Lessons i will teach my white daughter

I am seeing a lot about how white folks need to accept responsibility for our privilege and our role in the maintenance of white supremacy in the wake of the continued police sanctioned murder of black men, women and children. And it’s true. As i’ve said before, we need to teach our white children how NOT to be racist, how to see and call out racism, how to recognize the ways we benefit from and contribute to white supremacy, how NOT to be killer cops or trigger happy vigilantes.

There is a whole heck of a lot we need to be teaching our white kids. But as I read pieces by white mother’s grappling with their white privilege, I feel they come up just short of what we, as white parents of white children, need to be digging into

White female tears

White female tears

with each other. The action steps, the how to’s, the words we can use to talk with our children about something that saturates our world as completely as white supremacy.

I want to offer my messy and incomplete thoughts into the realm of strategy sharing. To start a conversation about how exactly we raise white children to make different choices about how to live with and use their white privilege. This post focuses specifically on my white daughter and it is incomplete, but i want to do similar posts for my white son and to expand on this one in the near future. I really am hoping this will be a conversation.

Lesson one: i will tell my white daughter that every man that has ever hurt me deeply was a white man. it was a white man that raped me. it was a white man that emotionally abused me. it was a white man who stole a lot of money from me, lied about it and then tried to wheedle his way back into my life. media, friends, teachers and other family members may try to convince her that black men are somehow scarier than white men. but they will be wrong and i will work to remind her that white female fear of black male bodies is a powerful tool of white supremacy. and i will teach her not to wield it.

Lesson two: i will teach her that as white women we are white supremacy’s darling. we are the antithesis of black male bodies. we are what white american terrorism is made for. from the lynching of emmett till, to the kkk, to the school to prison pipeline, to the ongoing open season on black bodies. all of that institutional violence, at it’s core, is all for us. all for white women. we are the battle cry of our white brothers. we are something to fight for and protect. while non white bodies, male and female alike, will be seen with suspicion by law enforcement and will be charged and imprisoned with enthusiasm by our justice system, she will be seen as innocent. she will be protected. at the very least she will be given the dignity of being treated innocent until proven guilty.

my daughter will know the names and stories of shanesha taylor and kari engholm. shanesha taylor is a black mother who left her two young children in her car with the windows cracked and the fan running while she went to a job interview. immediately upon returning to her car, ms. taylor was charged with two counts of child abuse, faced up to 8 years in jail and had her bail set unnecessarily high. her children were fine. keri engholm left her infant daughter in her minivan and then rushed off to meetings. tragically the little girl died but iowa officials were hesitant to charge mrs. engholm at all and it took them awhile to do so. my little girl will know that justice looks different when you’re a white woman. and that that is all kinds of fucked.

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White women: doing the work of white supremacy every. damn. day.

Lesson three: i will teach her that her white female body is used as a weapon of white supremacy against non white women. that while, yes, we face certain violences as a result of our female bodies, we also face less because of our skin color. and that her skin, hair and eye color are the trifecta of perfect beauty. that it is our bodies that have colonized beauty standards worldwide. that women all around the world have been taught to hate their own bodies because they are not light enough, their hair not straight enough. and that all over the world there are women that change themselves to look more like us. it pays to be the darling.

Lesson four: i will teach her that our dominion as the ultimate woman goes beyond beauty standards. that it permeates our psyche and that we let it be our truth. i will teach her the real history of the white female heroines she will learn about in school. she will know that when it mattered, during the women’s suffrage movement, white women were willing to throw black freedoms under the bus. that they were pitted against black male suffrage and instead of uniting made it clear they would not work with black men but fight on their own. i will teach her that margaret sanger, hailed as i champion for female reproductive choice, used her development of the birth control pill to serve the agenda of forced sterilization of black women. my white daughter will understand the legacy of our white foremothers and know how it continues to impact white feminists’ erasure of women of color.

There is endlessly more to teach her. There are whole lessons on avoiding the white savior complex. About tokenization, white woman’s tears, white guilt, how to step back shut up and cede some of our power. I just needed to start somewhere. And open the conversation with other white parents of white children about HOW exactly we teach our children NOT to use their lives as a pillar of white supremacy. Comments, reactions and feedback desired.

being the body

i love my body.  love it.  its softness, its solidness, its roundness.  the way the muscles pull and move under my skin.  the way i feel as i walk through the world with all the contained power and potential that is my body.  just this morning misty read us aloud an eduardo galleano quote that goes, “the church says: the body is a sin. science says: the body is a machine.  advertising says: the body is a business.  the body says: i am a fiesta.”  all day i’ve been affirming that my body is a fiesta.  and not just any fiesta, it is the kind of fiesta you want to be invited to.  and i want to be worshipping, nurturing and celebrating my body.  i want to be taking care of it.  but one day i will also want to risk it.

because my body is also political.  historically my body has been a protected body.  it is white, female, heteronormative (mostly).  it is the kind of body cops ache to protect; it is the kind of body they were made to protect.  men have been said to go to war for my body.  i am the antithesis of the brown male body, and still a far cry from the brown female body, the non gender conforming body.  those bodies have to be violently suppressed.  i am meant to fear those bodies, distance them from myself, remain pure and worthy of the protection i am given.  i am a body deified.  our culture sets the standard for beauty by my body.  i have all the power and privilege of my white female body.  and one day i will use that when i am ready.

last night i was sitting around talking with some friends.  talking about the sorts of community organizing i want to be doing in charlottesville, about the kind of work i want to be committing myself to.  and it’s clear to me that one day, in my future, i will be organizing things that are much too threatening to the systems and structures we live in and under.  because i want everything about my life to threaten and undermine the way we’re taught we have to live.  i want to be breaking this shit down and creating pathways to different worlds.  i want us to get back to the joy of living and let go of this struggle for survival that is capitalist culture.

and when what i’m doing is too much, when it gets to the point that the cops or whoever need to confront me and the other people i’m working with, i want my body to be in the middle.  i want it to be the first body that’s attacked.  because for centuries worth of history, all manner of bodies have been under attack, have been brutalized and terrorized by the police and others.  but not mine.  and i know in my gut, that part of my body that knows things before every other part, that i want to be in the way.  i want to be the body they have to get through first.

veronica talked some with me about the difference between being the voice and being the body.  how they both have their strengths and how you can really only be one or the other.  because being the body requires you to give up access to the voice.  because being the body is a different way of communicating and engaging altogether.

for now i’m happy to be a voice.  i like using my voice.  but i know that i am only being the voice now so that one day i can be the body.  and that knowledge sits heavy in my gut for now, hovers a bit around my heart, making it flutter from time to time and is beginning to permeate my whole self.  i feel grounded in it.  not particularly excited, but almost ready.

no justice, no peace

i haven’t written much lately, not for lack of content, but for lack of time to sit and tell my stories.  or maybe for lack of something else.  and this is a piece i’ve been musing on for many months as i grow more honest with myself.  the first time this common rallying cry caught my attention and started to unsettle me was at the march for trayvon martin here in charlottesville some many months ago.  i simultaneously love and hate this chant.  hate is a strong word, maybe more accurately the words both thrill and frustrate me.  i started to gripe about it then.  and i get that most people are working to figure out what they’re willing to do to try to change this fucked up world and most people will not be where i’m at, but it seems fair that if you’re not actually willing to constantly disrupt the peace, you shouldn’t shout this chant.  because–unless youre one of these racist ghouls that thinks his death was his justice–trayvon martin and his family haven’t seen any sort of justice since he was murdered by george zimmerman.  but we arent in the streets.  we aren’t making it impossible for the george zimmermans of the world to kill the trayvon martins; we aren’t threatening the power structures that exist in such a way that they must be held accountable to us.  well at least not enough of us are.

the definition of justice seems important too.  we’ve been taught to seek justice through legal means, the proper channels for our frustration are paved with enough paperwork to bludgeon an elephant with.  and all along the way we’re convinced to relinquish our freedom and self determination.  will it be enough if george zimmerman is tried and found guilty of trayvon martins death?  can we claim justice for trayvon if more and more brown and black men and women are still being killed by racist cops and vigilantes alike?  i tend to believe that justice for trayvon martin is much bigger than a life sentence in prison.  i think it looks more like a total dismantling of the criminal injustice system in this country, a removal of armed cops from poor communities of color, and maybe a complete removal of cops altogether.  i think it looks like a total destruction of the culture that trains us to view brown and black skin as something suspect, that teaches young men and women of color that they can only be so many things in our culture, most of which are “criminal.”  and if that sounds like the kind of justice we want to be seeking, what do we have to do threaten the peace enough to kick start this change?

out in anaheim they are not letting the deaths of their young men go unquestioned, for days they’ve been marching and making it clear to the police that they are not welcome in their community.  i want this to be happening in more places, i want to be creating police free zones.  i want to be doing more to fight back against the normalcy of killing young people of color.  i want to do more than chant.

there was also, recently, a hunger strike at red onion state prison–a super max prison in southwest virginia–where inmates tell a terrifying tale of inhumane treatment and widespread physical and psychological abuse.  prisoners made a list of demands that seem pretty reasonable and outsiders were offered ways to take action.  as i was reading through the updates and stories of prisoners, again this common chant started vibrating through my spine, shaking my body.  and i was distraught by the limited possibilities offered to outsiders who wanted to “take action” and stand in solidarity.  its very unclear what continues to happen at ROSP.  officials said the hunger strike was over long before inmates said it was, officials made no mention of the intimidation tactics and cruel punishment meted out to strikers.  and theres been silence for nearly two months.  it seems pretty clear that nothing resembling justice happened at ROSP and again the question of what justice looks like is curious.  is it a regime change that brings little difference to the daily lives of prisoners?  i’d rather be breaking the prison industrial complex.  i in no way believe that imprisonment does anything to address “criminality,” fuck i dont really believe in “criminality.”  i think our culture creates criminals and creates the real people destroying lives as heroes of capitalism and despotism.  i dont want to sit by and make phone calls as men are tortured and left to die slowly in dark spaces.  i want to do more.

i am making this chant my mantra and my challenge.  i’m tired of playing along at being powerless and i am eager to find others interested in taking this chant at face value.  and i absolutely understand that complementary to destroying the structures and systems i oppose i have to be creating and building new containers, new ways to support, care for and build community with each other.  i am excited about doing both.

back home in the land of burning clay

i’ve been traveling on a slow moving southbound train most of the day–slow moving by mandate of the CSX heat advisory: instead of traveling at 79 mph we’re stuck at 59 mph. and it feels appropriate.  no one rushes in the south, not really.  its too hot, you see.

traveling south again always fills me with a wild set of ambivalent feelings.  there is nostalgia and romanticization that cloud my judgment, but there is also bittersweet and upset.  there’s a lot i love about the south and a lot i cannot stand.  it’s a region of warmth and beauty and ill concealed demons.  all of the forms of oppression that hide insidiously in the shadows in other regions are on full display in this home of the confederacy.  in this land of states rights.  and i know the south is not unique in this, but all the weight of history–both public and private history–presses upon me as i race and race, homeward bound.

just yesterday i responded to an email, asking me to recall the summer i lived and worked in jenkinsville, sc.  and now as i get ready to step onto familiar ground and breathe in air heavy with magnolia and the smell of scorching earth, my stomach ties in knots at the memory of that summer.  each small town we pass through is bigger than jenkinsville, sc.  jenkinsville is a collection of houses and churches along a few miles stretch of two lane highway.  each small town has its own story, its own unique personality, but they all whisper similar truths.  you just cant always hear them, or more likely youre not paying attention.  i went to jenkinsville to hear those truths and stories and that summer has had a powerful effect on how i move in this world today.

i went to jenkinsville to run a listening project, to tease out the community’s relationship with its nuclear power station, VC Summer.  i was not invited there, i didn’t know anyone; i went alone and lived in a small upstairs apartment in the house of a woman riddled by loneliness.  i stepped into a community that i was not from and could not identify with: 96% black, high poverty rates, low high school graduation rates.  when i started knocking on doors warning folks i would be coming around with others to talk to them some, they assumed i was from the very utility i was actively working against.  but i was white and living in jenkinsville and so it made sense to assume i was from the plant.  i was suspect.

i met the locals largely through the senior citizens group at one of the churches.  they let me stay, even though i was too young to be there and they let me play bingo with them, even though i couldnt juggle nearly as many cards as they could.  they teased me in the same breath that they cooed and tutted at me about riding my bike on the small two lane highway between the church and my small home.  they didnt know that many of those days i biked home furiously to fume and color a map of the county mindlessly in front of a box fan.  each day that i got to know the people there the more furious i felt at the utility who was ruining their lives.  the nuclear power industry likes to claim its a clean and healthy energy source, but there is something known as bioaccumulation.  and in a community that lived off of house gardens, fishing in the lake that cooled the nuclear reactor and hunting off of the land, the people of jenkinsville are daily consuming high doses of radiation and the community is full of sickness to prove it.  at one house an old woman who’d lived in the community her whole life pointed to each house on her street giving me the names and ages of the people in each who had died or were living with different cancers.

listening project are unusual and powerful tools and i wish they were being used more.  the idea is that you create a survey of questions which culminate in questions about individuals’ relationships to whatever topic is of interest.  in jenkinsville it was the nuclear power plant.  folks canvas in teams of two: one acting as the empathetic listener who is paying attention to the emotional content of the interviews and asking the questions, judging when to probe and when to move on; and an intellectual listener who is taking notes, trying to capture accurately the content of the interview.  you dont record anything so as to protect anonymity.  often the topics are touchy and sometimes dangerous to challenge.  and the power is in genuinely listening and finally being heard.  by focusing on the voice you remind it of its own strength.

but traditionally you are invited into a community, or you are part of whatever community you’re working in.  i knew i wanted to be working in opposition to the expansion of VC Summer and i knew no movement of resistance would be powerful without the directly impacted community informing the strategy.  but i didnt think about what i was committing to and what archetypal narrative i was stepping into.  i was well meaning, privileged and enthusiastic.  a historically dangerous combination.

i did not consider how lacking any community connection initially would weaken the power of what we were able to do with what we heard, about the possibility of being told–as a paid activist at the time–that this was no longer a priority by my non profit bosses.  i didnt think of becoming just another well meaning white person who would let down a community struggling to challenge forces that could make them pay for their disobedience, while i walked back into my other life.

it wasnt quite like that but it wasnt too far from that either.  in traveling back to this place i travel the roads i did as a young, green climate activist kid.  whenever i think of jenkinsville my whole body aches to go back: to repent maybe, to actually dig in in a way that feels honest, to reconnect to a community that opened itself to me.  and i am still so unsure.

sex ed

i recently created an okcupid account, largely to learn more about a boy a good friend has started seeing.  but then i got sucked in and found myself embellishing my profile.  and while i struggled with some self messaging stuff, mostly i’ve been able to enjoy the exploration of it all.  and yesterday i got a most unusual and refreshing message.

it was written by a young man who claims to be questioning his faith and just beginning to explore his sexuality.  he makes it clear that he does not want any sort of emotionally connected relationship right now, but is seeking a sexual guide and teacher.  now i am not sure that i am really a suitable fit for him, i feel young in my own sexual evolution, but i am definitely intrigued.  and i have to admit i love the request: both in a self flattered kind of way and in a mad respect and appreciation kind of way.  in a world where men are taught to be sexually dominant, i have super love for a man who is vulnerable enough to admit he doesnt know everything.

it reminds me of an old comment thread about  creating a society of priestesses who teach young men about sexuality.  the current cultural programming around heteronormative sex is pretty fucked up and unhealthy.  my story is certainly unique but i do not think by any means an outlier.  i grew up curious about my sexuality.  in high school i explored some sexual freedom but still found my boyfriends of that time frame self centered in their sexual attention.  in fact my first real sexual experience involved me performing oral sex on a boy i liked, it happened multiple times without any thought on his part–or mine even–of reciprocation.  the sexual story is still strong: sex is for the pleasure of boys and girls are there to serve the pursuit of that pleasure.  yuck.

then i backed away from my sexuality through the first part of college, feeling unsafe with male sexuality.  i held onto my virginity, in that limited vaginal penetration sense, and waited until i felt safe and trusted my partner to honor my body and my pleasure too.  years passed and i thought i had found someone i could trust, i was working up the courage to be vulnerable with him.  and before i could, i was raped by another man.  and i spiraled again, feeling like no matter how much older my partners and i got, there was no escaping the reality that sex was something that would happen to me.  that was something like three years ago now, and i am healing, but it is a tricky process made harder by my well trained inability to ask for what i want, my fear of stating boundaries, my slowly shedding mistrust of male sexuality.

and as i think about how enthusiastically sexual i am now, and how hard that journey has been, how violent and violated, i think of my younger sisters, of the girls in my life.  and i know i dont want any of them to have experiences like mine.  i dont want any of them to feel like the tool of someone else’s pleasure; i dont want them to have their boundaries crossed by boys who may or may not realize what theyre doing; i dont want them to be afraid to state boundaries or ask for what they want.  in fact, imagining any of them in that position makes me want to punch these future, unknown boys.  makes me want to scream and smash things.  makes me want to cry bitterly.

so how do we change the sexual story?  i think boys seeking sexual guides is a brilliant first step.  the idea of a young man really seeking sexual wisdom from a woman makes me effusively happy.  we need to teach our boys that sex is as much about their partners pleasure as it is their own, we need to introduce them to the secrets of a woman’s body so they can be attentive lovers.  but we also need to teach girls that their worth is not determined by their ability to please and attract a man, to keep a man.  we need to teach her that her sexuality is a wonderful, healthy thing, a thing to be celebrated.  that she deserves to feel safe and celebrated by her partners.  that asking for what you want and saying no when you want to say no are both important and acceptable.  we cannot let women continue to fear the repercussions of stating their own needs and boundaries.

so i may have to defer the request made on okcupid, because i dont yet feel capable of teaching others, but i will certainly consider the role of sexual educator in the future.  and relish it as a future possibility.  and until then i will work with the girls in my life to deconstruct these bullshit stories about our sexuality and our roles as pleasers.  what will you do?

reclaiming beauty

for most of my remembered life, the concept of beauty has been used against me, as a tool of violence so thoroughly internalized that it has been hard to unroot.  either i am considered beautiful and made to understand that if i deviate from whatever physical presentation i am lauded for, then i will lose my power and access to love.  or i am considered ugly and i have to do anything within my means to achieve the beauty standard; in fact that should be my top priority.  neither option is healthy and both sides of the beauty coin ruin my self esteem and self determination.

pax and i have been fighting a lot about the concept of beauty lately, he’s got a dueling blog up here.  he maintains his right to having his own personal relationship to beauty, in which he has physical preferences that translate into an experience of beauty.  of course theres a shadow side to his personal relationship, because beauty requires a counterpart.  yes, he admits, there are things he finds unattractive.  i hate this.  i hate this so much.

but there are two layers to it for me: the first is how he uses his power in connection with his concept of beauty.  i have called him out for loudly broadcasting his preference for long hair on women and it’s impact on the girls and women in his life who want to maintain his affection and attention.  in fact it came out in the course of girls studies that his messaging about long hair had negatively impacted one of the girls in the class.  this is where i most hate it.  but the second layer is how his personal relationship with beauty impacts the subtler messages he sends into the world, how he chooses to engage with individuals based on the attraction factor.  and how that perpetuates the beauty myth just as insidiously.

i almost always feel beautiful.  but i have shifted my definition of beauty and want to work on reclaiming it.  for me beauty is defined in our attention to our self care, our confidence and self esteem, our willingness to face our fears and our bullshit, to be uncomfortable, the ways we engage with the people in our life, how easily we smile, how quickly we cry, the joy we see around us and the joy we bring into the world.  it is rare that i look at someone and dont see some sort of beauty.  you have to be more invested, you actually have to get to know someone, but its almost always there.

and that is really what i notice as beauty, but i also recognize that women have a lot of healing that needs to be done to recognize the beauty of our own bodies.  and all of our bodies are beautiful:  to take in the curves, the lines, to sit naked in front of a mirror and giggle at how lovely our bodies really are.  and i want to know how to do that in a way that doesnt reinforce everything we’ve already built up around the socially prescribed concept of “beauty.”  i’ve been thinking it should be woman to woman messaging: when you see a woman out on the street and she smiles and you notice, stop and tell her how radiant she looks.  but even moreso with our friends, appreciate them for all of their complicated woman selves: for their strength and bravery, for their compassion and generosity, for their confidence and honesty.  for whatever it is about them that draws you to them.

women spend so much time being seen as one dimensional.  there is only one time when i feel ugly, when i despise my body, and thats when i am being seen solely based on my appearance.  i remember walking out on a beautiful morning, enjoying the movement of my body, its strength and agility, the power of my thighs as they carried me.  as i walked further, my experience soured from one of self love and joy to almost feeling nauseated.  in the course of my short walk i was seen by more than 30 men, of them maybe 5 looked at me like i was a fellow human being.  all of the others were merely checking me out, sizing me up and passing some judgment on me based on my appearance.

and thats why i think this has to be a female led reclamation.  it is hard for me to trust a man when he tells me i am beautiful, hard for me to know what they mean by it.  all those boys who want to be our allies can support us by checking their own messaging on beauty and deconstructing their paradigms of what is attractive and what is not.  but i think the power lies in women celebrating women.

also, i wan to recognize that this post does not touch on the way beauty as a form of oppression differentially impacts women of color, women with disabilities, or non hetero normative women.  there is so much more in this discussion, just want to get it started.

thats a good daughter: on gender as an illusion

not ten minutes after i put up a facebook status about preparing to hitch hike my mother was texting me asking me where i was going.  i tried to reassure her in that poor media that i was just headed out to twin oaks and had safely and successfully done the trip many times before.  and then i offered to text her when i was safe at my destination.  she wrote back, “that’s a good daughter,” and i couldnt help but laugh.  i quipped back and told her that “i am a bizarre twist on the good daughter.”  she laughed.  touche.

it has been awhile since i’ve hitched and i was that mix of nervous and excited as i tried to figure out what to wear.  i was afraid that my new hair cut–half the hair got buzzed to a quarter of an inch recently–would render me more gender ambiguous than i usually am and diminish my hitch hiking success.  so i threw on a wild bright pink dress and packed some strappy sandals to change into after i’d biked to my sisters place.  but more and more the act of dressing to my gender is becoming increasingly stressful.  it’s not that i dont love throwing on a dress and embracing everything i love about being a woman, but when i have to present myself as a woman in hyper-scrutinized circumstances like hitch hiking, i remember how absurd the gender binary is.

my gender identity is with some frequency a point of contention with strangers.  yesterday, i was walking to my sisters house and stopped to chat with a little girl on her power ranger.  we talked a little bit and then she abruptly and adamantly told me, multiple times, that i was a man.  because men can wear their hair long and only men have mustaches–which is what she considered the whisker like hair on my chin.  i tried to counter her certainty but quickly realized that i didnt actually want to be defending my definition of gender with the arguments at my disposal and, anyways, she was pretty clearly convinced.

but it reminded me of a conversation my housemate relayed to me.  she works at a local market that i frequent and one day a co-worker who had seen her and i together asked about me.  stumbling through a conversation with awkward questions, he asked if i was a transitioning transgender man.  she reassured him that i was woman bodied and identified and i still grew out my chin hair as a nod to embracing my body, every part of it.  until my housemate told me of his line of questioning, i hadn’t even considered the possibility that i would be confused for being transgender.  i found it amusing and frustrating at the same time.

we are still so stuck in the rigidity of gender stereotypes, gender roles and gender presentation that the only wiggle room we get is an ambiguous understanding of that it means to be transgender.  i have been considering playing with that more.  for awhile i’ve been wanting to do something with this unusual physical appearance i embrace.  the idea would be to pluck the hair from one side of my chin, tape down the opposite breast, and create some costume outfit that was part stereotypically male and part stereotypically female.  it seems like now is the time to do it, while my head reflects that split gender presentation.

and even this doesnt feel like exactly what i want to be doing.  i want to represent the possibility of a spectrum of gender identities and there’s something limited in the split presentation piece.  i would be interested in working with others to play with this.

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