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.

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.

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.