester was the blinding, encompassing blizzard that started a slow death of hurt and isolation, this semester has marked a shocking thaw. As the trees and bushes bud and bloom all around town, my heart, too, has seemed to thaw. I felt dead, but underneath my skin things were happening, and now I find that my heart is wick, just as Mary’s Secret Garden was.

 

Only a few short weeks ago, afternoons like today would have nearly devastated me. In class, discussing The Laramie Project, a debate sparked. A young, white, heterosexually identified, nondisabled man who listens to music by hanging his headphones around his neck and turning the volume up on his music player said that it’s more acceptable for two “girls” to make out because “at every party you go to there are always two girls making out.” He proceeded to suggest that if “girls” making out with other “girls” don’t want to be watched, “they should stop making out with each other.” He laughed. A lot of the young men in that class laughed.

A young, Indian, heterosexually identified, nondisabled, feminist woman who had been speaking about the subtlety of heterosexism was incensed. She’d just been talking about double standards and stereotypes, and all that she said, he attempted to undo casually, laughing. We locked eyes.

He proceeded to talk about how no one can really be pro-gay unless they are gay themselves.

She charged, “That’s like saying no one can be pro-Black if they aren’t Black themselves! We’d still be living in [officially state-sanctioned] segregation! That’s like saying that racism is okay!”

He argued that the two were totally different, because it’s easy to not be racist, “I just see people as people. I don’t see them as having a race.” It is at this point where I interrupt his statement with loud, raucous laughter. I am the only one laughing, but really, this is hilarious. A young, white, non-disabled, heterosexual man telling a young Indian woman that he doesn’t see race. If this isn’t a perfect example of Dadaism, I don’t know what is.

Because, of course he doesn’t feel like he has to see race. He’s a young, white, non-disabled, heterosexual man attending college. Of course things are easy. It would be strange if he thought about race, because society tells him that he is always the norm. He’s the measuring stick of others’ success. What my female, Indian classmate and I know, because we have lived it, is that it is a privileged position that situates the white man who says he doesn’t see race.

 

When I came home, I had a comment on an unfavorable review I left of Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black (which I would not dissuade anyone from reading) on Good Reads. The commenter says that perhaps the book wasn’t “clear” to me because I’m neither Black nor a comedian.

Where I would have let this crush me previously, I now find complete and total humor. Disregard that the commenter looked at my picture and assumed that I’m not Black because of my skin color (I’m not, but really), effectively reifying the whole concept of race as a biological construct. The symmetry alone is the stuff of Joseph Heller or David Lynch.

 

Somewhere along the way I decided the only way to get by was to keep my head down. I forgot the joy of friends, the way that laughter can be power. I talked myself into being a serious copycat of the hegemony, and all it got me was twisted and nervous.

This post is me, cracking open my ribcage because, I’m realizing that there’s always room for more.

Us & Them: Social Structure & the Laramie Project

It is easy to believe that it’s “us” and “them.”

That “they” are somehow inherently different than “we” are.

The individualistic identity that serves as the core of our society helps to foster and maintain inequality. If everyone is an individual, and all individuals are different, there is no thing, no structure to blame for the deaths by hate crime or the unequal life chances that litter our national news and saturate our culture.

Bad apples act as scapegoats—they let us blame the individual who picked up the gun, bought the knife, or lured the victim into the truck. As Phillip Zimbardo might say, the idea of bad apples lets our attention be drawn away from bad barrels that turn apples bad.

The myth of the rouge allows us to not see the way that we all contribute to systems of oppression. Inequality is structurally built-in. You can see it in the ways that minorities are represented throughout society.

For example:

Homosexuality is gendered, raced, classed, aged, oriented in certain bodies in mass media. Homosexuality is turned male, white, upper-middle class, young, nondisabled at the hands of Will & Grace and Glee. Homosexual men are denied action and subjectivity when they are commodified and turned into the neutered “GBF” or “Gay Best Friend;” the “best friend” to a heterosexual woman who cannot be whole without the company of a man.

The cultural stereotype of the Gay Best Friend maintains gendered inequality by placing the heterosexual woman in the center—her feelings, thoughts, and actions are the focus. Her friendship with a gay man signals both her progressiveness and the gay man’s supposedly non-masculine nature. The heterosexual woman remains the norm while male homosexuality is cast as effeminate, deviating from masculinity identified through male heterosexuality. Ironically, the Gay Best Friend is made nearly asexual because he is not shown on his own without his heterosexual, female “friend.” He is a support character—his whole purpose is to support his heterosexual, female “friend.”

This is a contemporary modification of Adrienne Rich’s “compulsory heterosexuality,” and it has ramifications throughout society.

Brandon White can attest to that. A couple months ago White was leaving a corner store when he was jumped by several men who savagely beat him. They recorded the encounter, and, in the recording they can be heard repeating slurs—slurs that focused on White’s perceived sexual orientation.

It would be easy to say that these young men who attacked White were just “bad apples.” That “they” aren’t a part of “us.” It would be easy, but it would be wrong.

White’s attackers, Matthew Shepard’s attackers all exist in the same cultural milieu that we live in. They took the idea of gender binaries, the same idea that allows a man to hold a door open for a woman but will not allow that same man to walk through a door held open by the same woman, and acted it out. They physically and individually punished someone who did not conform to that gender binary, the way that we, as a culture, punish non-heterosexuals by denying them full citizenship in humanity, by denying non-heterosexuals basic rights.

It would serve all of us well to not forget that the “them” we think of as a distinct category that serves as the gulf that keeps “them” separate from “us” is indiscriminate—it can just as easily be applied to Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson as it can be to Matthew Shepard. Who is “them?” Who is “us?” That depends on the barrel, that ever-elusive structure that is so hard to see because of the shortsighted value we place on the apple.