Archive for the ‘Saying the Wrong Thing’ Category

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What I Need to Tell…

2015.December.14

I’ve had a bit of writer’s block the past month or so, not because there’s nothing to tell but because it’s all just a big jumble of rubber-bands — not one of those slick rubber-band balls that you pick up and strip away one swatch at a time, but a crumpled cluster of enthatched rubber of indiscriminant qualities and age.

I told myself it would be easier if I just started posting the topics; whether I followed through was kind of unimportant. I just need a reference point for future conversations, future reflections…

So here are some of the topics that deserve full posts and rigorous conversations (but probably won’t receive them):

Why did I have to go to Washington, DC, for the funeral, and why did I only stay for one impossible night?
Why did I hide myself with the former colleagues I saw there, making no mention of my successful plural relationships, my workshops supporting the same, and my interest in the same sexual and reproductive topics that we struggled to include in our work a decade ago? It’s no different from my crippling identity crisis when I lived and worked there, is it?
Why didn’t I ask them to talk about themselves more when all I wanted was to NOT spend the whole afternoon talking about myself (and doing exactly that)?
How do I feel about the fact that our deceased mentor was the only one of them to stay in regular contact over these past four years of caregiving?

Healing is incredibly hard, and it’s impossible to know how much there will be until things are stable. My self-care and relationships are probably in critical-but-stable condition.
I am exercising restraint and caution when thinking past the holidays. I need openness and flexibility then and rest and low pressure now.
I have got to find a way to break myself of the old habits that became dormant during caregiving.
I really want to get back into reading.
My brain still doesn’t feel like my own. My mood and endurance know great heights, but I still mix up words and drop things as much as I ever have.

I was the first caregiver I knew of my generation, but I am far from last. Already, friends and peers are approaching me to share their accounts of dementia in the family and identify a path forward.
If I expand my umbrella of “caregiving” beyond just dementia/memory care, I realized I know quite a few part-time and full-time caregivers under the age of 30, 40, 50. We are not as alone as we think.
The first piece of advice I’d give any new caregiver might just be “Caregiving is not a spectator sport.”

Also under the category of “not as alone as we think”, I’ve discovered a lot of people were following along my adventures online these recent years who never once spoke up in support or comfort. My loved ones had already helped me understand before my peers themselves did that said peers simply didn’t know what to make of me and my circumstance, but I’m almost as resentful of their reemergence en masse now that I’m “normal” again as I am that they were ever absent. I just don’t think they realize how much of myself I forgot existed, and how many voids little notes and acknowledgments would have filled. I wish any one of them had said, “Hey, you’re going through a rough time, but I can’t hang while you’re going through this; drop me a line when your life isn’t consumed with old man smells and navel-gazing.” But this is literally all I want to ever say on the matter, because I love them all for being there now.

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PSA: It’s Okay to Laugh

2015.May.20

[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).

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Deactivation

2014.May.31

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.

I CAN’T.

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.

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Unpacking: The Art of Self-Awareness

2014.April.30

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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Dr. Laura: Read the Constitution

2010.August.20

Dear Esteemed Doctor:

How fares your research into the effects of insulin on 3-0-methylglucose transport? Well, I hope. I understand if you haven’t had a lot of time to dedicate to it since you’ve been busy the last few decades taking radio by storm, but I am not so cynical as to figure someone of your stature would ever advertise her PhD without maintaining some connection to her thesis. (Plus, as I understand it, the California Board of Behavioral Science Examiners frowns on counselors using the title without a degree in psychology.) I look forward to reading more, whenever you can get around to it.

I hear you’re having a rough time of it right now, what with every politically correct, language-policing liberal in the country denouncing your recent use of the “n-word”. Well, I’m not here to do denounce your show — I always enjoy a good laugh. In fact, this situation reminds me of a cartoon I saw in a magazine once (I’m pretty sure it was one of my step-dad’s Playboys from years ago; don’t hold it against me, I was so young and curious!): two men are talking at a dinner party, and the guy speaking is casually holding a drink and pointing his finger while saying, “The way I see it, the Bill of Rights cuts both ways. The First Amendment gives you the right to say whatever you want, but the Second Amendment gives me the right to shoot you for it.” Hilarious! Oh man, I still laugh every time I think about it.

I want you to know that, like such luminaries as Voltaire and his friends, the Supreme Court of the United States, Charlton Heston, and that guy in the Playboy comic, I stand 100% behind your right to express yourself openly. I applaud your candor and your willingness to “say the wrong thing”, which is — truly — a tenet of my life. Unlike many other couch-commentators, I have actually listened to the show in question (available here on video and transcript) and noted that you never once used the n-word against anyone, but instead only quoted what you have heard from some rather explicit comics on HBO. (And isn’t HBO the standard to which we should hold society’s greater good? I mean, it’s not just television.)

So far as I can tell, you were — in your own, special way — trying to approach the painful and epic history of racism in America from a place of heartfelt reason. You were trying to ask a highly charged question that deserved careful, thoughtful consideration and long, contemplative discourse, wherein we spend more time listening to the experiences of those different from us than we do talking about our own, and that takes courage. Sure, you asked the question point-blank, with a raised, accusatory voice and a finger on the “drop-call” button, and without one of the nuances I above endorse, but you did raise them and I thank you for that. You went on to apologize for hurting people with the utterance and for not offering the caller help with her problem, and I congratulate you for recognizing how the conversation could have been handled better, albeit after the fact.

But despite your resoundingly adequate handling of the matter up to that point, I simply cannot stand by the follow-up appearance on Larry King, wherein you announced that you will soon end your radio program. I must protest the devastating impact this announcement is having on our country and our culture.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no strong opinion about whether you continue your radio show (it is, after all, a free country). However, I must protest because in your reasons, you perpetuated a common myth in our American culture that needs to be corrected. Sadly, someone must serve as an example to others.

See, check this out:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now, the rest of that stuff is pretty controversial itself, so let’s just focus on the parts about free speech:

    Congress shall make no law […] abridging the freedom of speech […].

Fucking A! That’s a good rule! Man, I love that rule. Thanks to that rule, I can get away with saying anything from “Fucking A!” to “George W. Bush Loves Dick!” to “Obama is a gingerbread man destined to be consumed by the nation he would save!” no matter HOW profane they seem. Ergo…

Under the First Amendment, any American (and most any visitor) has the right to:

  • Have any opinion about anything.
  • Express any opinion publicly.
  • Present a falsehood or misconception as fact (think misleading advertising… doesn’t it just make you sick, Doctor of Physiology Laura?).

Of course, this amendment only explicitly applies to Congress (not the Executive or the Judicial Branch, which regulate the notable exceptions for public safety, sworn oaths and testimonies, obscenity where there might be children around, etc.); an eroding distinction has been made between personal speech and commercial speech, but you’d have to go back for a J.D. to navigate those waters. Also, and this should be obvious but isn’t, don’t just assume you can invoke your First Amendment rights in another country…

But, here’s where it becomes relevant to you, Doc…

What the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee Americans:

  • That anyone will listen to you.
  • That you can make money by virtue of having or stating an opinion.
  • That someone else won’t exercise their free speech to disagree with you.
  • That you won’t say anything stupid.
  • That forces outside the government (such as public opinion, cultural progress, scientific evidence, advertiser dollars, your own guilty conscience, or the bigwigs overseeing your contract) will back you up if you say something stupid.
  • That you can say something stupid and avoid facing any consequences (e.g., social, political, or financial — you’re still covered for legislative, though!).
  • That your perfect PR apology for the stupid thing you said will be accepted and the whole matter forgotten by the offended party/parties.
  • That — outside of Congressional abridgement — some person or persons won’t take issue with the stupid thing you said and publicize / denounce / protest / boycott / demote / reschedule / fire / otherwise embarrass your dumb ass for saying it.

So, you see, when you said you were leaving radio to “regain [your] First Amendment rights”, you were doing a rather unpatriotic disservice — to yourself, to our Constitution, and to the civic understanding of the thousands of American children whose parents force them to listen to you — by encouraging bad information.

By invoking the First Amendment, you have placed the blame for your present predicament on Congress. Instead, I think you will find our polarized political culture offers you two ready-made scapegoats: the dehumanization of corporate Capitalism or oversensitive Black People. Just remember to choose one, stick with it, and don’t get them confused; we certainly wouldn’t want you to accidentally denounce the dehumanization of Black People! Boy, that would be embarrassing!

Now, I probably sound like I’m being a little harsh, but I need you to know that you are not alone in this misunderstanding. Liberals who denounced Bush, conservatives who denounce Obama, the poor over-moderated members of Internet community boards across the country, and plenty of Hollywood visionaries have made the same mistake. Maybe they’re using the Constitution as a metaphor, but I suspect most of them are just plain wrong.

The uproar over your comments, while unpleasant, was no more a violation of your First Amendment rights than your repeated interruption of the caller, ranting, and abrupt hang-up were a violation of hers. You yourself have decried the quality of education in this country; set an example and read up about from whom the constitution protects us. Maybe if more people understood our Constitution better (I’m pretty sure we all learned it in high school, but sadly we live in a culture where it is all too easy for facts to be overwritten by beliefs), we could get back around to meaningful conversations about the roots of such controversies.

Why is the n-word standard applied unevenly? Is the U.S. generally insensitive or overreactive about race? Is it possible to be both? Is the media’s coverage of racism just a little too much like wind applied to fire: whether blowing it out, spreading it around, or just making things miserable with a lot of hot air?

It could have been a good conversation.

Instead, what we heard was you and the caller getting defensive as soon as the n-word was out there (quite a Pandora’s Box, isn’t it?) and legitimate questions from both sides being buried in the most common reflexes to these situations: anger and self-righteous vitriol. At that point, no one can go on to win the argument, but those of us who’d like to see a thoughtful discussion definitely lose. Congratulations, you are now the proud host of every other political call-in show on the air! May your conversations be just as successful and productive as the legendary Crossfire!

Whatever you do next, I hope you will never hold back your earnest thoughts, so the dialogues can always be honest, the reactions passionate, and the deserts just.

Good luck in your future endeavors!

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