In lieu of a primal scream

Photo: Jerry Kiesewetter

In lieu of a primal scream
to the government
the two-party system
one big clusterfuck
of power grabs
and corporate lobbies
with some idealistic
individuals in the mix
who are still close
to why they wanted
to go into politics
in the first place
not because their daddy
before them
held the seat
but because they watched
their community
drown in debt
while block after block
got snatched up
by developers
while their schools
crumbled and kids
went hungry
and the water was filthy
and the eviction notices
came faster than paychecks
not because they had
the degree and the pedigree
but because
someone told them
a teacher a grandmother
a neighbor a big brother
that they were already
somebody
and don’t forget it
some people with a fire
in their belly
for something like fairness
or justice
something like visibility
or protection
something like advocacy
and insistence
something like a voice
in the hollow halls
of us and them
humans and monsters
children vilified
as future criminals
and living scarecrows limp
at the borders
where the days scorch
and the nights freeze
and entire families
were kept in freezers
without food or water
Who are the animals now,
tell me
Who are the ghosts
who are the monsters
In lieu of this scream
that will fill my own head
with more noise
I step outside
stand in the driveway
while the puppy pees
feel the first drops
of rain
on bare skin
my glasses wet now
cheeks wet
hands outstretched
the air colder
than yesterday
a mourning dove
with a twig lights up
to the seam of the roof
its babies waiting
somewhere nearby
for her return

* * *

DO NOT LET THIS VILE ADMINISTRATION ACT AND SPEAK ON OUR BEHALF.

TAKE ACTION.

Call you representatives and implore them to put pressure on the administration. Find your reps’ numbers.

ACLU immigration fund or the National Immigration Law Center.

Read “What you should know about the thousands of missing, abused and exploited immigrant children in the USA, and what you can do about it.”

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.

Stop Silencing Women of Color

Image from Layla Saad’s original FB post

Yesterday morning, I read a Facebook post to Pearl over breakfast.

Layla Saad, a brilliant writer, speaker, mentor, and guide whom I feel lucky to have connected with over the past year through social media, had shared a photo of her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite new doll, a doll that looked like HER, with brown skin and natural hair. Her daughter had excitedly brought her new doll to school to show her best friend, who is white.

Her friend’s response? The doll looked “scary.” Layla’s daughter was crushed.

Layla’s original post began with a plea to white parents, to teach our kids about racism.

Well, the same post of hers was blocked on Instagram. Someone reported her, and Instagram sided with the complaint.

Layla shared a screenshot of that post — the blocked one. That, too, was reported as “inappropriate content” and blocked. She wrote about all of this here on Facebook.

Do you see it coming? She was reported and banned from Facebook for 24 hours.

BLOCKED AND BANNED.

That is what the invisible powers that be will do with women of color who are sharing their everyday, lived experiences of racism. They are not making this shit up, but there are plenty of white people who feel “attacked” by these “offensive” posts.

You know what’s offensive? Denial. Coddling. Defensiveness. And actively silencing those who are sharing their pain and anger and frustration and truth.

This morning, I told Pearl what happened, how Layla had been blocked and then banned. I told him why I was so angry and explained as best I could why “reverse racism” is not a thing. I told him I was going to post something about this today, because to sit by and watch as women of color get silenced — by white women, by women who are more concerned with defending themselves or feeling hurt or misunderstood or with “protecting” their kids than they are willing to acknowledge that racism is real and constant and exhausting and violent in everyday ways — is to be complicit.

Pearl said: What if you get blocked, too? And: So why don’t you stop using Instagram and Facebook?

That’s a risk I am fine taking, I told him, adding that the chances of my getting blocked are exponentially lower — because I am unjustly protected by my whiteness.

Given not currently having another way of connecting with so many people, I will stay here. But I will stay here and use my privilege in this space in every way I can, to speak out against white supremacy and oppression.

It’s insidious. Clearly the powers that be behind the scenes  represent and favor white voices and cater to white fragility. Otherwise, why would they ban people of color for saying THIS IS REAL?

Fellow white parents: It is our responsibility to believe women of color when they tell us something is not right. When they tell us to stop. When they tell us to listen. When they tell us they’re angry. Don’t ask them what we can do. Ask each other.

We need to be making noise about this. It might not make you the most popular parent in the schoolyard, but fuck popularity. Really. If we don’t teach our kids about their privilege, about the harm perpetrated and perpetuated and permitted in the name of whiteness and under cover of whiteness; if we don’t teach them that it is both personal AND systemic; if we don’t teach them to be awake to their responsibility and aware that their friends of color are living a very different experience than theirs, one where having a doll that looks like you is special, one where you have to pay that much more attention to how you talk and what you wear and where you go and who you’re with; if we don’t name these things and teach our kids, we are failing.

I may lose friends as I become more vocal about this, but you can’t unsee it once you see it, and it is everywhere. It’s not enough to love Obama and Oprah and go to the Women’s Marches and say we’re angry or that’s terrible or I’m so sad, not all white people, but I’m not racist, my kid would never do that.

Layla Saad did nothing wrong. NOTHING. And yet she was banned from this space. Silenced.

Where can you speak up? Whether it’s at the kitchen table or at the PTO meeting, on social media or at the bus stop while you’re chatting with other parents. This will not stand and it has to stop.

* * *

Layla Saad’s Original Post

White parents, please teach your kids to not be racist.

My 8 year old daughter took one of her new dolls into school today to show her best friend (who is white). My daughter was really excited about showing this doll to her best friend because 1) the doll’s name is Mia (and my daughter’s name is Maya) and 2) the doll’s hair looks just like my daughter’s when she wears it out. She was excited that I had found a doll that looks like her and thought her best friend would share in her joy.

When I asked her after school if her best friend like the doll, she looked ashamed and said No. I asked why. She said, “She said She looks scary.”

???

So help me God, it took everything inside me not to say wtf. I told her:

“That is racist. This doll is beautiful, just like you. And you tell your friend, if she thinks the doll looks scary then that means she thinks you look scary. Tell her what she said was unkind, and if she says it again, she’s going to have to deal with me.”

My daughter is 8 years old and she had her #blackgirlmagic instantly drained out of her by her white friend who thinks natural hair looks scary. If this doll had been white with straight hair, her friend would not have said that. She is conditioned by virtue of her whiteness to view black features as scary. Even though her own best friend is black. Even though they are in a school of mixed expatriate students from all over the world. She still thinks black = scary. Not because she is a bad kid. But because the conditioning of white superiority starts so young.

All the work that I did in building up my daughter’s self-esteem as a beautiful black girl was undone by this one statement: “I don’t like your doll. She looks scary.”

All the work I did in affirming my daughter as a beautiful black girl by getting her this doll is unraveled because of the white gaze.

Whatever excitement my daughter had about getting this doll is now gone. Because of this one statement, my daughter is now looking at this doll (and herself) with shame.

This is what whiteness does. This is why I stay mad.

* * *

Steps You Can Take Right Now

  1. Support Layla Saad as a patron.
  2. Contact Facebook Support.
    Ask them to reinstate Layla’s posts or provide a detailed explanation why not if they won’t.
  3. Share this post or write your own. As Layla wrote today on Instagram: “SHARE what is happening with your communities. Post about it and get the word out. This isn’t just me. This happens to people of colour who speak on social justice issues ALL THE TIME. It needs to stop.”
  4. White parents: TALK TO YOUR KIDS.
  5. Share in the comments other steps you are taking to actively dismantle white supremacy.

* * *

Update: Friday 1/19

Facebook called the removal of Layla Saad’s posts accidental and “a mistake” for which they apologized. As if. Meanwhile, they’re still blocking her Rules of Engagement post, where she outlines very clear guidelines and boundaries, particularly for white people who want to engage with her on social media.

Part of what makes white supremacy so insidious is that we’re all swimming in it, but privilege, by definition, gives me a choice. I can close my eyes. I can choose whether to talk to my kids. Layla’s daughter didn’t have that choice when her friend called her doll scary. When her excitement was deflated in the stroke of a single word.

Being a member of a dominant group isn’t about guilt or shame or tears and outrage — these are expressions of centering and fragility, both words that have become much more prominent on my radar over the course of the last year, with good reason.

Opening your eyes underwater can sting, but it is the only way.

Keep listening hard, looking inward, and speaking outward. Awareness and learning and action aren’t linear; they can and must happen simultaneously.

We have to keep believing women of color when they tell us what’s happening.

Waking Up Is a Prerequisite to Reckoning


What we need right now aren’t fantasies for the future. Calls for unity, healing, and kindness are beautiful, and they may make us feel better for a spell. But my fear is that they are also the stuff of national anesthetization and temporary amnesia that allow too many of us to go about our lives between marches or shootings, numbing out just enough to shrug at the status quo.

We’re tired, we say. There’s only so much we can do, we say. We feel hopeless, we say. There are about a bazillion ways to opt out of reality, and fantasizing tops the list.  I’d like to think we’re beyond this as a nation, but I know that that, too, is a fantasy.

As a younger woman, I used to have fantasies. Lots of them. Not psychic flashes of the future or winning-the-lottery type wishes, but more like a constant, distant mirage of where life was going and wouldn’t it be great when we finally got there?

In these fantasies, my then-husband had a job he loved, preferably one that allowed him to be outdoors a lot. In these fantasies, I had a thriving coaching practice that included Jennifer Aniston as a client, and we lived in a house with stainless steel appliances and a big mudroom. In these fantasies, money was never a source of stress. In these fantasies, I’d “get to” have a sexual experience with a woman, but just one, just enough to check it off my bucket list, nothing that would threaten the life we’d built. In these fantasies, I would reach a lot of people with my words and be known as a writer. In these fantasies, gay marriage was legal in all 50 states (why I cared so much, I wasn’t sure). There was peace in the Middle East. Racism was a thing of the past.

There was more, I’m sure, but those are the parts that come to mind right off the top of my head.

Later, after life undid the house of cards I’d so lovingly constructed, I sat in the rubble for a while. In my grief and emergence, fantasies seemed like folly or worse, a form of betrayal. On the one hand, I didn’t know how to trust myself. On the other hand, trusting myself had turned out to be the only solid ground.

Solid ground is where life is real and undeniable and perhaps scary and confusing to confront. It’s where things aren’t working and we’re willing to examine our role in that. It’s where we’re not telling the whole truth — usually out of fear, and usually out of fear that we will lose something. Solid ground is what we willingly trade for fault lines when we gloss over reality in the name of being good and/or trying to “make things work.”

Imagining a fantasy America that has healed (not heeled) from “its painful past,” sound nice — and should give us serious pause. The past isn’t the past when it’s the very ground we’re walking on. The past isn’t the past when it’s present in our everyday lives, in ways many white Americans continue to diminish, downplay, and downright deny.

If only we raise the vibration. If only we come together to sing in perfect harmony. We are the world, we are the children. My 80s are showing; these are the tropes of my growing-up years, and they’re not only tired, they’re dangerous. Why? Because skin color does matter. In a country built on racial hierarchies, it has everything to do with how we are perceived and treated, what obstacles or opportunities our children encounter, and how safe our bodies and psyches are in the world.

To pretend otherwise is its own kind of violence — and too many of us are perpetuating it. Sure, we may be perpetuating it inadvertently — but that is exactly my point. We need not to fantasize, but to be awake. We were taught not to generalize, not to lump whole groups of people together. But what I don’t remember reading or discussing in grade school or in middle school or in high school was the fact that as a person of color, the deck is stacked against you from birth. Period.

I was taught to remember how hard people — black and white alike — had fought for civil rights. In the past. We watched South Africa fight against Apartheid — and it was “over there,” surely something much worse than the racism that still existed in America. We were taught to envision a future where race wouldn’t matter. The privilege deeply embedded in all of this makes me wince.

Waking up might hurt, but it’s nothing next to the millions of ways white supremacy hurts real people every single day. And we most certainly cannot envision tomorrow without first taking responsibility for where we are today.

This fantasy of an America that has healed from its past will never exist if a majority of Americans won’t acknowledge the fundamental premise on which our country’s economy, popular culture, and capitalist ethos depend: That the lives of people of color are worth less than those of people with white skin — or worthless, period.

Fantasy is white people sharing rainbows and hearts and good vibes and calling it “healing.” It’s also the epitome of privilege, to paint pretty pictures of what’s possible but refusing to acknowledging the rot that is destroying us from the inside out — and our role in keeping it that way.

No, we have to do better. How? By dealing with what actually is. Without that, talk of a better America simply feeds this insatiable desire to look away. To not be accountable. To point the finger at “real” racists. To distance ourselves from racism. To insist that “we’re not like that.”

Reality — the only soil in which a true vision can grow roots — is where we wake up and say, “Yes, me too. I am part of this. I have to start looking at and confronting and shattering the ways in which I am complicit in perpetuating an inherently racist culture.”

It occurred to me, somewhat out of the blue the other day, that I don’t have a lot of fantasies for my life these days. Sure, I picture my kids getting older and think about their futures, and I imagine the seasons turning and the years passing. But I don’t really spend my time thinking about what I’ll be doing or how things will be different — or better — for us. On the heels of this realization came a quiet knowing: I am actually here, in my life, accepting all of it. The parts that are really fulfilling right now along with the things that are uncomfortable, uncertain, or scary.

When a patient is bleeding out, you don’t stand around talking about how great it will be when they’re all better.

I don’t use the word “woke” to refer to myself. But what I have written a lot about over the years is being awake. While this may seem like splitting hairs, to me there is a distinction. “Woke” isn’t  my word to use, to claim. To do so is appropriation — just one more example of me, a white woman, taking something that isn’t mine and making it about me.

But being awake? That is a prerequisite to reckoning. And reckon we must, every single one of us.

What beliefs have I internalized about race over the course of my 43 years here on the planet? What myths have I perpetuated that need to be smashed in order for us to have a clean slate as a country? Is a clean slate for our country possible? Not until we deal with what is right here, all around us, and right here, inside of each of us. 

The Intersection of Jewishness + Whiteness


The discussion of the intersection of Jewishness and whiteness is one I’ve been having for decades in many different contexts, and I imagine it will continue to occupy my mind and heart for the rest of my life.

One thing that has never wavered is the acknowledgement and full recognition and naming of the fact that as a Jew, I can choose whether to conceal or reveal my Jewish identity, just as I can with my sexual orientation. I can gauge a situation, setting, vibe, etc. and determine how safe I feel. People of color of no such option. There is nothing to debate here.

So there is zero question, for me, about white privilege and that being first and foremost the fundamental issue our country is seeing the inevitable outcome of today — the fact that our (and I say OUR, as Americans) collective identity is rooted in genocide, slavery, and white supremacy in ways that continue to go unacknowledged and unchecked, with unquestionably devastating impact on people of color. Antisemitism is also alive and well and that, too, is woven into our country’s history.

Antisemitism is important to raise as a point of awareness and attention if you look at the language and beliefs of white supremacists and the history of a people that has endured and survived thousands of years of expulsions and genocides. As a people, these live not only in memory and history but in the lifetime of our grandparents, genocide at the hands of those whose vile beliefs have been kept alive and revived by the people we’re now seeing empowered to come out of hiding by the current political climate and “leaders.”

I cannot see and hear men — and women, mind you — with burning torches chanting “Jews will not replace us” without feeling alarmed and chilled.

Also imperative to note: NOT ALL JEWS ARE WHITE.

As a white, Jewish woman, do I benefit from the systems of oppression? Yes. Do I feel the need to protect myself as a Jew, as well? Yes. Do I feel the need to use the privilege I have as a white person to further the work of anti-racism? Also, yes — and not only as an individual need or choice but as an obligation and embodiment of living Jewish values. So many things are true at the same time, and personally, my Jewishness serves to strengthen my commitment to racial justice, not in any way diminish, dilute, or whitewash it.

My Jewish identity is inseparable for me from my voice as a writer, an activist, a mother, and an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. This probably goes without saying, but feels important to articulate tonight.

As Rabbi Hillel said in the 1st century: “”If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”


One thing that keeps going through my head is that we have no leader. No single person to whom we can turn for reassurance or guidance or instructions or context. There’s no sitting around the radio, listening with heads bowed. No single steady voice. (Maybe this has never been the way and is simply a warped form of false nostalgia? Or actual nostalgia for #44.)

What we do have may be what we’ve always had: Communities large and small around the country, organizing. The voices of those who’ve been talking, writing, studying, facilitating, and educating about racism for decades, standing on the shoulders of the ones before them.

And there is us. Us includes you. We all have to step into leadership here, in whatever ways we can. What this looks in our real lives is something those of us who have any semblance of privilege need to be addressing. Don’t think big. Think concrete. Think today. Think one thing at a time.

I know many of you have been doing this your whole lives. Many of you have devoted your careers to this work and risked your livelihoods, relationships, and bodies every singe day by speaking out. For many Americans, every single day is an act of resistance, just leaving the house. Thank you. I see you and my respect runs deep.

I’m addressing those of us who have looked to someone else to do it. Now would be a good time to be that someone else — yourself.