Archive for the ‘How We Communicate’ Category


Snapshot: Hi Again, Joan.


JoanWhen you’ve been lurking around ‪#‎OKCupid‬ as long as I have, you develop this strange digital neighborhood of familiar faces: not close enough to be a “community” or send Christmas cards, but people you know, people you saw on the street that one time but didn’t approach, people you always wanted to message but didn’t, people who message you often but with no rhyme or reason. And sometimes, there are even people who live on the other side of the world, have never messaged you, have never made contact in any way, and yet drop by regularly enough that you start to ascribe them a personality, maybe even a story.

Joan here has been my unspoken pen pal for as long as OKC has shown you your visitors (‪#‎backinmyday‬ they called them “Stalkers”, but it was okay because that’s how you’d be described if you visited their profile…). She still has the same profile pic. I haven’t looked at her profile in 5+ years, easily, but she still comes around several times a year to see what’s shaking, maybe track my poly adventures, maybe ogle my newer pics.

It’s quite possible that Joan has a long list of favorites and she cycles through them constantly, obsessively but without objective, and there are so many she only reaches me every few months. Or maybe she only cycles through when she’s lonely, a relationship has gone sour, and she’s hoping against hope to make a connection with one of these fine fellows, if only ONE of them would reach out first (but Joan wouldn’t, couldn’t, be first).

But… I don’t know… I like to think Joan and I have something special.

Maybe we’ve moved beyond that youthful transatlatic crush, and her visits express only the familiar nod of experience. There aren’t many profiles as old as ours still around (let alone profile pics! We get it, Joan, you’re a tiger…). We’re the old guard. We knew what OKC was like when nobody was poly, but those who were COMMITTED to it. Not like kids these days.

Still I never message her. We’re pretty much beyond the stage where words even matter, aren’t we? This is the hallway nod of the internet. “S’up.” Not a question. An affirmation.

“I see you.”

Hi again, Joan.

I see you, too.


Social Media, Self-harm, and the Gambler’s Ruin


In all of my totes-academic 2nd- and 3rd-hand reading, Michael Crichton once introduced me to the concept of “The Gambler’s Ruin”, sort of a piece of chaos theory that states winning streaks and losing streaks are inevitable, and each will get longer and more impactful the longer a person gambles. Accordingly, the secret to good gambling is not really how you gamble or how you bet, it’s knowing when to quit (i.e., near the end of a hot streak).

Feels a lot like Social Media, doesn’t it? I’ve been a power user for years, and I’ve known that there are good days and bad days and bad weeks and bad years… I’ve known that sometimes the most important support I can get is the support to take some time off the Internet (especially the social parts of it), especially when it starts to feel like I can’t catch a break. I’ve also seen the “winning streaks”, the days where the stars and pixels align and I am inundated with all the support and affirmation and cute animal pics I could have ever asked of the Internet just when I need them most.

Of course, the more I win, the more I want to win, and sure enough, I don’t get out in time.

The other day, I pointed out the parallels between social media and The Gambler’s Ruin to a lover who happens to be a counselor, and she backed up my half-joke with a serious factoid: social media has been proven to stimulate dopamine in the same way as does gambling.

I can’t think of a clever phrase that encapsulates the correlation (“The Facebook Ruin?” “The Gambler’s Timeline?”), but clearly this is A THING.

I’m also thinking about how susceptible I’ve become to negativity in activism. I’m never in on the victories because my circumstances prevent a high enough level of participation at this time, but boy am I in on the losses and the squabbles along the way. I’ve had to start saying that activism is self-harm for me in my current context (caregiving). The more I think about it, the more I think it’s just online activism that is self-harm. I can convene with interested parties, help people network, educate on important issues, and even attend a rally or something and not feel worse for it. It’s just the link sharing and flame wars that get me into heart-achy territory.

I guess online activism (especially without any offline support or involvement) is also susceptible to The Gambler’s Ruin, and it is a game at which I am particularly bad.

In accordance with my philosophy of Imperfectionism, I am posting this as soon as it is finished, with almost no revision, second-guessing, or elaboration of my quirky sense of logic. The Michael Crichton book in question was The Lost World, which is basically a book on logic and an errata on Jurassic Park disguised as an unnecessary (and highly profitable) sequel. It’s nothing like the movie, and therefor I highly recommend it.


After the Victory Lap, Take a Moment for Hindsight


Please, please, please celebrate all weekend. Then next week, or the week after, or say the end of summer at the latest, come back and contemplate this:

One of the secondary victories of today is that a wedge issue has been decimated.

Same-sex marriage did not become a national issue in the hands of the people who wanted those marriages, but in the hands of people who either A) wanted to extra-double-ban those marriages and/or B) pretend to do A just to get more conservative reactionaries into the polls.

As this tactic eventually led to backlash from LGBT communities and their allies, the added a C) divert activists and resources into turning that backlash into a movement, invariably at the cost of many other issues along the way. It’s not that this fight wasn’t important or necessary, it’s that a lot was sacrificed along the way.

In the nineteen years since the first shot was fired over same-sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, conservatism has run roughshod over almost every other issue in this country: education cuts, military spending, suffocating access to abortion, getting away with torture and wiretapping, dismantling net neutrality, media conglomeration, (lack of) finance reform, privatization, skewed trade agreements, the dismantling of American unions, the prison-industrial complex, bastardizing healthcare reform, and stalling out immigration reform.

In the time that we succeeded in having a national conversation over the right to marry, we have failed to have a national conversation over the fatality of being black in this country, the dehumanization of trans people, the quality of veteran care, the militarization of police, the urgency of climate change, waste and unsustainable practices in food/water/housing, the inadequacies of our two-party political representation, or whether $7.25 is anywhere close to a “living” wage.

Marriage equality has even created some fractures among the people it is supposed to benefit, LGBTQA-identified individuals. Some of the most prominent organizations fighting for marriage have been inconsistent at best and complicit at worst about trans erasure; their biggest campaigns have frequently failed to include perspectives of poverty, people of color, and immigrants, and change that is not intersectional is hardly change at all.

I put forth that marriage equality was inevitable, and that the most cynical of conservative strategists have always known so. Their battle, then, was never to prevent same-sex marriage, but to drag it out as long as possible, to normalize gay and lesbian relationships as little and as begrudgingly as possible (thanks in part to media and entertainment industries that could always be counted upon to show these relationships in the whitest, wealthiest, and most traditionally attractive ways, so that only a narrow expression of them became commonplace), to mobilize conservative voters with this single issue whenever possible, and to leverage this highly visible battle into real, long-term political consequences that slipped under the radar on pretty much every other front.

I don’t say any of this to steal a single tiny thunderbolt from this huge and hard-fought victory. All I’m saying is that now that this wedge has been defeated, we can’t lose momentum. We can’t decide to stay home now and keep our contributions to ourselves; those same cynical conservative strategists have already picked the next eight battles if we let them continue to set the narratives. Just look how fast they were ready to sacrifice the Confederate flag once the topic came around to gun control one too many time.

A lot of other hard battles are ready and waiting for you to carry your enthusiasm, your time, you money into the next struggle for equality, so don’t spend it all on celebrating. There’s still work to be done. Pick someone whose life doesn’t look like yours and listen to what they tell you they need. Those cheap equal-sign stickers will still be on your car in a month; who will they re-humanize next?


PSA: It’s Okay to Laugh


[I drafted this a few weeks back, tweaked it a little, and shared it with a trusted source who thought it was even better than I did when I drafted it. I feel like it needs a lot more work than I am willing to give it, so in the spirit of Imperfectionism, I’m just going to post it as is.]

If you think about it, White Guilt is pretty damn hilarious.

From the stance of marginalized people, the notion that a visible status and some restless pushback can disrupt the individuals with power better than generations of ardent resistance must cause more than a couple of stifled giggles (in the head-shaking sense that one must laugh so as not to cry).

From the stance of people who believe in the power structures that exist, that poor people deserve to starve and people of wealth deserve to have their personal security regarded as a public matter and that no trained cop has ever, ever shot the wrong kid for the wrong reason, the idea that the people who hold that power should feel guilty is a notion worthy of derision.

From the pragmatic, those who perhaps know that systems are unequal but are just trying to get by and don’t make it a personal mission, the weight of oppression is optional and emotional, and how ever is guilt going to get the children fed and the roads paved? [snicker]

From the bleeding hearts, we vocal white liberals, White Guilt is a trap that either catches oneself (evoking nervous laughter) or gives chase unceasingly (evoking smug laughter until we fall and it inevitably catches us).

White Guilt finally caught up with me last year, when the strain of caregiving and other personal struggles forced me to pull away from activism; I was left alone to cross-reference the intersections of my white privilege (which I more or less handle sanely) and my male privilege (which I can hardly say I handle at all…) and started seeing very uncomfortable patterns in my dating and, for lack of a better term, “ally” behaviors.

The greatest laugh of White Guilt is that it laughs at you when it takes away your sense of humor.

For the thousands of privileged people on the Internet clamoring so desperately to be accepted as “one of the good ones”, the easiest gesture to make is to call out others’ bad behavior without ever looking within. Denounce the racist fraternities, but not the academic culture that overlooked them for generations. Stop following whatever privileged writer has been newly declared “problematic” without taking the time to re-examine why you loved them in the first place. Swoop in on other people’s social media, declare their privilege is showing and they should read some bell hooks, then swoop out before they ask for clarification (or specifics).

People of color have no obligation to educate white folks, and I’m “one of the good ones”, so that kind of applies to me too! 

Are we sure we’re not the subject of someone’s satire? Because it seems pretty ridiculous…

The truth is, with the right perspective, just about anything can be funny. Those of us who want to be aware of our privilege should take extra care not to laugh at the expense of those less fortunate than ourselves, but that does not mean the paradigm itself is not rife with comedic potential. It’s a matter of getting the right joke.

Personally, I’ve been at this a long time, but I still struggle at times to keep perspective. I should know by now that any time I can’t laugh at SOMETHING, I’m probably not in a healthy mindset. And I’m so used to looking at the big picture, the intersections, the gravitas of everything touching upon everything else, that I actually have to encourage myself to seek out the humor in mundane moments.

As a caregiver, there are plenty of these moments, where I only take myself and my situation seriously at my own peril.

I often find myself tweeting ludicrous scenarios from my caregiving adventures. I do so partly because I use my hashtag as an archive, so that one day I might come back and make sense of how these years reshape me. I do so partly because moments are poignant, and a moment recognized is a moment when I stood still and looked around.

I also do so to share a laugh.

A few people have told me that my social circle has likely evaporated because people don’t know how to interact or relate with me as a caregiver. For such persons, I might be tempted to say their interactions were never stellar to begin with, and my expectations were not high (I was never comfortable on pedestals — especially when my loved ones were left off — nor of casual enmity, especially by Brutuses who never bothered to declare animosity until I was already under attack).

But really, this waxing cantankerous comes more from the fact that I have been telling people all along how to interact with me, to no avail. I was an over-communicator before all this started, yet people consistently hesitate to ask even basic questions. I would hold private and public events regularly to stay connected, until attendance tapered off and I was just spinning my wheels. I posted thorough, thought-out lists of how my needs could be met best, and they got a handful of likes and no substantive results.

And I shared (and continue to share) poignant moments along the way. Because I am now an unfamiliar entity, my posts are approached with trepidation, every word taken most severely, and all humor stripped away because it might be better to be silent than to be insensitive. My family chastened me once for calling my caregivee “the old man”, even though it was a) factual, b) protected his privacy, and c) only used in humorous posts. Not long ago, I shared a slice-of-life moment that made me smile, but got two frowny-faces on Facebook. Anyone else’s roommate starts fussing over the “correct” flavor of ice cream and it’s a silly laugh to be shared; it happens in my house and I end up feeling like I’m bringing people down for having shared it.

Let me be clear: I cannot laugh at the person for whom I care. He is not weak, ridiculous, pathetic, or contemptible. He is my personal hero, and he is sick. But because of his illness, he sometimes says or does idiosyncratic things. That’s amusing.

To not laugh at funny situations (again, in good nature) would be to infantalize him.

Laughing can also represent acceptance, that however well or not things work out, we have done our best in a situation and we have no significant regrets. To not laugh at our missed opportunities is to acknowledge that we weren’t doing the best we could. That we have something for which to actually feel guilty.

I can’t really speak to when or how it’s appropriate to laugh at White Guilt (I just dashed this off in the wee hours when I should have been sleeping), but I can tell you about my life and my personal experience. I can tell you that I share moments that touch me, but not so much the ones that scare me. I announce changes in condition (for the sake of my family, who will always opt for the least interactive communication available, ever since we used to shout across our series of rather small houses for one another because stepping into another room was SUCH a chore), but only when it feels safe to do so.

Everything else, I’m at least trying to be a little funny, because humor helps me cope and sharing humor helps me not feel alone. I won’t dare laugh at something I could change, but I’d like to get to a point where I could laugh at anything I couldn’t.

So for future reference, any time you think I’m trying to be funny about my life as a caregiver, please join in the laugh. And if, some day, I return to activism and you think the same thing about something I post with political implications, try to find the humor in it (even if it’s just how ridiculous I am for trying).


PSA: Hyper-vigilance Kinda Sucks the Life Out of You


Caregiving fosters hyper-vigilance, which fosters a normal state of negativity because you’re always thinking out worst-case scenarios. It’s taken me three years to realize this. It’s devastated my once-positive perspective during years that were already hard many times over. It’s cost me friendships. It’s cost me hope. It’s cost me love. I can’t imagine how much it’s hurt the perspective of people who only (or primarily) know me online.

Now that I’m aware of it, I can work on balancing things out, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still get worse. Combine this with ambivalence about Facebook profiles on the longer side of a decade old, and most days, I can’t tell the difference between friends naturally drifting away due to life circumstances, friends who merely flake out or stop using social media, people who have written me off because they think I’m a flake (sorry, buy Maybes are the best I can manage for the vast majority of impersonal event invitations), and people who hate me.

Leap in logic? Sure. Something I can stop or reverse at this point? I doubt it. I’m doing everything I can to take care of myself, up to and including therapy and changing how I define friendship and purpose. Four months ago, I had to put an all-stop on activism because there were too many hard truths coming from the outside world to keep up with the hard truths afoot in my own home. (If you see me post something even remotely activist-y, you should know that I’m hurting myself doing it

I used to post often about what my needs would be as a caregiver so I could keep the feeling that I am a positive, accepted, and respected human being. I didn’t stop posting about those needs because I stopped needing them, I stopped posting because no one was listening. Why? I dunno (see above).

The point is I often feel forgotten, and while my pride probably needed the jolt of reality, this has more than once swung too far and too fast in the other direction. Depression, illness, and exhaustion are common in caregivers (check, check, check). So is early death (uh…).

My caregivee spent most of the last three years doing better than expected, but he is firmly in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s now. There are more appointments to keep, more decisions to make, more aberrations to track, but I still have time to twiddle my thumbs and ponder the perpetual now. Those moments have become rather empty.

I have the minimal support system I need to get things done. We have food, income, housing, stability, and back-up for when one of those things flounders. What I need are gentle reminders that I am still a human being and I am entitled to an at least occasional affirmation of my humanity.

So here’s an updated list of only five things YOU can do to support me (or another caregiver you know):

Say hi (preferably not on Facebook). I have a dozen apps, sites, or other interactions where we can chat, including text and meatspace. Most of them have become specialized for affirmation during my time as a caregiver, but Facebook is weighed down by the 500 friends and years of algorithms that predated my caregiving days (to say nothing of their admission that negative posts get more traffic, so it’s in their best interest to make our days worse).
Connect me to new friends. I don’t really get to meet new people. No coworkers, no classes, no dates or parties… If you think I should meet someone, just connect us. If you know any other caregivers (not necessarily Alzheimer’s, but especially them; not necessarily young, but especially them), connect me.
Stop telling me about Alzheimer’s breakthroughs. The next person who posts a link to an article about an Alzheimer’s breakthrough on my wall is going to get snail-mailed a copy of last week’s local Greensheet; that will do you just as much good as those articles are going to do me/us. Yes, there are exciting discoveries afoot, but they are already too late to do my caregivee any good and that makes them just one more distraction.
Face-time. Come see me! Invite me over! Does anyone just hang out any more? Special props to anyone who lives within a 20 minute drive, wants to drop by because they’re “in the neighborhood”, or is willing to accompany me on one of my numerous errands!
Share your joys with me. Little or big, I don’t care. I missed a half-dozen weddings last year, but the ones that hurt the worst were the ones I wasn’t even invited to. So send me a postcard, post a cute meme, tell me about your new favorite movie. Even if it’s something I wouldn’t appreciate in the way you do, I WOULD appreciate how much it means to you. Celebrating your humanity will help me hold onto mine.

Thank you, sincerely, just for reading this. Any small or large effort would be appreciated, especially in the weeks and months after this post has waned. Hopefully, other caregivers can use this, too, so share it with a caregiver you know and ask them to customize a list of ways you could support them, too. Remember: our society is aging fast. Some estimate that up to 1 in 3 of all Americans alive today will be a caregiver at some point in their lives. I’m just one of the first you know.

*posted without edits or links, because I’m trying to develop a stance of Imperfectionism*




One of my proudest accomplishments was waiting to take Physics in high school until my Senior year. My classmates in the smart-kid classes all loaded up on Math and Science as Juniors so they could have more off periods their last year of high school, but I decided I had enough on my plate. Sure enough, most of my classmates burned out while I coasted along as I always had. I recommended this plan to an upcoming Sophomore and she went on to be Valedictorian of her class (and even made a point of thanking me).

Activism and understanding have shifted much of the narrative above in my mind (for example, I’m pretty frustrated by the way smart-kid tracks marginalize “average” students academically and “honors” students socially), yet I retain my pride because of my capacity to choose an unusual path and avoid burnout. The topic has come up often for me: I scraped by on cheap food in college because I knew a job would be more than I could handle; the nonprofit for which I worked in D.C. advocated sabbaticals and self-care as a part of every activist’s strategy; I even skimped my hours early on during political campaigns because I knew I’d be working plenty of overtime by the end and getting paid the same.

If perspective is my superpower, avoiding burnout is one of its fringe benefits (like Magneto being able to “fly” by lining his boots with metal).

Becoming a caregiver has changed everything I thought I knew about myself, though. For the first time in my life, I am responsible for another human being, but unlike my child-rearing peers, I am watching a delightful human being recede into an infant. And unlike my activist friends, who have campaigns and victories and defeats and weekends and vacations (whether or not they use them), I have a crushing amount of stability. You see, when your “work” includes watching someone die very slowly, the good days are ambivalent at best. Bad days are the days where there’s something to do, something to clean, some goal to achieve; if you fuck up, if you learn something new, if you wear yourself out, you at least have somewhere to direct your angst: guilt, action, emotion. Good days have a heartache all their own because nothing happens; every day they don’t get worse is another day you have to wonder and wait and stand ready, because some day they will. Bad days may be exhausting for the body and the mind, but good days are exhausting for the spirit.

It’s hard to be an honest, earnest optimist when your life is lived amid the therapeutic fibs of Alzheimer’s, but it’s even harder when you have a lot of time and self-awareness to navel-gaze over the whole thing. It’s really rather insidious, because there’s rarely a clear turning point, never a conscious decision in the matter: “This is going to be a good spring, so I shall take up pottery and get out of the house more;” “That new neuropathy treatment is going to frustrate and exhaust us, best to minimize my diversions and focus on extra sleep.” If I’d been a little more conscious of what was to come, I totally could have accommodated the ups and downs better, but I wasn’t, and I almost always feel like I’m using my time poorly: “He’s feeling rotten and I’m not available enough because I’m dealing with a dozen outside stressors!” “He’s feeling great and I’m sitting around twiddling my existential thumbs!”

Having perspective as a superpower makes me kind of dependent on all the little things that came with that superpower; what do I become when I lose that power in the most important aspect of my life?

Apparently, this is what happens… Anxiety, stress, restlessness, frustration…

It’s starting to sound like burnout.

Except I can’t burn out.


What I can do, though, is check and recheck the other aspects of my life and shift my choices in directions I might have thought too extreme before. I have been anticipating this process all along, I just assumed it would be bad days that would bring the big changes to the fore. Last year I made the painful choice to leave a community I’d helped build, but that decision was helped along by internal strife and gut-wrenching loss. Stubborn as I am, I usually have to actually land on the “Day of Reckoning” space before I do much reckoning…

Last week, my heart was captured by the discussions blossoming around #notallmen/#yesallwomen. The more I read, the more I wanted to say something of my own, to pick up that last little bit where other sympathetic cismen seemed to trail off. I wanted to confess my male sins and start a movement encouraging other men to do the same. I drafted something eloquent and meaningful, tagged in a loved one who blogs to keep me accountable, and…

…and nothing. I had the time, I had the energy, I had the passion, but I just couldn’t get it done. The more I guilted myself to finish, the more I knew I wouldn’t. A couple of tangential conversations came up on Facebook, but I left each feeling unreasonably drained. Actually, that’s been happening a lot lately, on a lot of activist-y topics…

I just don’t know if I’ve got it in me any longer. I’ve been seeing activism as my supposed respite from caregiving, but that’s a lot of worry to welcome.

I believe in personal change AND I believe in global change, but if I have to let go of one I must let go of the will to influence others. I will unpack my privilege and live kindly by example and be available for those who come to me with questions, but the devotional part, the pro-active part, the ACTIVIST part of me may be too big to feed.

Which is not to say I won’t have it in me again; the time has simply come to remind myself I have a choice, and I will always choose caregiving over activism. He needs me and I need me, and as long as I have me, I can always come back to this when my caregiving days are over.

I asked my friends (on Facebook) whether they’d hate me if I took the month of June off from activism; I got very supportive responses, including, “if you burn out, don’t take time off, and don’t return to it, you would end up losing a lot more time in the long run,” and “the struggle will be there when you get back!”

Part of me feels guilty for even thinking about it: there goes another person of privilege dropping out when the going gets tough, leaving the people who don’t have a choice in the matter… but activism is and will always be a part of me; it’s just that who I am is kind of broken right now. Everything in my life is shrinking, but that which is too small to see is not necessarily too small to exist. Right now, this is the one thing I might be able to live without (or, more accurately, at a much smaller intensity… geez, how on Earth am I going to do that?), and I owe it to this other human being — to whom I have committed my life — to try. He wants me at my best. He deserves me at my best.

I do have dozens of friends who are working hard yet; some of these even credit me for their level of understanding or involvement, so maybe I get partial credit. I mean, hell, I have been known to say the best move for a white cisdude in activism is to shut up and let someone else talk, so maybe I should spin this as just activism 2.0…

The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll come back at the end of June with a fresh perspective on how I can balance being a caregiver and a passionate agitator. Maybe I won’t “come back” at all, just continue to live out my values, to self-examine, and to support other people doing great things in private. Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between. But I need to let it be whatever it will be, and I hope my friends, loved ones, and (dare I say?) allies will understand.

My private philosophy for personal change has for years has been, “Do what you can. When that gets easy, do a little more.” I guess there’s a corollary… “If it’s too much, do a little less.”

Go get ’em, yall. I’ll be along when I can be.


Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness


Baggage Claim

Now that “calling out” has become an Internet thing, there’s a lot of tension coming from folks who don’t really know what to do with it, particularly on the receiving end. The kneejerk reaction is usually some kind of defensiveness (“I am a good person, therefor I can’t be ___ist.” “I don’t follow your logic, therefor the mistake must’ve been yours.”, “How dare you? Don’t you know everything I’ve done for ___?”) or attack. Some conflict-averse folks can ignore or deflect being called out, but very few slow down to address the concern thoughtfully. To some extent, this is because dominant cultural narratives encourage us to take any disagreement as a personal or political affront, but I suspect it also owes to our inexperience with ambivalent self-examination. Deep self-awareness is neither common nor encouraged, so how in the world can it be acquired?

Personally, when I feel challenged or conflicted in some way, I attempt to unpack those feelings. Although I no longer have the privilege of travel, I find myself “unpacking” more than ever…

To a skilled traveler, unpacking a suitcase is as important as packing it. Upon return, one is smart to sort out belongings and reintegrate them into the usual routine. This may entail laying out contents into various piles: travel documents to be secured, dirty clothes for laundry, toiletries here, souvenirs there — oh, don’t need that bus pass any longer, better toss it… Investing a little time now can save a lot of trouble later.

In the activist spaces where I first heard it, to “unpack” is to take apart a complicated thought, belief, or conversation in order to interpret its smaller, less apparent components. When participants in a facilitated discussion stumble onto something profound or dense, the facilitator (whose role includes encouraging useful tangents) might step in and suggest everyone slow down to “unpack what just happened;” the aim is greater understanding for all participants and/or progress toward the group’s shared goals. Reviewing such components can help contextualize the ideas or persons present, and often the unpacker(s) uncover biases, assumptions, or other problematic notions of which they were previously unaware. However carefully they prepare an agenda, facilitators often cite these shared detours as the most fruitful points in their discussions.

As activism evolves from just movement-building to comprehensive lifestyles (where personal growth is progress, i.e. “being the change you want to see in the world”), the term gains wider usage because many ideological concepts are simply too complex to stand on their own. And although one of activism’s great proverbs alludes to it — “the personal is political” — unpacking has never been reserved for activists; it is an invaluable tool for any person who wants to live out a consistent set of personal values.

Our ideas and beliefs — all of them — carry some layer of social “baggage” (hence the metaphor), cultural and/or personal cues we may not recognize as ours or as optional. Like unpacking a travel bag, unpacking an idea involves reorganizing its contents, distinguishing what is useful as-is from what needs modification, even discarding some components entirely. This decision process cannot be performed well unless the context for each component — its social baggage — is known and understood. Unpackers must confront those concepts that are problematic, counter-intuitive, or self-contradictory, or they may instead need to anticipate others’ discomfort with ideas that, however beneficial, are simply new and unusual.

For activists, unpacking is integral to effectiveness. Ideological success cannot be guaranteed without confronting the biases and assumptions of one’s community, beginning (and ever-continuing) with the confrontation of one’s own biases and assumptions. Unpacking helps activists build consciousness of individual impact, rooting out any embedded contradictions and sowing more consistent insight and behavior into their work. Understanding one’s own baggage also makes others’ baggage more relatable and will ideally facilitate others to reflect for themselves. While many experiences are not universal, the ability to sympathize and point to parallel experiences can help open conversations that would not otherwise seem possible. Even if the conversation does not lead to the same conclusions for all parties, it will humanize those parties to one another and add faces and important contexts to opponents who might otherwise be nameless and alien.

Unpacking Privilege

As important as unpacking is for any person motivated by ideology (in order to practice what we preach), it is particularly valuable for persons afforded a lot of social privilege. In this context, I want to be clear that “privilege” is not the willful assertion of power by a person based on outdated and unequal social norms (I call that “entitlement”); privilege is the social power a person receives from others, consciously or unconsciously, based on such norms. If ethnic, economic, and gender bias were wiped from all human minds tomorrow, they would be back within a week because our personalities are forged in context, that context is perpetuated in our personalities, therefor the waters of our perception would flow down the same paths even if we could somehow pause the water for a bit. The only meaningful way forward is not for folks with privilege to wipe the slate clean of all past wrongs, but to discuss those wrongs openly and unpack our continued misguided notions about them.

Societal baggage is weighed down significantly by assumption and unconscious prejudice, which means that privilege cannot be easily shirked. As a passive participant in zir own social role, a person of privilege may not recognize the extent of these advantages, nor the ways ze might accept, reinforce, and wield them.

For the record, I consider myself a person with above-average privilege: I am white, cismale, educated, young, attractive, and more hetero than not; I have been working most of my life to unpack my social privileges, but I continually make new discoveries and must uncover the ways my good nature and best intentions might lead me to subvert my own ideals. A white guy can grow long hair, get tattoos, wear radical clothing, and have no job yet still get better credit than a black man in a business suit; a tall man can be weak and non-violent and still feel safer walking down the street than a short woman; a heterosexual couple can consciously decide to never get married but later change their minds in ways that are not available to same-sex couples. I have learned to acknowledge and, where possible, to counter such injustices. Whenever unpacking leads me to a privilege I might overlook, I seek alternate ways to notice it and/or work around it; just as with driving, I must check my blindspots. Ultimate perfection will be unattainable, but improvement is not.

For a person raised in a conservative religious environment, all understanding of the world has been filtered through a specific dogma: every piece of knowledge before a certain age has been filtered to reinforce that worldview. If, at some point, that person rejects the faith/its leaders/its politics, the new worldview will still be founded by its relation to the foundational dogma. Unaddressed thought patterns will continue largely as they always have; like a riverbed carved into the countryside, ideas may flow in a different direction but they will still take the same path to get there. Rejecting a belief system that preaches women are inferior to men will not clear a person of residual sexist patterns. Even a person who consciously rebels again previous dogma will often seed that rebellion by merely choosing the opposite from the same options originally offered: what was “good” may become “evil”, and what was “evil” may become “good”, but positions outside that entrenched dichotomy will be no easier to fathom after defection then before (gender identities outside of male or female, for example).

The same self-analysis that leads someone to renounce a belief system must continue if the dregs of old patterns are to be voided. That person must learn to check blindspots, then to process information in new ways, and finally to adopt improved habits and reflexes — and there is no way to do any of it quickly. If the departure was mentally or emotionally taxing, the person may be resistant to dig any deeper, but otherwise it can be like removing a tick whose head remains in the skin, poisoning you for your health-minded efforts. Remnants of a former belief system can become liabilities to moving on, particularly when dealing with folks who were never part of that world.

(By sheer coincidence, my dear friend Heina is presenting on this topic vis á vis atheism this weekend; check out the event page or follower her on Twitter for info.)

Society itself is a belief system, a social construct with prescribed interactions, prescribed power dynamics, even prescribed rebellion; true change can only be possible when change-makers understand societal dynamics and learn to work around them. This can be particularly challenging, both personally and socially, when dominant advantages are in one’s own favor, therefor the single most pervasive blindspot afforded to persons of privilege is that unpacking is optional. When the mainstream society, politics, and morals around you all broadcast that you are a good person — that you deserve to be happy, healthy, and educated — you may not even realize that the same society is sending a different message to others. A white person who grows up in a white-dominated society and is not exposed to the experiences or challenges faced by contemporary people of color may believe that society offers the exact same opportunities in the exact same way to all its members; since society advertizes itself as “post-racial”/”colorblind”, a white person’s good will toward equality can even be subverted into reinforcing systemic and unconscious racism, to the point of resenting programs that undo centuries of discrimination and viewing THEM as unfair. Meanwhile, a person of color raised in a white-dominated society will become conscious of racial identity early in childhood and will never have the opportunity to stop thinking about it: the legacy of generations of poverty, the mixed messages in media and entertainment, the microaggressions of complete strangers, and, yes, the yet-unresolved prejudices.

(Since I keep using conservative examples, allow me to point yall to Ferret’s post about how liberals can also live in a bubble…)

Unpacking is a daily fact of life for persons who lack privilege, while those with social power may choose to ignore persistent inequalities without great effort. The disconnect of privilege is most troublesome when the privileged viewpoint leads a person to disregard the lived experiences of marginalized people because those lives contradict the safe and familiar world lain out for privileged hearts. Even folks with moderate privilege can recognize the ways awareness of other exclusions stays with them: the weight of having a high-school education when employers want a college degree, for example.

Chances are, there has been a time in your life when you felt compared by an unfair standard — an orange among apples — but how well do you notice when you’re the apple and someone else is the orange? And what do you do once you have noticed?

Owning Your Stuff Is 9/10s of the Law

Unpacking happens when you realize something about your own context and decide to examine it further; ideally, this process brings your beliefs and actions closer to alignment. That moment when you realize you’re an apple at least SOME of the time, that is the moment most potent for unpacking. It can also be the moment when you recognize just how complicated this society can be, how convoluted its biases, how self-perpetuating its machinations.

I cannot tell anyone how to unpack; like love or art or jazz you have to see it done a few ways then find your own. What could be more individualized? Unpacking involves untangling the layers of your very self, from personality quirks to early influences to adolescent rebellion. What practices are based in your experiences alone? Which beliefs were handed to you, prefab, through societal cues? Which came from your parents or guardians? Which are just habits you picked up and couldn’t defend if you wanted to? And the layers run in more directions than just origin: which of your behaviors have ongoing emotional ties? Which have healed you in times of pain? Which have been contradicted in the past, and have the contradictions turned you away from or toward the familiar? A synonym to unpacking is “deconstructing”, though this has a more formal connotation in literature (and isn’t always reassembled). Unpacking is the deconstruction of your own text.

Unpacking is not always pleasant, nor is it straightforward. Taking apart an idea may involve explaining a useful piece in more detail, or it can lead to dismantling a flawed concept and starting over entirely — and you won’t know which needs to happen until you’re already in the thick of self-discovery. You may need outside observers (who may or may not share a similar background) to point out your idiosyncrasies or explain correlations you never knew about, or you may simply need to listen and be willing to challenge yourself. At some point, if you want to examine your own assumptions, you’ll likely have to confront them with the benefit of several diverse perspectives, but only you can figure out when and which.

Self-examination is only the first part of unpacking, really. Once you’ve broken a behavior or belief down into components, you have to figure out what to keep and what to throw away; just as with literal baggage, you’ll need to plan for the next configuration, and to do that you will almost certainly have to relate it to other people. Got a racist uncle who says this same thing you say? Might be dubious. But what if he worked in a multi-ethnic neighborhood and married out of his race? Maybe he has a very different view and is more irreverent than oppressive. But then he calls his wife racial slurs and stereotypes her culture? Well, exoticism may not be the same kind of racism as a Klan rally, but it is still harmful and entitled… You have to follow these tangents — tangents from your own concepts, remember — and see where they lead you.

Some layers are obvious and easy to re-conceptualize, but most are subtle, nuanced, and well-entrenched, and the world isn’t going to stop turning just because your work-in-progress leads you someplace unpleasant. Better ideas will come in their own time if you let them, but it helps to maintain awareness of your own weaknesses while keeping an open mind; resist the urge to find quick fixes or diversions that will leave the problem in place, but also pace yourself and don’t expect an epiphany on command. Don’t be afraid to step away from a topic for a while or to ask for help.

Unpacking in a group can present its own challenges; while listening to others, you must not only note what you believe but also how you feel and respond; it benefits no one if your unresolved discomforts spill over into your group’s work. Remember what I said at the top about kneejerk defensiveness? Unchecked discomforts can overtake a share space and unintentionally reinforce social power dynamics by derailing the unresolved topic toward one participant’s personal process. A person of privilege can derail an otherwise productive group discussion by insisting that zir personal progress be validated, by asking for on-site education on topics that others know well or agree can be saved for later, by contradicting broad trends with rare incidents and anecdotes, or by generally projecting zir own discomfort as being more urgent than the issues at hand. A person without much privilege may have the same capabilities, but is less likely to be taken seriously or to unconsciously command full and immediate attention.

For individual reflections, I cannot recommend journaling enough — particularly if you are used to processing aloud or are not yet comfortable taking your challenge to someone else — for it is as much about listening (whether to yourself or to what others have said previously) as it is about speaking.

Usually, the challenge is just getting started: it’s easy to feel vulnerable or attacked (especially if one has been called out publicly) and give in to fight or flight mode, but unpacking benefits from a mental quiet and no small amount of personal security. It requires humility, patience, and often allies who can sympathize with your discoveries and your defeats. Most of all, it requires the willingness to be wrong once in a while. You will make mistakes; learn from them gracefully. Each of us already holds some incorrect or unhelpful assumptions from earlier points in our lives, but through unpacking we can identify and correct those assumptions more fully.

If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is. And if you don’t know how anyone else can do it, remember that people who have less or different privileges than you have probably been wrestling with similar questions their entire lives; while this does not diminish the newness for you, it does prove that it can be done. (When all else fails, though, a search of the Internet or your local library can also be fruitful; again, your challenge is probably not completely original.)

If it sounds daunting, take heart in knowing that you have the rest of your life to learn and small steps can make a great difference. Eventually, you can learn to be generous to people with less opportunity than yourself (especially by listening) and to speak up more among people like yourself. Along the way, you get to be a better person, a stronger influence on others who have yet to recognize their own hangups, and help forge a society that is more aware and more respectful of its members’ most thoughtful values.


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