Real Talk Isn’t Easy

There is so much we don’t share, or write or even talk about. None of it is simple.

Navigating the territory between personal and political is a mighty task. In fact, it’s not a task at all but a life — with aspects that are and deserve to remain private, while also bearing responsibility for standing up and speaking out. The word “discernment” comes to mind.

Synagogue, Friday night services, welcoming Shabbat in community. Someone dear to me whispers in my ear something about Hondurans trying to cross the border, being treated like criminals. It’s safe to say most of the congregants in this sanctuary believe Trump is a nightmare. Many are actively working in the local sanctuary and anti-racism movements. There are a handful of Jews of color, as well.

“I feel like they’ve stolen our country,” she says.

Outwardly, I nod. Internally, my mind immediately races, in a way I’ve become accustomed to. Statements like this send me in so many directions at once, and I’ve been working to recognize the shortcoming of my heightened reactivity. Among the thoughts that fire like so many overheated neurons:

1. Agreement. Yes. This is not the America we (want to) believe in.

2. Disagreement. No, that America has never been.

3. Agreement. The way this administration is treating refugees and immigrants is unconscionable.

4. Pushback: This country’s relationship to refugees and immigrants has always been ambivalent — at best. Relevant, since we’re sitting in prayer: We turned Jews away from Europe during WWII.

5. More than one thing can be true at the same time. This one gets me every time. I’m working with and on it.

6. They stole the country from us? No, Europeans stole the country in the first place. It has never belonged to “us.”

7. Who is “us” and what is “our”? As Jennifer Harvey writes: “there is no non-racialized woman.” It’s imperative to keep this front and center — no matter your gender.

8. My own privilege — an upbringing in an upwardly mobile, financially secure, white, Jewish family, with strong emphasis on the arts, on education, and on inclusion. I was not raised to be “colorblind” but I also faced very few obstacles and none related to my skin color, religion, or class.

9. My father’s historical memory of anti-semitism. My mother’s historical memory of integration.

10. The limits and dangers of choosing to see mostly or only what we want to see: i.e. progress.

11. The way “progress” is a myth that makes liberal white Americans feel less helpless about racism, and how this keeps the focus on white comfort and not on reality.

Oof. See what I mean? And this is just a tiny sampler of the way my mind gallops. Not particularly productive.

* * *

Another moment: My son got tearful one day, when he was working on a school assignment and eliciting my help. Some of the suggestions I made pointed back to how race might factor into one’s choice of where to live.

“You always do this,” he said. “Everything is always about race or politics.”

The kid had a point. There is a thing called balance… maybe. And yet how do I prioritize balance when the world is so imbalanced? This feels to me like one of the biggest practical and spiritual challenges of our lifetimes.

I won’t apologize for my voice — nor do I want to be reactive. No one, of any age, can drink from a firehouse.

And yet my own words come back to me, words Omkari Williams echoed back to me during our conversation on her podcast recently: Don’t look away.

How do I live, write, parent, and love without looking away, while also not becoming a person who cannot take a breath, who cannot slow her racing mind, who cannot see anything without the glaring filters of injustice?

If we are closed to connection with the very person sitting next to us in the pew, how can we truly care about the stranger?

It would be so nice to say, “Love is the answer.” But what does that even mean? Platitudes will not suffice.

Our rabbi and congregation have been focusing on the mandate not to oppress the stranger. And so to not become strangers to those in our immediate circles and spheres of influence becomes intensely important and sometimes, for me, the most difficult thing of all.

One thing I know is that this is not about me being “good” at something. It’s about keeping the focus where it belongs, which is not a single point. The focus belongs on so many places at once: The big picture, the systemic oppression that has never not been present in our country, the feelings and needs and thoughts of those under my own roof, and the ability to take care of my mind rather than allowing the ugliness of what we know to be true to splinter me into a thousand broken pieces.

Healing cannot happen without justice. Justice will not happen without real talk, and real talk is, frankly, not easy. We all have relationships to navigate, those who may not see as we see.

The less insistent I am about being right and the more intent on moral courage and righteousness — individually and collectively — the clearer the task becomes: To keep doing the work that none of us alone can or will complete. To keep widening the circles while tending to the ones closest to us. To keep asking hard questions and not looking away, not backing away from the moments that make us most confused or agitated or fired up.

To step into that fire and learn.

What needs to burn? What good are these ashes? How are we each other’s keepers? What is it to really listen?

So many questions.

* * *

Desiree Lynn Adaway frequently quotes these lines from Assata Shakur’s autobiography:

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.

In “The Hate U Give,” which I saw with Aviva last night, Starr, the main character, also quotes these words, over a loudspeaker in a profound moment of claiming her voice. We both sat there in the dark theater, crying.

I will not let those tears be in vain.

I will not let those tears be white tears, crocodile tears, or fragile tears. I will not abdicate my responsibility to fight for freedom — yours, mine, my children’s, your children’s — even if it makes you uncomfortable.

And I will also continue to practice quieting my mind and seeing myself in as honest a light as I can — which is to say, learning when to be quiet, when to be curious, and especially to remember to listen to people of color, to those whose lived experience of oppression is daily, cellular, and immediate. To put to use my ancestral and generational memory, while also knowing my place as someone with so much privilege.

That’s what I’ve got this morning. Thank you for reading, for wrestling with me, for staying in this for as long as it takes.

As long as it takes.

Grappling with Radical Honesty in Reactive Times

Image: The Daily Don

I’ve started this sentence six ways to Sunday. I keep watching the bird feeder instead — the elegant mourning doves, who seem to wait their turn while the littler sparrows and finch peck away, unlike the blue jay bullies who, while beautiful to look at, just barrel in and take over the joint.

The reason I’m hesitating is because I want to write about some things I’m observing as more and more people wake up to the atrocities our government is committing, and I don’t want to fall into the self-righteous, liberal white people camp that shames others rather than opens doors to real dialogue, learning, growth, and action.

Does that mean I should just keep quiet on this front? May it go without saying that I, like you, have an ocean of unconscious bias to discover. I’m doing this by reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and other white people who are also reading, writing, being quiet, listening, and learning from people of color and each other.

When I don’t hear a political peep from religious friends, I wonder where they stand.

When friends are suddenly outraged, calling this “a new low,” I wonder where they stand..

I simply wonder.

Maybe they are active in their place of worship or community in ways they choose not to share on social media. Not everyone is public or visible in their activism.

Maybe they are working through their own trauma. Maybe maybe.

I realize lately, I am still more bound up in “niceness” than I care to admit.

I do not want to alienate people who may indeed be grappling with their privilege and not sure what steps to take.

I do not want to alienate those who I’ve come to know in writing groups or school yards, just because they aren’t publicly taking a stand against policy brutality.

I do not want to assume what I don’t know.

I know many, many good people. I say “good” meaning: Compassionate, civically engaged, hearts-in-the-right-place people. Cycles of outrage on social media, if not coupled with tangible, organized actions, achieve little more than to exhaust us. And an exhausted “us” cannot sufficiently keep going, keep fighting.

Let me bring this down to earth. Yesterday, Mani and I sat talking for a long time, about how to take care of our lives, how to direct our time and money as we can to suffering right here in our town, and at the same time not look away or check out from what’s happening in our country. If it’s true that one-third of Americans are vehemently against this government and working in some capacity to dismantle the structures and systems that have brought us to this day, one-third of Americans actively condone and support white supremacy, and one-third don’t care (which blows my mind, I might add — we talked about this part all on its own for a quite a while), then that means those of us who give a shit are in the minority.

Bottom line question here: Is there any possibility of righting this ship enough to truly change course?

We’ve been moving in this direction all along.

So that is another thing I find myself baffled and frustrated by: The number of people popping up and asking, “How?”

How is this possible?

How could this happen?

How did Trump get elected?

How can “they” get away with this?

How did it get this bad?

These are not useful questions. They are ignorant questions.

And yet, I grapple. Because I know that I am ignorant in so many ways.

And I am also not ignorant in others.

My people, my ancestors, came to this country to escape persecution, too.

Jews were denied entrance to the U.S. before the Holocaust.

My ancestors happened to arrive fifty or so years prior to WWII. They arrived at Ellis Island. They were poor. They came with trunks and the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language. They “worked their way up.” They experienced discrimination as Jews, yes, but not so much so that they weren’t ultimately able to benefit from the “American Dream.” My sisters and cousins and our children are all direct beneficiaries in some capacity or other of the fact that our white-skinned ancestors, Jewish notwithstanding, arrived on these shores.

So often right now, I read or hear, “We are a country of immigrants.”

I want to say, Yeah! Hear, hear!

But I cannot in good conscience cheer for this sentiment. It’s a noble truth and a slice of America — but it’s far, far from the whole story. And to not continuously redirect our attention at this time to the scope of harm America’s wealth and apparent stability rests on is to stand in the most dangerous blindspot of all.

We do need hope. We need hope and we need all hands on deck and we need all of us to be awake to this unfolding nightmare. And we also need to stay focused on all the ways we — those who have enjoyed relative ease, comfort, stability, and opportunity as Americans — have looked away. We have looked away from the fact that the person cleaning our hotel room cannot collect social security, because service jobs were negotiated out of that deal. We have looked away from the steady proliferation of prisons and policies disproportionately directed to devastate communities of color.

So yes, when someone is newly upset or sharing about children being ripped from their parents’ arms, parents being deported to countries where violence and poverty make life untenable, I wonder. Is it better to begin somewhere than nowhere at all? Yes, I suppose. It has to be. And at the same time, where have you been?

Of course all of this is also my way of checking myself. Where have I been?

And this is where what I fear is shrillness in my voice must soften. Where I must stop to take a breathe and step off of my soapbox. Where I must acknowledge that I don’t like being shamed. I don’t like it when people make assumptions about my values or actions.

Right.

None of us likes that.

These are incredibly reactive times.

How do we continue to organize, do the work, address 10,000 emergencies at a time, and get enough sleep, care for those under our own roofs, and weed our own literal and proverbial gardens?

Reacting, yelling ourselves hoarse, unfriending and blocking — on the one hand, probably not the most effective route. Certainly not a sustainable one. And we need sustainable, because we are in for a very, very long fight here. One that has already been happening for 400 years and shows no signs up letting up anytime soon.

On the other hand, coddling apologists, bowing to so-called civility when the word itself is such an affront, such an insult, such a hypocrisy, will also not do.

I admire people who stay steady. Whose flame seems to burn brightly. Those who neither flare nor flicker.

It could be that raising children, paying attention to the ways in which I can be of use in our own community, and continuously seeking to see past the blinding benefits of whiteness, are true forms of radical action.

It could be that owning the fact that I can be judgmental as fuck is a good start — especially because it sucks to admit it. I am judgmental about the people who do not appear to be saying or doing a damn thing about a damn thing. There, I said it.

It could be that worrying less about being nice and more about being radically honest would be a good place to hang out.

It could be that so many of us are truly struggling to stay grounded right now. That so many of us DO see the truth of our country, and this horrific moment as a completely natural evolution of a deeply unjust system.

None of this can wait. It can’t wait until November 2018 or November 2020.

And I know we all have to figure out what’s for dinner tonight, and the dog needs to go out and the bills need to get paid and little Timmy just rode a two-wheeler for the first time!

To live your life and take care of your own does not have to equal complicity. it’s not a binary equation. It’s real life.

But to be merely silent in these times is to say, I choose to look away — because I can.

Don’t look away.

Look in the mirror. Look to a friend you trust. Look to a book that challenges what you were taught to believe about the Land of the Free. Look to the sky that covers us all. Just look.

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.

“The Perfect American Family”

Watching American Ninja Warrior this morning, one of the contestants gave the glowy little story about his family and how he came to be on the show.

“We were the perfect American family…” he began. A photo flashed across the screen of himself, his wife, a boy and a girl. White, blonde, middle class, smiling.

Hold up a second.

I pointed out to Pearl what I’d just seen and heard. This is the stuff we’re bombarded with in every medium countless times a day, often without even pausing to register the message, the myth, and most importantly — the harm they cause and the system of white supremacy they uphold.

The man continued to narrate his road to the show. He and his wife adopted a third child from an African nation. This boy “completed” their family. So now we are also expected to applaud them for this noble move and get teary at how sweet it is that they don’t see race.

A few minutes later, Pearl asked a question. (I hadn’t realized he was thinking about it — a good reminder that our kids are paying much more attention than we may think.)

“Would it have been better if he’d said they were the ‘stereotypical’ American family?”

I responded that I thought this would be at least a step in the right direction.

Who defines “perfect” or “typical” or “average”? Narratives come in many forms — written, spoken, visual. The dominant ones — on TV, in textbooks, on magazine covers, in the news — perpetuate a story about America that normalizes and celebrates whiteness as the default setting (not to mention heterosexual, Christian, cisgender, etc.).

If you haven’t already, think about the impact of the pairing of that contestant’s photo with his “perfect American family” comment for a non-white kid, or a kid with a single mom or a kid with same-sex parents for that matter. That adopted child is not going to have the same experience and ease in the world as his white siblings. I hope to God his parents know this.

White parents: Please.

Look hard at yourself. At the ways you want to bubble wrap your littles and protect them from the harshness of the world.

Think about the fact that parents of color have to talk with their children about not getting KILLED. To consider how they talk, what they wear, where they walk or drive, who they’re with — all while navigating a culture that centers whiteness and all while white people and culture are saying: You’re overreacting. You’re being too sensitive. You’re imagining things. You’re being negative.

Do not “protect” your kids from the realities of racism and the ways white dominance seeps into every aspect of our daily lives. No matter their age, they are old enough.

Catch these moments. Say something. Ask questions. Talk about it. Everything counts.

If we want things to change, we cannot raise fragile kids. This is not about being a good white person or getting pats on the back. This is about bringing up a generation who sees through the bullshit and won’t stand for 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.