Racism is not an “Accident”

Oh my.

A friend of mine told me on Facebook that people have been eager to see me respond to the new Brad Paisley/LL Cool J mash-up, sorry I mean, hodgepodge, sorry I mean country/hip-hop duet, no wait, sorry, I mean the new white man lead-black man sidekick musical impersonation of a Mel Gibson-Danny Glover Lethal Weapon buddy-flick.

So, begrudgingly, I consented. Fortunately, my friend, Dr. Natasha Croom, an assistant professor of higher education at Iowa State University, directed me to a link that spared me the trouble of having to actually listen to the song: Accidental Racist: Read the Lyrics So You Dont Have to Hear Them | TheWrap TV.

SMH takes on new meaning after reading these lyrics.

Old heads like me know that LL Cool J stands for “Ladies love cool James.” Well, this (not)lady isn’t loving James and he ain’t cool. Which is a real shame because I love his character Sam on NCIS:LA. Brad Paisley I don’t know; never heard of him before this. I have no expectations of who he is or should be. And quite frankly, what I know of LL doesn’t predispose me to expect socially conscious activism from him either. His forthcoming tour with Public Enemy notwithstanding, LL isn’t my go-to for conscious rap.

Yet, despite that, I’m disappointed but not really surprised. The lyrics to this song (stop now and click the link from The Wrap above to read them for yourself) display some pretty common attitudes about race relations, racism, and the Civil War (aka, The War Between the States, Northern aggression, etc.).

Let’s start with the song’s title: “Accidential Racist.” Let’s be clear on one thing before we go any further. Racism is not an accident and people are not “accidentally” racist. They may be unconsciously or dysconsciously racist (ala Joyce King), but even that is not accidental. Racism is the intentional byproduct of social systems and institutional structures that were intentionally designed to value one group of human beings as more worthy than others based on the slippery biological fiction, yet social reality, of race as displayed through phenotypical features such as skin complexion, the width of nose and lips, hair texture, and mythological yet longstanding presuppositions about differences in genitalia. This country was founded on many things, one of them being white supremacy, as evidenced through the slave trade, the Constitution, the economic fact that without race-based chattel slavery, this country’s prosperity would have likely never materialized and the U.S. probably wouldn’t have effectively liberated itself from Great Britain. In order to maintain this system of White supremacy, White people socialized each other, their children, AND anyone else who could be forced to listen (Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and immigrants from all over Europe and Asia) that racial pedigree was 1) real, 2) White was on top, 3) Black/African was on bottom, and 4) that to practice systematic discrimination, bias, and economic, psychic, and physical terror against Black people was an act of compliance with a divine, cosmic, yea, even natural order that would be disrupted only at one’s own peril and the downfall of this country first and global humanity next.

So, no, Brad and LL, there is no such thing as an “accidental racist.” Racism is the blood that runs through the veins of this country and makes its heart beat. Oh well, I just lost 1/3 of you reading this. Keep reading, I’ll tick the rest of you off too.

Everyone, regardless of one’s racial status, in this country is introduced to racist socialization (the philosophy that White people are supposed to be in charge and other people are supposed to serve White people) through schools, churches, media, and sometimes, the home. Sometimes it happens at home first. What this means is that White people are introduced to racial dominance and people of color, including multiracial people, are introduced to racial oppression.

Now, after that introduction, whether or not this socialization is internalized and the degree to which it is internalized as real, right, and relevant for oneself and one’s relationships with others is a matter of what other socialization one is also exposed to at home, school, church, the media, etc. One does not internalized racist attitudes and exhibit racist behaviors “on accident;” it happens systemically, intentionally, albeit usually unconsciously. I know, it’s a paradox.

To title the song “Accidental Racist” is to adopt a philosophy that denies personal responsibility for the ways that racism is STILL practiced and CONTINUES to be manifested in the systems and structures of this country (and throughout the world thanks to colonization).

So, relatedly, the song goes on to have both Brad and LL talk about how we need to let the past be the past (LL) and refuse to accept responsibility for past injustices. Sorry, guys, as my good friend the Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says in his Diverse Community Foundations, it may not have been our fault but it is our responsibility. And, for the record, a beer and a conversation is not going to rectify 400 years of racial oppression, notwithstanding President Obama for the “Beer Summit.” (If I rolled my eyes any harder, they just might actually get stuck like that.)

Further, do-rags and the confederate flag are not equally innocuous, nor are they equally terrorizing symbols. The only reason that some white folks are scared of black men in do-rags is because of their own racist fears of black rage and propensity toward violence. The reason a lot of Black folks (they are of course some who aren’t – one who even put it up in his residence hall room – look it up on YouTube), actually a good number of White folks, and folks of other races and mixed race are suspicious, afraid, resentful, bitter, and downright bothered by the Confederate flag is because it literally was the symbol of the Confederacy’s refusal to give up slavery. The whole states’ rights argument centers and is founded on states’ rights TO KEEP SLAVES and refusal to enact emancipation and abolition of slavery. Slavery was the foundation of Southern wealth and it was at the center of Southern social norms and codes. “A proud rebel son” sounds pretty innocuous until you consider what the rebellion was all about – keeping Black people in iron chains.

So, no, LL, I will NOT forget those iron chains, and neither should you. White resentment of Black entertainers’ wealth displayed by gold chains (usually hocked, debt-ridden, and owned by a music company) is really displaced anger over the fact that their economic supremacy has not manifested for them as individuals and a transference of anger that is more rightly placed at the feet of the .1% (even less than a full 1% according to one FB meme recently) who happen to be almost exclusively White by the way.

One last point, we will not, cannot, and should not move on until we fully and honestly deal with the issues of race, racism, and the role of racism in this country’s origins. It’s the lack of historical awareness that produces a song like “Accidental Racist.” Those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it.

Where do I get my perspectives and information from? Read the following folks just to get you started:
John Hope Franklin
Molefi Kete Asante
Patricia Hill Collins
Angela Davis
Marimba Ani
Tim Wise
Allan G. Johnson
Any critical race theorist

As another friend of mine said, Dr. Claire Robbins, superficial interracial friendships don’t help to deconstruct racism and undo racist attitudes. It takes more than contact with diverse others to understand racism and learn how to competently engage it and moreover to disrupt it. That is work that must be done deliberately by EVERYONE regardless of race.


“Study Debunks Notion that Men and Women are Psychologically Distinct”

“Study Debunks Notion that Men and Women are Psychologically Distinct”

Finally, there’s empirical evidence analyzing a bunch of studies that rejects the conclusion that there are categorical differences between men and women. We’re not “psychologically distinct” as men and women in the way that males and females are biologically distinct. This is something that queer people have been evidencing through our lives for millennia. It’s about time the rest of you caught up with us. 😉

Student Development and Manti Te’o

If you didn’t know the name Manti Te’o, defensive back for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football squad, you probably do now. If you still don’t know, then you’re very adept at escaping what has become one of the most talked-about yet inconsequential stories in the news today (next to Beyoncé’s lip sync of the National Anthem at the Presidential Inauguration). To sum it up, someone (or a group of people) concocted an online personality who later acquired a voice. This fictional persona became the love interest of Manti Te’o for several months and once he was quite thoroughly in love with her, the young woman was “killed” and Te’o was left to mourn her death (and move on to a new girlfriend in the interim) until he got a phone call 3 months later saying that she was still alive. After the BCS National Championship Game was played against Alabama, it came out (thanks to DeadSpin) publicly that the woman never existed. Since then, speculation has swirled about whether Te’o was in on the fraud – because surely no one could be that naive, even a 20-year-old. Te’o has done an audio interview with ESPN and apparently has recorded a video interview with his father in front of Katie Couric (my, how far you’ve fallen, sister). It’s one of the most talked about stories in sports, nearly eclipsing even Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used PEDs. [Lance was in ESPN news headlines for about 4 days; Manti has been on ESPN every day for about 2 weeks now.]

Notre Dame’s athletic director immediately came out in defense of Manti Te’o as soon as DeadSpin’s allegations became public. Indeed, Te’o has been defended as the victim of a cruel hoax. Meanwhile, sportscasters seem divided on the issue of whether Te’o was complicit in the hoax, especially since he knowingly continued to answer questions about this fictional girlfriend’s death even after receiving a call that she was alive and consequently doubting himself what the heck was going on.  Of great interest to me was the Sunday conversation this past weekend among ESPN’s crew that does the network’s pre-game coverage. These 5 men, all former players and coaches, who agree about little were all in agreement that they would rather that Te’o – who is currently in Florida preparing for the NFL Draft – be a party to the hoax than be the victim of it. Their reasoning? Basically, that the ethical failing of perpetrating this kind of hoax for so long could be effectively addressed and dealt with by the NFL (because they have such a great track record of helping players overcome ethical and moral failings). However, the naiveté reflected in being the victim of such an elaborate and longstanding hoax was incurable; no one would know how to help with that.


Before I go further, let me put some things out there first: 1. I am a diehard football fan. I love the game and have been an avid fan since I was 13 years old and the Giants took their first trip to the Superbowl. I sat in front of my 13″ color tv in my bedroom dutifully recording game stats and generally being quite a nuisance to my mother in the other room with all my shouts of joy and frustration. Football is my favorite sport and defensive linemen are my favorite players, starting with LT (Lawrence Taylor). 2. I do not know if Te’o was complicit in the hoax, but I’m addressing this matter as though he were NOT, mostly because of how those sportscasters on ESPN presented the trouble it would be for the NFL if Te’o was just an innocent victim here.

If Te’o was the victim of a cruel hoax, as he claims, then this situation highlights what happens when student development takes a backseat to athletics. To put it more bluntly, when the student is forgotten and the athlete becomes the ultimate investment. And really, it’s not so far of a stretch to believe that Te’o became emotionally invested and fell deeply in love with a person he never met, who only interacted with him online, by text, and by phone. I must admit that one of my earliest long-term romantic relationships began through the Internet (way back in the dark ages when there was this thing called “IRC”) and I was in love – hard – before I met the guy who lived in another part of the country. I was about the same age as Te’o. And I am not the only person I know, across age groups, who has fallen in love online, long-distance. So, before we get uppity about how ridiculous it is to fall in love with someone you’ve never met in person, consider that the substance of love is far less about what the eye sees than what the ear hears and the heart feels.

Having said that, there are some student development issues/tasks/needs that are evident in the long-term success of the hoax on Te’o. Attending to these however, would have required that Te’o be seen as a student first – a student who needed further learning, growth, and development to become a mature adult capable of handling not just this hoax but a career in the NFL. As his father told Katie Couric, “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” Kids need guidance and support and someone who can ask hard questions. However, I doubt that Te’o, like too many student-athletes, was given the time and encouragement to engage with anything that wasn’t about football (practice, academic eligibility, etc.). As blown away as I was to hear seasoned former players and coaches confess that the NFL was not equipped to handle the naiveté displayed by Te’o, I honestly can’t fault them either. Despite the increasingly younger and younger players who are leaving college to enter the draft, the NFL is not structured for young adult development; it is a business with employees (players) who are expected to be able to comport themselves as mature adults. Unless the NFL is going to add a student development division to every one of its 32 teams, that learning, growth, and development needs to be handled in college. And sequestering players within the halls of the athletics complex isn’t going to achieve that.

I see the following student development issues at play:

1. Interpersonal competence, managing emotions, and developing mature, interpersonal relationships. Those familiar with Chickering & Reisser’s (1993) Seven Vectors Model recognize these as elements of that model. Interpersonal competence is one of the tines of the first vector about developing competence and the other two are vectors themselves in the theory. These 3 pieces, interconnected and mutually reinforcing, when successfully resolved, may have prompted Te’o to ask probing questions about this new woman who seemed to be his perfect match, question her failure to show up at agreed-upon meeting times in-person, and enlist trusted friends or relatives who would ask hard questions about this woman, her motives, and perhaps her very existence.

2. Perhaps some moral development ala Gilligan’s ethics of care, moving from love as self-sacrifice to seeing oneself as morally equivalent to the other, would have perhaps helped Te’o to realize that something was really unequal about all the time and effort he was investing into this woman and wasn’t getting it back in return.

3. Development along one of Chickering & Reisser’s other vectors, developing integrity, would have assisted Te’o with how to handle the continued questions from reporters just days before one of the biggest games of his life about this woman who he was now beginning to realize may not be real.

Neither maturity nor development (increasing complexity and ability to handle increasingly complex issues and situations) is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily natural. Environments can be designed in such a way as to provide the support and challenge necessary for both maturity and development to occur. Many valid arguments can be made for why the NFL (or any other post-college employer) should not be expected to fulfill those needs. Many valid arguments and empirically tested models exist supporting the success of colleges with doing exactly that. However, sequestering one group of students, like student-athletes in revenue-generating sports (typically DI men’s football and basketball and in some places women’s basketball too), away from the environmental elements of colleges and the staff with the training to be most effective at promoting that maturity and development, is bound to produce young men (mostly) and women who are ill-suited to meet the challenges of a world where everyone doesn’t have their best interest at heart and their naiveté can be used against them. Examples like Manti Te’o and countless others continue to demonstrate the necessity of reintegrating college athletics into a holistic student development program that prioritizes the student and the “kid” before the athlete.

Bad (Christian) Theology

In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell Newtown, CT last Friday, people are attempting to make sense of what happened, offer some solace and comfort to the grieving, and reassure themselves of the central tenets of their beliefs. I imagine that this is being done by people of all convictional beliefs, not just Christians. However, as this country’s dominant voice of religion and meaning making, Christian theology is taking center stage. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but not all those who died claimed Christianity and people of other faiths have also mourned and spoke out of the truths of their beliefs to comfort, make sense, and recall the tenets of their faiths. For example, at this past Sunday’s interfaith vigil, voices representing the Muslim and Jewish communities were also present.

In the face of such unspeakable tragedies, what we really believe about G-d (by whatever name we call the Divine; click here for what spelling G-d this way signifies) is often revealed through our words and actions. In the midst of truly beautiful messages of solace and empathy, I’ve seen people speak of the G-d of Christianity in ways that I can only call idolatrous because I do not believe them to represent the truth of what is revealed about G-d in the Bible or in my own experience and that of others I know. I call these idolatrous representations of G-d “bad theology” and I’ve seen them all over my social media feeds (by people either laying claim to them or as the objects of derision). I have even heard them uttered by the POTUS himself at the end of what was otherwise a powerful and moving speech.

These idolatrous views of G-d pain me, not only because they don’t reflect the G-d I serve despite claiming to do so, but also because they drive people away from faith and belief. I have seen people respond to this bad theology with comments like, “that’s why I stopped going to church” and “this just makes Christians look worse than they already do.” I have no problems with those who choose other doors toward faith and meaning making. However, I am deeply pained by someone rejecting a door because it has been misrepresented.

So, here are 5 images of G-d that I’ve heard in the last week since the lives of 28 people were lost (yes, 28 – I’ll get to that in a moment) in Newtown, CT. I offer my understanding of how I see G-d and why I see these images as problematic and reflecting “bad theology.” I’m not a theologian, nor am I a priest or a bishop. However, I have walked with G-d long enough to have learned a thing or two about how She operates and how I believe She wants to be known in and through my life. Maybe something here will help somebody else (at least that’s what my fiancée told me when she said I needed to share with others what I shared with her a few days ago).

1. G-d as The Grand Puppet Master.

I keep hearing people try to make sense of this tragedy by saying “it must have been G-d’s will” or “G-d allowed this to happen” or “G-d used this to achieve His will.” I’ve seen people try to walk this tightrope of explaining the difference between G-d’s “permissive will” and G-d’s “perfect will.” Like academics whose jargon ostracizes the general public, language like this from Christians just makes other folks confused and frustrated with our inability to make sense. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, there is a line that asks for “Thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It doesn’t say that G-d’s will IS done on earth as it is in heaven. Moreover, the instruments of G-d’s will are US. WE are G-d’s hands, feet, voice; WE are Her instruments of peace, mercy, justice, love, etc. If WE don’t act in those ways, then G-d’s will – which is for justice, mercy, and peace (see Micah 6:8) – is not performed in the earth. What we witnessed last Friday was humanity – represented by Adam Lanza – usurping the will of G-d to assert his own will in the earth. G-d is not a grand puppet master, manipulating us in keeping with some grand design that is only known by Him. That would violate our free will. I believe that She wants certain things for our lives that have been made known (justice, peace, love, mercy) and has equipped us with everything we need to manifest those outcomes in our lives. I believe that the Lord has called each of us to fulfill certain purposes in our lives. I also believe that those purposes can be disrupted, cut off, and derailed – sometimes permanently, other times temporarily – by our actions or the actions of others. We can’t look backwards on someone’s life and decide that the purpose of their life was ultimately fulfilled by the time they were violently snatched from this earth. What kind of G-d would determine that upon a person fulfilling their purpose on this earth that they should die in a hail of bullets at school one day anyway? That just doesn’t square with G-d being compassionate and full of mercy.

2. G-d as Vengeful Quid Pro Quo Arbiter 

There’s a meme going around Facebook of someone asking why would G-d let something like this happen and “G-d” responding with “you wouldn’t let me in your schools.” Other versions of this say that we since we kicked G-d out of our schools (by not requiring everybody in the school to pray to a G-d in whom they may or may not believe in a manner that may or may not resonate with them), we shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of violence has stepped in to fill the void. I think this falls into the category of “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8). I don’t believe in and would not serve a G-d who played a tit-for-tat game with humanity. What do we think G-d is saying here, “Well, you wouldn’t force me on other people, so I’m gonna take your children?” No. Just no. Hell, no, in fact. This makes G-d look like some kind of petulant toddler (no offense to toddlers), who throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way. Never mind the fact that forcing people to believe a certain way or to pray a certain way isn’t very G-d like in the first place. And never mind the fact that this very thing could have happened in a religious school and has happened in places where G-d was very much present (e.g., Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin this year; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963). For more on how this happens, I direct you back to #1.

3. G-d as the Canaanite god, Molech. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, we see Jehovah warning the Israelites not to worship Molech, one of the divinities in the land of Canaan. Worshippers of Molech believed that their god required child sacrifice in order to be appeased. We see Abraham nearly sacrifice Isaac in this same way (being tested by G-d) and then be stopped by an angel of the Lord. I have heard this idol raised in the last week when people say things like “G-d sacrificed our children because of our disobedience.” Lifting up this idol usually involves blaming gays and lesbians for every natural disaster that comes along and it has been raised in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. Mike Huckabee, Westboro Baptist Church, and other folks have come out in the last week blaming marriage equality, abortion rights, and other “sins” for Adam Lanza using his mother’s guns to kill her, 26 innocents, and then himself. Yea, I see the connection there, no problem – NOT. Without even wasting my breath to debate whether marriage equality and a woman’s right to safely access means to terminate her pregnancy are actually “sins,” I will simply decry the characterization of G-d as a child killer to assuage his judgment. I know this simply because the Bible teaches that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary was atonement “once for all time” (1 Peter 3:18, NLT). According to Christian doctrine, there is no more a need for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 9:12, 10:4) and there was NEVER a call for child sacrifice even when the slaughter of animals was necessary. G-d didn’t take Abraham’s son Isaac and God didn’t take those Newtown sons and daughters or anybody else’s son or daughter who was claimed by violence or illness or starvation as a propitiation for sin. To say that G-d did is disgusting, unholy, and unChristian.

4. G-d as the Perpetually Cheerful, Slightly Addle-brained, Amusement Park/Cruise Ship Social Director

This is the image of G-d that pictures some grandfatherly guy with a big smile who joyfully greets all these children into a great big playground otherwise known as heaven. Another version of this says, as our POTUS did on Sunday, that “G-d called His children home,” as though the street lights had just come on and it was time for supper. This idol seems very innocuous. After all, it matches the image of G-d that many people grew up with – an old White guy with a long white beard and a great big smile whose got the whole world in His hand. But here’s the problem with that: G-d isn’t always happy and rejoicing at the death of one of His children (regardless their age). Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and I wholeheartedly believe that G-d wept bitterly at the death of those children and their teachers (and Nancy and Adam Lanza, but that comes next). Yes, I believe that G-d received them into Love, but not as though that was His perfect timing. The heart of G-d was broken last Friday, just like so many of our own hearts were broken. It was too soon, that was not G-d’s design or plan, and if His will actually had been done that day, they would be with their families right now being tucked into bed after the street lights came on. Owning this means recognizing that the full manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth as righteousness, peace, and justice is largely about our own inability to get our acts together and surrender our wills and our egos.

5. G-d as Human.

This is the most insidious misrepresentation of G-d in some ways because it seems to make the most sense. I hear this idol being lifted up when people recite only 26 names of those who died last Friday and sometimes leave out Nancy Lanza and just about always leave out Adam Lanza. Only the names of the “innocents” are read aloud; only 26 candles are lit for the dead; when even the teachers are ignored and only the children are lifted up as worthy of remembering and mourning, as an impetus for calls to social action to address gun violence and mental illness (see my last blog post to address those issues). Perhaps Nancy Lanza is excluded because once it was discovered that she owned the gun licenses for the weapons used in the massacre, she lost her sympathy as the unsuspecting mother of a child who departed from the way she taught him to live. We don’t want to extend her sympathy or mourning because we believe, some of us, that she brought it on herself. It’s obvious perhaps why people leave Adam Lanza out. Of course we should not mourn his death; doing so would sully the memories of those he killed. Or would it? It is completely human to make determinations about who is more or less deserving of G-d’s grace and mercy. But it is just that – human, not Divine. If we believe in a G-d of mercy and compassion and that Jesus gave his life for all because we couldn’t deserve such grace and mercy, then we cannot believe that G-d is any less brokenhearted over Nancy and Adam as She is over the children, teachers, and school administrators who were killed. G-d mourns all those lives lost; we who claim to be followers of the Way should also and extend forgiveness to those responsible.

If you’re still reading this, G-d bless you and give you peace. In the end, what happened last Friday was unconscionable and incomprehensible. We will likely never know why Adam Lanza did what he did. And when faced with questions we cannot answer or whose answers seem to bring more confusion and pain than peace and comfort, we are best served by saying, honestly and openly: “I don’t know, but let’s pray for peace, for comfort, and for wisdom to know how to console those who are grieving, those whose faith has been shaken, those whose future is now dimly lit.” And then let us wait in silence, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet, for the answer to our prayer to come.

‘Tis the Season

And so it has begun: The innumerable “holiday” specials, holiday-themed product marketing, debates about whether it’s good to encourage the belief in Santa Claus, consumerism disguised as love, and calls for charitable giving in the spirit of the “true” meaning of the season. We also become host to endless cries of a “war” on Christianity and attacks on Christmas. Let’s set the record straight and I encourage you to look up Jon Stewart’s Daily Show monologue on this topic from last week, also.

First, the “holiday” being promoted is undeniably Christian. It’s all about  Christmas – the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel, God with us – even if it is a highly commercialized, deeply devoid of anything resembling the spiritual, let alone religious, meaning of the holy day (i.e., holiday).

There are, of course, feeble attempts to recognize other holy days and culturally significant commemorations happening during this same month. Local news stations in some parts of the country have begun Hanukkah greetings, starting this past Saturday evening. Kwanzaa will get a headline beginning December 26 through January 1 and there are even now “Kwanzaa cakes” being advertised on food shows (despite the fact that there is no such thing as a Kwanzaa cake in the traditional celebrations of Kwanzaa and I’m not even going to dignify it by posting a link to it).

The replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” is seen throughout marketing promotions and holiday parties. Nevermind that all of the accouterments used in decorations are still tied to Christmas and Christian symbolism, either in their creation or later adaptation: I encourage you to look up the origins of candy canes, for example.

All that’s happening though is merely an attempt to co-opt and assimilate other spiritual and cultural traditions as being “just like” Christmas, or other versions of Christmas, or another culture’s Christmas (e.g., “Hanukkah is like the Jewish Christmas” and Kwanzaa is African Americans’ version of Christmas). This is how we get Kwanzaa celebrations featuring gospel choirs and “holiday” trees with a menorah as a tree-topper. This does not represent religious pluralism or de-center Christianity and it’s certainly not a “war on Christmas.”

Making any other holy or cultural commemoration in December the same status as Christmas, regardless of its status in its own tradition, merely reproduces Christian privilege.  It’s cultural exploitation and cultural imperialism, plain and simple.

Moreover, what is still in place is that there is a federal and banking holiday on December 25 (or an alternate weekday if the 25th falls on either Saturday or Sunday). Christian privilege is not in danger and neither is Christmas.

So, to those fearful of a “war” on Christmas, from one Christian to another: Stop whining. If we really cared about religious pluralism and learning about other religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions, we’d do so throughout the year, not just in December. And all of our traditions would have value.

Joy to you in any celebration this month and throughout the year!

(Hey, it doesn’t fit neatly on a card but it works.)

Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Transgressing Gender: Another Level

Today’s post is the (edited) text of the opening keynote speech I gave at the University of California, Davis this past Saturday, December 1st for their “Ain’t I a Woman” Empowerment Conference.  It was the first time this conference had been held in 40 years.  It was last held as the first official event of the Women’s Research and Resources Center (WRRC) at UC-Davis.

Act One – Sojourner

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or Negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.”1

It has been one hundred and sixty-one years to the month since Sojourner Truth first spoke these words in Akron, Ohio at the Women’s Rights Convention being held at a local church.2  Perhaps it is fitting then that your keynote speaker this year comes to you from Ohio, albeit the opposite side of the state, to address this body at this empowerment conference.  Perhaps it is also fitting that I am the one to deliver this year’s speech, seeing as how I, like Sojourner Truth, disrupts, and possibly even transgresses, what it means to be a Woman.

Let me explain.  This convention on women’s rights that took place in 1851 was held in a church, which is neither irrelevant nor incidental to the situation.  Prior to Sojourner Truth taking the floor – and she did take the floor – several Christian ministers, all men, from various denominations, including Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Universalist ministers had spoken and dominated the discourse.  Frances Dane Gage, who convened the meeting in Akron, wrote that women did not typically speak in public.  I would argue that furthermore speaking publicly in church was not encouraged for women and that therefore the setting of this convention in a church did as much to silence women from speaking out about women’s rights as did any general social norm about women speaking in public.

Gage wrote in 1863, 12 years after the incident, that Sojourner had walked into the church with “the air of a queen up the aisle” and decided to take her seat on the pulpit steps. For those of you not familiar with traditional Christian church architecture and layout, that would be like her coming to the front of this auditorium and sitting right here [pointing to bottom of podium perhaps], facing you in the audience.  It was a bold act.  And from the moment she came in, Gage recalls that people began imploring her not to allow Sojourner to say anything to the crowd lest their cause, women’s suffrage, be lost on account of it getting “mixed up with” abolition and Negroes.

Recall that in 1851, we are still a decade before the first shots were fired in the Civil War and the South seceded from the Union.  We see Sojourner here in Akron before the election of Lincoln to the presidency and his pragmatic and strategic use of emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment to cripple the South and set off Reconstruction in the aftermath of his assassination in 1865.  At the moment that Sojourner Truth enters that Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and other fervent abolitionists were working in Oberlin, Ohio and other cities along the Underground Railroad to render slavery all but dead by the time the Civil War begins.3

What is not dead, nor close to dying, not in 1851 and seemingly not even in 2012, is the idea of Woman naturalistically defined.  As Simone de Beauvoir wrote women are not born, but one becomes a woman.4  Sojourner Truth asks repeatedly in the first paragraph of her speech, “Ain’t I a woman?”  The answer that came back really was a resounding “no” as the cult of true womanhood that was at its height in the second-half of the nineteenth century, ascribed the title and status of “Woman” based on race and social class criteria that Sojourner Truth would never meet.  Even by 1913, when the women of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. would become the only Black women’s group, just a couple of months after its founding, to walk in the women’s suffrage march in Washington, D.C., the vote, having been secured and quickly undermined for Black men, was primarily still promoted as a fundamentally White woman’s right.

Sojourner Truth deftly undermines the patriarchal argument against women’s suffrage on biological, intellectual, and theological grounds.  She not only challenges her own exclusion from the circle of women whose rights were being argued for, but she also successfully argues for the expansion of women’s rights using the same worldview of the men who were objecting to those rights.  Gage later exalts over how Sojourner won the crowd over to their cause and notably does not use language that would include Sojourner in that cause.

So, no, Sojourner, you may be female, but you sho’ ain’t a Woman in 1851, not in the minds of your audience.  Which leaves me wondering, would Sojourner be a Woman today in 2012?  Am I, or anyone else who flaunts gender boundaries and binaries, a “Woman” in 2012?  Perhaps we ought even to ask whether becoming a “Woman” is something anybody should want.

Act Two: Gender Performances

But first let’s return to Simone de Beauvoir’s assertion that a woman isn’t born but becomes.  This can be because one’s biological sex is not equated to one’s gender.  Gender is not inherent in our biology; our hormones, reproductive organs, and sexual desires do not dictate, or necessarily inform, our gender.  We come to gender through the omnipresent socialization that is begun at birth and even before birth.  As soon as a woman is found to be pregnant, information concerning the sex of the fetus is demanded – ostensibly so that people know what to buy the child, what colors, what kinds of clothes, what toys.  After the child is born, these accoutrements are required so that people know how to treat the baby.

I will never forget an interaction I had with a woman when my daughter was about 6 months old (she’s now 13 years and 6 months, so that lets you know how much this stuck in my craw).  I was out for Sunday brunch, my daughter was wearing a Tigger outfit.  She had very little hair at the time and it was brushed down – no bows, no ribbons, no headband squishing her tender skull, and there were no earrings in her earlobes.  I had taken her into the restroom to change her diaper and a woman also in the restroom began to remark on how cute he was and that he was such an adorable little boy.  I corrected the woman twice, “it’s a girl actually.”  She immediately took umbrage with me, chastised me for not marking my daughter appropriately as a girl, so that unsuspecting, well-meaning people like her would know how to properly address my child.

I didn’t realize before this moment that perhaps Tigger – and all of Winnie the Pooh’s characters except for Kanga – were meant for boys and by adorning my helpless child in Tigger’s costume, I was violating her gender coding.  Was I trying to pass my girl-child off as a boy?  Cast my daughter in the role of a son?  Had I disrupted the natural order set in place by God Himself at the creation as those ministers in 1851 tried to claim?  Indeed, I was a bad mother, because I had failed to make my child’s sex – and therefore presumably her gender – publicly visible for inspection and appraisal.  I’m reminded of Foucault’s Panopticon; we are constantly under surveillance as a means of control.6

Becoming a Woman means fulfilling a set of naturalized expectations for comportment, pedigree, beauty, and social graces that have been reserved for White middle-class and upper-class women and to which other females – of different races and pedigrees – would seek to emulate and thereby (hope to) be granted the status of woman.  This is what Judith Butler argues in her essay on performative gender5, that gender is not merely performed as though it was an individual act, but rather gender is rehearsed before a public audience in such a way that it is no longer a private commodity to be traded by the individual, but rather the result of a public, communal construction.  Gender – the binary of masculinity and femininity – reflects, communicates, and seeks to promulgate a social status that is meant to support patriarchy and heteronormative privileges with the cooperation of religious authorities.

Consequently, when gender is constructed under the auspices of interlocking systems of oppression – patriarchy does not stand alone but works in concert with heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism, and religious dogmatism – who becomes woman and who becomes man reflect the narrow social constructions of those oppressive structures.  The social norms that have been developed to enforce compliance are hard to resist and often become co-opted even by people trying to transgress gender binaries and gender role conformity.

What do I mean by this?7

Masculinity and manhood still have naturalized, rehearsed performances that rely on the oppression of women and femininity, and the assumptions of women’s incapacity and second-class citizenship.  I see this when I look at television commercials for men’s hygiene products (e.g., Axe), as well as in ads marketing soft drinks (e.g., Dr Pepper Ten), even in commercials for website hosting (e.g., GoDaddy.com).  Men are socialized to relate to women as objects, whether of desire, protection (more the territorial than nurturing kind), or manipulation.  Regardless of how benign the objectification may be, it still reflects patriarchy.  Ultimately, how masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen perform and embody masculinity reveals how little work our society has done to change our performative gender acts.  In addition, it challenges masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen to consider their gender performances as opportunities to truly transgress patriarchal gender as manifested in hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen masculine-of-center lesbians and transmen relate to women in ways that reflect the worst patriarchal behavior I’ve seen in cisgender men.  I had a masculine-of-center lesbian once tell me that while moving boxes with a transman, he said to her, “Let me get that for you; this is a man’s job.”  Although she set him straight, it was his easy recitation of this familiar gender performance of the role “man” that is most troubling.

The same kinds of habitually rehearsed gendered norms happen at the other end of the gender continuum.  In those performances, cisgender women, effeminate gay men, and transwomen often default to “being a woman” as a rationale for their indecisiveness, love of shopping, chocolate, and Oprah, and supposedly superior nurturing skills.  This is how women are supposed to behave, think, look and departing from that usually has social consequence.  For example, it’s often considered “cute” when a girl is a tomboy as a child, but as they get older, they are expected to drop that performance and become what they really are – a woman.

Thus we perform a gender whose definition has been so rehearsed and become so “natural” that we can hardly think our way out of these performances.  This brings me back to the questions that ended part one of this speech: Am I a woman?  Should I, or anyone else, what to become a woman?

Act Three: Gender Transgressions

In order to answer these questions, we must first consider our context.  We are in the United States in 2012, particularly in northern California (as opposed to Danbury, CT or rural Alabama) and these are all factors that are significant.  Although the common setting of the United States and the year allow some social norms to be recognizable in otherwise variant parts of the country, local culture does add contour to the act.  So, with that in mind, consider that you were preparing for a theatrical role as the part of Woman.  What would you need to portray Woman as realistically as possible?

  • What would her costume be?
  • How would Woman speak, what vocabulary would be used, the pace and rhythm of speech would be set with what in mind?
  • What is the timbre of Woman’s voice?
  • What gender pronouns would Woman use?
  • What are Woman’s props, biological and otherwise?
  • How long is Woman’s hair?
  • Would Woman be the lead role or a supporting cast member?
  • What is Woman’s sexuality?
  • What would Woman’s backstory be concerning Man?
  • What is Woman’s motivation in the play?

Consider how much the patriarchal messages we’ve learned have informed our Woman.  Is there any part of her that patriarchy has left untouched?  What do your responses say about your own gender performances?  Take a moment and share with the person you introduced yourself to earlier.

Given this modern day performative Woman, what would be said about Sojourner Truth?  I know that I don’t see Sojourner or myself much at all in this character.  Some things fit, a lot of other things don’t.  If I reject the role of performative Woman, then what am I?  Ain’t I a woman?  Do I want to be?  As Monique Wittig has argued, “lesbians are not women” because woman has meaning only in heterosexual relationship to men.8  Take note of whether you assigned your Woman to be heterosexual and likely to be in the supporting role relative to a lead character that you assigned as Man; heterosexuality is used as a site for the practice of patriarchy.  Yet, gay and lesbian relationships can also be sites for the practice of patriarchy inasmuch as the people in those relationships still engage each other through a patriarchal relationship dynamic manifested in rehearsed, naturalized (i.e., performative) gender acts.

The reality is that in the theater of lived experience, most females do not fulfill the role of Woman as scripted and rehearsed with 100% precision, 100% of the time.  Yet, have I done enough to disrupt patriarchal rehearsals of womanhood by changing how I dress or speak only?  Given all that I have argued above, I would say no.  However, if I act too far outside the rehearsed, naturalized norm that is Woman, am I affecting transformation within the rehearsed performances of Woman-hood that are happening constantly everywhere around me?  Alas, I have no clue.

But, just maybe, if enough people “act out,” perform ourselves outside the rehearsed Woman and Man roles, perhaps Woman and Man will become empty categories and several new dynamic, evolving, innovative genders will take their place.  Now, that would be truly transgressing gender.

[End scene. Exit stage left.]



1 The text of Sojourner’s speech was found online at the Modern History Sourcebook collection, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/sojtruth-woman.asp.

2 More information about Sojourner’s speech and Frances Dane Gage’s enhanced description of the setting and reaction of the crowd can be found online at the Sojourner Truth website, http://www.sojournertruth.org/Library/Speeches/AintIAWoman.htm.

3 For further discussion and critique of Lincoln’s role in emancipation, the Thirteenth Amendment, and the end of slavery, please read this excellent critique of Spielberg’s film Lincoln by Aaron Bady in the Jacobin, “Lincoln Against the Radicals,” http://jacobinmag.com/2012/11/lincoln-against-the-radicals-2/.

4 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, 1949.

5 Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” 1988. Available online at http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/PoMoSeminar/Readings/BtlrPerfActs.pdf. There is also a great short video clip of Judith Butler speaking about performative gender available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/Bo7o2LYATDc

6 Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1975.  You can read more about it at the Foucault.info website, http://foucault.info/documents/disciplineAndPunish/foucault.disciplineAndPunish.panOpticism.html.

7 These next two paragraphs are adapted from my article in the third issue of TRUTH Magazine, “Gender Transgression 2.0.” Information about the magazine is available at www.truthmagonline.com.

8 Monique Wittig, The Straight Mind, 1978.

Hope for the Future

This is a political post. But it’s not about either of the candidates or their respective parties. It’s about the next generation of voters and how hopeful I am that they will be anything but apathetic.

Yesterday, I volunteered with the group Organizing for America to get out the vote (GOTV) in the town in which I live. I’m not new to this kind of community organizing effort. In 2008, I canvassed on a couple of evenings, in mostly Republican neighborhoods, trying to convince people to vote for Obama. Then in 2010, my town had to decide on whether protection from discrimination in housing, employment, public education, and public accommodations should be extended to more people, including the LGBT community. To get those ordinances passed, I became what was known at the time as a “super volunteer,” devoting dozens of hours on the phone and on the street, but mostly on the streets canvassing voters and training other volunteers. But for this election, I had been mostly absent. My research travels kept me gone for most of August and September. I kept putting off the patient but persistent volunteer who kept calling me. I told him I would help in October. When he called back and I answered the phone, it was the last week of the month and there were 10 days before the election. I finally got on board. So, yesterday was my first canvass for this election cycle.

When I arrived, the place was all abuzz with volunteers. The folks coming to walk the streets, clipboards and literature in hand, were a cross-section of our local community. Young people, middle-aged folks, senior citizens, men and women, racial diversity, you name it, it was out (believe it or not for my small town). The staff organizers were mostly young people, traditional college age and maybe a bit older. Young adults are still heavily involved in this election, don’t let anyone fool you.

But the person who most impressed me was my canvassing partner for the afternoon. There were an odd number of volunteers who showed up for this particular shift and I was the odd one out. One of the volunteers called over her son to partner up with me. I was surprised to see that the person who came forward was a young boy, 12 years old, just a year younger than my daughter. I’ll call him “T.” T is in the seventh grade, plays soccer, and has older brothers. This is an activist family, from mom on down to her sons. T had been volunteering after school and giving up his weekends since soccer season ended doing everything from phone banking to door-to-door neighborhood canvassing.

Let me repeat myself: T is 12 years old.

We got our materials together, grabbed a couple hand warmers and a bottle of water, and headed out. I had to chuckle to myself when he asked if I had a car – clearly he wasn’t able to. And then I was just very impressed that a young person who couldn’t even vote, let alone drive, was volunteering so much of his time to this election.

As we walked together, knocking on doors, talking to a person here and there about the importance of their vote (and yes, encouraging their support of President Obama), T and I also talked. We criticized whoever “cut” our walk route, how much we both hated having to go into apartments, and how cold we were. We went together into hideaway apartment buildings downtown that he termed as “scary” and I agreed with him. We talked about strategy for talking to undecided voters.

As we returned to the staging office, he told me he was going to call one of his friends to see if he would come out for the next canvassing shift. He had been there all day and was ready to go out again for another 3 hours of walking, knocking, and talking. In this whole campaign cycle, I’ve given a total of 4.5 hours (1.5 hours last Tuesday calling folks and the 3 hours yesterday). I looked at T and immediately felt incriminated.

I signed up for a shift on Election Day because I wanted to follow T’s good example. And here I thought I was supposed to be the role model. I am reminded of Sweet Honey ‘n the Rock’s song, “Ella’s Song.” They sing about freedom and not resting until it comes, but they also remind us that it’s the youth that will lead the way and whose strength and energy will help us to keep going.

With young people like T on board, I feel confident that I will see a future in which freedom comes. With T and others his age leading the way, the future looks bright. I have hope.

Thanks T.

I have wondered about this photo at times. Consider this author’s argument and what it means for the many ways we valorize sexual assault against women and girls in our culture. Definitely an uncomfortable truth.

Crates and Ribbons

The kissing sailor, Greta Zimmer Friedman, George Mendonsa

Most of us are familiar with this picture. Captured in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945, it has become one of the most iconic photographs of American history, symbolizing the jubilation and exuberance felt throughout the country at the end of World War II.

For a long time, the identity of the pair remained a mystery. It certainly looks passionate and romantic enough, with many speculating that they were a couple – a sailor and a nurse, celebrating and sharing their joy. This year, however, historians have finally confirmed that the woman is Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental nurse at the time, and George Mendonsa, a sailor.

Have a look at some articles about it. Do you get the feeling that something is not quite right?

Huffington Post

Daily Mail

CBS News

A few facts have come to light. Far from being a kiss between a loving couple, we learn…

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Celebrating LGBT History

Follow along with me as I celebrate LGBT History Month with the icon videos produced by the Equality Forum. I’ve inserted the YouTube videos as well as given you links to the videos on Equality Forum’s website.

The overview video for the month:

Roberta Achtenberg: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/roberta-achtenberg

Gloria Anzaldua: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/gloria-anzaldua

Ann Bannon: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/ann-bannon

Katherine Lee Bates: http://www.lgbthistorymonth.com/katharine-lee-bates

(If I manage to figure out how to embed the videos on here so that they automatically update, I’ll do that…)