Month: July 2015

Qualifications to talk

I. My rights, not your rights

It is strange to me how holy the Constitution seems to many of my fellow Americans. A month or two ago, my mother said she considers it second only to the Bible. Second in what, I’m not sure, but I think she must’ve meant second in authority over her life. Oh, but what kind of authority: moral or legal? Another type? Multiple types?

To me the Constitution is a legal document. It is the paper basis for our legal system here in the States. I find much of it to be beautifully written, and who could argue that the framers had a great idea? But the Constitution is not flawless, and it is not a religious scripture.

Yet I know a lot of people, and encounter many more via news and social media, who treat it as such. Funny enough, too, they act like many Christians do when it comes to the Bible: they talk about how important it is to them, but then they generously dispense with the double standards, ignoring many explicit tenets of ‘the faith’, while expecting non-believers to adhere to even the most obscure and debatable laws. For example, many Christians have been divorced multiple times, yet still believe that marriage equality will ruin family values, while the former is described as a sin in the Bible and the latter wasn’t even an idea in the times of Christ.

Yes, people do this with the Constitution as well. They do it when they complain (often erroneously) that their nth amendment rights are being violated, and next day donate money to some group lobbying to limit another group’s rights. I don’t wish to be perceived as ragging on my Christian brothers and sisters, but I can think of no better example than this:

The friends and relatives I have who think their freedom of speech has been taken away simply because someone finds their words offensive. First of all, the first amendment guarantees free speech; it does not guarantee that no one will think you’re a bigot, idiot, or asshole after you exercise free speech. Secondly, supposing these people were correct in thinking their rights had been violated, what do they do? They go and donate money to organizations that actually really do seek to restrict the rights of other people, usually people with different religious beliefs than them. They don’t think their children ought to be taught about sex or evolution in school, but they don’t think it matters that other parents don’t want their children parroting the Pledge of Allegiance or… heck, not getting educated about sex and evolution.

One really ought to question how much freedom means to her if she is not willing to give it in equal measure to someone else.

I have been thinking of this more for a couple of days. Thursday I spent some time with an old shipmate and friend, saying all sorts of thoughtful and controversial things right out in public. I am a white woman and my friend is a black man (let’s call him Aaron), and we did indeed get to talking about both racism and sexism. Well, Aaron explained that studying history has led him to believe that W.A.S.P.’s or their ancestors have pretty much always been culturally dominant, and remain so today. I think I was expected to be offended by this hypothesis, but I wasn’t.

II. Whose speech matters

After a while, Aaron confessed: “I do not think white people are qualified to talk about race.”

Well, did you just dismiss everything I just said during this conversation then? I thought.

We continued to chat for a while, and I complimented my friend’s consistency at least, when he said he also considered men unqualified to talk about sexism. Still, I was disappointed that he found anyone automatically disqualified to talk about anything. I understand his opinion, but I do not agree with it. If someone is demonstrably prejudiced, then disqualify him from a debate–but do not disqualify him because you don’t believe he could have ever experienced discrimination like you have.

I partly find this disqualifying attitude troubling because I know that I do not look like I have faced much discrimination in my life. I have faced some though, even recently. I don’t like to talk about it. Do I have to talk about it to prove my opinion is worth something? To some people, of course. To some, it will never be worth anything.

I questioned myself though. Do I think that men have a place talking about gender? Actually, the rational part of me does think so. Not every man can talk intelligently about it, but neither can every woman. Sometimes I do not want to listen to what a man has to say. Sometimes I think, “Of course you think that!” but it is not right to dismiss someone’s opinion this way. People in positions of power (the male, the white, or the wealthy) are not all incapable of rational thought, open investigation, and sympathy for those whom they often totally unwittingly offend or oppress.

This is why white people get uncomfortable about race conversations–they–we–are really not trying to be racist, and it’s hard to accept that you can perpetuate racism without meaning to.

But white people can accept that. Some do. I do. I get it. So why can’t I talk about it? Why is it bad for white people to try to speak in support of racial equality? Why are we diagnosed with “the white savior complex,” when one of the symptoms of racism in our society is that white voices are heard more than black ones? Will the day spontaneously come when black people are heard out just like white people?

My feeling is that no, that day will not spontaneously come. Will the day spontaneously come when women are heard out just like men? No, I doubt that too, which is one reason I appreciate it when men speak up about equality with women. Should anybody need a white male to speak for them? No. But do we? I don’t know, but it seems that way.

Wait, this is so serious… Watch a video, and maybe laugh at the messed up truth: The Daily Show – Helper Whitey

Next time I talk to Aaron, I’ll have to ask him some questions, beginning with, “Are you still comfortable even talking about race with me?” because I realize that I am not comfortable talking about it with all of my friends, and I shouldn’t assume all of my friends are comfortable talking about it with me. I’ll also ask:

  • What can/should white people do to understand privilege and racism in their own lives?
  • With whom can they discuss and work out concepts they find difficult, if they are disqualified from conversing on the topic?
  • How can/should white people address systemic/cultural racism?
  • When we observe a black person being talked over, for example, should we be “Helper Whitey,” as in the video? Or is it better not to? Why do you think so?
  • Is this an us v. them battle? Can/should white people try to help black people?
  • Is the term “white savior” necessary? Is it possible for white people to fight altruistically for racial equality?

III. I don’t mean to minimize sexism, but I’m minimizing sexism

When someone says they don’t mean to minimize something, they probably already think rather little of it in their heads. When someone says they don’t mean to be offensive, they probably just don’t care that they’re about to offend somebody. It’s the same when my mother says, “Not to be judgmental, but…” or when I say, “Not to be a bitch, but…”

So this was actually something my friend Aaron also said, that he didn’t mean to minimize sexism. We were speaking in relation to race still, so I understood, and admitted myself that I think black people suffer more discrimination in this country than women do, and that black women suffer the worst.

But still, not meaning to minimize something is not the same thing is not minimizing it.

Shortly after this, my friend said something like, “I mean, if you lived in New York or something…” indicating to me that he probably doesn’t understand that sexism is more than disgusting cat calls, and that women  e v e r y w h e r e  deal with it. I wonder how he’d have felt if when we were talking about racism I had said, “Oh, I can understand it’d be bad if you lived in Mississippi or something…” as though black men in his city didn’t deal with racism.

Did he mean to minimize my experience of sexism? No. Did he minimize my experience of sexism? Yes.

There’s no need to launch into “(n-1) reasons I’m a feminist” here. The observation I want to make is that even members of less powerful groups often have the attitude I tried to describe at the beginning of this post. There are no universal rights or freedoms in anybody’s mind. There are my group’s rights, and your group’s rights–and guess whose are my number one priority! And so feminists, LGBT activists, NAACP leaders, green freaks, religious zealots, anti-religious zealots, gun zealots, and everybody else just shouts. Too often we believe the interests of others are at odds with our own. Too often we are willing to sacrifice truth and justice if it gets our group ahead.

Nobody asked me, but I know what black people need. I know what women need. I know what men need. I even know what unborn children need. All of us need each other. Each needs to fight for the others’ rights and freedom and happiness; for each needs the others to fight for him or her.

And sometimes when we perceive the other as an enemy? Perhaps if the perception is true? Then, if we believe in either the Bible or the Constitution or both, we must defend the enemy’s rights just the same as our own. There are no rights unless everyone has them; there is no justice unless there is justice for all; and there can be no ‘first among equals.’

How we spend our time

Several years ago, my mother was laid off. She had been expecting it for months, and the prospect had been very stressful. So when it happened, she told me via the telephone. I remember it well. I was an airman, I think, and I was driving to my barracks from the mini-Nex on Coronado. Mother was relieved and happy enough. Of course the apprehension was worse than the reality, but it wasn’t just that. She was also happy because my brother was only a baby then, and she knew that on her death bed someday she would be happier to look back on years spent caring for him, rather than on years spent hustling to keep a job that it turns out she didn’t really need or enjoy. I’ve never forgotten that.

I’ve also never forgotten the final years of my uncle’s life. Uncle Pete was intelligent, often astringent, deeply feeling, proud, and… well, what can I say? Can I sum up a man with a few words? I haven’t even got a photograph of him, though I can remember his face and his clothes and the smell of his house. He was the most skilled musician I’ve ever known, as well as the most passionate about music–and he had the best taste in music. Over the years, I have listened to some things I know he would have scoffed at. After a while the novelty wears away, and I scoff at them too; then I return to the blues and rock ‘n’ roll my uncle taught me.

The entire time I knew Uncle Pete, he wasn’t in the best of health. He was older than my parents. He was a Vietnam veteran (a fact I believe he hated). He had ingested and inhaled plenty of drugs and alcohol. He had had plenty of recreational injuries, too, from motorcycling and things like that. Whatever happened in those last few months, I don’t know precisely, but I won’t even write what details I do know because I must still respect his pride, dignity, and privacy. What I do know is that I had wanted to spend more time with him, had said I would, and had wanted to tell him without prompting that I loved him. He was my uncle, and I do still love him like I love my parents; indeed I could not be who I am if it hadn’t been for him and his damn near incessant criticism! No, he didn’t denigrate anybody (though he did sometimes accuse people of committing, “assholisms”). He criticized poor logic and hypocrisy. He pointed out where my manners needed improvement. He explained things about my parents that were puzzling and troubling to me, and he showed me sympathy. Perhaps most of all, he treated me like he had high expectations for me.

And I truly hope he did. And one of my greatest hopes still is that if he were alive he would be pleased with my progress. Of course if he were alive, probably he would have stopped speaking to me when I joined the military. Or perhaps not. Perhaps he’d have understood better than I did why it was an extremely pragmatic decision.

Regardless, circumstances were such that I did not get to see him as often as I wished to in his final days. I never spontaneously told him I loved him either. This requires explanation. Though I did fear my uncle at times (he was the tallest member of my family and went nowhere without his German Shepherd, which is frightening for a small child), I always loved him. I felt that he doubted this, however. The only time I had ever said, “I love you,” was in response to him saying it to me; and he hinted at least once that he thought I was saying it because I felt obligated to. That was not the case, however, and I don’t recall ever telling someone I loved them without having felt it genuinely, to this day. So when he became gravely ill, I intended to make sure he knew that I really did love him. But I never did! When he died, I felt regret for the first time. I still feel it, of course. But I learned from this, I hope, and anyway, I have never forgotten about it.

So how do we spend our time? What is worth while? Shall I one day look back on how well I asserted myself? Will I be glad that I found a political party I really fit in with? Will identity matter? Will labels, categories, denominations, or titles matter then? I suspect not. I suspect what matters in the end of our lives is what matters at the beginning. Before we are taught to love acclaim and wealth, to be proud and serious and ambitious, we are silly, honest, and innocent little children. We say what we think, and ask for what we want. What matters the very most is Mom and Dad, or perhaps Grandma or someone else; what matters is the human relationships we are part of. Why should the middle of our lives be different? Why should we spend our vigorous and independent days looking for answers to questions that ultimately do not matter? Intellectual and emotional exercise is great, but like physical exercise, must not be taken too far.

We must not define ourselves too narrowly, for three reasons. Firstly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves on an individual basis. Secondly, if we define ourselves too narrowly, we limit ourselves socially; that is, we miss out on relationships with people who do not define themselves the same way (or whom we misread). Finally, when we spend too much time defining ‘who we really are,’–whether that has to do with sexual preference, movie preference, profession, religion, ethnicity, or favorite sport–we are really wasting time. By all means, seek to know yourself. Seek to understand yourself. Your likes, your dislikes, and the reasons behind them, if there are any. Look humbly at your own best points, and soberly at your worst. But do not be excessive in all of this. You have a son who needs you, or an uncle: spend more of your time with them.

Rant (transgenderism).

Women have never been allowed to define what it means to be a woman, and even now we can’t or are not defining it ourselves. I recently read an old NY Times article about all women colleges that aren’t really all women anymore. Tons of professors and students and other people who love talking perhaps more than doing were interviewed, and the only ones who wanted to keep anonymous were female students in favor of keeping the all women colleges all women colleges. I’m pretty sure they did this for two reasons:

(I) When touchy subjects like this come up, people get very “us and them” about it, and often accuse anybody who isn’t 100% in favor of *whatever it is* of being 100% against it. This can have serious social, financial, and professional costs. Who wants to risk that just for the sake of free speech or intellectual curiosity?

(II) They’re women, born and raised, and women are trained not to offend people by speaking their minds, and to think first of the suffering of those worse off than themselves. In this case, women are putting transgender people first.

Now considering that no one (except maybe CPE) reads this blog, and that even if they did, no one would listen to my opinion–both because I’m a female and because it’s perhaps unpopular–why should I even bother explaining the problem here? Honestly.

I understand that transgender people suffer. I get it. But that’s actually not a logical argument for converting women-only spaces to whoever-considers-herself-a-woman-only spaces. It goes back to defining womanhood. As for me, I have no problem treating a transwoman as a woman, using her preferred name and pronouns, etc. But I don’t think transwomen get to decide what constitutes being a woman. Men throughout the ages have defined a woman to be someone with a female body, and have treated us accordingly. Someone who was born and socialized as a man shouldn’t have more say about what “woman” means than someone who was born and socialized as a woman. Things might be different if the sexes had much history of being treated and valued equally, but they do not–therefore it is still more important to me what someone’s sex is than what gender they identify with.

So how to define “woman,” then? Well, again, until the sexes are treated and valued equally, I would have “woman” defined primarily if not exclusively as “someone of the female sex.” First can’t we convince the world that both sexes are equal–then proceed with whatever evidence exists that there are multiple sexes?

As for gender identity, this is also problematic for women. Does a person born male who decides to present as a women harm women? No. What harms women is gender roles, however, and I’m not the only woman—I am not a radical feminist either—who is perceiving that people are confused as shit about the difference between “gender identity” and “gender roles.” Tell me again about how ever since you were a little boy you wanted to wear pink dresses and stay at home cooking and cleaning? From reading online, I know there are a few trans folks, though they seem to be in the minority, who understand that this is so disgusting to ciswomen. Tell me again how being a woman is about wearing pink dresses and staying and home cooking and cleaning! Then there are those Caitlyn Jenner’s who debut as women by posing in lingerie on a magazine cover–because ah yes, that’s what womanhood is about: looking good. No.

I’m tired of this issue already, though I realize it is only just entering the public eye. Gender roles are bad for everybody. What if we just quit teaching children that certain colors, behaviors, tastes, and manners of dress are only for one sex? My mother did that actually. Once when I was a little girl I got some sort of toy or something on the basis that it was “the girl color,” though I didn’t really like it. When this came up in conversation with Mother, she nipped that gender bullshit flower right in the bud. If you like blue, you like blue. If you don’t want to wear makeup, then don’t. Men and woman and boys and girls are all equal, and we can all be astronauts and presidents and teachers and scientists.

It almost makes me laugh because even though I’m a regular ol’ ciswoman (I usually just say woman, or heck, even “person”), by some definitions I’ve read online, I could be a transman or genderqueer or some other label I have no use for. Is this all the result of this weird need people seem to have to want to categorize the shit out of everyone and everything? I’m not being flippant. Is it the same thing that makes us want to lump all of our beliefs together under whatever words seem to fit best, like “Democrat” or “Southern Baptist” or even “Chemistry Major specializing in Synthesis”?

Gender roles are bad, but a problem that is as bad is how little logical debate there is. There are the discussions rife with with ad hominems, emotional appeals, and red herrings, of course. The worst is that people are afraid to put their names to their opinions and questions lest they be hastily labeled a bigot. People are blaming more and more woes unfairly on feminism. Does it help transgender people? My answer is that this sort of “debate” helps no one, and yes, it takes away from women.

I support equality and anti-discrimination laws for transgender people. I think it’s great when places have unisex bathrooms. But I want women-only spaces. I want to have one room to go into without interacting with men or being seen by them. If you have or have had a penis, that probably includes you. I don’t think it’s a lot to ask. I know there are complexities to this issue, particularly when it comes to public bathrooms. What I believe is most important is to change our culture, not our laws, and not even our definitions of sex or gender. We all need to make it safer for a transwoman to walk into a men’s restroom, for example. We need to teach kids not to be cruel to the little boy who “dresses like a girl,” or the little girl who goes by a male name and male pronouns. We need to make society more accepting of transpeople, rather than trying to lump them into one of the sexes of which they really are not a part.

All that said, I know transgender people are probably all just doing their best, trying to “pass,” and trying to stay safe. I can definitely understand why transwomen wouldn’t want to use a male restroom, for example, but I do think it’s a pretty typically male attitude, disregarding of women’s feelings, to claim authority or rights to women-only spaces and institutions. Women still have to fight for safety, for equal pay, literally to just have our voices heard and not talked over at work! For all I know, men would really like to have a retreat from women, too, and maybe they are insecure about female-sexed individuals seeing them washing up at the gym. It’s not all about “bigotry” and “hate.” Increasingly, cis people will try to understand you; please try to understand us too.