Why Do We Still Have Zoos?

The uproar around what happened in Cincinnati reminded me of my extremely ambivalent relationship to zoos. When I was a kid, I loved going to the zoo. I really enjoyed watching the animals, and learning about animals I’d probably never see elsewhere. As I got older, I got more and more uncomfortable about zoos, and about the lives most animals lead in zoos.

Zoos have a history not unlike many other parts of our society – a history based on both privilege and colonialism. Zoos started their history as “Royal Menageries” showing off the exotic animals of far-away lands – lands often colonialized. Zoos in general weren’t open to the public until the 18th century. Human beings, usually Africans or Native Americans,  were often in zoos even into the early 20th century. In the modern era, we think of zoos primarily as institutions dedicated to preserving endangered animals, and studying wildlife, but of course zoos make most of their revenue from visits from the public.

Of course, human beings have extremely complicated relationships to animals. Some animals we keep for food, others we keep as pets. Some are hunted, some are not. Some we think are really cute, others we kill when we see them. Our decisions about which animals are expendable and which aren’t is based on a very convoluted rubric of dangerousnes (or whether they are considered pests,) use to humans, and history. And, of course, between and within cultures, there is a wide range of attitudes about animals, sometimes consistent, and largely not.

Of course, there is the completely arbitrary separation of “humans” and “animals.” We are animals, and share 99% of our DNA with our closest relatives. Many animals and birds have intellects that are on par with human children. Some animals (such as cetaceans and elephants) might have intelligences that rival ours. And of course the whole notion of “intelligence” is completely constructed by us, and our own ways of being and doing and thinking are privileged when assessing intelligence.

But on the whole, with some rare exceptions (such as the Jains,) humans have been putting our needs before the needs of non-human animals for a very long time, perhaps forever.  Now truthfully, that’s not so surprising, given our evolutionary history as omnivores, nor is it necessarily problematic in a general sense. I think when it gets problematic are two things, one, when we forget that animals feel pain and emotions. And we forget how to compassionately and sustainably use the planet’s resources, including non-human animals. When we don’t take these into consideration, we create monstrosities, and in my opinion, zoos are one.

Of course, some zoos are better than others, but the things they all have in common is that the animals are 1) Generally in climates and ecosystems different than the one they are evolved to live in 2) Not free to wander very far, or free to choose their mates, develop their family groups or choose companions and 3) exposed to a human gaze most of the time. And I know that every single person would not find that kind of life a happy one (cue reference to “Planet of the Apes.”)

One thing I’ve heard a lot in this brou-ha-ha is that the zoos are one of the only places we can try to save some endangered species. And why is that? Why can’t we really address the loss of habitat, the effect of colonialization, and the environmental disaster we’ve created.

I feel for the mother, and I feel for the gorilla, it’s sad all around, and it’s also true that sometimes shit happens. But from my perspective, we’re not asking the right questions.

 

 

 

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The Greed, Hate and Delusion of Donald Trump

As many people have, I have been transfixed by this unfolding train wreck that is the candidacy of Donald Trump. For many months, I giggled gleefully at all the late-night jokes on YouTube (the hair, the tan, his small hands, etc.,) and felt satisfying schadenfreude at the rich elites of the Republican party getting hoist by their own petard of 40-odd years of the Southern Strategy. But now that he is the official nominee of their party, and is one Clinton campaign misstep away from being president, I’m not laughing anymore. (In the unlikely event that Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic Nomination, I will breathe much more easily, since his poll numbers in swing states are much better than Hillary’s.)

Make no mistake about it: Donald Trump could in fact be the next president of the United States. I know, it makes me shudder with disbelief. I don’t drink much, and haven’t gotten drunk in more years than I can count, but I have to admit that the simple idea of a Trump inauguration makes me feel like getting shitfaced. Hardly the contemplative spiritual response, but there you have it.

But, speaking of contemplative spirituality, I’m pondering the meaning of his candidacy, much more deeply than simply either, “he’s a brilliant narcissist who is just doing it for the lulz,” or “he knows what buttons to push in people.” Both of those things are true, but what’s underneath all of that for those who support him?

Greed, hate and delusion are called The Three Poisons in Buddhism. They are also called “attachment, aversion and ignorance,” but for modern, western ears, greed, hatred and delusion might make more sense. They are called the three poisons because they are, in Buddhist philosophy, what causes suffering. More than that, these three are also called “the three unwholesome roots” because they are considered the root of all other negative states of mind.

The seven deadly sins of Christianity are really just another way of packaging these. Three of the seven (lust, gluttony, greed) are really the same as greed in the Buddhist sense. Envy and pride are delusion, and wrath is hatred. So, the seven deadly sins are actually also the three poisons.

I don’t actually think greed is especially primary for Trump’s followers. I think it’s primary for him, but not his followers. Hatred, perhaps, is primary for his followers (and not, actually, for him.) Trump certainly knows how to encourage the hatred that is likely already present in his supporters. His followers are primarily “struggling” white voters, mostly not college educated, and mostly in “old economy” jobs, who have a serious authoritarian streak38% of Trump supporters in South Carolina wished that the South had won the Civil War, and another 38% aren’t sure.

Then there is delusion. Most (60%) of Trump supporters think Obama is a Muslim. And according to that poll, 6% (6%!!!) think he’s a Christian (I know, after all that bru-haha about his pastor way back when!) And, of course, there is simply the delusion of thinking that Trump would make a competent president. Nothing, absolutely nothing about his professional life examined with a clear eye would suggest it.

So why is he so popular? It isn’t because people want to suffer. It’s because they are suffering already, and can’t move beyond hatred, delusion and perhaps a bit of greed to see clearly what’s happening.

As I talked about in my last post, we all do need saving, and in this particular moment, we need saving from a possible presidency of Donald Trump (I don’t even want to list all of the many bad things that will probably happen if he is elected.) Obviously, on a basic level, more people need to get out and vote for whoever is the alternative. But more than that – the only thing keeping us from doing this yet another time, with someone who’s even smarter and more charismatic than Trump, is by learning how not to be poisoned.

 

 

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My Salvation Theology

If you know much about me, you know my soteriology (salvation theology)  is not anywhere near small-o orthodox Christian. (Actually, it’s much, much closer to the soteriology of big-O Orthodox Christianity.) I’m sorry. I just can’t possibly worship a god for whom “justice” is eternal torture for unbelievers, or anyone, for that matter. And since I’m not a trinitarian, for me Jesus was a child born out of wedlock who grew up to be an incredible dude, way, way more in touch with God than just about any of us can manage.

I was on retreat last weekend, and I suddenly had a much bigger picture about what salvation is, and what it means (to me, of course. I can’t speak for you.) We live in a time that is precarious. We actually do need saving. Desperately. Between the suffering caused by the hatred and delusion of the -isms, to the greed and delusion that destroys the earth and impoverishes billions, we need salvation.

Carl Sagan once commented that one answer to the Fermi Paradox (the paradox that the galaxy must have the capacity for abundant intelligent life, but we haven’t met any of them yet) was that once a species gets to some level of intelligence, they are likely to do themselves in (we certainly are well on our way.) I was connecting that to the work I do in the world, helping people become more conscious, by among other things, tame their reptilian brain with mindfulness.

Could it be that the core issue of the evolutionary leap to sustainable intelligence is how we make it from a life where we needed those old neural circuits to survive, and a life (like now) when they just get in our way, and in fact, become self-destructive? And of course, what’s so interesting is that there is so much wisdom, in nearly every religion, that can help us do this. Yes, Buddhism is probably the one that’s got the most well developed system, but the mystical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, as well as mystical and shamanic traditions from all over have this wisdom. Wisdom that can help us get past the greed, hatred and delusion greatly fostered by the evolutionarily older circuits in our brains.  The core is this: What if every action anyone took were acts of compassion and/or love? What if we could be free of fear and greed? What if we chose to receive what is given by nature as a gift, rather than taken for granted? What kind of world would we create then? That’s salvation.

Jesus said,

This is also the reason for sickness and death, because you embrace what deceives you. Consider these matters, then, with your spiritual intellect. Attachment to matter gives birth to passion without an Image of itself because it is drawn from that which is contrary to its higher nature. The result is that confusion and disturbance resonates throughout one’s whole being. It is for this reason that I told you to find contentment at the level of the heart, and if you are discouraged, take heart in the presence of the Image of your true nature. Those with ears, let them hear this. (Gospel of Mary 3:7-13)

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So You Want to Start a Internet Biz and/or Coaching Practice? 12 Things

This article is a culmination of experience I’ve gained over the past 2.5 years in starting the business “Conscious Girlfriend” with my partner. Conscious Girlfriend is a largely online (with some live components) business, geared toward lesbians & queer women, teaching them skills to find the right partners, and be the right partners. This article is geared toward anyone doing an online business that sells coaching or courses in the personal growth realm. This is not geared toward people doing business coaching or online marketing, and not for people who are in this largely for the money, and think of “6 figures” or “7 figures” as an essential goal. If you are in those categories, there are gazillions of other resources. 

Some of these things are things I wish I’d known, some I’m glad I learned along the way, and wasn’t warned about (otherwise, I might not have gone ahead and done this thing.)

  1. It takes time. For everyone. Years of time.  It took us about 1.5 years before the business was sort-of sustainable (that is, would start to pay *our* bills, not just the businesses bills.) It’s still a bit touch and go at times, but it’s basically working.
  2. Absorb a lot from the big online marketing/enrollment people, but don’t pay for it (we did, so you don’t have to!) Sign up on the mailing lists of Marisa Murgatroyd, Jeff Walker, Lisa Sasevitch, Bill Baron, etc. Listen to their webinars, read their guides, read their blogs, etc.  There are a lot of great ideas, and there is a lot of useful stuff that they give away (or put in books which are cheap) and a lot you can absorb.  The programs of these folks are geared so strongly in the direction of teaching other business coaches and online marketers (even if they say otherwise,) so don’t bother with their programs that cost hundreds or thousands, because they are likely to be a waste of your money, unless you are a biz coach or online marketer yourself (and if so, you shouldn’t be reading this!) Save your $ for item 6.
  3. Get Feedly, and load it up with RSS feeds from online marketers and social media marketers, other people in your niche or related niches (I read a lot of straight relationship blogs,) and research and resources that relate to your practice. Read. A lot. I mean, a lot. And then read some more.
  4. Even when you find your niche, you also have a sub-niche. People who are really, really right for you. It might take you a while to figure out who they are, but here’s a clue: they are a lot like you.
  5. Join the mailing lists of other services/coaches in your niche. Figure out how you are different. Figure out the expertise you bring (whether it’s educational, spiritual or experience) that sets you apart, and who would be drawn to that difference. Focus your efforts on that. Don’t even try to serve everyone in your niche (unless it’s extremely tiny.)
  6. Get a business coach (I have one I can suggest, there are many great ones that work with folks in this realm.) One who is affordable (i.e. won’t cost more than a couple of hundred for a coaching session, or a couple of thou for a solid coaching package), who groks you and what you’re trying to do, who doesn’t follow a cookie-cutter system, and who has lots of ideas, and is focused on helping you measure and experiment, to see what works, and what doesn’t work. There are all sorts of systems you can find out about, like funnels, launches, etc., but no one (I mean no one) can tell you what exactly will work for you and how, except you, by trial and error.
  7. You’ll need a solid tech infrastructure. I’m lucky, I was a web developer for years, and so I have a good solid understanding of how all of this gets put together. But even with that background, it took me a while to get to the tech structure smoothed out. But there will be glitches, and problems, and if you don’t know technical stuff, you’ll need help. It can be really simple, like weebly + paypal, but it has to be well thought out, solid, and TESTED. We currently use WordPress + MailChimp + WooCommerce + Stripe, and Square for payments live and on the phone. Works like a charm. Oh, and if you use WordPress, pay someone to do the updates and maintenance for you (I have a suggestion for that, too.)
  8. Remember, every day, why you are doing this work. Don’t let yourself get lost in the business.
  9. Take lots of time off, you’ll be more productive when you’re working. I work 4 8-10 hour days per week, with one 5 day weekend a month, and 1 week-long vacation a quarter. That’s more than enough work time. Really. More time at work does not equal more things accomplished.
  10. There will be clients that aren’t happy. Do your best to be compassionate and fair. Listen to what they tell you is wrong, and be willing to change. Sometimes, refunds are an act of generosity. But also, hold good boundaries.
  11. Commit to being a student. Be willing to always learn new things,  and learn how to serve your clients better. Your clients will notice.
  12. Don’t forget to love yourself, and take care of yourself.
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Pronouns

It’s national coming out day. It will come as no surprise to any of you that I’m queer/lesbian. I’ve been able to be out and proud about that since the mid 1980’s – a combination of family acceptance, and living in places and doing work where it was accepted. And now, not only am I publicly out, but I make my living helping queer women (out, or not) have better relationships.

What you also probably know, as I’ve made mention of it several times, is that although I don’t identify as trans, I’m genderqueer. What does that mean, exactly? For me, it simply means that my own personal, embodied gender, is complicated. I’m not a man stuck in a woman’s body, but I am also not just simply a woman. I’m both, and neither. The term “agender” doesn’t really work for me, because I don’t feel without gender. I guess Bigender works better, but somehow, that doesn’t really fit either. Two-spirit would work, but alas, I don’t actually get to call myself that. Had I been born 40 years later than I was, how I get to form and define myself as a human being probably would be a lot different (and, likely, a whole lot easier.) But being 56, having lived as a woman for my life, and having been formed largely in the lesbian feminist 80s, it’s a bit more challenging.

For most of this year, I have been pondering pronouns. The funny thing about pronouns is that you rarely hear people speak yours in your actual presence. But anyway, getting to choose one’s preferred pronoun is important, and it’s important that people respect the pronoun you’ve chosen. I have to admit to occasionally flubbing it up, especially if I’ve known someone for a while, but I do my very best to remember (and apologize if appropriate.)

And I deeply (deeply) resent the fact that the English language does not have a gender-neutral pronoun except for “they/their.” I have to admit I have a block about that one – I know it’s technically correct, but it just feels so impersonal and strange. I’ve gotten much more used to using it, as I know several people for whom that is their pronoun, but I just can’t make it mine. I’d make “ze/hir” my preferred pronoun if anyone (well, besides those in the know) actually knew it, and used it on regular occasions. But it has not made it into the mainstream.  Nor has “xe” or “per” or any other.

So basically, I have come around to this: I don’t really have a preferred pronoun. Use ze/hir if you want to – I guess in a way that’s a preference, but it’s not really so hard and fast. I’d be totally fine if you used she, he, they, zie, xe, per, or whatever you want. Have fun. Play with it (yes, I realize this paragraph is going to drive some of you nuts, but this is how it feels to be me.)

Ze woke up in the morning, looking at her clock. It was earlier than he wanted to get up, but then xe realized their appointment in the morning was cancelled. “Ah,” she thought. He turned over, and went back to sleep.

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Curb Your Adrenaline, Change The World

One of the things I do a lot these days is teach women how to heal conflict. One of the hallmarks of conflict in relationships is that we start from a place of being triggered, which leads to words and actions that we will indeed regret later. Those reactions can be hurtful, self-sabotaging, and deeply damage relationships, sometimes immediately, sometimes over time.

Why does this happen? It happens because of a little part of your brain called the Amygdala. That part of your brain is the one responsible for keeping you alive. Yes, that’s right. What happens when we get triggered is our brains get ready for action. Your body is flooded with adrenaline (and some other stuff,) and your brain thinks you are dealing with a life-threatening event. Even if the stimulus (a partner’s comment, an action or inaction, a Facebook Post) is relatively innocuous, your brain decides it’s a life-or-death situation. And then, the Amygdala does something really interesting. It hijacks traffic to your neocortex (that is, the thinking, wise part of your brain.) So when you are triggered, you actually aren’t thinking. And your actions and words are not rational, and likely to be destructive, or at least not constructive.

I was boiling in the soup of my own triggers in dealing with Facebook over the last few days, and I realized that our methodology to heal conflict within couples might actually be useful in a much broader context. So I figured I’d outline it, and you can try it out, and see what you think.

The process is called “SCORE”. It has 5 steps:

S: Step back into yourself. Breathe. Notice the feelings in your body. Breathe some more. Disconnect from the story (she said… he did…) and focus on how your body is feeling.

C: Connect with yourself with compassion. The feelings you are feeling (hurt, fear, anger, sadness, guilt) are OK. They are really fine, and you are fine, no matter what you are feeling. You are loved and lovable, no matter what you are feeling.

O: Observe the feeling. Investigate the Origin of the feeling. What’s happening in your body? What body sensations are there. Can you name the feeling? Does it feel familiar? Get to know it a little.

R: Remember your Responsibility for the feeling. Relinquish responsibility for other’s feelings. This feeling you are feeling is yours. It was triggered by something someone else did or said, but it is your feeling – it is a response of your brain and body. It is within you. And, you need to relinquish responsibility for anyone else’s feelings – those feelings are theirs, a response of their brains and bodies, within them.

E: Experience Empowerment. If you’ve gone through these steps, you have undone your Amygdala hijack, and so your neocortex is back online. And you are holding yourself with compassion, and have a better understanding of the feeling that got triggered. Perhaps you remember that it reminded you of something from childhood, or a past event. When you’ve gone through this process, you can decide what, if any, action needs to be taken. Your words and actions are much more likely to be compassionate and constructive.

I know this is probably kinda “touchy feely” for a lot of activist folks, but it’s actually based on science (with a bit of scientifically-validated Buddhism thrown in.) I think it could be really helpful, whatever your work in the world is. Whether you are triggered by an experience of racism, or you are triggered by an experience of being called out on something you said or did, this can be really helpful. And I bet the “R” step will be hard for some people to swallow. I know, because I often feel at the mercy of external events, until I remember that I’m actually not.

And the “C” step, self-compassion, is way more important than you think. Cultivating self-compassion is actually one highway to being able to feel more compassion for others. And lots of people feeling more compassion for others… well, that’s when the world changes.

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Bernie Sanders and Me

I grew up in a household of politically active people. Both of my parents were involved in politics and cared about politics. Local and national politics were dinner table conversation. It still is when see each other. As I was growing up, politics was seen as a reasonable avenue to real change, and in fact, certainly in the 60s, for African Americans, it was. But the game is, and, in a sense, has always been, rigged. There have been moments when the control of the government wasn’t quite fully in the hands of the elite, but largely, it has been, since our founding, and is increasingly so. The Citizens United decision made much more real and open what had been going on for many years more in the background.

When the health care bill passed, even though I was thankful it gave me health insurance I’d not been able to get, it was utterly clear that it was designed as a boon for health insurers and big pharma. It was not the single-payer system many of us had hoped and fought for. For a while now, I have been disillusioned that national politics is any force for real change that will actually help non-rich Americans.

In my life, I’ve done my share of volunteering for presidential candidates. In the fall of 1972, at the tender age of 13, I sold buttons for McGovern. I volunteered for the Mondale/Ferraro campaign in the 80s, volunteered for Al Gore in 2000, and Obama in 2008. I sat out 2012, and I assumed I was going to sit 2016, and every election afterwards. Hillary Clinton, fed and watered by Wall Street, might be mouthing populist rhetoric, but she was likely going to be even less able and willing to change anything for the better than Obama is. Elizabeth Warren intelligently decided to sit this out, and no other Democrats seemed to be much different than Hillary. Let’s not even talk about the Republican field, there is no point, except to make fun of them.

But then along comes Bernie. I’ve followed him ever since he was the first socialist U.S. Representative from Vermont, my second favorite state (after California, of course.) I’ve followed him because I’m basically a socialist, too (well on the borderline of democratic socialist and social libertarian, for what it’s worth.) He’s one of the very few politicians I actually respect. You always know where he stands, and he never dissembles. Rambles, OK, yeah, but he’s a truth-teller. And his very, very long history speaks for itself in it’s consistency.

I’ve been helping to facilitate national conference calls for the nascent “African Americans for Bernie Sanders” group. The goal of this group is to educate African Americans about him and his positions (most African Americans are supporting Hillary,) as well as show that there are people in our community supporting him because of those positions.

There is a lot going on now around his campaign and issues of race. He’s gotten into tough spots with #Blacklivesmatter  protesters.  I have to admit that I have been feeling torn because of my wholehearted support for his candidacy. #Blacklivesmatter is a movement I care about, and a movement I respect. And it’s been a little strange to see Bernie, who is really the candidate who is most likely to actually do something about the extreme over-use of deadly force by police than any other candidate, be the first target of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. My colleague in the African Americans for Bernie group wrote a strongly worded blog post about the whole issue. I don’t agree with all of it, and it comes from a particular perspective, but it’s worth reading. I’m glad to see #Blacklivesmatter move on to targets I think are a lot more appropriate.

And of course, Bernie is not perfect. He has an unfortunate record on gun control. (Although, honestly, I have yet to figure out a way to square my own anti-authoritarian, libertarian notions with my abhorrence for the manufacture of weapons.) And he’s a long shot. Long shot to win the primaries, and a long shot to win the election. And, finally, of course, he is not going to bring our patriarchal, white supremacist, voracious, earth-consuming capitalist system down. That’s going to happen anyway – it will fall under it’s own weight–it’s already falling. But at least in the meantime, we can support someone who isn’t beholden to the oligarchs, and has a real record about doing things for people who aren’t rich, and easing the lives of those who’s lives are most difficult.

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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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