Happy Holidays—would you please put your pain on hold so I can enjoy my perfect life?

The Rebel Prof is honored to present a guest post written by an anonymous academic of color.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice…”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Your silence will not protect you.” –Audre Lorde

Black and white text that reads We Want to Destroy White Power

Image by Roger Peet

The host of this blog, who kindly invited me to write a guest post and helped me edit the post, suggested a picture like the one on the left.  While the image definitely screams my deepest desire, it is not quite what I had in mind while writing this piece. Thus in an attempt to better articulate what I wanted to capture, I went on Google image search and typed in “happy holidays family” (not “white family” or “Merry Christmas,” just to be clear).  Tada~

 

"Happy Holidays" screen shot

I have noticed that the images we constantly get from Google (or anywhere) often invoke a mix of feelings in me—anger, pain, sense of absurdity, shame, to name a few. What these images share is their relentless salespersonship of white comfort.

I have been thinking about white people’s comfort for a while. You see, growing up, I didn’t get to read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” or “The Uses of Anger” so I wasn’t taught about the danger of white comfort beyond white hatred. For so long, the nice white people around me have been pointing at the angry white dudes with torches marching down the streets of Charlottesville as the true enemy, the only enemy, as if their comfortable place in this oppressive reality were just an unfortunate coincidence , as if they had no control. I have seen nice white people giving up fights with the system because the system was “nice” to THEM. Then, I hear them requesting appreciation for THEIR suffering and silence, because their mere lack of enthusiastic participation in white supremacy makes them heroic and yet vulnerable, as if the torches in Charlottesville are burning down THEIR lives and those of THEIR children. I have felt the guilt planted in my heart for wanting to fight, for wanting them to fight with me, as if I were rude for having dared to disrupt THEIR comfort.

Then I think of those who are uncomfortably white but also do not want to make other whites uncomfortable. I think of how they would rather spend time apologizing for white silence than break it. I remember being told not to judge a person by their occasional participation in oppression and to embrace forgiveness, as if I were vicious for failing to heal wounds that are only “occasionally” cut open. I think of being constantly reminded of the perfect survivor, resilient, quiet, forbearing and extraordinarily successful against all odds, as if suffering is not worthy should the sufferer fall short of perfection, as if there were such a thing as perfection outside of what whiteness desires.

I write this piece, 55 years after MLK pled with the “white moderates” to acknowledge the urgency of Black suffering and 37 years after Audre Lorde invited white women to get over their fragility and guilt and embrace the anger of women of color. Yet here I find myself, struggling to prove my worth to white people by white standards and being told my frustration is due to my personal lacking. Unlike Lorde, my anger is not sharp and focused, it is confused and disorienting. So I write. This writing did not start with the intention to inspire but to clarify so I save the last part for myself.

Why can’t I tell the nice white people in their face that their silence is toxic and their excuses are utter bullshit? Is it my job to tell them so?  Should I like or even love those who have treated me with respect and love as an individual but remained unmoved by my shared destiny with other dispossessed and intimidated by our rage? Is it my survival instinct or cowardice that made me decide to publish these words anonymously? Have I made myself too comfortable?

 

the fear of being out

I can remember that it all started when the ringleader boy looked at my legs and commented on their hairiness. The ringleader was a tall kid who was one of the first to pubescence, new to school and had a lesbian mother – none of this seems accidental in retrospect.

After that, he was able to engage almost every boy in the class with the exception of a few in giving me sexual nicknames, commenting on my body, checking my back for a bra strap, and, most damagingly, chasing me around and touching all over my body nonconsensually.  This lasted for most of the school year and was targeted at me individually.

When I was in sixth grade, I was the target of organized sexual harassment by a gang of boys in my public school.  At the first peak of awkward transition to adolescence almost every boy I knew touched my body in unwanted ways and made fun of me. I was not protected by anybody. I was effectively terrorized for being a girl, for not being enough of a girl, for not being the right kind of a girl.

silenceisnotprotection

Silence ≠ Protection by Crista Facciolla, Print. Organize. Protest.

I would now call this experience sexual violence. And yes, as an adult I can see that these boys probably participated more out of their own fear of being singled out and having their masculinity questioned than for any other reason. None of that makes it ok, however, or frankly matters very much to me, because if we didn’t live in a rape culture shot through with toxic masculinity in the first place, this wouldn’t have happened. And it was traumatic.

I felt like I had to hide what the boys were doing to me. I was made complicit in their terrorism. I’m still not sure I’ve disentangled why I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone. The simplest reason is shame. It was just so fucking embarrassing. If I was going to tell someone – an adult – I would have had to also tell them the insults and the things that the boys said. This would have meant discussing sex with that adult and relaying the insults that were said about me. I was way too embarrassed to do either thing.

If I told an adult what the boys were saying about me, I would have had to repeat the insults that were flung at me. In retrospect, it takes an awful lot of self-confidence to repeat the heinous thing someone else has said about you. Repeating it seems to just make it actually real.

After several months of this experience, something happened right in front of my teacher. I hoped that finally this would put a stop to the torment I was experiencing without me having to tattle, but the teacher did nothing. (There can also be no way he hadn’t observed anything before that because there were several incidents every single day.) It has taken me 25 years to tell this story to anyone, perhaps because when my teacher who I loved and trusted failed so completely to intervene, I decided that there was something wrong with me or that there would be no point in talking.

Instead I tried to find ways to resolve the problem myself.  Apparently I tried to fit into the kind of femininity that was suggested. If my back was going to be checked for bra straps, then I was going to wear a bra every day. No matter that I didn’t need one, that they were uncomfortable, that my mother was confused and that I was too embarrassed to even be seen looking at them in the store. I was going to be wearing one each time some boy checked my back and maybe they’d move along and not yell about it.

I went home and shaved my legs. I didn’t ask for any help with that either. I didn’t want to start a conversation or argue with my mom about whether I was too young, so I opted for stealing supplies in the shower and cutting the shit out of my legs instead. At least the cuts indicated that I had taken the hint and shaved. I was complying.

But something happened when I watched the Hannah Gadsby special Nanette. I wanted to tell this story for the first time. In the special, Gadsby tells the story of being beaten up by a man who thought she was hitting on his girlfriend, and the thought struck me like lightning: have I continued being just on the right side of feminine out of fear of exactly this kind of male violence?

Like Gadsby, I too was a raised in a household where there seemed to be anxiety about my sexuality and sometimes openly expressed fear about how difficult life would be if I turned out to be gay. It was clear that it would supposedly be ok but it would also make everyone somehow sad. Much of this fear was just that, fear, and it was well-meaning, but it transmitted to me as a message that only certain ways of being were OK. Simultaneously, no adults were protecting me from the risks at school of male violence and I was under constant pressure at home to be more feminine.

I don’t think I can draw a straight (hah) line to explain how or why anything happened, but as I grew up I adopted a style that would hide my feminine body to deflect attention and yet I think I made modifications to remain “female.” At least just female enough. I didn’t want to (re)create the possibility of violence by being too masculine, nor did I want to attract attention with my body.  I’ve never felt as if I “belonged” in most highly feminine clothes, but looking back now I see what has held me back from going full-on butch despite the attraction it has always held. I was receiving so many messages about the possibility of queer-bashing at home, in the media at large, and from my own experiences that it was much easier (but more damaging) to just pretend to be straight  in a heteronormative world.

It’s not just that women, or those of us assigned female at birth or gender non-conforming in various ways are subject to overwhelming rates of sexual harassment and violence. It’s also that we, along with our sisters, girlfriends, friends, cousins, and classmates, experience so much sexual harassment and sexual violence that the threat of male violence regulates us so completely, so thoroughly, that it actually creates who we are.

Unsurprisingly my silence did not, as Audre Lorde says, protect me. Not my silence about the sexual violence I experienced in sixth grade, nor my silence about my queer sexual and gender identities. Instead they left me with a legacy of confusion, pain, and fear.  I was, sometimes consciously and sometimes unconsciously, afraid that I would do “woman” wrong and that I would be found out. Living a non-normative life is not easy, just as my family and Hannah Gadsby’s family predicted. But neither is living a life full of silence and shame. Silence is fragile, and carries so much less power than I thought when I was only a small person. Coming out of our silence is terrifying, and it is very hard, and it subjects us to real risks. But it also allows us to write our own stories, to try to create our own lives, and most importantly, to find each other.

Saturday Rec: Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pink Ribbons, Inc.

Pairs well with: organic foods, soil-testing kit, and solitary activities once you become unpopular for wanting to make space for the truth and criticizing “Pinktober”

This is another documentary based on a book, an academic text by Samantha King who also appears in the documentary. The film covers the problems with reducing fighting breast cancer to buying stuff with pink ribbons on it and includes many of the problems people have with the Komen foundation. More interesting, however, the film is a powerful discussion of the ways that relentlessly positive thinking is really harmful to people. It shows persuasively that when we focus on positive thinking, we center quick and easy solutions and end up missing real solutions, which are harder and take more time. We do not think about what causes cancer (e.g., living near oil refineries), and how more people are getting it. Instead we focus on finding it early on as if it were an inevitable fact.

Most strikingly the film includes interviews with women dying of breast cancer who discuss how there is no room for them or their experiences in a “movement” which only wants to hear happy stories and see pink objects. Where can one process the experience of dying from a horrible disease if people only want to hear about happy things? How can this be a “good” way of dealing with a disease if there is no room for the people actually experiencing its effects in an authentic way?

A great film for understanding how focusing only on the positive can literally harm the people around you.

a meditation on tools

In the United States, the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

In Japan, the nail that sticks out gets hammered in.

Audre Lorde famously admonished white feminists at a conference in 1979 that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Black and white line image of a hammer, screwdriver, and wrench.

If you are neither the wheel or the nail, you might start to wonder about your commitments to justice.

It might not be an honor to be the last one standing.

Does that make you a tool?