Practice

I feel wrung out. This happens every so often.

I sometimes feel that people ask too much. When I exploded some weeks ago when class was still in session—when I told those two white men they are privileged by their social location—what I didn’t write about were the three students who came up to me after class to thank me for saying what I did. What I didn’t write was that when the thanks toppled out of their mouths I spontaneously, surprisingly burst into tears. I was so gratefulfrustratedsad at/for them.

 

Grateful.

The majority of us, perhaps all of us, yearn to feel connected. That’s why some of us join white supremacist groups—to feel united (by fear), like we belong (in juxtaposition to those who don’t), within a cause (that is contorted so that it is believed to be just). I will not make that false parallel here, between white supremacy and antiracist activism, because my short, active consciousness of social justice issues has, in many ways, felt very isolating. I feel more alone now than I have since high school—the differences being that in high school I was much more self-centered (and so, in a way, that feeling of isolation was self-imposed), and that I have now discovered that I am more resilient than I had ever imagined.

See, that’s one of the lies that women are told: that we are weak. We are told that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. We are told that men can protect us.

This is a rude lie.

This is a complete untruth that keeps us subservient, in the home, and in heterosexual relationships. This myth keeps us focused on individuals so that we don’t look at structural inequality and begin to see the trends—the toll that inequality exacts. Simply, to insert the obligatorily Public Enemy quote, “Don’t believe the hype.”

Anyway, you can imagine that I am grateful whenever anyone reaches out to me in confirmation of what I am saying and doing and thinking around social justice issues, but that doesn’t mean that I still am not

 

Frustrated.

Because, why didn’t you say anything in class when I was having to defend myself to tell, not just my truth, but yours too?

Maybe I seem strong, but there are days that I just cry thinking about all the injustice and all the work that needs to be done. And, the words that seem to flow out of my mouth about the detrimental health effects of patriarchy on women (toxic cosmetics, high heels and hand bags that mess up our backs, eating disorders or lack of sustenance due to poverty that weakens our bone density, just to name some of the most obvious) or racial hierarchy (disproportionally higher rates of morbidity, mortality, infant mortality for Black Americans than for any other group, and on and on) come from practice.

I do not feel especially gifted with words. I have worked. I have read, listened, talked to, argued against people who were trying to tell me what my reality is, what my friends’ realities are. I have failed—have felt the searing shame of saying nothing. I remember that feeling whenever I think I have a choice between saying something and keeping silent.

That’s why I also felt

 

Sad.

Because, I can’t make any difference alone. And, hopefully those three people who came up to me will be interested in doing their own research. Hopefully they will find their own voices and have the courage to stand by their convictions, out loud and in front of everybody.

Being an invisible ally or activist is like not being an activist at all, and doing nothing is doing something. Doing nothing is agreeing that the status quo is fine. Doing nothing disconnects you from the divinity within that is our shared humanity that cries for an equitable existence for all.

I know it seems difficult and scary, but I hope that next time, we do something. Together.

Advertisements

Family

It means something, although I’ll admit that I don’t know what, when I push my folded up bill into their clear, plastic container with a rectangular-shaped hole cut in the top.

It means something, when the tall, slim man with the bright face says, “here” and hands me a small plastic flower. I know that later I’ll put it in my hair.

 

I don’t know what these men are doing here, outside the Wal-mart all lined up like day workers. There are maybe a dozen of these weathered men. They stand around a large folding table with a variety of military logo ball caps stacked neatly in rows. They smile at me and nod their heads in recognition as I walked past them the first time. They look me in the eyes when they tell me to have a good afternoon.

It is like they have recognized me in a way that I would not have recognized them. I could say, cynically, that they just have good P.R., but I don’t believe that.

 

He says to me, “You deserve a hug—or, maybe I deserve the hug,” and we both laugh, but he has taken the breath out of me with his warm smile and the kind look in his eyes. This man, all these men, have done something for me. I just don’t know what.

I become mute because I do not have words for these people, my elders, who are standing outside a Wal-mart, asking for donations in trade for ball caps behind a banner proclaiming “VETERANS OF THE VIETNAM WAR.”

And, let me be clear, I do not feel pity, but awe.

 

The hardest thing for me to do is accept any kindness, so I know that it is hypocritical that the thing I want the most is for people to be kind to one another. I know how hard that can feel. We get trapped in the tiny things and that makes it hard to really feel.

And I know. I have been swindled, have felt swindled, have tried to shut the door on trust. But sometimes, you just have to give.

Sometimes you just have to give in.

 

I don’t know these men or their politics, and I don’t care. I am unfamiliar with the organization they might represent—I don’t even know if there is such an organization. But, in this instance, I don’t care. Loving, giving and receiving care, matter more than my pride.

Maybe this is the thing they have given me, maybe this is the thing I have seen with my eyes and felt on my skin and in my heart.

So, when I give this man a hug, I hug him as if he is family, because, right now, he is.

Wisdom: A Personal Aside

He would leave me black and blue, that boy I used to know.

He never would hit me. At least, he said it was never intentional.

My feet would be so bloody, and it hurt so much to put on shoes—but I always did to hide my shame.

My chest would raise in red-, blue-, purple-, green-, yellow-mottled lumps. Sometimes it would hurt to breathe. For years, that same feeling of compression would come back and it would still hurt to breathe.

I questioned myself for years. Did not tell people. Told everyone. Still it would sometimes hurt to breathe.

Years later I connected again to a friend I knew at the time this all took place. She told me about him. I went over to her house and she asked me to write in the same book he wrote in. I felt like crushing the crayons in my bony fingers. I drew a flower and it became hard to breathe as she told me that he had travelled to [developing world Asian country] and got a tattoo of some script he couldn’t even read.

When he had hurt me, it never really hurt. It never felt like anything.

When she told me that she was sleeping with him, I remembered how she had held me when I cried. I remembered the way her eyes looked when I lifted my shirt so that she could see me. I felt sad, and then it was like a vacuum sucked up my life. It didn’t feel like anything.

 

Some things make sense, now that time has come and spread over my life like a thick, healing salve.

Some things will never make sense to me. I know this, but I keep reading and researching. Just like with everything else in my life, I feel like if I can just read enough I’ll understand and it will all make sense. If that day ever comes, I will drop everything that I have been doing. I will sit back and have a glass of iced tea and breathe.

But, so many things do not make sense that I know I will never be done. I have felt and can feel myself packing up that part of my life because every day the distance grows between the me I am right now and the me I used to be. But, I am not packing it up to send it away. I am packing it up to keep it safe, because there is more wisdom there than I know what to do with. I use bits and pieces now, but that’s all I have use for. I pray that I won’t, but I know that one day I might need to use it all. I pray that I won’t, but I somehow feel safer knowing it is there.

Witness

My last paper of the semester was for familiar companion, U.S. Identity Politics. In it, I wrote about the November 19, 2011 slaying of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.

An account of Chamberlain Sr.’s death can be found on Democracy Now!. When I searched the National Public Radio website for “Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.” nothing came up. Nothing.

This is the hole that racism (subtle and overt) leaves in our lives. I feel bludgeoned by that hole, because, Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. was a 68-year-old former Marine when he was fatally shot in his own home (after being tased and then hit with beanbags fired from a shotgun) in a housing project in White Plains, New York by Police Officer Anthony Carelli who, at the time, was facing charges of civil rights abuse for beating two Jordanian brothers while arresting them and calling them “ragheads.”

I cry every time I remember that, in the 15-20 minute ordeal that led to Kenneth Chamberlain Sr.’s murder, when Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. called to Police Officer Stephen Hart to stop banging on the windows of his home, Hart yelled, “I don’t give a f—, n—–!” Hart himself was also facing civil rights abuse charges, as was on-scene supervisory Sergeant Stephen Fottrell.

Do you see that wars do not stop when minority veterans come back?

 

I have tried, am still trying to keep some anonymity about this project, and this is one story that is hard to keep anonymous because there is a ferocity in me that demands I shout the specifics of this event because actions have consequences.

Actions have consequences.

This is what keeps me in quasi-vague details.

 

A young, white, nondisabled male who was elected to a post in the student government here at the university I attend resigned last week. He resigned amid charges of racism for something he posted to his social network account.

I quote:

“these girls are being so loud in the library. …oh wait, they’re black #racisttweet #sorryimnotsorry”

This young, white nondisabled man breaks my heart because in him are all of the poisonous things in our society that keep us separate that those of us with enough privilege choose not to see. He thought that this would be okay. He thought that this would be okay. His post revolves around subtle stereotypes of Black people as less than. As racist caricatures. As immature, non-adults. “girls,he writes. “girls”

And his “girls” echoes of “hey boy!”; of Blackface routines; of quotas in colleges past that explicitly spelled out “NO MORE JEWS”; of concentration camps erected here while we were fighting to free lighter-skinned, less foreign-looking people from concentration camps in Germany; of immigrants rounded up left bloody on street corners and in basements for stealing “our” jobs, as if work belonged to a people whose idea of work included rape, theft, murder and the creation of a legal language that buttressed their spoils of war, whose ancestors (including me) still benefit from these infinite injustices.

Lest you think I am being hyperbolic, do remember that there are no innocent bystanders here. That doing nothing is doing something. That words have power, because, if they did not, why were slaves banned from reading and writing? Why do my classmates flinch, turn red, raise their voices when I bring up historical, racial inequality?

 

I see these things, and I remember them. I am bearing witness to the truthful brutality. I am bearing witness to the words. I read the stories, watch the videos, listen to the audio before I unwind at night trying to memorize it all.

I am bearing witness, praying that I have the strength to help people see the things they need to witness.

 

How can we fight what we refuse to see?

How can we find salvation and future if we refuse to bear witness to the injustice of today that simultaneously is the injustice of the past?

We must bear witness. We must see.

A Simple Truth

Final are among us here at the university I attend, and while there are a multitude of things that demand my attention, my thoughts continue to revolve around something that happened yesterday.

Last week I told not one, but two young, white, heterosexual men in one of my classes that they had privilege as white men.

To me, this was evident.

When I say of myself that I have privilege as a middle-class Christian in a heterosexual marriage who is in a body that is not terribly deviant, this is no different to me than if I were to say that I have two eyes, ten fingers, and a heart that beats. To me, this is simple truth.

 

I live in an apartment complex, in which, just to get to the ground-level apartments, you must walk up a step. There is no way around this step. I live in this university-owned apartment complex with relatively cheap rent because of my privilege as a person who is not disabled in a way that changes the range of possibilities of my bodily comportment.

This is the truth.

There were times where I hated being middle-class, with all that means for the oppression of others in different income brackets. Now, I see things differently. I can’t throw out pieces of myself that are inconvenient to my understanding of who I am. And, the truth is that as long as I was embarrassed of my privilege I would forever be embarrassed of myself. Further, if I am embarrassed of part of me, if I don’t want to associate with parts of myself, then there is an indestructible wall around my heart that keeps me from being able to ever really love anyone else.

Change is impossible without love.

Change is also impossible without compassionate resistance, and this is hard because it means we have some deep introspection to do.

Introspection is spectacularly difficult in our society, because while some would call us (U.S. Americans) narcissistic, there is a way of looking at our selves without seeing truth. When I check my outfit in the mirror, I am not seeing myself—I am seeing physical components of what I visually understand to be me. I am not seeing anything substantial.

Truth, Ugliness, and Beauty are the Holy Trinity of deep understanding. They form a perfect hermeneutic circle. The problem comes when we try to refuse to see anything but beauty.

 

So, yesterday, when one of the white, heterosexual, young men I’d called out last week used class time to say that he was “mortally” offended that I would tell him that he has privilege as a white man, I saw his hurt and his hurt was my hurt because his hurt came from confusion, and we have all been there.

But I also wondered, why is he letting himself be victimized? No one made him react the way he did—with hurt feelings that manifested as anger—instead of feeling/behaving some other, different way.

These are the invisible ties that make us feel as if we are rats in a maze. We are not.

 

My classmate was so angry when he said that as a white man he refuses to generalize about any group. He was so angry when he said that he doesn’t see groups, he only sees individuals. He said this over and over right before he said that in class we’d been allowed to generalize about whites, but were disallowed from “generalizing” about any other groups.

What does he think that minorities face every day? I assure you, it’s more than generalizations (not to be confused with stereotypes), which allow us to see large-scale effects of discrimination and prejudice in the form of group aggregates. It is much more.

 

And I was shocked as more and more white students chimed in, agreeing with him.

This is racism.

My classmates may or may not hold racist beliefs, but this is not something that matters. What matters is that several of my classmates were upset that they felt they were made out to be personally responsible for inequality in society when no one said any such thing. This is how thoroughly my peers understood who they were and “whiteness” to be one and the same.

It broke my heart that they could not see what lay beyond the immediate.

It scared me to realize the depth of the racism and the denial of that very racism that I’ve been living in for 3 and a half years now.

 

My classmate argued that he had never been privileged because he’d grown up in hard circumstances. In saying this, he betrayed a basic misunderstanding of privilege. Privilege works a lot like discrimination. It is all that you ever know, and so it is normal to you. It’s only when someone comes around with different privileges or different oppressions, or even just different degrees of shared privilege or oppressions, that we can see how these things operate in our own lives.

 

I am sad for my classmate who was so confused and so hurt.

I know that my classmate is privileged because, for me, confusion and hurt from experiences with my white peers took root early on and has been a constant companion throughout my life.

This is a simple truth.

Taking Off the Wraps

It is cold outside. The sky is shadowed and grey. The chill wind raises goose bumps on my bare arms. I have a cobalt blue sweater in my bag, but I don’t put it on because I need to be here right in this moment—I need to feel it.

 

Yesterday was May Day—International Workers Day.

Yesterday someone whom I care about told me that they needed a medical procedure. Told me that they had known that something was wrong, but that they could not afford to go to the doctor until very recently because of the limits on their health insurance plan.

Maybe it will be nothing. I pray that it will be nothing. I cry, thinking that it might be more.

I tuck this knowledge inside of my heart, folded up right alongside of the stories my partner had told me of ambulance rides and an off-the-books surgery from his youth specifically delivered to him because his family could not afford what he needed to stay alive.

 

Today after class I cry from anger, from frustration, from hurt, from fear. I am afraid for my friend, and I am afraid for these white men in my class who have exhibited so much bigotry today that, even as I rage at them, I fear for their souls.

 

I erupted today in a flurry of hand-waving, voice-raising, expletive-laced action. No passivity left in this woman. None.

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that some people don’t want to talk—they want to lecture, and when you meet someone who wants to lecture you about your experience the only good listening does is help you to get acquainted with their argument so that you can decide how best to not only meet what they throw, but better them.

 

I am small—not even 5 feet 1 inch. My looks come from Korea.

Do not be fooled by these outward appearances because my stamina for arguing is the gift of years of misunderstanding and my words are the lovechildren of middle-class academia and all of the working-class folk I have loved for years.

 

So, when my young, white, male, heterosexual, nondisabled peer tells me that, as a white man, he’s experienced racism, I take off the wraps because, stepping to me in this fashion this late in the semester, it’s easy to identify that this is a street brawl.

I tell him it is history and structure. That he may well have been discriminated against, and/or been subject to prejudice or bigotry, but that doesn’t equal racism. No.

And he fights me, tooth and nail, but what he doesn’t count on is that I can see things clearly now and I know he’s not going to change. I’ve got nothing left to lose.

I call him out when he interrupts me. He thought I’d just let him talk over me like I’m nothing.

They start to agree with each other, these white men I’m talking to.

Since there’s three of them and only one of me, I raise my voice because I can play that game, too.

When my peer finally tells me that if people of color want any change they need to make white people stop feeling like “assholes” for bring up historical inequality (think slavery), I finally understand the landscape I am travelling.

 

During class discussion, I call out another young, white, nondisabled, heterosexual man when he says that the Middle East is the most patriarchal society. As if such a thing is quantifiable. As if the Middle East is one place made up of a completely homogenous people—this from a white man who probably wouldn’t like it very much if people lumped him in with all other white people.

I tell him that what he’s saying is patently ridiculous and reflects U.S. American propagandistic portrayals of the “Middle East.” He does not take this well and does what every over-privileged white man I’ve ever met does—yells out demanding to be heard.

So, I call out, too. Specifically, I call him out for being so privileged by his whiteness and his maleness that he does not see the way that women are subordinated in our culture, the way that all minorities are still discriminated against in our society—so much so that it doesn’t even have to be state-mandated.

 

Ultimately I’m glad that I did what I did, but it didn’t come without cost to me.

That’s the double-edged liberation of taking off the wraps—you aren’t protected anymore either.