What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them?

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
-Donald Trump

Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick.

A year later, it hasn’t abated.

Looking past the fact that blind allegiance to a nationalistic symbol is about the most Un-American thing I can think of, that forced standing, saluting, singing, and pledging are exactly the sort of things that Americans abhor in other places, because you know…freedom….the bigger point is this:

The whole point of having certain inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution is to USE them. If we’re not going to use them, why spend so much time, energy, blood, and lives defending them?

People are getting their Kaeper-knickers in a twist about utilizing rights. Are rights merely meant to sit on a shelf somewhere, kept shiny but never used? Because if so they will atrophy. They’ll wither until they are of no use to anyone. Until they die.

Service men and women have fought and died to protect the rights Americans hold dear. Those rights are whispered into the ears of American children at night. We grow up on them. We eat them at greasy spoon diners and wash them down with Bud Light. They are our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and apple pie for dessert.

Rights.

Not a flag. Not an anthem. Not a pledge.

Protests, such as that of Colin Kaepernick and fellow athletes do not dishonor those sacrifices. In fact, I can’t think of anything that honors them more. Citizens using the very things so many gave their life to protect.

Rights.

It may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but I guarantee that bitterness still tastes sweeter than what Kaepernick and his fellow athletes are protesting: daily witnessing the fact that your life doesn’t count for as much as it does if you’re white.

Of course this is not about utilizing rights. This is about certain groups using their rights. When tiki-torch carrying white supremacists march en masse we hotly debate ‘rights’. When toddlers are routinely shot dead by unsecured guns, we wring our hands over ‘rights’. When statues glorifying slavery-supporting generals are questioned, we hem and haw over ‘rights’.

But when black Americans protest? Suddenly it’s not about rights. It’s about dishonoring. It’s about disrespect. It’s about refusal to bend the knee (oh, the irony).

They may as well be calling black NFL players ‘boy’.

America! Land of the free and home of the brave! Yet the landscape of my country is very different depending on who you are. And who you are has a lot to do with the color of your skin, your biological sex, and who you love.

As a white educated woman, I lead a different life than a woman of color of the same educational background. My life is very different life from that of a white male, a hispanic homosexual, a transgender female, or a white woman living below the poverty line.

I know it’s hard to see that. It’s easy to assume that everyone else out there has the same experiences –not only the day-to-day ones, but the overreaching ones as well, the ones that link together to make up the concrete foundation of your experience. That we all have access to the same raw materials. That those bootstraps Americans love to fetishize are available in one size fits all.

But that is simply not true.

Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennet and other black NFL players protest because their America is not the same as mine. Megan Rapinoe knelt because her America is not the same as mine. Their opportunities are not the same. Their access, their power. Forget pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps. What happens when you’re not even given access to the materials to even fashion them?

Yet when they use non-violent means of protest to call attention to these very different experiences, they are criticized, told to be quiet, threatened, and called unpatriotic.

I ask you, what choice have we left for those whose experience of the United States is not the same as yours, or mine? What choice have we left for those who keep trying to pull up the damn bootstraps only to find the ones we gave them are shoddy, damaged, or non-existent?

What choice?

What are people supposed to do? If you find protests so unpalatable, so offensive, then what course do you recommend? Because nothing else has worked. Nothing.

Racism, sexism, homophobia–they are all documented issues. Yet we continue to shuffle them under the rug and stuff them in the closet. We deny, deny, deny. We shift the blame and blame the victim. And then–and then!–when people use their rights to call attention to these problems, we tell them to find another way to do it because it’s “offensive”.

For real?

260 years ago, the idea of taxation without representation was enough to go to war.

We celebrate that uprising each year with fireworks and backyard barbecues. We celebrate those protests, many of them violent, which led to the birth of a nation. But when a non-violent protest asks us to look at the messy afterbirth of that same nation?

We can’t handle the truth.

We hide behind a flag, an anthem, a pledge.

The United States of America is not post-racism. There is literally no legitimate recourse if you are a person of color.

You’re beat down, then told you’re not. You’re told to use the right channels, but those channels are blocked. You’re told it’s all in your head, it’s not as bad as you think, it doesn’t exist. And when you stand over the dead bodies as evidence, you’re told it must have been your own fault.

How are you supposed to affect change if there are people who won’t even admit change is necessary?

 

Somewhere out there there’s a child sitting and watching these athletes saying, ‘I’m not crazy, I’m not alone and here is someone willing to stand up for me.”

And that is how it begins. A teabag thrown into a harbor doesn’t make too much of an impact. A ship full of tea does.

But it all has to start somewhere.

What’s the point of having rights if we’re not going to use them?

What kind of message does it send when we value a symbol over a life?

And what does it say when we have a leader who refers to someone using their inalienable right as a son-of-a-bitch?

 

 

 

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To My White Friends…We Have to Do Better

If you’re white, I need you to stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Actually, take ten, this may take a while.

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I’m not going to call anyone a racist. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone they don’t deserve whatever they’ve worked to achieve in their lives.

I’m just going to say this: We need to do better.

We’re waaaaaaaayyyy beyond the ‘this makes me uncomfortable so I’m just going to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist‘ phase of the game. You know those stories about your mother’s friend’s cousin Gert, the one who smoked two packs a day, coughed up blood for years but chalked it up to cat allergies? The one who, when she eventually went to the doctor’s, found out she had stage 4 lung cancer? That’s where we are. We are at Stage 4 racism.

We, as white people are the cause. We, as white people could have done something about it earlier. We, as white people bear the responsibility for fixing it and cleaning up the fallout.

We need to do better. Big things, little things, every damn day things. We must do better.

Do better. Stop the “…but my great-uncle was denied a job because he was an Irish red-head” anecdotes. Stop using ‘some of my best friends are black,” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stop using ‘black on black crime’ as a justification for refusing to acknowledge the killing of black and brown men and women (or even more importantly, a refusal to look at the institutionalized racism of the judicial system itself). Stop using “it’s how things used to be” as an excuse not to change.

Pointing to a red-haired uncle on the family tree or having watched The Cosby Show growing up, touting hip-hop as your favorite music genre or being appalled by the word ni**ger does not absolve us of complicity in this mess.

Because make no mistake, it’s a mess. It’s a fucking mess. And not only do we bear sole responsibility for this mess, for centuries we’ve been forcing/asking/expecting people of color to clean it up.

Do better. Own the damn mess.

Do better. Get over the fact that being called racist may hurt your feelings. Understand those were our ancestors, not us is not a valid excuse. Know that as whites we don’t get to turn away from the cancer of white supremacy by whining about history.

Why? We forfeited the right to put our feelings at the forefront or to play the fairness game way back when the US had to go to war over the issue of whether it was ok to own other human beings to bolster our profits.

Do better. The history of racism in the United States is not told in bronze statues and marble monuments. And it doesn’t begin with importing and trading human beings, but when white Europeans thought the genocide of Native Americans was a proportionate response to needing a place to live. It’s not about statues of men on horses. It is about systematically oppressing, subjugating, ignoring, raping, kidnapping, belittling, demeaning, and overlooking Native, black, and brown Americans–not only what they have endured, but what they have as accomplished as well. Not only in the past, but ever since. Right damn now.

Do better. Acknowledge just because black Americans are not in literal chains doesn’t mean they are not still bearing the weight of them.

Do better. Stop diluting the black experience. Stop saying All lives Matter. The BLM movement does not mean the lives of white people don’t matter. ALL history, past, and present points to the opposite–that white lives do indeed matter. In fact, statistically they matter MORE than black, brown, and native lives.

This is not an either/or situation. This is an ‘in addition to’.

When whites insist all lives matter because it hurts their feelings that someone might think or insinuate their or their white child’s life doesn’t matter? That’s diluting the message. And the message is this: We have always put the hurt feelings of white people above the very lives of black and brown people.

Do better. Stop turning away from racism with ‘hey, at least things are better than they used to be‘. I know this one is true… because looking back, I did that my whole life. Post slavery, post MLK, Jr.– no one ever taught me how deeply ingrained racism is. But it’s more than that. No one taught me about black girls like Ruby Bridges. No one taught me about whites burning the busses of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. No one taught me what happened to Emmet Till. No one mentioned the Tulsa Massacre that wiped out the wealthiest black community in the United States in one fell swoop. But equally importantly, no one ever taught me of the accomplishments of Pauli Murray, Amelia Boynton Robinson, or Katherine Johnson. When listing off successful business owners, no one mentioned Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire.

As a white girl growing up I learned Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape and Rosa Parks sat on a bus and now we’re all equal. That’s it.

My history was whitewashed. The bad AND the good.

Do better. Learn the names of black women and men who have always been there making history and never getting any credit. The ones who have been begging us to listen. The ones who we’ve been tuning out because we’re only tuned to hear our white skin frequency.

Do better. It’s easy enough to threaten to wash your kids’ mouths out with soap if you ever hear them say ni**er.  It’s not so easy to teach them the sneaky, serpentine ways that institutionalized racism runs like an electric current under everything we do.

Do better. It’s easy to say, don’t treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. It’s harder to say we are treated better because of the color of ours.

Do better. It’s easy to say hey, that’s not right. But it’s harder to say, here’s how we fix it. Because that means facing up to the fact that we all of us, ALL of us, have benefited from white supremacy. Even if we didn’t know it. Even if we’re poor. Yes, even if your Irish great-uncle with the red hair was barred from applying for a job. Even if you’ve been the victim of racial prejudice. Even if, even if, even if.

I walk through my life, a white skinned woman, with all of the privilege that confers upon me. The biggest privilege of all? I can turn away from racism. I can have a few dinner table conversations with my kids and pat myself on the back. I can convince myself I’m not like those hood-wearing triple K Klansman. I’m not even like everyone’s great-aunt who makes racist jokes at the Thanksgiving table that nobody blinks at.

Or.

I can do more. I can read and listen to voices of color. I can elevate them above white voices, support them and give them an amplifier in any way I can.

I can reexamine the way that I benefit from this skin I wear.

I can do better.

I acknowledge my life is different because of my white skin. Regardless of any hurdles I have faced, those hurdles would be magnified ten-fold if I was black. None of this invalidates my life, or me, or my accomplishments. No one is trying to take anything away from anyone else. Remember, it’s not either/or. It’s in addition to.

Do better. Stop demanding people of color explain themselves or educate you on racism. Our mess. Our responsibility.

Do better. Stop refusing to look at white supremacy as a political tool that has been used to keep the power in the hands on ONE group.

Do better. Stop using the success of black Americans as evidence of being post-racism. Lynching isn’t merely done from a tree in the back woods of Alabama. Black Americans have succeeded despite every roadblock we, as white people, have erected for them. They’ve had to be ten times better to get there. Recognize it for what it is.

Do better. Start branching out. One thing I try to do is diversify my go-to portfolio. Instead of using the first white woman or man who comes to mind, I seek out a woman or man of color to  hold up as examples. Use them. Whatever the opposite of dilute is, do it. Throw some color into the pool. It’s been over-bleached for too long. Representation matters.

Do better. Realize this centuries old mess is not going to be cleaned up in a day or a month or a year. Realize you’re going to fuck up and people are going to, rightly, call you on it. Listen to what they say and do better.

Now take ten more deep breathes and do better.

 

 

Dancing With My Angry Self

pasdedeuxI’ve been dancing with anger for some time now. Perhaps it’s been on simmer for years, finally coming to a boil after a contentious election cycle. Maybe my hormones are shifting. Perhaps it’s an awakening. The why isn’t important.

Whatever the reason, my anger and I have gotten to know each other very well over the past few months, an intimate pas de deux.

What are you so angry at? People ask. Why is your daughter so angry? People ask my mother. Why is your wife so angry? People ask my husband.

The short answer? I’m angry at men.

I know it’s not fair to lump an entire sex into that sentence and that is one of the more complex movements of this dance. But I’m attempting to be as open and honest as I can–because I know I’m not alone in this.

There will be men who are offended by this bluntness, or perhaps surprised by it. I know because I had the same reaction when I started reading articles by feminists of color expressing their anger toward white women. But I”m not that woman! was my immediate response. And maybe I’m not. But I probably am, because regardless of who I think I am, I am the beneficiary and heir of a movement which has systematically left women of color behind. I cannot claim the successes without acknowledging the failures.

The same way men, in particular white men, are the beneficiary of centuries of patriarchal structure, whether they participate in it, uphold it, applaud it or try to change it. Men bear the weight of that structure on their shoulders. You can’t escape it simply because you know it’s wrong, it is too entwined with who you are.

And it pisses me off.

You hear a lot these days about being ‘woke’.  Woke to privilege, to racism, to sexism. Accepting you are part of the problem is a big part of waking up, scraping the crust of a lifetime of sleep away from the corners of your eyes. It’s uncomfortable. Yet as uncomfortable as it was and still is, I must keep acknowledging how I am part of the problem–even when all I want to be is part of the solution.

So I get it. I know there are men who want to be part of the solution, but in order to do that, you must realize you play a bigger part in the problem, whether it’s intentional or not.

pasdedeux_02

Being spitting mad with an entire sex has its downside of course. The biggest is that I’m married to one of those ‘men’. I’m raising two more. Nothing bitch slaps you in the face like expecting to smash the patriarchy and instead realizing you are raising the next installment of it. The rational woman within me recognizes that my husband is the best man I know. I know my sons are growing up with a sense of equality that didn’t even exist when I was a girl. I know many men who are allies, are compassionate, are feminists.

And yet, I”m still angry. For better or worse, I’m unapologetically angry with men. Fair or un, it’s there, pulsing like a metronome. And me and my angry self keep dancing.

The last year has felt like one big sucker-punch, kick in the teeth and stab in the back–with a “fuck you” thrown in for good measure. This is not just about election results, it’s also about the resurgence of anti-feminist hate groups. It’s about GamerGate and Breitbart headlines. It’s about male politicians introducing bogus legislation and men who have no clue what it is like to be a woman explaining to women what their problems are. It’s mansplaining and insulting. The casualness with which the demands of women are forever dismissed. The brush offs. And yes, the hate. Because there it is, at the core. And hate is what is coming through to my woke-ass ears loud and clear.

You see, it’s a pretty devastating thing to wake up one day, remove that last layer of crust from your eyes, and realize how hated you are by some. Simply by virtue of being a girl or  woman. It’s a harsh truth to stomach. There are men who hate women. There are men who simply don’t care. There are men who want to kill women just for being women. Or who use them as punching bags or live sex toys. There are men who think women are stupid, incapable, in possession of an emotion and intellect less than a man’s. Even if none of those things affects me personally, I cannot escape the fact that I am a woman, and these things are out there. They are the discordant notes I am dancing to.

Grappling with that leaves little time to stop and ask every man I see, “hey, are you one of those men who hate women?” And so generalization steps in to fill the gap.

I knew all of this of course. I’ve known it since I was a girl kneeling on a pew when someone told me there were no altar girls. But something about the past year has driven all of this home with a ferocity and clarity that’s left me breathless.

Sucker punch, kick in the teeth, dagger in the kidney.

I’ve come some way. I no longer vibrate with fury every time I see a male. I no longer want to smash things or spit in their face. Progress, right?

145Did you think only men got that angry? Only Fatal Attraction level crazy ex girlfriends? No. White middle-aged women get that angry. I am that angry.

Are you friend or foe? Adversary or ally? I don’t have the time or head space to ask. It is up to men to show me which they are. I’ve been giving most men the benefit of the doubt my whole life. I can’t afford those benefits anymore. The well is tapped.

If this post makes me sound like an angry woman, good. That’s the point. There is a time and a place for anger. The time and place are here and now.

 

 

 

American Elegy

black-boxThis is not an elegy for America, the beautiful; America land of the free. It’s not an elegy for  geography, latitude and longitude, tectonic ’tis of thee.

The land, blooded and let, bartered for pretty trinkets, stolen for a woolen blanket and a few bottles of booze–she will remain. Purple mountains majesty, fruited plains. Red clay, cityscape, amber waves of grain, corn-fed, big sky. The land, she will survive. She always has.

This is not an elegy for a nation. A nation steeped in blood, built upon the yoke of broken promises and broken backs. Founded in revolution, fed by division, fueled by that trickle of hope left in Pandora’s box. The ghosts of America Past keep that nation alive. They rise, clanking their rusted chains, shimmering like so much heat above those ribbons of highway.

This is not an elegy for a president. His name will stay marked, bold and black, in the history books. No legislation, no course of action can erase his existence from the march of time. It is not an elegy for a leader, an office, or even a string of promises amplified by a Greek chorus of millions.

 

In America that rich, red clay has soaked up oceans of spilled blood–on battlefields and city streets, on living room floors and dirty make-shift beds. In America, when a child plays under a chestnut tree, above her head there are ghosts swinging from nooses tied round its limbs. In America, the skeletons of all those left behind dance along side the movers and the shakers, the farmers and the cowboys. In America, history is sodden with trails of tears.

That spilled blood runs through the veins of all of us, no matter what our vision is or was. You can’t escape history, cannot twist away from the truth no matter which way you caress it in the text of your history books. No matter how many untruths you heap upon it, no matter which new phrases you coin–it won’t take the scorpion sting out of the truth. You can’t turn your eyes away from the bloated face of a black man swinging from a tree, the bled out body of a woman in a dark back alley, the ravaged body of a teenage boy tied to a paddock fence, or the bullet holes in a seven year-old girl on a classroom floor–you can’t turn away from that simply because the alternative seems too insurmountable or unpalatable or difficult or it’s not your problem. You may think you can. But not for long. Not before it rises up to haunt you like so many clanking ghosts.

This is my American elegy–not for a country or a people or a nation, but for the gauzy future of a country I held close to my heart, even when I was not there. In that future, we acknowledged those ghosts, paid homage to the land we’ve ravaged and raped, paid tribute to the broken backs upon which we’ve all walked to get right here. In that vision, the skeletons of the past rose up to dance, leading us forward in that arc toward justice.

Today though, the skeletons are still, heads bowed. One step forward and four steps back; not so much a dance as a stumble.

Today, I wail and keen through words, in an elegy for an idea which seemed close to bursting forth through the earth and into the light. Today I recognize that idea was further away than I thought. Today I apologize to all of those who understood that before I did.

Today that much vaunted arc seems pretty damn far away.