Work for the Long Haul


In a recent interview in the magazine gal-dem, Roxane Gay’s comments about cancel culture, a phrase I just learned from my daughter last night, are critical to a national conversation we desperately need to be having with ourselves and each other.

This conversation is not easy or simple or quick. It requires nuance, patience, and commitment — all skills eroded by a cultural moment that lends itself to reactivity and the hot topic du jour.

Related to this, in my mind, is something Leesa Renee Hall​ wrote recently about why “becoming an anti-racist is a lousy new year’s resolution.” Read that here, and join Leesa’s Patreon community for writing prompts and deep work around uncovering and addressing your unconscious bias.

This is all work for the long haul.

For the past month or so, probably since around the time Freedom School with Desiree Lynn Adaway​* ended in December, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own part in this movement. Truth be told, my thoughts have drifted to wondering whether anything I’ve done has made any difference. And each time I start indulging this self-referential reverie, I have the same wake-up call moment: IT IS NOT ABOUT ME.

Every single time I have thoughts like, “what am I really doing, anyway? Is anything I’m doing making a difference?” is an opportunity to peel away another onion-skin layer of internalized white supremacy.

This in of an itself is a significant aspect of addressing the ways in which whiteness is in me, whether I want it to be or not.

Centering myself, questioning the work if I can’t see the immediate “results,” as if anti-racism and social justice work is akin to going to the gym and expecting to see greater muscle definition after a few workouts.

For many well-intentioned white feminists, letting go of the need for evidence that we are “making a difference” is a humbling and crucial step on the long, decidedly not sexy road of becoming better allies.

We have to be more devoted to continuing to show up, listen, learn, and put our own agendas aside than we are in getting credit for our efforts, feeling good about our “impact” on the very individuals and communities we claim to be invested in yet unconsciously place ourselves above and apart from. This is what I mean by nuance.

We have to keep expecting more of ourselves. This means questioning our questions, and, more importantly, stepping out of the “I” mentality that keeps our focus inward rather than on the real stakes: People’s lives and systems designed to denigrate and destroy individual dignity and entire communities.

This is work for the long haul.

* There is still time to sign up for 2019 Freedom School, which begins at the end of January.

Have They Come for You Yet?

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.
It is our duty to win.
We must love each other and support each other.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

~Assata Shakur*


First they came for the people of color. They came for them with fabricated wars on drugs, with major time for minor or planted offenses, with gerrymandering and microaggressions and gaslighting, with three strikes you’re out and broken tail lights and swimming in neighborhood pools and walking home from the corner store and driving and dancing and getting some fresh air and mowing the lawn. They used their bodies as currency and criminalized their existence.

But my whiteness protected me, so I smiled at my black co-workers and pretended we had the same opportunities.

Then they came for the Muslims. Women wearing hijabs and men leaving mosques. Those with names like Omar and Osama were all lumped together and called terrorists. They became symbols of threats to national security.

But I was not Muslim, so I practiced my religion safely and without scrutiny.

Then they came for the immigrants, but not the nice blond ones. They came for the immigrants with brown skin, the ones fleeing war and political chaos. They underpaid them under the table to clean their houses and plant their gardens and tend to the children and said they should be grateful.

But I didn’t want to rock the boat so I didn’t say anything to my friends and family.

They came for the Jews, their favorite scapegoats. They called them greedy and unscrupulous and spread conspiracy theories and denied the Holocaust. They said they owned Hollywood and the newspapers and would drink the blood of nice Christian babies.

But I underestimated them and wore my Star of David willfully.

They came for the gay and lesbian and bisexual people with their perversion of family values and freakish same love and infuriating pride and rainbow flags. They came for transgender troops and abortion clinics and affordable healthcare and access to safe spaces.

They came for the babies. The migrant workers. The sweatshop laborers. The ones who picked their organic salad greens and sewed their kids’ back-to-school clothes.

They came for the border crossers and the asylum seekers. They came for them in the daytime and at night. They drugged them. They deported them. They disappeared them and detained them and disfigured their bodies and souls.

They came for the journalists, the writers, the muralists, the subversive artists, the scientists, the truth-tellers and the novelists and the teachers and the filmmakers. They called everything fake news and forgot how to read.

They came for the grieving children and parents whose lives were leveled by gun violence. They came for the anti-gun activists and told them to stop whining.

They came for the disabled, by birth or by illness or by accident. They made fun of them and saw them as lesser humans and said suck it up you pussy.

They came for the survivors of rape, assault, and harassment. The ones who’d been told to keep their mouths shut. They discredited, silenced, and blackmailed them.

They came for the union members, stripping away their rights to organize and advocate for fair wages and hours and treatment and safe work conditions.

They came for the veterans, taking away their healthcare and social security pensions.

They came for the athletes who refused to take a knee for the flag. They fined them and treated them like chattel and called them unpatriotic.

They came for the nonviolent protestors, with tear gas and riot police and tasers.

They came for the national parks and the rivers and the wide open spaces. They came for the canyons and the prairies and the wind farms and the solar fields. They came for the renewable energy industry and the indigenous keepers of the land and the endangered species and the ocean waters and the climate change experts.

They came for everyone who was not white, wealthy, Christian, and biologically male. They came for everyone who was not proud of the flag, everyone who said not in my name and not one more and never again and never again is now.

* * *

Have they come for you yet?

Have they come for me yet?

* * *

My voice is my only weapon.

My body is my only weapon.

My heart is my only weapon.

My mind is my only weapon.

My vote is my only weapon.

Love is my compass.

*The quote was originally misattributed to Desiree Lynn Adaway. Thanks, Desiree, for the correction.

Alternatives to Crying, Collapsing, and Crumbling in a Heap of White Fragility

Photo: Asdrubal luna

Don’t cry. Don’t collapse in a puddle of guilt and shame. Don’t crumble and say, “How can this still be happening?” Don’t say “I’m so sorry.” Don’t wring your hands. Don’t share videos that make our hands go to our mouths in horror before we get on with our day. Don’t say “I wish I could do something.”

Instead.

Go deeper and wider. Peel back your own layers of privilege. Confront your own truths. Look closely at the messages you’ve receieved all your life. Write things down and reserve judgment. Do it for the learning.

Actively seek out learning from people outside of your immediate circles. We tend to surround ourselves with sameness, and it’s a huge loss. Read, listen, watch, discuss, engage — without defending, deflecting, or denying. These last three come up in a zillion subtle and unconscious ways. Be vigilant. Pay attention to your own conditioning. This takes time.

The vast majority of us did not learn more than a sliver of real history in our history classes in school. History is all around us. It’s not a thing of the past. And you can’t weed a garden without getting to the roots.

I’m not interested in being right and telling anyone what to do or not do (even though I just did). I’m interested in collective responsibility, and how change happens, and how to take an overwhelming — false — sense of helplessness and turn it into power.

Why I Didn’t March

“One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” ~ Ella Baker

I was drinking my coffee in bed when Aviva texted me. “I’ll totally understand if you say no,” she wrote, “but could you bring my curling iron?” She was at her dad’s, getting ready for the march in Northampton and, right after, the bus to visit her peeps in NYC. I made a quick decision to tie in the favor with a walk in the woods near her dad’s house, and said I’d be over around 9:00am.

I didn’t march on Saturday.

Instead, I walked. After I dropped off the coveted hair implement and gave V a big hug, I walked up a hill and then took a right onto the Robert Frost trail. The woods were snowy and silent, and the solitude and physical movement felt like their own form of radicalism. I followed the trail around the pond and across the road. I walked over a little footbridge, pausing to take a short video of the rushing creek below. A bouncy pitbull stopped to say hi.

I wound up on the train tracks, where I did an impromptu photo shoot. It reminded me of being a teenager; remember being totally immersed in where you were and what you were doing? That kind of fun and creativity that feel effortless? Like that. Then — my ass cheeks cold through denim from crouching against steel — I stopped in at the Cushman market to get a latte and a breakfast sandwich. I bumped into a friend and chatted for a few minutes.

By the time I reached my car, it was 10:30am. I’d been out for about two hours, and suddenly it hit me: The tired. The whole body ache. The warning signals. LAY LOW, my body whimpered. I came home, took a hot shower, and climbed into bed.

Did I decide not to march because I wasn’t feeling well? That would be an easy conclusion to draw. Not untrue. But also not the whole truth. And to claim otherwise would be a lie, one I can only imagine telling out of fear that I am being a lousy feminist, and that my many friends who marched — folks of many genders, races, ages, and creeds, people I love and respect — will criticize me or, worse, think I’m criticizing them. That is not the case.

In fact, it is the very ferocity of my feminism and my belief in our collective commitment and ability to grow and change and do better that underscored the decision, which I had all but made even before the vague cold symptoms began. I write this trusting that this isn’t an either/or. It’s an opportunity to expand and push the conversation, and so as not to coddle my own — or anyone else’s — fragility.

*  *  *

I’ve spent a good amount of time over the past two days, looking at photos from marches around the country and reading various articles and essays — particularly those by women of color about pink pussy hats, and how they continue to symbolize a movement dominated by white cisgender women. Pieces like If you have a death grip on your pink pussy hat, you’re marching for the wrong reason by Lecia Michelle and this powerful poem by Leslé Honoré.

I read and rested for the remainder of Saturday. I looked at my daughter’s photos on Instagram of herself and my son, proudly holding up the signs they’d made. Rising Voices Not Seas, read Aviva’s, her original artwork and lettering filling me with pride.  At 15, my girl wears her rainbow flag around her neck, draped behind her like the cape of the superhero she is. Pearl, 11, smiled behind his sign: There is no one alive that is youer than you. And yes, he wore a punk pussy hat, a fact that wasn’t lost on me.

Does he know that to many women of color and transwomen, the hat is an offense, proof of a defensive refusal to listen to our sisters (and, as Desiree Adaway writes, “not just cisters”) of color when they point out that “feminism” has for too long meant “white” feminism, and that without true intersectionality, without addressing white supremacy and the ways in which white women are in fact protected by the very patriarchy we’re protesting, we are not ever going to get anywhere new? I don’t think he knows this.

My children are continuously learning that their voices matter, not more than other people’s and not less, either. Marches and protests can be great infusions of energy and help remind us we’re not alone.

But it’s the conversations we have in our homes, over breakfast and dinner, in the car on the way to the mall or a game, and in response to the situations that arise daily all around us that are the real basis for sustainable change.

*  *  *

One thing I have learned is that marching, for me, doesn’t require any courage. But to be trans, to be a trans woman of color, to be black in a country where being black is something the white gaze will define for you, no matter your class or gender or station in life, no matter the decade or zip code or salary — these are realities that many white, cisgender women simply do not face.

Does that  mean white women shouldn’t march, protest, resist, write, holler, lobby, run for office, and fight like hell? Not even a little bit.

But it does mean that we need to recognize that by NOT recognizing the impact of our whiteness, we’re maintaining a status quo that desperately needs to change. And by desperately, I mean: Lives are at stake. Freedom of expression is at stake. Physical and emotional safety are at stake, for all women, yes, but compounded by race and gender norms for women of color and transwomen in ways that need to be believed, valued, and centered in our efforts.

My whiteness absolutely informed my decision not to march this weekend.

I admit, I felt a twinge of guilt, a pang of “should.” What kind of example am I setting for my kids if I am not there, fist in the air, boots pounding the pavement with them? (And in full disclosure: They were with their dad this weekend; he went with them to the march, along with my middle sister, my brother-in-law, and some of their other family members. If they had been with me on Saturday, would I have gone to the march? Most likely, yes. Would that have changed anything I’m writing tonight? No. Would we have talked about this? You better believe it.)

*  *  *

The first photo I have of myself marching is from 1991. North Pleasant Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, protesting the Gulf War. I felt powerful and mighty. Feminist bumperstickers from the hole-in-the-wall hippy bookstore covered the inside of my bedroom door. I was woman: Hear me roar! I am as disgusted and outraged by the current state of affairs as my pussy-hat-wearing sisters.

But if we are not equally disgusted and outraged by the way racism gets sidelined, the way women of color are silenced and muzzled — often by white women who want only to celebrate a “oneness” that is, quite simply, not a reality for non-white, non hetero, non cisgender women — and the way many self-identified liberal white women call any criticism of the movement “divisive” and “counterproductive,”  we’re in even deeper trouble.

I don’t have answers. I am as complicit in a society that favors and protects me because of my skin color — I can, after all, choose whether to self-disclose my identity as a Jew or as a gay woman. But I am seeing, more plainly with each passing day I devote to reading, learning, listening, and self-reflecting, that denying the power of my unconscious whiteness perpetuates oppressive systems. Systems that need to be named and, brick by brick, dismantled.

*  *  *

Instead of marching, I read When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan Cullors and asha bandele, co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. I saw a brain-candy movie with my wife and went to bed early. I reposted photos of my kiddos on Facebook. They looked good out there and I was unabashedly proud of them. I also pray and will do everything I can to ensure that they both continue to become ever-more invested in the collective liberation from misogyny, transphobia, and racism that hurt us all — but not equally.

Without intersectionality, we’re just making our voices hoarse.

It is time to take a step back — sans pink hats — not from confronting and overturning the powers that be, but in the name of shifting a power dynamic that has centered whiteness for… ever.