I haven’t been writing much, for quite some time. But I have found myself in countless… erm… discussions on social media, concerning many topics, but most especially, of late, racism. White privilege. White fragility. So, I started a social learning group that I could tag, in place of having these same arguments time and time again, with other white people. I will soon begin to transfer all of the educational units I’ve posted, there, to this blog. I hope someone finds them useful.
Another morning, another young black man murdered by police for… what? For the crime of being born black in the US. And another day when white people all over the country will shake our heads, avoid watching the video or reading the horrific details, and at best, post a little something on social media.
I am a train wreck. I am always a train wreck when someone else is gunned down for no fucking reason. Other white people I know inevitably ask me, “If it bothers you so much, why do you keep reading the stories? Why do you keep watching the videos?” Some of you may be asking the same thing, right now. Why bother doing something when I know it’s going to tear me up emotionally, and I’m going to cry, and rage, and be a triggered pile of nightmare mess for who knows how long? Why not just put it down, turn it off, walk away?
Because not everyone gets to walk away.
Sure. I can walk away, if I choose to do so. I can distract myself with kitten gifs and YouTube videos of talking porcupines, and do my dead level best to forget that another young man was killed. I would probably be fairly successful. Because I’m white. Because when I go to bed tonight, I don’t have to worry if tomorrow morning’s headline will be my brother or my sister, my partner or my child. Because I have the privilege of being able to assume that if any of those people get pulled over by the police, even if they have a gun in the car, they are seven times less likely to be killed by the badge wearing bastards who are allowed to murder without consequence, day after day after day. If they are charged, they are much less likely to be convicted of a felony, or serve prison time. Because they’re white.
If they got arrested, chances are pretty good that the media would find some cheery, innocent-seeming social media photo to flash across the screen with the headlines, if it were to be covered at all, instead of digging up some years-old mugshot from a minor drug offense and preaching about how they were no angel. Because they’re white.
There is no longer a legitimate excuse for ignorance. There is no longer a legitimate denial that there is systemic racism in our “criminal justice system.” Just typing those three words makes my stomach churn for the sick, tragic irony. There is no “justice” in this system.
If you’re a white person who is still denying the problem, you are a part of the problem.
If you’re a white person who is using your privilege to turn away from the images, the stories, the reality, then you are a part of the problem.
If you are a white person who will just shake your head, and do nothing, you are a part of the problem.
Sure. I could walk away. But then I would be a part of the problem, too. Hell, no matter what I do, I am a part of the problem, simply by benefiting from this system. The price I pay for living on this planet, for being a human being, is using the privilege I have to make a difference.
Maybe it won’t be much. Just me, a disabled queer lady in a small southern town. But it will be something. And no matter who you are, white person sitting comfortably on your sofa or at your desk, reading this in air conditioned safety, you can do something, too.
“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
Here’s what you can do:
- The least possible effort you can make is sharing the accounts and posts on social media. Share them with your white friends and family members. Open up a conversation. I don’t care how awkward or uncomfortable it makes you. It is the smallest possible debt you owe for the privilege you’ve been granted by being born white in this country. Talk to the people you know who aren’t yet aware, or aren’t yet convinced. Argue with them, if need be. Show them the statistics, the videos, the comparisons of how white people who commit crimes and black people who commit crimes are treated by the media. Hit them with a barrage of information, until they can no longer deny that this is a systemic problem, and one which we as a nation are responsible for fixing. Let them know that, as long as they refuse to grasp this simple and undeniable truth, you will continue to shove it in their faces.
- Write to and/or call your representatives.. Ask — no, DEMAND — to know what they’re doing, personally, in Congress, to address the rampant murders of people of color, especially black people, by the law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect and serve. Do some research. If there has been an LEO murder of a POC in their district (you can search by state, race, and armed/unarmed status, as well as access any news accounts), ask them whatthey’re doing to make sure the murderer(s) are brought to justice. Keep writing them and calling them. Make a nuisance of yourself. Put it in your Google calendar or your smartphone. Remind yourself to call them again, email them again, twice a week, every week, until you get a satisfactory answer, or you see actual change in policy. Do not believe that one call is enough. Your representatives receive hundreds and thousands of calls from special interest groups like the NRA every week. We have to make ourselves loud enough, annoying enough, uncompromising enough, to be heard above the din.
- Support the activist groups doing the work out in the world. The groups protesting, like BlackLivesMatter. Put your bodies in the streets, if you’re able. Donate, if you aren’t able. If you’re poor and disabled, then do your best to spread the word, educate yourself, and educate others.
- In short, USE your white privilege to fight anti-black racism.
I guarantee you there are at least two things on that list that every single one of us can do. So stop sitting there shaking your damned heads, and hop to.
To any POC reading this: I am, obviously, a white person, trying my best to be an active anti-racist. If there is anything I’ve missed, or any tone deafness on my part, or any other thing wrong with this that I’ve missed, please call me out. I will repair it ASAP. Thank you.
I don’t generally go in for long explanations, when harm has been done. I did harm, this morning, with some heartfelt but thoughtlessly expressed sentiments and poorly chosen words, which conveyed nearly the opposite of what I intended. I screwed up in about a dozen separate ways, and people were offended and possibly hurt by that. For that, I am truly sorry. Period. Insofar as the apology goes, that’s all that really matters, and no one owes my explanation any attention, if they prefer not to hear it. I fucked up, I’m sorry, and I intend to do all that I can not to fuck up in that way, in the future.
Someone in my Twitter timeline retweeted the following tweets from Yves, regarding the revelation that Sandra Bland was homophobic:
There was a tweet before these two, which apparently had a link to an article that I somehow missed. I replied with the following:
…and was soundly and deservedly reprimanded by three separate people.
Not having read, or even been aware of the article, my response was dismissive, and likely painful for some who read it. I wish I could rewind, and repair that. Stop and read the original tweets more carefully, from a more mindful, less emotional place, and either not respond at all, or respond with a better understanding and more thoughtfulness. Since I can’t, I’ll offer what explanation I can, here. Not as an excuse – I was wrong, and nobody is obligated to excuse that – but merely as insight for anyone who cares to have it. And this will be long. There’s a whole lot that went into the feelings that inspired those badly worded tweets, and I don’t know how to condense this, without losing the essence.
I’ve been really disturbed by this never-ending pattern of media and public response to state sanctioned murder of black men and women, and other people of color, in which the “they were no saint” rhetoric gets trotted out and paraded around every article, every television news feed, every sound bite, every comments section and social media discussion. It makes me physically ill to read, over and over again, the picking apart of every single personal choice, belief, and behavior of the victims of these crimes, as if smoking weed, or refusing to put out a cigarette, or speaking rightful challenge to over-reaching authority, or shoplifting, or being fucking rude, somehow justifies their murders. It’s the same damned thing that I, and other victims of sexual crimes, have to face when we come forward to either report those crimes or seek social support. It’s victim blaming, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter whether or not Sandra Bland put out her cigarette, when the cop told her to do so, any more than in matters what a rape victim was wearing, when some rapist made them his prey. It doesn’t matter whether or not Michael Brown had ever smoked weed, any more than it matters whether a woman had one too many drinks in a bar, if somebody assaults her. It doesn’t matter what the fucking VICTIMS did, before they were made victims, whether the person who victimized them was a rapist or a trigger-happy racist cop. The victims deserve our support. So, the whole not-a-saint thing hits me pretty hard.
Homophobia does, too. It has been a fact of life for me, since I realized I was something other than “normal,” something other than straight, when I was in my early teens. I’ve written, here, about what it was like for me, growing up bisexual in a bigoted, shitpot, southern town, and here, about how some of that bigotry was shoved down my throat, growing up. And here, about sexual abuse, rape, and victim silencing. About hate, racism, homophobia, erasure, shaming, indoctrination, and how all of those things have been a part of my history, a part of how I became who I am, now. If you don’t want to read them, I understand. None of them is an easy read. All of them come with possible triggers, especially for anyone who is marginalized, harmed, and/or oppressed by racism, homophobia, or rape culture. In a nutshell, I’ve faced homophobia for most of my life. I still face it, now. The memories of the ways it has been weaponized against me are still nearly as painful as its current presence. The fears of what that same homophobia, and the usually accompanying transphobia, may do to my teenage, transgender son, are ever-present and often overwhelming, even in the obvious context of my own undeniable white privilege.
Since my unavoidable return to that shitpot town, all of those things, and a sweeping culture of racism that pervades nearly every single facet of life, here, have made me all but a shut-in. I can’t go to the grocery store, without running into someone who bullied me in high school for being bisexual. I can’t stop to put gas in the car, without seeing a handful of bigoted, hateful stickers on cars, or an overblown pickup truck with a full sized confederate flag hanging from a jury-rigged flagpole in the back. Christmas dinner with my family ended with me, my partner, and my child walking out fifteen minutes into the meal, because of the blatant, unapologetic racism in my family’s conversation. My facebook, on June 27th, was FULL of right wing rhetoric about how conservatives and Christians were being oppressed by “that Muslim traitor in the White House.”
Living here, it is utterly inescapable, and for at least a few more years, I can’t leave.
So, I turned my facebook, where my friends are family and what few locals I didn’t have horrid associations with, from before, into a platform. Nearly every day, I comment on other posts, trying to simultaneously maintain composure, and fight against the all encompassing culture of hate-infested, cis-hetero, christian, white supremacy that permeates everything. I post educational things about the history nobody taught us in school, the one in which slavery was literally the ONLY real reason for the Civil War (and that, alone, is usually a brick wall), about how community policing, as we know it, has always been inherently anti-black, about how Jesus never condemned homosexuality, about how love between consenting adults is never either a sin or a crime, about how transpeople deserve the right to not be murdered by bigots, about how people of color deserve to live in a place where the police aren’t the enemy.
I have NO community, in real life. Aside from the two other people who live in my house, I have a sister and a former stepmother I barely see, and one old high school friend, with whom I find I have less and less in common. My father and extended family refuse to see their unconscious racism, transphobia, and homophobia, so I don’t feel safe in their presence. There is literally nothing to do, here, no place to go, that isn’t at least a 45 minute drive, which doesn’t involve associating with dangerously hateful bigots. I’m disabled, so travel isn’t something I get to indulge in, much, even just to the nearest city.
In the last two years, over and over and over again, I have either lost friendships, or chosen to dissociate myself from people who refused to see their victim blaming, predator enabling behaviors were a problem. So the vast majority of people I knew, people from my former home whom I considered friends, are no longer a part of my life. And that one former high school friend I mentioned? He’s a white, cis-, gay man. Recently, he was here, visiting, and dropped the phrase, “playing the race card,” into a conversation about politics. It was kind of the last straw, for me. I’m basically a hermit, now.
See, bigotry has been a fact of life, for me, ALL of my life. I am always the most upset and offended by that bigotry when it comes from someone who is also marginalized and/or oppressed by the current status quo. Hearing my gay friend express something so blatantly racist was enraging and devastating. The one person I believed I had, here, the one person I thought was more evolved, and beyond all that bigotry, had just revealed that he wasn’t. It felt, as it always does, when that happens, like a betrayal.
Oppressed people actively participating in or perpetuating the oppression of other people is the one thing I simply can’t ever wrap my brain around, can’t ever stop feeling astonished and hurt by, when I hear or read it. It rips into me like a dull knife, every single time.
What happened to Sandra Bland, even though we don’t know all of the truth, yet, was horrific and inexcusable. I’ve argued with idiots about this until I could barely speak. Idiots who trot out that ridiculous line about how, if she’d just obeyed the nice white policeman, she would have been fine. Idiots who spout the suspicious evidence of marijuana in her system as proof that she was to blame, somehow. Idiots who are just exhausting, and pretty much everywhere I go. I’ve argued until I wept, in frustration with them, and in utter despair of our culture as a whole. I haven’t been able to march. I can’t go to where the protests are, but I’ve been working towards educating other white people about the white supremacist reality of present day America, nearly every single day since last August.
So, when I saw that Sandra Bland was homophobic, it felt like a kick in the gut, on a day when (for a host of unrelated reasons I won’t even get into, here) my guts had already been pummeled. My initial emotion was that same sense of betrayal I felt when my friend revealed his racism. Then, a little bit of anger, and the return of that overwhelming sadness and despair for what our culture is, despite the fact that it’s the 21st century.
If the people I know, here, discovered this, they would undoubtedly use it as a sort of gotcha. They would use it as yet another reason why they think I’m wrong to believe that her death was not fucking okay, or in any way justifiable. They would do this, even while believing that I, and my son, are fundamentally less worthy, as human beings, because of our sexual orientation and gender identity.
And all those things were swirling in my head, as I realized that it didn’t matter whether or not she would have fought for me, or for my son. She did not deserve to die, alone and unjustly imprisoned. When I said that “homophobia isn’t a lethal offense,” I did not mean that directed homophobia doesn’t kill, because it absolutely does. I know why that seemed dismissive, and it is entirely the fault of my own hastily worded reaction. I only meant that her being homophobic was not reason enough to justify locking her up and taking her life. When I said what I did about her not having the opportunity to learn and grow, I said it from a place of someone who was raised to hate, raised to be racist and bigoted, and learned better. Someone who, through life experience and age and seeking knowledge and understanding, overcame some busted beliefs that were carefully cultivated in my young, formative mind. Someone who believes that we all have the capacity to overcome our broken and damaging conditioning, to become more empathetic and humane and caring towards one another, no matter our lot in life.
If someone had killed me, when I was a few years younger than Sandra Bland, I would never have been shown my internalized racism, either. I think that unjustly depriving someone of that chance is every bit as tragic as killing someone more socially enlightened, more empathetic to the ways in which people unlike themselves are oppressed.
So, yes. I will continue to demand answers and accountability from the people responsible for Sandra Bland’s death. Her homophobia didn’t make what they did to her less unjust, and my support for that doesn’t hinge on what her attitudes towards me may have been. I don’t say that for anyone other than myself, though. It is completely understandable and justifiable for other LGBTQ people to wish to withdraw their vocal support for that particular cause, in light of this information, and I don’t judge them in any way. For me, her death didn’t remove homophobia from the world, or even my little sphere of it. It just denied her the chance to gain experience that may have shown her a better way to be.
So, I will still say her name. Sandra Bland may never have been my friend, if we’d met, but what was done to her demands justice, and she should not be forgotten.
Again, if you’ve made it this far, I am so very sorry that my language was dismissive, offensive, and/or harmful. I can’t promise never to screw up again, but I promise to try harder to be more conscious of my words, rather than spewing complex emotions into thoughtless 140-character blurbs. And now I’m off to find the article that inspired all of this, and learn how to do better.
I have recently started spending an inordinate amount of time on Twitter. A year ago, I would have believed that to be a waste of time. A year ago, I was uninformed.
Twitter, largely thanks to the efforts of Black Lives Matter activists like Johnetta Elzie, DeRay Mckesson and Zellie Imani, has become the active, vibrant, effective hub of social change. It’s strange to say, but I sometimes feel like I didn’t really grow up, didn’t really mature in my own feminism, until I found Twitter. Sure, I sort of understood my own white privilege, but I didn’t really know even a third of the racial history of this country. I believed in intersectionality, but I had not quite internalized it.
Twitter changed that, 140 characters at a time. Not to mention all the links to mind-blowing, mind-expanding studies and articles, op-ed pieces and blog entries. It also introduced me to a host of amazing people who are doing some very difficult, often thankless, sometimes risky even to the point of possible death, activism work.
Aside from the cat pics and joke memes (which, let’s be clear, I enjoy more than I should), Twitter has mostly been a feeling of community I’ve missed for a long time. It has given me something I thought I’d lost, before: a place to talk about my personal feminism, without feeling like I was constantly under attack. A place to learn from other people, without feeling completely disconnected from the teachers. A place to debate, where the trolls can fairly easily be dismissed (at least, they can for me; I know others’ experiences haven’t been that at all) by the simple click of a mouse.
And there are the question tweets. Mostly, the questions aren’t original. Often, they’re things I’ve seen a million times, and just haven’t bothered to address or answer, for myself. Simple questions, with maybe not-so-simple answers.
Tonight’s simple question, from Feminist Gals an account created mostly (from what I can tell) to educate teens and college-aged adults about feminism, was this:
Why do you need feminism?
I responded twice, and I’ll include those answers, here. But there is so much more than I could put into tweets, even if I filled that text field over and over again, all night long. I decided to start a living, updated-as-necessary list of all the reasons why I need feminism.
I need feminism…
- …because before I was old enough to legally buy a drink in a bar, I’d been molested for five years, gang raped while on a vacation, abused by two different partners, and roofied and raped at a party where I had one drink.
- …because my family didn’t believe I’d been molested.
- …because I chose a boy I didn’t really care about, to lose my virginity, so that the grown man who was molesting me wouldn’t take it from me, without my consent.
- …because virginity has become so commodified in our culture, I actually believed I would lose value as a human being, as soon as I was no longer a virgin.
- …because from the moment I had sex with that sweet boy, I was labelled a slut.
- …because my best friend at the time was also gang raped, that night, and blamed me for it. Because she and her friend beat me in a parking lot for not saving her.
- …because I was taught to question and doubt the validity of my own lived experiences, by people not believing my accounts of them.
- …because of gaslighting.
- …because, when I told my boyfriend (at the time) about being raped, he blamed me for it, and immediately explained how he would leave me, if I pulled away from him the next time he tried to kiss me or initiate sex.
- …because I was still so unsure of my own value as a human being that I stayed with him, anyway.
- …because my sexual orientation has been dissected, ridiculed, picked apart, and even been deemed imaginary or non-existent, since I was outed in high school.
- …because not all of that came from straight people.
- …because a high school guidance counselor told me that I shouldn’t be “shoving it (my sexual orientation) in everybody’s faces, when I spoke to her about the bullying.
- …because I was quietly steered away from the hobbies and careers I wanted, when I was young, because of my gender.
- …because my childhood religion taught me both that I was the source of all evil, and that my only legitimate purposes on this planet were to make babies and take care of them. And men. To take care of men.
- …because my emotions, even when their expression is both logical and appropriate to the situation, are often used to discredit my words. I am neither hysterical nor oversensitive.
- …because I had an easier time getting booze at the liquor store, when I was a teenager, than I did getting birth control.
- …because I grew up believing that women weren’t supposed to enjoy sex.
- …because all the heroes in my books, movies, and TV shows were men and boys, beyond Nancy Drew.
- …because I was taught all about all the things I was supposed to do to keep myself from being raped, without ever hearing a thing about consent.
- …because my male friends and cousins were never taught not to touch me, if I said no.
- …because I was never taught how to set boundaries, or even that I was allowed to do so. In fact, I was made to accept kisses, hugs, cheek-pinches, and to sit in someone’s lap, even when I’d said I didn’t want to do so.
- …because parents are still forcing their kids to accept touches and physical affection from people who make them uncomfortable.
- …because, until I was in my late twenties, I believed that if I “led a man on” to a certain point, I owed him sex.
- …because girls – and more importantly, boys – are still being taught that lie.
- …because too many people believe they are entitled to my attention, time, respect, affection, body, and intimacy.
- …because girls are still made to choose their clothes for school based upon whether or not the boys might find them “distracting.”
- …because the vast majority of legislators making policy and funding decisions about women’s health in the US are male.
- …because I’m afraid to post face or full-body pictures of myself online, due to the possible commentary.
- …because my clothing does not indicate consent
- …because my alcohol consumption doesn’t, either.
- …because one in five women will be raped in her lifetime.
- …because 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are molested as children
- …because our country provides those child victims with neither justice nor adequate treatment for their trauma.
- …because a child victim of sexual abuse is almost twice as likely to be sexually assaulted or raped, later in life, as someone who was not molested as a child, yet there is no ongoing support system.
- …because children almost never lie about sexual abuse, yet are rarely believed.
- …because women almost never lie about rape, yet are rarely believed.
- …because police officers often interrogate reporting rape victims as if they were the criminals…
- …and only about 3% of rapists ever see the inside of a prison cell…
- …and victims are revictimized by the court system, during trials…
- …and by their communities…
- …and by the media…
- …yet too many people, when told by a woman that she was raped, refuse to believe her unless she goes to the police.
- …because people like RooshV and Donald Trump exist.
And that’s all I’ve got the spoons to type, right now. I’ve barely scratched the surface, and I will be back.
Listen up, y’all. We need to have a talk. One of those real, no bullshit, tear-away-the-politeness talks that gets down to the actual meat of a thing, instead of dancing around it in pretty-shiny-white circles that pretend to mean something. This isn’t cotillion or cocktail party or church potluck talk – though it probably should be.
Mostly, white America has been fooling itself for a very long time. We’ve somehow managed to talk ourselves into believing that we live in a “post-racial” society, in which “color-blindness” can symbolize anything other than what it really is – a defect in our vision – and we can convince ourselves that racism was obviously bad, but that it only existed in the past. That once the Jim Crow laws were overturned, once schools were forcibly integrated, we could pat ourselves on the back for being enlightened and considerate, and go on about our business without worrying about race-based social injustice, anymore. We could gasp in horror at “the way things used to be,” and feel like good people, because we don’t act that way, now. Goodness no!
Fairy tales are nice, sometimes, for children. Even as children, though, we learn that fairy tales are make believe. That there is reality, and there’s fiction, and that we can’t hope to live responsible and fulfilling lives, if we conflate the two. Somehow, though, we managed to miss the memo that the whole idea of the present as a “post-racial society” is a fairy tale, too. We know Santa Claus isn’t real, unicorns don’t exist, little green dudes don’t live on Mars, but we missed this hugely important thing about the reality in which we live. So, let me break it down for you.
Racism isn’t some monster under the bed we’ve managed to outgrow. Racism is real, it’s current, it’s still a problem right now, every day, right here where we live, no matter which part of the country that happens to be. It still affects a very large portion of our population, on a daily basis, in damaging and horrific ways. Pretending we can’t see that won’t make it go away. Pretending we, as white people, haven’t all benefited from its presence won’t make those benefits – or the corresponding hardships placed on minorities as a result – cease to exist.
Now, this doesn’t mean that your life doesn’t suck, too. Maybe it does. The fact is, though, that our ancestors were given advantages that the American ancestors of people of color were simply not able to access. I’m not talking about the folks who fought in the Civil War, either, but people who are most likely your parents or grandparents, who had opportunities available to them that were categorically denied to people of color, often through cleverly worded prejudicial clauses in law or policy.
Let’s look at housing, for instance. Where we live largely determines what kinds of services and opportunities we are able to access. That’s just simple fact. Another fact: home ownership has always been a part of the path to financial stability, in this country (and the burst of the housing bubble in the 21st century doesn’t negate the advantages of home ownership, currently or throughout history). When programs were established to lend money to people for the purpose of purchasing a home, beginning with the New Deal in the 1920s, and continuing beyond HUD programs in the 1990s, the programs were blatantly racist in practice. Loans that were made available in the mid-twentieth-century went almost exclusively to whites. And when I say almost exclusively, I’m talking over 98 percent, before 1968. This little bit is only one tiny part of how the US, as an institution, privileges white people over people of color, in housing. There is an ocean of historical evidence of much more widespread, race-based housing discrimination, and that little bit I just mentioned is only a drop in that ocean. It isn’t just historical, either. Housing policies, while much more circumspect in their racism, are still quite racist, still quite biased towards white people, and still oppressive to the “Other.”
Image description: Illustration of a house with a white picket fence, under the words, “The American Dream”
So, there’s one way in which our forebears had a leg up, whether or not they were racist. They still reaped this benefit of a society which clearly and unapologetically favored whites over people of color. One way in which we, as white people in the US, now, still reap the benefit. It isn’t saying our lives are fabulous. Personally, I can’t afford to own a home. All other things being equal, though, I would be more likely to qualify for a home loan in a ‘good’ neighborhood than would a woman of color. Still. Now.
Let’s consider another measure of quality of life: employment. Until 1964, it was in no way illegal to be openly discriminatory in hiring practices. That’s only 51 years ago. When either our parents or grandparents were very likely the majority of the workforce in the US. Again, not ancient history, even for those who don’t think that the phrase American history is an oxymoron. Until 7 years later, in 1971, businesses could still get away with creative policy-making, skirting the non-discrimination laws by making rules that were unrelated to the actual requirements of a job, yet would disproportionately disqualify minorities seeking employment. Cute little tricks like in-house “intelligence tests” that were specifically written to favor whites’ education and experiences over those of minorities, yet bore no relation whatsoever to the job being sought. For all this progress, the laws established in Griggs v Duke Power, in 1971, were put in a stranglehold in two 1989 rulings. One of those, Wards Cove Packing Co. v Antonio, basically flipped the script. Instead of requiring companies to bear the burden of proof – in other words, making the companies prove the policies in question weren’t discriminatory – it placed the burden on the employee being discriminated against, placing yet another barrier in the way of justifiable equal employment litigation. After all, many of these discriminatory policies rested on the disparities in the education received by white people, as compared to the education available to people of color. The decision in the other case, Patterson v McLean Credit Union, basically stated that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was only applicable to hiring practices, and held no sway over post-hire advancement or workplace harassment or prejudice faced after someone was hired. I hate to sound redundant, but this is NOT ancient history. This happened in my lifetime, and probably in yours. 1989.
There are SO many other ways in which institutionalized racism in this country has been and continues to be perpetuated. If I wanted to go into even a significant percentage of those, a blog post wouldn’t do it. I’d have to write an entire series of books. An encyclopedia of injustice. Aside from housing and employment, which I’ve really barely skimmed across, here, there are blatant and ongoing inequalities in education, historical representation within education, social support systems, law enforcement attitudes, prejudice, and approaches, prosecution, detainment, media representation… the list goes on and on and on. And in every generation since the grand old US of A became a nation, every single one of those things has been inherently, institutionally biased to benefit white people, and to oppress people of color. In spite of the big, flashy legislative signs of progress towards equality, every single one of those things is still biased towards white people. So, even if your own individual life sucks, even if you’re otherwise oppressed because you live in poverty, or because you’re disabled, or because you’re a woman, if you’re white, you’ve still benefited from generations of disparity.
An individual who has benefited from institutionalized oppression is NOT inherently a bad person. We don’t need to feel guilty or ashamed or like some kind of evil because the current system has given us an advantage, in comparison. Recognizing and owning the fact of your white privilege doesn’t mean you have to be ashamed of yourself. You probably didn’t create those laws. You probably don’t overtly discriminate against people on the basis of race. But let’s face facts, here. Chances are pretty high that, because of things like unequal historical representation in education, and biased portrayals in the media, and being brought up to believe, at least subconsciously, that all things white are inherently better, it’s very likely that you hold some internalized biases, yourself. Being brought up white in the US, it would be pretty miraculous if you didn’t. Again, this isn’t about making you feel bad, though your feelings are really not the point. Recognizing those little seeds of bias buried in the way you interact with the non-white world is a good thing. Unpacking those beliefs, examining them, picking them apart, and using the knowledge you have, now, to put them to bed, is essential in becoming a socially aware, socially responsible human being.
Now, this is where it gets a bit sticky. If you don’t actually care about your fellow human beings at all, you may just want to stop reading, right here. Continuing would only be a waste of your time and mine. As a matter of fact, if you’re that guy, then just “go away,and never come back,” Gollum. I’m speaking directly to white people who do care, who don’t want the system of institutionalized racism to continue to exist. This is where we put our money where our mouths are, so to speak.
One of the reasons that the employment and housing discrimination is so easy to overlook, so easy to outright ignore, is because both things are often much less about what you know (i.e.- how qualified you are), and much more about who you know. Since these institutionalized advantages have been around pretty much as long as the US has been around, the people in control of such things as housing, employment, education, and legal proceedings are much more likely to be caucasian than any other race. Not just by a tiny margin, but by a whole damned book. We, as white people, are far more likely to exist somewhere within the six degrees of separation sphere of landlords, property managers, business owners, hiring managers, police officers, prosecutors, and judges. Even if we don’t, chances that they will give us a fair shake are pretty good, because we look like them. Because even progressive white people have often internalized a certain underlying conditioning, which exists in nearly every aspect of our culture, that tells them white is inherently better.
They are more likely to listen to us, to actually hear what we’re saying. More likely to give real consideration to a cause that has our voices raised in protest. This is where our privilege can do some good.
And this is where we, collectively, are failing our fellow human beings.
Black people are still not given equal employment opportunities, or access to equal housing or education. They aren’t being sentenced comparably to their white counterparts for criminal convictions. They make up roughly 13% of the population, yet they account for over 37% of the prison populations – and it is NOT because they commit a vastly larger proportion of America’s crime. Our nation’s police force is murdering unarmed black men and women in terrifying numbers.
Yet when they tweet #BlackLivesMatter, we respond with #AllLivesMatter. Which is missing the point. When white social media laments that a beloved lion was killed by a sport-hunting American dentist, black people are reasonably upset. After all, the same people who are crying over this lion killed on another continent often didn’t have a thing to say about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Sam Dubose and so many more, when they were killed, right here at home. If they dare to mention this strange dichotomy, we respond with things like We can care about more than one thing at a time, you know, or You don’t get to tell us what to be passionate about! Again, because we are missing the point.
The point is, racism is alive and well in the US, and we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for being allies, if we aren’t actually being allies. Tweeting #AllLivesMatter, or getting defensive when someone is describing their lived experiences as black people, is missing the point. Getting pissed off when someone uses the term “privilege” is not being an ally. Allies don’t walk into a space that oppressed people have carved out to speak about their oppression, demanding that the oppressed people watch the tone in which they describe their experiences, or demand change. Allies do not walk into those spaces, demanding that the focus shift to their feelings. Allies are there to support, to amplify, and to listen. They’re not there to take charge, and make the rules. As white people, when dealing with matters of race, we’ve already been in charge for a very long time, and we’ve been royally mucking things up.
We’ve been mucking things up because, instead of listening to people of color, when they tell us what the issues are, we want to argue. No, no, that can’t be it. It must be this other thing over here. When they tell us how to address these issues, we create more by telling them that our ideas – you know, those ideas white people have been coming up with for decades, in response to racial inequality, the ones that haven’t actually worked? – are somehow better than theirs. We’re saying that what they really need is a white hero to ride in and save them from their own less valid ideas. In essence, what we’re doing, instead of being the helpful allies we think we are, is perpetuating the problem. We’re saying the same things that are born out of the roots of the very issues people of color are literally dying for. We’re saying that our feelings are more important, our experiences nullify their own, our defensiveness deserves more consideration than their oppression.
And that’s really not okay.
So, Dear Fellow White People:
Stop tweeting those awful banalities like #AllLivesMatter. Of course all lives matter. The whole point of the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that black lives haven’t mattered as much, in this country, as white ones. EVER.
Stop wailing when someone points out that you are using your privilege to silence them, or center yourself in a movement that IS. NOT. ABOUT. YOU. Recognize that it isn’t an insult, but a plea to stop using your experiences of our culture – which happened in a world where you, by virtue of your skin color, are viewed as somehow more worthy as a human being – to negate theirs.
Stop trotting out tired old racist tropes without understanding where they originated, when faced with media accounts of people being murdered by the very people who are supposed to protect them from murderers.
Instead, educate yourself. Do your own damned research. This is the information age, so there is literally NO excuse for demanding that an oppressed person educate you on the history of their oppression.
Instead, speak up about the injustices you see. Nobody is saying you can’t, or shouldn’t, draw attention to animal cruelty or sport hunting. At the same time, though, use your white privilege to draw other white people’s attention to Sandra Bland, or Sam Dubose, or simply the fact that black women make only 64 cents for every dollar made by white men.
Instead, stop talking over them, and actually listen to what they’re asking. Put yourself in their shoes.
How about, maybe, you give us equal access to housing, jobs, and education? How about you start sentencing us by the same standards you use when sentencing white people for the same crimes? How about, perhaps, you get your police to stop killing our young men and women in the streets? How about you value our lives as much as you value your own?
It’s really not that much to ask, is it?
Yesterday, New York Magazine went live with an article which was focused on amplifying the voices of 35 women. These women are only a portion of the total number of women who have come forward in recent months, detailing the sexual assaults they suffered at the hands of Bill Cosby. The cover photo, seen here, shows each of the 35 women, sitting in a chair, in stark black and white. There are 36 chairs. The last chair in the image is empty. That chair is haunting. That empty chair sparked a hashtag on twitter, #TheEmptyChair, which has become a platform for women who feel like that chair belongs, at least in part, to them. A platform from which they are telling their stories, explaining why their chair is still empty. At least one man on Twitter, Elon James White, offered his own profile as a part of that platform. He invited victims who felt the need to tell their story to send him private messages, which he would then post without their names, twitter usernames, or identifying information.
It probably won’t come as a surprise that his inbox was immediately flooded with responses. Accounts of some of the most vile bits of humanity, repeated and expanded upon beyond the capacity that any one human brain can reasonably hold. He will never know what it is like to be a woman in America. The best he can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell him, and magnify their voices from his male-privileged position. That isn’t as dangerous for him as it is for those women.
In the last few years, institutionalized racism has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the light. Into a place where even the most isolated, oblivious white person can’t possibly be unaware of the inexcusable, abominable acts being perpetrated on black people by a white-dominated society. In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder, and the fallout in Ferguson in reaction to that murder, and the seemingly endless murderous rampage of the US police force, directly after, I stopped just shaking my head, then turning away. I spent days watching the live feed videos from Ferguson and St Louis. Watching police hit peaceful, law-abiding protesters with pepper spray, rubber bullets, tasers, and various other military operational equipment. What we were being shown on mainstream media was an unruly crowd of mostly black youth, vandalizing and burning shops and police cars. What wasn’t being shown, on most TV stations, but was being shown in a host of live streaming feeds on the ground, was an entirely different story. Police inciting, rather than responding to, outbreaks of violence. Protesters demanding justice they wouldn’t receive, and being taunted, derided, ridiculed, infantilized and demonized in the press and by law enforcement in the streets.
I watched until my eyes hurt from weeping. A human being had been murdered. An innocent black man shot down by a white cop in the streets of his own hometown. And the mainstream media was undeniably bending over backwards to excuse it, to justify it, to explain it away. Pundits debating the existence of racism, as if there was any doubt that it still exists.
I wrote some things, like you do. I talked to my friends, and lamented the fucked up state of the nation. I cried some more. I agonized over what I might be able to do, from my perch as a disabled woman in a small town in the racist-as-fuck south. I debated with my partner. I listened to black people. I asked questions. Then I listened some more. I’m white. I have white privilege. These are undeniable facts. I will never know what it’s like to be black in America. The best I can do is listen to the people who do know, and believe what they tell me. The best I can do is amplify their voices, to help the things they say be heard by people who may not listen to them. I can argue against the people who may not even give them the time of day, because of the levels of melanin in their skin. I can use my white privilege to speak to intractable, ignorant white people. That won’t be as dangerous, for me, as it would be for a black person.
Look, I’m what the relentlessly oblivious refer to as an SJW. A “Social Justice Warrior.” They mean it as a derogatory term, an insult that usually implies some sort of weakness, some sort of bleeding-heart liberal status that is, in their terms, indicative of a “pussy,” a “bitch,” a “beta.” I don’t care how they mean it. I am a Social Justice Warrior. To me, it means that I refuse to limit my noise-making and calls for attention only to problems that affect me, personally, or people like me. Intersectionality. It’s a thing. There are so many justifications for oppressing people, so many ways people are held down due to factors beyond their control or agency, and I’m not okay with any of them. I’m not affected, personally, by racism. It can still fuck right off. I’m not personally affected by transmisogyny or cis-sexism, but that can fuck in the general direction of off, as well. I will speak out against oppression, wherever I see it, in whatever form, no matter who I see perpetuating it.
I do it because I actually believe that human beings are all equal, and all deserve equal rights, equal treatment, equal representation, equal consideration. For me, that’s not just some easy history class recitation. It’s immutable fact. I have empathy for my fellow human beings who are being oppressed, no matter what form that takes. That empathy requires me to stand up when and where I am able. That may not mean much, all by itself. It’s a very small droplet in a very large ocean, especially when the town in which I’m frustratingly stuck is practically Wonderbread, USA. But it still matters.
I may be disabled, but I can still amplify the voices of black people who speak out on the various social media sites I utilize on a daily basis. Perhaps I expose one white person to something that makes them unpack their own privilege, or previously unexamined ignorance. Perhaps I get one previously cis-sexist person to recognize the harm they’re doing to transpeople. If I’m very fortunate, I can manage that much. In the meantime, I can keep on speaking out, keep on amplifying.
I may not get out much, or see many people in real life, but my biological family is almost entirely made up of a bunch of people who are bigoted at pretty much every point on the axes of oppression. At Christmas dinner last year, when the talk turned to Ferguson, the things my father and aunt were saying made me physically ill. We left, and they were informed as to the reasons why we refused to be around anyone spouting such insidious justifications for hatred. Maybe I didn’t change their minds at all. I kind of doubt it. But I can absolutely refuse to associate with anyone who behaves this way. If they care about me, they’ll be willing to have a conversation, and examine the reality from outside their normal lens.
I can call out any and all instances of racism, transmisogyny, and other bigotry and prejudice and unexamined privilege I see, in online forums. I can educate.
But, as Elon Jame White mentioned in the ThisWeekInBlackness Prime broadcast dealing with #TheEmptyChair, this shit is exhausting. There is such a dizzying array of rampant oppression going on in our country, and it never sleeps. When you step in to speak against it, you will meet resistance. You will have your resolve and will and empathy tested, again and again. You will tire of hearing the same horrible stories. You will tire of arguing the same tired old oppressive rhetoric that the oppressors have been using since time began and an ‘other’ existed. You will be attacked, shouted down, spoken over, condescended to, and bullied. It is inevitable.
It is okay to take a break.
I know, we often have to strike while the iron is hot, so to speak. Individual stories of oppression only get traction through publicity for so long. It’s understandable to feel the need to run yourself into the ground, trying to stay right on top of every tweet, every DM, every news story, every untold horror. Sadly, though, no matter how many of these stories you amplify, there will almost assuredly be more, in the next breath. You can’t stay on top of it every waking moment. All that’s going to do is invite burnout, and then someone, somewhere has lost a valuable, meaningful ally. You can take a step back, take a breather, get some rest, and do whatever you need to do to recharge your batteries, before wading back in. Unfortunately, racism isn’t going anywhere, not in the time it takes you to eat, shower, and sleep, or even take a vacation and unplug for a bit. Rape culture isn’t going anywhere. Misogyny isn’t going anywhere. Cis-sexism isn’t going anywhere. Ableism isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going to hurt the progress of any of these social issues that much, by taking care of you for a minute. Or a week. Not doing so, however, could take you out of the equation, entirely, much sooner than you may have bowed out, otherwise.
So, no. Don’t just care about and speak about the issues that affect you, but do make sure that you take the time to deal with the ways in which all of the issues affect you. We all need those voices being amplified.
This one goes out to all my “Angry Bitches,”
to all the women and girls
who learned at young ages
to swallow their anger
to express it in tears
to pretend it was okay
to rage in whispers at mirrors or
into pink pillow cases
to scream only when alone in the car
on deserted roads
to school faces
not to show
their boiling fucking rage
by even so much as a single raised eyebrow
a rolled eye
a twitch of the lip
not to allow a single crack
in the smooth
of tranquility that might
in any way
make someone else
This one goes out to all those
who take their lumps
who gulp them down
and gulp again
until those lumps sit
until they become
the pits of their stomachs
untouched by the acids
fertilized by the bile
heaped on their existence
when they dare to speak
in less than palatable words
in less than pleasant tones
in more than the agreed upon phrases
about more than the approved subjects
allowed to their feminine minds
This one goes out to all those ladies
who got tired of the word
who outgrew the confines of that box
until the box collapsed around them
who stepped away from the wreckage
and out of the room
only to realize the next room
was just a bigger box
where angry still tightened the walls
where they could still be
beaten back into silence
by the voices that refuse to hear
what’s being described
and use the word
as a gag to stifle the sound
as an excuse
to ignore the words
who use their anger
to dismiss all the valid fucking reasons
they were angry in the first place
or to blame them
for the things they’ve endured
as if their anger…
at being ignored
made to feel afraid in the streets of their own cities
the classrooms of their own schools
the halls of their own houses
made to feel their good ideas
their assertive leadership
their focus on family
their focus on career
cold and calculating
…as if their anger
justifies every fucked up thing
the world has done TO them
as if the emotional response
created the thing
they were responding to
This one goes out to you
my Angry Fucking Bitches
It goes out to us
and I say
since when do men
have a monopoly on anger?
since when are slights against them
so much more offensive
than slights against us?
Since when do they get to tell us
where the line is
that when crossed
means we are
And I hear the whisper
the angry sibilance
coming back to me
And I say
Originally posted elsewhere, December 8, 2014
I’m disabled. I’m a woman. I’m poor. I’m pansexual. I’m sure, if I thought about it, I could come up with several other things that put me on the disadvantaged side.
But there isn’t a single one of them that excuses me actively oppressing other people, who are underprivileged in different ways. Not one.
In other words, I don’t get to act like a racist, and then claim that it’s somehow okay, because of the disadvantages I face as a poor person. I don’t get to be a douchebag, and use my own suffering as a justification.
It isn’t that I don’t care about the ways in which you’ve been oppressed. It’s that I care about the ways that all people are oppressed. And I won’t give you a pass on being classist, just because you’re disabled, or black, or gay. Or vice any of those versas (and yes, I just made that phrasing up, and I don’t care if it’s linguistically accurate).
So, no matter who you are, how much I like you, or how much shit you’ve been put through by some busted aspect(s) of the system that currently exists, I will call you out, if I see you being a jerk about this stuff.
Most recently, I found this via a thread about medical care. A woman was ranting about ER doctors prescribing a drug that was no longer available in the US, for intestinal parasites.
Some folks wanted to laugh at the condition. Sure, it sounds gross, and is easily mock-able. That seemed kind of crass, but still didn’t really upset me, much.
Then came the space cadets who think that it’s oh-so-easy, in the US, to simply be insured, or get decent medical care, regardless of circumstance. They jumped all over the OP for going to the emergency room for care, for something they deemed a minor irritant. And those people? Yeah. They can fuck right off.
First, intestinal parasites aren’t really a minor thing. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, fever, dysentery, weight loss, malnutrition, intestinal bleeding, anemia, cysts in muscle tissue or the liver, swelling of the eyes, cardiovascular distress, dementia, and even death, especially if left untreated. And you can easily contract some types by swimming in contaminated water, or simply being around groups of small children. So, they absolutely require treatment.
Second, a ton of the suggestions had to do with going to an urgent care, getting a GP, or using health department services. Well, all of those sound like wonderful options. In many cases, though, they aren’t. I’m just going to speak from personal experience, here, from the last year and the rural area in which I live.
Go to an urgent care:
There are two urgent care facilities, here. If you don’t have insurance, and can’t pay up front, neither one will see you. The rates range from $140-$180, just for an office visit. That’s half a week’s pay, for many people, and only the more expensive office is open on Sundays, or after 7 p.m. And it doesn’t count tests, procedures, or medication.
$180 is more than many poor people spend on groceries for a family of four in an entire month. It can be, and often is, the choice between going to a doctor, and feeding your family.
If you work a minimum wage job, you probably don’t have affordable insurance, and you’re not likely to be allowed time off for a doctor visit unless your health is somehow having an impact on the company’s bottom line. Even then, many restaurants give no fucks, and will demand that sick people come to work, even if they’re wildly contagious. So, if you work until close, making minimum wage, the only remaining option is the ER. This is an “at-will” employment state. That means any employer can fire any employee for no reason at all, anytime they like. Miss work due to illness, and there are people waiting in line for your job. Bosses make certain that you know it.
Find a GP
I am disabled, so I have Medicare. I’ve been living here for a year and a half. I can’t find a doctor who a)isn’t a total hack, and b)is willing to accept me as a patient.
The one office that I sort-of trusted made me fill out an application, much like I was applying for credit, or a job, because I didn’t have private insurance. They denied me.
I am literally unable to get a decent GP, where I live, and many other poor, rural areas are much the same. And one of the urgent care facilities has told me that they won’t treat me again, until I get one. Of course, it’s the one with the longer hours and better practitioners.
Go to the Health Department
The health department, here, offers family planning services. It offers WIC. It will not act as a primary care physician for adults.
So, let’s say I get sick. A sinus infection. Let’s say that, because I don’t have an easily accessible option for healthcare, I treat it with OTC meds, and hope for the best, but it gets worse, and finds its way into my lungs. I have bronchitis, or pneumonia. I’m having trouble breathing.
What options do I have?
There’s only one, unless I want to travel for over an hour: the emergency room.
And that shit is no cakewalk, either. I don’t know if you think that poor people get some sort of red carpet treatment, when they hang their heads and walk into an emergency room for non-emergent care, or what, but that isn’t how it goes. Usually, you get people being just as rude, discriminatory, and insulting as the assholes on that thread. You get ignored, shamed, belittled, pushed around, and outright bullied. You often get misdiagnosed, because no one takes your complaints seriously.
Don’t even get me started on the other shitty things about living at or below the poverty line. If you haven’t lived this hand-to-mouth, paycheck-to-paycheck existence in this economical and political climate? You have NO IDEA, and need to STFU and listen to the people who have and do.
And another thing? Fuck you, if you say, Well, you can obviously afford internet, so you can’t be in such bad shape, really.
Get a fucking grip. My internet access costs around $50 a month.
I just did a search for an insurance quote, assuming I worked full time at minimum wage, with a gross (pre-tax) income of $1218. Private insurance would cost me anywhere from $290.00 to $486.00 a month, and the lowest deductible on any of those plans, for in-network care, is three thousand dollars. That would be nearly three months income. If I disconnected my internet right now, and someone else paid my premiums, I still wouldn’t have enough money to pay forjust the deductibles.
And fuck you, too, if you want to talk about how I got here. You know what? It would take me a month of non-stop writing to explain all the ways that happened, and the proportion of the responsibility for that journey that doesn’t fall on my shoulders would blow your tiny, boxy minds. So, instead, I will just tell you that I’m physically unable to work, according to several neurologists, and the federal government. No one would hire me. I’m an insurance liability. And you know what else? I shouldn’t have to even justify myself like that to you, or anyone else. Not in a country where about a fifth of the inhabitants live at or below the poverty line. If you can’t see that the problem is NOT with the people, you’re as dense as a dudebro’s neckbeard.
The point is, you don’t know what it’s like to be poor in this country, in this time, unless you are or have been. And what seems easy, from the outside, isn’t so easy from down here in the depths of it.
And it doesn’t matter one bit, in this context, what other oppression you’ve experienced, if you’re going to be a douchebag about poverty. If you do it, I’m calling you on it. Just like I’d call you on misogyny, homophobia, racism, transphobia, or any other discriminatory behavior.
Do some research. Talk to people who actually live it. LISTEN to what they have to say, instead of discounting everything as an excuse. Excuses and reasons aren’t the same thing, and you asshats need to learn the difference.
You want to get angry about something? Get angry at the way the deck gets stacked against so many people. Get angry about the way healthcare in this country is one of its most profitable industries, instead of a public service, like it is in most other first-world nations… and even many which aren’t.
Poor people aren’t the enemy. Stop acting like they are, or fuck off.
I always yearned to go swimming at the rec pool.
They had a high dive. I loved the high dive. The terror and anticipation of standing on that unsteady edge, trembling, realizing all-over-again-for-the-first-time that it looks so. Much. Farther. Down, from up here.
That trembly-kneed moment, toes curled over the edge, more of a death-grip on the sandpapery surface than a preparation to jump, breath held, wondering if you’d really been up there forever and ever, if everyone was watching you, if that cute girl over there with her dark sunglasses thought you were chicken.
The last deep breath.
The split-second eternity of the free-fall, before the colossal (in your mind, anyway) splash of the landing.
Resurfacing, gasping for air, thanking heaven for your unlikely survival as you surreptitiously (you hope) pull your bathing suit out of your butt-crack.
At seven, that was the height of risk. The apex of pre-adolescent adrenaline addiction.
But I wasn’t allowed to go to the rec pool.
We’d drive past, almost every day. It was between Mamaw’s house and home. Almost every day, I watched out the car window, sweating, sweltering, wishing I could go in the pool, resenting the squealing, yelling, splashing, happy children, feet pounding on the concrete, ignoring the yells of NO RUNNING IN THE POOL! cannonballing with mad abandon and faces stained red from the concession window sno-cones. I resented them. It was all their fault.
At least, that was my understanding. In 1986. I believed it was all because ofthem, that I couldn’t enter that otherworldly blue haven of cool summer bliss. I believed it, because I’d been told, over and over again, and it would be another three or four years, before I questioned.
You can’t swim with those kids, Mommy told me.
You can’t go in their pool. My dad shook his head.
Those kids aren’t like us. They’re dirty. They have different diseases. If you swim with them, or in water they’ve been in, you could get those diseases, too. Here. I know it’s hot. I’ll set up the sprinkler in the yard, Mamaw said, as she patted my sticky hair.
I believed them. And we were too poor for the nicer pools, usually, so I only got to go about once in the summer. The rest of the time, it was the pool at the cheap motel. Three dollars to get in for the whole day, and float listlessly around a tiny pool, surrounded by hot, cracked concrete and peeling paint. And neither of those places had a high dive. So, driving by the rec pool, every day of those hot, sticky Carolina summers, I hated those kids. Hated them for dirtying up that concrete wonderland, so that I couldn’t ever play there.
This wasn’t the sixties. Jim Crow was (supposedly) long gone.
But, at seven years old, I learned how to hate. From the people who were supposed to teach me how to love.
I was one of the lucky ones, I guess. I was smart enough, empathetic enough, to figure it all out for myself, a few years later. To ask the hard questions, and understand that the answers I was getting didn’t make any real sense. And to start disagreeing, even if it was in a whisper. And to try to learn. And to try to do better, to be better.
This town is, even now, over 92% white. That number was even higher, in 1986. And I get it, now. That pool is probably the only place “those kids” had, in the summertime, or any other time. I had a park. I had those other pools, when we could afford them. I had all kinds of places, woods I could roam in, running wild with my cousins, neighborhoods where I could ride my bike without being looked upon with suspicion.
They had that one sparkling place. And I was taught to hate them for it.
Which begs the question… who were the dirty ones, really?
Shame is an emotion with which we become familiar at a very young age. It’s used as a tool, in everything from parenting to education to employment to business to healthcare to social media.
A small child learns about a parent’s displeasure, and begins to associate the language, tone, and nonverbal language of disappointment or condemnation with (hopefully) maladaptive or dangerous or unhealthy behaviors.
School-age children are shamed for their antisocial or dangerous or disruptive behavior every day. Names are written on the board, or behavior cards are “turned” from green to yellow to red, as publicly visible indicators of whether or not the children have been well behaved.
Employers will often post notices, or send out memos, naming the people who, for instance, haven’t completed their work by a specified deadline.
Businesses post signs that draw attention to impolite customers who talk on their cell-phones while conducting transactions, and employees are told to ask offenders, in front of other customers, to step out of line until they’ve finished their conversations.
In each of these cases, shame serves a purpose, both to the individuals, and to the social groups in which the shaming takes place. Individuals learn about unacceptable behaviors, and that engaging in those behaviors can lead to scrutiny and discomfort. The social groups benefit when the individuals behave in the ways that are most beneficial to the group, as a whole.
Of course, that isn’t the only way shame is utilized. It is all too often treated as a weapon. Slut shaming implies that women who enjoy their own sexuality, on their own terms, are somehow dirty, immoral, and lewd. Body shaming plays on the insecurities of other people, with digs at their worth as humans, based on some physical characteristics.
And, of course, there’s victim shaming. This is a form of weaponized shame that targets people who have already been harmed by the behaviors of others, based on a nebulous and unconquerable list of dos and dont’s, shoulds and shouldn’ts, and personal strategies generalized to entire populations. It comes in so many different flavors, it puts Baskin-Robbins to… well… shame.
At its base, victim-shaming is placing the onus for feeling bad about what was done on the person who was acted on, rather than the person acting.
As they are the most common target (or, at least, the most commonly targeted victims I’ve seen), all of my examples will be focused on abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape victims. Also, I will be using gender-specific pronouns. This does not mean that I believe that onlywomen are victims of rape, abuse, or victim shaming, or that only men are rapists or abusers, or that people who identify with something other than binary gender roles cannot be either, and is only used for the sake of (relative) brevity (HA!) and simplicity.
- She wore something that exposed too much skin.
- She was walking alone at night.
- She was walking alone during the day.
- She was in a bad neighborhood.
- She was in a frat house.
- She was in a dance club.
- She was at a bar.
- She didn’t practice the buddy system.
- She had too much to drink.
- She was in a relationship with an obviously bad person (because “good” people don’t do these things, and it’s really easy to tell the difference without long-term acquaintance).
- She was too dependent on him.
- She was too independent, which threatened his masculinity.
- She was too meek, and let him walk all over her.
- She was too outspoken, which was antagonizing to him.
- She presented a front of a happy partner/spouse to everyone else.
- She complained too much to everyone else about the relationship.
- She smiled at him, which means she was giving off the wrong signals.
- She didn’t smile at him, which means she was being rude.
- She was too friendly with him.
- She wasn’t friendly enough.
- She rejected him.
- She didn’t overtly, or explicitly, reject him.
- She didn’t leave after the abuse started.
- She tried to leave, and it made him angry.
- She allowed herself to be alone with him.
- She didn’t explicitly say “no.”
- She didn’t say “no” loud enough.
- She didn’t physically fight him off.
- She didn’t physically fight hard enough.
- She didn’t learn self defense, beforehand.
- She antagonized him into escalating the violence, by fighting back.
- She didn’t have pepper spray, a taser, or a gun in her handbag.
- She shouldn’t have been carrying a weapon he could take away and use against her.
- She didn’t report the abuse/rape to law enforcement.
- She didn’t report the abuse/rape soon enough.
- She didn’t get the precise timeline and/or every detail letter perfect, in the midst of processing the trauma, so…
- She was exaggerating/lying when she reported to law enforcement.
- She didn’t cry or seem visibly distressed when discussing the abuse/rape.
- She was overly dramatic/overly emotional when she discussed the abuse/rape.
- She got over it too fast.
- She didn’t get over it fast enough.
- She didn’t process it the way x person thought she should.
- She refused to share details with uninvolved people.
- She aired too much dirty laundry.
- She won’t shut up about what happened.
- She won’t talk about what happened.
- She won’t shut up about the other people who are suffering the way she did.
- She doesn’t do enough to protect other possible victims.
- She’s focusing too much on the people who do bad things to others.
- She won’t move on with her life.
- She’s a “perpetual victim.”
Whew. That was depressing to type. And exhausting, both mentally and emotionally. What’s worse, that is by no means a comprehensive list of all the shaming tactics that victims of abuse, sexual assault, sexual harassment, or rape routinely face. Personally, I don’t know a single survivor who hasn’t faced at least a half dozen of them.
As a reminder, all of those are tactics used to shame the person who was ACTED ON, rather than the person who acted.
As a culture, we expend an awful lot of effort and energy on these types of things. Why? How do we, individually or as a culture/subculture, benefit from them?
We don’t. Go back through that list. As you read each of the things listed, as yourself three questions:
1) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the quality of my life?
2) How does this other person doing this thing, in response to being victimized, impact the safety of the social group/subculture I share with them?
3) Am I, or is that social group, harmed or made less safe in any way that is actually the fault of either the person who was victimized, their behavior before/during the assault/rape/abuse, or their response to it?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the answer, across the board, is a resounding NO.
Yet we continue to shame them.
Now, ask yourself if your social group or subculture is harmed, or made less safe, by the rapist, the abuser, the harasser, or the perpetrator of sexual assault. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Oh. You’re done, already? Well, of course you are. Because the answer is pretty obvious, isn’t it?
So, instead of shaming the victims, why are we not shaming the people who acted on them? Why are we not shaming the behaviors that actually cause harm? Why are we so very hesitant to call out the harmful behaviors, and the bits and pieces of our culture which contribute to them? Why is there so very much pushback against that kind of shaming, and so very little against the rampant victim-shaming?
Of course, some of us are. Some of us are trying very hard to tilt the balance in that direction. And we face an awful lot of criticism and anger and shouting and pontificating and name-calling, and, yes, even shaming, for doing so.
I think it has to do, mostly, with fear.
Fear is not a rational emotion. It is instinctive, and often illogical, especially when we’re not discussing immediate physical threats to our own individual well-being.
I think, perhaps, that there are two types of fear that contribute to this shame-the-victim-but-never-the-perpetrator ethos.
One is the quite understandable fear of becoming victims, ourselves. It’s understandable, because it’s a very real threat. The problem isn’t that we’re afraid of being victimized, it’s the way we are responding to that fear. We’re responding by telling ourselves that there are things we can do, or avoid doing, that will render us invincible to becoming victims, or becoming victims again, in some cases. We want to believe that we have the ultimate power to keep other people from doing bad things to us, so we convince ourselves that this is true.
We convince ourselves that if we follow a list of dos and don’ts, if we are “resilient” enough, if we simply choose not to be victims, then we won’t be. We convince ourselves that we are, therefore, enlightened, and more protected, than those “perpetual victims” who don’t think like we do. We convince ourselves that some combination of behaviors and attitudes can work as an incantation to ward off the evils of the world.
Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Unfortunately, there is NOTHING we can do, individually, that will make us invincible to others who want, or do not know better than to cause us harm. No amount of resilience or confidence or preparation or prevention can change that.
The flip-side of that fear is the fear that we might, ourselves, whether intentionally or through ignorance, cause or have caused that kind of harm in others. That our behavior, somewhere along the line, may have crossed the line. That other people may see us as rapists, abusers, violators. That we might have to see ourselves that way. And this is terrifying, to most of us. The idea that we might “be that guy,” even though, perhaps, we never intended to be.
This fear leads to a knee-jerk defensiveness and denial which, while understandable, is entirely counterproductive, and even childish. It’s the train of thought that says, I once had sex with a woman who was incapacitated. Only bad people rape. I’m not a bad person, therefore having sex with incapacitated people isn’t rape.
Because it’s easier to deny that a thing is wrong, emotionally, than it is to admit we may have done a wrong thing.
Because there’s a false association going on, that only “bad people” can do “bad things,” and that line of thought just doesn’t line up with reality. We’re all human. We all make mistakes. We all learn some busted things, at some point. We all keep learning, I hope, throughout our lives. Sometimes, we learn that the things we once learned were wrong, or flawed in some way. The appropriate response to that is not to deny the wrongness of what we once understood, in order to alleviate ourselves from guilt or shame. It is to learn from it, and grow, and become better human beings. People who don’t do the things we now understand to not be okay, even if we didn’t understand it, before.
And a part of that shift is shifting the shame. Instead of shaming victims, or their behaviors, or even shaming people, we need to be shaming the behaviors that are causing harm. The dehumanization of women and transpeople and people of non-binary gender. The marginalization of those who are “different,” whether that difference is race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, economic status, or some other thing altogether. The levels of culturally accepted aggression towards those people. The idea that the onus for halting any interpersonal contact is on the person being acted on, instead of the personacting. Victim blaming, silencing, and shaming. Brushing abusive behavior under the rug. Excusing or enabling abuses to continue. All of those behaviors are shame-worthy.
Being victimized is not.
It is far past time for us – ALL of us – to shift the shame to where it belongs.