#MeToo, too…

Returning after a few months away from the blogosphere to write a piece about sexual assault is not exactly “easing” one’s way back into the public sphere. I had been preparing to write about my recent cross-country move, throwing me into chaos and another round of saying goodbyes to many lovely people I didn’t get to know long enough. My heart and mind, shoved yet again into vats of existential loneliness, drifted to strange spaces in an attempt to grasp the need to be seen while accepting the inevitability of being misunderstood. Yup, I was going to write about that sort of thing, scary, prickly, ivory-tower navel-gazing which would become a long-form approach to saying, “I miss my friends.”

And then Harvey Weinstein happened.

Well, he didn’t really “happen.” He had been happening, to be more accurate. This time he had been found out, and society has shifted just enough to say, “this is bullshit.” Oh sure, there have been a few to speak on his behalf, and I’m sure he has a story. But instead of resorting to the typical headline excuses of, “he’s a sex addict” or “he’s just one person” or even “some men can’t help themselves,” more people, more influential people, are calling this out as the abuse and harassment that it is, and are placing Weinstein in a larger context of sexism and misogyny that, frankly, a whole bunch of us are just fed up with. The Hollywood story is not news – the undercurrent of powerful people (yes, many of whom are and have been men) exploiting more vulnerable and less powerful newcomers (yes, many of whom are women) for their own personal gratification is unfortunately not a new story at all. It is old, tired, repetitive, and disgusting, so much so that many accept this story as a cold hard truth of life. “Boys will be boys” has two meanings: the first excuses men as base creatures who simply “can’t help themselves,” and the second tells society that no woman can expect to be safe.

It’s a bullshit message from a bullshit tagline stemming from a bullshit narrative. Who would ever want a definition of self to be so narrow, so ridiculously limiting, so utterly reductionistic as to put you on par with the emotional and intellectual level of say, a jellyfish? “Well, you can’t really blame Roger, after all, he only knows how to be a blob and sting things.” Why would anyone ever want to go along with such a description?

Because the Weinsteins of the world want the power that comes with such a position. And the rest of the world want to believe that Weinsteins are rare. And most of us don’t want to think we are capable of abusing another human being.

But we are capable, and every time we look the other way we make it more possible for abuse, assault, and exploitation to occur. We find ways to dehumanize each other, to justify why our worth becomes more important than another’s. And soon enough we come up with remarkably stupid sayings, like “boys will be boys” to justify aberrant, hurtful, unjust behavior while simultaneously rendering victims invisible.

That invisibility is why right now there are thousands of people taking to social media to say, #MeToo. People (women and men) who have taken up a call to show just how widespread the problem of sexual assault, abuse, and exploitation is. And spreading the message that this is not supposed to be a victim’s problem, but society and a perpetrator’s problem. You’re not supposed to stop abuse after it occurs – you’re supposed to create a new condition, a new social consciousness, that prevents people from buying into all those excuses that permit one to enact it. Questions like, “is ‘no’ ever a ‘yes'” get erased because society can recognize the absurdity of such a position, can recognize how our continued portrayal of sexual interaction as some perverted Tom and Jerry escapade resulting in Jerry adoring the fact that he’s been beheaded by the cat boxes everyone into inescapably demeaning corners.

I see something new in the current movement: more people, particularly men, who are also speaking up to say they do not support a discourse that promotes men’s superiority over women. Okay, on twitter that specific phrase hasn’t appeared but the message is there. Men expressing support for the many women who have shared #MeToo, men stating they don’t want men to be defined as overactive genitals, and men acknowledging the courage #MeToos’ have, which suggests an implicit understanding of just how unsupportive the culture is in accepting stories of abuse and assault.

And then there’s another piece, the one that rattles in me during all this…the idea that #MeToo can inadvertently have the effect of a double negative. Speaking up can be an act of freedom, of liberation; but for so many, not speaking up was also an act of courage, a path to survival that society tends to dismiss. Because we still place the responsibility on the victim to “prove” experiences of abuse, it is the victim who also becomes responsible to stop it. Thus someone who doesn’t “speak up” gets the added accusation of “going along,” or get their motives questioned for not coming forward sooner. These challenges support the misguided perception that rape and abuse are rare. Ironically though, if rape were truly rare, then shouldn’t just one occurrence of it be enough to set society into a rage, to get to the bottom of the problem and make sure it never happens again? Wouldn’t society ask the perpetrator, “why did you think this was ok?” “Why didn’t you stop?”

So – the movement also is becoming more mindful of how the pressure to speak up can actually put people back into a status of victimhood. “Speak up or you deserved it” can be the unintended push. Thus it is also a time to remember that the act of speaking up does not define one as a survivor. Surviving defines one as a survivor. Rape and abuse try to rob people of their personhood.  The fact that one is here, that one has persisted beyond the experience of rape is enough. “Surviving” doesn’t mean merely existing; it means the person who was forced into this experience remembers they are a person worth holding on to. And that person does not have to be sacrificed just so some others can finally get enlightened to the realities of sexual assault. The story of rape or abuse belongs to the person who experienced it; thus they have all the right in the world to tell it or not, in whatever form of their choosing. Rape does not have the power to take that from us.

Bravo to those who are pressing home the point that society needs to change. The message of the current movement matters. But really, what #MeToo should mean is: “I will actively work against supporting a culture that normalizes rape.”

#MeToo.

 

 

 

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Dystopian Novel

Stunned. Shocked. Gutted. Blasted. Rocked. Pushed. Tossed. Angered. Flattened. Pressed.

Silenced.

There are no words. History is no longer history; we are living in a surreal social experiment replicating the most vicious and despicable acts perpetrated by the powerful on the powerless. There is no longer a need to argue that racism exists; it is alive, thriving, spreading like a fungus. Eat the mushroom and you too will believe that the systematic removal of human rights is the basis of democracy.

“I’m working with a child who is terrified her parents will be deported. What do I tell her?”

Tell her it will never happen, everything will be okay, as long as her family plays by the rules they’ll be taken care of. And don’t listen to all the hype. Stay positive. There is nothing to fear.

Which passage of Mein Kampf are you referring to? When you watched movies like Shindler’s List or Life is Beautiful, did you think the people in the fancy uniforms were the heroes?

 

Racism veiled as platitudes. Give me back my microaggressions. Unintentional acts imply the culprit would be amenable to asking for apology. Believing your own bullshit that says walling out entire religious and ethnic groups for “protection” is nearly a word-for-word iteration of racism. Protect who? Why? “I don’t hate them, I just don’t want them here.” Archie Bunker was a television character, a caricature of an ethos whose time had come, not an icon to be resurrected.

George Wallace was a villain. William Wallace was not. Make sure you know which Wallace you’re trying to emulate.

Naziism was not Hitler’s fault. Naziism lived because the people wanted it to. Because people of conscience, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, bought into a horrible, deliberately-crafted lie personifying the root of all their problems as Jews. And people who are gay. And people who weren’t Germans. And women who didn’t listen to men. And children who dared to read something other than the prescribed state literature.

All the leftover Aryans watched and listened as bodies were burned, shot, raped, tortured, shoveled like so much used-up coal. Some of the New World Order laughed. Some said it needed to be done for “public safety.” And some looked away, insisting loudly they were still good people with love in their hearts, because they had to blot out the whispers of the dying.

The required reading list should be everything written by Orwell. Throw in a little Wells, Huxley, Bradbury, Burgess, Nolan, McCarthy to name a few. Sprinkle in Thoreau for some light reading. Or just give us anything that looks like a book before the populace becomes illiterate and we have to teach reading in secret, in fear of being beaten for obtaining the forbidden knowledge.

Knowledge is power. Today it is also a commodity. Rome is being built in a day and in time we will be consigned to flames of woe. Enslavement means erasing the collective memory, replacing it with candy-colored fantasies of better times.

But we remember, and we scream, because the body never forgets the torture of the soul. Cry mercy, and unleash the dogs of war.

1.21.2017: We March

I thought I’d let a few news items do the talking today:

c2ucfcpweaes5zx14-year-old is asking to “Make America Think Again.” This is what the world has come to. #WomensMarch pic.twitter.com/PZzUYPBEtG— Elizabeth Plank (@feministabulous) January 21, 2017

…And thousands more, and it isn’t even noon yet. This tweet captures it:

See, President Trump – we were already great. You and your cronies hadn’t figured that out yet. Now you’ll find out just how great we can be.

Reconciling the U.S…A Letter to my Friends

 

Dear Friends, men and women who are white who are feeling upset, angry, hurt, and marginalized due to accusations of being “racists, homophobes, xenophobes, misogynists,” and other such things because you are white and because regardless of who you voted for, you resemble the “Silent Majority:”

I am writing to many of you whom I call friend, and who hopefully use this term earnestly towards me. I am also writing to those I’ve never met, whom I would likely enjoy meeting, just simply because you’re nice people I’d enjoy sharing cake with. But because of the results of Election 2016, I don’t know if you would enjoy meeting me, because a great many people in this country just made it loud and clear that people like me don’t belong here. So I am hoping you’d like to meet me, but I hold a certain apprehension which I will attempt to explain. Because truly, I don’t want November 8, 2016, to be the day that goes down in history as the date the USA imploded into the Cultural Civil War.

First, I don’t consider you to be a member of the KKK, a person who hates people of color, a man who hates women, a Christian who wants to burn non-Christians, or an American who hates foreigners just because you’re White. I don’t need to be reminded to see you as an individual, because I already know you are an individual. I know you are decent, respectable people who care about your children and the future of this country. You are interested in learning, have the ability to see beyond your own personal experience, and can feel compassion for someone who has been wronged. I also know many of you are not violent by nature and would have no interest in doing any harm towards me or anyone like me.

Second, I also know that many of you may have voted for Trump, or may have at least sympathized with the image of Trump, because you felt like you had been left behind. America had moved too fast and too far, leaving you lost and neglected in a dead forest of debt, unemployment, and disregard. The images of yourself created in movies and television portrayed a middle-American who was, in a nutshell, a bumbling drunk fool incapable of having meaningful relationships. You’ve been told for a long time you are to blame for much of what has gone wrong in the social sphere; you are too white, too manly, too comfortable. And, you have been told that you benefit from the suffering of others, even though when you look around at your mountain of debt, your nonexistent savings, your layoffs and downsizings, your divorces, your miseducated children, and your fear resulting from living in a violent, uncertain world – you see no privilege, no mountain of gold, nothing in your life that says, “you’ve got it all, babe.”

In the midst of this, you tried to say, “hey, stop pointing the finger, I’ve got hard stuff going on too.” And not enough people heard you, and you felt ignored. So when a figure like Trump appeared, someone representing nothing of the status quo, and everything of what success could be, I can understand why his agenda might seem enticing. So some of you let the rest of the country know you would not be ignored any more, even though you want nothing to do with Trump’s sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on.

Third, I also know many of you felt misunderstood, and did not vote for Trump. Many of you saw Trump’s agenda as a path to evil, a representation of the opposite of the Christian morals you’ve been trying to protect, a figure who behaves in ways you would never want yourself or your children to emulate. Even though you may have struggled with this thing called “white privilege” and still may be undecided about its existence, you knew Trump’s behavior became the permission now enabling many white supremacist groups to come out of hiding and put women and people of color “back in their place.” Many of you are just as outraged about his becoming the President-Elect. And now you feel betrayed that you are being referred to as racists, hate-mongers, xenophobes, etc. because you too tried to stand against the message of Trump’s Hate, and you are being judged guilty by white association.

I see you my friends, and I have been seeing you for the full 43 years of my life.

In return for seeing you, what I now ask is for you to – just for a moment – suspend your anger and outrage in the hopes that you might see me as well. And perhaps after we see each other, we will be able to put down our shields and swords long enough to remember what we kept dear between us, and that which will move us forward towards making a society where we hold certain truths to be self-evident, that we are all created equal…

Who are you seeing? I’m the diversity teacher, I’m the person who’s been standing in front of classrooms for 15 years telling everyone that White Privilege exists. I’m the one who’s been asking hundreds of students to consider how Racism affects and hurts everyone, including white people. I’m the one who challenges people to break down dominant discourses like the “American Dream” and meritocracy so we can start to see the multiple ways we have been shaped, influenced, and misled into thinking that if we simply dream it, we can make it happen. I believe it is impossible to grow up in this society, this world really, without being given thousands of messages about who does and does not matter, and that we inadvertently repeat those messages all the time.

I am a woman with a boy’s name; I am a person of color who isn’t always regarded as a person of color. My existence is the “thing” that throws a lot of racial identity concepts out of whack – I’m biracial, a person whose parents identify with two distinctly different ethnic groups. As I define it, my ethnicity is both and neither that of my parents. I am a living example of “fluidity” in its many forms. According to the “old” definitions of race, I’m supposed to “choose” my ethnicity (I suppose in a manner similar to how we “choose” sexual orientation). But the reality of my experience is that most people attempt to choose for me, and based on their own preferences. I get to hear a lot of opinions, particularly when I don’t ask for them, about whether or not I’ve had a bad, misguided life, about whether or not I’ll ever “fit in,” and especially about whether or not I should’ve been born. And to top that off, one of my parents is also an immigrant, so these days I am really the thing that represents “everything that is wrong in the USA,” according to groups like the KKK.

So to set the record straight – I haven’t had a bad life, but I have had bad things happen to me. I have experienced overt racism. More often I experience microaggressions, those small sayings, gestures, indications committed by many well-meaning people who inadvertently suggest my “difference” is also abnormal, undesirable, or flat out wrong. I have also unfortunately experienced violence, enacted by men; I have experience betrayal, enacted by the church. I know racism, sexism, and heterosexism because of what has been done to me.

I also know racism, sexism, and heterosexism because of the things I’ve done.

Admitting my own racism hurts me in ways you may or may not relate to. Because when I admit to engaging in oppression, instead of validating its existence, people who are white often turn this into a “free pass” to completely negate racism. “You did it, so therefore it must not really be there.” Or, “see, minorities do it, so why can’t white people.” I don’t really understand these arguments, because it’s sort of like saying, “you hit Jo, so let’s all go out and hit people.” Hitting is still wrong, except I end up being the only person in the room confessing.

So this gets to something else you may not have noticed about me: while I do hold more privilege now, as an employed person, as an able-bodied person, and I have a certain degree of power – my power can be negated in a second. Now, you may be recalling how you have felt powerless in your life, how you were not really given a choice about many things. Power might look to you like those three or four big houses on the hill in your town, inhabited by people who resemble the upstairs folk in Downton Abbey. And that is a particular kind of power that cannot be denied, and that is felt by very few people in this country and indeed, the world.

But most power isn’t felt. The kid who stands up to the bully, the teenager who moves against the crowd, the adult who speaks up – none of these people feel powerful when they do that. In fact, they feel afraid. And they know these actions could very well fail, and they’ll be worse off than when they started. This is exactly why such acts are courageous, because they act in the face of fear, and because there is no assurance of reward or success. Faith is not an act of power, it is an act of release.

Power in American society rests in the ability to decide what is real or not real in this world. It is connected to decision, including the act of looking the other way. Power comes from having all the ability in the world to speak, but choosing not to, because you don’t have to. And none of this power relates to whether or not you’ve earned it, it is there simply because it was decided long ago that you should have it. White privilege means you are defined as the most desirable thing to be just because you are white. Power means you could have lived most of your life without ever noticing the privilege you were granted.

Power, in this election, came in the form of one word. One word from the self-identified Silent Majority, a group composed almost entirely of white men and women. That is not opinion, that is math. This group with their word, their one voice, turned the entire country upside down. This one word threatens to destroy decades of work towards civil rights. It is the reason why so many people of color, women, and people of the LGBTQ communities are afraid. Because the not-so-silent majority, those of us who have been very loud for many, many years, have been fighting, yelling, and bleeding to create a world where everyone, including white, Christian, heterosexual men and women, can have this thing called equality. And all that work was erased, that history negated, our lives invalidated, with one little word.

That, my friends, is Power.

This is why I am angry. This is why I am hurt and scared. This is why I must do something. I am sorry you are being unjustly accused, and curiously in exactly the same ways many of us have been unjustly accused for a very long time. It is wrong and should not happen.

This brings us to my final point. If you were uncertain about what the effects of racism could be, you have now been given a very big, unpleasant dose of it. And if you don’t like it, then welcome. Welcome to this part of reality we have been shouting about for generations. I do not mean to say, “get over it.” I don’t want you to get over it at all. I want you to feel it. I want you to get angry about it. Because now you know for certain that injustice lives.

A terrifying product of this election cycle has been the rise of White Supremacy. There are many out there, people who are White, who very much want a White America. They are more than happy to get rid of anything not white, and use any means necessary to do so. I don’t mean just the KKK. I also mean those who have been sleeping, the portion of the Silent Majority that were waiting for the new Hitler to emerge, to justify their hostile take-over. You are likely as disgusted by their actions as I am, and this is why it hurts you so much to be lumped in with them.

So I promise you I will not lump you with them. But you’ve got to make a promise too: instead of getting angry at me, get angry at them.

Talk. Tell people, particularly people who are white, how Whiteness does not have to equal hatred, racism, bigotry. Create a definition of white culture that is free of racism, that has the capacity to love and honor difference, that can see culture as a source of pride and mutual enhancement. Tell other white people how outraged you are; declare racist jokes as not funny, say “oops, my mistake” if you engage in a microaggression, try to just listen to (not fix) the story of someone who is different from you. Admit you are not an expert on other cultures, because I’m not either. Consider the ways in which privilege may have betrayed you, and how you can use your power to create the world you want instead of passively accepting the world you received.

And: talk to people of color. If you are stereotyped, it is ok to say, “hey that’s not me.” But also now, during this time when so many non-white, non heterosexual, non-male people don’t know who to trust, take a moment to say, “I’m sorry this happened.” If you too did not want the legacy of Trump’s Hate to lead this country, then say that, tell us you are hurt and angry as well and you will work extra hard to keep love first.

Because, my friends, it will be very tempting and very easy to say nothing. Talking will open yourself up to the potential for harassment, you could be jeered and derided for “loving” us. You will no doubt find it simpler to look the other way, to blend in. And in truth, you’ll be protected just because your skin is white. You still have the privilege of saying absolutely nothing.

But I don’t have that kind of protection. I’ve never had that kind of guarantee. And that means I need you, I need you to see me, hold me, stand with me, challenge me, fight with me, curse with me, laugh with me, and maybe even die with me. Otherwise I am alone, and our country is just an A without an US.

With fear and hope,

Shawn Patrick

I’m Not Sayin’ I’m Batman But…

“Deep down you may still be that same great kid you used to be. But it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.” – Rachel Dawes (Batman Begins)

batmanYeah, yeah, I just started with a Batman quote, and I tried to make it look all important and flashy-like. It isn’t the first time I’ve stolen lines from Nolan’s film, and it won’t be the last (because…wait for it…).

This post is really meant to be about social justice (again). Batman and social justice sort of go together, or rather, in my comic-book influenced pop culture brain, I can make them go together because it’s my blog and I get to do things like that. The part of the quote I’m focusing on is the “what you do” phrase, as this is what I get asked most often: How do you DO social justice?

I also realize I’ve written on that theme in prior posts. So spoiler alert: this post concludes by stating in giant, bold letters that there is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. There is no step-by-step method, there is no correct action, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Sorry peeps, that’s just how it goes sometimes. I realize writing the summertime blockbuster, 7 Steps for Dramatic Social Action, would probably be an easier and more lucrative way to make a living than what I do now, but it’s not going to happen.

There is, of course, a place and time for talking about specific action points – for example, when you have a Stalin-esque presidential candidate making a real bid for the White House, concrete plans need to be written. But this post is more about looking at the day-to-day work of social justice, the “behind the scenes” work if you will. The stuff some of us have figured out is essential to getting anything done, but also the stuff that many people overlook and even forget.

I’m talking about relationships here, the art of making connections, especially with people you might not like or agree with.

Recently I found myself speaking to a group of people in a workshop setting. I have been doing things of this nature for many years, which means I am no stranger to our version of professional heckling: the wide range of odd, unusual, and sometimes blatantly arrogant questions that can come our way. While all seasoned teachers learn various useful and not so useful ways to respond, most of the time what you don’t want to do is get into an argument. And I can say that as someone who got sucked into at least one argument in my greener years, and regretted it fully (another spoiler: the teacher always looks like an idiot when arguing with a student, even if the student said something remarkably stupid. Because you’re the teacher, and you will look like a raving adult lunatic who decided to yell at, say, a puppy).

The hard part is some people do seem to have it be their goal to generate the most irrational and controversial commentary to plop on your lecture doorstep, particularly during the last 5 minutes of your presentation because they know full well there will be no time for you to offer even a bemused grunt much less a thoughtful acknowledgement. Yet when the topic is related to social justice, it is also often the case that this curiously timed remark carries suffocating undercurrents of privilege which will also undermine and dismiss just about every other person in the room who isn’t, for example, a rich white heterosexual male. And let’s just say that in a room of thirty mental health professionals, there aren’t too many rich white heterosexual males running around,wile_3366650b which means your educational train has just crashed Wile E. Coyote-style into a ravine.

This sort of thing happens to me a lot. But this is also supposed to happen, because if I’ve created a room where people can freely speak their mind, it means people will be able to disagree with me. So to shut down such comments contradicts my purpose, which is to open space for dialogue. However, I am also in a dilemma of how to permit comments that also have the potential to get a lot of people very, very angry in a very, very short amount of time. This is the balancing act that has no formula; it is felt and experienced and sometimes you tip the scale in the wrong direction. But balance is essential to creating any hope of the “successful resolution” we all crave at that moment.

So while my ego would prefer I say something along the lines of, “shut your face,” I know that would add a lot of hydrogen to this bomb. Instead I acknowledge this will take a few minutes, but would the speaker permit me a few questions in the hopes of understanding better the purpose of their message?

In other words,  you took the floor, so let’s take a moment to find out what you are really trying to put out there. Are you feeling ignored? Are you trying to “level the playing field?” Are you responding to a history of being accused? Do you fear your voice will be diminished? Is this simply not for you? The point is, I have no idea what drives someone to do this, but I must attempt to find out – which means setting aside all the irritation, frustration, and even justified anger I may have at what they did. Because the only hope at that moment in returning the room to a place of understanding is to do just that – create a connection with the person who feels out of place.

Will this solve all the social justice problems out there? No. But does it work? Yes – well presuming I am trying to understand and not simply appease. But that’s the very thing we’re trying to get across in building community – I am baffled and curious at what is being thrown at me, and I am more interested in the person behind it than the weirdness of the words. I don’t want to reject the person, I want to connect with them, because perhaps in our connection there is more potential to recognize the many lies our walls have been built on; to see how our barriers were not erected by us, but rather by those who profit when walls are maintained.

That’s the moment in the room though. What happens next? That’s the work most people never see. The part where the person and I meet, have a conversation, get to know each other. The part where we share a joke. The part where we share about our lives. The part where we walk away knowing behind those initial comments rests a person, someone with fears and hopes, someone who is reconsidering their “certainties” now that there is a face to replace something that once existed only as a stereotyped caricature. The part where we ask each other for help. The part where we start working together because we want others to realize that it is through exploring our differences that we develop a true appreciation and interest for each other.

It’s social justice work, conversation by conversation. Yup, it’s slow. There is no magic formula for “doing” social justice. Go figure it out, one person at a time.

Line Dancing

“The terror of failure can make you feel like a failure. So a bunch of people think you’re not very good at your thing. How much do you invest in what they say? How much do you care? Failure is not putting yourself on the line.” – Dylan Moran

Jane Elliott (Eye of the Storm) spoke at my campus recently and I finally was able to see her. I have shown her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes “experiment” in my classes and used her work to help students understand how racism and privilege get created and perpetuated. In short, Jane Elliott is a pit bull. She takes no “guff” from anyone and speaks the truth of racism bluntly, directly, and fearlessly. For example:

I admit, I’ve used that line in my own classes. It works. It also takes a good amount of guts to do it. I am not able to deliver my stuff the same way she does, but of course it would be foolish to try to be a copy of her. Her way of doing things is exactly that, her way. But my way can also be direct, challenging, controversial, and make everyone in the audience as uncomfortable as her audience. It is not an easy thing to do because it invites people to really, unreservedly, dislike you.

The thing is, I do like it when people like me. It’s kind of nice. But my adult life has been full of realizing that being liked and being respected are two very different things that often don’t lead to each other. And that means I get a lot of people not liking me.

What has baffled me about this is most of the time though, I’m not really intending to be controversial. Challenging classroom scenarios aside, most of the time I seem to set people off just by asking a question or making an observation. Lately I seem to be getting serious criticism because I keep noticing when someone breaks the rules. But even there it is a matter of me saying, “what did you do?” and then someone curses me with the fury of their ancestors.

It isn’t always that naive though, as I’ve written plenty of times about needing to speak up in order to identify injustice or highlight bias or instigate change. That definitely doesn’t win popularity contests. So there I am choosing to enter a situation where my likability will be questioned, even threatened. And I often find myself thinking in the middle of an altercation, “why the heck did I do this again?” If I would just keep my mouth shut, people could just like me and I wouldn’t have so many sleepless nights.

Except it wouldn’t really happen that way, I think. It’s true that if you spend your time being pleasant and conciliatory, you’ll have way fewer arguments. But what would really get done? In my own experience, I had plenty of times when I went along for the sake of going along. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the crowd, or was afraid of an argument, or not sure if my stance was worth defending. I could just say the thing that makes someone else feel good, or the thing that distracts from what is going on, and keep things simple. But it never really did make anything simple, because then I’d leave and think to myself, “why did I do that. Why did I go along with that stupid thing.” And when my eyes opened up to see how keeping my thoughts to myself mostly allowed other people to be overlooked, ignored, or even mistreated, it became much harder to justify why my comfort was more important than their humanity.

So I learned to say things. I later found out that many people do actually appreciate me saying things, whether I am deliberately controversial or innocently inquiring. Some have even said that it was validating, because they found out that someone else had the same thought they did. This led to me eventually building the confidence to keep talking. After enough arguments, it also led me to realize that the worst thing that happens in an argument is: having an argument. People get mad and say dumb things. The truly hard part is staying cool and not saying dumb things. But I learned I can do that too.

But it does mean I spend a good portion of my time being disliked.

What people don’t realize is that even when someone like me learns how to take such experiences as the norm, it doesn’t mean that we don’t get hurt in the process. It is not fun to have someone shout at you, call you names, criticize your work until you want to bleed from your ears. I get filled with doubt, I want to go home and hide under the duvet and not come out for several years. I will ask myself over and over again, what is wrong with me. Just shut up already. No One Cares.

I’m writing about all this because lately I have felt particularly disliked. It is not easy to bounce back and sometimes I don’t want to. I have spent several sleepless nights of late debating in my head if I should just pack it all in. Things were supposed to get easier, and yet I think it all really got harder. Will it ever end?

And then I get to see Jane Elliott, up on stage, telling it just as hard as she ever has and letting that audience know she is not fooling around. Okay, so I don’t agree with every single point she says, but that is insignificant. Because what is real is her passion, her fire, her fury, and she has been doing this for 48 years. That’s longer than I’ve been alive. And she has sacrificed and suffered, and definitely not been liked. At the end of a very emotional 2 hours, she shares:

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputations… can never effect a reform.” – Susan B. Anthony

I am reminded that the important stuff is never easy. Because if it’s easy, it means you’re just going along, riding the current. It also suggests there isn’t anything needing to be changed. And if you’re okay with that, then keep on going along. But if you for a moment think that something looks, smells, feels, seems, just in the teeniest bit askew…

Then get ready to be disliked.

All I Want for Christmas…

Thought I had a blog post. Maybe I don’t. why is it that when you hit your 40’s, you start getting injured for no apparent reason. I’m on my couch because my lower back decided to not work; cause = apparently just being alive.

You’d think I would’ve posted about the shooting in San Bernardino by now. After all, not only is the whole country talking about it, it also occurred practically in my back yard. I’m still settling in to this new place, so I have a weird sense of attachment-not-attachment to what took place. I’ve had a million thoughts and no thoughts, a reaction and not a reaction.

There is a social justice angle, for sure. But does anyone need me to point out how fascism is not an acceptable response to an act of terror? It could be argued that fascism generates acts of terror in the first place, but a despot like Trump seems to have forgotten that. And really, no ones needs me to point out that obvious statement. Also no one needs me to point out that we very easily talk about “radicalization” these days, and apply it to anyone who isn’t Christian, even though it could be argued that many acts of violence have been carried out by self-identified “Christians” also in the name of various aspects of Christianity (let’s try the other recent shooting at a planned parenthood, or anything done by Westboro, or things like internment camps, the holocaust, or slavery just to name a few). Right. I don’t need to say these things because everyone already knows it.

Ok, that sentence might have a little sarcasm built in. It’s clear not everyone agrees with this. There are plenty of people out there who seem to think it is a completely acceptable response to tag Muslims or any other group we become afraid of and start treating them like cattle, to deny them their status of personhood so we can more easily label them as the problem and thus feel less guilt about killing them. If it is wrong to label all Christians as “zealots” then it is likely also wrong to label all Muslims as “extremists.” Perhaps the only good thing about Trump right now is people who think his way is the right way a global society deals with its difficulties are being exposed. Their presence makes it so someone like me doesn’t have to work very hard to say racism – pure, overt, nasty racism, not the innocent, well-intentioned accidental racism – exists.

Painkillers. I need painkillers. My back is screaming at my legs and it’s just a cacophony of angry shouting nerve endings replicating a fight scene out of Enter the Dragon. This is not helping my mood.

It is, therefore, a surprise for me to hear at a meeting held for those affected by the San Bernardino shootings that their biggest fear right now is not the possibility of further terrorist plots but rather, the fear that our own country will turn itself into a replica of 1930’s Nazi Germany. That we will make it okay to lock people away just because they follow a particular religion that is different from what the majority believe. That we will take people from their families and strip them of their freedoms because we contrive multiple reasons to believe we are superior to them. And that the only reason we attempt any of this is because we are afraid, and instead of trying to reach across the boundaries and finally establish a global community, we will engage in isolationist xenophobia and knowingly perpetrate another holocaust. It is also another surprise to hear that attached to this fear that the country will turn, is another fear that those of us who don’t want this to happen will silently stand by and let it happen because we fail to speak up, or act, or do anything at all.

This is a pleasant surprise, by the way. This is an injection of hope.

It also stands out a great deal that the people who are expressing this are the people who live here, people who were directly affected by the shooting, the subsequent car chases, manhunts, bomb threats, school closings, and all the other scary things going on that we are being assaulted with. We who are here, in other words, don’t want to close our borders and cast out the identified “other,” rather we want to speak about the potential for joining together, for reminding each other that we belong to each other and want a better life, not a captive life, for ourselves and our future.

We want to break down prejudice, not support it. We want to expose our biases, not hide them. We want to increase understanding, not prevent it. We want to make friends, not enemies. We want to go outside, not hide in our caves. We want life to be about hope, not about fear.

I feel slightly disingenuous using the word “we” in that above paragraph. After all I’m a new part of this “we.” However, maybe that’s part of it, to realize that “we” doesn’t have to be limited by geography. We are tired of being told what we are supposed to think and say. We are ready to speak for ourselves.

So I guess if anything were up to me, that is what I’d want people to do. Many out there are attempting to express “solidarity” with San Bernardino. That’s very nice, but it would be a little bit more to use your words, not your Facebook profile pic. You don’t need to hold up a sign in order to make a difference. Have a conversation. Talk to a person. Don’t expect to have an answer, don’t expect to prove a point. Just for once try to understand something you didn’t know about another person. Who cares if you agree. But maybe just by talking, by starting this conversation, we can get to more conversations, bigger ones, and maybe it won’t be so scary to talk about what we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t know how to do. Maybe we’ll learn how to disagree. Maybe we’ll learn how to change our minds. Maybe we’ll finally admit that in reality we can’t control much of anything and will stop trying to control each other.

What do I know…I’ve been debilitated by a pinched nerve and I’m going to spend considerably energy rolling over once I finish this post. Then I’ll 1556847watch House pop vicodin on Netflix. Dunno. Seems fitting.

 

Let’s Go, Tarantino

As usual, life continues to present many opportunities to talk social justice. While my work world is opening more avenues for continuing the work of social justice, the news presents plenty of chances to embark on a social justice-themed dialogue. I shall take a little journey here…

Enter good ol’ Quentin Tarantino. Full disclosure – I don’t know him personally and I’m not inclined to buy into media representations of any public figure’s personality. The press likes Tarantino because Tarantino makes headlines. He also makes a huge pile of money doing what he does. Not bad for an indie guy. While I know there are die-hard fans as well as die-hard critics, I don’t have any particular allegiances to him or his work. He’s made some things I really like (e.g. Reservoir Dogs, which I still think is the best thing he’s ever done for many reasons) and some things I couldn’t take (e.g. Django Unchained, except for the pre-lynching scene which was brilliant). I do suspect he’s pulled a publicity stunt from time to time. I also think he needs to come up with a better response about the whole violence-in-movies thing. And chances are he’s been highly misquoted on a fairly regular basis.

Even though I don’t really know him, I do know he’s a highly influential white male who commands the attention of many, many people in the USA. People give him money – producers, investors, and the general public. If someone in the USA doesn’t know his name, likely they’ve been buried in a concrete bunker for the last 20 years. Status? Powerful? Representative of the ideals of dominant society (i.e., the “American Dream”)? Unquestionably. Which is why this latest mess he’s caught up in is so important to look at as an expression of what happens in the USA when someone tries to confront this thing called Oppression.

So here’s the synopsis: Tarantino goes to rally about police brutality, makes comments about calling “murderers murderers” and now has at least 4 different police unions rallying to boycott his upcoming Hateful Eight as well as any other productions he makes in the future. Weinstein Co. originally called for QT to apologize for fear the film will lose money at the box office. Several news outlets have condemned his actions and the headlines are all about whether or not this spells “doom” for his latest film and career. Let’s add to this a plethora of comments on twitter and other websites calling him, “irresponsible,” “anti-police,” and especially the “we will come after you and scare you into silence” threats.

What’s really happening here? We could get into the semantics, where he’s accused of saying “all” cops are murderers, even though that isn’t actually what he said. We could get into whether or not he’s displaying some double standard as his films feature almost cartoonish violence yet he’s condemning police action. We could get into how some think a Hollywood director should stick to his day job and not have an opinion. We could get into the debate about whether or not he’s a jerk or an opportunist.

We could do all that, but we won’t. Because all of that is yet again an attempt to point the finger back at the individual, to put all the blame on the person who is trying to do one very clear thing: voice an injustice. Let’s look at the purpose of the #RiseUpOctober rally in the first place: like many other similar movements, it’s about bringing attention to the corruption and abuse of power displayed by mechanisms of authority in this country, namely the police. It does draw attention to specific officers who committed crimes (yes let’s remember these are crimes) by raping, beating, bullying, or (gasp) murdering those they were supposed to be protecting. It has also exposed serious, deliberate systemic measures employed by high-ranking officials in police organizations to exploit various communities they serve, which also just happen to be communities composed of largely Black and Latino populations. Essentially these rallies are efforts from various movements to change the system of power that has allowed such abuses to be built, implemented, and supported. (And if you happen to think none of these abuses have ever occurred, pull your head out of the deep, dark, wet pit of sand you’ve smothered yourself with and take a look around. Even members of the police are able to identify that such atrocities have occurred.) Un-“American” you say? Sorry, but protests of such nature are about as “American” as you can get. It is one of the ways a system of democracy offers its people (the governed) an ability to affect change on a power structure (the governing) that grows too strong (e.g. fascism).

Enter The Tarantino, a powerful white man who speaks out against a corrupt system. Now interestingly, when a person of color does this, we are also told to basically shut up and stop complaining. We are also told idiotic things like, “well if you’d just go along with what the police tell you, you wouldn’t be in such a mess.” The end result is to support the status quo and tell the person of color that they made the mistake in the first place. It’s a great use of modern power to render the mechanisms upholding power invisible while pushing the subjects of such power into center focus. It makes us responsible for our own hardships as well as keeping each other in line. As long as the person crying out is turned into the problem, society never has to examine itself. It is, to make the analogy, very much like what happens when adults abuse children; once the child tries to say “stop it,” the reply is, “shut up or I’ll give you something to really cry about.” Such a system also tries to convince the child that the abuse is therefore 1) the child’s fault and 2) something only the child can do anything about. Notice who no longer gets paid attention to: the adult who did the abuse in the first place.

What’s so interesting (for lack of a better word) in this Tarantino situation is that now we get to see what dominant society does to members of dominant society when they try to point out systemic injustices. To translate: “You must apologize” is really like saying, “how dare you point out that we’ve done something racist. Shame on you for making us feel embarrassed.” But steps are taken beyond that: pull support for his film, boycott the movie, threaten to “keep him in line”, and so on. It is a strong reaction that also communicates that stepping out of line will bring harsh consequences and we will take away all that privilege that you seem to have forgotten we gave you in the first place. Notice the message that gets supported if we stay in line – the current system is blameless, which includes making it okay to perpetuate things like racism, sexism, classism, and so on. I mean really, Police, is this really what you want to stand for? Are you meaning to say, “Yes, I want to be a racist cop?” It’s like watching a toddler in a corner throwing legos at babies while yelling things like, “but I want to kick the dog!”

I suspect the real reason though dominant society may fear a Tarantino-like figure making such a statement is exactly because the message is coming from not just a white male, but again a highly influential white male. Many people will pay attention to what someone like him says, which is an expression of the kind of power that comes with possessing multiple aspects of privilege. Someone who may not have paid attention to accusations of police brutality might now take a second look. And that means those who stand to lose something if the current system is challenged might actually lose something. It also communicates the idea that someone who does have greater access as a result of this privilege should act, should employ the power that comes with it towards making social change. Because the reality is that someone with a Tarantino kind of power could actually get something done, even in spite of the backlash. Those who already hate him will keep hating him, those who already love him will keep loving him – but it’s those in the middle, the undecided, who might get swayed, and that’s what we mean by power: the ability to influence. Power also means being able to exercise the choice to participate and to have your voice heard, things that get stolen as one loses access to privilege (oh yeah, that’s another way to define, “Oppression.”).

Do I think he should apologize? Normally I am all for reconciliation. This time though, I don’t think so. I am actually very happy to watch someone of his status take on this fight. Because in the end he will survive and we know it, whereas many others who fight, particularly people of color, don’t. So rock on, Tarantino. Make your actions match the caliber of your movies. Whether or not someone goes to see The Hateful Eight is immaterial. But if someone decides to get up and learn something, maybe even take action about the social inequality in this country as a result of what you’ve done – well that would be Oscar-worthy indeed.

Project: I Am

get ready for some reflection...
get ready for some reflection…

Sometimes you need a reminder about what matters. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the day-to-day drudgery of work life and become convinced that some minute detail deserves front and center attention. I’ve written about social justice; I’d like to think that my work connect to social justice never falls victim to such distraction, but it does.

Let’s face it, in the work world people often become wedded to a point or idea or concept and adopt the stance that such point is the center of the universe. The sun revolves around the earth instead of the other way round. I’ve done it; the word on the page becomes the only word you can see and you forget about all the paragraphs that go around it. It also means you lose sight of your audience, and when myopia takes over, you even convince yourself that it doesn’t matter if your audience understands what you’ve written.

I’ve certainly watched others in my world of work get caught in this. I get distracted as well, arguing on principle and insisting that it must be a comma instead of a semi-colon. What I hate is how that small point suddenly takes over my life for a period of time. I become consumed by it, angered, saddened, frustrated…and the obstinate teen that still inhabits my headspace typically just wants to push the chair into a back corner, lean back with boots up and say, “whatever dude” to whomever is trying to push me into something.

Aside: that’s a funny point though isn’t it? That we find ourselves in those consuming spaces usually because there are others we are butting up against on those very detailed points. I suppose I should say that sometimes a detail does matter. But it still drives me nuts when I have to give attention to that.

Where does this ranting lead me…well as it happens too many of such points have dominated my life recently. So I am grateful for the wake-up call that was our gallery exhibit of Project: I Am. It shook me in just the right ways.

witnessMy lovely co-director and I decided to lead a workshop this spring that involved teaching counselors how to assist clients in a process of reclaiming identity from experiences of oppression. I won’t go into the theories and such here, but it boils down to 12 participants who met as a group on two separate occasions and also worked individually in between meetings. It was a learn-by-doing method; like so much of the work we do it helps to go through it yourself in order to really learn what is going on. The process results in each person creating a work of art that expresses an aspect of their preferred “self”, the self that Oppression may have tried to diminish, alter, restrict, dominate, etc.

It waI AM exhibits the first time my partner and I had attempted this workshop. While it is based on work that we’ve learned about done by many others, it is still a new thing to us – so this was one of our biggest experimental leaps yet (I say that even after attempting the film. Yikes). So we always had this background anxiety questioning if it was working, if we need to change anything, is it going to fail, etc.

As with the film experience, we found our little group starting to form their own community through the process. They talked to each other about difficult things but also about triumphs. They helped each other develop images and ideas to translate into their work. They gave encouragement and had a good laugh throughout. And that also means we got to know people in a way that, again, is a little different from a traditional classroom setting. You find out just how much talent people have through things like this; I don’t mean specific to artistic talent (although we did find many closeted artists!) but the many different talents that get revealed through the process. In short, you see just how amazing and interesting people can be.

The project culminates in a gallery exhibit of participant’s work. We managed to secure a gallery and hold a one-night show

we're making art here
we’re making art here

where participants could invite whomever they wanted to share in their exhibit. The night before we set up the space – and here is when we first started to see the “magic” that exists, that mysterious force in work like ours that definitely envelopes all that is done, but will disappear if you try to put your finger on it. You just have to let it “be.” As the works went up on the walls, you just felt it in the air, had that tingle in the spine that says, “something is happening here.” Even watching each person setting up, watching them work together, made me want to just stand back and take it in. Something had happened for these people and while I still don’t have a word for it, I can see its presence, particularly in ways different from before.

Resident Artist  - he's gonna go far
Resident Artist

The show itself was fabulous. It was also my first time seeing the completed works. I was taken aback by the commitment and passion in each piece. And the variety of media was a big surprise; everything from woodcut to painting, photograph to spoken word. Each person getting to share their work, talk about why they did what they did, and to do so in the ways they chose to, not in the ways they were required to. To have their work addressed and handled by a professional artist (our resident consultant), then displayed in a gallery, all adds a level of legitimization that I think even the participants didn’t quite realize until it was happening. It’s like the ultimate, “hey this matters; your story matters.”

And that brings me back to where I started this post. I had an emotional moment at the start of the show. Not because I was sad, but because all the shit from the past month finally started falling off my back. It didn’t happen because it was the end of the week, or because I’d checked off another “to do,” but because I was experiencing a space of camaraderie and validation, I was witnessing our group “arriving.” Something had been reclaimed and we were in the presence of it. So I shed a tear, not out of pain, but out of the relief of being reminded about what matters. I saw who our participants are, and it reminded me who I am as well. Why I do what I do and what I’ve gotten good at. And suddenly the bullshit details I’ve had to fight around became just that, small insignificant points that in some cases didn’t even add up to a whole. That inner teen finally got to fist-pump the air.

I left shouting to everyone just how beautiful they really are (no, it wasn’t just the wine talking). It’s funny, because one of the silent motivations for doing this project was the hope that it would be my parting gift. One last thing to give to them before I leave. And darn it, whether they know it or not, they ended up giving something to me too. Au revoir my friends; I’ll carry that one with me for a very long time.

until we meet again!
until we meet again!

What the heck is social justice, anyway…

It is probably an oddity that, coming up on almost 3 years of blogging about a social justice-themed film, I am just now putting out the question of “what is social justice.” I teach it, study it, practice it…yet I find myself back to the place of asking that question. Will I answer it here? Unlikely. But as is my habit, I write here to try to work this stuff out in my head…

Social justice gets a bad rap. When it is talked about on the news, it is usually paired with words like, “communist” and “progressives” and the newly-made bad word, “liberals.” Detractors try to associate it with anarchy and chaos, government overthrow, and the dismantling of society.

So in fairness, that’s because when social justice work is happening, it usually is calling out forms of oppression that occur at larger levels, such as in law, institution, policy, government. Social justice will look at educational systems, business practices, social practices, and just about any other existing system and how it serves to empower and disempower. Social justice attempts to address systemic injustice that results in the oppression of historically marginalized groups; thus it tends to focus on people who have experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. When social justice activism works, you get things like marriage equality, which is a pretty big upheaval of the status quo.

So yes, social justice workers do tend to be loud rabble rousers who get people riled up. That’s because when you’re pointing out that someone is benefiting at the expense and exploitation of others, that person usually gets kinda pissed off. And they work really hard to shut you up, especially by trying to make you look like the crazy one doing all the shouting.

However, social justice workers can get pretty confused about their purpose too, which leads me to why I’m writing this today.

In my particular field, I’ve recently seen lots of work connected to social justice. What exactly is social justice? I think that question has a varied answer right now. It has referred to altering systems and the status quo to promote equal access to resources. I’ve also seen it connected to the process of dismantling harmful expressions of privilege and promoting privilege for those historically denied that status. Most closely associated with my own work, social justice emphasizes the reclaiming of voice that was robbed from communities rendered impotent from colonizing processes.

That’s a lot of big words. I think a simple point of view is that social justice attempts to correct social injustice. It requires acknowledgment that injustice does and will occur at systemic levels – social, political, governmental…injustice can be executed through law, policy, social discourse, normalizing practices, interpersonal dynamics…In other words, injustice can be enacted by a single individual, but it is also enacted by many individuals making up a larger social sphere. The injustice occurs because the acts undertaken maintain power for certain groups while diminishing the power of others. And this is not based on a merit criteria, but rather arbitrary distinctions like race, gender, class status, etc.

Really, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. My students will kill me for saying that, because it’s one thing to understand the concept and another to see it live, and then even more to recognize that we are all affected by this process.

So the real question is “how do we do social justice?” That’s a much harder question, one that I’m struggling to find the answer to.

Here’s a snapshot of recent events in my life: Led a workshop for counseling students/new professionals about a process of reclaiming identity from oppression. Those participants created work that demonstrates their preferred identity and we held a gallery exhibit showcasing the work. Our student social justice organization has decided to become a regional organization to include people from many different fields and backgrounds. I’m working to change a professional organization from the inside out so it better reflects social justice principles. I recently went to Ferguson, MO to show the film and launch a project for declaring personal truths. Oh and I have that other job, the one where I teach class, interact with students, and occasionally supervise and counsel people. Am I “doing” social justice? There’s a big part of me (likely my inner rebellious punk that sits lazily in a chair flipping everyone the bird) that just isn’t interested in proving whether or not my work is work. So perhaps the real question for me is, does the work that I do accomplish what I hope it accomplishes?

Is there any one way to do social justice? Is it just one big act that gets lots of attention or is it lots of little acts? Does it matter if everyone follows your lead or if the few you’re affecting have experienced a change for the better? How do you do social justice in a way where it doesn’t inadvertently rob the voice of those you’re trying to support? When does social justice tip over back to just another form of colonization? How do you make sure the focus of social justice is on people and communities who need and want that support, instead of on the need for the worker to become the great “savior” of those people? Who “owns” social justice?

I don’t think those are easy questions nor do I have ready answers. I do think that whatever the method, we have to make sure that the people we think we are serving actually want what we’re offering, and that their voice is front and center in the process. Does what I’m attempting to do fit the context? How do decisions get made? Am I invited or intruding? Does it matter if it’s me who is required to get the job done, or is what I’m doing something that the community can take, learn from, and then build upon to suit their changing needs?

I used to shout a lot. Now I realize sometimes you need to shout, and sometimes you can do something else. Sometimes you can even do nothing. So while I’m still figuring out the answers to these questions, I’ll keep experimenting, I’ll get it wrong and maybe I’ll get something right. I’ve complained in the past that I feel like my generation of social justice workers is having to re-invent the wheel. It’s a complaint rooted in the desire to have someone help, have someone guide us. But now it seems it isn’t really a complaint; perhaps it is actually stating the obvious. We’re not “re-inventing” but inventing, because the context of today is different than it was 20, 40, 100 years ago. Racism still exists, but it looks and acts different and we have grown up getting to know it in a way that our ancestors did and didn’t. So we are finding our way, trying to learn from the past while plotting our own course. Maybe the real trick is to accept we don’t have all the answers and likely won’t.

So what is social justice? Still working on that one…