Elizabeth Warren’s Identity Crisis

pocahontasI started writing this a year ago, and I had hoped I wouldn’t need to post it, but here we are with a seemingly decent public figure digging her own political grave in a desperate, nail-ripping grasp of identity.

I’ve never met the woman, but here’s my outsider analysis. (Factcheck-free!)

Elizabeth Warren was brought up on a story both romantic and empowering. Told that one of her ancestors was ostracized because of her Native American heritage, and was loved and married despite that (wholly unacceptable!) racism, Warren wove the story into her own identity from the time she was a little girl. And who wouldn’t? Hell, I cling to my genetic half-Judaism like it’s the last lifeboat on the sinking ship of white supremacy. What thoughtful, educated, observant white person would want to be White? I mean, we want all our stuff and political and economic supremacy of course, but we also want to claim some history of oppression, some feeling of done-wrongedness that will act as a palliative to our privilege. Maybe we can balance out a little of our imperialist, murderous, slaveowning genes with a sprinkling of the “good guys.” Maybe we can find some African genes in our 23 and Me results (nope, just more Mongolian: Khan slut). But for many the ultimate prize is Native affiliation, especially in the US.

I went through a big Indian phase – read tons of Native books (mostly novels), bought Native jewelry and knicknacks, spent a lot of time traveling Navajo/Dine country in the Southwest. Because Indians are fucking cool, man. We simultaneously embrace these conflicting concepts of Native people in the US: the drunken, uneducated, poverty-stricken people living on pitiable reservations; and the wise, equanimous souls who understand silence and the universe and our relationship with the natural world. They have potions and spirit animals and songs and dances and secrets and wisdom. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

So a white woman clings to that family story, as do her relatives, reinforcing it across generations. But when it comes down to it, it’s just a story. One that she repeats and uses officially and unofficially for decades.

To what end?

I can believe that she wasn’t looking for affirmative action or special treatment because of it, I really can. But she wanted something. Was it just a little less guilt? A little less complicity? A little more grooviness, man? Whatever it was was her own business, her psychological drama to bear, until Trump got hold of it. Then it became our problem.

Because Warren has taken a leadership role in Congress. She has stood up for the little guy, the disenfranchised, the poor, and stood up to the archetypal “white man.” Despite the inability to sound human and genuine when she makes a speech (an affliction that seems to infect nearly every living politician, usually forever; somebody get these people an acting coach!), she had potential. And I’m not writing her political death warrant, but she has wasted much of that work because of some bullshit concept of her racial identity.

As soon as her Native claims were brought into the light of day, she should have had the sense to come out and say, “look, this is a story my family was brought up on, and I’ve had a hard time letting go of it, because the Native peoples in this country are so special, I have so much respect for them, and I so wanted to be identified with them. But I have no tribal affiliation and no way to prove this claim, so I am letting it go, out of respect to the people who have suffered the injustices of being Native in the US. I have lived my life as a white woman, with all the privilege (and the prejudice) that goes with that. I will fight for native rights and sovereignty, and against the insults liberally tossed around by the President, as every red-blooded American should, because “Indians” are the true Americans, and all the rest of us are immigrants.

(or something like that)

Then she could just ignore all that Pocahontas shit, with the Indian nations possibly supporting her. Instead, she waited way too long and then tried to reify her fable by taking a DNA test, pissing off the recognized tribes and making herself a joke.

Part of me doesn’t blame her, because I know how hard it is to let go of labels you wear like military honors, or college sweatshirts, but Identity has so much destructive power, from sports fans that can’t let go of a racist mascot to men that can’t let go of abusive machismo. Yes, markers can be empowering or helpful or politically necessary, but if we can’t let go of them when they cause harm to ourselves and others, what good are they? To me, the greatest identity crisis is not trying to figure out who you are, but blindly accepting some inculcated idea of who you are without questioning it. Unfortunately,  most of us never get past that phase.

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Feminism & Racism: Up Close & Personal

femrac

Some of my feminist behaviors are actually acts of white supremacy.

Damn it.

I’ve been on a Racism Awareness journey over the past year. Well, for longer than that, but aggressively over the past year – reading lots, talking with folks on their own journeys, facilitating conversations on race as much as they’ll let me, going to conferences on equity, volunteering as Secretary on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee at work … stuff like that.

Simultaneously, I have been on a feminist journey: a #me-tooing of my own. This hasn’t required any books, just a clear-headed, clear-eyed recognition of life as it is and has been for me for decades.

My habitual behavior in the realm of the latter is to recognize blatant sexual assault and blatantly sexist language (and in my case to apply feminist analysis to works of literature and art), but to “deal with” the rest as the necessary burden of being female in the world. To play the game, laugh at the jokes, tolerate the piggery. Because we can. Because we are strong enough to do so. Because we can take jokes. (Unlike men. Don’t panic, guys. She’s a professional comedian.) Because we know how to “play with the big boys.” I realized last year that this is not necessarily healthy, and I’m certainly not the only woman doing it. And while I don’t regret behaving in that way, it is a coping mechanism performed out of defensive necessity. I should not have to be tolerant in the face of offense or attack or abuse. I should be able to call it out and have it redressed. That has been a difficult thing to accept, because I take so much pride in my toughness, my ability to withstand sexist bullshit, but in reality it is much braver to upend the game than to play along. I also have to recognize that I have looked down on women who “couldn’t take it,” who chose to make themselves vulnerable by calling out the crap, and I am not proud of that.

It took a bit more formal education and a bit more time to recognize that there was another destructive aspect to the persona I’ve cultivated in response to sexism. I have made it a point to be heard, to express opinions, to speak out at work, to argue and disagree and confront professors because it is my responsibility to fly in the face of stereotypes of female inadequacy and submission and deference. What I never thought to recognize is that while this might be a stand against patriarchy, it’s right in step with the white supremacist culture in which I was born and raised and live.

I have never thought of my assertiveness as consensual with white supremacy, but it is. It’s hard to say what threatens white men more – women or Black people – the threats are different and context is everything – but as a white woman I have certain privileges that Black men and Black women do not have, and I have taken advantage of that privilege more times than I can count. A big one with me is the right to be angry. While I might be described as shrill or hysterical if I openly express anger, I am not perceived as a threat and I’m not usually written off. That is not typically true for Black people in America, because it feeds into the manufactured stereotypes which I certainly don’t need to explain here.

So this idea of standing up to authority, of being what I am in spite of the powers that be: much of that has been an illusion. And coming to terms with that has been … interesting. It doesn’t mean I stop, but it means I bring a little more mindfulness to that behavior. Powerful white men have always benefited from pitting various “others” against each other, but it’s particularly upsetting when we do it without their (explicit) help.

When you start to recognize that we live in a society anchored in the bedrock of white superiority, your perspective on everything changes. The new vista isn’t always pretty, especially when you’re looking in the mirror. If you’re trying to head off another excuse for self-loathing, it helps to recognize that we are all soaking in it, and it takes a lot of work to scrub this shit off.

Prescription: The End of the World

elephants climateThere’s a theory that one of the reasons humans are so depressed and anxious is because life is too easy. We are animals, and animal subconscious is primarily consumed with 3 duties:

  1. keep from getting killed
  2. keep from starving to death
  3. keep your species alive

Evolution and our awesome brains, whatever other neat directions they may have pushed our species, haven’t moved us beyond these primary concerns. Nowadays most of us (let’s make this “us” middle class white people; whites are also the biggest US consumers of anti-depressants) don’t have to worry about 1 & 2 on a daily basis. (3 will have to be its own blog post.) The theory is that we are hard wired to be on the alert for threats and scarcity, so when they doesn’t exist, our brains help us create them with anxiety and depression. Similarly, allergies are your body reacting to a threat that doesn’t exist in a way that hurts you (making a poison out of a peanut), and also rarely happen in countries where bodily threats like malaria and intestinal worms are real and the immune system is kept occupied.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmful tendencies of the brain and how to negotiate with them. I formulated this particular negotiation because I’ve been tasked with creating some Climate Change content for a State Fair exhibit. Here’s a question:

What if we really, truly internalized the threat of climate change?

What if we woke up every day and calculated how every action we took increased or decreased our risk of decimating humanity? What if we did that every moment? What if our every action was a conscious meditation on fossil fuel reduction or carbon capture or community education? What if we lived our lives on a scalding planet the way Robert Redford does on a sinking ship in All is Lost? Have you seen it? I’m not the only person who had this experience: after watching the film, for a too short period of time, every physical thing I did felt deliberate and important; every dish washed, every door opened, every piece of clothing placed in the laundry felt glutted with meaning.

What if we could live every day like that? Would it give our restless brains something to do? Could we stop being anxious and depressed about nothing in particular and focus that energy on the survival of the species? Do you think this Anti-Depressant Marketing idea might get people to give a shit? CLIMATE COMPULSION FOR MENTAL HEALTH!

I have my doubts about getting this past the MN State Fair committee.

Imperfect Work

a minusI spent several months of last year trying to brainwash myself out of self-loathing. It was helpful, in that I learned quite a bit, and the intellectual path is the quickest way to my heart, but I don’t know that it accomplished its goal in any significant way.

The better way, probably, is to keep working on doing the opposite of what my loathing overseer demands, on a pathetically constant basis. I will (try) not to yell at myself for breaking a plate or overcooking rice, or assume everyone else’s ideas are better than mine (until I decide they’re all inferior – or vice versa), or make every moment quantifiably “useful,” or force myself to a certain level of perfection before I share anything with anyone.

That’s where you come in!

I haven’t written much lately, and haven’t blogged nearly as much as I was intending to overall. It’s hard to churn out even two posts a month when every piece has to be without errors, coherent, and cohesive. I’m not saying what I have permitted was good, it just isn’t full of bad-person-mistakes. It’s taken me a while to accept that perfectionism is a problem. To be honest, I still don’t. But I do recognize its destructiveness, and the hypercritical source of it. For some of us, if we don’t perform to a certain standard, we are unworthy of being accepted and loved. That is totally rational, as far as I’m concerned, but I know that I am fucked up and I Am Working On It.

So I am going to attempt to post once a week for the next several months. Putting out that much with work & projects & language study & volunteering & meditation & exercise & dog & guy necessarily dictates a minimal amount of edit time, but in order to head off any sleepless nights and screen blindness, I’m setting some rules around it (which I will Not Hate Myself for Breaking).

This is post number one. Discúlpame.

Sinema Sworn in on a Law Book!

sinemaWhy is this worthy of comment? Why isn’t this the standard? Did the book burn Mike Pence’s fingers as he briefly touched a symbol of our country’s founding fucking secularism? What does it mean that she is more unique in Congress for being “religiously unaffiliated” than she is for being bisexual?

More questions:

  • How fabulous was her outfit?
  • Why does it make me cry when I see a swarm of women of different colors sworn into Congress?
  • Why did the fight scenes in the Wonder Woman movie make me cry?
  • Why did 2 male and 2 female white, cis-gendered heteros in near-middle age all cry when we saw this ad four years ago?

Have our bodies known for years, decades, millenia, what we’ve refused to say out loud to ourselves? How we have been diminished, oppressed, terrorized?

A New Year is Here.

 

Radical Facts

dictionaryDictionary.com gives me hope.

I’ve received their word of the day for the last decade, because I am a nerd. Over the past few years, they have occasionally sent little articles as well. Mostly innocuous and ignored – quotes from famous writers or where holiday-related terms originated – but I have noticed some more topical stuff popping up as well. I never opened any of it, but after they declared misinformation the word of the year last week, I finally got curious. Were they tipping their hand? Was one of the only popular sources of factual information not discredited by our current government actually taking a subtle stand against the world as it is?

Yeah. I really think so.

Clue #1: Words of the Year since Trump’s election

  • 2018: misinformation
  • 2017: complicit, in an analysis of which they called out Ivanka Trump’s rebuttal that, “If being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit,” as patently wrong. “Whatever your politics, this meaning is not up for debate… being complicit is decidedly negative, as it means that a person is involved with someone or something that’s wrong.”
  • 2016: xenophobia, which they warn is “not to be celebrated,” citing not only fear-mongering Trump quotes and the Brexit phenomenon, but human rights abuse statistics from the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amnesty International. Dictionary.com also enlisted Robert Reich and his giant drawing pad of awesomeness to explain the word. Robert fuckin Reich.

Clue #2: historical & current events

You didn’t know Dictionary.com had a historical & current events section, did you? I have revealed the great secret!  The first three pieces you’ll see if you find your way to this section are:

  • the Great Depression
  • Black Panthers
  • Trail of Tears

Bold choices, especially since the description of the Black Panthers is overwhelmingly positive, and highlights this quote from Claude Wilson of the Daily Tar Heel:

The Black Panthers’ open carry tactics led the then-Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, to enact the Mulford Act, which outlawed the public carrying of loaded firearms. Isn’t it interesting how conservatives suddenly became pro-gun control when it was black people who were open-carrying?

Of the 11 articles in this section, 6 of them refer to atrocities against people of color or the subjugation and abuse of women, including the Salem witch trials, prima nocta, lynching, and Roe v Wade.

Clue #3: Still not convinced that Dictionary.com is part of the resistance? Check out a couple of selections from their in-depth examination of complicity last year [bold type mine]:

President Trump’s statement following the events in Charlottesville in August, in which he said “both sides” were to blame, showed his complicity with ideologies that promote hate, especially directed toward marginalized groups. 

Additionally, the new EPA chief Scott Pruitt has been complicit in his refusal to acknowledge that humans play a primary role in climate change. And, we can’t forget that information on climate change was removed from the government’s website this year, as well. 

We chose our Word of the Year, in part, because of noteworthy stories of those who have refused to be complicit. In the face of oppression and wrongdoing, this refusal to be complicit has been a grounding force of 2017:

  • We saw an estimated five million people participate in the the [sic: Dictionary.com typo!!!] worldwide Women’s March on January 21
  • We saw NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 protest against systemic injustices gain even more traction in response to President Trump calling for players who kneel during the National Anthem to be fired or suspended
  • We saw women, as well as people of all genders, come forward with personal stories of sexual harassment and assault with the hashtag #metoo
  • We saw high-profile resignations from the Trump Administration, perhaps most memorably from the Arts Council, who submitted their letter of resignation in the form of an acrostic spelling of the word RESIST

In just these few articles, Dictionary.com recognizes our President’s alignment with hate groups, anthropogenic climate change, a non-binary range of genders, systemic racism, and praises the resistance to all of it. How excited does this make me!?

Too excited? Should I really be this excited about what are, when it comes down to it, simply facts? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe my standards have dropped too low. But in a week where CNN repeatedly gave toadies for the oil industry a platform to call climate change a greed-driven hoax without questioning their motives, maybe Dictionary.com deserves the time I’ve devoted to this blog post. It makes me happy that the love of words leads to a love of truth, whether than truth is wrongly defined as political or not.

 

Tu Cancer es Mi Cancer

You have a friend with cancer, let’s say breast cancer because it seems both more common and less scary than others (just lop it off, right?). It was caught early and it seems like she’s going to be fine, if breastless. She’s not, like, your best friend, so this isn’t a direct hit on your life. But she’s close enough that you can’t dismiss it as another inevitable, anonymous cancer story. You truly care about her. You bring food and offer support and “like” or “cry” or “anger” all her facebook posts. You are not a Bad Person.

But she’s not what you think about at 2am, staring at the ceiling. You think about You. Specifically, You in contrast with her. You start to construct a questionnaire, like those at the doctor’s office that tell you whether you’re an alcoholic. Yours is something like this:

  • Are you older or younger than her?
  • Did she smoke? Do you?
  • Is she nicer than you?
  • Does she drink? A lot? How much less than you?
  • Would you describe her as a “positive person”? Are you?
  • What’s her medical history? How healthy are you?
  • Does she meditate? for how long? Does she seem enlightened? More than You?
  • Does she exercise? What kind?
  • Where did she grow up? Was it on a nuclear test site? Wasn’t there a paint manufacturer around the corner when you were a kid? Was this before they banned lead? Why don’t you ever see those neighbors on facebook!?

And you think you can take all your answers and hers, give them each a number, calculate a cancer score for each of you, and objectively determine whether you are more or less likely to get cancer than she is. Then think of ways to dramatically derail your life so you can beat those odds.

But it’s all bullshit. This is the story we tell ourselves. It’s a lot like our success story, our ideas of the right and wrong things to do to lead us to the desired conclusion. It’s magical thinking, and it’s utterly unhelpful. It saps energy and presence and eats away at you. Of course there are proven behaviors that should reduce risk, but that’s not what this is about. This is about constructing a story against which you can praise or blame yourself and chart your future – a way to give yourself control over something that is essentially out of your control.

Crafted after your scary health diagnosis, this magical storytelling is worse than unhelpful, it’s destructive. Blaming yourself for your affliction is, first, untrue (because there is no free will, folks – your cancer is the product of your genetics, the block you grew up on, the people you’ve known, and the behavior of every atom in the universe which crafted your inevitable journey toward every single thing you’ve ever done); and second, it’s adding insult to injury. Even if you do believe you were responsible, what does that matter now? It helps nothing. The post-diagnosis should be all healing and living and decision making and all that fun shit. When it comes down to it, Your Cancer is not about you and your concept of self. But even more than that, Her Cancer is not About You.

Get off it. Be a friend. Get over yourself. I mean, it’s normal to think this way, but stop now. It’s totally normal to turn your friend’s cancer into your rumination fantasy, right?

There’s no way I’m the first one to do this, right?

Hello? Is this thing on?