Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Sunday, January 27, 2019
"Words have power. Words are more than their dictionary definition. The history of a word matters as long as the effects of that history are still felt."
- Ijeoma Oluo
Despite having procreated multiple times for the nearly express purpose of giving my children built-in playmates; our boys are often seeking to foster outside friendships. I frequently hear from parents of ECC classmates, asking for playdates; or from the kids themselves, begging me to call ‘so-and-so’s mom.’ And it’s lovely, because as growing little people, socialization is really important...and the fact that our kids are sought out by their peers is affirming that the borderline-sociopathic behaviors we frequently see in the living room must be limited to the home setting and reserved for immediate family.
As our own pre-kid friends are increasingly swallowed up by their own children’s schedules (or busy enjoying the benefits that child-free life has to offer); my husband and I find it harder and harder to connect with them.
Like most parents at this life stage, we are staring down a whole new phase of social interactions. Saturdays previously spent at wineries now find us producing small talk with acquaintances on the sidelines of soccer fields or hovering over bobbing heads and paper plates with half-eaten birthday cake slices. Happy hours are now spent playing math games at the kitchen table or at Scout meetings. It’s truly a new life.
I personally really enjoy the act of finding a new friend and relish my children’s relative extraversion. And so, I find myself happily storing new numbers in my phone accompanied by notes like: ‘Annabelle’s mom’ and have become accustomed to texting with relative strangers about nearby playgrounds and weekend schedules.
Cultivating new friendships as a parent means navigating along difficult terrain. Grownups are complicated creatures and those with offspring come with literal baggage (diaper bags are no joke), restricting schedules, and limited remaining emotional bandwidth. It’s hard to morph from the small-talk phase into what might be considered an actual friendship.
And so, it’s s real pleasure to stumble across another parent with whom I feel a genuine connection. I’m grateful though, that it does happen from time to time. That was the case with a woman whom I began encountering with some regularity in both parent and non-parent spaces (those do, happily, still exist for me). She also has a first-grade boy at the ECC and we bonded early over their inexplicable love of potty words, seemingly un-ending energy, and the surprising difficulties of disentangling them from video games.
Of note: She and her son are black.
Hang with me. This is a relevant note.
I have moved in mostly white spaces my entire life. This was not a conscious play on my part, but I’m quite certain that my subconscious biases are at least partly to blame. My friends of color have been, therefore, few and far between and I feel ashamed by that.
And to be very clear, I am *not* looking for a pat on the back in response to my somewhat intentional effort to seek out a more diverse field of friendships.
It is also notable that this particular new friendship has been inspired first and foremost by the fact that this woman is a smart, funny, honest, hard-working and successful mama who’s company I sincerely enjoy. She is a woman who has spent her career advocating, at all levels of government, for social change in what I find to be vitally important areas and I simply could not have more respect for her as a female and exemplary human person. Also, her texting game is on point, and I respect the hell out of that too.
But while my budding mom-friendship is relevant and some the details should be noted; it is not ultimately the thesis of this post.
I only need you to understand the basic nature of this friendship and this particular amazing woman, in order to properly talk about this:
That time my white five-year-old son said the N-word.
In front of a black friend.
And I want to talk about how I fucked up, and then fucked up again in my response. I want to talk about how this shameful moment has triggered my desire to talk to you about it; rather than tuck it away in the dirty, rarely-visited corner of my mind that houses all the horribly embarrassing and regrettable moments of my life.
If you know me personally, or have read even just one other post by me; you probably know that I fancy myself at least a little bit ‘woke.’ I am an insufferable proponent of social justice and equity; I am a shameless feminist and I am opinionated to a fault. I have tried--and often failed--to talk about race in a meaningful way for the past few years with anyone willing (and even a few who were ultimately unwilling). I have read about, discussed, and put into action many tactical strategies of raising children who are inclusive and big-hearted (including enrolling in the amazing local program; We Stories).
And yet; my beloved son said the N-word.
In front of a black friend.
To put it in context: it was a lazy afternoon over the winter holiday break and my sons and their friend were all stumbling over each other, moving as a buzzing herd of unfocused energy. With my kids leading the way, they dismantling the futile order of one room after the next. There was nothing at all atypical about the thumping state of chaos that eventually worked its way upstairs.
I was chatting on the couch with my friend, catching up about the holidays and lamenting the upcoming return to reality when the tattle-tailing started. This is not a new occurrence; the kids have been policing each other’s behavior and happily ratting one another out since the moment the learned to speak in full sentences.
First, came the reports of name-calling. The word ‘dumb’ had apparently been bantered about and therefore, I gave a quick, gentle reminder to all about respect and language and returned to the couch.
The next time the sound of a 6-year-old on the steps was heard, I allowed my husband to intercept and hear the testimony of the key witness against his brother. What I heard next made my heart skip at least three beats.
‘...and said the N-word.’
I can’t remember how long I hesitated before I got up, but it was too long I think. I do know that I did not look at my friend. Heart pounding and face devoid of blood, I calmly joined my husband to reiterate the rules on language and said absolutely nothing further. Not to the boys and not to my friend. I simply behaved as if there was ‘nothing to see here.’
Still, my mind raced:
Surely, he didn’t mean *the* N-word.
My kids don’t know racial slurs.
This is all just a hilarious misunderstanding we will laugh about later.
Ha. Ha. Ha...?
The play date wrapped up soon after the incident; and I was quite inclined to put it all in the past and move on with my life, happily restoring business-as-usual. Such a typical white-lady inclination.
But it nagged at me. As it should. We relayed the story later that night to another (white) couple, laughing nervously and all of us deciding kids say the darnedest things; but not racial slurs. It was all shaping up to be that funny misunderstanding I had been hoping for.
The next morning, as coolly and chill as possible, I asked my son what the N-word was. He gave me a smile I have come to be familiar with; it’s the one he uses when he’s in trouble often responds by laughing inappropriately. He paused with that smile, then giggled and said: ‘nah nah.’
Phew, I thought. Despite the smile, pause, and wholly implausible explanation; I believed him.
Or, I really wanted to believe him.
I launched into a very brief tutorial on how there was *another* N-word that was used to make black people feel bad and that he should be really careful about saying what he thought were nonsense words.
He asked me what that other word was; and I choked. I couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud and so I didn’t.
And I didn’t need to, right?
And so, I gave myself a little high-five for my woke-parenting and moved on with the day.
Later, knowing that I really also needed to connect with my friend, I sent her a text thanking her for the play date and assuring her I’d talked to my kiddo about racial slurs and it was all just a silly misunderstanding.
I died a little inside with every agonizing moment spent waiting for what turned out to be the absolute, most prefect, most heart-breaking response from a woman who deserves to be awarded the highest of all parenting and friendship honors.
In a lengthy text, she gently divulged her own difficult parenting conversation; in which she had learned that my son *had* in fact used the N-word.
The real, actual N-word.
It was a word that her son was indeed familiar with, having heard it through various forms of media. She then gracefully spared my poor, delicate white ego by also assuring me that she was certain the boys were just pushing boundaries on language and that her son was not hurt in any way by it. She even graciously offered to talk more about the situation IRL.
Then, the real kick in the pants came when she told me that he was reluctant to say anything because he didn’t want *me* to ‘feel sad.’
This sweet 6-year-old empath, when confronted by language used to suppress, dehumanize, abuse (and worse) those who looked like him for centuries, wanted to spare the feelings of a 36-year-old mother of three.
Of course my child didn’t want inflict harm on his friend. And of course my kindergartener didn’t understand the full context of racial slurs and oppression.
But I realized all in one moment that I had not done my own children any justice by my inclination to give them the benefit of the doubt and glaze over the topic entirely. By assuming ‘my kid could NEVER...’ I was offering him and those around him a complete disservice.
I have learned that our kids pick up quickly on our discomfort when talking about race and just like that, their innate feelings of curious skepticism about those who look and/or sound different is reinforced: Talking about race is bad = Those black and brown kids must also be bad.
My generation of white people was raised to be ‘color blind.’ Our parents had witnessed the tail end of the Civil Rights movement, declared racism defeated, and decided it was best to just tell us everyone is the same and leave it at that. We don’t like being uncomfortable, the subject makes us uncomfortable; so let’s just put a pin in it.
And this color-blindness persists. I can’t tell you how many of my friends have bragged to me about their kids not seeming to even notice race, or remarked with shame and horror about how a toddler pointed out a different skin color, leaving them (understandably) fumbling for how to address that moment.
Kids do notice race. Babies do. Toddlers do. And by four-years-old, they've already started self-segregating. If we continue to bury the topic deep enough and blow a big enough bubble of taboo around it, you run the real risk that someday your son is featured in a viral video wearing an inappropriate smirk that people can’t seem to stop talking about. And the sort of PR firms needed to recover from those moments don’t come cheap.
It is my absolute worst nightmare that one day I’ll wake up to find that my precious babies have been swallowed whole by the overwhelming ignorance and indignant smugness that fueled those sheltered boys from Kentucky. It seems unlikely that those parents spent much time talking to their kids about race, gender and privilege. They certainly failed to mention to their kids that their whiteness means something in the world.
These parents are quick to rescue their children from harm (an impulse we all understand); but don’t seem to understand that this cloud of protection is actually inflicting a larger harm.
A white person who is never taught to fully understand the complexities of racial oppression is doomed to continue to inflict that damage on levels both small and large and we all suffer for that. Our cities suffer, our schools suffer, our economies suffer and the impact is compounding and feels damn near insurmountable.
I was not going to be that mom.
And so, I read some articles, dug into a new book, and revisited the topic a few days later when I was picking him up from school. I played a bit of an audiobook, allowing Ijeoma Oluo to tell her own story of being confronted by a busload of white kids pointing and laughing, pelting her and her brother with the N-word and how that made her feel. I did my best to keep my voice measured and matter-of-fact. I chose my words carefully and made sure he knew he wasn’t in trouble and that his friend wasn’t mad at him.
He held a thoughtful poker face through the conversation, in a way that honestly didn’t tell me a whole lot about his comfort level, at least, not from my vantage point of the rear-view mirror. To his credit, he actively listened, nodding his way through my clunky, oversimplified explanations I gave for the historical indignities that had been reinforced by dehumanizing language. Luckily, it was not the first time we’d talked about our country’s shameful past when it comes to race-relations, so that made it a little easier. We also re-visited the basic pain caused by name-calling.
Ultimately, he didn’t have any questions. Or, he just wanted the conversation to end. I did ask where he might have heard that word (and this time I said it), and he just shook his head and told me he didn’t know. And I didn’t push it.
Then, we went home and played Donkey Kong.
I haven’t the foggiest clue where my son may have heard the N-word. Part of me wants to go rough some people up, kick down some doors and demand to know where the word originated. I picture myself flushing out whatever racist asshole is responsible for spewing hate in front of some poor, unsuspecting 5-year-old and unleash my rage over the harm their open bigotry causes.
But then, I picture some other well-meaning white mother, attempting to get ahead of this exact situation. Maybe she was responding to the mostly unintelligible ramblings of a great-grandparent suffering from a combination of ignorance and dementia, or maybe the word came floating over from a nearby car stereo or overheard from a movie. Maybe her words of caution worked their way into another well-meaning conversation between kindergarteners, confiding in whispers about naughty words.
Either way, it just doesn’t matter where he heard it. The world is broken and my kids are subjected to that world because they just have no choice in the matter. I can’t just put them in a safe, protective bubble of tolerance and declare myself the winner of parenting. They will hear racial slurs; they will witness misogyny; they will learn white-washed versions of history and participate in a society built to protect white supremacy.
This is a world where an ad campaign asking men to be kind is met with outrage.
This is a place that is not always safe or welcoming for those with different sexuality or gender identity.
It’s a society filled with well-intentioned white people--groomed to be nice above all else--insisting that racism ended in the 60s and hailing MLK as the conquering hero; and yet, their blood boils at the site of a black man kneeling, and they openly demonize peaceful protestors asking simply for justice.
Ours is a country where an indigenous man can be taunted and mocked by teenagers and people will go to great lengths to excuse and defend that behavior, unwilling to consider that maybe it’s actually teachable moment for us all.
I am not immune to the impact of this world. I am a person who has been complicit in racism and racist practices. I have surely passed along innumerable micro-aggressions and have caused pain by my actions. I am only just now beginning to figure out how my racial identify and racial injustice in general has affected my life. I am only recently discovering how to be an ally and how to leverage my privilege.
I am a work in progress.
We are all works in progress.
Finding new friends as a grownup is indeed a very real challenge. If you are very, very lucky: you’ll find some friends who be willing to help both you and your children to be better people.
Monday, October 15, 2018
In order to make sense of this story, it’s important to understand some basic facts about about the geography of my childhood. If you have the patience to wade through enough acreage of central Illinois farmland, you’ll find my parent’s home, just one short block away from the campus of Illinois State University. As a kid, my brothers and I walked the quarter mile distance from our house to our red brick elementary school which sat snugly tucked just one street across from the west end of the quadrangle. My mother earned her masters degree and PhD at the university and still works there as a department head. My dad teaches part time as a retiree from the athletic department. My parents have amassed almost 40 years of service to students and faculty in one way or another. My brothers and I graduated from the affiliated laboratory grade and high schools and my younger brother also earned a bachelors degree from the university. My family truly finds it’s roots deeply embedded into the Illinois State community.
The university campus was essentially an extension of our home. It was a place we went for school and social gatherings, for church and theatrical performances, and to cheer loudly at innumerable athletic events. Even now, as I’ve officially spent just over half my life living away, the campus always feels like a warm hug; like a comfortable and safe place filled with happy memories and palpable nostalgia.
It’s also notable that I am a devout feminist and burgeoning proponent for social justice. That may not seem relevant at first, but hang in there...it’ll become clear near the end.
This weekend, I packed a couple bags and my kids into the family SUV and headed north on I-55 (the ‘long highway’) to join my parents and little brother, visiting from Seattle, for ISU homecoming festivities.
Saturday morning bagan with a brother-sister homecoming 5K. My little brother’s recently acquired super-human speed propelled him to a 3rd place finish in his age group and inspired me to clock a shocking post-baby PR (nearly placing myself among the 30 to 39-year-old women).
Next, we all bundled up to gather candy tossed to us by strangers on the side of the road, an activity generally called ‘watching a parade,’ which I consider to be a little ridiculous, but is widely accepted as enjoyable.
From there, we trudged through the muddy field between the high school that is my alma mater and the university’s football stadium to mingle and watch the kids joyfully partake in various yard games with ‘big kids.’ It was an opportunity to expose my offspring to a treasured American pastime: tailgating.
The next thing that happened was that I learned my kids presently have the collective attention span good for about quarter and a half of collegiate football. Which was fine by me, because my head-on-a-swivel had almost fully fatigued and my anxiety about becoming entangled in an Amber Alert situation had also reached maximum tolerable capacity.
Parenting in the crowds had been mildly stressful, but generally, the day was totally lovely. It was the sort of day that gave me glimpses of the purity, wonder, and innocence with which my kids experience the world. Watching them enthusiastically tackle candy scattered on pavement and gleefully chase a foam football through the sunshine was a reminder to me that parenting can feel like an unending gift of shifting perspectives and actual real bliss.
I was tired, sure, but also feeling like my cup had been filled.
By then, it was around 3:30 PM and the football stadium was the epicenter of campus activity, the sidewalks were filling with students and alums starting to stagger a little.
See, it would seem that things haven’t changed much since I was in school, and Homecoming weekend is still really just considered by many students (and probably alumnus) as an excuse to crack a beer before breakfast, be drunk by game time, and publicly act like an asshole before dinner.
One such asshole happened to have the great misfortune to find herself ambling along behind me and my offspring as we walked amongst the now mostly inebriated crowd, back to my parent’s house from the stadium.
She was with a friend and trying to make some point or another--I wasn’t really paying attention--but apparently felt that cursing loudly was necessary to accomplish that task.
Now. Here is where I should pause to emphasize the following: as most of you know, I have a great appreciation for vulgarity. Our friend Mark Twain tells us: Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
And, I’ll admit, I use it far more casually than that (see use of the word ‘asshole’ above).
To that end, my kids have certainly been exposed to profanity, and I was totally willing to ignore our drunken co-ed until we could round the corner and escape the language.
I should also say, while I consider myself an activist, short on patience for unjust behavior, I’m not typically out in the world looking for trouble. I even see myself as something of a diplomat. I am inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to empathize with their situations (example: the server still gets a decent tip when she’s crabby, because maybe she’s having trouble at home). Often, I run interference in my personal and professional life, acting as a mediator and assisting in cooling jets when things get too heated.
With all these things in mind, it’s hard to initially understand why I suddenly snapped right there on the sunny sidewalk for all the world to see.
The proximity to small children may have been a concept lost on our profanity-spewer but her friend was a little more aware of their surroundings (sober?) and quickly started shushing.
The sentence that caused me to stop short in my tracks was the clear and smug response to the shushing: ‘Well, maaaaybe you should know better than to have your kids out at homecoming.’
And just like that, my previously jovial mood was cancelled. Without warning, a dark cloud descended upon me and I could feel the heat of my blood rising to color my ears and cheeks red.
I twirled around and heard a version of my voice I’d never heard before in all of my 36 years. It was laced with venom and quivering with rage and my words tumbled out and in hindsight, of course, I wish they’d been more coherent and elegant; but I’m wholly satisfied that my message was clear.
‘Excuse me???’ (It was a rhetorical question, so I didn’t wait for an answer) ‘I can’t walk my kids home from a football game??’
Forty eight hours later, I have the benefit of hindsight which allows me to give her some credit for her response; which was mostly stunned silence. She trained her glazed eyes forward, avoiding any contact with the insane woman waving her arms and thrusting her chin.
As she and her friend sped past us, I couldn’t seem to calm myself down. ‘...so check yourself lady. Yeah. Watch your mouth.’
(Because NOW I was suddenly also pissed about the language.)
When I recovered from my rage blindness, we carried on, my kids were a little stunned by my sudden outburst, but recovered quickly and began collecting sticks. We continued on our way, passing by house parties muddy with spilled keg-beer and thumping with the base tracks of music I couldn’t name, porches spilling over with young people, swaying and laughing and clinging to each other carelessly.
I was somehow comforted by the site of the jolly partiers, even as one of their strays had triggered something really dark inside me. By the time we arrived at my parents house, I was pretty much cooled completely. I retold the story with an undertone of bemusement to my mom and my husband, evoking their laughter with my finely-tuned comedic timing. Ha, ha...boy did she learn her lesson...ha, ha.
Still, I was unsettled by the ferocity of my response. I had alarmed myself with the shortness of my fuse and the audacity of my temper. I have touted myself as an advocate of no-shame parenting and I clearly considered this to be my home-turf, so I would be damned if 2 or 3 semesters in Normal would give this young lady the right to dictate where I could take my kids and when.
That was the obvious explanation.
But I woke up in the middle of last night with a more clear and complete picture of the origins of my rage.
For most women, these past few weeks has been agonizing. The mere act of getting out of bed has been an exercise in anger-suppression. It’s been impossible to log onto social media without being confronted by bold expressions of toxic masculinity and signs of the patriarchy, clinging shamelessly to power, are absolutely everywhere.
Most upsetting to me personally, have been the women. Otherwise reasonable, kind women are spewing nonsense about fearing for their sons and claiming there is something to be gained by a victim from outing their abuser; all the while, shaming and blaming the abused and wrapping their arms around the existing power structure as if it were a life raft.
It was the victim-blaming that set me off.
Here was a young woman who very suddenly and aggressively came to embody all of the ignorant memes and flimsy sex-abuser-defense lines from the past few weeks, and all at once became the target of my simmering rage.
This unfortunate young lady had reached out and poked with precision at a shallow and inflamed nerve, unleashing the pain and fury of a woman who’d been clinging to sanity in a world that was just letting her down at every turn.
So I’m not THE victim here, but I have been *a* victim. And I understand the power of victim-blaming. Victim-blaming flips the script on abuse. It reinforces a society built on misogyny and racism and bigotry because it excuses misuse of power and ever so subtly suggests that this structure is acceptable.
When we ask what a woman expected by going home with that guy or suggest that her skirt is to blame for her assault, we are flipping the script and giving a wink to all men and boys to carry on with their bad behavior. We are also silencing victims of assault and misconduct of all sorts.
The co-Ed’s initial offense (profanity) was totally minor and completely forgivable. It was even ignorable and I was happy to do so.
Her second offense (victim-blaming) was understandable and almost as familiar as a drunken college student’s profanity; something I mighty have also shrugged off or at least kept my response to a mere dirty look over the shoulder.
And yet, I’ve lost my patience with it. I am shaken and defeated by the number of women I’ve spoken to recently who’ve shared the stories they had previously buried under a pile of shame and self-blame.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that it took me another 24-hours to realize another important parallel issue reflected in my outburst.
The latest incident of a white person calling the police on an innocent black person for simply existing in the same space happened not too far from my current home in St Louis. Whether it’s barbecuing in a park, taking a nap in a common area, or simply trying to return home after a long day; white people just can’t seem to quit attempting to criminalize the innocent behaviors of POC.
Of course, this young woman didn’t whip out her phone to call the cops on me for exposing my kids to her public drunkenness; but her attempt to shame my presence in what she considered *her* space gave me just the teensiest, tiniest glimpse into what it must feel like to be targeted for simply trying to exist. And worse, when I give it some deeper thought, I realize that my response was afforded to me only because of my whiteness.
If I were a black woman herding her children through this mostly white space, I would NOT have had the luxury of losing my shit. The anger of white women may not often be taken very seriously, but it wields an acceptance that is not available to women of color. This is important to note.
I should say, I am not at all proud of my outburst. I am sad that my kids witnessed what it looks like at the end of my personal rope. This story felt like it needed to be shared mostly because I’ve been wading around in an emotional whirlpool recently and I’m quite certain I’m not alone there. I’ve been repeatedly knocked sideways by alternating waves of despair and outrage but also the occasional snippet of hope and determination. Sharing this story is simply a way to help me cope.
Shouting at drunk 20-year-olds in front of my kids isn’t going to solve any problems, but it ultimately proved to be a cathartic moment for me. When I’m not losing my cool; I have been channeling my suppressed white-lady rage into small of moments of activism which I believe to be propelling larger movement towards positive change. I see smart, powerful allies building a coalition right here in my neighborhood and it’s pretty impressive.
Moms are Demanding.
Women are organizing, running and winning.
The patriarchy is flinching.
I hope my friend with the curse words can find it in her heart to forgive my moment of unraveling. I hope that she enjoys her college experience and then someday looks around to notice where we are slipping as a society and decides to help put us back together.
That should be a good time for her to break out some of those high volume curse words.
Wednesday, September 27, 2017
Last weekend, I piled into an SUV with several of my best running buddies. The back window boasted a Hillary sticker and the driver was a gay man wearing a Pride 5K tank. So we may have been a bit of an anomaly as we cruised across the Mississippi and dipped into rural southern IL. Still, we were met with a warm welcome by a small town hosting one of the hottest and most challenging half marathon courses I've ever encountered. I was particularly touched to find that each and every bib number had been personalized with a magic marker, wishing us luck by name.
Notably, it had been just over a week since the Stockley verdict had ignighted protests across our city; so when we were asked to place our hands over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance (a somewhat unique request for a group of runners awaiting the start of a race); the words 'justice for all...' felt somehow like a false and unfulfilled promise. I breathed heavily and considered my knees as the flag was paraded past us, but knew instinctively that this sea of friendly rural white faces would very likely have totally misunderstood the gesture.
When the invocation speaker was handed the microphone, my instincts were verified. This was a warm and friendly crowd, but not one that had any idea what was really happening just across the river from them. I felt a little sick as I approached the start line and realized that a big part of our country is completely unequipped to understand what is really happening at this moment in history, the epicenter of a movement swelling just a few miles down the road.
It took me several miles to shake out the dead feeling in my stomach. Then something sort of lovely happened. I found myself running in pace with a women who struck up a conversation (as is sometimes needed to break the awkwardness of being in stride with a stranger in a smaller race). We spent five miles or so talking lightly about various local races and our families. Eventually, our discussion sidestepped cautiously around and then right into that dead feeling that had set in before the race. I was so relieved to find that she had been equally put off by the rhetoric we'd heard from the speaker before the race; and while she acknowledged that her views were something of an anomaly in the area, it comforted my soul to hear her acknowledgement and understanding of the social injustices plaguing this country.
The blistering heat and a vague foot pain (largely the result of rage-tying my laces too tight at the start line) caused me to fall behind my enlightened companion in the last 3 miles or so of the race; which also happened to be mostly uphill. I finished a full 20 minutes slower than my usual half marathon pace, battered and aching, but somehow also feeling much better than I had at the start of the race.
It was probably a totally futile effort on my part, but I spent the next few days composing the following letter to send to the race organizers. The letter was really more for me than for them as I am unconvinced that letters do much to actually change hearts and minds. But I come from a solid lineage of strongly-worded letter writers, so I suppose this composition was unavoidable.
To Whom It May Concern:
I want to first thank you emphatically for such an amazingly supported race this past weekend. I was really impressed with the excellent turn out to support water stops at *every* mile (wow!) and I know that I would certainly not have been able to finish without that frequent and ready access to water and Gatorade (and fruit!). The heat was oppressive, but the enthusiasm of the race supporters and the community was a huge help.
I also want to take a moment to address the Invocation at the start of the race. Even though my friends and I drove over from St Louis, we were aware that the race was inspired by the tragic loss of a firefighter in your community. Given that, it was not surprising to find the race was taken as an opportunity to support first responders.
I want to emphasize that I fully support our brave and willing public safety officials who make it their responsibility to keep us civilians safe and I am always so happy to engage with my community's firemen and women and also law enforcement officers. The fire department in particular is often present at community events in my city and I love the way they interact with my children.
I also understand, as we all do, that there is a huge problem right now in St Louis and in our nation involving the behavior, perception, and treatment of some of those first responders. Your invocation speaker cited that there had been over 100 police fatalities this year. That is a tragedy. Senseless loss of life is always something to mourn, particularly for those who make a career out of diving straight into dangerous situations with the ultimate goal of keeping communities safe.
I've been doing some research recently myself, because I believe in finding truths and using those truths to help identify and solve problems. There were a few different sources and numbers on the loss of law enforcement lives that I found. A Newsweek article dated August 7 tells us 74 officers have been killed nationally this year, with a slight uptick in firearm-related deaths (totaling 28 nationwide). Here is a link to that article.
Another site I found states there have been 95 police fatalities nationally in 2017, claiming this number is down by 3% from last year. This site, 'Officer Down Memorial Page' attributes 33 deaths to firearms. These deaths are indeed a tragedy among the more than 1.1 million law officers nationwide.
I'm not writing to refute numbers though.
As I mentioned, any death is a tragedy and particularly when it's violent and of course when it's an officer of the law.
I embrace the idea of a community rallying together to solve what they see as a problem. There were statements made in the invocation declaring that police killings ('ambushes') were at an all-time
high and the 'thin blue line' concept is clearly a community responding to what they believe to be a crisis. The idea that public servants are under attack, including the sentiment regarding 'anti-police legislation' seemed to be the general theme of the race's invocation.
Here are some more things I've learned through recent research:
In 2016, there were 963 fatal shootings by police. There have been 721 this year so far. Mental illness played a role in 25% of these deaths. The victims of these shootings are disproportionately black and Hispanic; as in nearly half of these were minorities who account for only 30% of the nationwide population. In St Louis alone, there have been 8 fatal shootings in 2017 by police officers.
The number of high-profile police killings of unarmed citizens (generally people of color) in otherwise seemingly benign situations is staggering and the details of these are so tragic and upsetting: Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice...just to name a precious few.
And now, we are witnessing the very intense reaction to these statistics and high profile cases; a visceral response to an unfair judicial system and the real sense that some of our fellow Americans now are made to feel *less* safe in the presence of public safety officials. That feeling is real, even if it's not a feeling that I (as a white woman) have ever actually felt.
Here is a suggestion: Let us not make it us versus them. Let us not perpetuate the sentiment that there is an ongoing war between law enforcement and a portion of the population and we all must pick a side; that my acknowledging that black lives matter is somehow an act of aggression towards the policing community and their families or that taking a knee during the national anthem is meant as an act of disrespect towards our military personnel.
The systemic injustices of our criminal justice system stems at least partially from vast wealth inequalities which has amassed over past decades of legislated racism (median white wealth is *twelve times* higher than median black wealth in the US). Let us not fall into that trap of feeling compelled to pick a side and then turn a blind eye those issues being raised up by our fellow Americans, who are fearful for their lives and those of their children.
Let's support our law enforcement officers. Let's support them by holding them to a higher standard and give them the tools and continued education and training they need to make safer communities and better understand the diverse needs of those individuals in their communities. Let's be willing to weed out those few bad apples who give the entire bunch a bad rap and create a greater danger to all. I believe the vast majority of law enforcement officials are good in their hearts and join the force to serve the public and make communities a safer place. However, any bolstering and promoting of a culture of bullying, excessive force, intimidation and otherizing only makes it easier for them to be demonized and targeted.
If we perpetuate that sentiment, the idea that we must demonize each other in the name of defending our own perception of reality, then how can we come to the table together to solve real and upsetting problems in America??
I stand by my responsible first responders.
I stand by the non-violent protestors.
I am actively looking for solutions. But in order to move forward, all voices need to be heard in this matter.
Thank you for listening to mine.
Photo credit: Jeff Jensen
Thursday, September 14, 2017
So this thing happened last Sunday that has been sitting like a brick in my stomach all week. I've been carrying it around with me and now, on the eve of the Stockley verdict, I am compelled to share the story:
Around mile 3 of a really beautiful long run in Forest Park, a man passed me, running the opposite way on the trail that loops the perimeter of the park. He was silhouetted pretty strongly against the morning sun at first, so I didn't notice his hand as I nodded politely at him.
It was positioned awkwardly against his body, thumb and forefinger circled together and 3 remaining fingers splayed up against his lower sternum.
An 'A-Okay' sign.
But secretive and cautious, like a quiet question mark.
As he passed, and the gesture registered in my brain, I whipped my head around at him and blinked hard, wondering if I'd imagined it.
I questioned my friends (just ahead of me) moments later. They hadn't really noticed it, but had also nodded and waved at him...because you know, we are friendly folks. Neither were aware that the 'A-Okay' sign has been adopted by white supremacists. ('O-KKK'...those clever bastards). They offered possible explanations: maybe it was a side-stitch remedy, or a palsy. Perhaps I was dehydrated and hallucinating.
About 3 miles later, on the north end of the perimeter trail, there it was again. It was the same man, same gesture...only now elevated overhead, pointing our way like a salute.
This time, I stopped short in my tracks. This time, even my friends (both also white) couldn't deny it.
I felt sick. I felt like someone had just sucker-punched me. This place, this beautiful urban park that I cherish; the miles of trails and towering trees, the lovely architecture, it all felt suddenly soiled and ugly; tarnished.
After the initial shock and disgust settled in, I turned and chased after the man in a full sprint. I only made it about two dozen yards before I stopped my legs again. He was a fast fucking Nazi, and I realized it was a worthless chase even if my fury had allowed me to catch him. What was I supposed to say?
I just wanted to tell him NO.
No, I am not your ally.
No, I will not tolerate your beliefs.
No goddamn chance will I stand for this bullshit.
But instead, I turned around and ran 6 more miles, leaving my disgust like a trail of crumbs behind me, shedding it one step at a time and eventually having a lovely day with my kids and husband at the zoo and later, a baseball game.
I fully recognize this story just reveals me as the sort of White woman, slactivist, SJW-wannabe who calls her Representatives from her Bluetooth on her commute only on days when she's bored of her podcasts and feeling that fleeting but oppressive weight of her Catholicism-inspired guilt over her privilege. It also reveals I am not quick on my feet (figuratively OR literally) when confronted by an actual white supremacist. I am a woman who will be outraged and horrified and deeply disgusted by a 'not-guilty' Stockley verdict, but keep all those feelings safely at home with my family in the house I could afford largely because of my genetics and decades of racial inequality. I grapple with this constantly.
White women fucked up last fall and many of us are still attempting to atone for the sins of our sisters. We knitted pink hats and took to the streets and unfriended our racist high school classmates. We programmed our senator's numbers into our phones and joined activism listserves and Facebook groups. It feels simultaneously like too much and also not nearly enough.
There is still a simmering pot of hate brewing over hot flames in our country. It's emboldened by a president who relies on them to stroke his fragile ego. It's perpetuated by propaganda machines mascarading as cable news. But then, I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
I can say I am tired of this shit landing so close to personal space, interrupting my life in places I never expected.
My CrossFit coach turned out to be a Nazi too. He lost his job after marching in Charlottesville. He's the reason I know about the 'A-Okay' sign.
That's him 👆🏼.
I had no idea. I had no idea about any of it. He was just a nice guy; a guy I respected and who helped me achieve a handstand push up (kipping, but still).
Life was easier before I became aware of all the ugly. I miss that day in grade school when some kid told me the 'A-okay' sign meant 'asshole.' And maybe it does. Even the Internet can't seem to agree on whether this gesture is actually racist or not. Maybe that guy is just a weird fucking dude who wants us to know he's all good. Maybe I'm spending too much time and effort distracted by social injustices and reading too deeply into this whole encounter.
All I know is that the rest of what I've said is real.
Things are decidedly not A-okay and it's becoming a whole lot harder to ignore that fact.
Sunday, August 13, 2017
When I was 15 or 16, I found myself reluctantly subjected to the gusto and flare of some motivational speaker. I have no real memory of who it was, where I was, or what they were ultimately meant to have been motivating us for; but I do remember one particular, basic bit of rhetoric; Don't be afraid to be uncomfortable!
I was a dutiful soldier, or at least a marginally committed team-player, internalizing at least a bare minimum of all lectures coming my way; and I soon learned that this was a useful little tiddly-bit to carry around in my back pocket.
If I had spent my life until now paralyzed by the notion of discomfort, the whole thing would've certainly gone in a dramatically different direction.
At 18, I wouldn't have moved 4 hours from hometown sleepy Midwest college town (to another town described in very similar terms) or decided to take a chance on grad school (twice now). I wouldn't have studied abroad or jumped out of a plane or spent a summer driving across the county alone. I most certainly never would have called that guy back from that one float trip where I had too much to drink and acted like a total dipshit. You can bet I wouldn't have run 3 marathons or dared to try CrossFit over the age of 30.
In fact, caving to the fear of discomfort would probably have me still trapped in the communal woman's bathroom of my co-Ed dorm wearing only a towel, where I found myself the first week of freshman year listening to strange male voices from the other side of the door, alerting me that the men had indeed begun to move in.
As it turns out, Mr Motivational may have actually been on to something: maybe a little discomfort isn't necessarily a bad thing.
So, white people, I invite you to join me for a minute in waters which some of you may find to be somewhat uncomfortable. If you're feeling a little hot and shifty in your seat already, and bristled a bit by me calling out your race, than I insist you read on, you probably need to hear this stuff the most.
Let's start here with a simple request: Can we just promise to stop silently assigning a hierarchy value to everyone on the planet? Please?
Because look, here's the thing: one should simply not be valued more, or less based on the following:
- job title
- employment status
- alma mater
- level of education
- smartphone brand
- sexual preference
- house size
- pants size
- breast size
- penis size (so will some of you kindly put your dicks away and stop trying to piss further than everyone else?)
- weight on a scale
- weight you can bench press
- how many carbs you had yesterday
- nation of origin
- marital status
- home many children you do or don't have
- whether or not you're a working mom (or dad...and if your brain just hiccuped a little there, spend a minute reflecting on why that happened before you continue).
Now. Here are some things I believe to be true, buckle up and get ready to perhaps feel a little discomfort.
Once we get lost in judging others based on this idea that one sort of particular person is better or more deserving than another, we are lost as a society.
Ok. Not so bad, right?
When we presume a woman does indeed have a value of only 77% that of a man in the workforce, all of us potentially loses out on vital contributions from brilliant women in our industries.
Not too inflammatory of an idea there.
When we tell a woman that she 'can be more' that 'just a mom' then we are other-izing women who can't have or don't want children and we are shaming all of those people who are content and successful homemakers.
Once we decide that all young black men are criminals, we allow ourselves to sleep at night, yet rob their mothers and fathers of peaceful slumber, all of us knowing they're being gunned down in the streets.
Yup. I went there.
Once we buy into the notion that we have to pick a side between black lives and blue lives and fucking purple goddamn lives (screw you Barney), we are opening the door to unsafe communities and unsafe first responders. We are inviting riots and we are left with further conflict and greater divides.
We have to say black lives matter, and those words actually piss people off; how fucking sad is that?
Similarly, if we can't acknowledge our own internal bias and tendency towards tribe mentality, then we can never expect ourselves to actually treat all people with equity and respect. It becomes easier to ignore the truth behind the real need for criminal justice reform, voter protection, modern day slavery and basic civility towards one another.
In case you missed it, people of color are getting shit on all around us. It's a real thing. Look it up.
If our egos are so delicate and fragile that we cannot possibly accept any snippet of criticism and then use it to learn and grow and be better, do better...then we need to spend a minute reflecting on the why of that and the broader implications of our personal sensitivity.
While we are assigning blame to victims and and claiming to be 'color blind' (re: blissfully ignorant of systemic racism), we are quietly aiding and abetting institutionalize hate and criminal level abuse of power.
If we stick our fingers in our ears and angrily argue that our privilege was earned (and no, I'm not saying you haven't worked hard all your life, pay attention) and our safety nets are universal and the road to success looks and feels the same to all, we may as well be building barricades on those roads and need to be willing to accept what that means about ourselves.
Being even a little woke is exhausting and sad. But so is living in a world where the cards are so plainly stacked against you.
If we decide that our LGBTQ family, friends and neighbors aren't worthy of dignity and privacy or legal equity and recognition of loving and committed relationships, we are breaking the very souls of those people and convincing them they are somehow less-than. We are contributing to depression, anxiety, bullying and suicide and then how do we ever expect then to move forward together? How can we make our communities stronger and healthier by alienation?
If you try to tell me it's a lifestyle choice, I will be very tempted to throat punch you.
If we are too afraid to speak up against a known act of injustice, no matter how small, we are complicit in that very act.
Been there. Done that. Feels terrible.
And indeed, if we think we are sufficiently #woke by suddenly cracking our eyelids open to sneak a quick peek at a world that has thus-far wrapped us snugly in a cocoon of blinding privilege, we can never learn more and be a real positive vehicle for change.
Sigh. We are all a work in progress. Always.
But the bottom line is this: if we don't see some very big problems, we're just actively not paying attention. If we chose to be comfortable in our ignorance, we are by default, part of the problem. If you're blood pressure is up and you're formulating your counter-points and labeling me a left-wing extremist, I don't expect you to be with me today, and probably not tomorrow either. But just do yourself one little favor: start by allowing yourself to be a little uncomfortable.
It will make you better.
It will make all of us better.
We NEED to be better.
Photo credit: Andrew Shurtleff/The Daily Progress