Doing our Jobs

As a black, female-bodied, queer, non-cis, big person, I’m getting pretty darn close to winning the “oppression olympics.” But, I have class privilege, and I (mostly) have ability privilege. I’ve been aware of the role of privilege for most of my life.

In 1984, in graduate school, at the tender age of 24, I wanted to volunteer to do something good in the world. So I got involved in this literacy organization in Cleveland, OH, and I taught a black man in Hough, a poor, black neighborhood in east Cleveland. I’d never visited a neighborhood like it before. The public housing was dilapidated, and the empty apartments were boarded up. I never felt unsafe going there and teaching him, and I learned something really important about the lived experience of people who didn’t have the class privilege I had grown up with.

I think it was that experience, more than any, that solidified for me what my job is in this society of layered oppressions. My job in listening to people who are oppressed in the ways that I am not, is really hearing what they say, and altering my worldview, and correcting my speech and behavior as needed based upon what they say. It seems pretty simple and obvious to me. I can’t begin to know what it’s like to grow up without the kind of privileges that I did. I can’t begin to imagine it – but if people tell me, I can change my own attitudes.

So this is my job: when someone without the class or ability privilege I hold tells me something, I listen. I make sure that I spend time looking deeply and my own perspective in the light of this new information. I don’t hold on to my preconceived notions, but I open myself up to understanding more about what it must be like to have that history and experience. And there is a kind of grace in it, really – it’s not just work. It opens to door to love and understanding in a way that nothing else can. And it’s like sowing seeds of justice. And I also know I can’t be perfect at it, and that’s OK too – I allow myself to make mistakes.

I am very lucky to not have been the object of a whole lot of overt racism in my life, except for my brief stint in living in Colorado in the 80’s, where there were two particular incidents where I actually was concerned for my physical safety. One was accidentally running into a post-church breakfast meeting of the Laporte Church of Christ (a white supremacist church) while I was picking up cinnamon rolls for my housemates and friends. (Of course, I’ve been followed in stores, heard car doors lock while I walked by, etc. I tend to ignore those, because it’s healthier for me.)

But over the course of the past week, with the incident at the Charleston church, and the conversations that have followed, I have run into a lot of something else, which has been more painful than I expected. It’s not really racism – it’s certainly not overt racism. I think if you asked these people whether or not they think that everyone should have the same rights and chances, they would say , “Of course, yes.” But they have a kind of complete tone-deafness to the experience of oppressed people (namely, in this case, African-Americans.) They are unwilling to do their job. They are unwilling to listen to the lived and historical experience of people who don’t have the privilege that they do (in this case, white privilege) and have it change their perspectives.

No amount of speaking about loving your enemy, or practicing non-violence, or marching, protesting, vigils, even changing the law, will change the status quo around oppression in our country without all of us doing our jobs. I think that the sea change in the gay rights movement came by people doing their jobs – they finally saw and understood what it meant to be gay in our society, and a lot of them changed their perspectives.

And as I look back on my life, I realize that there have been, and are, a few people in it, acquaintances and friends, who couldn’t, or wouldn’t do their jobs. And I’ve come to the point where I’m really clear that it’s just not acceptable to me anymore.

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What Does it Mean to Be Black?

According to 23andme.com, I have 71.3% Sub-Saharan African DNA, and most of that is West African. This is, of course no surprise, as most of my ancestors on both sides of the family were brought to the New World on slave ships.

But am I black? What does that even mean? I’m asking this question today, in light of the recent events around Rachel Dolezal. I have a lot to say, and this might be kinda long. I generally don’t like to talk about race. You might notice that the vast majority of posts on this blog are not about race. There are several reasons I don’t like to talk about race, and all of the reasons I don’t like to talk about race are going to be in this post.

Let me get one thing out of the way, first. This post isn’t really about Rachel. It’s about race. Rachel, for reasons that only she knows, chose to pass herself off as black for many years, deceiving many people she worked with. Deception of any sort is problematic behavior, and she definitely needs to be held accountable for this deception. And, likely, this deception came of some suffering and pain in her life – and for that, she deserves compassion, and likely needs some psychological/emotional support to make it through what must be an extremely difficult time right now.

Further, I understand why so many people feel betrayed, given the way racial dynamics play out in this country. I don’t actually know if she ended up going further in her life being deceptive as she would have if she actually used her white privilege. I don’t know if it is possible to know, and I don’t know that it matters. What matters is that she betrayed the trust of people who are already the victims of white privilege.

It’s important to reiterate that race doesn’t exist biologically. It is a social construct, largely created from the process of colonialism and the slave trade. There is no such thing as “black” or “white” in terms of biology. The human species is incredibly varied, and some characteristics, such as skin color, eye color, hair, shape of the eyes, etc. vary due to the environmental factors present in those people who lived in certain places for a long period of time. People belonging to one “race” have more genetic variability than people of different “races.”

However, race as a social construct in the United States is extremely powerful, and its power has not diminished since the end of the Civil War. This construct is why some people die at the hands  of police. Why some people can’t get jobs. It creates stark economic inequalities. It is at the core of a system that keeps some people well-fed and in power, while others languish, virtually powerless. It is a construct that is socially pathological, and creates great suffering.

For many years, the “one drop rule” was what governed the decision about whether or not one was black. Rachel seems to come from relatively recent immigrants, but many, many people in the US who identify as white have enough African ancestry to have been in Rachel’s place, and not really be lying. For a thought experiment, let’s take someone who is genetically the reverse of me: who is 71% European, and 27% Sub-Saharan African. It’s quite likely this person could be as blond, light, and straight-haired as Rachel is, and because of that, would be granted white privilege. Would this person be lying, then? What would that be like?

And the cultural construct of “blackness” is, frankly, not entirely imposed from without. It is also imposed from within. The #AskRachel hashtag is a compendium of multiple choice questions about black culture with the idea that because Rachel is really white, she’d fail them. Well, guess what? I can’t answer most of them! She might actually be able to answer more of them than I can.

It may be that most mainstream (read:white) culture can’t quite imagine a black, geeky, Buddhist-leaning scientist/science-fiction writer/theologian who likes to build circuits and help women with relationships. But the truth is, it’s mostly unimaginable inside of black culture, too. One of the most fabulous things that has arisen out of the age of the internet are websites like “Black Girl Nerds.” When I was a black, geeky girl and young adult, I was bullied incessantly (both physically and verbally) for not being “black enough.” It even went on later – I remember with some clarity an event that happened 20 years ago when I was a professor. There was a black student I had talked to in depth over the phone about a program I was helping to run. When I finally met her in person, she looked at me with some disdain, and said, “I was sure you were white.” It stung. The #AskRachel hashtag is an unfortunate reminder of that side of my history.

Just because race is meaningless in a biological sense, doesn’t seem to change anyone’s mind about its cultural significance. As a resident of the United States, and having the skin color, body, and hair that I have, I am labeled “black.” I can’t choose anything else. I don’t get to define myself. I think I’ve done pretty well being able to be who I am, but it doesn’t mean it has been easy.

There has also been a fair amount of talk comparing Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner. It is such an interesting question to me, because there are many levels to look at that issue. The first, most obvious, is, well, no, they are nothing alike. Based on varied reporting, Rachel knew she was being deceptive. It wasn’t a matter of who she really felt she authentically was.

But go just a little deeper. Race, like gender and sexuality, is a cultural construct. How fluid do we get to be? How much do we get to define ourselves? Some feminists (not me) feel that trans women are just men pretending to be women, and don’t deserve to call themselves women. Back to that thought experiment – does someone with 27% Sub-Saharan African descent get to call themselves black? Is what matters that you can’t pass? What about appropriation? Many people have pointed to Rachel as an extreme example of cultural appropriation. Is there such a thing as gender appropriation?

Ultimately, the most important things to me around self-definition are honesty, integrity, and self-examination. If you have the honesty to speak your own truth, the integrity to take responsibility for the deep and wide social implications of your self-definitions, the self-examination to really look at what’s going on emotionally and psychologically underneath self-definition, then, yeah, you get to define yourself however you damn well please. Rachel certainly didn’t pass that test.

 

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Beyond Gender Essentialism

556cd6644ae56e586e4588d8_caitlyn-jenner-bruce-jenner-july-2015-vfI’ve been thinking and reading about gender issues a lot in the last few weeks. Actually, I’ve been thinking a lot about gender since I was five years old, wearing a dress that didn’t feel right to me. Today, I read an op-ed in the New York Times, by Elinor Burkett, called “What Makes a Woman?” This basically internecine warfare between some feminists and some trans advocates is sad, unfortunate, and, extremely understandable.

First off, feminists have been fighting for as long as feminism has existed for women especially to have a chance to live whatever lives they want to live, wear whatever they want to wear, and take whatever role, be however it is they want to be. Men have been implicitly (or, for some feminist theorists, explicitly) included in that idea as well. Men should also get to play the roles they want to play, and live the lives they want to live. Men are as bound by our culture’s gender divide as women are.

The rub has come when some folks who were raised as one gender feel deeply (and authentically) like they belong to the other gender. The most recent group of famous trans women, including Janet Mock, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, have, for their own reasons, chosen a particularly feminine presentation. Presentation is not necessarily related to role, but it is, in our society, a proxy. When you see a woman dressed like Caitlyn Jenner, your enculturated brain thinks about traditional female roles, not male roles, even though dress really has nothing to do with behavior.

And there is the sense that when people feel that they are one gender trapped in a different gender’s body, it somehow reifies the idea that there are only two genders (with their attendant roles), and you have to choose one. And that is an idea that most feminists, for good reason, abhor.

I’m not saying that trans people are actually saying this- in fact, I think it’s likely that most don’t agree with that statement aboveBut that doesn’t change the perception, and it is a part of the conflict.

The deepest part of the conflict, explored in that op-ed, is the idea that the experience of being born a woman is essentially different than being born male and given male privilege. And that even if you become a woman later, it doesn’t change the essential role that a gendered environment plays. She said:

“You can’t pick up a brain and say ‘that’s a girl’s brain’ or ‘that’s a boy’s brain,’ ” Gina Rippon, a neuroscientist at Britain’s Aston University, told The Telegraph last year. The differences between male and female brains are caused by the “drip, drip, drip” of the gendered environment, she said.

THE drip, drip, drip of Ms. Jenner’s experience included a hefty dose of male privilege few women could possibly imagine. While young “Bruiser,” as Bruce Jenner was called as a child, was being cheered on toward a university athletic scholarship, few female athletes could dare hope for such largess since universities offered little funding for women’s sports. When Mr. Jenner looked for a job to support himself during his training for the 1976 Olympics, he didn’t have to turn to the meager “Help Wanted – Female” ads in the newspapers, and he could get by on the $9,000 he earned annually, unlike young women whose median pay was little more than half that of men. Tall and strong, he never had to figure out how to walk streets safely at night.

Those are realities that shape women’s brains.

Of course, this is all true. However, what the article didn’t say is that the drip, drip, drip of trying to fit into a gender you don’t think matches who you are affects your brain, too.  The experience of not fitting in to gender expectations is as important as the experience of being oppressed for being female. Different, but as important. (And although I don’t identify as trans, that drip, drip, drip has had far more influence on me than the experience of being oppressed because I was born female.)

Ultimately, though, there is this sense of losing something. Another quote from the op-ed:

But as the movement becomes mainstream, it’s growing harder to avoid asking pointed questions about the frequent attacks by some trans leaders on women’s right to define ourselves, our discourse and our bodies. After all, the trans movement isn’t simply echoing African-Americans, Chicanos, gays or women by demanding an end to the violence and discrimination, and to be treated with a full measure of respect. It’s demanding that women reconceptualize ourselves.

Actually, that’s the point, right? Now that men (who were born as women and still have all the equipment) can have babies, it is time to reconceptualize gender. The advance of science means that it may well be that in 50 or 100 years, the chromosomes or genitalia you were born with will have no bearing on your reproductive role or capacity.

Maybe it feels like it’s somehow too soon. Women haven’t fully become equal in our society, so maybe it feels like we’re giving something up. But giving up gender as static, binary, and essential is, in my opinion, the point of feminism, and the only way for everyone regardless of gender to get full inclusion. That probably feels really hard to some feminists, who have fought long and hard for women’s autonomy, agency, and safe space. But I think it’s the only way forward.

 

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