Do you think I’m black?

When I was in high school, black boys and white boys both called me names.  “Oreo” and “high yellow” came from the black boys, “grape ape” and “jolly green giant” came from white boys.  The message was clear:  I was too light-skinned and too big.  Even then, I understood the issue of size.  Real girls, attractive girls, girls the boys wanted, were small – petite and dainty and slim – not tall and broad-shouldered, with big hands.  Their disdain was clear and the message made sense.  I knew I was a girl, those boys defined what it meant to be a “real” girl – if they said I was too big, then I wasn’t a “real” girl.

The other message, that I wasn’t black enough, didn’t sink in because it didn’t make sense.  I was raised by white people, in a white family and in every way that I’m aware of, I identify as white.  Most white people rarely think about race, and I’m no different.  Even living in the South, I never deeply considered race because I didn’t have to.  It never occurred to me that people’s perceptions of me might be different than my own; that based on my racially ambiguous appearance, people might assume I wasn’t white.

For years, people have asked about my ethnicity, my “heritage”, as it were.  I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the question, and tried to answer vaguely or avoid answering altogether.  Once I started dancing salsa, and found myself dancing with dozens of men from black and brown countries, the question shifted to “where are you from?” which covered the “what race/linguistic group do you identify with?” question.  They wanted to know what country I hailed from, to discover if we had that in common.  I was asked that question by men from Mexico, Guatemala, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil, Jamaica, Trinidad, Italy, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Eritrea, Somalia, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic.  They all wondered if I came from their country.

I used to say “white people always assume I’m white, black/brown people always assume I’m mixed.” Now, I realize that’s a throwaway phrase – a casual way to separate and label interactions that were irritating and sometimes confusing.  The reality is more complex, and my toss-off answer doesn’t seem to fit anymore.

I can think of no better example than my fear of law enforcement.  No other white person I’ve spoken with fears the police the way I do – none of them describe having had the same type of interactions.  I’ve been bullied, harassed, and intimidated the handful of times I’ve interacted with law enforcement on my own. I had some “good” interactions when I and my upper-middle class white partner were living in an expensive home, in a white upper-middle class neighborhood. My racial ambiguity was eclipsed by evidence of money and whiteness, and I was treated respectfully.

My most unpleasant experiences have been through traffic stops. The few times I’ve been stopped, there have been reasons – a careless maneuver, or cell phone at my ear.  Only recently did it occur to me that I might be getting treated the way black people are usually treated – a confusing and terrifying thought.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but there’s a part of me that wants to go back in time and say “wait, are you treating me like this because you think I’m black?  I’m not black, I’m white! I know my appearance can be confusing, but I assure you, I’m white.  Please treat me like you’d treat a white person.”

And that’s where things fall apart.  I start to question whether I’m being treated as I expect to be treated  because I KNOW I’m white – don’t they?.  It is the most ‘in your face’ way to experience white privilege I can imagine – to think that, perhaps some people see me as black or mixed, and they’re not treating me as well as I should be treated because – hey, I’m WHITE!  What’s the solution?  Maybe I should ask?  “Hey – you were mean to me, don’t you know I’m white?” or “Ummm…why are you yelling at me for a traffic stop?  Don’t you know I’m white?”

As I’ve gotten older, the negative messages about my size have become irrelevant.  I’ve grown enough in my confidence and self-esteem to feel comfortable in my body – my tall, broad-shouldered, big-handed body.  But questions of how my skin color and the shape of my features affects people’s perception of me have only now started to surface.  Do people see me as black or white?  Am I being treated this way because of a mistake?  How do I deal with the embarrassment of asking that question – even if it’s only to myself?  Do I wanted to be treated differently?
No – I just want the privileges all the other white people get.

Privilege

An Exaggeration

Seth Godin recently published this very short post:

A parody of yourself

A simple test for brands, organizations and individuals:

When you exaggerate the things that people associate with you, your presence and your contribution, does it make you a better version of yourself?

When Seth gets it right (which is often), he gets it really really right.  I’ve been thinking about this question since I saw the post and damn.  What *do* people associate with me, my presence, my contribution?  I know what I want them to associate with me, and I make an effort to focus on those traits.

But what can I do about those unknown things – the personal quirks and habits and unlikeable bits that I’m unaware of?  The things that people who love me don’t care about but could nevertheless impact my ability to accomplish my goals?  Self-awareness and reflection get me to a certain point, but how do I get past all the doubt and uncertainty and accept that I’m just a human?  A normal human who has normal human-y quirks and habits and oddities?

I thought about doing a self-parody but stopped that idea right in its tracks.  I’m not in the best place to parody myself from a helpful, funny perspective and it’s far too easy to think of myself as a ridiculous monster.  Untrue, of course, but that’s what too much navel-gazing gets me.

So…going out on a limb, I’m going to answer Seth’s question with a “yes.”  People tell me that I’m creative, engaged, warm, attentive, and kind, and those are traits that only make me better 🙂

Lodestones

I’ve been avoiding writing for the last several months.  There are many reasons for this.  I’ve been turning to artwork as an expressive outlet, a need to be out of my internal, intellectual world, a deep, pervasive feeling of exhaustion, and, related to that exhaustion, no desire or will.

The impacts of seven months of looking for work, a two month journey to losing it, and the last ten weeks of re-entering the world of unemployment and job searching again?  Those impacts aren’t clear yet and probably won’t be for some unknown time.  What is clear is that my desire to feel productive, to feel useful, has lost its lodestone.

My internal compass has been spinning wildly, seeking an orientation, a focus, a place to land.  I’ve volunteered, networked, job searched, made art, written, and simply sat on my couch doing nothing.  I’ve had countless ideas for products, novels, art pieces, and community organizations, and I’ve put effort into a business idea with some potential.  But nothing has snapped into that empty spot.  None of my own ideas have quite slipped in to fill that hole – they aren’t big enough yet, solid enough.

What I have noticed is that the pressure to be productive – to always be creating something, doing something, seeking success in some way – is enormous and intense.  Internal, external, implicit, explicit, the subtle and not-so-subtle influences are everywhere.  To say that I feel like a piece of coal being squeezed and compressed into a diamond is a bit dramatic, but maybe it’s the best metaphor.

I no longer have an external motivator or source of direction; there is no one to help me direct when, where, and how I spend my energy and resources.  While I have a strong sense of myself, values, and interests, I’ve never thought of myself as an entrepreneur.  This time of unemployment has changed my thoughts and feelings though, and I’m planning toward self-sufficiency, toward being my own boss.

Perhaps I’m becoming my own lodestone.

lodestone2

Reading the Comments

I recently wrote a post about rediscovering my desire to serve others.  Much to my surprise, my post garnered a very long, angry comment largely focused on what an arrogant dick I am for openly expressing this desire.  The comment opened with “I don’t even know you” and proceeded to cover a wide swath of territory that included judgments on my character, accusations about my intentions, and speculation that losing my job was caused by my arrogance in thinking I have something of value to offer.

The level of judgment and bitterness was extraordinary.  I hadn’t written anything controversial, it was a personal statement, nothing I’d ever expect anyone to care much about.  I wrote it for myself, to clarify my own thinking and solidify my commitment, and I’d expected it to go entirely unnoticed.  That it engendered such a vitriolic response was a giant surprise.

But what was most surprising was that this stranger had plucked out of my head my very own words, fears and doubts and insecurities, typed them up, and sent them to me.  When I read that so-familiar and hateful rhetoric, felt the judgment and resentment, I was paralyzed.  How did this stranger know to use those words, the exact words that live on a never-ending loop in my head?  How did they know to say the most harmful words, words that would undermine my confidence, and tear down what I’d worked so hard to build – my belief in myself, in my own value and contribution?

How could one person say such cruel things to another person – a complete stranger, someone they know nothing about?  Even worse, what if they were right?

Encouraging words from a friend helped me gain perspective, but this comment, I think, may prove an invaluable tool.  Seeing my own self-doubt and self-judgment so clearly articulated was terrifying.  I would never say those things to someone else, why am I saying them to myself?  Marianne Williamson’s famous writing on our deepest fears includes the following lines:

“It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?  You are a child of God.  Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

My internal monologue and this anonymous comment both demand smallness.  They demand that I not recognize any of my potential, talent, or value.  This message – that we have to play little, hide our light, deny our desire to shine and grow and expand – is the message of fear and denial and rejection.  It is rooted in rejection of our shared beauty and grace, grief at our self-imposed barriers, and a profound fear that we will never measure up.  It is that message that keeps us suspended in a state of perpetual self-hatred and destruction.

It is valuable also because I do need to check in with myself, ask for feedback from friends, and pay close attention to the impact I have on others.  But I get to decide which feedback is helpful, which friends and colleagues to ask, and what advice is helpful.  Because I tend to believe the worst of myself, I have to get objective opinions, and advice from people who care about me and want me to thrive.

Ultimately, that one comment prompted useful thought and reflection, although perhaps not in the way the author intended.  I am proud of my talents and skills, the work I’ve done to develop them, and my commitment to helping others, and it doesn’t matter what other people think about my decision to write those things down, or say them out loud.

88427-Confidence

The Eleanor Club

My friend Dennise and I were talking a few months back about women and power.  We’re both mid-career professionals, were both unemployed, and having weekly conversations about our job search, and what it means to be older women looking for positions of responsibility and influence.  Those conversations birthed The Eleanor Club, a place where women can speak directly about their areas of influence, personal ambition, and what it means to be a woman with power.

Our first meeting was last week and it was extraordinary.  Dennise and I had NO idea there was such a craving for this conversation!  Woman after woman came up to each of us and said “I’ve been wanting to talk about this, ask questions, explore what it would mean to expand my influence and own the influence I have.”

We had no idea, but we should have.

The current power paradigm we live in – authoritarian, hierarchical, individualistic – is becoming more and more problematic.  While it is not clear whether women and men are biologically inclined to use power differently, my personal experience is that women are often more interested in power as a way to connect, not dominate. While this offers its own set of challenges, it also opens the door to an multitude of new directions we could grow as a race and individually.

Women are actively seeking ways to exert power, to leverage their existing influence, and grow their circles.  We are learning to own our ambition, to state loudly and clearly that our agendas are critical to the health and well-being of our families and the planet.  At our first meeting, when we opened the floor for women to speak about the issues closest to their hearts, we heard about

  • community development on the micro level,
  • the importance of civil discourse in theory and practice,
  • amplifying the voices of women in the music industry
  • building a conversation around an all-year school schedule
  • the criticality of local and state elections,
  • finding ways for working mothers to serve as elected officials,
  • and how to protect and heal our environment.

Even though the conversation was entirely unscripted and unexpected, we can clearly see the seeds for robust discussion and action on a wide-ranging and deeply connected group of concerns.  In those moments, I realized that all the women in that room had tapped into something revolutionary – our mutual commitment to actively  and directly influence change through OUR decisions, our ideas, and our actions. It was an unforgettable moment.

quote-when-you-have-decided-what-you-believe-what-you-feel-must-be-done-have-the-courage-to-eleanor-roosevelt-81-51-50

 

After the Purge

Sitting down to write this post took an enormous effort of will.  I finished an online creative nonfiction course a few weeks ago and I stopped writing regularly as soon as my final essay was complete, so it’s been maybe two months of unexpected and welcome relief.  For the last two years, writing about my experience in the prison has been a release of sorts.  It helped capture my thoughts and feelings, although it’s unclear whether it helped me release either but probably not.  Nothing short of a complete separation would have accomplished that feat.

Today, I’m close to eight months away from my last day at CCCF.  Most of these last eight months have been spent de-toxifying from my time there, and learning how to operate as a normal human being again.  Those years, combined with the years of stress and uncertainty preceding them had turned me into an anxious, brittle, and fearful woman.  I had some success hiding just how anxious, brittle and fearful I had become, but I was never able to hide it from myself.

Those years ate my light; they consumed everything I knew of beauty and grace and joy and spirit.

Lately though, the writing has been pressing on me, memories lingering in my consciousness.  The stories of my time there, my relationships with the women I taught, and observations about the system constantly break the surface, jarring me with their presence.  I can shove them back under, but they are still there. I’ve asked the non-intellectual part of my being to grieve and celebrate this enormous transition and it’s been thrilled to comply, so I’ve been processing mainly through art these several months.  But as much as I love exploring drawing and illustration for emotional release, I cannot tell these stories through that art.  Words are my medium, and the words are softly demanding my attention.

I just don’t know how to start again.

Being away from all that pain and suffering makes it less immediate, and reduces the feeling of urgency.  That voice that demanded, constantly, that I let people KNOW and do my part to change the system has quieted.  It rouses occasionally, but it is lackadaisical, at best.  I’ve stepped away from all the information sources that used to stimulate my awareness,  deliberately choosing to set all that pain to the side.  It is a position of privilege, but I cannot bring myself to feel shame or guilt about this choice.

I feel light and happy and safe. Work doesn’t feel like much work, it’s a delight to do something less fraught, where a mistake won’t mean drastically increasing someone else’s suffering.  This new path is a great gift, and all I want to do is enjoy the days, do art, and drift.  Even thinking about writing that story feels hard.

I’ve realized that almost all the writing I do is somehow related to suffering – to trauma and oppression and the misery of the world.  When I think about writing a memoir, whether it’s about CCCF or not, my thoughts focus on the sad and miserable things that brought me to where I am today.  How do I write about all of those things – feelings, events, circumstances, choices – without putting myself back in that grueling, grunting space?  It’s not a matter of self-judgment, it almost feels like self-preservation.

How do I stay connected to this precious gift of light and space and relief if I’m writing about those pain-soaked years?  I know they are part and parcel of who I am, but I’m ready to write a new story about myself.  How do I hold this new facet, and gently touch and release the old?

Figure vomiting words
Give It Up

The Basest Discourse

Even taking remarks made by the Democratic candidates with a giant teaspoon of salt, I am saddened and disheartened.  Although it’s almost impossible to know what was actually said, or to trust the media at all, it’s glaringly obvious that Trump’s candidacy has already done incredible harm to our country.  Among Trump’s multitude of attributes is his ability to bring out the absolute worst in anyone and anything.

It’s like a +500 Miasma of the Monstrous – a soul-crushing, anti-decency superpower.

He brings out the basest, crassest, and most fear-riddled primal instincts in those who agree with him, but that’s not the worst.  He also brings out the most disgusting, reprehensible aspects of those of us who disagree with him.  I’ve watched the endless parade of blaming, shaming, nose-picking, name-calling, schoolyard insults rolling across all of my social media feeds, and not all of it is directed at Trump.

It’s as if his presence, in and of itself, has poisoned the entire well, rendering all of us incapable of decency or civility.

In no way am I saying that he is qualified to lead this country, in any way that would make us or the world better.  In no way is he qualified, capable, or even interested in such a task.  He is interested in controlling as many people as possible, making them jump, watching them race around after their own tails, and we’re all obliging him.  It would be easy to blame it all on the media and every media outlet in this country bears a significant share of the blame for giving him the attention he so desperately craves.

But “the media” doesn’t make the memes and videos and “the media” doesn’t come up with all the coarse jokes and bathroom humor we’re throwing around.  We’ve allowed ourselves to be pulled into a giant shit pile, and we are wallowing with abandon.  Democrats are railing at each other in the same awful way they’re railing at Trump, to the point of threatening to sit out an election if their Chosen One isn’t selected as the nominee.

Where we choose to focus our attention matters.  What we choose to accept as important, as significant, matters.  How we choose to interact with those who disagree with us matters.  How we conduct ourselves, especially as we select our leaders, matters.  That the rest of the world is watching us, speechless at our reckless, thoughtless, and immature behavior matters.  That we are causing increasing harm to our identity as a nation while this man chuckles himself to sleep every night, matters.

We are human.  One of our greatest gifts is our freedom of will, our freedom to choose to be better, to treat each other with dignity and respect, even when we are afraid or angry. Using tactics of hatred and aggression to tear down Trump and his supporters will only result in a nation full of hatred and violence, regardless of who is elected.  I know it is hard to consider courtesy, or kindness, when emotions run high, but I see a grim future if we don’t at least try.

kindness