Archive for the ‘Race in America’ Category


Progression: the Role of White Friendship


I’m going to share two links with a bridge of text between them. I’m not going to modify anything, but I think they’ll offer a nice point-counterpoint on a topic I’ve been trying to articulate for years now. The first link is from a blogger I don’t know (haven’t been active on Tumblr in a long while), but was shared on Facebook by a white friend, leading to my comment (which remains unanswered there). The last link is a different take on the same subject by another friend (who has a complicated ethnic background but benefits from white privilege), with whom these thoughts have been percolating for some time.

If nothing else, skip to the last link — I share their conclusions, but they said it way better than I could.

Link 1: White dudes have this thing where they believe your best friend in the world can have opposing political ideas…

This is powerful and important, and it may even explain the growing distance between myself and the very friends with whom I used to debate in just such a manner… but I have a slightly different conclusion.

People who have some privilege (especially people who are/appear white) also have more sway with those same friends precisely because of our privilege. Every time a person of color gets tired of answering an “innocent” question, or a woman gets mansplained, that is an opportunity for someone with privilege who also gets it to step up and reinforce those unheard voices. If we’re looking for our stake in the life-or-death struggles that don’t actually threaten our lives (and I’m speaking as a white guy), it is answering those stupid questions or standing up to the microaggressions in ways that others cannot/shouldn’t have to. It doesn’t have to mean speaking for someone else’s experience, but it can mean referring to relevant texts and saying what we learned from them, it can mean re-humanizing when someone is being othered, it can mean starting conversations rather than waiting until someone is raw/guarded/upset.

In short, sometimes, we need to keep those friends (albeit at arm’s length), we need to spend time with offensive family members, we need to use the access that our privilege grants to raise questions in the very spaces we wish to dismantle.

I’m not saying every person with privilege should have all hard conversations at all times — a lot of times the privilege stems in part from the fact or impression that we constitute a majority (or should), so a little should go a long way. I’m not saying we’re going to change a lot of minds right away — the culture of hostility our peers have created built up over generations with lots of skewed anecdotes, incomplete narratives, and no small amount of pseudoscience along the way.

I’m not saying which individuals should or should not bring bottled water to protests or question the diversity of their workplaces or work on taking up less space in activist spaces. We each have to find our strengths and our allies. But I am saying that when our privilege allows us to relax — and here it is important to note the difference between what offends you vs. what actually threatens your life — that’s when our work begins. If we dismiss those instances, those people, we repeat the mistake of generations of “sympathetic” people before us, who, under pressure, would eventually chose to cast out the obvious examples of racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia rather than unpacking its origins, looking it in the eye, and being the friend who says, “You’re better than this.”

Link 2: Dear “Woke White Folk”


The Taller They Are… (A Tall Tour Dispatch)


[Stop me if I’ve told this story before…]

When I was in high school drama, I won the lead in the first play where I tried out. It was a one-act play for competition. Having won the role, though, my follow-through was a bit lackluster. I had a crush on my “mother”, I “joked” about being forced to get along with my exes on cast, I put no time into memorizing the script, and I left our preparatory retreat (several hours away, maybe over Spring Break?) for some other extracurricular activity — a jazz band performance I think. When I called to schedule my return, the teacher told me it would be okay and just to stay home and he’d see me Monday. I was like, sweet! Unexpected free time! When I arrived at class that Monday, though, he pulled me aside and told me he was pulling me and his assistant director would take my place. He made it clear that I had the natural talent, but that I failed to demonstrate the necessary commitment. To the extent I understood what he was saying, it was bolstered because my band director, too, had grown negative about rehearsals pulling me out of band practices. I brooded over the ampliphied message: that I liked to do too much and I was almost talented enough to get away with it. Talented, but not disciplined (a word I’d internalized from my dishonorably-discharged step-father, who in general served as a role model of everything to NOT become, except for this goddamned scary word with no real meaning behind it). I swore I’d never forget.

When I’d gotten my “QUIX_TIC” tattoo back in 2010, it was intended at the time as a friendly warning to myself and others: I like to commit fiercely to all endeavors, even those that are insurmountable or misguided. I congratulated myself for this as self-awareness, another point in favor of balance, of empowerment through self-knowledge, of tempering my earnest effort with informed caution.

So by design, I started The Tall Tour with some pretty simple stuff: a weekend in Austin here, a visit to Denton there, running around the Metroplex trying to keep up with Lillith Grey‘s latest exercises in community affirmation (seriously, she’s amazing). I negotiated which trips would be solo, and which would be accompanied (and by whom). For my first multi-day road trip since the summer of 2011, I set what I thought would be a reasonable itinerary: no more than 8 hours of driving per day, arriving the night before the con officially starts, warning friends who offered to host about medical issues that may have affected our timeline…

If caution is changing one’s approach in the face of known challenges, though, I don’t know the first thing about it. I take calculated risks all the time, but only because I calculate them to be very small risks (however others might see them). I look for ways to reduce risk (my famous “creative solutions”) but I turn down risks that cannot be calculated and/or mitigated. Because I assume my risks to be mitigated, I have trouble taking new information quite as seriously. But my math was terrible about Chicago.

It was in Kansas City, late on the morning of the second day, as we were seriously considering turning around and going home, before I confronted the fact that I had not adequately accounted for my travel partner’s health concerns (she was already experiencing pretty severe migraines and had been unable to sleep due to all the light in our host’s apartment). It was the second night, after we’d canceled on our second host and just checked into the con hotel early (exhausted and frazzled amid a steady stream of new arrivals, and hemorrhaging money all the way) that it occurred to me how arriving only one night before the con officially started (but already missing some pre-events and facing more as soon as we could open our eyes) might not have given us enough time to regroup. But it wasn’t until the third or fourth day, wandering the Tolkien-scale hotel with a minor case of hives and a major case of social anxiety that I recognized that I had never combined a road trip and a con before, and that doing so (along with the other medical and logistical challenges) may have been biting off more than I (we) could chew.

Maybe I never did learn…

We started to find our groove about the time we had to check out, and then made the return trip much more sensibly. The relationship survived and I managed not to make myself sick on humble pie, but there remained this big question of how to learn from a mistake when that mistake is in my very nature.

Clearly, it’s not a new problem. There was high school drama. There was my effort in college to join over a dozen clubs, then later to pack one semester with four intensive literature classes at a time I was lucky to get through 100 pages a week. There was my commitment to maintain a vigorous social life while working 50-60 hours a week on a disheartening political campaign in 2010 (that led to a $4000 car accident) or to remain relevant as a poly ambassador (disillusionment and heartbreak, 2013-2014) and anti-racist activist (bitter burnout and social alienation, 2014-2015) during my most intense days of caregiving. There was my attempt to serve as 24/7 caregiver itself, with almost no breaks and only the support I demanded of those whose love of my generous nature allowed me to bleed their sympathy dry.

I know it’s wrong to take on too much, to over-commit myself (and especially others, to say nothing of over-committing myself at the cost of others), but other than outright denying myself of most any opportunity (which contradicts a completely different life lesson from my quarter-life crisis) I simply don’t know any alternative.

I suppose for clues I’m looking to my personal treatment for white guilt and unchecked privilege, because I think they’re related. One reason I try to do everything is that I was one of those privileged kids who got told, “You can do anything you set your mind to if you’re clever and work hard,” without all the mixed “Not you” signals that kids with less privilege also got. To the extent I’ve known about my advantages, I usually tried to apply them to the liberation of all, but more recent discoveries are pointing me more in the direction of letting go of ambition and shutting the hell up (more on that in a future post). If I double-down on being a “leader” for “change”, I’ll just repeat the same mistakes, frustrating myself and perverting my relationships with anyone who gets dragged along on these misadventures. If I turn away from this path and start saying, “I cannot be anything I want, even if I am clever and work hard,” I’ll potentially shirk the responsibility to share my advantages rather than merely checking my privilege. (This would be a good place to remind folks that privilege has everything to do with how others see and treat you, not how you see yourself; exiting an oppressive system can be just as privileged a position as taking advantage of it, which is why I seek ways to question and subvert assumptions from within the systems that privilege me.) What I actually need to do is redefine what it means to be “clever” and make sure what I set my mind to is useful to others (especially or exclusively those without my access or advantages — and on their terms, not mine), and that my approach to “hard work” features a concerted effort at self-effacement (internal and external) to countermand society’s efforts — often unconscious — to elevate me, whatever I say or do against it. This is what I’m doing to bring my values and my station in life to closer alignment. In this context, a propensity to take on too much and get by on luck and talent hardly seems innate but rather learned, don’t you think?

Innate or not, it seems possible that correcting my “over-bite” will be a lifelong struggle, that self-awareness and trusted counsel will only go so far, and that every decade or two until I die the same lesson will creep up in profoundly predictable ways. I remain hopeful, though, that other possibilities will come to me as I continue to ponder this particular clusterfuck of selfhood and gauge its inevitability with future insights.

It’s worth noting that after I had been booted from the high school play, I considered my drama teacher a tremendous friend, even more so once I went away to college and found out how special I was not in the context of white men who had more wealth, health, stability, and learning (and perhaps discipline) than I. Had I actually applied the lesson immediately, found some way to self-instill discipline (or something less militaristic that at least resembled a work ethic), my college experience might have been far less mediocre — but then, maybe that would only internalized further all the exceptionalism I’m still working to dismantle — after all, for every performance teacher who told me I should be doing more, there were between 10-100 telling me I was going to do great things. It’s entirely possible that the disconnect helped me gain perspective, that having had to learn to work hard AFTER so many people had already complimented me for my hard work created enough cognitive dissonance to keep me from buying any more into the ambitions and sense of entitlement that so often befall my privileged peers. My drama teacher may not have done a very good job of instilling discipline, but he did a great job of instilling fallibility.

Whatever trajectory got me there, I was wide-open to criticism on the way home from Chicago; for each misstep, I could trace the disaster back to some choice I’d made and the mistaken assumptions behind it. I could, theoretically, know better in the future. I’d rather be humble late than never. Humility offers a safer, more calculated risk in the future; obstinacy merely foreshadows a harder lesson to come. Time will tell whether I have learned enough to avoid such disasters for the rest of my Tall Tour.

In the meantime, I do have a heaping pile of new lessons learned, most of which will color future travels (and the Tall Tour itself). Have a gander and let me know if any of them are helpful to you:

  • Don’t just listen to travel partners when they express concerns over health (theirs and your own); make sure they FEEL heard, that they feel you have taken their concerns seriously, and that you have multiple contingencies in mind.
  • Actually look at how big of a “bite” a big travel plan entails and ask yourself if you’ve done anything of that scale before. ESPECIALLY double-check the allotment of downtime from past endeavors.
  • Don’t update your phone’s operating system the night before a long trip. That’s a gumption trap you don’t need, and one that will come up repeatedly.
  • Pack strategically, but don’t take all day. Time and effort saved during the trip won’t matter much if you leave so late that the trip itself is compromised.
  • You’ll forget something, but you probably won’t need it as much as you think anyway.
  • But don’t forget the musicals. Voice practice just won’t be the same without two unbroken hours of belting out every part.
  • You’ll feel better once you hit the road. Once you start getting frustrated and feel thwarted at every turn from getting underway, all that matter is throwing things in the car and driving away. It’ll work out.
  • Don’t over-estimate your travel partner’s familiarity and comfort with potential hosts, especially if zie is an introvert. Try to arrive early enough that everyone has time to get better acquainted before we steal zir couch/guest room/bed for the night.
  • Check in with travel partner and self regularly about expectations and where the minimum/maximum experiences lie. Refresh your mind with alternative approaches often.
  • Don’t drive more than one day away for a multi-day con unless you have ample time and space to rest in between.
  • Don’t ever put Alfredo sauce over rice noodles, and don’t let anyone else do it, either. Just don’t.
  • Don’t make exceptions to your religious aversion to commuter tollroads. Believe it or not, there are entities out there more evil than the NTTA…
  • Speak early and often with potential hosts about ongoing medical issues, so they know when an itinerary is endangered (this one I actually managed to do and it was definitely the right call; we had to cancel on two very dear friends, three times collectively).
  • Don’t go to a con alone; ideally, know multiple people going besides your travel partner (in case one gets sick — healing thoughts, Cathy!) and maybe make some online contacts BEFORE you even arrive.
  • Remember that social media is always optional and always a crapshoot for meeting new people once you’re there. [Waves at new friends who offered hugs at times when I wasn’t checking Twitter. Next time, yall!]
  • Don’t forget those detours! (Like my trip to Austin a while back, the most important encounter on this trip was a one-hour lunch with someone I barely knew, but whose caregiver experiences so powerfully resonated with my own that for that hour we were able to share things we couldn’t process with anyone else!)
  • Remember that your heroes might be too busy for you and you might just have to take whatever face time you can get between workshops.
  • Whatever else you compromise, make sure to try the local specialty food. (Our single greatest travel triumph was finding and trying gluten-free deep dish pizza on Chicago’s north side. It was the best pizza I’ve ever had.)
  • Remember that your body, only six months out of full-time caregiving, is still very much a mystery to you (like a movie where a straightforward murder investigation leads to corruption or conspiracy or the Da Vinci Code or some other convolution…). It’s going to do weird, unfamiliar, sometimes awkward things and you’re going to have to deal with them on the fly.
  • Drink a lot of water, before, during, and after travel. Your body will hate you a little less. Pay attention to who has filtered water on tap and refill there, since unfamiliar water might “taste funny”.
  • When all else fails, find a distinctive comic book store and spend an afternoon there.
  • It’s hard to focus on pinball whose theme you don’t recognize. (This could probably be some kind of profound metaphor for specialization and familiar territory, but in this case I literally mean if you’re going to play pinball that is themed to a TV show, make sure it’s a TV show you know so you can pretend what’s going on makes sense.)
  • Beware Wichita, Kansas. There’s just a lot wrong with a town that white, that dusty, and its little courtyard that too closely resemble the set of a Six Flags gunfight…
  • (Not necessarily a travel rule, but certainly relevant to this trip for REASONS:) people (especially those socialized as women) tend to under-state the importance of things to themselves and others. Find ways to gauge what matters without asking point-blank, because direct communication just isn’t encouraged/available to everyone.
  • Don’t tell your friends and family back home how excited you were to not have to specify “unsweet” tea in Midwestern restaurants. Them’s is fighting words.
  • Travel will cost more than you think, especially if you fail to account for mistakes, surprises, and human frailties along the way. Budgets are important, but at some point they can become mere kindling to the fire of getting home in one piece. This is both something to relax and accept in the panicky moment and something that will come back to haunt you if you ignore it altogether.
  • Separate blogs about the travel from blogs about the con itself. (Because the discomforts of Catalyst Con were quite different from those for which I could take blame. Watch this space for more…)

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).


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.


Best of 2013


I am by no means an exhaustive consumer of media, but this year had some gems that I feel compelled share. Simply put, this list comprises things I experienced that helped me grow & love better in 2013. No rank or order is implied; “Honorable Mentions” are older but were new to me in 2013.

Favorite Concept: “self-othering”
To self-other is to claim narratives of the powerless for oneself with little or no authentic claim to such levels of powerlessness. Examples might include the concept of “reverse racism”, equating being “broke” with actual poverty, exoticism, framing “language police” as equally oppressive to the use of offensive terminology, borrowing from an unfinished struggle to promote a contemporary one (e.g., “gay is the new black”), and the claim that polyamory is a queer and/or oppressed status — but most instances are actually far more subtle. By its privileged nature, self-othering is far more pernicious in educated, hetero, white, cismen [friendly wave]; it is not usually a conscious co-option, which makes it difficult to recognize in oneself, but I suspect anyone who examines zir own social power will struggle with it at some point. Perhaps even those with very little social privilege could benefit from remembering that actual physical and societal oppression feels different for every person and every circumstance. This concept needs to be contemplated and discussed widely, so we might all better catch ourselves exercising the power of naming and the privilege of inclusion; try not to water it down too fast, Internet.
Honorable Mention: Intersectionality
The Grand Unified Theory of social activism, where those deconstructing sexism, racism, classism, and countless other systemic power disparities compare notes. In a few more years, the Internet may relegate it just another dialectal buzzword, but for now it has teeth as a thoughtful and dynamic post-social-justice outlook.

Favorite Discussion Piece: Orange Is the New Black
I cannot say I exactly love this show, but I absolutely love to watch and participation in its deconstruction. I dare anyone to read White Chick Behind Bars and not feel personally challenged somewhere. Some friends have begun to shy away from discussing OITNB publicly because the critiques made them feel like bad (white) people, but to let call-out critiques of such a complicated, try-hard show brand it irredeemable would be just as short-sighted as to review it purely for cinematographic and storytelling qualities. In these discussions, there is the opportunity to examine where poetic license and politics collide, to ask which is making us feel uncomfortable this week (and whether it was the show’s intent), and to celebrate the heretofore overlooked perspectives now receiving thoughtful screen time. Until perfect art comes along, let us continue to be motivated by imperfect art that keeps us talking, introduces us to new situations, and makes us check our assumptions about what a titty-shot really conveys.

Favorite Blogger: Ferrett Steinmetz
I discovered Ferrett shortly before his earth-shaking Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Some Fucking Awesome Sex went viral, but he’s been posting all over for a while. In Ferrett, I found a rare straight guy who could not only educate but inspire me: atypically male, relatable, passionately self-aware, sex-positive, polyamorous (but kind of relaxed about it), thoughtful about the creative process, AND prolific. Every time I approached one of his posts expecting a mere oasis from the kind of entitlement narratives that poison me against my fellow white guys, Ferrett transports me levels beyond by finishing thoughts I hadn’t even started yet. His approach is to excise common misperception from reality with quick, deft text grounded in everyday experience — and he owns it when he messes up! The man writes about anything without wasting a word; I can trust that if I don’t find a particular post profound, SOMEONE ELSE WILL. Not that I’m saying you should idolize him (or anyone else).

Favorite Music: Janelle Monáe, The Electric Lady
A late arrival in my year; I was slow to pick up this album because I was afraid it couldn’t live up to my first impressions of the hottest android-impersonator in music, but I was wrong. So very wrong. I’m just starting to dig into the mythos she’s created and the funked out fusion she’s worked into the tracks, but I know this album will be getting a lot of play in 2014.
Honorable Mention (album): Black Snake Moan Soundtrack
I could spend the rest of my life debating where the movie sits on the line between “problematic” and “irredeemable”, but its highest point was the filmmakers’ engrossing love letter to Delta blues.
Honorable Mention (song): Lupe Fiasco (with Guy Sebastian), “Battle Scars
The conscious rapper dropped this crossover hit — questioning the battle-like nature of relationship discord — and went platinum. Yes. This.

Favorite Movie: Gravity
Another item I feared couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. I was left breathless the first time I saw the two-minute trailer, and the movie theater experience was basically 90 minutes of the same. I won’t say it’s the best story ever (and I really think I would have liked Robert Downey, Jr., to have kept the part that eventually went to George Clooney), but its telling is gripping and its visual achievements should do to space what Jurassic Park did to dinosaurs: raise the bar to impossible heights and dare every movie that follows to choose between pitiful homage or pointless improvisation. Along the way, it instilled for me a dread of what happens down here on Earth should our skies ever receive such a disaster.
Honorable Mention: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Another visual spectacle, Beasts is carried by a six-year-old thriving in Southern myth-making — and yet I can’t watch it without cross-referencing myth-like places and people I’ve known. The stories from behind the scenes are just as breathtaking.

Favorite Parody: Pretty much anything riffing on Blurred Lines
The horror of the original song/video/message isn’t the kind of thing you can rectify with academic deconstruction or even conscious indignation — you need a good genderfucking parody or two.

Favorite Reads: Parenting on the Internet
Perhaps even more than Ferrett’s piece above, this piece showed how parenting can provoke individuals to look within for change. The RenegadeMama sees the greatness in her son’s gentle nature and, going against her won inclinations, decides to let it stand. It’s impossible to encapsulate its brilliance without lifting swaths of text (which you should go read for yourself), but I can say this: it made me appreciate parents and parenting a little more, and it even fostered forgiveness for the ways my own family had tried to socialize me against my gentler inclinations. That’s powerful wordsmithing right there.
Honorable Mention: Cat’s Cradle
My lover put this book in my hands and told me to read it; she is wise, and there will be celebratory tattoos. The legacy of a dead scientist draws a listless writer to a banana republic with an outlaw religion and a captivating woman. Sardonic wisdom and global change ensue.

Favorite Introspection: Defining Allies and Their Role
I should note that this conversation is far from over, so rather than trying to encapsulate it how about I share a tiny sample and you go join the conversation yourself?
Growing Up Online: Why & How I Care About the Comments
8 Ways Not To Be An Ally — A Non-Comprehensive List
For Whites (Like Me): On White Kids
Holy Gender Politics, Batman! How a D.C. Punk’s Music Video Sparked an Identity Controversy
Honorable Mention: Call-Out Culture
Another unfinished debate, is “calling out” the Internet’s greatest act of justice, a stalled strategy that’s keeping allies from necessary reflection, or flat-out liberal bullying? Is anger and vitriol on another person’s behalf ever justified, even helpful? What are our assumptions about people who call out? about people who don’t? Is there something better they could be doing? Reply hazy, try again.

Favorite Polyamory Topic: All Good Right?
Alan from Poly in the Media shares a few thoughts from himself and several other long-time poly writers on the assumptions that can slip into nonmonogamy and how rapid growth of the identity has made it harder to check such foundational misunderstandings.

Favorite Cracked Article: 5 Mind-blowing Facts Nobody Told You About Guns
Just read it; you won’t be disappointed.

There! You get ten. But here’s one to grow on, my favorite piece that I’ve written this year. Feel free to add it to your Best of list!

How Dyadism Ruind the Best Moment at SexTalk


I Beg of You


Ganked with permission@Anti_Intellect was talking to his people, so with his permission I decided to translate his message to people who share my identifiers:

Dear White folks: Stop undervaluing Black folks, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good.

Dear men: Stop undervaluing women, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely fragile.

Dear hetero people: Stop undervaluing LGBT* people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good at decorating.

Dear cis people: Stop undervaluing trans* people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely rare.

Dear liberals: Stop overvaluing Republicans/conservatives/Tea Partiers, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely powerful.

Dear Southern people: Stop undervaluing the complicated nature of history and science. Just stop.

Dear polyamorous people: Stop overvaluing monogamous people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely calm.

Dear people raised working class: Stop overvaluing rich people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely good. And stop planning and voting as if you’ll be one any day now.

Dear people who are financially stable: Stop overvaluing poor people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely evil or uniquely poignant in fiction. Their lives are real and it could happen to anyone.

Dear educated people: Stop undervaluing people without degrees, whether it is that they are uniquely evil or uniquely in control of their circumstances.

Dear non-religious people: Stop overvaluing religious people, whether it is thinking they are uniquely hateful, uniquely hypocritical, or uniquely unified.

Dear human people: Stop mis-valuing everyone who seems different from you, whether it is that they are uniquely evil, uniquely good, uniquely enlightened, or any more bizarre than yourself. We’ve all got too much work to do on ourselves to be worrying about everybody else.

Oh yeah, and stop mis-valuing yourself too. A small change will accomplish more than any big guilt-trip.

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