Lost & Found

My grief split open like an overripe peach and swallowed me whole. For a while I flailed about in the pulpy, suffocating mess, but then I gave in. I cried and cried, and my tears made a layer of buoyant saline until I finally floated to the top of all of my feelings. The swelling around my eyes receded, and gradually I found that I could look up and see that things were not yet dire. We, the survivors of my granddad’s death, are all still here and I have been given the great and important gift that is the knowledge that my love for my family is fierce and bottomless.

When I was in high school and just after, I thought that I could manufacture a family that could replace the one I was so baffled by. I was convinced that I didn’t belong. It wasn’t until I met my husband that I began to realize how woven in to my family I am. He said that meeting each member of my family was like finding a new puzzle piece that made up me. How reassuring to hear after years and years of thinking of myself as an alien.

And so, after the diagnosis of my dad and after the death of my granddad, I fell apart when I heard that my uncle was suddenly, nebulously unwell. I felt as if I had just met these people I took for granted for so long and now they were disappearing. Dramatic, I know, but admitting that my feelings were both selfish and melodramatic did not actually do anything to decrease them.

But I didn’t start writing this to rhapsodize about my family, or to outline all the things that have happened to them that make me sad. No, I started writing this because a series of things has happened that have enraged me. It’s possible that I would not have felt so strongly if the background of my life had been different and less grief-stricken, but that is not life.

Since we moved back, I have realized how terribly selfish people who say they care about me can be. I quickly realized that one person I reconnected with, while mildly interesting over text message, would not actually speak to me when in person no matter how much I prompted. Additionally, she regularly sent me whining texts asking me why I didn’t want to see her anymore when she flat out told me that I would need to plan everything every time we got together because she was “not that kind of person.” These texts did not acknowledge the various times I invited her out and she said no. For some reason, she also expected to not have to pay for her drinks, and that I would drive 45 minutes to pick her up. All the awfulness of the tail end of a short-term romantic relationship without any of the benefits…who wouldn’t be interested in that?

However, that pales in comparison to another person I had been hanging out with on and off. Each time I saw him, his comments became more suggestive, and I blamed myself. I told myself that I needed to enforce my boundaries more forcefully, that I was reading too much into his comments, that he must be a good person because he’s religious, that he was just an affectionate guy. You name a rape myth, and I can tell you how I applied and internalized it just to keep this guy as a friend.

The last time I saw him was a couple days ago. I told him that I was exhausted from work and sad about everything going on with my family. His response? “By the end of the night maybe you’ll say something happy.” I get that other people’s grief can result in people saying stupid things, but I thought that this was a person who cared about me. Even worse, my immediate reaction was to think that he was right and that I ought to try to be nice to be around. As the night wore on, I realized that he didn’t seem to be listening to anything I said. He ignored me when I repeatedly told him I was tired, and we ended up walking around for hours. I also became aware of all the different ways he tried to touch me, how often he commented on my appearance, how he told me what he thought I should wear, that he tried to modulate how quickly I ate. He also, out of the blue, asked me sexually explicit questions about what my husband and I do, and I had to tell him twice that that is not something either of us was going to talk about.

 

Since that night, I gave in to my grief and came out the other side slightly more whole. I’ve also had time to reflect on why it is I keep allowing people into my life who see something in me and want to possess it as some kind of status symbol. There has to be some middle ground between being on high alert for any acts or words that might be informed by matrices of inequality and domination, and being subjected to someone who I thought actually valued me as a person joke about how he imagines me whipping him (honestly, I am now certain that was not a joke).

 

I went through a phase in college where the only t-shirts I wore were political t-shirts. When we moved back, I retired them, but some have slowly found their way back into rotation. It seems weak to me to end this piece on a cliché, but I don’t care how I seem anymore. I know that I’m strong.

 

So here is a pronouncement from the trenches:

Patriarchy is not dead. It is alive and kicking and taking on ever more covert and insidious forms. It is trying to worm its way into your life in the form of everyday minutia, in the form of entertainment, or under the guise of someone you don’t really know who only pretends to care. All of us need to identify it and fight it.

 

And here is a pronouncement from my current favorite t-shirt:

“Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving. Keep fighting.”

 

Stay safe, dear reader. Wrap yourself in the warmth and protection of the love of the people who know you best. No one is getting out of this life alive, and while we are all each other’s responsibility, we also need to claim responsibility for ourselves.

And for the love of all things good, be kind.

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Watering the Communication Desert

I hope, dear reader, that you have been having a good holiday. I hope that you have had a holiday at all.

I have been applying to graduate school. This last semester was a whirlwind of activity that never ceased. Just now it’s beginning to slow so that I have time to finally understand what’s been going on.

The other day I couldn’t even remember what schools I had already applied to.

This whole process of applying for graduate studies is tiring and degrading in the most privileged way possible. It has seemed that as my personal life began to shred until I only held tatters in my hands, I had to sell myself hard for the first time and pay for the indignity of doing so. I know that you cannot see me, but I smile every time I tell someone that I’ve paid approximately $200 for the ETS to tell my prospective mentors and employers that I am almost completely average. And, I worry. I worry that I am shooting too high. I have not been liberal in telling people that my small dreams were never small. I have only told one person the true intent behind my aspiration, because I worry that it is my real destiny to be runner-up in my own life.

 

Next semester will be different. For one, I will be working under a professor, helping her develop a class on race. I cannot describe how meaningful an opportunity this will be. That I might meet regularly to speak with someone about racial identity and all that entails fills me with relief so sweet it brings tears.

Because, I live in a communication desert.

It is not that we don’t communicate, but rather that white students here seem unable to communicate about nonwhite experience in such a way that it silences the students of color. After a particularly challenging class this semester (see Living Othered), I spoke to the professor about (what she and another student termed) the “defensiveness” of the white students who argued that if  a specific author “included race” it would have weakened the overall text. I was struck dumb by the obviousness of what that professor said to me: “Look at who was speaking.

Now, I always look at who is speaking, because I have realized that who is speaking dictates what they say. I have looked at myself, middle-class, Christian, married, nonwhite, and by looking at myself have been able to see the fissures I create when I have thought, “it’s us versus them.”

So, here is a petty, offensive confession: I used to be jealous of the way heterosexually-identifying people would advocate for gay rights or the way non-Jews would argue for Jewish rights and then would tell me that, as white people, they could not talk about race. To me, this still is an issue of color—that whites can identity other whites as Jewish or gay or trans, and can have empathy for these groups, but then have the nerve to argue that nonwhites ought to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps like my Irish great-grandpa did” or that whites shouldn’t talk about race to avoid neocolonization tells me that this is about color and guilt. But now I am beginning to see how much I didn’t see. That my disdain was wholly misplaced. That it is now sexual identity and religion that are the new en vouge, lip service causes for middle-class whites who fancy themselves liberals. That these groups, too, are part of that pained group I belong to: the model minority.

 

Throughout the day, well into the night, fractions of conversations swirl through my mind. The confusion of white guilt. The silence of nonwhite students. The way that class becomes divorced from other aspects of identity in the comments of my white peers. The insistence of that one thoughtful student when she said that we cannot talk about race without talking about imperialism and history. The need of white students to talk about race. The way these same students get angry when they decide that they can’t.

I wonder if this is part of the price of privilege—that so many things are so easy, but you know it’s so tenuous and when something is hard, you give up, because you can.

I’ve been thinking more and more about Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. It’s finally making sense to me in a way it never did:

Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer slaves, once they are free, they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

What if we are all just human beings? What does that mean for whites who say that they cannot talk about race? What does it say about nonwhite silence? What if we can see other minority groups, not as minority groups, but as part of us? What if we are all just human beings?

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.

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.

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.

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.